Saturday, February 24, 2007

Bye-Bye, Backyard

Amazing what a little research can uncover. Until today I had never heard of the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, however I now know that they cater to a substantial number of builders, designers and consumers who focus their interest on outdoor living. The enthusiasm of those consumers resulted in "a record 17 million grills shipped in 2006, marking a 15.24% increase compared to 2005."

I was unfamiliar with the International Pool & Spa Expo/Backyard Living Expo, which has been named by Tradeshow Week as "one of the 50 fastest growing tradeshows in North America." That statistic also reflects the growing number of consumers who spend lots of money on their outdoor spaces.

As a townhouse dweller with a patio relentlessly plagued by wasps, I can't say that I'm big on spending much of anything on our current outdoor area, but I fondly remember the joys of my childhood backyard: the swing set in the sun, the sandbox in the shade of a huge elm tree, and an oft-frequented picnic table on the flagstone patio hand built by my parents. It was a simple but idyllic place, enjoyed daily by family and friends until I went off to college and Mom and Dad moved on to apartment life.

Today's "ideal" backyard isn't such an uncomplicated affair as a patch of grass, a small patio, and perhaps, in a warm climate, the luxury of a swimming pool. No, it's a landscaped expanse with a "lagoon" sculpted from artificial rocks; a vast manicured lawn with a putting green; an "outdoor entertaining area" with fully-equipped kitchen, wet bar and upholstered furniture spread over specially treated decking -- or even a combination of all those amenities.

It's no surprise that people still want the experience of a yard well-used and well-loved. The surprise is that even though they're willing to spend considerable amounts of money creating elaborate backyard environments, they don't often get out there and use them. Janet Eastman's recent L.A. Times column, "The Yard: So Close, Yet So Far," cites a new UCLA study about how families in Los Angeles use their outdoor spaces. The results, according to the study's lead author and anthropology professor, Jeanne E. Arnold, are that "backyards might as well be blocks away considering how often the families go in them . . . We admire backyards from inside the house or in our mind's eye, while we're busy doing other things."

Family life has changed considerably since the days of my childhood. Today's kids are usually more interested in playing video and computer games, IM-ing their friends, and hanging out online rather than in the backyard. The intrusion of the media into our daily lives has increased with the explosion of cable television stations, huge DVD sales, and the ubiquitous presence of the computer. Time pressures have long been a challenge for parents, but now there is also an increased need to cope with that uncomfortable feeling of information overload, the mixed blessing resulting from constant access to so much information. Family time is also fragmented in ways that reflect the prevalence of fragmented families.

But in spite of whatever societal changes have occurred, we still want to create backyards, from the relatively plain to the outrageously elaborate, that apparently don't serve our needs. Why? Are we clinging to a past that's no longer relevant, the American Dream of the house and yard? Is the yard now only a nice view from our windows or a way to separate us from our neighbors? Is it just another status symbol in a consumer society that values those symbols so highly? Whatever the case, money is being spent on something we don't use, and that's always a signal for a thoughtful consumer to reconsider the situation.

UCLA Professor Eastman concludes her thoughts about the study by saying, "I wish people would think deeply about how we work hard to buy a lot of stuff we don't need and then spend time maintaining it and we don't take advantage of simple things like just taking a few minutes to relax in the backyard."

It appears that, at least in Los Angeles, many of us have lost the ability to enjoy using our own little oasis of nature; we've lost a gathering place for the family to be together, talking or playing or working, without staring at some kind of screen; and we've lost a bit of our connection to the earth.

I sincerely hope that's not the case in other parts of the country.

And I'd sure like to figure out a way to get rid of those stupid wasps.

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A ReaderViews 2006 Literary Awards Semi-Finalist!

Just a brief note to let you know that my book, Sorting It Out: One Disorganized Woman Solves the Problem of Too Much Stuff, has been selected as one of only ten semi-finalists in the self-help category for the Annual Literary Awards sponsored by ReaderViews, an independent book review organization.

These awards were established to honor writers who self-published or had their books published by a small press, university press, or independent book publisher geared for the North American reading audience.

You can see the list of semi-finalists in all categories and get a link to my book's review below:

Thank you, ReaderViews!

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Thoughtful Disposal

Way back in the Paleolithic era of the environmental movement, I remember hearing someone speak about what happens to the gigantic amount of trash we toss away. I also remember being led by the speaker to the distressing realization that there is no "away." All that trash may no longer be in our living space (and Heaven knows we are grateful any time that we can get stuff out of the house), but where does it go?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, we produced a staggering 245.7 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2005, and the majority of it is now crammed into landfill. Some of that waste consists of things that are genuinely fully used up or worn out, or from the packaging of products, from shipping supplies and containers, and from outdated items that have no after-market. Obviously, being thoughtful consumers would help reduce the huge amount of waste that we generate from the products that we buy. If we buy higher quality, more durable items and fewer of them, we have less to throw "away." If we choose items that are recyclable, that would help, too.

"Oh, great," I can hear some of you moaning. "We're already feeling guilty and overwhelmed by too much stuff everywhere we look in our homes, and now we're supposed to feel guilty when we get rid of it because we're adding to the problems of the entire planet!"

Well, not exactly. Feeling guilty about how much stuff we already own doesn't help the situation. What helps is action. The good news is that most of us have already started to take action. That huge figure the EPA cites actually indicates a reduction of 1.6 million tons of waste compared to the statistics for 2004. Clearly we're wising up about disposing of things more responsibly.

We're taking advantage of recycling paper, plastic, aluminum cans, etc., and some communities offer trash pickup to take organic matter to composting facilities. We still have far to go when it comes to disposing of or recycling hazardous materials, but where there's a potential for profit, there's motivation. That's exactly the situation discussed in an interesting LA Times article on 2/10 by Martin Zimmerman about e-waste recycling.

Discarded electronics are the fastest growing source of solid waste with a 17% increase from 2000 to 2005. Californians contributed our share in 2006 by trashing 450,000 tons of the stuff. However, because cell phones, printers, computers, and other electronic items contain hazardous lead, copper and cadmium, they can't go into municipal landfills, so they create a major disposal headache. Fortunately, they also contain plastic, metal and glass that are very desirable and thus an entire e-waste recycling industry has been born.

Even those of us who struggle to keep up with our daily obligations usually make at least a token effort to be responsible about recycling. I'm completely in favor of it and try my best, but if you've read my book, you know that I'm also in favor of some flexibility for people in a crisis situation who simply cannot cope. At the height of my efforts to unburden our home of too much stuff, I did a great job of getting massive amounts of paper recycled, but I confess that I tossed some flashlight batteries and ink cartridges right into the trash. I thought my head would explode if I had to deal with getting them to a hazardous waste pickup collection site at some indeterminate future date for an event that occurred only once in a blue moon. I'm not proud, but I'm also not perfect. In fact, at this moment I have two empty ink cartridges torturing me as they sit near my desk, waiting for me to find the recycling bag the library kindly provides and that I have managed to misplace. Who will win this round in the fight to recycle? I'm pretty certain that I will find the bag so the library, and the planet, will end up on top.

Most of us aren't perfect when it comes to handling our stuff, otherwise how would we have gotten into such uncomfortable situations in the first place? But perhaps thinking about the impact our decisions have on the fate of our planet will be a helpful way to motivate us to choose more wisely when we're buying things and to make a little extra effort when we're letting go of what we have. We have only a few options when it comes to disposing of our excess stuff:

1. Sell it (be certain it's worth the effort),
2. Donate it to family, friends, or a charity (be certain it's still in decent or reparable shape), or
3. Toss it. If we're going to toss it, let's try our best to dispose of it appropriately.

We can't just throw it "away."

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The World's Largest Storeroom

Bookshops' Latest Sad Plot Twist, an article by David Streitfeld in today's LA Times, tells the interesting but unhappy tale of the fate of independent bookstores. Many long-established shops are already gone: A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco opened in 1982 and closed last year; Cody's flagship store in Berkeley has closed after fifty years in business; twenty-year old Dutton's in Brentwood, owned by Doug Dutton, is threatened by possible development of its site and the two-year old Dutton's in Beverly Hills failed to survive. Streitfeld didn't mention it in his column, but we lost the original forty-five year old Dutton's in North Hollywood last year (and its small, much younger outpost in Burbank) when owner Dave Dutton retired.

The first challenge to the independents came from the big chain stores; now the greatest threat is the Internet. Streitfeld writes, "It's an unsettling if inevitable process. Half a century ago, (poet and blogger Ron Silliman) said, he would play chess and checkers with his grandfather as they listened to the radio. 'That stopped once the TV arrived, because now we all had to face the same direction,' he wrote. Those for whom 'browsing' has much more of an online connotation than a physical one barely register the shift . . . The Internet has transformed American culture from a place where a few sold the same thing to many -- think network television or the Hollywood studios or even booksellers circa 1970 -- to one where the middleman or gatekeeper can be circumvented."

That radical cultural shift affects more than just bookstores. Just about everything is now available online: office supplies, household furnishings, hardware, clothing, even groceries can be purchased without leaving home. Some websites offer comparison shopping, listing multiple online sources for various items and their prices. Shopping has never been easier for consumers, the selection of items has never been greater -- and online stores never close. This is a mixed blessing for those who tend to consume so much and so often that their homes are already packed with too much stuff.

On one hand, the constant availability of a vast array of products can be particularly dangerous for people who have difficulty discriminating between "need" and "want." The rather hypnotic effect of online browsing also can cause even the most diligent of us to succumb. If a click of the mouse is all that's required to purchase something, it's a temptation that can be hard to resist.

On the other hand, the situation can work to our advantage. If so many things are easy to acquire, that means that we don't need to have everything imaginable crammed into our homes. The Internet serves as a gigantic storeroom that we can tap to fill our needs and, meanwhile, we can live with less, secure in the knowledge that we can order online, get overnight shipping if necessary and, voila! -- Stuff, delivered to our door.

This applies to retail spaces, too, many of which are open twenty-four hours. Unless you live in a very small town or an isolated rural area and have an urgent need for, let's say, a paper clip at four in the morning, chances are you can rely on a neighborhood store to be ready and waiting with a box of them to solve your problem. The retail space serves as your storeroom. (This brings up another issue about why you won't often find yourself in that situation if you have only what you need in your house, because you'll notice when you're just about out of paper clips and will replenish your supply, thus avoiding the four a.m. emergency. But we'll save that discussion for another time.)

And, of course, in spite of the huge amount of stuff available to buy without stepping outside of your door, some things really do require more personal contact to be either workable or satisfying. Almost anyone over the age of twelve is hard-pressed to order clothes without trying them on and expect a good fit, so until clothing sizes are standardized (don't hold your breath!), most of us will rely on a retail store. Unless there's a particular gourmet item that's caught your fancy, most of us will buy our food from the local grocer. And, at least for me, while I'm delighted to be able to sell my book online through Amazon and confess that I have often ordered from them, I lament the diminishing number of independent booksellers. Nothing will ever quite take the place of whiling away a couple of hours in the slightly musty disarray of Dutton's, where treasures lay hidden in books piled on the floor and Dave, in North Hollywood, and Steve, in Burbank, were always good for a suggestion of an interesting author or just a friendly conversation.

That, by the way, reinforces the favorite reminder I like to share with my readers: it's people, not things, that are most important in our lives.

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob