Friday, December 29, 2006

A Resolution to be Kind

I have conducted a thoroughly unscientific study of various resources and have discovered what the most popular New Year's resolutions are that the vast majority of us will be making (again) this year: We would like to lose weight, exercise more, and get organized. I suspect that a fairly good case could be made that these popular resolutions are inter-related issues for many of us. Now, I'm not saying that all overweight, out-of-shape people are disorganized, or that all disorganized people are overweight and out-of-shape, but work with me here just in case this scenario sounds familiar to you.

Based on my own thoughtful but thoroughly unscientific reasoning, I ask that you consider these possibilities. While there are many factors that lead us to being overweight, one significant reason that we over-eat is depression. Over-eating is "self-medicating" and, honestly, who doesn't feel better, at least momentarily, after something chocolate? And where does that expression, "comfort food," come from? Notice that it's never applied to salads. Unfortunately, after feeling better, we usually feel guilty and that makes us depressed.

Depression and being overweight also leave us feeling fatigued and that is hardly the frame of mind that prompts us to leap off of the couch and exercise. That produces guilt and then that usually makes us inclined to self-medicate even more. Perhaps brownies.

I'm not trained to offer profound insights into all the various causes of serious clinical depression. However, I can pretty much guarantee that, for the average person, living in a cluttered, over-crowded environment and constantly feeling overwhelmed by extra stuff can be enough all by itself to make just about anybody feel pretty depressed. And if you're feeling depressed and overwhelmed, you might decide to self-medicate with an extra snack or two. Also, if you're feeling overwhelmed, you might begin to wonder what's wrong with you, to blame yourself, criticize yourself and feel like you've failed somehow. Well, at least some candies will help, won't they? Only temporarily. Then, more guilt, more depression. And all those excess possessions stay right where they are, continuing to torture you.

It's not a healthy cycle but I think it's an all-too-common one. If it's a cycle you know well, you're probably wondering how to snap out of it. I'd like to suggest that you stop resolving to diet, stop resolving to exercise, and even stop resolving to get organized. Instead, try making a resolution to be kind to yourself. Unload all the guilt completely. Stop berating yourself for your perceived "failures" and start treating yourself the way you'd treat a friend or family member who simply has a problem. My bet is that you would never say to someone else the type of critical remarks you say to yourself in your own head; you'd simply try to figure out a way to help fix the situation.

Because I believe that our environment has a profound effect on our state of mind, naturally I'd suggest that you start trying to fix your situation by eliminating clutter. My book covers different approaches you might take, various obstacles you'll undoubtedly face, and lots of little tips and tricks. But however you tackle your clutter problem, simply be kind to yourself as you're working on it, the way you'd be kind to your closest friend as you helped her out with her troubles. Be kind, but firm. It is a challenging job you're taking on and you will be required to make some difficult decisions.

My theory is that if you make progress un-cluttering your home, your spirits will be lifted. That means less need for those extra cookies to make you feel better because you'll already feel better. And you'll have more energy, too. Maybe a walk around the block wouldn't be such a bad idea. You'll come back refreshed and ready to un-clutter even more.

I'd love to hear if this approach is helpful to you. All it takes is making one resolution: Be kind to yourself. Happy New Year!

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob

Monday, December 18, 2006

'Tis the Season to Lighten Up!

It's commonly accepted that the holiday season can produce stress of monumental proportions. For reasons perhaps best understood by psychiatrists and psychologists, many of us create much of that stress because we seem determined to make everything perfect: the holiday decorations, the holiday meal, the holiday gifts. For those of us who already have perfectionist tendencies -- and often people who struggle with clutter actually do so because they are perfectionists, difficult as that may be for "regular" people to understand -- this can create a level of anxiety that makes us want to decamp to a remote mountain top and hide in a cave. Add to that those fast-approaching New Year's resolutions that are usually uncomfortable repeats of the ones we made last year and, well, we may want to stay in that cave like a hibernating bear until spring and skip the whole traumatic experience.

Let's get a grip! This is a holiday season, not an endurance test. And let's be honest about our feelings: seeking perfection is usually about us trying to do what we think we're "supposed" to do, not what others actually want or expect. In fact, if you have someone in your life who wants you to be perfect, you're dealing with a person who is delusional. Rule of Life: no one is perfect and no one should expect anyone else to be perfect. The best we can hope for is to make the holidays as enjoyable as possible for the people we care about. That requires a more realistic approach to handling our time and energy so that we can enjoy the experience, too.

In our household we've managed to pare down both the gift list and the decorating over the years to a manageable bare minimum. We have a simple holiday meal with the immediate family and one or two guests. I save my major entertaining for a Chinese New Year party in February. I made that decision quite a few years ago and friends now look forward to my unusual annual event rather than worrying about trying to squeeze in another party during party-packed December.

But I confess that I still feel stressed sometimes anyway, probably as a result of my own perfectionist tendencies which cause me to compare everything I do with my memories of my childhood holidays. I have the good fortune to have very happy memories, thanks primarily to my incredibly organized mother's skills at creating a charmingly decorated home, preparing delicious meals, and selecting special gifts -- all while thoroughly enjoying herself and not worrying at all about perfection. Yet she even made the gift-wrapping look exceptional, pleating different colored tissue papers, mixing different paper designs, hand-tying unusual bows. Looking back I realize that many of my gifts were quite practical, yet they were still exciting to receive because they were wrapped so beautifully. And there was always some truly special item that I particularly wanted that I was lucky enough to receive, too. I also realize that it took a lot of effort and frugal spending throughout the year to make the holidays enjoyable for my family. Mom's a tough act to follow, although now that she's moved to Los Angeles and shares the holidays at our home, she kindly insists that I'm doing just fine.

But there was a ten-year stretch in which my mother faced this time of year alone. My father had passed away and Mom was living in a small town. She never wanted me to travel there during the usually snowy weather (a long drive was required following the flight), but she was not about to mope around or rely on friends to entertain her. Instead she volunteered every Thanksgiving and Christmas for the Rescue Mission, an organization that served a full holiday meal to everyone, not just the homeless or poor population, but every single person in the whole town who wanted to attend. Now, that's a friendly town! Obviously, this was a major community event requiring many, many volunteers and the generous donations of several businesses, including the use of the huge, newly renovated, historic former train depot, which was always specially decorated for the event. This lovely, sit-down dinner was a great success with a cross-section of the town's residents but it was especially popular with senior citizens who were on fixed incomes and alone for the holidays. Mom always had a wonderful time helping out with the baking and serving the meals. What could be a more inspiring example of the true spirit of the holidays?

