Thursday, December 27, 2007

Taming Another Paper Tiger

With the new year comes the inevitable list of New Year's Resolutions. Perennially, getting better organized is high on my list. That means unloading more unnecessary stuff.

If you've read my book, Sorting It Out: One Disorganized Woman Solves the Problem of Too Much Stuff, you know that I refer to the process of organizing as similar to that of an archaeological dig. We clear away the obvious "top layer" of stuff first (the easy decisions, like trashable items), then we move on to the next layer (items that require at least a tiny bit of thought), and the next. Usually there are many layers that are gradually uncovered in an organizing expedition, each one presenting unique challenges. The more we dig, the slower the process becomes as more difficult decisions need to be made. Unless we have the luxury of hiring a team of organizers to tackle the task all at once or unless we have a time limit that forces us to move in a hurry, it's not uncommon to need a break of weeks or months between some layers, just to re-group mentally.

Assuming there are no debilitating psychological issues that hinder our progress, eventually we can work through our reluctance to let go of many possessions because eventually we're faced with reality: too much stuff, too little room for it.

But sometimes we hit a layer in which there are things that we decide simply must be stored. We've deemed them valuable and justified keeping them. That means we need to find room somewhere. If we're determined to hang on, even though we have no room, we may rent additional storage space -- not the optimal solution, especially if cost is a concern. So, what can we do? Start digging elsewhere.

In this household, tons of paper have been generated, probably quite literally, over the years -- okay, decades -- as a result of writing for a living, so paper storage is a big issue. (Believe it or not, children, there was a time when computers stored everything on big floppy disks and, before that, even typewriters were used to write!)

In my fantasy life, the one with a small staff of computer-savvy assistants who take care of annoying mundane tasks, all the old scripts, storyboards and development projects currently sitting in boxes in the garage would be scanned with a snazzy Fujitsu ScanSnap and reduced to a few much more manageable DVDs. But even at 18 pages per minute (with no paper jams), a whole lot of time would be required to scan those many boxes of documents. This presents a dilemma because the helpful staff is not currently on the payroll and there are more pressing demands occupying my attention.

Oddly, all that important paperwork is the only stuff in the garage that remains in cardboard boxes rather than plastic ones. Fortunately, the boxes are well sealed and miraculously seem to have avoided any moisture damage. So, assuming the contents are worth keeping (the vote is yes, because not only is this a well-organized early career history, the material also has potential for use in future teaching plans), this stuff needs a better home.

As expected, a little digging in the garage and its attached storeroom revealed some "top layer" trashable items as well as other lower layer things that can now be let go, creating a fair amount of extra space. This allows for a comfortable solution to the storage dilemma.

When organizing, sometimes the path of least resistance really is the one to take. Life does have its priorities. So the papers will be transferred into shiny new plastic boxes and stashed under the stairs. This will require only a short time to accomplish and will provide much better protection for the papers.

When that staff of assistants finally shows up for work, the papers will get scanned. Meanwhile, they'll sit comfortably in waterproof plastic, still accessible but out of the way.

And how's the more recent written material stored? All on hard drives. Is it backed up? Well, maybe there's still room for improvement in that area. But, I'll get to it, one layer at a time.

Happy New Year, readers!

© 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Monday, December 17, 2007

Getmas and Civility

Chris Erskine writes a column for the LA Times called "Man of the House." I don't usually read it (sorry, Chris) because its about family life from the dad's point of view. A guy thing.

"Brewster Rockit" is a Tribune-syndicated comic strip by Tim Rickard. I don't usually read it either (sorry, Tim) because its a sci-fi tale about a completely incompetent spaceship captain in the distant future and the humor just doesn't work for me. Another guy thing. Maybe a young guy thing.

However, props must be given to both Erskine and Rickard for their recent offerings that I happened to notice by chance in the last few days.

Brewster Rockit currently features a storyline about "Getmas" in which Brewster wonders if perhaps the upcoming holiday wasn't originally about somethings else -- perhaps "giving." This is a thought worth pondering, especially if we remember that giving doesn't necessarily mean giving stuff.

Erskine wrote a column called "Give the 'tude a holiday rest" an odd admonition, he acknowledges, for a guy who lives in L.A., "the world capital of ego and affectation." He points out that attitude -- that self-aggrandizing superiority that is just a tiny notch below blatant hostility -- is "a slap in the face to manners, class and character." I agree with him one hundred per cent.

I find it amazing that swagger and smugness appear to have become generally desirable traits that, if you believe the ads, can be achieved by purchasing the latest car/clothes/jewelry/etc. I've commented in the past (here and here) about this deadly affliction of "cool" and how it's used as one of the basic motivators to manipulate us through advertising.

Unfortunately, attitude now seems to be almost everywhere in popular culture and it's created a basic lack of civility that has infected our society. I think it's time to call a halt; or maybe I'd settle for a more realistically achievable holiday time out.

So, as the remaining seasonal "shopping days" finally dwindle (is there nothing other than shopping that we could be doing with our time?) and we head into the new year, I'd like to cast my vote for remembering that this is a season of giving, not getting. Let's not let Getmas take over our celebrations.

This is also a particularly busy and stressful season in which a little less attitude would be appreciated. Maybe slow down on the freeway and let the other guy into your lane. Give the checker at the market a break, even if you're in a hurry. And for the sake of sanity, get off the cell phone while you're driving or shopping or dealing with paying a salesclerk. Let's make at least a small effort to be civil to each other.

And let's pause to contemplate Erskine's insightful closing observation:

"[R]emember that the most mythic figures of our time never needed attitude [Joe Montana, Elvis Presley -- Shrek!] . . . For them, talent and skill outweighed posturing. Mostly, they always had the courage to be who they really were. And, really, how totally cool is that?"

It should be cool enough for all of us.

© 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Hear Me On the Radio

To quote Monty Python, "And now for something completely different . . . ."

If you live in the Los Angeles or Santa Barbara areas, you can hear me Tuesday, December 18th, on "Experience Talks," KPFK 90.7 FM, our local Pacifica Network public radio station.

Guests include the always fascinating Shirley MacLaine and one of my all-time heroes, Studs Terkel, still going strong at age 95.

My contribution? I was delighted to be invited to close this terrific one hour show with a two-minute personal essay about my experience as a college student during the politically tumultuous sixties.

Tune in Tuesday at two p.m. to hear the broadcast or check the KPFK archives later to download the show at your convenience.

I had a wonderful time participating and I think you'll find all the interviews and discussions both interesting and inspiring.

© 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Sunday, December 09, 2007

For My Women Readers: A Few Words of Wisdom from France

Thanks to all of you who have purchased my new Amazon Short, "How to Get Dressed Without Driving Yourself Crazy." I was delighted to discover that it was ranked Number Four on the "Hot New Releases" list last week.

And thanks to a fashionable friend for sending me a short article from the November issue of Vogue magazine. Mark Holgate wrote "Why Less is More," a rather subversive point of view in a magazine whose remaining ten-thousand pages are devoted to convincing us that we need an entire new wardrobe every season.

The article features a "Paris-born, New York-based stylist" who has a limited wardrobe by current standards (okay, ten pairs of jeans is more than the average woman needs, but this woman is a stylist). When you read the inventory of her closet, the simplicity of her choices is striking. She happens to prefer navy blue and she relies on "natty blazers and skinny jeans and pretty flats," minimal jewelry ("two pendants and a ring that belonged to her mother"), a stack of sweaters and tees, and a couple of "dress-up" outfits. The whole thing sounds fabulous to me. No agonizing over what to wear, no angst about whether or not what she's wearing looks good on her. She can walk out the door feeling confident and just get on with her day.

I believe that the majority of women in our country, and probably most men, would declare that French women are exceptionally fashionable. "Freedom fries" aside, we have always envied this particular characteristic of the French, but we've had not a clue how to replicate their sense of style. A search on will reveal many books that explain the appeal and offer insight about how to achieve that seemingly effortless chic; I can personally recommend Entres Nous: A Woman's Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl by Debra Ollivier, an American who married a Frenchman and was a long-time resident of France. In it you'll find not only a guide to assembling a wardrobe, but also an interesting glimpse into the cultural differences that have a significant impact on the the way a French woman relates to her world.

Regarding fashion, Ollivier explains, "For the French girl, clothes are a language, a personal vernacular. She doesn't dress to the trend, she dresses to her strengths and bends the trend (if it interests her) only to complement those strengths." She also often has to cope with only an armoire to store her clothes rather than a gigantic American-style walk-in closet.

The French have a useful perspective on clutter, too. Referring to author Marguerite Duras, Ollivier says, "To Duras there was charm and there was clutter. Charm represented the little details that reflected the character of the people who lived in a home. Clutter, on the other hand, is a helpless, hopeless, giving over to disorder . . . . The trick is to see the difference . . . . charm reflects your history, your affinities; clutter does not."

Obviously, not every French woman is possessed of the timeless style of Catherine Deneuve or gamine appeal of Audrey Tautou, and I suspect that there are more than a few cluttered homes lurking behind closed doors in France. But there is something we can learn from the basic French fashion philosophy: fewer, but well-chosen, high-quality wardrobe items and decor are what create style; quantity is essentially meaningless.

In fact, excessive quantity can destroy any sense of style. Too many choices in a wardrobe often result in errors and too much stuff in a home always results in chaotic disaster. We can't even hope to discover our personal style amidst the confusion of too much stuff.

So, how stylish are you feeling right now?

I'm thinking it might be a good idea to go through my closet one more time . . .

© 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Frantic Shopping vs. Retiring Early

There are several blogs and websites that have devoted space to gifts that aren't "stuff" (The Unclutterer's comprehensive list of suggestions is a good place to start looking). There's also plenty of information available about keeping perspective and simplifying your life during the often stressful holiday season (you might want to take a look at my posts tagged "Holidays").

And what are the positive results of these efforts? Well, having a calm and joyful holiday season is a big benefit, as is not contributing more useless stuff to someone else's life by calling it a "gift."

But what if we thought bigger? What if we thought of realigning our patterns of consumption not just for the holidays, but for a goal that probably seems unattainable to most readers?

Early retirement.

Frugal living is obviously required to achieve this goal, unless you're one of the lucky few whose income is so substantial that cost-cutting means ditching the private jet and suffering through flying first class on a commercial airline. Ironically, frugality used to be considered a virtue, not a curse. However, now when someone talks about frugality, it usually presumes suffering because we lack what we need.

Not so.

If we redefine what we need, there's quite a bit of flexibility in how much we can accomplish with just a small amount of frugal effort. But the most interesting example of the benefits of frugality that I've come across lately is in an article provided to Yahoo Finance by about extreme early retirement -- in your thirties!

Before you dismiss the notion because you think it could not possibly apply to you, and even if you're well beyond your thirties, consider this quote from the article:

"Aside from an unwavering focus on their goal and an indifferent attitude toward amassing all the latest stuff, extreme early retirees can't be lumped into the same category. They run the gamut from young parents, singles and dual-income couples without children. Weston [MSN personal finance columnist and author Liz Pulliam Weston] has talked to couples with as many as four children who are living in expensive areas of the country, as well as those who have no family ties and a cabin in the woods.

"They share an excitement about their lives, a desire to spend time in pursuits that are meaningful to them, and often, an environmental conscience."

So, let's take a moment to play the "what if" game. What if you decided to buy fewer gifts this year? What if you decided to spend nothing and, instead, make your gifts from things you already have around the house? What if after the holidays you didn't have a gigantic credit card bill? What if you didn't have a credit card bill at all?

Now let's go a step further. What if you decided not to buy into the whole consumer insanity that demands a new wardrobe every year? Or a new car? Or a bigger house with a bigger yard?

What if you decided to save more money with a goal of retiring early? Or what if you moved to a less expensive home or a part of the country where you were able to live on much less money right now?

What if you decided to start living your dreams instead of trying to buy them? How would that change your holiday plans, and your plans for the future?

If you're rethinking the way you're going to celebrate your holidays (or your future) and would like to share your thoughts, I'd like to hear them!

© 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Monday, November 26, 2007

Holiday Gift Ideas for the Over-stuffed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Making Black Friday Meaningful

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it does.

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

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

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

© 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Friday, November 09, 2007

Juxtapositions: Fashion and Reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Friday, October 26, 2007

Fire and Perspective in California

It's fire season in southern California. Take a look at this CNN News report:

"Wildfires engulfing huge swaths of Southern California have killed at least 14 people and sent tens of thousands seeking refuge. The state's deadliest blazes in more than a decade raged through areas as far north as Simi Valley in Ventura County, east to San Bernardino County and south to San Diego County -- scorching more than 300,000 acres. Weather forecasts indicate more hot and dry conditions that will mix with the Santa Ana winds and could fan the flames that have reached 100 feet tall in places. President Bush declared Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties major disaster areas Monday, opening the way for federal dollars for governments, businesses and people affected by the fires."

You will probably be interested to note that this report is from October 27, 2003. Yes, sad to say, fires are all too common in this area. It's possible that, once again, this year's disaster may have hit a new record for devastation, but the statistics are not yet in -- many fires are still burning. The most up-to-date information is available at CalFire.

Lives lost, homes and buildings in ashes, acres of land blackened. Here in the city, some twenty-five or thirty miles away from the nearest blaze, the sky has been overcast gray from smoke all week long. A thin layer of ashes settles on cars that are left outside overnight. On at least one day, the sun was red; the moon was red that evening.

There have been numerous interviews with people displaced by the fires, some who hope their homes will be saved, some who already know that hope is futile. As they fled, a few managed to grab special possessions, usually photos or small personal mementos.

There may be an occasional comment about the sad loss of property, but in every case, these people come to the same conclusion. They are grateful to be alive and, without fail, say that everything truly important they have with them: their family members and sometimes a cherished pet.

If you were faced with losing your home because of a natural disaster, you'd undoubtedly feel the same way. But why wait for a disaster? Why not re-evaluate your relationship with your possessions right now? Why not be grateful today for what's truly important in your life.

© 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Friday, October 19, 2007

Happy 108th Birthday, Olive!

By sheer good fortune, I happened to discover "The Life of Riley" blog soon after it launched last February with "Olive's First Post:"

"Good Morning everyone. My name is Olive Riley. I live in Australia near Sydney. I was born in Broken Hill on Oct. 20th 1899. Broken Hill is a mining town, far away in the centre of Australia. My Friend, Mike, has arranged this blog for me. He is doing the typing and I am telling the stories. . . .”

Olive’s friend is award-winning Australian filmmaker Mike Rubbo, who decided to document Olive's personal stories on a truly fascinating blog, or "blob," as she calls it.

There are three reasons I'm bringing Olive's blog to your attention (in addition to a well-deserved acknowledgment of her birthday):

1. There's nothing like hearing the stories of a 108-year-old woman to get some perspective on how life has changed over the course of a century and how our consumer expectations have become so ridiculously inflated.

2. By her second post, Olive was already making a point about the joys of buying local produce and the hazards of a political process gone wrong.

3. Mike's reasons for helping Olive share her history -- and attain the status of the World's Oldest Blogger -- have a larger purpose, too. In his words:

"Olive's blog is dedicated to taking the fear of the Internet away for older folks . . . We believe that the Internet is actually the natural friend of the older person. As personal mobility lessens, it can be replaced by the freedom to roam with this amazing new technology. The Internet lets the older user travel around the world and have friends across the globe, all with the click of a mouse. All that stands in the way for the older person is the fear of technology they don't understand. While Olive does not see well enough to type her own blog, or load the photos or the movie clips, you can see from the blog that she's fully involved with what she's achieving through the aid of others."

Blogging is a fabulous way for all of us who have similar concerns to connect across national borders, cultural divides, and barriers of age so that we can achieve our common goals: a sustainable way of life; mutual respect even in the face of challenging differences; and, most significantly, a peaceful world. Surely a 108-year-old woman can benefit, and benefit us, by participating in our dialogue.

Please take a moment to stop by Olive's entertaining blog and wish her a very happy birthday!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Death and Rebirth of Hippie

This year marked the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love, an event which actually began in January of 1967 with a "gathering of the tribes" known as the Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park; then continued to build with the June release of the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and the incredible Monterey Pop festival. That summer, thousands of young people literally invaded the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco on a quest for unforgettable music, a communal lifestyle of total freedom and, of course, psychedelic drugs. Heady times -- no pun intended.

But, as Jim Newsom wrote:

"The Summer of Love deteriorated rather quickly out in the Haight. As too many people arrived, the upbeat spirit of optimism and community gave way to despair and disenchantment, the drugs got harder and heavier, free love gave way to STDs. By mid-summer the glow was fading. On October 6, a group of hippies staged a mock funeral on the streets of San Francisco called 'The Death of Hippie.'"

The beautiful summer of the flower child may have turned into a terribly harsh winter, but the cultural impact of those times is undeniable, prompting many celebratory events this year. In New York, there was a 40th anniversary psychedelic art exhibit at the Whitney Museum and "Hair" was re-staged by the Public Theater; on the west coast, an anniversary tribute Monterey Pop concert was headlined by a reunited Big Brother and the Holding Company along with Jefferson Starship.

The hippies were the antithesis of today's consumers, united in a sub-culture of free food, free stores, free love (and the resulting free clinics), second-hand clothing, shared housing, and a bias against large corporations.

Fortunately, it appears that "Hippie" has been reincarnated in this era in a slightly different version, perhaps just as the Eastern religions that took root in the West back then might have predicted. This time around, there seems to be a broader appeal and a more durable foundation than the Haight could offer. Take a look at just a few examples of what's going on -- or still going on:

The Freegans, The Simple Living Network, Buy Nothing Day, The Rainbow Family, The Farm, No Impact Man, The Global EcoVillage Network, The World Business Council for Sustainable Development, The Fair Trade Federation, Living Water International -- there are literally thousands of individuals, groups and organizations representing the spirit of the counter-culture movement of the Sixties, a movement that was not just about sex, drugs and rock and roll as detractors like to opine, but was also highly politically motivated and aware.

It's encouraging that there is increasing awareness now about protecting the environment from dangerous exploitation, ensuring decent working conditions for those who make the products we use, and celebrating the inherent goodness of the simple life. We know that we can't sustain, or justify, our society's over-consumption when so much of the world's population is suffering without even such basic necessities as safe water to drink.

I like to think that many of the current worthwhile efforts for social change are a direct result of the Sixties -- and proof that Hippie really is back.

Good morning, Starshine.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

The Power of Visual Imagery

"A picture speaks louder than words," according to the old saying and there's no better proof of that than the current exhibit at the Paul Kopeikin Gallery in Los Angeles.

I'm a great fan of Seattle photographer Chris Jordan who creates huge ink-jet images of massive quantities of everyday objects that art critic Christopher Knight suggested might be called "Still Lifes on Steroids." Jordan's photos are exhibited along with statistics connecting them to our penchant for over-consumption and the challenges we face to be socially responsible.

For example, the piece "Building Blocks, 2007" is 16 feet tall x 32 feet wide in eighteen square panels, each 62" x 62," and depicts nine million wooden building blocks, representing the number of children without health insurance in 2007. The piece "Toothpicks, 2007" is 60" x 99" and shows 8 million toothpicks, representing the number of trees harvested every month to make paper for mail order catalogues.

Viewed from a distance, the photographs make stunningly beautiful abstract works of art; up close, the effect is just as stunning as we're forced to contemplate the real-world information they convey.

Jordan describes "Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait," the title of this recent series, as follows:

"This new series looks at contemporary American culture through the austere lens of statistics. Each image portrays a specific quantity of something: fifteen million sheets of office paper (five minutes of paper use); 106,000 aluminum cans (thirty seconds of can consumption) and so on. My hope is that images representing these quantities might have a different effect than the raw numbers alone, such as we find daily in articles and books. Statistics can feel abstract and anesthetizing, making it difficult to connect with and make meaning of 3.6 million SUV sales in one year, for example, or 2.3 million Americans in prison, or 426,000 cell phones retired every day. This project visually examines these vast and bizarre measures of our society, in large intricately detailed prints assembled from thousands of smaller photographs. My underlying desire is to affirm and sanctify the crucial role of the individual in a society that is increasingly enormous, incomprehensible, and overwhelming."

The exhibit continues through October 20th. If you're in the Los Angeles area, I highly recommend it; if you're unable to see the work in person, Jordan's website does a fine job of conveying his message.

© 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Advertising's Assault on Our Senses

Have you noticed that advertising is popping up everywhere? And I don't mean just on your computer screen.

We expect to find ads in our magazines, newspapers, on television and radio; we're not surprised to find flyers and brochures stuck on the doorknobs of our homes, laying on any table in any office waiting room, slipped under the windshield wipers of our cars. We've seen plenty of billboards, neon signs, and posters plastered on the sides of walls surrounding construction sites. On lawns we see real estate sales signs; sometimes we see signs supporting political candidates or, if there's remodeling going on, signs promoting the construction company. We tune out most of these ads because there are simply more "buy! use! buy!" messages than our poor brains can process in a single day.

But let's consider some other advertising "encounter spots" we face regularly:

At grocery stores we find ads on the child seats in the grocery cart; there are signs or devices holding coupons sticking out into the aisles; announcements are made telling us of specials of the day; the store's name is on the carrying bags, sometimes accompanied by an additional message from another advertiser ("Save on the price of admission to [insert name of your local amusement park here] for Jubilee Whatever Days!") Even that little plastic bar that you're supposed to use to separate your order from the next one is statistically proven, prime ad space.
Media Life Magazine reports:

"At a fraction of a billboard's 600 plus square feet, the messages carried on AdSticks, the plastic bars that separate your groceries from the next guy's in line, might be considered obscure. But with a 35 percent average sales lift and a reach into over 32 million households, advertisers are lining up to put their images on these mini-billboards."

My local stores must be behind the curve with their plain conveyor belts at the checkout lines because last year
Marketing Blurb informed us that:

". . . a company called EnVision Marketing Group is introducing a patented system to print digital photo-quality ads directly on grocery store checkout lane conveyor belts. This would certainly keep us entertained for several loops while we load the belt with branded goodies from the food aisles."

One of the most annoying ad assaults was installed, then removed, from one of my neighborhood stores: the constantly playing video monitor at the head of the checkout line. A September 7th post at
MediaInfoCenter brings us up to date on this phenomenon:

"As television networks seek a captive viewing audience online, CBS also is searching on actual lines: in doctors' offices, at car repair shops, and now, at the grocery store. That push was highlighted yesterday by CBS's agreement to buy SignStorey, which owns digital video displays in more than 1,400 supermarkets around the country. CBS will pay $71.5 million for the company, which it plans to rename CBS Outernet.

"CBS has had an exclusive distribution agreement with SignStorey since 2006, exposing the network's programming to 72 million shoppers a month at SuperValu, Pathmark, ShopRite, Price Chopper and other stores, including those in six of the top 10 markets. The network chops its programming – both news and entertainment – into 10- or 20-second chunks that shoppers can catch as they wander around the store."

Oh, boy. Catching chunks of programming while I shop – as if the shopping experience wasn't already sufficiently aggravating. But that isn't enough ad exposure as far as CBS is concerned. The article continues:

"'One of our mantras as we head forward is, 'We produce great content. We are now going to get paid for our great content in a million different ways,'" said CBS Chief Executive Leslie Moonves.

"The network, for example, has had a deal with AMR's American Airlines for almost a decade, which helps CBS both market its programs and generate ad revenue. American Airlines flights offer CBS programs, and the network sells ads that appear in the programs. Mr. Moonves credits that agreement with helping to build an early audience for 'Everybody Loves Raymond,' a comedy that became a monster hit for the network.

"Several weeks ago, CBS entered into an agreement with AVTV Networks that includes showing CBS programming in the waiting rooms of doctors' offices around the U.S. CBS says the program reaches 300,000 viewers monthly now but expects the service to reach as many as three million viewers per month in 2008. CBS also has distribution agreements with Royal Caribbean Cruises, the Mall of America, Simon Malls, and AutoNet TV and Salon Network Channel, networks that play in auto-body shops and a line of Midwestern beauty salons, respectively.

"I would love for somebody to be able to say, 'I'm really getting sick of seeing all this CBS stuff,'" says George Schweitzer, president of the CBS Marketing Group. 'That'd be a compliment.'"

Mr. Schweitzer, allow me to be the first to compliment you: I haven't even seen all of your CBS stuff and I'm already sick of it. And, Mr. Mooves, please stop gleefully rubbing your hands together and stifle that greedy "bwaaaaa-haaaa-haaaa-haaaa" laugh.

Is there nowhere to turn without being assaulted by an advertisement?

If you go to a movie, you can expect a half-hour of straight product advertising followed by movie trailers advertising more movies before the film you want to see begins. Of course, you could always choose to see movies on your cell phone (I'm admittedly unclear why anyone would make that choice) but, if you use Verizon as a service provider, you'd be treated to
ads there, too.

Think you'll just get out of town and get away from it all for awhile? At the airport, besides all the obvious spots, ads can now be found on the tray where you put your stuff while you go through the security scan; get seated on the plane and you're likely to see an ad on your tray table.

Face it: there's no escape.

Take a look at Business Week's fascinating
photo essay on some of the truly clever advertising techniques that are now in use, including temporary ads on long, skinny stickers that are placed over parking space stripes in parking lots; manhole covers in New York topped by ads for steaming cups of coffee; Cingular's name plastered on "I Love New York" pizza delivery boxes.

And to get back to that ad assault in the grocery store, CBS is
etching ads for its fall programs on eggs – yes, you read that correctly, etching ads on eggs. (If you don't click on any other link in this post, please click on that one!)

Well, I'm not buying it. Advertising may be assaulting our senses, but it doesn't have to make us senseless. I'm going to take a stand by remembering a favorite quote from 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal:

"All man's problems derive from not being able to sit quietly in an empty room."

I hope you'll join me in a moment of quiet protest against ubiquitous advertising. In fact, I think that's such a great idea, I'm going to try to figure out how to spread the word.

You know, advertise it.

© 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Teach Your Children Well

Graham Nash wrote the memorable song that lends its title to this essay. The lyrics are about the relationship between a parent and child. Released in 1970 on the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album, "Déjà vu," the song has reached another generation through its use on television in "The Office" (the U.S. version) and "Six Feet Under." The message is certainly just as relevant as it was almost forty years ago. So what exactly are we teaching the next generation?

Apparently, we're teaching them to be obsessed with fashion and luxury. In a September LA Times article, Monica Corcoran reported:

"Designer labels make up about 15.3% of purchases by 13- to 17-year-olds, according to a recent study by New York-based marketing research firm NPD Group. Five years ago, that figure hovered at 9.6%. And increasingly, luxury brands are catering to younger customers."

I found the article depressing. Yes, it focused on a small group of girls at a swanky private school that caters to the outrageously wealthy denizens of L.A., but consider this:

"In this month's Teen Vogue, glossy ads for oversized fall handbags by Gucci, Chloé, and Louis Vuitton can be found in the first 10 pages of the mini-magazine with a cult following among teenagers. . . .And that's just the ads. The women's media website recently tallied the prices of the merchandise featured in the editorial content of the September issue of Teen Vogue to a total of $74,458. Per their research, Cosmopolitan -- not CosmoGirl, mind you -- rang in at just $27,636.64."

The pressure is on and it's not just the children of wealthy families that feel it. As James McNeal pointed out in an interesting Center for Media Literacy report that holds up quite well despite being dated 1987, there was a time, in the first half of the twentieth century, that children were not targeted as consumers. Those days are far, far behind us. Now the market for kids rakes in billions of dollars every year. Advertisers know just how to cash in, too. explains the simple process of conditioning through advertising. Please note that the article acknowledges that the technique applies to selling to adults, too [the brackets are mine]:

"From a very young age, the media teaches children how to be consumers in society. The media tells children about everything from what types of cereal to eat to what type of clothes to wear. They do this by using a creative technique that doesn't involve selling the product itself.

"Commercials aimed towards children (and pretty much everyone else also) don't sell products at all. Instead, commercials aim to sell an emotional response in regards to their products.

"This affects children [and adults] deeply, as children [and adults] are taught to base their purchases on emotional desires rather than actual need. One such desire is the need to be liked. Children often want to buy products that make them seem cool in the eyes of their peers. If one child wears designer jeans, and those designer jeans are seen as the thing to wear to be cool, other kids will want to wear those same jeans."

It's pretty straightforward. Anyone who came of age by the time television was commonplace in the home has been conditioned to buy what advertisers tell them to buy. But the most significant difference in selling to children in the last decade or so is total media saturation in our society.

Not only are children exposed to massive amounts of advertising in all media, including print, they also see thousands of hours of television, film, video and, significantly, on-line images annually that sell indirectly, often with more dramatic results than the ads produce. Product placement is a burgeoning business because simply seeing something under the "right" circumstances can generate sales. Even a glimpse of a favorite celebrity with or wearing an item can catapult the product to the top of the "must have" list for teens. Notice I said "celebrity," because fame itself is the primary marker, and sometimes the sole marker of status.

Of course, what children see and learn in the home still has enormous impact on their values. But what are they seeing there? Primarily, adults whose lives are ruled by consumption, often excessive consumption, motivated by the desire to have the "right" image -- just like their kids.

We're a society that is so completely image-saturated that image has become more significant than substance. This phenomenon has overtaken us to such a ludicrous extent that even the awards we give to our media stars (images as "role models," being given awards ostensibly based on their talents) are now overshadowed by the fashion show that precedes any awards ceremony and answers the burning question of "who" the stars are wearing. Their wardrobes are then later dissected with greater critical analysis than most of the visual entertainment in which they display their alleged abilities.

"Teach your children well," Graham Nash wrote, ". . . and feed them on your dreams." That's what's happening right now, just about everywhere we look. Dreams of the "right" image: fashionable, trendy, expensive.

What's a kid gonna do?

© 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Monday, September 10, 2007

A Workshop, an Art Show, and a Thoughtful Survey

Workshop: I'm pleased that the Southern California Women's Caucus for Art has invited me to present a workshop entitled "Creativity and Clutter: Clear the Chaos and Make Room for Your Imagination." It's scheduled for Sunday afternoon, September 16th, and will be open to the public as well as to SCWCA members. More details are available here. The workshop is geared toward visual artists, but much of the material we'll be discussing applies to people who work in any creative field. If you'll be in Los Angeles and decide to attend, please introduce yourself to me as a reader of The Thoughtful Consumer blog.

Art Show: I'm also pleased to be participating in a special art show in Atlanta at 310Haustudio, the studio of fine artist Diane Hause. The Peace Postcard Show is in honor of the International Day of Peace, September 21st, with an opening reception scheduled that evening from 7 to 10 p.m. Diane has received postcards from artists all over the world, including some famous names you'd recognize, such as Yoko Ono and Sean Ono Lennon. Most of the artists have designated that proceeds from the sale of their art be donated to organizations dedicated to fostering peace throughout the world. I won't be able to attend the reception, but if you're in the area, please stop by and enjoy what should be a wonderful, uplifting show. If you purchase my postcard, you'll receive instructions to contact me so that I can make a donation in your name to the charitable peace organization of your choice.

A Thoughtful Survey: I recently received e-mail from a regular reader of this blog who is a doctoral student at a respected U.S. university. He's interested in how the structure of a city is related to the physical activity and health of its residents. To gather useful data on the topic, he's conducting a survey on transportation preferences to find why people use the form of transportation they do. If you'd like to participate in his survey, you must be at least eighteen years old and you must work outside your home. The survey takes about fifteen minutes and your responses are completely anonymous: no signing up for a website, no name or e-mail address required. Here's the link. I've requested to be informed when the study is complete so that I can share the conclusions with you.

I think this is a worthy project. Our reliance on private rather than public transportation is a significant factor that must be examined when considering our over-consumption of fossil fuels, but I particularly like the fact that this study is going to examine the relationship between transportation choices and our health as individuals. Obviously, if making use of public transportation became the norm, it could drastically reduce the effects of fossil fuels on the environment and completely transform our landscape. But transforming our cities so that walking and biking are encouraged could change us personally. And yet, in cases where these options are already available, why don't many of us choose them?

As a resident of Los Angeles, surviving without a car would be almost impossible for me. Almost. The reality is that it simply would dramatically restrict my options. However, my life is already restricted to some small extent because the traffic is so horrible that many areas of the city might as well be on the moon if I try to get there during rush hour.

And yet, how often do I hop in my car and drive a block to the grocery store? Too often, I'm embarrassed to say. How hard would it be to pull my little clattering rolling cart down the block and walk back home with all the groceries I need? Weather permitting, not hard at all. And I'm not alone when I make this kind of decision. Why don't many of us walk regularly to accessible places anymore?

Is it possible that our consumer mentality is so ingrained that it is making us reluctant to exert even minimal physical effort? Are we just used to the ease of taking in whatever we need without moving: watching TV; staring at our cell phones and reading text messages; sitting at the computer where we can work, communicate with friends and strangers, and get lost in all the content on the web. Have we disconnected from our bodies in a fundamental way? As a society, we're generally overweight, we're generally sedentary, and our social communities often exist primarily in cyberspace. How much of this is a result of technology, how much reflects larger societal changes, and how much is a function of the physical structures of our external environments, our cities and towns?

Okay, I'm willing to take personal responsibility for my choices, but does this city's design, which is on the whole unfriendly to pedestrians and only half-heartedly supports public transportation, contribute to my habit of driving everywhere? Probably. At least that would be the contention of the late William H. Whyte whose classic book, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, I found revolutionary when I read it back in 1980. Several years ago, it was re-published and is now readily available. I recommend it highly as a thought-provoking read about the relationship between urban design and the people who inhabit urban areas.

But today, after hours of sitting at the computer, I think even the insightful Professor Whyte would suggest that I should just get up and move.

And so I shall.

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Juxtapositions: Hurricane Katrina and Leona Helmsley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Real Estate Fantasyland Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Thursday, August 16, 2007

It's Not Stuff, It's Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martin's current project:

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

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

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

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

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Saturday, August 04, 2007

One Year Blog Anniversary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Freecycle to Freedom

Would you be surprised if I told you that right this minute there are 3,672,475 individuals or families who would give you, no strings attached, an item that you need if they owned that item and were done using it? A sofa, refrigerator, desk, clothing, computer, children's toys, just about anything you can think of that's legal and family-friendly could be yours for the asking. How? Freecycle.

The description from the website explains the way this on-line community works: "The Freecycle Network™ is made up of many individual groups across the globe. It's a grassroots and entirely nonprofit movement of people who are giving (& getting) stuff for free in their own towns. Each local group is moderated by a local volunteer (them's good people). Membership is free. . . . The Freecycle Network was started in May 2003 to promote waste reduction in Tucson's downtown and help save desert landscape from being taken over by landfills. The Network provides individuals and non-profits an electronic forum to 'recycle' unwanted items. One person's trash can truly be another's treasure!"

What a great way to get stuff for free, but, more importantly for many of us, what a great way to give stuff away. Let's say that you've tossed out the obviously useless things, you've handed off all that you can to family members and friends, you've done your eBay selling, you've consigned some antiques at a local shop, and maybe you've even put yourself through the torture of a garage sale. Well, first of all, congratulations on such an incredible achievement and please contact me immediately so that I can interview you because you are a rare soul indeed.

But now, what to do with what's left of the excess stuff? (I can guarantee that there still will be excess stuff, even after you've made all those other valiant efforts.) You don't just want to trash it because it's still useful. Sure, you could haul it over to your favorite local charity, or perhaps have them come by and pick it up, and I highly advocate that you consider doing so. But what do you do if you have items that aren't accepted by charities but are still in good condition? You may be surprised to learn that many charities don't take such things as mattresses and box springs or older appliances. Or what if you're moving, you absolutely must get that old dining table and chairs out of your apartment and you don't have the means to transport it all yourself? Or what if you just like the idea of giving away some of your stuff on a more personal level? Freecycle could be the perfect solution. You join your local group on-line (or consider starting a group if your area doesn't have one yet), post the item you want to give away on the website, and wait for responses. It's completely your choice how and to whom you give it away. (Freecycle offers suggestions regarding your personal safety, regrettably an issue that must be considered when dealing with others.)

Freecycle's goal is not to help alleviate the needs of the many impoverished citizens of our society; there are charitable organizations and government assistance programs that are supposed to be devoted to that mission. Freecycle's goal is to help keep things out of the landfill. It's a great example of the convergence of local environmental activism, on-line social networking, and recycling at its best.

Do we really need a program like Freecycle? Oh, yes. According to a Lubbock Online article by Marlena Hartz about their local Freecycle group, that Texas county has two landfills. Some 2,000 to 2,400 tons of waste are added to those landfills daily. The population of Lubbock County in 2006 was only 254,862. Extrapolate that to the population of our entire country, currently estimated at 302,438,836 people, and the amount of trash we're piling into our landfills is staggering.

We need all the help we can get and Freecycle is one of many programs that offer hope. In a article by Marc Gunther, Daniel Ben-Horin, the founder of the nonprofit Web site, TechSoup, says, "What is really interesting about Freecycle is that unlike a lot of virtual communities, something very concrete happens."

Making something concrete happen to cut the amount of waste we generate is crucial on a national level, but it's also important for us individually. If we've wised up enough to realize that we own more than we need and we're ready to let go of the excess, Freecycle offers us a unique way to part with it.

Got something you could Freecycle? Of course you do. We all do.

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Connections: Fair Trade Jewelry

I went to a gathering at a friend's apartment this afternoon where an artisan was having a small showing of her hand-crafted jewelry, an artistic medium she had only recently discovered. It was beautiful, ornate beaded work that clearly showed the loving care put into its creation. The artisan was eager to talk about her process and delighted by the positive response she was receiving. At one point she commented to me that she had been surprised by much of the low quality jewelry that is being sold at very steep prices in many high-end stores and boutiques here in Los Angeles. Her work is certainly not inexpensive, and her profit will be cut at least by half should she decide to sell through retail outlets, but she plans to try to make her living doing something she loves. I find that admirable and bold. With hard work and good fortune, eventually she could find herself competing at the end of the jewelry spectrum reserved for exclusive "designer names."

But way down at the other end of the spectrum are the little trinkets that can be found at chain stores like Forever 21 and their jewelry-only branch, For Love 21. Referred to as "The Tiffany of Thrift" in today's LA Times article by Melissa Magsaysay, these shops sell style knock-offs ("homages?") that offer the budget-conscious shopper a chance to replicate the look of fashion mavens who sport the designs of Chanel, Hermes, and Cartier. For under ten bucks, you, too, can own the hottest, trendiest accessories, if only in their scaled-down versions.

How do they do it? How can so much jewelry be manufactured so cheaply for sale there and at so many other stores? I have absolutely no idea specifically where Forever 21, or any of the other large number of stores that sell cheap jewelry, get their products made or what the conditions of manufacture may be (legal disclaimer!), but I doubt that they come from women like the one I met earlier today at my friend's home. No, if I were a betting gal, I'd put my money on imports. And once we start talking about imports, we've entered the messy and complicated area of "fair trade."

According to a well-written explanation on Wikipedia, fair trade "is an organized social movement which promotes standards for international labour, environmentalism, and social policy in areas related to production of fair trade labelled and unlabelled goods. The movement focuses in particular on exports from developing countries to developed countries. Fair trade's strategic intent is to deliberately work with marginalised producers and workers in order to help them move from a position of vulnerability to security and economic self-sufficiency. It also aims at empowering them to become stakeholders in their own organizations and actively play a wider role in the global arena to achieve greater equity in international trade."

Fair trade promotes, among other things, fair prices for producers, gender equity, and decent working conditions. Most of us have heard about garment manufacturing in sweatshops in this country and around the world that resulted in cries of outrage over the shocking conditions that workers tolerated, but what about that cheap jewelry? What are the conditions workers endure who create it? Someone has to paste on those little crystals. Someone has to polish those less-than-gem-quality stones.

World of Good is a non-profit organization that actively promotes fair trade through various economic development projects. They offer internship opportunities and their website also offers a blog. One intern, Emily, recently posted her experience visiting a sweatshop in New Delhi. If you have the stomach to read it, it's quite an astounding report. The conditions in which these impoverished people, including young children and the elderly, create jewelry and decorative embellished items are appalling and, in fact, almost unbelievable.

In its article about child labor, Wikipedia surprisingly offers a defense of the practice, bolstered by the thoughts of the late economist, Milton Friedman, and research by UNICEF. Although naturally we're inclined to respond to the horror of the situation and may want to boycott companies that support such practices, the article points out that there are other considerations. "Poor families often rely on the labours of their children for survival, and sometimes it is their only source of income. . . . [A] UNICEF study found that 5,000 to 7,000 Nepalese children turned to prostitution after the United States banned that country's carpet exports in the 1990s. Also, after the Child Labor Deterrence Act was introduced in the US, an estimated 50,000 children were dismissed from their garment industry jobs in Bangladesh, leaving many to resort to jobs such as 'stone-crushing, street hustling, and prostitution,' -- all of them, according to a UNICEF study [1] more hazardous and exploitative than garment production.'"

The complexity of this issue demands thoughtful action, but what exactly should that action be? I can't even begin to fathom a solution for such an insidious, worldwide problem, but I can think of small choices to make as an individual who is concerned about it. You may wish to consider these choices, too: (1) support local artisans when it's feasible and affordable, or (2) purchase fair trade items when that's a better decision financially or aesthetically.

Of course, we've already discussed in other posts the fact that it's not possible to know the source of every item we buy, or avoid buying some items that come from less-than-impeccable manufacturers. Obviously, you can easily drive yourself crazy simply trying to be informed. But because so many of the items that are produced under completely unacceptable conditions are decorative rather than necessary for our survival, maybe sometimes it's simply better not to purchase anything at all. Instead, you could try being creative -- make your own jewelry and decorative things. Or just send that money to UNICEF or another organization that's trying to work on solutions to free all the world's citizens from such desperate poverty and intolerable working conditions.

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Thinking Outside the (Mail) Box

People often talk about the Post Office the way they talk about the weather; they'll complain but figure there's nothing much they can do about it. And yet, just like the weather, things eventually do change, even at the Post Office.

A recent USPS press release announced that they have received "Cradle to Cradle" certification. If you're unfamiliar with the cradle-to-cradle concept, here's the basic tenet as it's expressed on the MBDC website, on-line home of the architecture and design firm of William McDonough and Michael Braungart:

"Instead of designing cradle-to-grave products, dumped in landfills at the end of their 'life,' MBDC transforms industry by creating products for cradle-to-cradle cycles, whose materials are perpetually circulated in closed loops. Maintaining materials in closed loops maximizes material value without damaging ecosystems."

This eco-friendly manufacturing and recycling design concept is being implemented at the Post Office by requiring ". . . all 200 suppliers contributing to the manufacture of Postal Service envelopes and packages [to]complete a demanding series of measurements and assessments of materials for human and environmental health. Maintaining these new, higher standards is now an integral part of doing business with the Postal Service."

This also means that, "based on the recycled content of the more than 500 million Express Mail and Priority Mail packages and envelopes the Postal Service provides its customers each year, more than 15,000 metric tons of carbon equivalent emissions (climate change gases) now will be prevented annually. Express Mail and Priority Mail boxes and envelopes also are 100 percent recyclable."

Pretty huge impact and certainly a laudable effort. But what if we take this kind of reform a step further?

One of the biggest organizational frustrations for most people is the huge amount of junk mail they receive. Even if you request the removal of your name from every available mailing list and through every available service, you will still get unsolicited mail, most of it junk. All of this unsolicited mail uses the Post Office's bulk mail rate. What if the Post Office required that every piece of mail that used the lower bulk mail rate also had to use mailing materials that were certified cradle-to-cradle? Think that would cut down the unsolicited mail we all get? Think that might make marketers a bit more selective when putting together their mailing lists? Oh, yes.

True, this could be a cost-prohibitive requirement for non-profit organizations and perhaps they could be allowed to make the change more slowly, over a period of a few years. But non-profit organizations already should be showing some discretion about the number of mailings they send out, even to supporters. I am very much in favor of donating to worthy causes, but I do get annoyed (and drop a charity from my list) if I see that my donations are being used primarily to solicit more donations through numerous mailings throughout the year.

I think this change would be a win-win situation, for the environment and for citizens. What do you think?

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob