Thursday, December 18, 2008

Discardia Returns, Just in Time

I've mentioned Discardia in a previous post, but this is definitely the right time for a reminder.

Discardia was the creation of proud "web geek" Dinah Sanders on December 25, 2002, during what must have been a particularly interesting Christmas holiday experience for her. Here's the short explanation (although I highly recommend that you click on the link and read the full story):

"Discardia is celebrated by getting rid of stuff and ideas you no longer need. It's about letting go, abdicating from obligation and guilt, being true to the self you are now. Discardia is the time to get rid of things that no longer add value to your life, shed bad habits, let go of emotional baggage and generally lighten your load."

Discardia is a seasonal holiday, celebrated four times each year during the days between the solstices & equinoxes and their following new moons. So, the winter Discardia of 2008 begins on December 21st. For those who are looking for a simplified holiday season, keeping in mind the Discardian principle of letting go of stuff rather than acquiring more could be very helpful.

Discardia also reminds us that this is supposed to be a season of joy not obligation. So if you're feeling particularly stressed, this is a good time to remember the spirit of the season. Cutting back not only on shopping for gifts, but also on demands on your time and energy, will make the holidays something you anticipate happily rather than something that causes anxiety or even dread.

Whatever holiday you'll be celebrating, I offer my best wishes for health, happiness and peace.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

"Experience Talks" Radio Essay

My next radio essay, "Juxtapositions," will be on the December 16th broadcast of "Experience Talks" at 2:00 p.m. on KPFK-FM, the Los Angeles and Santa Barbara Pacifica Network affiliate station. (We were pre-empted for pledge breaks and election coverage last month.) The essay is about the extreme disparity of wealth in our multi-cultural City of Angels.

You'll hear the essay at the end of the show, which will feature interviews with musicians Andy Hill and Renee Safier, and with author and elder card specialist Stella Mora Henry. You can listen to the show streaming live online or as a podcast after the broadcast. If you're in the LA area, just tune your radio to 90.7 FM.

I was delighted recently to have been made an official part of the "Experience Talks" team, so I'm now included on the Our Team page of the show's website.

I hope you'll have a chance to listen and, as always, you are welcome to share your thoughts here in comments.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Simple, Uncluttered Holidays

On a quest for a simplified, uncluttered holiday season? You've undoubtedly figured out that it would help to minimize the decorating, share the holiday meal preparation, and make sure that you don't over commit yourself to social events. But what about gifts?

If you're determined that your holiday gifts won't be a hassle to buy or create clutter for you, your family or friends, check out Jeri Dansky's terrific Clutter-Free Gift Guide. You won't find a better assortment of ideas anywhere for gifts for everyone on your list. You'll also find an excerpt from an excellent article by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll about the "malaise of materialism."

Of course, there's also regifting, an option I wrote about in my previous post.

If you're really committed to cutting back on your gift-giving, you might want to investigate "Buy Nothing Christmas" and help spread the idea from Canada to the U.S.A. Here's the background story of this movement (and, yes, the idea also works for those who celebrate a secular rather than a religious holiday):

"Buy Nothing Christmas is a national initiative started by Canadian Mennonites who offer a prophetic 'no' to the patterns of over-consumption of middle-class North Americans. They are inviting Christians (and others) all over Canada to join a movement to de-commercialize Christmas and re-design a Christian lifestyle that is richer in meaning, smaller in impact upon the earth, and greater in giving to people less-privileged."

But what if you buy a few gifts -- can you still participate?

"Definitely. We are all going to have to buy some things. When you do buy things, we encourage you to remember principles like buying locally, fairly-traded, environmentally friendly packaging, recycling or re-using, buying things that last, and so on. The main aim of this campaign is not to save money (although that can be a side benefit), it's not to slow down the pace of Christmas (although that can be a side benefit), it is to challenge our over-consumptive lifestyle and how it affects global disparities and the earth. So, even though you might buy a few things at Christmas, it's important to think in these global economic terms."

If you'd like a few chuckles about how totally insane consumerism has become at this time of year, check out Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping. The "Reverend" (a character created by NY performance artist Bill Talen) has been around since 1996, but now he has a gospel choir and a group of "true believers" assisting him in his mission:

"The Church of Stop Shopping is a project of The Immediate Life, a New York based arts organization using theater, humor, and grassroots organizing to advance individuals and communities towards a more equitable future - starting today. We partner with citizens, grassroots organizations and progressive visionaries to produce dynamic, informed public campaigns that enact our core values - participatory democracy, ecological sustainability, and the preservation of vibrant communities and local economies."

Academy Award nominated documentarian Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) produced a docu-comedy feature for The Church of Stop Shopping entitled, What Would Jesus Buy? The promotional tag is, "The movie Santa doesn't want you to see!"

I don't agree with that. I think Santa is probably tired of having to act jolly while he lugs around tons of excess stuff that we don't need or even want. He deserves a break -- he's one of those rare public figures in big business who isn't being indicted or asking for a bailout.

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

National Regifting Day

There are other holidays around this time of year and I'm not just talking about Hanukkah.

Yes, National Regifting Day is coming up on December 18th, the Thursday before Christmas. The folks at Regiftable.com have created this holiday "in honor of holiday office parties and the 'unique' gifts exchanged at them." According to their research, "4 in 10 regifters (41%) target coworkers as the recipients of their regifts."

The website offers free customizable gift tags you can print. They've even conducted surveys to discover how people feel about regifting. Here are a few of the survey results:

"The majority of people (62%) say they regift because they think the item is something the recipient would really like; this is up from 53% who answered similarly in 2005.

"More than 4 in 10 people (42%) say that they regift to save money; this is up 27% since 2005 when only 33% claimed to regift for monetary reasons.

"More than half (60%) of Americans think regifting is becoming more accepted."

Those were the results last year -- pre-financial meltdown. I expect that there will be more regifting going on this year in an effort to save money. And there's nothing wrong with that as long as you follow some important regifting rules. The Motley Fool has a useful article and list, greatly condensed here:

Don't confuse "barely used" with "brand-spankin' new.”

Do not pass off items that were clearly purchased for you.

Don't declare, "It's vintage!" when it's really just plain bedraggled.

Do keep a flow chart of gifting so you don’t regift the original giver.

Triple-check for all telltale regifting signs such as gift tags stuck in the bottom of the box.

Give with good intentions, as if the gift were new.

But the final rule is the most important one that we should remember:

Give it away anyway. Even if the item isn't in perfect condition, someone, somewhere will be delighted to have it. Pass it on to a family member who would enjoy it or hand it over to your favorite charity.

You might be feeling a bit strapped for cash this holiday season, but it's still likely that there's something (more likely, plenty of somethings) you already own that you can let go. With so many people struggling through lay-offs, cut-backs, foreclosures and other difficulties, now is the perfect time to "pay it forward."


© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Angry Consumer: Black Friday Death at Wal-Mart

At five a.m. today, a 34-year-old Wal-Mart employee was trampled to death by bargain-hunting shoppers in Long Island, New York.

An AP report said:

"'He was bum-rushed by 200 people,' co-worker Jimmy Overby, 43, told the Daily News. "They took the doors off the hinges. He was trampled and killed in front of me. They took me down too. . . . I literally had to fight people off my back.

". . . A police statement said . . . shoppers 'physically broke down the doors, knocking [the worker] to the ground.' A metal portion of the door was crumpled like an accordion. "

. . . [Before police temporarily shut down the store], eager shoppers streamed past emergency crews as they worked furiously to save the worker's life."

Several other people were injured, including a 28-year-old pregnant woman who was knocked to the floor. She was taken to the hospital for observation.

The NY Daily News reported:

"'They were working on him, but you could see he was dead,' said Halcyon Alexander, 29. 'People were still coming through.'

"Only a few stopped."

An updated AP report added:

"'This crowd was out of control,' said Nassau police spokesman Lt. Michael Fleming. He described the scene as 'utter chaos.'

"Dozens of store employees trying to fight their way out to help the man were also getting trampled by the crowd, Fleming said. Witnesses said that even as the worker lay on the ground, shoppers streamed into the store, stepping over him.

"Kimberly Cribbs, who witnessed the stampede, said shoppers were acting like 'savages.'"

These were not people in a country ravaged by war or natural disaster, desperately trying to get food or water to keep themselves and their families alive; these people were clawing their way into a mega-store to get cheap prices on stuff. Savages, indeed.

Police are reviewing the store security videos and it is possible that there may be criminal charges brought against some shoppers.

But when does our society get indicted for making a $400 TV more valuable than a human life?

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob

Continued . . .

At 4:30 this afternoon, the LA Times online reported that two people were shot to death at a Toys 'R' Us in Palm Desert, California. According to the Times, it was apparently "a personal dispute between two groups of shoppers."

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Buy Nothing Day - November 28th


November 28, 2008, is Buy Nothing Day, an annual observance promoted by Adbusters Media Foundation, publisher of Adbusters Magazine:

"Based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Adbusters is a not-for-profit, reader-supported, 120,000-circulation magazine concerned about the erosion of our physical and cultural environments by commercial forces. . . We want a world in which the economy and ecology resonate in balance. We try to coax people from spectator to participant in this quest. We want folks to get mad about corporate disinformation, injustices in the global economy, and any industry that pollutes our physical or mental commons."

Check out the history of Buy Nothing Day here.

So, how do you participate in Buy Nothing Day? Buy nothing on November 28th, "Black Friday," the day after Thanksgiving and traditionally one of the biggest shopping days of the year.

Buying nothing for one day is a stuff consumption fast; it's not meant to prevent us from shopping ever again, but simply to make us aware of how much shopping we do, often without even thinking about it. And this is definitely the time to think about it.

We're in the midst of a financial meltdown and the entire structure of our society needs to be reconsidered. We can't continue to buy mindlessly (the personal financial losses of many people make that idea impossible anyway) and we can't continue to deplete Earth's natural resources mindlessly either.

We need to convert our consumption-oriented society into one that is much more nurturing and service-oriented. It will take some very wise leaders to figure out the specifics of how this will work, but it will also require a general shift in thinking so that people no longer value excessive possessions at all costs. We're seeing right now what those costs are and they're too high.

So let's hold off on shopping for just one day. Pay attention to how it feels. Watch the news and see if the crowds descend on the malls like crazed locusts or see if things are not quite as frantic as usual because of the failing economy.

Maybe spend the day thinking of ways that you can change your own buying habits and help nudge the world in a new direction that will benefit everyone on our small planet.

All you have to do to get started is buy nothing.


© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob




Monday, November 17, 2008

Shop 'til You Drop . . . or Until the Economy Collapses

Who knew that George W. Bush was right? After 9/11, he instructed the citizenry to go out and shop. Shop because that's what real Americans do. Shop or the terrorists win.

Well, he was only partly right to tell us to shop; he missed the boat by not giving us the most important reason to keep on spending, even in the face of a national disaster of epic proportions:

Americans have to shop or our economy collapses and when that happens, the world's economy collapses, too.

Easy to get, sub-prime mortgages were a boon to shoppers looking for homes. The fact that our country became an importer reliant on schlocky, cheap, Third World-manufactured products was a gift to shoppers looking for bargain prices. The stock market was a fabulous windfall for shoppers looking for a secure retirement. So shop, fellow Americans, and keep the machinery of consumerism chugging along!

Until everything falls apart.

Turns out the entire financial system of our country (and much of the world) was being run like a shameless scam maybe one notch better than a Ponzi scheme. The guys on top were raking in plenty of money (they always do) and most of the rest of the population of the western world consisted of poor suckers who thought that happy days were here again forever. Not so.

Recently I've read several fine articles and posts about the precarious state of our economy and its effects on corporations and individuals. I'm particularly fond of one in the LA Times by Judith Freeman, who wrote a touching story from a different perspective. It's called "Americans or Economic Beasts of Burden?" in which she writes about having observed people over the years as they shopped in thrift stores. But she begins her article with her memory of a night that she says haunts her to this day:

"On the night of Aug. 21, 2001, my husband and I checked into a motel in Miles City, Mont. Once settled, we poured ourselves a glass of wine and turned on the TV in order to relax after a long day's drive. I've never forgotten that night. It's haunted me ever since. An economist on the evening news was discussing the economy, then in the midst of a serious slump. The economist looked into the camera and said, 'If the American consumer packs it in, the entire global economy is in jeopardy. The American consumer better hang tough or we're in real trouble.'

"I don't think I had ever before quite understood in such stark terms just what beasts of burden we'd become. What the economist said made me realize something I'd never considered -- that the entire global economy, as he put it, depended on Americans continuing to consume."

Notice that the economist made this observation prior to 9/11 so the foundation for Bush's exhortations to keep shopping was already in place.

Ms. Freeman concludes her article with speculation about a possible benefit from the current malaise that is keeping shoppers from doing their "civic duty" -- I agree with her:

"It seems to me there might be a good side to this. It's as if the consuming fever has broken, if only temporarily. We're disinclined to carry more debt or keep shopping, even if we could, even knowing that the entire global economy might depend on us getting and spending. We're all wondering where this economic meltdown is headed, and how long it might last . . . And will there be a time when we can hope to be relieved of our burden of hanging tough? Can there be some different kind of engine to drive the world economy other than the endless, often mindless consumption by ordinary Americans?"

Yes, there must be another way. I'm a great believer in hope for the future and feel optimistic that this economic downturn is part of the endless cycle that humanity seems intent on repeating: greed that gets out of control until the system collapses; then a period of reflection, restructuring and ethical, responsible behavior that builds until opportunities are so prevalent that greed kicks in again.

Okay, on the face of it that doesn't sound particularly hopeful, but I like to think of the process as a spiraling forward motion in which, over time, more and more people become responsible and ethical, while fewer and fewer people are tempted by greed.

So, even though we're in turmoil and certainly many people are suffering, on a larger scale, maybe we're headed toward that rebirth of a caring, less consumption-oriented society. Maybe we're realizing that we don't have to shop 'til we drop to keep the world afloat. And maybe that realization will help us ensure that the terrorists won't ever win.

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Quick Post About Our Conflicted Society

In my previous post, "Selling a Sexy Halloween to Little Girls," I said the following:

"We're a conflicted society when it comes to sex and violence. We don't seem to mind depictions of violence, thus the many gory Halloween costumes for little boys, including terrifying characters from films that they are too young to see without an adult present. (I've never figured out how simply having an adult present somehow immunizes a child against the disturbing emotional effects of grotesque and gratuitous carnage, but that's the accepted cultural standard.) Yet children are almost fanatically protected against seeing any depiction of sexuality in film.

"Personally, I'm not enthusiastic about exposing young kids to either sex or violence on screen, but, of the two, allowing children to see graphic movie violence is far more disturbing to me."

So, naturally I couldn't resist sharing the Yahoo News item, "Zack and Miri Banned in Utah," about a new film called Zack and Miri Make a Porno:

"Utah Jazz and Megaplex Theaters owner Larry Miller has refused to book the film. The chain's spokesman Cal Gunderson expressed concerns about the film with The New York Post, citing the film's 'graphic nudity and graphic sex' and that it was 'too close to an NC-17.'

"The company's standards seem a little odd considering that the chain had no problems screening ultra-violent fare like 'Saw V,' which features beheadings and explicit self-mutilation. When asked why Megaplex Theaters did not object to the gory horror sequel, Gunderson had no comment.

"Furthermore, the company's decision might make sense if 'Zack and Miri Make a Porno' were in fact pornographic. Instead, Kevin Smith's surprisingly tame and sentimental movie has a few flashes of nudity, a handful of love scenes played mostly for laughs, and a whole lot of foul language."

I haven't seen Zack and Miri Make a Porno, nor have I seen Saw V or any of its predecessors; I won't be seeing them in the future, either. Life is short and vulgar comedies and gory screamers hold no appeal for me. I'm responding strictly based on the fascinating principle behind Mr. Miller's decision that viewing sex (and hearing foul language) is more disturbing than viewing graphic violence.

The Motion Picture Association of America explains an "R" rating as follows:

"An R-rated motion picture, in the view of the Rating Board, contains some adult material. An R-rated motion picture may include adult themes, adult activity, hard language, intense or persistent violence, sexually-oriented nudity, drug abuse or other elements, so that parents are counseled to take this rating very seriously. Children under 17 are not allowed to attend R-rated motion pictures unaccompanied by a parent or adult guardian. Parents are strongly urged to find out more about R-rated motion pictures in determining their suitability for their children. Generally, it is not appropriate for parents to bring their young children with them to R-rated motion pictures."

Both Zack and Miri Make a Porno and Saw V received "R" ratings. At least they aren't considered "PG-13."

Okay, I'm willing to acknowledge that I'm past the age group that makes up the target market for these films. And, yes, I'd be happier if films in general were far tamer than they ever will be again. Still, I'm just mystified by the "logic." Are you?

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Selling a Sexy Halloween to Little Girls

I think the eighties was the decade when the definition of appropriate clothing for young girls changed radically. Madonna was the primary pop culture culprit. She pranced and posed through her music video of "Like a Virgin," capturing the hearts of men and boys, but also providing a new kind of role model for girls, including very young girls who probably didn't know what "virgin" meant.

Some twenty-five years later, I suppose they'd now have to be very, very young girls to be that uninformed. It should be no great surprise that most young girls are not only more sophisticated and more aware of their sexuality than in decades past, but they also have to deal with pressure to behave as if they were more experienced than what is likely to be comfortable for their emotional maturity level.

Then, along comes Halloween, the holiday that justifies dressing up as any fantasy character that's appealing. It used to be Snow White, or a ballerina, or maybe a princess costume that younger girls gravitated to most often, but that's not the case any more. And it's certainly not the case for the manufacturers and marketers of Halloween costumes.

Diane E. Levin is professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston and the co-author, with Jean Kilbourne, of So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids. She shared her observations in an LA Times interview that I strongly recommend reading in its entirety. Here are a few excerpts :

"Halloween costumes for 7- and 8-year-old girls and even younger have become downright titillating, and for tweens and teens, the vast majority of those sold in stores and on the Internet are unabashedly sexually alluring. Little girls and their big sisters are being encouraged to get dressed up, in many cases, like child prostitutes. . . .

"The sexy princess costumes, sexy witch costumes seem to be most ubiquitous and most dramatic. For girls 8 and up, the skirt will have a big slit on one side. By the time girls are 12, the costumes are low cut."

The results of this early sexualization of girls, according to Dr. Levin, are complex:

". . . the girls' costumes set up certain expectations in boys as well as in the girls who wear them or want them. What are boys' reactions, looking at girls when they're all dressed up in these sexy costumes? They think, 'That must be what girls look like to be pretty, and being pretty is the important thing.' . . . How [girls] look and what they buy [also] affects their view of themselves. But it also becomes the basis for how they treat other girls. It's harder and harder to have [girl friendship] relationships. . . .

"This is why we may be seeing a generation in which [social] relationships are often played out as interactions between caricatures of sexual stereotypes, why you can have 'friends with benefits' and 'hooking up.'"

We're a conflicted society when it comes to sex and violence. We don't seem to mind depictions of violence, thus the many gory Halloween costumes for little boys, including terrifying characters from films that they are too young to see without an adult present. (I've never figured out how simply having an adult present somehow immunizes a child against the disturbing emotional effects of grotesque and gratuitous carnage, but that's the accepted cultural standard.) Yet children are almost fanatically protected against seeing any depiction of sexuality in film.

Personally, I'm not enthusiastic about exposing young kids to either sex or violence on screen, but, of the two, allowing children to see graphic movie violence is far more disturbing to me.

I am quite certain that, as a society, we abhor real life violence directed against children and we certainly don't want children engaging in sexual behavior when they're still emotionally and psychologically too immature for the experience. But somehow, in spite of this, it's become all right to sexualize the appearance of our little girls in real life, long before they understand or are prepared to deal with what that means.

A Newsweek.com article (take a look at the photos on this link!) on this phenomenon reported:

"Witches are 'wayward' and grammar-school pirates are 'wenches.' A girl isn't an Army cadet, she's a 'Major Flirt,' and who knew female firefighters wore fishnet stockings? Even Little Bo Peep comes with a corset, short skirt and lacy petticoat. . . .

"Dr. Eileen Zurbriggen, [is] a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who last year chaired the American Psychological Association's (APA) Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. Their report, issued in February, declared that, 'Throughout U.S. culture, and particularly in mainstream media, women and girls are depicted in a sexualized manner.' . . .
[There is] increasing evidence of the negative impact an overemphasis on body image has on girls' lives. The APA task force's team of psychologists linked oversexualization with three of the most common mental health problems for women 18 and older: eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression. And there is evidence that the effect is trickling down the age brackets. 'Clinicians are reporting that younger and younger girls are presenting with eating disorders and are on diets,' says Zurbriggen.

Later in the same article, Dr. Sharon Lamb, another APA task force member who coauthored, 'Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters From Marketing Schemes,' was interviewed:

". . . most Web sites selling kids Halloween costumes divide merchandise along gender lines, and typically offer more choices for boys than girls (boys get to be doctors, police officers as well as gory monsters and 'Star Wars' characters). Of the 22 girl costumes featured on one Web site Lamb looked at, 15 were cheerleaders, divas and rock stars. 'That really limits girls' imaginations,' says Lamb, who surveyed 600 young girls for the book, many of whom admitted to dressing up as something sexy for Halloween in order to get attention."

I recall seeing a documentary some years ago that explained that children have a clear understanding of culturally defined gender role differences by the age of five. What was considered appropriate for girls versus appropriate for boys in those young minds included every societal stereotype imaginable, from girls not being athletic to boys not being allowed to cry. It was quite surprising, and rather depressing, to discover how effectively these models had been internalized by that early age.

What kind of models are being internalized by five year old children now?

The popularity of sexually provocative Halloween costumes for young girls reflects of some of today's confused societal norms. But who knew that costumes for boys have been affected, too?

An article for the Canadian CBC News reported:

"Not only girls are targeted with sexualized costumes. Boys can choose packages of pimp paraphernalia as part of their costumes."

Oh, fabulous. Girls dressing like little hookers and boys with "pimp paraphernalia." Parents, brace yourselves. (But don't you wonder what exactly is included in the paraphernalia?)

I'm grateful to know that there are still some children that have fun at Halloween without sexual referencing in their costumes. Otherwise, we might as well just redefine the meaning of "Trick or Treat!"


© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob

Monday, October 20, 2008

Someday Syndrome Interview

I was pleased to be interviewed for Alex Fayle's fascinating and helpful website and blog, "Someday Syndrome." The interview was posted today. Here's the link.

Alex is a professional organizer and writer; he's originally from Canada and now lives in Spain. He spent his first couple of years as a blogger writing about his own successful quest to stop postponing his goals and dreams until "someday." Recently he began calling upon friends, relatives and blogging buddies to share their experiences battling procrastination about important things in their lives.

I hope you'll stop by to read the interview and take a look at Alex's site. He even offers a nine week course to help you along if you feel like you've got the dreaded Someday Syndrome! (He's kindly sending it to me and I'm enjoying reading it.)

Saturday, October 18, 2008

O.J. Simpson and His Stuff

"I just wanted to get my stuff back." And that's how O.J. Simpson found himself on the wrong side of the law in Las Vegas.

Simpson provokes strong feelings from many people because of his criminal acquittal and civil conviction involving the deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman, over a decade ago. But no matter how you may feel about the outcome of that trial, Simpson's current situation is a dramatic example of attachment to personal possessions leading to serious, and undoubtedly unexpected, consequences.

Simpson was convicted of armed robbery and kidnapping last month for his strange and seemingly desperate attempt to reclaim items he claims were stolen from him. The LA Times reported:

"Prosecutors say [Simpson and his cohorts] stole up to $100,000 in footballs, plaques and baseballs at gunpoint from the [two sports collectibles] dealers, who had been tricked into thinking they were meeting a wealthy buyer. . .

"Prosecutors painted Simpson as masterminding the alleged robbery . . . in a hotel room last year. The Hall of Fame running back, the prosecution contended, rounded up five cohorts, told two of them to bring guns and ordered one of the armed men to brandish his weapon and 'look menacing'. . .

"Thomas Riccio, the auctioneer who set up the meeting with the dealers, surreptitiously taped the six-minute encounter on a digital recorder hidden atop an armoire. He later sold the clip to celebrity gossip site TMZ.com for $150,000. Riccio, who was granted immunity for cooperating with prosecutors, also taped the hours surrounding the confrontation -- including Simpson denying in phone calls afterward that he saw weapons. . .

"Many of Simpson's cohorts sought media interviews and book deals after the altercation -- even defense witness Tom Scotto, who testified that the self-proclaimed gunmen threatened him and tried to extort $50,000 from him or Simpson. Riccio has published a book called Busted."

I'm not sure which aspect of this case is the most bizarre. First, you have Simpson who, you would think, would want to stay as far away from criminal activities as possible. Why in the world would he believe he could pull this off?

You have the guy who arranged the meeting with the dealers and he's got a digital recorder set up and running through the entire confrontation; then he sells the recording for a ton of money to a gossip website.

You have the guy who's a defense witness and he's already published a book.

And you have the fact that, should Simpson ever get back any of his memorabilia under any circumstances (other than in total secrecy), he probably wouldn't be able to keep it because Ron Goldman's father would immediately get involved. In fact, today another Los Angeles Times article reported:

"The judge overseeing efforts to collect a $33.5-million civil judgment against O.J. Simpson said Friday that he will hold a hearing next month to investigate allegations that the NFL star's valuable Hall of Fame ring is in the possession of a memorabilia dealer he was recently convicted of kidnapping."

Simpson's lawyers are seeking a new trial. They’ve alleged that the judge “blocked them from telling jurors that they could consider lesser charges of larceny or second-degree kidnapping against Simpson, or that [he] believed when he confronted memorabilia dealers Bruce Fromong and Alfred Beardsley that he was retrieving items that belonged to him.”

Whatever the outcome, the whole mess could have been avoided had Simpson not been so attached to his stuff. If he had told the police that he suspected the dealers were selling items that belonged to him, possession of anything that had been recovered legally would have been challenged by Fred Goldman, so he wouldn't be able to keep it. If he was somehow able to get his things back through this absurd "robbery" scheme, maybe he thought no one would find out about it. But why take that kind of risk for stuff?

Sentencing is set for December 9th; the penalty could be as much as life imprisonment. The minimum sentence is two years. Would you trade two years of your life for some of your stuff, even if it was considered valuable "memorabilia?" O.J.'s got a pension and house; he can afford to play golf all the time. Let the stuff go!

Simpson's conviction was exactly thirteen years after his acquittal in his criminal trial for murder. I suppose people into everything from numerology to karmic retribution will find some symbolic significance in that. Conspiracy theorists (the good ones are able to find conspiracies everywhere) will say the whole thing was a set-up to nail O.J. and get him imprisoned; after all, four of the "gang" took deals for lesser sentences in exchange for testifying for the prosecution, leaving only Simpson and Clarence Stewart as defendants. In my mind, it's adequate to attribute the timing to coincidence and O.J.'s involvement to either arrogance or lunacy.

Officially, the case is called "Nevada v. Orenthal James Simpson, 07-237890," but I'll just call it "The Case of Wanting Stuff - Gone Wrong, Bigtime."

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Blog Action Day: Poverty


The chaos that has surrounded the world of finance lately has most of us thinking about our own situations, comfortable or precarious as they may be. Also, the outrageous disparity between the extraordinarily wealthy and, oh, the entire rest of humanity has been getting more press lately than it has in the past. Or perhaps in the past, outrageous wealth was seen strictly as an admirable goal for which to strive. Maybe not so much anymore. Of course, we want certain creature comforts and some sense of security as we grow older, but the concept that extreme wealth can be "too much" is no longer exclusive to those who take religious vows of poverty.

Is there an ethical limit to wealth? It's a viable topic for debate, especially if wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few while the majority of the world's population suffers from a dire lack of food, potable water and decent medical care.

The U.S. is a wealthy country, with a per capita GDP of $46,000. But not everybody is flush with cash. In 2004, twelve percent of our population lived below the poverty line. And how does that translate to annual income? In 2007, the poverty threshold for a single person under 65 was $10,787; the threshold for a family group of four, including two children, was $21,027.

Can you imagine supporting a family on $21,027 a year? Can you imagine squeaking by on your own with about nine hundred dollars in your pocket each month? Less than two hundred fifty each week? That would mean no health insurance, so you'd be forced to rely on free clinics and hope to arrange free prescription drugs. You'd have no car because insurance and gas costs are too high, so public transportation, walking or maybe using a bicycle would be your only ways to get around.

What about a place to live? The average rent back in 2005 in New York was $2400 per month; in San Francisco, it was $1573; and in Los Angeles it was $1421. You could find relatively cheap rent in Oklahoma City, Birmingham, Memphis and other smaller cities and towns, but even at $600-$700 per month, that would leave you only a few hundred dollars for utilities and a phone.

Did you need some clothes to wear, too? Charity and thrift stores would be your only options, unless you found some generous friends. And you wanted to eat? You'd have to be one incredibly brilliant shopper to come up with enough food and it's unlikely that your diet would be nutritionally balanced.

Sounds rough, doesn't it? But, if you worked for minimum wage ($6.55 per hour in 2008), you'd gross $13,624 per year, putting you above the poverty line. You can read about just how difficult it would be trying to scrape by on minimum wage in Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. The author voluntarily tried the task, at one point nearly ending up in a homeless shelter.

Ms. Ehrenreich knew she'd be able to return to her comfortable life after her adventure in journalism was complete. But how demoralizing it must be, on top of the physical demands and the fear of losing a job or even taking an unpaid sick day (most minimum wage jobs offer no benefits), to live on the edge, knowing that, without a lot of luck and super-human determination, there's likely nothing but more of the same in your future. And that's here in the land of opportunity.

My favorite book that depicts the relative wealth of nations is Material World: A Global Family Portrait by Peter Menzel. Here's the description from the Amazon.com review:

"In honor of the United Nations-sponsored International Year of the Family in 1994, award-winning photojournalist Peter Menzel brought together 16 of the world's leading photographers to create a visual portrait of life in 30 nations. Material World tackles its wide subject by zooming in, allowing one household to represent an entire nation. Photographers spent one week living with a 'statistically average' family in each country, learning about their work, their attitudes toward their possessions, and their hopes for the future. Then a 'big picture' shot of the family was taken outside the dwelling, surrounded by all their (many or few) material goods."

Not only is this book visually riveting, it offers unique insight into the lives of ordinary families in other cultures by sharing not only a glimpse of their daily experiences, but also what possessions they live with and find valuable. It provides necessary perspective for all of us.

It's easy to feel overwhelmed by the issue of poverty, but paralysis doesn't help the situation. Instead, it's more useful to take action, no matter how small that action may be. One possibility you might consider is donating to:



Kiva is a micro-loan organization that allows individuals to donate as little as $25 to an entrepreneur who needs just a little boost to begin a business. For example, one of the featured entrepreneurs today is Mr. Net Sopheak's Group. Mr. Sopheak and his wife live in Cambodia. They are requesting a loan of $350 to buy two pigs to start a pig breeding business. The repayment term of their loan will be ten months. Only $25 is still required to meet their goal. You could help this family, or many other families, improve their living conditions by making a donation.

Whatever your situation, I urge you to act with a donation of money, useful goods that are no longer useful to you, or, if you're struggling right now and feel that you haven't a spare penny, consider donating your time.

If you're reading this blog, you're economically better off than so many people who share our planet. Poverty is a tragedy. But it also would be very sad for those of us who are more fortunate to experience a poverty of spirit. Let's nourish our spirits by acting for the benefit of others today, Blog Action Day.

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob

Friday, October 10, 2008

Alternative Housing: From Small to Quirky

Of the two billion or so bloggers posting regularly on-line, I imagine that about 1.99 billion of us recently have devoted a post or two to the near total collapse of the U.S. economy and its collateral damage to the economies of other countries across the world. The root of the problem centers around housing, so I thought it might be interesting to speculate about what would happen if everything continued on this catastrophic path and we were all catapulted into a world that required a radically alternative way to look at housing.

Okay, it's not likely that all the existing homes and apartments will suddenly be abandoned and collapse into piles of rubble, even if the stock market continues to tank alarmingly and the jobless rate hits an all-time high. But many changes in the way we create our homes may be required over time just to deal with issues of sustainability.

Housing is usually a consumer's major expense, whether renting or buying. In the past I've blogged about small houses, pre-fab and modular houses, and other related topics, but I decided to put together a list of links to other websites and blogs that discuss alternative housing in detail. You may be surprised by the many resourceful and interesting choices that are available.

Zenzibar is an alternative culture site that would have had great appeal back in the "Summer of Love." But there is an interesting post from 2000 about alternative housing that suggests everything from camping on public land to living in a school bus. It also mentions nomad or "snowbirds," as they're often called:

"Quartzsite is a town in southwestern Arizona where hundreds of full-time nomads gather together each winter and set up a temporary city where they have potluck dinners, buy and sell items and generally enjoy each other’s company. There are many other places like this all over America although probably none as large. There are regular annual migrations of these modern nomads from the cool north in the summer to the warm southwestern deserts in the winter."

Alternative Housing offers news and information about everything from teepees to treehouses, log cabins to floating homes. If you find the thought of hanging out in Quartzsite appealing, you can investigate RVs and trailers, too.

Alternative Solar Housing explains the advantages of a modified Buckminster Fuller concept, the geodesic dome. Their Cube Octahedron Hemisphere allows solar energy applications.

American Steel Span Buildings touts the environmental and economic advantages of using steel to construct a home or other structure. They even sell kits.

BioHome uses Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome concept, too, and gets you off the grid completely. They call it "closed system housing." The framework of the dome is covered with insulating foam and topped with bubble windows.

Green Home Building is a great site that has information on straw bale houses, a popular type of construction in the southwest. Check out Earthship design, building fanciful lightweight concrete structures, and other fascinating options. Wonderful photos, too. Entertaining, inspiring and my favorite site on this topic!

Finally, just for fun take a look at Pink Tentacle. It offers a post about "Reversible Destiny Lofts," located in Tokyo and designed by NY-based architect-poets and philosophers, Arakawa & Gins.

"In their vision, a home that keeps its inhabitants young and healthy should provide perpetual challenges. A tentative relationship with your environment,they argue, is key to 'reversing the downhill course of human life.'"

Many unbelievable photos and a video are on the site. The NY Times has a recent article about the design here. It's unlikely that this type of design will catch on in a big way, but I have a feeling that art was the motivating force rather than practicality.

[March 24, 2009 update: Arakawa & Gins invested heavily with Bernie Madoff and lost millions. Here's a link to the story in today's Wall Street Journal.]

If you know of other useful sites or blogs devoted to alternative housing, please feel free to leave a comment. Considering our volatile economic situation, an affordable, sustainable, alternative home may start to make sense to a lot of people who had never considered the possibility in the past. And if those homes are as cute as this one, well, that's not so bad.


© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob

Monday, September 29, 2008

Thoughtless Financial Meltdown

Unless you've been on another planet recently, you've witnessed some dramatic changes in our financial markets. And, unless you have super-human intelligence, you're probably trying to figure out what happened and why the government (read: taxpayers) suddenly has to come up with a bazillion dollars to fix everything.

Some parts of the current mess are complicated; what exactly is a subordinated, pre-accounted, sub-prime mortgage-backed, qualified risk-reversal, fiscal debenture? Well, it's something I just made up. Regrettably, that's pretty much how the financial instruments that contributed to this mess were created.

I'm far from an expert when it comes to understanding our monetary system, but it seems to me that the core of the mess we're in can be explained simply: greedy lenders sold high-risk mortgages to greedy or ignorant people who either (1) felt they were entitled to live "The American Dream" of owning a home and would figure out how to pay for it in "the future," or (2) were so poorly informed about what an adjustable rate mortgage is that they signed on for a loan that they didn't know they'd have to worry about in "the future." Bad news either way.

Then, a bunch of greedy Wall Street hot-shots decided to sell little slices of imaginary money (it would magically materialize sometime in "the future") based on those loans made to people who couldn't afford them. In other words, it was a giant Ponzi scheme. It worked until "the future" came around. Now.

I do have some sympathy for home buyers who were duped by aggressive and sometimes fraudulent lenders, then got hit suddenly with an interest rate that bumped up their house payments to an amount they couldn't afford. There are also people who have to deal with unexpected medical expense or extended unemployment and suffer financial difficulties as a result of situations that spiraled out of their control.

But there's another factor at work here for many highly paid corporate executives and many homeowners who just got caught off-guard because they didn't scramble out of their unfavorable loans in time: an irrational expectation that somehow they'd scoot through the day of reckoning unscathed.

Author Barbara Ehrenreich wrote an op/ed piece called "The Power of Negative Thinking" in the September 23rd NY Times:

"GREED — and its crafty sibling, speculation — are the designated culprits for the financial crisis. But another, much admired, habit of mind should get its share of the blame: the delusional optimism of mainstream, all-American, positive thinking. The idea is to firmly believe that you will get what you want, not only because it will make you feel better to do so, but because 'visualizing' something — ardently and with concentration — actually makes it happen. You will be able to pay that adjustable-rate mortgage or, at the other end of the transaction, turn thousands of bad mortgages into giga-profits if only you believe that you can."

I'm pretty darn tired of all the "just believe it and it will be so" proponents, too. I happen to have a positive attitude, but I don't tip over into delusional thinking. Ehrenreich believes that our society has become delusional, and I agree with her. But it wasn't always this way:

"Americans did not start out as deluded optimists. The original ethos, at least of white Protestant settlers and their descendants, was a grim Calvinism that offered wealth only through hard work and savings, and even then made no promises at all. You might work hard and still fail; you certainly wouldn’t get anywhere by adjusting your attitude or dreamily 'visualizing' success."

Eventually the day dawns when the piper must be paid. The problem is that those people who carefully and thoughtfully managed their debts get stuck with the bill, too. And, in this particular meltdown, there are financial industry executives whose past behavior might be deemed illegal who are looking at huge "golden parachutes" that, if added together, probably would total half the money that is supposed to be needed for the massive government bailout.

Is it any wonder that so many people are mad? Responsible budgeters feel ripped-off; uninformed homeowners who are losing their houses want to know what happened; even the people who felt entitled to maneuver their way around their responsibilities are angry that they didn't get away with anything. And is it any wonder that members of Congress are reluctant to rush to pass unpopular emergency bailout legislation that could lose them votes in few weeks?

Meanwhile, the financial sector crumbles around us with bank failures and consolidations, insurance company failures or near failures, brokerage collapses, and investor confidence in a ditch so deep that it's hard to see the sun. Credit is so tight that you might have to sign a formal agreement with your best friend to borrow twenty bucks. How can we figure this out?

I've compiled a very brief list of articles, in addition to Barbara Ehrenreich's, that I found informative and interesting:

NY Times: Behind Insurer's Crisis, Blind Eye to a Web of Risk

Washington Post: A Lesson the Markets Ignored

Wall Street Journal: The End of Wall Street

Financial Post (Canadian): You Can't Have It All

The Financial Post article is one of my favorites and I recommend it highly. Here's the sub-title:

"Don't blame politicians and bankers. The real cause of the credit crisis is a society that wants everything now."

Yes, there's plenty of room for a whole lot of people to take some personal responsibility in this unpleasant scenario, but why bother with that as long as there seemed to be an endless supply of money? Just follow the advice of the old Cajun song lyrics: "Laissez le bon temps roullez!"

Unfortunately, the good times rolled right into a brick wall.

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Thoughtful Voter

Recently, I watched the 1941 classic Preston Sturges film, Sullivan's Travels. At one point, the lead character comments that they live in "troublous times." It's hard for those of us who didn't live through those years to imagine what it was like to experience the Great Depression and World War II. The very difficult situations we face today may not be as devastating to as many people as were affected in the 1930s and '40s, but to those who are suffering now as a result of poverty and war, these must be troublous times indeed.

I applaud the efforts of committed individuals who try their best to be thoughtful consumers, but we also need to be thoughtful citizens. To that end, if you scroll down this blog page, on the right side you'll see a new link to FactCheck.org. Here's the description of the purpose of that website:

"We are a nonpartisan, nonprofit, 'consumer advocate' for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics. We monitor the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews, and news releases. Our goal is to apply the best practices of both journalism and scholarship, and to increase public knowledge and understanding."

The decisions we make in November demand our full attention and rational faculties. We can't allow ourselves to be uninformed or misinformed. Little will matter of our efforts to be thoughtful consumers unless we work quickly to solve our country's significant problems with inadequate health care and health insurance coverage, inexcusable poverty, failing educational systems, corporate greed, continuing war, and diminished international respect.

I've made my decision; I urge you to do your own research.

And vote.


© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Green White Roofs

Ten years ago, upon moving into a townhouse, I was slightly disappointed to discover that the Homeowners Association had already made plans to replace the roofs on all the units in the complex. I thought it was unfortunate that no one had considered the possibility of installing solar panels. We do live in southern California and there is no dearth of sunshine; in fact 73% of our days are sunny every year. Imagine the energy savings over the last decade if the Board had been a bit more forward-thinking.

But it's not just solar panels that can make a difference. I've discussed green roofs on several occasions in the past, but for many people, the structural reinforcements necessary for a green roof can rule out that option. What if there was a simpler way not only to lower energy costs but also slow down global warming?

It turns out that simply having a highly reflective, white roof on the average home, rather than the conventional dark roof, can prevent 10 metric tons of planet-heating carbon dioxide emissions from entering the atmosphere. And, because a white roof never gets more than a few degrees warmer than the ambient temperature, the need for air-conditioning is substantially reduced -- as much as 40% in some commercial buildings.

The LA Times reported today:

"Since 2005, the Golden State has required that flat commercial structures have white roofs. Next year, new and retrofitted residential and commercial buildings, with both flat and sloped roofs, will have to install heat-reflecting roofing, as part of an energy-efficient building code."

If, in addition to white roofs, the 100 biggest cities in the world also began using reflective materials for pavement, "the global cooling effect would be massive, according to data released Tuesday at California's annual Climate Change Research Conference in Sacramento."

The Atlanta Business Chronicle pointed out that "several years ago, [Georgia] became the first state to amend its building code to recognize the benefits of reflective material. The 'White Roofing Amendment' became part of the Georgia State Minimum Code for Construction."

The Chronicle also notes, "White roofs also reduce the heat island effect in an urban area, a potentially critical boon for Atlanta, which famously suffers from a lot of bad-air days. Studies have shown that cities are often three to eight degrees warmer on hot days than outlying rural areas. The effect in Atlanta has been measured as high as 12 degrees. And heat is a major contributing factor to the formation of ozone." Anyone who's ever ventured into downtown LA on a hot, smoggy summer day knows how miserable that heat island effect can be.

Naturally, the EPA has taken a positive position on cool roofing materials:

"Cool roof systems with high reflectance and emittance stay up to 70°F (39°C) cooler than traditional materials during peak summer weather. Benefits of cool roofs include reduced building heat-gain and saving on summertime air conditioning expenditures. By minimizing energy use, cool roofs do more than save money – they reduce the demand for electric power and resulting air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions."

If you've traveled to the Mediterranean countries or seen photographs of towns and cities in those areas, you've probably noticed the consistent use of white on the buildings, both residential and commercial. Well, it doesn't just look beautiful, obviously it's smart, too. Good for the consumer, good for the environment. A very thoughtful choice.

Cool.

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Marketing Wine and Politics

I was quite amused to read about Wine Spectator magazine's award of excellence in the August issue to Milan's Osteria L'Intrepido restaurant. Let me make it clear that I know absolutely nothing about wine; like quite a number of unlucky people, I'm allergic to the sulfites in it, so I don't drink it at all. Still, the award struck a chord: the restaurant doesn't exist.

Wine critic and author Robin Goldstein decided to test the legitimacy of the awards by creating a faux restaurant with website, menu, even on-line reviews. The stamp of approval (including gold plaque) that the winning restaurants receive from the now perhaps formerly respected magazine is used as a prominent marketing tool.

Goldstein explained, "I submitted the fee ($250), a cover letter, a copy of the restaurant’s menu (a fun amalgamation of somewhat bumbling nouvelle-Italian recipes), and a wine list. . . The main wine list that I submitted was a perfectly decent selection from around Italy that met the magazine’s basic criteria (about 250 wines, including whites, reds, and sparkling wines–some of which scored well in WS). However, Osteria L’Intrepido’s high-priced 'reserve wine list' was largely chosen from among some of the lowest-scoring Italian wines in Wine Spectator over the past few decades." Indeed, most of the wines were utterly trashed in the magazine's previous reviews.

Goldstein exposed the true nature of his prize-winning restaurant entry on Friday, August 15th, at the meeting of the American Association of Wine Economists in Portland, Oregon, much to the chagrin of Wine Spectator magazine and the undoubted delight of some of the conference attendees.

The LA Times story on the bogus award comments:

"Getting the award, however, isn't exactly like winning an Olympic medal. This year, nearly 4,500 restaurants spent $250 each to apply or reapply for the Wine Spectator award, and all but 319 won the award of excellence or some greater kudos . . . That translates to more than $1 million in revenue."

Quite a tidy profit for the magazine, should we be so jaded as to think that there may be a desire for profit motivating the awards.

But I find that an observation Goldstein made about consumers in general is particularly noteworthy:

"He contends that people think wine tastes better when they know it is expensive, citing as evidence taste tests that show two-thirds of people preferred a $12 Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut, a Washington state sparkling wine, to a $150 Dom Perignon Champagne. "

Further proof that we, the consumers, are suckers. If we can be convinced through savvy marketing and advertising that a brand will provide what we want (in this case, taste but also elegance, sophistication and exclusivity), we open our pockets and pull out the required cash -- better make that credit.

Recently, one of my favorite bloggers, marketing guru Seth Godin, posted an insight about the purpose of advertising when trying to gain market share: it's to make us unhappy by making us want something. If we're unhappy, then we buy the thing that fulfills the want. Notice I said "want," not "need." So, if we want elegance, sophistication and exclusivity, we'd better pop for the expensive champagne because otherwise we'll be unhappy, even though the less expensive brand would make at least two-thirds of us quite content with what we're drinking.

Godin also frequently explains marketing as storytelling. If, for example, you define yourself as elegant and sophisticated, a product that tells its story in a way that appeals to that definition of yourself, i.e., the two stories are in alignment (they resonate), you will want that product. You'll pay $138 more for a bottle of champagne to keep your stories consistent.

Godin applies his observation to politics, too:

"It's essentially impossible to tell a story to an entire population and have it resonate with all of them. The global warming story, for example, has influenced some people a great deal and been dismissed out of hand by others. While most marketers spend their time telling stories about themselves, politicians spend a lot of time telling negative stories about the competition. It's illuminating, because it makes the resonance idea really clear."

I urge you to read Godin's entire post, but here's the part I find most important to remember during the continuing political campaign:

"Choose your story (or the competition's story) wisely, because you have to live with it for a long time, and if it's not authentic, if it doesn't hold up, you're left with nothing."

Or, more likely, you're left with trouble.

If we can be manipulated to buy a $150 bottle of champagne when a $12 bottle might very well do – and make no mistake, each of us can be manipulated about some things – then we owe it to ourselves and our country to make our best effort to find and connect with the authentic story of our candidates.

It's important to be thoughtful consumers, but it's more important to be thoughtful voters and not get swept away by the marketing noise of the campaign. That noise isn't just popping champagne corks; it's marketers trying to manipulate our future.

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob


Friday, August 15, 2008

Juxtapositions: Inflation and Profits

On page one of the business section of the LA Times today, a story noted that the 5.6% July inflation rate is the highest since 1991. This bad news was accompanied by a documented drop in real wages and a rise in unemployment claims.

Another story in the same business section, page two, reported that Wal-Mart profits were up 17% in the second quarter, a greater increase than was expected. This is due to "tight inventory controls and a renewed focus on low prices that is attracting financially squeezed shoppers."

(Those low prices are primarily the result of cheap labor and production costs in other countries, but that's another story.)