So, instead of feeling stressed about trying to be perfect, let's just admit that we'll never be perfect anyway and take a look at what this season offers us: we have a chance to give to others, a chance to share with family and friends, a chance to feel the joy of being a part of something larger and more significant than any pointless attempts to create some imaginary "perfect" holiday. Let's not miss our chance.

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Gift-Giving 101

People so often agonize over what to give friends and family, but it really shouldn't be such a struggle. If you take some time to pay attention to what a person finds interesting or useful, your gift ideas will be limited only by what you can afford and even the tiniest budget can be considered a challenge rather than a deterrent. Contrary to what regrettably seems to be public opinion, the holidays are not an excuse for contests to find out who spent the most money, who got the biggest gift, or who got the largest quantity of gifts. This is the time of year when that old expression "it's the thought that counts" really is supposed to count.

Not surprisingly, I'm an advocate of giving gifts that I know can be used and, preferably, completely used up by the recipient. I often like to give food, especially an unusual or homemade treat. When I had a larger gift-giving list, I used to bake a lot for the holidays, but I've also given store-bought items such as an assortment of hot sauces to a fan of very spicy foods, jugs of Vermont maple syrup to a confirmed pancake lover, and truly decadent chocolates to a friend who deeply appreciates the indulgence.

Of course, there are many other excellent fully-consumable gifts that don't involve food at all, such as spa massages, theater tickets, or memberships to museums. I'm also a huge supporter of making a donation to a charity in honor of someone on my gift list, particularly if I know that charity has a special place in the recipient's heart or is devoted to a cause that the recipient would be excited to support.

In my book I devote a chapter to gift-giving and offer a number of other suggestions, some costing nothing, that are thoughtful alternatives to give to friends and family who are already over-burdened by their possessions. It's helpful, too, for those of us who struggle with too much stuff of our own to begin thinking this way rather than always feeling that a "thing" is required to qualify as a gift.

But I know that there are people who are still attached to that more traditional idea of giving a "thing." If you've decided to give someone something that's going to be around for awhile and you can't be persuaded that there's probably an equally attractive if not better alternative, then I'd like to suggest that you at least consider the source of your gift as well as the gift itself. In fact, it's worth considering the source no matter what that gift may be, even if it's completely consumable or totally practical.

Fortunately, many stores and websites now offer a huge variety of "fair trade" items for sale. You can find fair trade clothing, jewelry, household decor, toys, musical instruments, spa-style gift baskets, and just about any other gift you can imagine. If you're not familiar with fair trade products, the Fair Trade Federation explains them as the products of "wholesalers, retailers, and producers whose members are committed to providing fair wages and good employment opportunities to economically disadvantaged artisans and farmers worldwide."

Global Exchange, a great resource for fair trade gifts, explains the participants' requirements further:

"Paying a fair wage in the local context,
Offering employees opportunities for advancement,
Engaging in environmentally sustainable practices,
Being open to public accountability,
Building long-term trade relationships,
Providing healthy and safe working conditions within the local context,
Providing financial and technical assistance to producers whenever possible,
Ensuring that there is no abuse of child labor."

Buying fair trade items offers us the opportunity to give twice: not only do we give a gift to its recipient, but we also give financial support and hope to the skilled but impoverished creators of these unique and often fabulously creative, colorful, hand-made products from all over the world. Many items are beautifully decorative, but just as many are quite useful, too. In fact, it is with some hesitation that I point out even a few of the possible sites for fair trade gifts because the temptation will be so great to buy more than you need for others, then buy even more things for yourself! If you do choose to look, please be strong!

Finally, before you proceed, please remember that the greatest gift requires nothing more than giving love, giving time, giving yourself. Everything else is just "stuff."

Two Hands Worldshop
World of Good
Ten Thousand Villages
Fair Trade Quilts and Crafts
A Greater Gift

(I have no vested interest of any kind in any of the sites mentioned. If you search for "fair trade gifts" on Google, Yahoo, or whatever search engine you prefer, you will find further information and many other websites. You can also find retail outlets throughout the USA and internationally that sell fair trade items by searching the list on the Fair Trade Federation site.)

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob

Monday, December 04, 2006

Too Much Very Fine Stuff

Years ago I attended a glamorous party at the lavishly furnished Beverly Hills home of a Hollywood icon. His long career had provided many awards, mementos, photos with other famous people, and an income that allowed him to purchase whatever elegant accessories caught his fancy. The party was a thrill, but the house was positively claustrophobic! Furniture crammed tightly into each room. Every flat surface covered with collectibles, photos, decorations. Walls smothered with paintings and more photos. That was when I realized how easily even expensive, beautiful and sentimental possessions can turn into plain old clutter.

I happen to be a fan of modernism. I like the sleek lines, the lack of ornamentation. I also like the Japanese design aesthetic. If I were completely re-decorating our home, I'd probably look to a Zen monastery for inspiration. But I didn't always feel this way.

I inherited lovely 19th and early 20th century furniture, dishes and decorative items from my grandparents, and purchased many other antiques on my own. I collected Victorian teacups and plates with roses on them. I once bought a massive 18th century English linen press that we used for years as a dresser. (My partner, The Writer, hated it and said it looked like a huge coffin, but he's always been more concerned with function than form.) I truly enjoyed living with all these things for most of my adult life.

Then, several years ago, something changed. I can't explain it, I can't point to a particular moment in which I had an epiphany about it, but gradually I had to admit to myself that my beautiful antiques no longer "worked" with the way I live my life. I discuss in my book the process of letting go of most (no, not all) of these things that I valued so highly and associated with wonderful family memories. It wasn't an easy process, but it was rather liberating. The small number of dishes, decorative and personal items that I kept now feels quite manageable to me. Instead of antiques, empty space with no clutter has become my most sought-after "collectible."

So, I was interested to read recently in the L.A. Times an article by Jeff Spurrier spotlighting decorating trends. He reports on what he calls the home interior "vanishing act" that started in the kitchen some years ago with paneling that covers the appliances so that they blend into the cabinetry. According to Spurrier, other parts of the home are reflecting "our growing penchant for a clutter-free life." Now, in addition to hidden dishwashers, refrigerators and microwaves, we have such things as ceiling fans with retractable blades, medicine cabinets that pivot from the wall on the back of full-length mirrors, and, most amusingly, a "BenchToilet" in which the entire commode can be concealed by a teak panel that slides over the top of a long stainless steel cabinet that surrounds the fixture. This particular item will be available in Southern California next year and will cost $11,475 to $13,345 (plus the cost of the toilet). I'd suggest that there are many less expensive ways to eliminate visual clutter, but I do admire the spirit and ingenuity of the designers!

