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