Thursday, August 30, 2007

Juxtapositions: Hurricane Katrina and Leona Helmsley

This is the first in what I fear will be an on-going, occasional series prompted by news that demonstrates the gaping disparity in our country between the lives of the rich and the poor. Sometimes the reports are simply too surreal to withhold comment.

August 29, 2007, marked the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's deadly assault on the Gulf Coast. Some 1800 people in a five state area died as a result of the storm or its aftermath. I can't imagine that anyone who saw the devastation will ever forget it.

Since Katrina, New Orleans has always been the focus of most of the country's attention. It's a romantic city, mysterious, bawdy and spiritual at the same time. The French Quarter escaped destruction by virtue of its fortunate slight elevation so we, as a nation, were spared mourning the tragic loss that would have symbolized. And somehow, if there were still jazz musicians and beignets, we could hold on to our faith that the city would recover.

But much of it hasn't. Journalist Mary Foster observed in her Associated Press article, "The homeless population has almost doubled since the storm, and many of those squat in an estimated 80,000 vacant dwellings. Violent crime is also on the rise, and the National Guard and state troopers still supplement a diminished local police force."

At the groundbreaking for a memorial at a New Orleans cemetery, volunteer re-builder David Kopra from Olympia, Washington, remarked, "The saddest thing I've seen here is that there are thirty human beings who will be buried here one day that nobody ever called about. . . It says something to my heart."

And yet, Mayor A.J. Holloway of Biloxi, Mississippi, offered an optimistic point of view: "God has been good to Biloxi and its people of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. We have a new outlook on life and a new appreciation for what's really important in life. It's not your car or your clothes or your possessions. It's being alive and knowing the importance of family and friends and knowing that we all have a higher power."

While the mostly impoverished residents of the Gulf States struggle to recover their psychological bearings as well as find some way to rebuild the city, physically, and themselves, emotionally, the fate of the late Leona Helmsley's dog is more secure.

For those who don't recall the flamboyant, often vicious hotelier, another AP news report summarizes Ms. Helmsley's life as follows: "[Helmsley] became known as a symbol of 1980s greed and earned the nickname 'the Queen of Mean' after her 1988 indictment and subsequent conviction for tax evasion. One employee had quoted her as snarling, 'Only the little people pay taxes.'"

Ms. Helmsley passed away in early August and left her white Maltese, named Trouble, a $12 million trust fund. In her will, she directed, "When my dog, Trouble, dies, her remains shall be buried next to my remains in the Helmsley mausoleum," where her late husband was also laid to rest in 1997.

True, there were other bequests, including billions of dollars from the sale of personal properties that will fill the coffers of the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, which recently donated $25 million to New York Presbyterian Hospital. But Trouble did better than two of Helmsley's grandchildren, who got $5 million each, and two other grandchildren who received nothing at all "for reasons known to them."

Besides being amazed that Ms. Helmsley ended up with such a vast fortune even after she finally paid her taxes, just like "the little people," and besides being stunned that a pooch, no matter how well-loved could end up with twelve million bucks, I have to wonder about how much joy this obscenely rich woman had in her life. I know, I know, it's easy to say, "If I had that much money, you can bet your life I'd be plenty joyful." You get no argument from me.

But I stayed for a few days at the Helmsley Palace during a brief trip to New York in the late 1980s, about a year before Ms. Helmsley faced her legal problems. I remember that the hotel was opulent, yet somehow soulless. I wonder if that was how Ms. Helmsley felt, rich but empty. I wonder if she might have benefited from a little of the spirit that led Mayor Hollaway to make his comments about what's really important in life: family and friends, not possessions.

We understand the larger tragedy that resulted from Hurricane Katrina, but isn't there also something rather tragic about a woman who appears to have cared more for her dog than her family?

© 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Real Estate Fantasyland Questions

There are standard eight-inch white ceramic tiles on the floors of the bathrooms, the kitchen and the foyer of our townhouse. A little basic math easily demonstrates that a set of four of those tiles is a bit larger than one square foot, but it's just about the right size for the average person to stand on comfortably. Would you be willing to pay more than $12,760.00 for a space the size of those four tiles? How about if you had a fabulous, unobstructed view of the ocean? Any takers?

The LA Times "Home of the Week" this past Sunday featured a house in South Laguna with a 270-degree "breath-stealing" ocean view and an asking price of $31.9 million. The house has 2,500 square feet of living space with the bare minimum of amenities one might reasonably expect in a home even in a much lower price range: "cathedral-vaulted ceilings, hardwood and marble floors, skylights, a bay window and a double-door entry. There are hand-painted tiles in the kitchen and a hand-painted mural on a wall in a private courtyard . . . a wet bar, air conditioning and two-car garage."

But there's that view. A spectacular experience, undoubtedly. And yet, is it worth $12,760.00 per square foot? The listing agent suggests that "it obviously makes most sense as a turnkey, fully furnished vacation home for two or three, if you prefer."

So at that price it's not even expected to sell as a primary residence? It's just a little "get-away" spot at the beach?

Is anyone else noticing a dramatic disparity between this listing and all the latest news about the rapidly-increasing number of foreclosures homeowners are currently facing? How many of those homeowners simply took on mortgages that they couldn't afford in order to maximize the size, or perhaps the location, of the home they purchased? I suspect that they thought they were maximizing their "lifestyles" as well. Instead, they made bad financial decisions in order to get "more" and now many of them are going to end up not with "less," but with nothing.

I also suspect that what those homeowners really wanted was more quality in their lives, not in their lifestyles. With a little thought, they might have figured out that in order to achieve the quality they were seeking, they didn't need a fancier house, or better views, or marble countertops and restaurant-quality appliances in the kitchen; what they needed was more time, more enjoyment, more peace of mind.

Maybe the buyers of this pricey beach home will end up with more of what they want. But I wonder . . . .

© 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Thursday, August 16, 2007

It's Not Stuff, It's Art

Unless you're a survivalist or a Freegan, with little more than a backpack full of basics, or unless you're a person who shops exclusively at thrift and antique stores or Freecycle, eventually you're going to have to buy something new.

Being a thoughtful consumer, you'll want to maximize the value of your purchase, whether it's household furnishings or clothing or even something decorative or artistic -- yes, thoughtful consumers are not required to sacrifice to the point that they never buy anything simply because it's beautiful or it lifts their spirits. Having beautiful objects in a beautiful environment is a worthy goal for those of us fortunate enough not to worry about meeting our daily living needs.

But have you ever given thought to the fact that someone, or a team of someones, must design whatever it is that you buy? By focusing our attention on this part of the process of creating "stuff," we can become more aware and more sensitive when choosing what objects we want to have around us. If we choose wisely, we'll be content with what we have and not be tempted to buy simply for the sake of buying.

When shopping for anything, whether it's new or "new to you," there are only two criteria to consider: the design of the item must be both attractive and functional, otherwise it's of little use. ("Functional" includes those items that are spirit-lifting.) There are many clever ways to reuse and recycle older items, but I also find it interesting to learn more about designers who have made names for themselves by coming up with new items that fit those criteria.

Karim Rashid has designed products that I think are innovative and interesting, although many are pricey and rely on manufacturing from non-renewable resources. But I do find his overall design philosophy appealing:

"Every business should be completely concerned with beauty - it is after all a collective human need. I believe that we could be living in an entirely different world - one that is full of real contemporary inspiring objects, spaces, places, worlds, spirits and experiences. . . Design is about the betterment of our lives poetically, aesthetically, experientially, sensorially, and emotionally. My real desire is to see people live in the modus of our time, to participate in the contemporary world, and to release themselves from nostalgia, antiquated traditions, old rituals, kitsch and the meaningless. We should be conscious and attune with this world in this moment. If human nature is to live in the past - to change the world is to change human nature."

These are not the statements of someone who's just designing "stuff" -- and they're not the words of someone who mindlessly clings to things out of sentiment. Rashid wants us to live in the moment, with things surrounding us that enhance that moment.

Michael Graves, already well-known as an architect, became quite famous as a result of his designs of many household objects for Target. In an article in MetropolisMag.com, writer John Hockenberry states, "[Graves] has been an evangelist for beauty and humor in product design, as in his famous silver conical Alessi teapot as well as his buildings all over the world." By designing for Target, he's also demonstrated that good design should be affordable, too.