Of course, you don't need to be a modernist to enjoy a clutter-free home. I have friends who have lovely traditional furnishings in their very comfortably livable homes. And those homes all have some things in common: collections are contained, not scattered haphazardly everywhere; furniture is placed in such a way that there's plenty of room to move around it; and the decorative items in each home reflect the personalities of the people who live there. I try to achieve that in our rather eclectically furnished home, too, though it takes me a bit of extra effort. But I think a home is always a work in progress. At least it's nice to feel like this one is headed in the right direction.

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Shopping for Joy

Apparently many of us pushed our chairs back from the Thanksgiving feast, caught a few winks, then bundled the entire family into the car and headed to the local mall where we thought it made sense to wait in line for several hours to get into the stores that chose to open at 3 a.m. Here in Los Angeles, police had to be called to at least one location where a fight had broken out in line. I would not be surprised to learn that other sleep-deprived yet determined shoppers elsewhere had to deal with surly or downright physically hostile fellow crowd members as they all eagerly anticipated storming the gates and grabbing their bounty.

Have we lost our minds completely? I'm in favor of getting a bargain, but this seems extreme, not to mention dangerous. Do you want to risk getting punched in the nose, or worse, just so you can get that PlayStation Three? On the other hand, earlier today I watched an eBay auction for one close at $1,175.00 -- obviously it was purchased by somebody who chose to sleep late on Black Friday. But would this buyer's life, or his child's, be ruined if he didn't get one by Christmas? Spoken like someone who doesn't have kids, I've been told. True. I don't feel the holiday pressures for presents that many parents do. Still, I am deeply troubled by this level of desperate acquisitiveness.

Another disturbing fact is that the "status shopping" mentality is starting to kick in at a progressively younger age. In the Friday, November 24th issue of the L.A. Times, Alana Semuels wrote a column entitled, "Gucci and Prada for the under-13 Crowd." According to her research, tweens, i.e. kids from the ages of eight to twelve, "...are expected to contribute to the growing demand for luxury goods this winter." Tweens want luxury goods! The article continues, "Designer apparel represents about 9% of teenage clothing purchases... far greater than the percentage just a few years ago." I wonder how many adult, working women have 9% of their wardrobes devoted to designer apparel.

There's nothing new about kids wanting to be "cool" and believing that they need certain things to achieve that goal. But for kids to want expensive designer items, they must be exposed to advertising, television and movie stars, musicians and other performers that instill those desires. We're living in a media-driven society so it's not realistic to imagine cutting them off from that kind of exposure. It's hard enough for mature minds to battle successfully against the constant barrage of messages to buy things, buy more things, buy more expensive things. We can't expect children to be more discerning than we are.

And yet, what's the real price of this new, early awareness and coveting of brand status? On a positive note (I'm trying hard here), it can teach children that a higher-quality purchase is a better choice than buying a lot of lesser-quality items. But that's a pretty sophisticated concept for a ten-year-old to grasp. In fact, it's a concept that seems to elude many adults.

I do believe that life is supposed to be as joyful as we can make it, so that means that we don't need to deny ourselves those things we can afford if they will bring us joy. The problem is that, in the long run, things, no matter what they cost, often don't bring us joy at all; they just add to our collection of things. And now I'm concerned that we're allowing our children to set up expectations that stuff, especially expensive stuff, equals happiness. This is not the road we want them to travel.

I hope that during this holiday season, we all can take some time to explain to the kids in our lives that enduring happiness can't be bought. We can tell them that, yes, it's possible to buy a momentary thrill (think of hot chocolate on a cold afternoon!), a fashion season's pleasure, perhaps even something so special that we'll treasure it for many years, but we can't buy the deeper happiness that sustains us.

I hope that we can inspire them by practicing what we preach, too. We can start by having the whole family gather up as many unnecessary possessions as we can and then donating those unused, outgrown, excess items to a worthy charity. That creates a good feeling that your kids can hold onto for their entire lives. That's a little bit of true happiness.

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Buy Nothing Day

Artist Ted Dave came up with the idea for the first Buy Nothing Day in 1992 in Vancouver, British Columbia. Five years later, the date was moved to the Friday after America's Thanksgiving Day, also known as "Black Friday" in the retail trade because it's the busiest shopping day on the calendar. Thanks to the Adbusters Media Foundation, over the years the event has gone global, although outside of the U.S. it usually occurs a day later, on Saturday. Activist groups organize to cut up their credit cards, dress up like zombies and roam shopping malls, throw a neighborhood block party give-away, or whatever will draw attention to the massive problem of overconsumption of goods by the wealthiest of our planet's inhabitants. Individuals can participate simply by taking the day off from shopping. Buy nothing and you'll be a part of the world-wide celebration.

Kalle Lasn, co-founder of the Adbusters Media Foundation, said in this year's press release, "Driving hybrid cars and limiting industrial emissions is great, but they are Band-Aid solutions if we don't address the core problem: we have to consume less." And who, by now, hasn't heard the statistic that 20% of the world's population consumes 80% of its goods? I wonder if that's still accurate or if the scales have tipped even further in the wrong direction.

It's an interesting challenge to forego shopping completely for a day, especially the day the vast majority of us seem to decide to take care of our holiday purchases. Yes, this requires a little advance planning. Besides the obvious elimination of gift shopping, there will be no quick trip to the store for a forgotten ingredient for the evening meal. No stop at the gas station to fill up the tank. No haircuts or manicures. Not even any quarters dropped in the washing machine to do a load of laundry. No spending at all. It's a bit like an intense Money Meditation: we stop the mindless flow of money (and the continuous acquisition of the stuff it buys) and instead, we just experience our lives. When we take a full day to focus on experiencing life, we might finally understand that it doesn't require a whole bunch of excess stuff. We might figure out that all of that excess stuff actually inhibits the act of experiencing our lives instead of enhancing it.

Undoubtedly there are people who misinterpret the message of Buy Nothing Day and its goal of reducing consumption. I'm quite certain that someone's outraged at the thought that the American Dream of abundance should be criticized in any way and is convinced that it's all part of a conspiracy to destroy our economy. (Of course, these days it seems like just about everything is part of a conspiracy in somebody's mind.) But that's a pretty difficult position for a rational thinker to support. The Buy Nothing folks are just trying to raise a little consciousness about the limited resources of our planet. And in case anyone out there hasn't noticed, we are on a planet with a pretty specific and limited set of characteristics that allow us to sustain our lives. Alter the balance too much and we end up with global warming . . . oh, excuse me, "climate change."

More unfortunate than the fanatics who dismiss Buy Nothing Day are the people who think that they can't make an effective political statement just by not shopping for a day. I don't believe that's the case. In our capitalist system, no matter who's in power, nothing registers more with decision-makers (and even "deciders") than a message delivered via wallet. If you want to send a signal that our country's policies should reflect some awareness and sensitivity about the environment, poverty, and the inter-connectedness of us all, keep your hard-earned money to yourself on Buy Nothing Day. It's only twenty-four little hours, but like that old popular song lyric by Stanley Adams says, what a difference a day makes.

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Fantasy Life

In "real life," I am both a writer and an artist. I have been known to paint, draw, hand-color photographs, dabble in mixed media, create installations, and try to figure out Photoshop. With the exception of trying to figure out Photoshop, the fruits of my labor take up space, sometimes quite a bit of space. And, like most artists I know, I produce more work than my market demands. It's an occupational hazard. You make art because you love it, because you need to make it, not because you expect to sell it.

In "real life," I live in a townhouse. The space I have available for the storage of my artwork is limited, especially since it's not a great idea to leave art in the garage or in its attached storeroom where walls have been known to leak a bit during heavy rain and where the temperature is completely uncontrolled. Art likes to live where people live: inside where it's comfortable and dry. As a result, the walls (inside) of the townhouse are laden with art. I have made exceptions to this rule by putting some small pieces in plastic bins, wrapping some larger pieces in heavyweight plastic, and optimistically placing them in the garage. I hope this will not prove problematic when the retrospective of my work occurs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (date has not yet been scheduled, but I consider this merely a temporary oversight on their part).

However, in my "art fantasy life" (the reference to the MOMA retrospective probably already has indicated that I do, indeed, have a lively one), I have massive amounts of storage space and a barely contained urge to make work that is monumental in size. Thus, also in the garage, in their original plastic wrap, are fourteen canvasses, unused. Their size was limited only by what I could fit in the back of my Honda Civic hatchback; I did have to acknowledge that reality. Their presence has long tortured me because I want to keep them and use them, but I know that I have nowhere to put the finished work. Worst of all, I like to work with oil paints and they take, literally, months to dry. A dilemma, don't you think?

Well, I think we all have similar fantasy lives, probably multiple ones, and the dilemmas that go with them. Do you have a bunch of gardening tools and supplies, yet you have no garden? Do you have a sewing machine and a big box of beautiful material that would make fabulous draperies, but you don't sew? Do you have exercise equipment stashed in your closet that's never seen the light of day and probably never will?

We hang on to these things because they're symbolic of something significant to us, even though, for whatever reason, it's unrealistic. Maybe you live in a tiny apartment and gardening just isn't possible. Maybe you tried sewing and found you didn't have the knack for it, even though you thought you "should." Maybe you hate to exercise but you've found a dance class that's a fun way to stay fit. Whatever the reason we're not using these remnants of our fantasy lives, we're reluctant to let go, as if we've failed somehow.

But letting go doesn't represent failure; it represents acknowledging reality. It represents moving on. Perhaps someday you'll have your garden, but meanwhile you'll grow a few lovely plants in your apartment. Let the tools go. You finally admit to yourself that you tried sewing because your big sister was good at it and you wanted to be like her. You're like you instead, and that's just fine. Let the sewing stuff go. You're already dancing and loving it. Let the exercise equipment go.

So, I'm finally taking my own advice. I will live in my "real life" when it comes to my art. I'm selling the unused canvasses to another artist who has a very large studio. I'll create my art within the boundaries of my reality, which still gives me quite a bit of latitude, especially if you include cyberspace...

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Dangerous Season

We've barely squeaked past Halloween and suddenly temptation is everywhere. Almost overnight, the staff of stores across the country made frantic efforts to get the holiday stock out onto the shelves, into the window displays, and, perhaps worst of all, into our mailboxes. Yes, the Crate & Barrel catalogue has arrived. Heaven help me when the Pottery Barn catalogue shows up. I'm only human.

Of course I want the gorgeous stemware. Yes, I want the beautiful candleholders. How quickly can that massive, rustic display cabinet get delivered?

A few deep breaths later, after the covetous attack has lost its grip on my psyche, I calm myself enough to remember that I want stuff to leave the premises, not enter. In fact, I've recently been feeling a powerful urge to let go of yet another layer of my possessions so, thankfully, I'm able to resist the allure of all the fabulous goodies that surround me whenever I venture outside the house -- or open the mail.

But what a challenge this time of year can be. For some retailers, holiday sales make or break their businesses, so they certainly have a vested interest in getting us to buy. For some manufacturers, it's the same situation, just one step back on the chain of distribution. But for some consumers, this season of joy is a dangerous trap that provides little more than an excuse to acquire useless items and incur uncomfortable debt.

If you're already living in a fully-stocked or (more likely) over-stocked home, but you're still absolutely convinced that you simply cannot survive without that charmingly retro fondue pot, or temperature-controlled wine cooler, or complete new set of shiny decorations for the table and tree in this year's fashionable color combination, trust me, please: it's all a trick. You don't need any of it. You may want it, but that's something else entirely. And don't try telling yourself that you're going to give it as a gift to someone else when you're the one you're really trying to satisfy.

And why do you want all those things? Well, many of them are, indeed, lovely and have intrinsic appeal. But never underestimate the power of advertising. How often do we want things because they represent the kind of life we wish we could lead, or believe that we ought to be leading? I'm convinced that far too often we see those happy families or laughing party-goers in cleverly designed, seductive advertisements and think, "Gee, if I only had a living room that looked like that, I'd have those attractive, cool people hanging out at my house." Alas, it's just not true. People who hang out at your house do so because they like you, not your stuff. In fact, if you figure out that they're hanging out at your house because they like your stuff and not you, it's time to find some new people to hang out with!

So, this holiday season, when we're shopping for ourselves or shopping for gifts, let's try to pause, take those few deep breaths and get a grip on our perfectly human urge to reach out and grab the pretty sparkly object. Do we need it or do we want it? If we want it, I'm not suggesting that we deny ourselves or our family and friends for no good reason. Let's just think about it for a minute first before we pull out our wallets. Let's be thoughtful consumers. I know we'll be much happier if we don't let the joyful spirit of the season get lost in a frenzy of mindless shopping.

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob

Monday, October 23, 2006

"Take Back Your Time" Day

Tuesday, October 24th, is the fourth annual celebration of "Take Back Your Time" Day, a project of the Center for Religion, Ethics and Social Policy at Cornell University and an initiative of The Simplicity Forum. If you haven't heard about it, it's probably because you've been too busy.

Americans pride themselves on being busy all the time. It's a national obsession. If you ask a simple "How are you?" of your co-workers or friends, most will answer, "Busy!" Many will answer, "Swamped!" But how many will say it with a hint of pride in their voices? We're a nation founded on Puritanical principles, so too much leisure time seems to make us a bit uneasy. We certainly work longer hours and take fewer vacations than our European counterparts. And we are a nation compelled to make certain that our children's time is fully scheduled with homework, sports practices, music lessons, summer camp, etc.

The Take Back Your Time folks think that enough is enough so they created an initiative "to challenge the epidemic of overwork, over-scheduling and time famine that now threatens our health, our families and relationships, our communities and our environment."

If you think that sounds a bit dramatic, consider the most obvious results of no downtime: stress and fatigue, two factors that contribute to just about every health problem any of us might have. And, if we're stressed and exhausted, how do we relate to our spouse, partner, children? Probably not in an ideal way. If we're constantly running short of time, how often do we turn to fast food instead of preparing a meal we can share? If our kids' time is jam-packed with scheduled activities, when do they have time to dream, explore, and de-stress from their pressures? If we're always occupied or preoccupied by our work, how do we get to know our neighbors, create a feeling of community, or even just hang out with our family and friends or -- imagine! -- alone? Hang out. It sounds almost old-fashioned. When was the last time you did that? Not a rushed get-together where you're constantly checking your watch, not a forced family holiday meal, not a social event that was really a business "networking" opportunity. Just a chunk of time during which you did whatever you wanted to do. Sounds pretty luxurious, doesn't it?

Of course, some people aren't being "busy" or "swamped" by choice. Some of us need to work two jobs to earn enough to support a family. Or we're time-crunched because we're the caregivers for entire extended families, including kids, grandkids, and elderly parents -- and we may even have full-time jobs on top of that. Some people are extremely grateful to have a few scheduled activities for their children to help keep them off the dangerous streets. Some people are busy just trying to survive.

But if you're one of the lucky people who have a choice to take back some of your time because you've inadvertently become a part of the overworked, consumer-crazed rat race, this day is an opportunity for you to rethink your situation. So, when you're pondering what you'd do if you had, say, an extra hour every day that you could use for yourself, I'd like to suggest that you consider how much time you spend cleaning, collecting, storing or trying to navigate around all the excess stuff in your home. What if you had less stuff? Would you have more time? I can guarantee that you would. Less stuff always equals more time.

Check out my book, "Sorting It Out: One Disorganized Woman Solves the Problem of Too Much Stuff," for advice and personal anecdotes about letting go of clutter. I call it "un-stuffing." It's a good place to start to take back your time -- and your life.

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend?

In 1953, Marilyn Monroe sang the Jules Styne and Leo Robin song, "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend," in the popular movie, "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," and the link between beautiful women and fabulous diamond jewelry was forever burned into our collective consciousness. Such is the power of film. But over fifty years later, we now know that there are a few things we need to consider about diamonds that most people weren't even remotely aware of in Marilyn's heyday. Recent news reminded me of those considerations.

On October 9th it was announced that a 4.2 ounce uncut diamond had been sold to the South African Diamond Corp. for $12 million. Called the Lesotho Promise, this 603 carat white gem ranks as the 15th largest diamond ever found. It will be cut into one large and several smaller stones, vastly increasing its value.

It is easy to figure out who will enjoy those spectacular finished diamonds: a few incredibly wealthy individuals. But I wondered who found that golf-ball-sized, uncut stone. Who works in that diamond mine? Who lives in Lesotho? What kind of lives do they lead?

When I heard the story of the diamond find on an NPR news segment, I didn't even have any idea where Lesotho was, other than somewhere in Africa. A quick perusal of available information provided the following facts:

Lesotho is a land-locked, mountainous enclave of South Africa. Slightly smaller than the state of Maryland, and formerly known as Basutoland, Lesotho gained its independence from the UK in 1966. It currently has political stability and has been governed by a parliamentary constitutional monarchy since 2002, although its previous history included military rule and violent protests. The population is a little over two million people. There is projected negative population growth, in part due to the AIDS epidemic that plagues much of the African continent. In Lesotho, 28.9% of the population has HIV or AIDS (2003 statistic). The economy is primarily based on subsistence agriculture and is currently being negatively affected by drought. The unemployment rate is 45% and 49% of the population live below the poverty line. Not a very pretty picture in Lesotho. The GDP is about $1.362 billion (2005), so that diamond find is significant -- the mine where the diamond was found is co-owned by a private company and the Lesotho government.

Many people have heard of "blood diamonds," now euphemistically renamed "conflict diamonds," in an effort to make them seem less horrific -- not unlike "global warming" being renamed "climate change." In December, the release of the motion picture, "Blood Diamonds" starring Leonardo DeCaprio, will undoubtedly inform many more. Once again, such is the power of film.

Blood diamonds are sold on the black market by rebel forces to raise money to fight legitimate governments, or to raise money for terrorists, including, perhaps, funding al Qaeda. The Kimberley Process was created in 2002 to prevent trade in blood diamonds through a voluntary documentation system that tracks the diamond from its discovery to its ultimate point of sale. The process, while still flawed, appears to have had some success in stemming the flow of blood diamonds into the commercial marketplace. Lesotho is a signatory nation and agrees to abide by the Kimberley Process, so if you are a fabulously wealthy person who ends up owning a diamond cut from the Lesotho Promise, you won't be buying a blood diamond.

Think this is more information than you need to know about diamonds? Sorry, but a thoughtful consumer must admit that in our complex, inter-related, global economy, every decision we make about purchasing an item connects us to that item's source. Shouldn't we at least make an effort to be aware of that source and the impact of our purchase?

If we do decide to purchase a diamond, we should know that it must be certified by the Kimberley Process. Making the process mandatory rather than voluntary would strengthen it -- can we help make that happen? We should remember that our diamond started as a rough hunk of rock in a mine in a distant country that may be suffering from an AIDs epidemic -- can we help? We need to be aware that the workers who struggled to get that rock out of the mine are most likely living in extreme poverty -- can we help? We need to understand that having the ability (the discretionary income) to purchase any beautiful piece of jewelry with even the tiniest, glittering, polished stone in it is an example of our incredible good fortune. With such good fortune, wouldn't it be apppropriate to ask a few questions about the source of that diamond, about the people who started the chain of events that allowed our jewelry to be created, and then ask ourselves, "Can we help?"

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob

Monday, October 16, 2006

Paper Crisis

Those of you who have read my book know that my greatest nemesis is paperwork. I hate organizing papers, probably because I am so incredibly inept at it. I've come up with the best possible filing system (at least it's my version of the best possible filing system), but often I still get completely overrun by paperwork. Yesterday I was convinced that I needed another filing cabinet (don't even ask how many I already have). I've eliminated every bit of incoming paper I can by removing our names from the direct mail lists and by handling the household bills through a computer bill-paying service, but there was still a gargantuan stack of papers sitting around, waiting for me to do something with it.

Then it occurred to me that it was the doing part that had me bogged down, not the lack of storage space. In fact, I had half of one filing cabinet drawer that was empty and half of another drawer that had art supplies in it that could be moved elsewhere. So what is the problem? What keeps me from handling paper efficiently?

I (and perhaps you?) simply hang on to information far longer than is necessary. It is important to act on it in a timely matter or let it go. But it's the letting go that is sometimes very hard to do if you're trying to be "nice," or find things "interesting," or just want to "follow up" on something. This can be a deadly trap for those of us who are Organizationally Challenged and are usually already suffering from Stuff Overload. It can give us the illusion of control over our lives when in fact it creates a situation that quickly becomes out of control, i.e., piles of paper all over the place. Witness these few examples from my own stack of papers that I finally decided to tackle:

1. I found a notice I had kept about an acquaintance's retirement. I hadn't seen this woman for over ten years, but I enjoyed her company when our paths had crossed back then and I thought it would be nice to send her a card. She retired in August of 2004. I never sent the card. Let it go!

2. I found a catalog of the "rewards" offered by a credit card company for a card that we rarely use. It was dated Winter, 2005. The catalog is readily available on-line. We don't have enough points for a single reward. Let it go!

3. I found a menu for a lovely little cafe adjacent to a great antiques consignment shop where I had sold many of my smaller antiques during my major un-stuffing effort. I had intended to have a small tea party with friends at the cafe. The shop and cafe closed. Last year. Let it go!

I am embarrassed to say that I found many more outdated items as well as things that now need to be acted upon immediately because I let them languish in that stack of papers for so long. When I finally got to work on them, I ended up with a full bag of shredded paper and another bag of useless paper trash -- and plenty of room in my filing cabinets for what was left.

Conclusion? Don't assume that you just need to buy more organizing stuff to store the stuff you need to organize. If you dig into the stuff itself, you'll often find that you simply need to let it go.

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Recycling Conundrum

The latest L.A. Times Sunday magazine, "West," devoted its entire Home Design Issue to "adaptive reuse," which refers to converting a previously commercial or industrial building to a living space. The magazine focused on seven radically reconceived homes that formerly had been a church, a water tower, a firehouse, a power station, a grocery store, a movie theater, and a Pullman railroad car. Each of these spaces had been cleverly altered, fashionably furnished (rather sparsely, I'm pleased to say), and, when completed, lovingly occupied by their new owners. I found the results very impressive.

I always appreciate the effort involved in saving old buildings and making them functional for the way we live and work now. It's a perfect combination of environmentally friendly reuse of resources and a respect for the unique history of the place. And I've noticed that it's become cool. Once again, I think the cool factor will help push forward an idea that is quite compatible with the concept of simplifying life by eliminating clutter. Like homes, cities can become cluttered, too, with old buildings and sometimes complete neighborhoods that are left to decay. Because it's wasteful, expensive, and often a loss aesthetically to demolish of a block of abandoned buildings, in most cases it's wiser and more practical to find a way to recycle these buildings and make them useful again.

But not always. Just as with some personal possessions, sometimes the cost of saving an old building is prohibitive. If it doesn't have historical significance, it may be better to demolish it, then replace it with something new and, perhaps, completely different. I'm a member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, so I tend to lean toward saving and adapting all that can be saved and adapted. I consider it an important part of our country's legacy. However, just as we must be thoughtful about the things that we save in our personal lives for ourselves and our families, it's important to be thoughtful about what we save in our public lives for society. Leaving behind "stuff" - buildings and monuments - as our only public legacy is as misguided as leaving behind nothing but the "stuff" we've personally accumulated over the years as a testament to the value of our lives.

A thought-provoking personal experience: I went to an art show opening not long ago at a charmingly retro cafe in the middle of downtown Los Angeles, where there's a vortex of loft/condo conversion activity. The bright little cafe was a shining beacon in an otherwise fairly scary-looking block consisting of single- and double-storey old business buildings and a parking lot. Across the street was a huge adaptive reuse building in which modestly-sized loft spaces were selling for well over a million dollars. But the neighboring block to the west I can describe only as the poster child for urban blight. It was horrifyingly bleak, decrepit, and filthy. Even worse, at the opposite end of the street, to the east, was a woman sleeping on the sidewalk, the totality of her possessions stacked in a grocery cart. Thankfully, we had parked our car right in front of the cafe. When we got in it to leave, we saw two huge rats foraging in the gutter across the street, ironically right at the underground parking entrance to the million-dollar loft building. I had nightmares for several weeks about that poor woman.

Of course we can spend our money on adaptive reuse of buildings and be pleased with our choice. Of course we can use our personal resources to acquire some lovely things to enjoy ourselves and someday leave behind for our families. But what about that woman? I'd also like to leave behind a contribution to society that would help eliminate the conditions that led her to live in such a tragically impoverished situation. I’d like to find a way to help "recycle" that woman and make her a functioning member of society again. I'd like to be remembered for what I did, not just what I bought.

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Defining Treasure

I've just returned to Los Angeles from my high school reunion in Denver. I spent a truly wonderful long weekend with friends, reminiscing about the past and catching up on current news. Some classmates I hadn't seen for far too many years, but the passage of time didn't matter once we were together. We were like kids again, delighted to be with each other and eager to enjoy our brief celebration.

No one talked about their cars or houses or antiques. No one flashed expensive jewelry or designer clothing to impress anyone else. "Stuff" was meaningless at this gathering. We talked about our families and careers, the joys of our lives and, on occasion, the challenges and the losses. We saw each other through the caring eyes of experience, sometimes with a little sympathy and understanding, often with admiration and respect. It was an example of true communion.

The weekend reminded me of the real meaning of the word "treasure:" 1. accumulated wealth; 2. something greatly valued.

If I had to trade all of my possessions in order to keep the friendship and love of the people I care about, I'd let everything go without a moment's hesitation. Possessions are just "stuff." The accumulated memories, the greatly valued feelings, the people are what matter.

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Compulsive Hoarding

When people learn that I have written a book entitled, "Sorting It Out: One Disorganized Woman Solves the Problem of Too Much Stuff," many of them leap to the conclusion that I formerly lived in a catastrophic state of chaos and I now live in something resembling a Zen monastery. Neither description is accurate.

True, the various homes I've shared over the last twenty-five years with The Writer have been burdened by far too much stuff, especially when we both quickly ended up working at home. That meant that he, a writer/computer-and-technology-of-all-kinds-lover, and I, a writer/musician/artist, somehow had to cram together both our work-related stuff and our "regular" living stuff. Needless to say, there were enormous efforts to contain stray items in attractive wicker baskets and subsequent massive overflows into storerooms. My predilection for my formerly simple existence, not to mention my unswerving requirement for a certain level of cleanliness, made daily life a constant, frustrating battle for control over our situation. But, in spite of moments of despair, I doubt that even our worst conditions would have qualified us for one of those reality television clean up and makeover shows.

However, the situation was exhausting and eventually, something had to give. The sometimes amusing, often challenging process is covered in my book, but basically we learned to let go of many things that we would have kept had we lived in someplace the size of, oh, let's say the Hearst castle. We had to admit that those things were just…things. In our minds, they represented the people we inherited them from or the people who had given them to us or the times we remembered fondly, but we finally accepted the idea that we could part with the stuff and still treasure the memories.

Some people simply can't do that. They can't make distinctions between important or useful items and worthless junk. Even though they suffer greatly from living in homes that literally can look like garbage dumps, they are truly powerless to control their impulses to hoard. I wondered what could be done to help those unfortunate people who had not only given up the battle but had lost the war.

I was interested to read about the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation's new Compulsive Hoarding Website. Randy Frost, PhD, a professor at Smith College in Northampton, MA, and Gail Steketee, PhD, Associate Dean/Professor at the Boston University School of Social Work, have put together some very helpful material for people who have a serious problem with hoarding. Information and scientific research about the issues pertaining to compulsive hoarding have been available only for about the past decade, and the problem appears to be more common than we might have expected. Drs. Frost and Steketee estimate that 700,000 to 1.4 million people in the United States may suffer from this syndrome. There are several aspects of the compulsive hoarder's personality that contribute to this condition, including difficulty making decisions and, perhaps surprisingly, perfectionism. The result is an unlivable environment with unhappy, sometimes clinically depressed occupants.

So, if you (or someone you know) have an accumulation of stuff that is completely out of hand and you're truly unable to let go of anything, you may need more help than my book, or any other author's organizing books, can offer. Please take a moment to look at this website – and don’t give up hope!

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Times They Are A'Changin'

Occasionally, I am terminally "girl." The publication of the fall Vogue magazine is one of those occasions. I buy the huge, heavy thing almost every year to see what is going on in the world of fashion, although it's a world I find fairly mystifying. As an artist, I appreciate the creative merits of certain designs and the talent of many designers. But the need to follow hemline lengths, the required presence or total banishment of shoulder pads, and whatever color has been dubbed the season's "new black" always eludes me, as my friends will readily attest. This fall issue, however, had a couple of items worth noting.

The first item that caught my eye was an advertisement for Keds with a headline that read, "Cool is less materialism, more material." The ad copy was about how it's no longer cool to want more of everything and how "the tide has turned" so that quality, not quantity is what's important. "More stuff, less space" is now passe. Imagine my surprise and delight! Also, it's very tricky to advertise something in a way that makes it so appealing that readers will want to buy it, while sending an anti-stuff message at the same time. I must admit, well done, Keds ad company. If I didn't already have my stock of Keds, I'd be tempted to buy more. And it is rather entertaining to be accidentally trendy!

Even more interesting to me was an article by William Norwich entitled "better to give," (all lower case, which is so much more modest) with a subtitle, "A warm-fuzzy mood is sweeping the blessed-by-fortune set: Ostentation is out; charity is in." How fabulous! Apparently rich people no longer want to flash their wealth for all to admire and are eager to share some of it, too. Warren Buffet's "breathtaking" (no kidding!) $31 billion dollar gift to the Gates Foundation is considered "the most elegant moment" of the year and the primary topic of conversation at tony dinner parties from the Hamptons to the south of France. Buffet has always been a down-home kind of guy, a Midwesterner with no desire to flaunt his enormous wealth. But what about all those "social x-rays," as Tom Wolfe called them, and the handsomely attired spouses and escorts that squire them to galas across the globe? This change in the winds must require a radical reconceptualizing shift for many of them.

The wisdom of age (honestly, you've got to get something to compensate for everything else that you lose) has convinced me that the best way to instigate social change is to make your agenda cool. If you want to make the point that acquiring more and more stuff is ultimately not a good idea for either people or the planet, don't keep harping on the evils of accumulating possessions; make it cool to have less. Make it cool to live with empty spaces here and there in your home. Make it cool to have a smaller wardrobe. Make it cool to buy a hybrid car.

Vogue is a magazine with ads for pricey items like $20,000 watches, and with a business model demanding that its readers be enticed to purchase new clothing and accessories on a regular basis. The article about charitable giving by the wealthy makes it clear these benefactors are not going to go bankrupt as a result of their generosity, or skip the haute couture shows in Paris. But I must give Vogue a cheer for presenting the idea that the new cool embraces the concept that less is more. In its own ostentatious way, Vogue ironically wants us to be thoughtful consumers!

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob

Monday, August 28, 2006

How Much Space Do We Need?

According to an LA Times article last week, a recent survey indicated that one in five respondents who live in homes 2,000 square feet or more would like to downsize. This sounds like good news. Maybe some people are discovering that it's not necessary to "live large." If census data tell us anything, though, many of that small percentage of respondents are probably aging Boomers who are downsizing after a life of significant consumption.

Today the Times reported that new home buyers, usually much younger than Boomers, are continuing to demand more space. This time it was the National Association of Home Builders that weighed in with the stats, reporting that 39 percent of new homes built last year had four bedrooms compared to 23 percent in 1973. And that's in spite of the average size of an American family shrinking from 3.1 to 2.6 people.

I don't know about that "partial person" that always turns up in statistics, but a lot of the rest of us obviously think we need a very large amount of space to call home. And what do we do with that space? Fill it up with stuff. But isn't that the American dream? Work hard to acquire as much as you can so that you can enjoy your life? Well, maybe we need to take another look at how we define "enjoying" life. Is it working long hours to buy more and more stuff, or is it finding more time to spend with our family and friends, doing work that's meaningful to us, feeling like we're contributing to a better future for the planet?

Are we just filling up our spaces instead of filling up our lives?

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Public Television

I’ve just been watching the wonderful program, "Broadway’s Lost Treasures," on my local Los Angeles PBS station, KCET. It’s fund-raising time, so the program was interrupted repeatedly by those pledge breaks that so many people hate. But why does it seem that the people who complain the loudest and longest about pledge breaks are the ones who never support their PBS station? I don’t often hear anyone complaining about the advertising on commercial television programs, though the program interruptions are equally as frequent, if not more so. And they are incessant; there’s not a long stretch of time when there’s no advertising at all, then a few weeks when various corporations pitch their goods for sale. Why are people so tolerant of commercials and so intolerant of pledge breaks?

I have a theory. I think we subconsciously actually believe that we need all those products that are advertised on commercial television. Even if we don’t need the exact product, we need the information about it so that we can gauge our position in society. Are we thin enough? Maybe all those low fat products will make the difference. Better make a note to try some of them. Are we cool enough? If we shop at one of those cool stores and buy their cool products, that ought to help. Most often the question is, are we rich enough? Do we have the money to buy that fancy car or go on that fabulous cruise or get some of that "stuff?" If not, we have something we can aspire to, knowing in our hearts that if we just get that car or take that trip or own that stuff, we’ll be happy.

Meanwhile, public television pleads for a few bucks to put on fabulous, varied programs about the arts, science, nature, and thoughtful documentaries and discussions that we would never have the opportunity to see elsewhere. I spent quite a few years working in the television business and still know many people who are actively a part of it, so I’m speaking from some experience when I say that the constraints of commercial television are palpable. Needless to say, I was horrified a few years back when PBS was forced to accept a tiny bit of advertising just to stay solvent.

And that brings me to another part of my theory. Americans are generous when responding to tragedies or emergencies, but we seem far less willing to support something we take for granted and don’t "need" – especially the arts, and PBS falls into that large, often vaguely defined societal category of "the arts."

If there were no public television, would we suffer in the same way we do when there’s a natural disaster or even a stock market crash? Would the country grind to a halt? No, but we all would be impoverished significantly by the loss. Exposure to what public television offers helps bring out the best of our human nature, our desire to understand our world, our search for beauty. We would suffer in less tangible ways and we might not notice the effects immediately, but the scope of the tragedy would be just as significant in the long term.

So, if your public television station is annoying you by begging for a donation, maybe this would be the time to pull out your checkbook. A thoughtful consumer would recognize that the value of this purchase far exceeds its cost. It’s a bargain, you can deduct it on your taxes – and it doesn’t take up any space in your house!

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Buying Peace

I’ve just perused an issue of Yogi Times, a magazine published in Santa Monica, CA. Its tagline is, "lifestyle for the modern yogi." I’m always left with mixed feelings when I read a magazine devoted to yoga or Buddhism, primarily because of the advertising of products associated with "spirituality." The commodification of the spiritual path is not a uniquely American phenomenon, but, thanks in part to the constant bombardment of advertising we endure, we have become the masters of buying products in our search for enlightenment. And yet, how many altar items does one "need" to facilitate meditation? How many t-shirts with "OM" written on them in Sanskrit? How many pieces of symbolic jewelry with sacred emblems or special gemstones?

I’m reminded of a great scene in an Albert Brooks movie called "Modern Romance." In an effort to forget breaking up with his girlfriend, Brooks decides to get in shape by taking up jogging. At the sporting goods store, where he expects to buy some shoes and be on his way, the salesman (played by his talented brother, Bob Einstein) makes it clear that if Brooks is truly "serious" about jogging, he needs to buy a complete jogging outfit, including accessories. Einstein’s deadpan delivery opposite Brooks’ neurotic anxiety makes the scene especially funny. Sure enough, Brooks comes out of the store overloaded with his new jogging gear, clearly believing he’s now on the path to "jogging nirvana."

Believe me, I’m not professing innocence here. I’ve bought my fair share of stuff to enhance my own efforts to become more "spiritual." I regularly wear a baseball cap with "Peace" embroidered on it. I doubt that it’s really contributing very much to a peaceful world, but I enjoy making the statement. More helpful would be my personal efforts to create peace by being a peaceful person. And that’s the challenge, isn’t it? Less focus on stuff, more focus on our actions in the world.

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Thoughtful Consumer

"Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind."

Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854

I’m basically a hippie at heart, so I’ve never considered myself a slave to possessions. Yet, in the process of "downsizing" over the past several years, I became acutely aware of how many things I owned that I didn’t need. I could justify holding onto the sentimental things I inherited, at least until I finally figured out that I didn’t even need to keep every single one of those very special items. But what about all those things I purchased? After I concluded that I needed far less than I owned, I started to wonder how much thought I had put into the buying process. Not much, it now seems.

I suspect that most of us are fairly oblivious most of the times we go shopping. Some of us may have decided that organic products are an absolute must, or green products, or, if money is a bit tight, inexpensive products. On the other hand, many of us may be most concerned about products that enhance our status. (I live in Los Angeles where status enhancing is a major league sport.) Since I still subscribe to the maxim that every act is political, it seems that shopping would be more meaningful, consumers more powerful and our purchases more satisfying if we took some time to figure out what motivates us before we buy. Advertisers certainly do.

I’d like to buy products that deliver what I need and what they promise, but I’d also like to shop with an old Iroquois Nations principle in mind: whatever choices I might make, I must consider their impact on the next seven generations. I wish I could say that I live up to that ideal, but I don’t. I fall far short in many areas. Still, it’s good to have a standard and it is with that standard in mind that I’ll be discussing all kinds of issues. And chatting with you, I hope, about letting go of things that we don’t need and trying our best to choose wisely when we make new purchases.

Engaging in making choices with some thought behind them doesn’t necessarily mean that we must sacrifice all luxury; it just means that we need to know our own definition of luxury – and necessity. What can we afford? Where can we indulge a bit? What do we need to know to make an informed choice in the first place? Should be an interesting adventure!

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob