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