So, if you're a financially squeezed shopper, you can go to sleep tonight knowing that the discomfort that forces you to shop at Wal-Mart is making money for the stockholders who probably shop elsewhere.

However, if you're fortunate enough to be a saver, you can rest better knowing that, thanks to the inverse relationship between interest rates and inflation, interest rates will probably go up and you'll earn more on your savings.

Unfortunately, as a result of those same high interest rates, you probably won't be able to afford to buy a home. But prices are low on housing right now, thanks to the loud pop of the housing bubble, so maybe you can pull it off.

Unless you lose your job, of course, which is likely because businesses are under pressure to make more profits for their investors, so they'll be cutting costs wherever they can and one of those costs could be you.

And even if you keep your job, the money you're making isn't worth what it used to be because of inflation.

Simple, huh?

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob

"Experience Talks" Radio Show Appearance

I was pleased to be invited to return to "Experience Talks" to read a new original essay. The one hour show will be broadcast on August 19th, 2:00 p.m., on KPFK, 90.7 FM, the Los Angeles and Santa Barbara Pacifica Network station. You can hear it streaming on-line here or, if you miss the broadcast, you can hear it later in either the KPFK "Experience Talks" archives or here, where you'll find links to the December 18, 2007 and July 15, 2008 shows in which I also read essays.

You can check out this link for more information about the complete line-up of guests who will be interviewed on the upcoming broadcast: author Thurston Clarke and educator Paul Cummins. My essay is about reinventing ourselves throughout our lives.

On the December and July shows, my essays were placed after the end credits, which a number of listeners quite understandably found a bit confusing; the upcoming August 19th show will have the essay prior to the credits.

Thanks for listening!

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Small Houses, Adaptive Reuse and Green Architecture, Advertising to Children, and More?

Dear Readers:

The Thoughtful Consumer blog celebrates its second anniversary on Sunday, August 3rd!

I'm delighted that so many of you have responded positively to the topics I've been discussing. I did a little traffic research (via Feedburner) and have found that there are three topics that get the most attention on my blog:

Small Houses

Adaptive Reuse and Green Architecture

Advertising to Children

Because they are of particular interest to you, I'll be sure to spend some time focusing on these topics in the future. The Juxtapositions posts are popular, too, so I'll also continue to post observations in that category, as well as any new thoughts and discoveries that seem particularly worthwhile to me.

I would like to invite all of you to let me know, either through a comment or by e-mail [thethoughtfulconsumer at yahoo dot com], if there are any other specific issues that you'd like me to address or to write about in more detail.

There are many excellent blogs available about uncluttering (Unclutterer, for example), and there's a wonderful blog by Jeri Dansky that demonstrates how organizing can be achieved using beautiful and unusual items. I certainly didn't need to duplicate their fine efforts, so I've enjoyed writing about some of the other things that many of us also think about as we work towards being thoughtful consumers.

My goal is to provide you with information that you always find interesting, sometimes surprising, and frequently helpful. Please let me know how The Thoughtful Consumer blog is doing. And thank you for your continued support!

Sincerely,
Cynthia


A note to subscribers: Over the next few weeks, I'm going to make an effort to simplify and reduce the number of labels for all the posts of the last two years. I am hopeful that this won't trigger one of those Feedburner mailings of old posts to all of you. Please forgive me if Feedburner turns out to be less thoughtful than we'd like! Thanks.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Juxtapositions: Foreclosures and Candy Spelling's New Penthouse

The Los Angeles Times very kindly handed me a blog post on a platter this past week.

Roger Vincent reported in the July 22nd edition that Candy Spelling, widow of Aaron Spelling, has purchased a new condo for $47 million. That translates into a whopping $2,848 per square foot for the two-storey, 16,500 square foot residence at the top of a Century City tower that's still under construction. This is how down-sizing works at the top of the food chain.

Twenty years ago, the Spellings built LA county's largest home (56,500 square feet with 123 rooms) and took a lot of flak for it at the time. "The Manor," as it was called, was deemed offensively extravagant by many. I found this to be rather amusing criticism from a community in which the term "over the top" must have been coined -- and in the 80s, yet, a decade in which greed was "good" and advertisers proclaimed that we all needed to wear gold because we're "worth it." Ah, show biz.

On the other hand, while Mrs. Spelling was formulating her plan to change residences, "more than 1% of US households were in some stage of foreclosure in 2007," according to Seeking Alpha's February Housing Market Tracker post. HousingWire.com reported that nationwide foreclosure activity jumped 97% in December of 07, and here in California the picture was particularly bleak:

"With a total of 481,392 foreclosure filings on 249,513 properties during the year, California documented the highest number of foreclosure filings and the most properties in some stage of foreclosure in 2007. The state’s total foreclosure filings more than tripled from 2006, and the state’s 2007 foreclosure rate — 1.9 percent of its households entering some stage of foreclosure during the year — ranked fourth highest among U.S. states." (Nevada was highest at 3.4%.)

The situation has not improved in 2008; witness the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac bailout.

LA Times writer, Tim Rutten, mused on the meaning of this "new low in the high life" in his July 23rd column:

"As Candy Spelling's condo deal illustrates, so much wealth in the U.S. is concentrated in so few hands . . . Recent data suggest that the richest 1% of U.S. households -- those with annual incomes of $348,000 or better -- now control 34.3% of the nation's net worth, while the bottom 40% of households dispose of just 0.2% of America's wealth."

Rutten calls this a new "Gilded Age." Harvard Magazine reinforces this comparison with an article in July's issue entitled, "Unequal America:"

"Income inequality has been rising since the late 1970s, and now rests at a level not seen since the Gilded Age—roughly 1870 to 1900, a period in U.S. history defined by the contrast between the excesses of the super-rich and the squalor of the poor."

The article is long but fascinating reading, covering everything from speculation regarding the effects of the disparity on the democratic process to the fact that life expectancy actually has decreased recently in some U.S. counties.

There seems little doubt that the fabric of our country's economic distribution system is shredding. The situation requires massive change unless we're content to descend into a society resembling that of feudal lords and starving peasants.

Of course, it's unlikely that the lady of "The Manor," Candy Spelling, will ever be feeling any economic pain. True, she'll be leaving behind the family manse with its 11 bedrooms, 16 bathrooms, the gift-wrapping room, the doll museum, the screening room, etc. That means that she'll certainly have to unload quite a few possessions to squeeze into a condo with less than a third of the space of the former homestead.

Wonder if there's going to be a garage sale . . .

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob

Friday, July 18, 2008

Prefab and Modular Housing: Solutions to the World's Housing Crisis?

Over five years ago, "Environmental Health Perspectives," the journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, wrote about the global housing crisis and its effect on human health and welfare. Sadly, the situation has not improved. Of course this crisis must be addressed, especially in areas where there's terrible suffering and disease as a result of lack of shelter and clean water. But it's also worthwhile for those of us who are more fortunate to rethink just how much space we need to live and how that space might be constructed.

I've written in the past about ultra-small houses ("Small House, Big Benefits?"), which offer interesting alternatives for many people. Another option we can consider is prefabricated housing. Prefab homes are manufactured off-site in standardized pieces that are easily transported to the site for quick assembly. They're inexpensive and durable, and have now, at last, qualified as trendy. In fact, the Museum of Modern Art in NYC is opening an exhibit on July 20 entitled, "Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling." The high-fashion angle is confirmed in an article in Gothamist.

If you want to be at the cutting edge of prefab homes, check out FabPrefab where the joys of modernist prefab construction are extolled.

An article on New Hampshire Public Radio's website explains that prefab housing has been around for over one hundred years and mentions an environmental benefit:

"Prefab housing also taps into the desire for more sustainable and ecologically-friendly architecture. "

There's also a video on the site that shows the assembly of the prefab "Cellophane House."

You can find a variety of green prefab housing choices at LowImpactLiving.

And what retailer would be a natural for getting into the prefab business? IKEA, of course. They're building prefab apartment houses in Sweden and soon in the UK. The IKEA-ized name for the product: BoKlok.

Another unusual approach to housing is discussed by Bob Vila, who writes on his website about using steel shipping containers for modular construction:

"Inter-modal construction means applying many methods – often unconventional ones – for housing and commercial construction. It frequently implies recycling materials for reuse as building components. More than 50 years ago, the U.S. converted steel shipping containers for use as portable command centers and medical facilities in Korea. Now, architects, designers, planners, and homeowners are finding renewed interest in these inter-modal steel building units (ISBUs) as they look for affordable, sustainable housing options for the 21st century."

If you can stand to read the tiniest font size ever created, in white on black, no less, the Houses of the Future website has interesting information about new steel modular building.

If you're an investor in housing, the International Property Investment website discusses the advantages of steel modular housing from the Australian perspective. L.A. readers, you may want to note the comment about its advantage in an earthquake: "it may collapse, but it won't kill you." Most comforting, if slightly mystifying.

And if you want to get the current perspective on our main concern, the global housing crisis, take a look at this inspiring video of Cameron Sinclair, co-founder of Architecture for Humanity. The organization's motto is: "Building a more sustainable future using the power of design."

Of course, the power of architectural design is only part of the equation that will add up to a sustainable future; another part of it is each of us making thoughtful choices as consumers. If you're planning on buying or building a home or office space, this could be a great opportunity for you to contribute to that sustainable future by considering carefully what you need and how you can fulfill those needs. There might be an unusual solution that would be green, creative and, thanks to MOMA, very, very cool.

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob

Saturday, July 12, 2008

"Experience Talks" Radio Show Appearance

Here's another Monty Python "And now for something completely different" post:

I was pleased to be invited to return to "Experience Talks" to read a new three minute original essay. The show will be broadcast on Tuesday, July 15th, 2:00 p.m., on KPFK, 90.7 FM, our Los Angeles and Santa Barbara Pacifica Network station. You can hear it streaming on-line here or, if you miss the broadcast, you can hear it later in either the KPFK "Experience Talks" archives or here, where you'll also find a link to the December 18, 2007, show on which I read my first essay, a memoir about political activism on campus during my college years.

You can check out this link for the complete line-up of guests who will be interviewed on the upcoming broadcast, including Ellen Geer, artistic director of the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum; actress Marsha Hunt, a leader in the campaign against the blacklist; and journalist and playwright Bernie Weinraub. My essay, in which I talk about age discrimination in Hollywood, will be on at the end of the show.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

A Potpourri: The Green Roof Doghouse, the Disappointed Australian, and the Popularity of SUVs

Here's a bit of potpourri for your 4th of July weekend:

The LA Times featured an article today about building a doghouse with a green roof. Sounds a bit odd, but it does make sense. It offers you a lovely little gardening area and it will make your pet's home cooler -- "in every sense of the word," as the article mentions. You can get instructions from the article or link to a landscape architect and sculptor who will happily sell you their snazzy versions for $1,000 to $4,000.

In case you're wondering what happened to the Ian Usher, the Australian who auctioned his entire life on eBay, here's the scoop: he was disappointed that he had to settle for $384,000, a bid that doesn't even cover the value of his house. He's committed to honor the bid, however, and is ready to move on to the next phase of his life. He's decided to complete one hundred life goals in one hundred weeks and has set up a website where anyone who's interested can track his progress. The goals are primarily adventurous (skydiving, bungee jumping, running with the bulls in Spain) but one is to sell a book telling the story of his adventures. Does anyone do anything without a film crew following them around or a plan set up in advance to sell a book?

Finally, I had hoped that the cost of gasoline would result in significant changes in our auto-buying habits and, fortunately, that seemed to be the case. The popularity of hybrids is up, that of SUVs is down. Or so I thought. Then Jacqueline Mitchell at Forbes Magazine reported on the most difficult cars to find -- the ones that are "so popular that auto manufacturers are selling them faster than they can build them." In first place on the list, no surprise, is the $21,500 high-mileage, hybrid Toyota Prius. But in second place is "the not-so-expected gas-guzzling $74,700 Lexus LX Series full-size luxury SUV that gets a combined 14 mpg." The likely explanation? Brand loyalty. Luxury-loving Lexus owners are willing to pay a premium for comfort. I wonder if they'll be willing to pay the price of the effects those kinds of vehicles have on our environment.

The Fourth of July is our celebration of Independence Day. Maybe eventually we'll realize we should also celebrate Interdependence Day -- every day.

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Embracing Charity in Tough Economic Times

It's no surprise that charities and other non-profit organizations suffer during economic downturns. Public and private funding is cut back and individuals are reluctant to donate as much as they have in the past because they can't afford it or they feel insecure about their own futures.

The current malaise that affects our society has had exactly those effects. The Chronicle of Philanthropy, a newspaper serving the non-profit world, has a summary in their "Bracing for Tough Times" article from last February by Holly Hall and Sam Kean.

You can find evidence in reports from across the country, too. The Dayton Daily News in Dayton, Ohio, has an ongoing series about "coping with an uncertain economy" and the effect it's having on charities. Florida Catholic has a story from Pensacola. Nashville's NBC affiliate television station, WSMV, has a website report on the "money crunch" faced by charities.

And it's not only the recipients of the benefits of charities and non-profits who feel the pinch; it's the entire community. The State News, the student publication from Michigan State University, reports on the impact to that state's economy: "The Michigan nonprofit sector is the fifth largest industry in the state in terms of employment as it provides about 380,000 jobs. According to the MNA, Michigan nonprofits generate nearly $69 billion in total economic activity annually and have assets of more than $80 billion."

Charities have to make up for their lost revenue somewhere, so not only are services reduced, but jobs are eliminated or hours are cut. Building improvements are put on the back burner. Just staying afloat becomes the primary goal.

There's one specific issue that came up just today when I spoke to a friend who's retiring and closing her business: the price of gasoline. She's been working very hard to sell or otherwise dispose of equipment and furniture. She discovered that Salvation Army has had to cut back the number of trucks they use to pick up donations because gas prices make the expense of operating them too high. She also discovered that movers are adding as much as a fifteen percent surcharge for fuel to their bills.

Commuters have certainly suffered from the high price of gas, especially in places like Los Angeles where people often drive ridiculous distances to get to work. But gas prices have also forced some charitable organizations to completely rethink how they serve their constituencies. In a recent NPR Marketplace piece, Sarah Gardner reported:

“Volunteers for Meals on Wheels drive their own cars to deliver over a million meals a day to home-bound seniors. These days, the meals and the wheels are more expensive. A recent survey showed at least 58 percent of the charity's local programs have lost volunteers due to high gas prices. . . many of those were seniors on fixed incomes themselves.”

Enid Borden, President of Meals on Wheels Association of America observed that "volunteer shortages have meant also cutting some delivery routes. She blamed two senior deaths on those cuts.”

If people dying as a direct result of gas prices doesn't get you out of your monster SUV, what will? -- But, if you were driving a gas-guzzling SUV, you probably wouldn't be reading this blog anyway.

So how do we turn all this bleak information into something positive? How do we most effectively deal with this crisis?

There's a popular saying that the two Chinese characters that make up the word "crisis" are "danger" and "opportunity." Alas, that's a myth that's been debunked, but I still believe that the basic idea is sound. We're certainly in dangerous times in terms of being able to meet the needs of so many of our citizens, and for some of us, our own needs. Obviously, cutting expenses and being especially thoughtful about our purchases are sensible responses, but there can be danger there, too, if these decisions are based not only in practicality but in fear. Decisions made in fear can be confining, stifling, and can hold us back from fulfilling our potential. The way out of a crisis is not to hold back in fear, but to move forward wisely.

So let's look at the great personal opportunity we have and make another decision based in love and charity. If you are fortunate enough to have more than you need, this is definitely the time to let it go. If you have clutter, there's no better time than now to donate your extra stuff to those who are in need. There's no better time to clear out your home so that you can clear your mind to deal with whatever situation comes your way during this period of uncertainty.

Think about that phrase, "staying afloat" -- to move or rest lightly on the top of the water. It's a lovely image, floating down a stream while the water underneath and around you ripples and gurgles over rocks and hidden tree trunks; it's the opposite of sinking like a stone because of clinging to excess baggage, literally and figuratively.

If we want to float lightly through life and think clearly about how to create a brighter future for everyone, we need to have less stuff. There's no better time than now to embrace the concept of charity.

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob