Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Status Shopping for Babies

It's no secret that we live in a society obsessed by status consciousness and that the coveted rank of high status is conferred by ownership of "the right" brand name stuff, preferably plenty of it. It's also no secret that in Los Angeles that obsession has reached critical mass.

So what happens when status conscious Angelenos become parents? Well, naturally they absolutely must have "the right" stuff for their little ones. That means nothing as common as mass-marketed clothing and toys is appropriate. No, for them shopping for only the specialty and boutique labels will do.

Alan Fields, who co-wrote Baby Bargains, a popular shopping guide for parents, determined that it costs $6,655 at retail prices to buy all the stuff a child "needs," even before baby's first birthday rolls around. Fields said, "Twenty years ago, no one really cared what brand your stroller was. Today, it's a status symbol."

But here in the sun-drenched home base of diamond-encrusted cell phones, the desire for the "right" stuff is about the only thing that dependably trickles down to the folks with less robust bank accounts than the average media mogul. So what's a mom to do if she'd like to save a few bucks on her little darling's pricey accoutrements? If she's a clever former marketing exec, she'll come up with a creative plan to find lightly used ones. And that's what Valley-mom Kristin Nelson did when she set up her first Baby Bazaar.

In a recent LA Times article, reporter Jennifer Oldham states that in only four years Nelson's sale "has grown from three dozen friends and neighbors selling used children's things in Nelson's Sherman Oaks driveway to a twice-yearly mega-event that fills a 6,000-square-foot hall. Come fall, she'll be moving to a 10,000-square-foot space with room for 375 sellers."

Now dubbed the LA Kids Consignment Sale, the event offers some 25,000 items for sale, making it "the largest such event in the Western United States and one of hundreds that have sprung up nationwide in the last five years to help parents divest themselves of the expensive doodads and knickknacks that seem to be absolutely indispensable to raising a child in the 21st century."

Originally Nelson thought she'd be selling to low income parents looking for bargains. Instead, she found "stay-at-home mothers in $165 jeans frantically searching crowded racks elbow-to-elbow with screenwriters and nannies. Some came from 30 miles away or farther."

If you'd like a glimpse of what the sale is like, take a look at this two-minute LA Kids Consignment Sale video produced for the LA Times.

At least this giant consignment sale is a very fine example of recycling. But shouldn't we also be considering the sheer quantity of stuff that's being sold? Was all of it necessary to raise a happy newborn for the following 365 days?

I wonder how much it really costs to raise a healthy, happy baby, especially if you don't happen to have a spare $6,655 to spend in that first year. I'm not a parent, so I can't speak from experience; please chime in with your observations if you do have kids. And meanwhile, let's get some perspective.

In 1999 in Los Angeles, 181,473 children under age five lived below the poverty line. That's almost 25 percent of all the kids in that age group in LA County. Considering our current economic malaise, it's unlikely that things have improved in the last decade.

In 2002, a family of four was considered below the poverty line if their income was less than $18,100. It's doubtful that any of these families could have even imagined spending over one-third of their total household income on stuff for a new baby.

As I said, I don't have kids, but the last time I encountered a child under the age of one, I can absolutely guarantee that he didn't care about the name on the label of his jammies.

Unfortunately, his parents did.

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Chaos Theory, The Fate of Earth . . . and Clutter

Edward Lorenz, often called "the father of chaos theory," passed away on Wednesday. The award-winning ninety-year-old meteorologist and MIT professor discovered through his mathematical analysis of weather systems that "small differences in a dynamic system . . . could trigger vast and often unsuspected results." This breakthrough led him to entitle a 1972 academic paper, "Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly's Wings in Brazil Set off a Tornado in Texas?"

The "Butterfly Effect," according to MIT, "marked the beginning of a new field of study that impacted not just the field of mathematics but virtually every branch of science -- biological, physical and social." The term and its implications are also popularly invoked by eco-conscious and spiritually-inclined people as a way of demonstrating the significant interrelationship of all living things on our small planet. Of course, some Native Americans (among others) figured out all of this long ago: the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy mandated that all decisions should be made while keeping in mind their impact on the next seven generations.

And what does this theory have to do with the daily life of the average person? It should make us acutely aware of our personal responsibility to acknowledge that everything we do will have consequences that affect others and, therefore, we should act accordingly. Does using Styrofoam coffee cups contribute to global warming? Does driving an SUV result in the extinction of an exotic species of tree frog? Will that flashlight battery tossed carelessly into the trash come back to haunt some family in the distant future who's struggling to find a source of clean water? If so, we need to change our behavior.

However, I've written in the past about shopper's compassion fatigue in which we become overwhelmed by the demands of making the "right" choices when shopping. It's certainly even easier to feel fatigued if we believe that the fate of the entire world is on our shoulders with every single decision we make. (Those of us with perfectionist tendencies can really get into trouble with this kind of thinking and become paralyzed with indecision due to fear of making the wrong choice. My solution when this hits me is to hyperventilate and eat chocolate. But I digress.)

While our individual responsibilities and obligations are clear, we are all human and can do only the best we can based on our circumstances and abilities. The world will simply have to muddle along with each of us making some effort to steer it in a direction that will benefit all of its inhabitants (of course, electing responsible politicians would help this process, too). And yet, because the world population is rapidly approaching seven billion people, much of what will happen obviously is out of our hands.

So, rather than getting completely bogged down by the enormity of the larger global crises that we face, let's think on a smaller scale. Rather than struggling with trying not to have a negative impact on the entire Earth, let's just try not to demolish the "ecosystems" of our own homes.

Let's also see if we can invert our thinking: consider the Butterfly Effect in a way that focuses on the power of accomplishing something positive.

Most of us dealing with clutter issues have our own less scientific definition of "chaos theory," i.e., the way things usually work around the house. Let's also work with our less scientific definition of the Butterfly Effect, giving it a more direct cause-and-effect relationship than it has in mathematics (just in case there are some literalist sticklers reading!).

It seems obvious that if we continue to avoid dealing with those piles of papers, crowded closets and packed-to-the-rafters garages, we'll just keep adding more and more stuff. Then the clutter difficulties we face will get worse and adversely affect even more of our lives. Toss one piece of paper on the floor and the Butterfly Effect says that you'll be eating junk food later that day. Let the laundry pile up and the Butterfly Effect says that you won't be able to find your wallet tomorrow. However, unclutter one small area on your kitchen counter and keep it that way, and next week you'll get a raise at work!

Okay, all this may be an exaggeration, but the point is that if we pay attention to making the "right" decisions in our own homes, we will reap the benefits. Unclutter the linen closet and we'll find the motivation we need to tackle the attic. Give away all the old clothes that we no longer want and soon we'll be able to part with the books that have spilled onto the floor around the bookcase. Clear off the dining room table and we'll feel like inviting friends over for a dinner party.

The Butterfly Effect can help keep us moving in a direction that will lead to a clean, comfortable, welcoming environment in our homes in which we can live joyously and productively. Just the way we'd like everyone on the planet to be able to live.

Who knows? Maybe getting rid of our clutter will lead to world peace. Don't laugh. Thanks to Edward Lorenz, we know that the Butterfly Effect can be very powerful. Let's try it and see what happens!

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob

Monday, April 07, 2008

Whole Foods and Sustainable Architecture

I've not yet visited the gigantic, new, two-storey Whole Foods Market in Pasadena, but the place already has generated a lot of discussion in the LA area. In fact, the discussion has prompted a feature article by Christopher Hawthorne in Sunday's LA Times. Hawthorne, the Times' architecture critic, ponders the conflict between the massive structure in which organic/fair-traded/crunchy-healthy foods are sold and the concept of green architecture in which a smaller footprint on the land is a primary focus. Not surprisingly, the conclusion isn't favorable for the market:

". . . the first rule of sustainable architecture is to keep new buildings as small and efficient as possible. With its soaring 30-foot ceilings and endless aisles, 280 subterranean parking spots and . . . TVs flickering day and night, this place is neither. It's more like the grocery store version of a hybrid SUV made by Lexus or a 12,000-square-foot 'green' house with a swimming pool and six-car garage accompanying its solar panels and sustainably harvested decking."

Sounds like a far cry from the tiny old neighborhood Aunt Tilley's health food store of some thirty years ago in Hollywood, with its too-small aisles and little bins of bulk brown rice and lentils. The selection of items wasn't great, but the counter-culture vibe (sadly dated words!) was palpable.

So how much of a trade-off are we willing to accept today for the multiple brands of a dazzling variety of soy products, the rows upon rows of snack bars, the imported (yet "sustainable") designer bamboo tableware?

Clearly, there's a dichotomy between Whole Foods' ostensibly good intentions to provide easy access to a variety of healthy food (okay, and they want to expand their business), and the manifestation of those intentions which Hawthorne suggests has resulted in "Vegas with organic, gluten-free scones."

Have the organic products/health food industries been totally co-opted by big business?

It's true that the mammoth Whole Foods store seems to be an anachronism, but, oh, what we would have given if Aunt Tilley's had stocked a gluten-free scone!

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob