Monday, November 26, 2007

Holiday Gift Ideas for the Over-stuffed

If you survived Buy Nothing Day without buying anything, bravo!

But even after your successful act of "shopper disobedience," most probably you still want to figure out your holiday gift list. With a little thoughtful effort, it's not hard to come up with gift ideas that are not just more stuff. Here are some of my favorites:

In addition to the usually much-appreciated gift of homemade food, I particularly like gifts that offer the recipient an experience rather than a "thing," so I'd suggest a museum membership or membership at the zoo; season tickets or tickets for a specific play at a theater; concert tickets; a gift certificate for services at a local spa; or a homemade gift certificate for dinner at a favorite restaurant (you get to go, too!).

I also like to make donations on behalf of recipients to their favorite charities or charities I think they'd find interesting. (Please take a look at the list of my personal favorites at the side of this blog for some ideas.)

Rather than giving yet another toy to a baby or very young child, consider a U.S. Savings Bond in the child's name. Interest on the bond is tax-free if it's used for education, so you're making a nice contribution to the child's college fund.

A very practical gift that's often appropriate for a student with an unreliable car is a membership in the Auto Club.

Homemade gift certificates for services like baby-sitting, car-washing, or rides to the store for those who can't drive are always appreciated and a great option if you happen to be short on gift-giving funds.

And instead of a gift card to a store, I think there's absolutely nothing wrong with giving cash to a young person, especially if it's presented in an unusual or entertaining way. Try wrapping up decorated rolls of quarters for a mysteriously weighty present or put pennies in a glass jar with a big bow around the top. If you'd like to give paper money, a bill in a card designed for the purpose will be perfectly fine, but how about the same amount in crisp new dollar bills bundled inside a wrapped box?

Whatever you choose to give, I hope it doesn't include the latest bizarre and ridiculous item I discovered in a magazine advertisement: nail polish for dogs! Not only do I find this new line of doggie products offensively thoughtless, I can't imagine the discomfort of an animal with an exquisite sense of smell being subjected to the odor of nail polish and, subsequently, polish remover. I'm truly horrified.

I'm horrified, but now I'm curious, too. Readers, have you ever received a particularly strange or ridiculous gift? If you have, please write a comment describing it so we can all share in a good laugh or a moment of stunned disbelief!

© 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Making Black Friday Meaningful

"Black Friday" is the popular nickname for the day after Thanksgiving. Its name derives from the old method of keeping financial books by hand in which red ink indicated loss and black ink indicated profit. Because Black Friday has traditionally kicked off the holiday shopping season, it was considered the turning point that got retailers out of the red ink of financial losses and into profit, i.e., "in the black." Research has shown that it may not be the day that consumers spend the most money, but it's generally considered the busiest shopping day of the year. Anyone who's ever endured a trek through the mall on a Black Friday will certainly agree.

However, this coming Black Friday is also the fifteenth annual "Buy Nothing Day." I've written previously about Buy Nothing Day, a movement that encourages us to pause for a mere twenty-four hours and literally buy nothing. AdBusters, the group behind Buy Nothing Day, has suggested several activities to celebrate the occasion. I think they qualify as performance art:

(1) Credit Card Cut Up - volunteers bring scissors to a mall and stand with a sign offering to cut up shoppers' credit cards;

(2) Zombie Walk - supporters wander through the mall in full zombie make-up, emulating the mindless shoppers all around them;

(3) Whirl Mart - ten individuals aimlessly push their "long, inexplicable conga line" of shopping carts through all the aisles of a large store, without making a purchase.

Is it possible to stop shopping completely for one day? Well, of course it is. And yet it's surprisingly easy to justify a quick trip to the grocery store to pick up a forgotten item or two, maybe put some gas in your car or get a haircut because surely that doesn't count.

But it does.

We are so accustomed to buying something, a product or a service, that many times it won't even register in our minds when we do it. We compartmentalize the act of "shopping" as searching for things like clothes or computers or cars. The everyday shopping we do is practically invisible, unless we're forced to notice it because of unemployment or substantial debt.

This year, I hope you'll join me in supporting Buy Nothing Day. Consider it a grand personal experiment in being an especially thoughtful consumer. Simply stop shopping for this one day and pay attention to the decision you've made, solely for the purpose of becoming aware. I also hope you'll let me know how the experience affected you. Was it inconvenient, liberating, thought-provoking?

And if you do happen to think of a little something that you want to buy that day, instead of giving in to the urge, how about considering making a donation to your favorite charity for the amount that item would have cost? Your donation, no matter how small, can help turn Buy Nothing Day into your favorite charity's much more meaningful Black Friday.

© 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Friday, November 09, 2007

Juxtapositions: Fashion and Reality

I have fashion on my mind, probably because my new downloadable Amazon Short article entitled, "How to Get Dressed Without Driving Yourself Crazy," is now available on Amazon.com. Please take a look if you do battle with your wardrobe on a regular basis and would like a solution to the problem.

But the larger problems we face as a fashion-crazed society are plaguing me today.

Two articles in the "Image" section of last Sunday's LA Times are worth noting; I also find it worth noting that an entire section of the Times is called "Image." How much more blatant can a newspaper get without simply calling it an advertising supplement?

The first article of note in the "Image" section is "The Mannerist" column in which confused consumers ask questions about their tragic problems with "a burning social woe or a beef about bad behavior in Hollywood." Excluding the common social woes and bad behavior in show biz, such as screaming, insane bosses who throw things at you or, in extreme cases, hold a gun to your head (e.g., Phil Spector); and the awkward lapses that executives and stars have when they are publicly smashed out of their minds on alcohol, loaded with illegal substances or perhaps just carelessly preoccupied while simultaneously driving an automobile, with unfortunate results (search Google or read your favorite gossip rag), there seem to be other questions that warrant taking up space in the dominant newspaper of our major metropolitan area.

The question of the day for The Mannerist: how do you handle a friend who insists on "outing" your fake designer handbag? Dubbed by columnist Monica Corcoran a problem of "counterfetiquette," the ultimate answer is, "I wouldn't admit to a mock croc bogus Birkin unless someone outright asked me whether my purse was born in Paris or China. What concerns me more than your appetite for imitation accessories, however is your taste in acquaintances. If that supposed pal can't keep the copycat in the bag, she's what I call a make-believe friend."

Well, that's Ms. Corcoran's opinion, but let's get back to addressing the faux Birkin. The woman asking the question had paid two thousand dollars for her fake bag, "ordered from Asia." So not only is this poor soul so desperate to own a designer accessory that she'll buy a counterfeit version, she also paid a fortune for it!

It is a bag. The design may be appealing, the leather and manufacturing processes may be of the highest quality (at least on an original), but its function is to carry one's belongings. And yet, this desperate poor soul lives in Hollywood and perceives her choice as simply falling into line as best she can with the "requirement" to be fashionable. How refreshing it would be to find the rare someone who would resist this temptation.

"Dream on," you say. Sad, but true. The next generation of designer product consumers is being groomed, as described in another article by Monica Corcoran in which she interviews photographer Lauren Greenfield. Ms. Greenfield has made a short film entitled "kids + money," which premiered this week at AFI Fest. Once again, Ms. Corcoran, clever word creator, has come up with "kidsumerism" to describe the phenomenon of kids' growing awareness, at an ever earlier age, of designer cachet. However, Ms. Greenfield had some interesting observations, in addition to the obvious disturbing ones we might call to mind:

"One of the things I noticed in East L.A. and South Central [extremely low income parts of town] was the over-the-top consumerism in those areas. The strange thing is that this consumerism is what brings kids together too. One of the kids in the film, Matthew, says that he thinks it's a good thing. It's not about race anymore, he says. It's about money."

Am I the only person who thinks that "it's" almost always still about race, and now it's also about money? Am I the only person who doesn't consider this progress?

As for the pressure on parents, Ms. Greenfield affirms that it is significant. "But we live in a country where our president told us that shopping was our contribution to the world. There are very few of us who are not part of this culture of consumerism and we do pass it along to our kids."

That appalling recommendation to "shop to fight the terrorists" is still one of the most bizarre messages ever to come from the current administration. Surely somewhere others are thinking that something like, oh, education might be more helpful when it comes to figuring out the rest of the world, both friends and foes. Surely somewhere others are concerned that the consumer values that are being passed along to children are flat out wrong.

There are days when I am at a loss for any logical explanation for our society's extreme fascination with defining our worth, as a culture and as individuals, by our ability to purchase what's considered "fashionable." Today, readers, is one of those days!

Now, on to reality. Here are just a few items arbitrarily culled from elsewhere in the news this week: Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is causing great concern, while President Musharaff has declared emergency rule as Benazir Bhutto's supporters become more demonstrative; 58,000 gallons of heavy fuel spilled in San Francisco Bay; the Pope met with the king of Saudi Arabia; apparently Venezuela has become a hub of major crime syndicates; and The Homicide Report by Jill Leovy documents the murders of three young people (ages 14, 19 and 22) here in L.A. County.

No, of course we can't live our lives constantly focusing on the dramatic, even tragic events that unfold around us. An important part of life involves being joyful, grateful, and playful. Fashion can offer that to us. It can be fun (well, so I'm told), it can certainly be artistic, and reality dictates that it can immediately convey financial status to other people.

But does anyone really need to spend two grand to buy a knock-off handbag? I don't think so.

© 2007 Cynthia Friedlob