Just a few years ago, Graves suffered an illness that left him paralyzed from the waist down. He was so appalled by the ugliness and lack of functionality in his hospital environment, as well as in the designs of most products offered to people with disabilities, that now, Hockenberry reports, "Graves and his team are hard at work on a line of products that fuse one-dimensional medical utility with style, multifunctional elegance, and beauty. . . He says it all comes back to the choice of whether to make something beautiful or to tolerate something ugly. Allowing something to be simply ugly leads to permitting something that's not functional, that doesn't work right, that can be unsafe. . . 'Look around you: people can tolerate a lot of bad design,' he says with a twinkling smile to his staff, who have heard it all before. 'I can't tolerate any of it, of course. And I won't.'"

Graves' personal tragedy will result in wonderful improvements in design for medical devices and for people with disabilities. Perhaps he'll tackle the larger design issues of hospitals, which are usually some of the most ill-conceived, depressing environments one can encounter.

What happens when a fine artist designs? Andrea Zittel is one fascinating example. She creates everything from clothing to modular living units, "trying to combine design, craft and art." I became interested in her when I learned of her A-Z Uniform project which she worked on from 1991 to 2002. In her own words:

"Most of us own a favorite garment that always makes us look and feel good, but social etiquette dictates that we wear a different change of clothes every day. Sometimes this multitude of options can actually feel more restrictive than a self-imposed constant. Because I was tired of the tyranny of constant variety, I began a six-month uniform project. Starting in 1991 I would design and make one perfect dress for each season, and would then wear that dress every day for six months. Although utilitarian in principle, I often found that there was a strong element of fantasy or emotional need invested in each season's design. The experiment as a whole worked quite well, especially since dreaming up the next season's design helped relieve any monotony that might have occurred from wearing the same dress every day."

Because Zittel's an artist, her process moved on to creating uniforms from fabric torn from the bolt, then to making clothing by crocheting a single strand, and finally to using felt. Just thinking about her work can help us reconceptualize our relationship to our clothes: how many we need, how they're made, what purposes they serve when we wear them.

Performance artist Alex Martin also tackled the issue of fashion in her Brown Dress project. She made a brown dress which she wore each day for an entire year, from July 2005 to July 2006. Her reasoning:

"I made one small, personal attempt to confront consumerism by refusing to change my dress for 365 days. In this performance, I challenged myself to reject the economic system that pushes over-consumption, and the bill of goods that has been sold, especially to women, about what makes a person good, attractive and interesting. Clothes are a big part of this image, and the expectation in time, effort, and financial investment is immense."

Martin's current project:

". . . a wardrobe of my own devising -- recycled, re-mixed, re-fabbed . . . only things I made myself (clothes, jewelry, shoes, underwear, bags, everything) and my source materials were clothing items already in my possession - a completely closed loop, 100% recycled from my own closet."

Through this project, Martin offers another commentary on consumer culture, self-reliance, and creating things that are aesthetically pleasing as well as functional.

If we stop looking at our stuff as "stuff" and begin to look at each of our objects as the result of artistic expression, we'll have more appreciation for them. Then living with our carefully chosen possessions rather than just a bunch of stuff will mean paying attention to their beauty. Living in an environment that's not cluttered will be necessary to allow us to see the objects we've chosen and enjoy them. It's a shift in thinking that I believe would affect the way we look at everything in the world: seeking beauty and function, then being grateful when we find it.

Stuff is not just "stuff." Each thing has been designed, each thing is art, each thing is an opportunity to enhance our lives. Is your stuff good art or not so good art? Is it enhancing your life or detracting from it? Is your home an artistic expression of who you are or are you living in a Museum of Mess?

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Saturday, August 04, 2007

One Year Blog Anniversary

August 3rd marked the one year anniversary of The Thoughtful Consumer blog. Thank you so much, readers, for supporting my efforts to help us all become more aware of our buying habits and their significant effects on our personal lives and our besieged planet.

If you scroll down the home page of my blog, in the column on the right side you'll find links to several blogs and websites that I think are helpful to consult when you're dealing with problems of clutter and disorganization. You'll also find a list of some worthy charitable organizations which I suggest may be better places to spend your money rather than buying more stuff that you don't need. But, over the years, I've also had the opportunity to discover many other interesting, insightful blogs and websites. To celebrate this one year anniversary, I'd like to share just a few of them with you.

You won't find information about getting rid of clutter and getting organized on these blogs and sites; instead they are sources of inspiration and awareness about everything from living "green" to the much larger issue of realizing the interconnectedness of all existence. Let's start simply with a blog that offers suggestions we can apply to our daily lives.

The appropriately entitled Simply Green is a blog written by author and "environmental lifestyle expert" Danny Seo. Even if we're cutting back our consumption of goods, there are many things that we still need to purchase regularly or occasionally, from food to cleaning supplies to furnishings. Danny's blog offers green alternatives and suggestions for re-using items we already own. He also has a wonderful sense of style. You may have seen Danny on his many television appearances or read his numerous magazine articles and columns. Danny's thirty years old (born on Earth Day, according to his bio) and I think of him as the child prodigy of the green living movement. I remember seeing him interviewed when he was only twelve, the year he founded Earth 2000, a grassroots charity organization for young environmental activists. Six years later, the group was involved in worldwide efforts to promote environmental awareness. If you search for him by name on Google, you'll find a wealth of information and interviews.

No Impact Man is author Colin Beavan's blog about his adventures as a "guilty liberal who finally snaps" and attempts to reduce to zero the net environmental impact he and his family have on the planet. It's a gradually unfolding, year-long experiment that would be a challenge for anyone, but Beavan, wife, child and dog live in an apartment in the heart of New York City. Suddenly, relying on locally-grown food takes on new meaning. Giving up air conditioning, using a bicycle for transportation, and swearing off plastic are just a sample of the issues they confront. The project began in February of this year, so they're well into it. Reading the comments on the various posts is often as entertaining and informative as the posts themselves.

Donating to a charity is a rewarding way to part with our unnecessary possessions or some extra cash, but which charity to choose may be a concern. Charity Navigator can help. Here's a description of their services: "Founded in 2001, Charity Navigator has become the nation's largest and most-utilized evaluator of charities. In our quest to help donors, our team of professional analysts has examined tens of thousands of non-profit financial documents. As a result, we know as much about the true fiscal operations of charities as anyone. We've used this knowledge to develop an unbiased, objective, numbers-based rating system to assess the financial health of over 5,000 of America's best-known charities." They are a non-profit organization and don't charge for their data. You can investigate a charity you already know and discover new charities if you search their database by category, such as education, the environment, or the arts.

WiserEarth describes itself as "a community-editable international directory and networking forum that maps, links and empowers the largest movement in the world – the hundreds of thousands of organizations within civil society that address social justice, poverty, and the environment. . . .WiserEarth provides the tools and a platform for non-profit organizations, funders, social entrepreneurs, students, organizers, academics, activists, scientists, and citizens to connect, collaborate, share resources and build alliances." This wiki for the socially conscious helps organizations and individuals work together and avoid duplication of efforts. It's an ambitious project and, if it becomes well-established, could be a formidable base for organizing a diverse collective of activists.

One of the best ways to learn what others really think of you is to find out what they have to say when you're not around. That's a bit tricky for individuals to do, but it's easy for countries: simply read the newspapers from other countries to get their perspective on who you are and what you represent. Americans, on the whole, have been regrettably uninformed about our place in the global community, but the internet offers us a great opportunity to read the news and opinions from other parts of the world. Watching America provides translations of thousands of articles from hundreds of foreign newspapers. The group has no political agenda and the articles focus exclusively on news and opinion concerning the U.S. NewsTran offers automatic translations of entire newspapers and magazines. It's a bit ponderous and far from flawless in its translations, but it is fascinating.

Finally, to get a powerful dose of perspective, check out the Hubble Heritage Project where you'll find the most stunningly beautiful photographs imaginable of outer space. If the majesty and grandeur of the universe doesn't simply take your breath away, surely it will make you pause for a moment to reflect on what is truly important in life. Trust me. It isn't "stuff."

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob