Wednesday, December 30, 2009

New Day Resolutions

Bill Vaughn, the late Kansas City Star columnist and author, once observed about New Year's Eve that "an optimist stays up until midnight to see the New Year; a pessimist stays up to make sure the old one leaves." I suspect that most of us combine both of those outlooks, eager to put any unpleasant memories behind us and hopeful that the coming year will provide many happy ones.

I also have mixed feelings about the annual ritual of making resolutions. Sometimes those vows to ourselves can be motivating, but sometimes they set us up for feelings of failure. Part of the problem is the intense focus on making dramatic changes starting on one particular day, January 1st, as if no other day were suitable for such tasks and as if small changes were not important. Fall off the resolution wagon, as so many of us do, and the whole year is shot. Of course, that's not true, but we often feel that way.

So, this year I've decided to abandon New Year's resolutions in favor of the approach that British sculptor Henry Moore advocated: "I think in terms of the day's resolutions, not the year's." I much prefer this option to reinvent myself on a smaller scale every day rather than in some major form once a year. Thinking in terms of daily reinventions will allow me to avoid the usual large, annual goal-oriented resolutions -- even such worthy ones as last year's plan to lose mffwhty pounds (unsuccessful) or the 365 Item Toss Unclutterer Challenge (successful!).

But resolutions, no matter what their scale or how often they're promised, require some sort of structure, so I've come up with one. Rather than making a list of specific things to do (or avoid doing), I'm going to use a few questions to help me make daily choices. I offer them for you to consider using, too:

1. Is what I'm doing either necessary or enjoyable?

2. Could I approach it in a way that would render it either unnecessary or more enjoyable?

3. Is engaging in this activity the best expression of my authentic self?

The last question is especially significant. Are you being the best version of who you truly are, not who you're "supposed" to be, not who other people perceive you to be, not who you used to be some time in the past? Of course, this requires defining who you are now. That can be a fairly daunting, but worthwhile, task that will take some time (probably more than you might think).

And how does all this apply to "thoughtful consumers?" First of all, in what ways does that phrase describe you? Does it mean avoiding certain products or manufacturers because they don't appeal to your own authentic sense of what's "right?" Does it mean using public transportation or a bicycle? Does it mean living in a commune? (Shades of the sixties!) Or does it mean simply avoiding buying things that you and your family don't really need so that you don't live surrounded by clutter? However you define it, that's a reflection of your authentic self and your daily choices can be guided by that knowledge.

Guided, not propelled down some inflexible path to some unimpeachable truth. Many consumer choices are complex and confusing; some options are unaffordable or impractical. Also, situations and levels of awareness change over time and the choices you make today may not be the choices you make tomorrow. The key word in the label, "thoughtful consumer," is "thoughtful."

There's one other thing I'm going to remind myself about every day (if only I remember!) that I hope you'll remember, too: it's not necessary to be perfect; it's only necessary to do the best you can do.

If you're reading this on December 31st, you don't have to wait until tomorrow to start becoming the best version of your authentic self. Happy New Year, but happy new day, too.

(c) 2009 Cynthia Friedlob

Image Credit : (c) 2009 Billy Alexander stock.xchng

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Discardia: A Holiday for Unclutterers

Monday, the 21st, marks the return of Discardia, one of my favorite holidays. I first learned about Discardia two years ago from a post on Jeri Dansky's popular blog; the full story (which is definitely worth reading) is at the website of Dinah Sanders, who came up with the amusing idea for this clever holiday in 2002.

Although it's celebrated throughout the year (between the solstices and equinoxes and their following new moons), the celebration nearest to Christmas is particularly worth noting. I've posted about the spirit of the Discardia in the past, but the basic principle is that it's a time of letting go of unnecessary things, "things that no longer add value to your life." That requires a significant change in the way we think about our possessions. What better time to reexamine the value of possessions than during a holiday season in which the focus too often is on mindlessly giving stuff to other people who probably really don't need it?

I love giving thoughtful presents so I'm not advocating abandoning the practice. I'm just very fond of the idea of using this time to let go of lots of my excess stuff, too. Also, the end of my year-long, 365 Item Toss Uncluttering Challenge is looming, so I've used Discardia to help me make sure I met my goal -- and I have. I've even exceeded it: 486 items have been donated, recycled, re-gifted or sold in the past year! You can get more details about the challenge here on the original blog post (updates are in the comments).

If you celebrate Discardia, you'll find that what you're really doing is giving yourself a gift: freedom from too much stuff!

(c) 2009 Cynthia Friedlob

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Movie Santa Doesn't Want You To See!

Christmas is a tricky time for unclutterers. It makes us painfully aware that we're swimming upstream as far as the general society is concerned, although the tanked economy currently is making that swim quite a bit easier. But even the most confirmed unclutterer is not necessarily a grinch. Except for the ascetics among us, we'd all agree that there's nothing inherently wrong with stuff; the primary issue is the quantity of stuff that so many of us have. True, most of us who advocate living with fewer rather than more possessions would prefer to keep the tangible holiday gifts to a minimum, but that doesn't mean we don't have the spirit of the season. And yet, how does one keep the "correct" balance during a time that's so focused on giving -- or, more accurately, buying?

Bill Talen, aka "Reverend Billy," offers one answer in What Would Jesus Buy? Produced in 2007 by Morgan Spurlock of Supersize Me fame, this documentary film tackles the commercialization of Christmas but has a larger focus on the general excesses of consumerism, too. Talen, a genuinely concerned consumer, is also a comedic performance artist who resembles a younger Jerry Lee Lewis. He travels the nation as a preacher from the Church of Stop Shopping. The Reverend warns of the coming Shopocalypse: "the end of mankind from consumerism, overconsumption and the fires of eternal debt." He exorcises demons at the corporate headquarters of that well-known small business crusher, Wal-Mart. He and the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir put on a rousing good show everywhere from small churches to the Mall of America (surely a place of worship for shoppers), but the message is legitimate: buy less and give more; buy locally; reduce, reuse, recycle. And buy with awareness. Who made the product? Where? At what cost to the environment? Under what labor conditions?

All of these issues are important, even urgent, but sometimes it's easy to get caught up in the seriousness of our concerns and lose the joy of the season and the fun of giving. Sometimes the message has a greater impact when the messenger makes us think and laugh, as Reverend Billy does.

If you live near Greenfield, Massachusetts, you can see the show at the Christmas Revival on December 19th. You can see the Reverend Billy's recent interview on CNN here.

Does the Reverend speak to you?

(c) 2009 Cynthia Friedlob

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Manhattan's Smallest Home

Recently I've noticed quite a few print and on-line articles about small homes. I can only hope that this reflects our society's increasing comfort level with decreasing living space. But this article in the New York Post features the smallest home I've seen that has truly captured my imagination. In fact, had I known it was on the market, I could have been greatly tempted by the opportunity to buy it, even though it's on the opposite coast in Manhattan. Have you ever heard of a place in the city that cost only $150,000? A parking space, maybe, or a broom closet. Ah, well, it turns out that "broom closet" pretty aptly describes it.

On 110th, between Broadway and Amsterdam, sits a pre-war, sixteen-floor co-op building, with a doorman. On the top floor, there is a very tiny room that used to be one of several maids' quarters back during the building's previous configuration. At ten feet wide and less than fifteen feet long, this miniscule studio has space for a bed, a kitchen with mini-fridge and hotplate. There's also a three-foot by nine-foot bathroom (obviously no tub, just a shower, sink and toilet).

The reason this little broom closet might have been such a fabulous buy for an out-of-towner is that it could be used like a hotel room and make a bi-coastal (okay, fantasy) life possible. But what would it be like to live there?

Owners Zaarath and Christopher Prokop think it's great. They even share it with their two cats. Granted they use local dry-cleaning establishments as closets and never cook a meal at home, and I'm certain they keep all of their work-related paraphernalia in their offices, but it's still a stretch for me to imagine squeezing the complete lives of two adults into such a restricted space.

Day after day after day.

Even in the winter when it's freezing outside.

Or during a bout of the flu.

With cats!

Nope. I'll have to pass.

Could you do it? Take a look at the slide show here.

© 2009 Cynthia Friedlob

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Bleak Friday

I wrote a blog post last year about the outrageous circumstances of the tragic death of a WalMart employee on Black Friday. Jdimytai Damour was the 34-year-old temporary employee who was trampled to death as a mob of shoppers stormed the doors of a Long Island WalMart store, searching for bargains at the ironically named Green Acres Mall. In case you didn't keep track of the legal proceedings that resulted from the "incident," as it's euphemistically called, here's what WalMart agreed to do last May in order to avoid criminal prosecution:

1) implement improved "crowd management" plans at all of the 92 stores across NY state

2) set up a $400,000 fund to compensate about 11 other victims who were injured at that time

3) donate $1.5 million to social service and non-profit groups in the Long Island community

4) hire 50 local teenagers annually

Although WalMart admitted no wrong-doing as part of the terms of the settlement (which was not accepted by Charles Ogera, the victim's father), this may seem a rather paltry amount for the retail giant to fork over for what many would consider gross negligence. However, I was surprised to learn that, had the case gone to court, the maximum penalty that could have been imposed on the corporation for a felony was $10,000 -- about what WalMart earns in fifteen minutes on an average day. [Correction: The original proposed fine of $7,000 is what WalMart earns in about 18 seconds, according to the LA Times. That makes more sense.]

And yet, as much as the store may have appeared at fault in the eyes of the public, if not the eyes of the law, Bruce Watson, writing at Daily Finance, commented on the power of consumer greed that contributed to the crowd's behavior that day: " is worth noting that the store's customers argued with the police and employees who asked them to leave after the trampling. All told, the event suggests a deep consumerist soul-rot that is alarming."

Although economic conditions will probably slow down spending a bit this year, I wonder if we'll ever get to the root of the problem, the "soul-rot" that forces so many people to buy so much unnecessary stuff. Of course, anyone can make the choice not to participate in the shopping madness. I've written about Buy Nothing Day in the past, too; it falls on the same day as Black Friday. Maybe it will pick up a few more adherents this year. I hope so. Whatever happens, I just don't want to have to write another Angry Consumer blog post on November 27th.

(c) 2009 Cynthia Friedlob

Friday, November 13, 2009

Living Small, Paying Rent

It's no surprise that many people are rethinking the wisdom of buying a house. Property values are always supposed to go up, but the last few years have proven that assumption wrong. I don't know why anyone needed proof again; housing prices have dipped precipitously in the past. But, we seem to have a collective short memory when it comes to the unpleasant realities of the financial world.

The benefits of homeownership are familiar to most of us: you can build substantial equity if you stay in your home long enough, you can remodel to suit your tastes, you may get some helpful tax breaks, and you can enjoy feelings of stability and being a part of your community. On the other hand, you're responsible for all the maintenance bills, you can't just pick up and move if you feel like it with thirty days notice, and if your personal financial situation alters dramatically for the worse, you could end up losing your home to foreclosure, a truly unpleasant reality for many people right now.

I was always a believer in the flexibility of renting, so becoming a townhouse owner about ten years ago was a big step out of character. Fortunately, the Los Angeles housing market was just emerging from a slump, so prices were favorable for buyers. Also fortunate is the fact that the property has appreciated enough so that even in the current horrendous marketplace, it's remained a solid investment. Best of all, it's been a great place to live. But, being the kind of person who ponders, probably too often, the road not taken, I sometimes wonder how renting would have changed some of the choices that were made over the last decade.

One couple who chose to rent rather than buy are "living happily in 380 square feet" along with their nine-month-old son, Thurston, and Charlie, the dog. Kelly Breslin and Ryan Conder have furnished their miniscule apartment fashionably and functionally. Conder owns a men's clothing store; Breslin makes ceramic art, obviously not at home.

Looking at the photos in the LA Times article about them, I wondered what it would be like to live in such close quarters. My answer: not a joyful experience (okay, I phrased it more emphatically than that).

Could you do it?

(c) 2009 Cynthia Friedlob
Photo credit: Mark Manalaysay

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Blog Action Day: Climate Change

The challenge facing a call to action to deal with climate change is that the issue is not an obvious problem on a daily basis. We might notice an unseasonal heat wave, or be inconvenienced by a drought that restricts our water usage; we might even have an intellectual awareness that the issue is a serious one, but most average consumers in our country don't really suffer as a result of it -- not yet.

The majority of people probably don't even see much of a connection between consumerism and climate change, but it exists. Every product that we consume requires not only the ingredients or components of the product itself, but also a manufacturing and distribution process for those components and the final product, all which have some sort of environmental impact. Often there's also an environmental effect during or immediately after the consumption of the product.

Probably the most obvious example that contributes to the climate change problem: a car. When we buy a car, we're not just buying transportation; we're buying the various metals, glass, fiberglass, rubber, etc. that were used to build the car, as well as the manufacturing process itself. Then we need fossil fuels to run the car. Fuel requires not only raw materials (which are extracted in an environmentally unfriendly way), but also plants to process them (also not environmentally friendly). When fuel is burned in the car (and in the giant tanker trucks used to deliver the fuel to our gas stations), the waste product contributes to pollution. The Environmental Defense Fund states, "U.S. autos emit more than 333 million tons of carbon dioxide each year, more than one-fifth of the nation's total carbon dioxide emissions. Any serious effort to fight global warming must include cutting auto emissions." (Click here for a detailed analysis on the EDF site about how cars contribute to global warming.)

Everything that we consume has some kind of environmental consequences, so limiting our consumption seems to be a simple way to lessen our negative impact (our carbon footprint) on the environment. And because we are such a wealthy society, our impact is substantial. Global Issues reported that "using the latest figures available, in 2005, the wealthiest 20% of the world accounted for 76.6% of total private consumption. The poorest fifth just 1.5%" (See Material World: A Global Family Portrait, one of my favorite books, for some startling images that show the differences between us and consumers in other cultures.)

We may not have a lot of time to make changes in our patterns of consumption in order to halt and perhaps reverse the climate change trend. A recent British study predicts that the polar ice caps will be gone in twenty years. "Remove the Arctic ice cap and we are left with a very different and much warmer world. . . Loss of sea ice cover will 'set in motion powerful climate feedbacks which will have an impact far beyond the Arctic itself' . . . This could lead to flooding affecting one quarter of the world's population, substantial increases in greenhouse gas emission from massive carbon pools and extreme global weather changes."

Well, that would get our attention, but let's not wait that long. We can get involved right now by supporting these or many other fine organizations that are making efforts to deal with climate change:

The Nature Conservancy



There are also opportunities for political involvement here: (sponsors of the International Day of Climate Action, October 24th)

TckTckTck (a cooperative umbrella organization working for an international agreement to address this issue at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, December 7-18, 2009. You can read more about the UN's effort to make this deal happen.)

And you can check out the other 7900+ blogs from all over the world that are participating in Blog Action Day. [Update at 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time: over 10,000 bloggers are participating and the event was kicked off by a topical post from UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown.]

I know, it seems a little overwhelming. I've written in the past about "shopper's compassion fatigue," that oppressive feeling of the weight of the world on our shoulders that we can get when trying to make the "right" decision about what to buy, or whether to buy at all. But as long as we're all traveling together on this small planet, it seems like a good idea to do what we can to keep that planet healthy enough to take care of us. And nobody ever said that being a thoughtful consumer was easy.

© 2009 Cynthia Friedlob

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Alternative Housing: Intentional Communities

[There was a Feedburner technical glitch affecting the distribution of my last post on September 25th, "Going Wrong Going Green, Part 2," and I was never able to get the feed to update. If you subscribe to this blog by RSS Feed, you probably didn't receive the post, so you may want to take a moment to read it at your convenience.]

I’ve talked in the past about alternative types of housing, but the alternatives have always referred to structural and environmental issues. What about other types of alternative housing? What about housing that encourages people to live in a more communal spirit?

Throughout human history, groups of people with common bonds have lived together in a community, either a shared physical location or, in the case of nomadic tribes, a shared pattern of roaming. When civilization moved beyond the tribal stage, religious beliefs were the common bonds that held together villages and most small towns. When we moved into the era of multiple types of groups living in larger urban areas, ethnic bonds usually prevailed. Sometimes this offered the comfort and familiarity of a community; sometimes it resulted in impoverished ghettos. Larger societies also have class or caste systems that create communities. Some are blatant, like those in India or England; some are more subtle, like Japan or Israel. Here in “the land of the free, home of the brave,” we have a massive mix of groups, many still astonishingly segregated, and a class system in which higher echelons can be cracked, to a substantial degree, with enough financial success.

So where do modern “intentional communities” fit in? There are still religious and cultural forms like ashrams and kibbutzes, and, in the U.S., communities like the Amish, or Native Americans who live on tribal lands. But there are also other types of intentional communities, communes and cohousing, which are based on shared philosophies or on simple economic need.

In addition to shared philosophy, communes have a shared economy, i.e., the communal structure generates at least some income for the members. Aging Boomers who were politically active liberals probably remember The Farm, Steven Gaskin’s “noble experiment” and a classic commune. An English professor at San Francisco State, Gaskin witnessed the explosion, then implosion, of the Haight-Ashbury district during the late 1960s. His response was to buy land in Tennessee and, along with a few hundred followers, set up an intentional community that was held together by the philosophical beliefs of anti-materialism, vegetarianism and self-sufficiency. The Farm still exists, in spite of bumps along the way, and now includes charitable service as part of its philosophy.

According to the website, "The cohousing idea originated in Denmark, and was promoted in the U.S. by architects Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett in the early 1980s. . . [Cohousing brings] together the value of private homes with the benefits of more sustainable living. . . The common house is the social center of a community, with a large dining room and kitchen, lounge, recreational facilities, children’s spaces, and frequently a guest room, workshop and laundry room. Communities usually serve optional group meals in the common house at least two or three times a week."
Click here for the six defining characteristics of cohousing. One is that the cohousing community is not a source of income for its members, making this arrangement distinct from a commune.
Check out EcoVillage in Ithaca, New York; Milagro Co-housing in Tucson, Arizona; and Prairie Onion Cohousing, right in the city of Chicago for examples of cohousing.

Finances may be pushing a lot of people who have never considered it before into alternative living arrangements. Multi-generational families are sharing homes again after the latest stock market and housing meltdowns. Finances are also often an issue for older people who are alone and either have limited resources or want to spend their later years in a more collegial setting than what passes for "neighborhood" in many larger cities. Boomers Go Back to the Commune in Retirement, an informative article from, discusses this trend. It's particularly significant for older women, who usually outlive their husbands. A Smart Money magazine article states, "The 2006 Census found that 7.4 million women aged 65 and older live alone, compared with 2.7 million men. . . Even scarier: In 2005, the Census found that 12% of women age 65 and older were living in poverty, a sizable chunk more than the 7% of men in the same group."

But I liked the story of one resourceful Asheville, NC, woman: "[I]nstead of joining an existing [intentional] community, the self-described maverick set up her own, buying two houses in a three-house enclave. Now, she lives in one house, rents her second property to two other single women, and has a friend living next door. 'It's like being married to four different people,' says Kilkenny, who helped organize the 'Women Living in Community' conference in Asheville in July. 'You drive into your driveway and there's someone there. It's huge for me. I can walk out on my porch and say 'Morning, Bobbie, want a cup of coffee?' There's camaraderie.'"

We can talk about all kinds of ways to live more lightly on the Earth, we can debate all kinds of strategies to get through difficult financial times, and we can lament the lack of community that so many of us feel. The simplest solutions for most of us are to live in smaller spaces, keep our living costs affordable and get to know our neighbors. I've got the first two solutions covered, but I just met my "new" next door neighbor last week. She's lived in her townhouse for a little over a year. What can I say? LA's a tough town.

Find more information at:

© 2009 Cynthia Friedlob
Image: Jackie at

Friday, September 25, 2009

Going Wrong Going Green, Part 2

Synchronicity, according to, is "a coincidence of events that seem to be meaningfully related." After my previous post, I haven't been searching for more examples of the complexity of the decision-making process when you want to be a thoughtful consumer, but the LA Times had two articles today that relate to the topic. Synchronicity? Why not?

First, fabric. Let's consider the fact that many consumers who think of themselves as concerned and aware disdain anything other than "natural" fabrics like cotton, yet "Hard Truths about Uzbek Cotton," an opinion piece written by Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), details the plight of children forced to pick cotton in Uzbekistan, the world's third largest exporter of cotton -- cotton that ends up in our marketplace.

"Unlike most instances of forced child labor in agriculture, this mass mobilization is not driven by exploitative plantation owners or desperate families but by the government. . . Consumers and companies in the West prop up this monstrous system by unwittingly purchasing cotton harvested by forced child labor. Supply chain analysts have determined that most Uzbek cotton is sold to countries in South Asia and Eastern Europe. From there, the cotton is processed and turned into garments sold in retail stores in the United States, Canada and Western Europe."

Is child slave labor cotton any more acceptable than blood diamonds? No.

And don't think that buying "organic cotton" necessarily solves the problem. Erik Cussack's "Organic Cotton" blog has interesting posts about fake organic cotton that's being sold as the real thing and about genetically-modified organic cotton from India. Also, if organic cotton fabric is dyed with toxic chemicals, which does happen, that defeats its purpose. There's also a cost factor if you're purchasing most legitimate organic cotton goods; not everyone can afford a $35 T-shirt.

The next issue may sound amusing, but it really isn't: toilet paper. Reporter David A. Fahrenthold wrote, "Environmentalists Target Plush Toilet Paper," in which he explains that "plush U.S. toilet paper is usually made by chopping down and grinding up trees that were decades or even a century old. Environmentalists want Americans, like Europeans, to wipe with tissue made from recycled paper goods."

Although toilet paper and facial tissues account for only 5% of the products made from "the forest goods industry," do we really want to cut down a single old growth tree so that we can have three-ply toilet paper? No.

And finally, before I put to rest, at least for awhile, the problems inherent in going green, I want to close with some information I just happened to come across recently having to do with ethanol, which has been touted as as a biofuel alternative to gasoline. In 2008, the U.S. and Brazil produced 89% of the supply of ethanol fuel; Brazil has been nicknamed "the Saudi Arabia of biofuels."

From Wikipedia: "Because it is easy to manufacture and process and can be made from very common crops such as sugar cane, potato, manioc and corn, in several countries ethanol fuel is increasingly being blended as gasohol or used as an oxygenate in gasoline. Bioethanol, unlike petroleum, is a renewable resource that can be produced from agricultural feedstocks."

This makes it an appealing commodity to environmentalists. But, it turns out that, in addition to potential ecological problems affecting water quality (see the NY Times) and the contamination of grain fed to livestock (see Minnesota Public Radio), once again the human cost must be considered.

According to an LA Times article by Patrick J. McDonnell from June, 2008, "[m]ore than 300,000 farmworkers are seasonal [sugar] cane cutters in Brazil, the government says. By most accounts, their work and living conditions range from basic to deplorable to outright servitude. . . In its annual report, Amnesty International last month highlighted the plight of Brazil's biofuel workers, more than 1,000 of whom were rescued in June 2007 after allegedly being held in slave-like conditions at a plantation owned by a major ethanol producer. . . Although slavery cases tend to grab headlines, advocates say laborers typically face more quotidian abuse -- low pay, excessive work hours, inadequate safety gear, an absence of sanitary and health services, and exposure to pesticides and other toxic chemicals."

So, this is what it takes to produce one type of alternative fuel? Is that okay with everyone? No.

Unfortunately, I could list many more situations that most consumers may not be aware of, including some that I've covered in previous posts (see, for example, Fair Trade Jewelry). Clearly it's not easy to understand the complex issues surrounding every single thing we buy, to make the right decision, to do the right thing. But accepting that fact may at least help us make some decisions that we know are right:

I know for certain that I can live without that third ply.

© 2009 Cynthia Friedlob

Photo credit:

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Going Wrong Going Green

We all like to think we’re making wise consumer decisions that are good for us and good for the Earth. We like to think we’re making informed decisions, not irrational, arbitrary ones. Okay, at least we like to think we’re giving it our best shot. Turns out that often there are trade-offs and compromises that probably don’t even occur to us when we’re making those decisions.

Here are just a few things to consider:

Sometimes the real cost of "buying American" defeats, or seriously compromises, our efforts to go green. For example, Newsweek recently reported that "[a] New Yorker leaves a smaller carbon footprint drinking a French Bordeaux shipped across the Atlantic (2.93 pounds of carbon per bottle) than drinking a Napa merlot (7.05 pounds). That's because when it comes to calculating carbon costs, the method of transportation matters as much as the distance. Shipping freight by sea generates less than half the emissions associated with airplanes and tractor-trailers."

The same shipping problem exists for groceries. Consumers have come to expect fresh produce in our stores throughout the year, so importing is the only option. But the New York Times reported that "the movable feast comes at a cost: pollution — especially carbon dioxide, the main global warming gas — from transporting the food. Under longstanding trade agreements, fuel for international freight carried by sea and air is not taxed. Now, many economists, environmental advocates and politicians say it is time to make shippers and shoppers pay for the pollution, through taxes or other measures."

But the transportation/fuel issue isn't straightforward: "The problem is measuring the emissions. The fact that food travels farther does not necessarily mean more energy is used. Some studies have shown that shipping fresh apples, onions and lamb from New Zealand might produce lower emissions than producing the goods in Europe, where — for example — storing apples for months would require refrigeration."

And how about those "green" re-usable bags we're all supposed to remember to carry into the store when we go shopping? Again, it's not so simple to figure out the benefits. From the Wall Street Journal: "'If you don't reuse them, you're actually worse off by taking one of them,' says Bob Lilienfeld, author of the Use Less Stuff Report, an online newsletter about waste prevention. . . . [and] Finding a truly green bag is challenging. Plastic totes may be more eco-friendly to manufacture than ones made from cotton or canvas, which can require large amounts of water and energy to produce and may contain harsh chemical dyes. Paper bags, meanwhile, require the destruction of millions of trees and are made in factories that contribute to air and water pollution. Many of the cheap, reusable bags that retailers favor are produced in Chinese factories and made from nonwoven polypropylene, a form of plastic that requires about 28 times as much energy to produce as the plastic used in standard disposable bags and eight times as much as a paper sack . . ."

Kind of makes you want to throw up your hands and surrender, doesn't it?

But let's not do that. Let's continue doing our best to make good decisions, but let's also remember that life is full of compromises. In fact, it's not always possible to make the "right" consumer choices because we can't always figure out what they are. Maybe realizing this is an opportunity to develop a more tolerant response to people who make choices that we don't understand. Maybe it's an opportunity to lighten up.

And maybe the whole dilemma doesn't matter all that much because if we don't start making better choices about how we relate to and care about other human beings, trust me, shopping will be the least of our problems.

© 2009 Cynthia Friedlob

Photo credit:

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Hunger Action Month

Better late than never!

Just a quick post to let you know that September (almost gone!) is Hunger Action Month, a worthy event sponsored by Feeding America (formerly America's Second Harvest, The Nation's Food Bank Network).

Macy's, The Cheesecake Factory, United Airlines, Sony Pictures Animation and Microsoft are partners with Feeding America for this project.

Click here to read the full press release.

Click here to find out what's going on in your community.

If you're in the Los Angeles area, you can head for the "Rock a Little, Feed a Lot" concert at Club Nokia on September 29th featuring Sheryl Crow, Ben Harper and other performers in an LA Food Bank fundraiser.

The Feeding America site has a calculator that demonstrates how many meals they can provide if we skip purchasing something we don't need and donate the money we would have spent to them instead:

New shoes = 240 meals

New purse = 135 meals

Round of golf = 180 meals

A single latte = 9 meals

Wherever we are, this month can help us keep in perspective our role as consumers. If we're fortunate enough to be able to cut back a little on shopping and entertainment, we can make quite an impact on the lives of others who can't afford one thing every consumer has to buy: food.

© 2009 Cynthia Friedlob

Photo credit:

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Great California Garage Sale

It's a pretty sorry situation when a state has to resort to a garage sale to help balance a budget that suffers from a 26 billion dollar deficit. But that's what California did this weekend at the Great California Garage Sale. The government gathered up all of its clutter, plunked it down in a huge warehouse in Sacramento and opened the doors to the gleeful public. There were even items listed for sale on eBay.

It turned out to be a good idea.

Literally thousands of typical garage sale bargains like office furniture, computers, electronics, jewelry and an antique piano, plus some less common finds like surplus prison uniforms and dental chairs, brought about 1.6 million dollars to the state's coffers. Almost 600 state-owned vehicles were auctioned on-line; some had visors that had been autographed by our famous governator in order to boost their value.

I'm not a big fan of garage sales because the time and energy involved don't often pay off in a substantial way, but that's just my personal preference. If you're excited about having a garage sale to unclutter your home and raise some cash, it could be a perfectly fine choice for you.

However you choose to let go of things you don't need or want, the important thing is to let go. (If you or someone you know has a serious problem doing that and the resulting clutter is out of control, there is help at the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation website.)

The classic example of the inability to let go is the oft-cited story of the Collyer brothers whose hoarding ultimately led to their deaths in the late 1940s. A new novel about the brothers and their plight has just been published. Written by E.L. Doctorow, author of numerous fine books including World's Fair and Ragtime, Homer & Langley (which I have not yet read) sounds like a generous, humanizing story of the brothers' lives. On, Doctorow said:

"I was a teenager when the Collyer brothers were found dead in their Fifth Avenue brownstone. Instantly, they were folklore. . . I didn’t know at the time that I would someday write about them, but even then I felt there was some secret to the Collyers--there was something about them still to be discovered under the piles of things in their house--the bales of newspapers and the accumulated detritus of their lives. Was it only that they were junk-collecting eccentrics? You see that every day in the streets of New York. They had opted out--that was the primary fact. Coming from a well-to-do family, with every advantage, they had locked the door and closed the shutters and absented themselves from the life around them. . . I felt as if writing [the book] was an act of breaking and entering just to see what may have been going on in that house, which really meant getting inside two very interesting minds."

And yet, however interesting their minds may have been, their hermit-like existence in a home literally packed to the rafters is incomprehensible to most of us. Excerpts from a 2005 column by William Bryk in the New York Sun give more details about how they lived:

"At 8:53 a.m. on March 21, 1947, police headquarters received a pseudonymous call reporting a dead man in the [Collyer brothers'] mansion. After failing to force the front doors, the police unhinged them to find a solid wall of boxes. The basement stairs to the first floor were similarly blocked. After forcing a first-floor window, they saw rooms and stairwells jammed with ceiling-high, rat-infested stacks of boxes, paper, and furniture. . . By the end of the second day [of clearing the house], according to the Times, the first floor hallway alone had yielded 19 tons of debris. . .

"Amidst hundreds of tons of garbage, they found family oil portraits; hope chests jammed with unused piece goods, silks, wool, damask, and brocade; a half-dozen toy trains; 14 upright and grand pianos; chandeliers; tapestries; 13 ornate mantel clocks; 13 Oriental rugs; five violins; two organs, and Langley's certificate of merit for punctuality and good conduct from Public School 69 for the week ending April 19, 1895. . .

"By April 3, the Herald Tribune reported that the movers, in clearing only two first-floor rooms, had removed 51 tons of stuff. Another 52 tons later, on April 8, they found Langley's body. Police told the Sun that his clothing may have snagged a tripwire, releasing a booby trap that had buried him alive in paper."

Homer, an invalid, had died of starvation because his brother wasn't there to care for him.

This appalling, cautionary tale may be enough to scare many people into a minimalist lifestyle, but there's an alternative. If you truly have a passion for collecting -- not hoarding everything, but selectively acquiring certain items you love -- take heart from the story of Lester Glassner, who passed away a few weeks ago at the age of seventy. His obituary explains:

"The one-time picture editor, designer and art librarian for CBS Records had a massive collection of vintage movie memorabilia, dime-store merchandise and other pop-culture artifacts numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

"For more than three decades, Glassner's large and diverse collection filled his four-story 19th century brownstone home on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

'There are hats . . . mechanical toys . . . World War II propaganda posters . . . antique Seven Dwarfs of various types. . . . a huge collection of antique postcards of all types. And autographed photos of famous people.' [his sister said]

"That's not to mention chalk, ceramic and porcelain figurines, rare celluloid toys, Halloween masks, clothes, antique sleighs, dolls, 78-revolutions-per-minute records, art glass, movie posters, movie stills, lobby cards and a host of other items. Glassner's collection of movie stills alone numbers more than 250,000 photos, many of them rare.

"Louis Pappas, a friend and fellow collector . . . said, '[Glassner’s home] was almost like a museum, really, the whole place. I'd say it was one of the major collections in the world.'

"Before he died, Glassner made plans to donate more than 2,500 [18th and 19th century] books to the library at Buffalo State College. 'He also has a large collection of art, photography, architecture, fashion, painting and sculpture books, and those will go into the general collection,' [a library spokesperson] said."

Clearly, this was a man who loved his possessions. He displayed and cared for them for his own enjoyment and to share with others. Massive as the collections were, he kept them well-organized. In this photo of him as a young man, you can see how happy he is showing off some of his toys. There was even a book published in 1981 entitled, Dime Store Days, in which his collection was featured. He’s a perfect example of a collector.

The majority of people are not hoarders like the Collyer brothers, nor passionate collectors like Lester Glassner. However, most of us could take a cue from the state of California: if we have excess stuff taking up storage space or, worse, space in our homes, we might want to think of parting with it in a way that generates some cash to pay down debt or help out with living expenses. Unfortunately, unlike Arnold, autographing our junk won't increase its value.

© 2009 Cynthia Friedlob

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Stop Screaming About Health Care Reform

Watching an older man scream that he wants the government to keep its hands off his Medicare insurance has probably been the most ludicrous image I've seen in the so-called debate about health care reform.

The most disturbingly ignorant image was the woman holding a poster depicting President Obama with a Hitler-style moustache as she challenged Representative Barney Frank with the astonishing claim that the President's suggested reform is a "Nazi policy."

The visions of men openly, although legally, carrying guns (including an assault rifle) at several of the President's Town Hall meetings across the country I've found almost incomprehensible.

The biggest problem our society faces is that these are not isolated incidents. Many people are enraged, but they're also woefully ignorant. Political discourse can barely exist in this uninformed, hostile atmosphere.

As blogger Seth Godin said, the screaming of nonsense and lies "is often a tool used to balance out the lazy ignorance of someone parroting opposition to an idea that they don't understand. . . If you want to challenge the conventional wisdom of health care reform, please do! It'll make the final outcome better. But if you choose to do that, it's essential that you know more about it than everyone else, not less. Certainly not zero. Be skeptical, but be informed. . . Screaming ignorance gets attention, but it distracts us from the work at hand."

And there is serious work at hand.

Anyone who denies that health care reform is necessary must be completely out of touch with reality. Steve Lopez of the LA Times reported on a recent free clinic staged in Los Angeles by Remote Area Medical (I mentioned RAM in my August 1st post on charitable giving). He described what he saw there as "scenes from the Third World": The Forum, a huge facility that formerly housed the LA Lakers, converted into a massive medical clinic. Exhausting waits in long lines full of desperate people, often entire families, who had no insurance, not enough insurance or who were unable to pay the deductible required for the treatment they needed. Overwhelmed doctors, dentists, opticians, nurses and other support staff. And not enough time to help everyone.

Unless we were to follow the lead of the UK, Canada or France and offer universal health care -- something that won't happen in this political climate -- whatever changes are made will require many of us to continue to buy some form of health insurance. To say that we will need to be thoughtful consumers is an understatement.

So, in order to participate in this crucial debate -- and let's remember that it is a debate, not a showdown at the OK Corral -- let's at least do enough research to get the basic facts straight. I suggest starting with this very short, informative article from BBC News in which you'll learn that our current health care system is less efficient than those in the UK, France and Singapore.

Then search on-line. Thanks to the Internet, it is possible to get accurate information about the reform that's being discussed (there are no "death panels," no euthanasia for older people, no one interfering with your health care to any greater degree than it's already being interfered with right now by your insurance company, if you're fortunate enough to have one). We can go to major, reliable sources that still have journalistic integrity (thank Heaven) and read. There are no short cuts. We need to get that information and, even if it's confusing or there's a tremendous amount of it or we'd just rather do something else with our time, we need to try to understand it so that we can act to make responsible reform happen.

How do we act? Obviously not by screaming, not by spreading false rumors or innuendo, certainly not by making ridiculous and outrageous claims. Instead, click on these links to find out (if you don't already know) who represents you in the House and who represents you in the Senate and e-mail your opinions to them. Members of Congress can't act in our interest unless they know what we think.

This is no time to bow out of the decision-making process; we all must participate to make sure that we get the health care reform that we need.

Our lives depend on it.

© 2009 Cynthia Friedlob
Photo Credit: Library of Congress via PingNews
Public Health Service Nurse and Patient (pub. date: between 1918 and 1925)

You can read more and get links to many other blogs that are publishing posts on this topic today, "Elders for Health Care Reform Day." Go to

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Being Thoughtful About Money

Let's just admit it up front: once a society goes beyond the barter system, "finances" are all smoke and mirrors. If I have a couple of chickens, you have a goat and we trade, you'll get some eggs and I'll get some milk. If I bake loaves of tasty bread, you weave a beautiful blanket and we trade, there’s no mystery about the exchange or value of goods.

Start using money and everybody's operating on faith. Even before we abandoned the gold standard, everyone had to accept that gold was special and worth some amount we all could agree on -- a fairly arbitrary assessment when you think about it. And now there are plenty of bizarre, almost totally inexplicable financial instruments that have brought down the entire world economy. This is progress?

Obviously, in a complex society the barter system won't work, therefore money is necessary and useful. Maybe it's the abstractness of the concept of money that gets so many people into trouble.

Clearly our perception of money and credit and what has value has been tossed on its head in the last couple of years. This is not a bad thing in the eyes of someone like me who came of age in the sixties, but it's certainly a bad thing for anyone who was caught unprepared for the current recession.

So, armed with only a very fine liberal arts education and far less money than Donald Trump, I'd like to offer a few thoughts about financial planning from a thoughtful consumer's point of view. Investing presumes that you are fortunate enough not to be living paycheck to paycheck and that you are fortunate enough to have a paycheck at all. Even if that's not the case, take heart. You can still use this information to help plan your future.

First, the stock market: it's not for everyone, especially if you buy individual stocks. If you have a pension plan of any kind at all, you're already in the stock market. It's okay if you choose to invest your own money elsewhere, no matter what the investing gurus insist. It's your money.

What set me off about stock market investing was yet another article reporting about yet another company that had missed analysts' profit predictions; in this case, the company had "only" made 26 cents instead of 31 cents per share. This caused the stock price to drop 7 percent.

If you were an investor in that company, you would not have this information quickly enough to act on it to avoid losing at least some of your investment. If you were a long-term investor, you might shrug it off and feel confident that you'd recoup your money in time. But how would you know this? Either by relying on your broker (an honest one, I hope, who charges less than the usually high standard fees), or by having the ability on your own to investigate the company in detail and make appropriate decisions based on your knowledge of the company itself, the entire industry and reasonable predictions of future trends. How many of us can do that? Not many.

If you bet on the stock market by responding to supposedly hot tips, you're gambling, not investing. If you still have "disposable income" in this recession and choose to gamble, again, it's your money so it's your choice. Just don't delude yourself into thinking that a hot tip is better than a Lotto ticket when it comes to retirement planning.

But if you're convinced that the market is the place for you to be, I'd like to suggest the following books (total disclosure: they are not infallible, nor do I personally endorse or follow all of the recommendations, but, like I said, I studied liberal arts).

If you know something about the stock market, or thought you did until lately, try these:

A Random Walk Down Wall Street by Burton Malkiel. This book presents a strong case for index fund investing and explains why it can be very expensive to try to beat the market.

Mr. Market Miscalculates: The Bubble Years and Beyond by James Grant of "Grant's Interest Rate Observer," also the author of the original Minding Mr. Market. Grant suggested that "Mr. Market" behaves in a manic-depressive way (bi-polar would be the updated term for today), so it should be no surprise that the opinions of someone who is so afflicted might not be terribly reliable.

If you haven't got a clue about investing or if you know just enough to be dangerous, try this:
The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need by Andrew Tobias, is an engaging, informative book that novice investors can get through without feeling overwhelmed. He offers information on many types of investments and uses his personal experiences as examples.

If you want to learn how reasonable people can be led into ridiculous investing schemes, I'd suggest:
Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles MacKay. You might not think that a book published in 1841 could be relevant today, but that's not the case. There's a priceless chapter about the Dutch tulip mania in the 1600s during which the value of tulip bulbs was greater than the value of gold (so much for the gold standard). Although the precise accuracy of MacKay's account has been questioned (what isn't?), the story will convince you that bubbles are nothing new.

However, if you want to consider an alternative investing plan, I'd suggest:
Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin, Joe Dominguez and, for the updated edition, Monique Tilford. I'm about to start reading the new version of the book, so my recommendation is based on having greatly appreciated the original which was written back in 1993. In fact, this title and Sugar Blues are the only books that I've purchased multiple times for myself but ended up giving away to friends. The authors ask you to think in terms of "life energy," i.e., calculate how much life energy you're required expend in order to earn a dollar. You'll find out that your hourly wage is less than you believe. You'll also find out a lot about how you relate to money.

If you want to rethink your relationship to money even further and you nurture "back to the land" fantasies as I do (and, in my case, they will remain fantasies, which is all for the best), consider this fine book:

The Good Life by Helen and Scott Nearing. I read this long ago, but one concept in particular will remain forever in my mind as an example of how to structure a thoughtful life: the Nearings advocated spending four hours a day earning a living, four hours serving the community, and four hours pursuing one's personal interests.

Further total disclosure: I don't follow all of the advice in the alternative books either, but much of it has been extremely valuable to me. Also, I haven't always made the best decisions, but, thanks in part to all of the authors mentioned, I've made some good ones.

The important point to remember is that if we're going to be thoughtful consumers, we need to understand the process we use to consume, then figure out a way to shape our lives financially so that we can find a greater meaning than what is provided by acquiring more and more stuff. This also requires asking ourselves:
What good is buying things that are supposed to be better for the planet if we really can't afford to buy anything at all? How can we be socially conscious if we're working two jobs and haven't an ounce of energy to devote to anything beyond our survival? What can we do to take control of our finances, as much as we possibly can, so that we can move on and live worthwhile and satisfying lives?

And that's my two cents. (Oh, come on. You knew it was coming.)

© 2009 Cynthia Friedlob

Photo credit: pxl666

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Hoarding: Clutter as Pathology

For the last year or so I’ve been debating whether or not I should write a follow-up workbook to complement my book, Sorting It Out: One Disorganized Woman Solves the Problem of Too Much Stuff. During this time, I've searched the listings on occasion and watched as more and more books about uncluttering were being published. Today’s search revealed that there are 81,471 books that use the word “clutter” either in the title or somewhere in the book.

Of course, we can exclude from the list the obviously unrelated tomes such as Sidelobe Canceller Jamming Using Hot-Clutter, a naval post-graduate school report provided to the Pentagon; and Timber Management: A Quantitative Approach, written by a gentleman named Jerome L. Clutter; as well as plenty of others in which the word “clutter” just happens to appear in the text.

Let's even speculate wildly that ninety-five percent of the 81,471 books don’t have a thing to do with letting go of household clutter and getting organized. That would still leave over 4,000 books on the topic. Could there possibly be anything more to say that would be of value? It seems unlikely. As a result, even though the problem of clutter is clearly a hot topic for a substantial number of people, I’ve decided to pass on the opportunity to add to the clutter of uncluttering books.

However, I do want to take a moment to discuss the extreme form of hanging on to useless stuff: hoarding. This is a serious condition, as I was reminded recently by a fairly horrifying account from Ronni Bennett on her excellent blog, Time Goes By. She wrote about her grandmother, whom she barely knew, and the distressing discovery, when Grandma Hazel passed away, that she had been a hoarder.

I offered the following information in comments on Ronni’s blog; I’ve mentioned some of it here in the past, but it’s worth repeating in case you know someone who has a problem with the compulsive accumulation of clutter.

Hoarding is a condition that is not well understood today, especially by lay people, and it was understood even less in Ronni’s grandmother's time. But it is important, I think, to understand that it is a mental illness, not just "laziness" or a "lifestyle choice" as some people think.

The University of San Diego's Psychiatry Department estimates that hoarding affects 1.2 million people in the U.S., but it's difficult to know the extent because of the secrecy and shame associated with the disorder. Also, surprisingly, a hoarder may avoid revealing her situation by presenting herself to the world in a perfectly acceptable, conventional way (as Ronni’s grandmother did by always standing on the curb in front of her home to be picked up rather than allowing someone to come inside).

The Obsessive Compulsive Foundation devotes a portion of its website to hoarding. The Q&A page gives concise and useful information.

There is also a website called Children of Hoarders for adult children of parents or guardians who have or had this devastating problem. (See this 2001 post from the distraught daughter of a hoarder showing photos of her mother's home. This hoarder's home is relatively "organized," filled primarily with neat stacks of boxes and even some collections on display -- none of the seemingly random piles and bags of trash, garbage and the accompanying infestations often associated with hoarders' homes. Also, notice in the final photo that there's nothing unusual about the way her smiling mother looks.)

Although I sometimes teach workshops on uncluttering, I haven't had any personal experience dealing with hoarders. I do know of several people who have tried to help hoarder friends and family members and found it was a thankless task. Even professional intervention often fails completely, although that certainly doesn’t mean that help shouldn’t be sought.

If you read the disturbing story about Ronni’s grandmother, you’ll see that her isolation and loneliness helped her to hide her hoarding problem and added to the tragedy of how she lived during her mature years. After I read it, I was even more appreciative of my very sociable, well-liked eighty-seven-year-old mother and her beautiful, uncluttered little apartment. She's an inspiration.

Thanks, Mom.

© 2009 Cynthia Friedlob
Photo credit: Matt Banks

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Charity: Three Ways to Give

My last post (Small Houses, No Houses) included some disturbing information about several tent cities that have been created by people who are homeless. Who would have imagined that in 2009 our society would have tent cities that look like something out of the 1930s? At least there are finally predictions that the economy is on the upswing again. Today, an LA Times article by Don Lee said:

"The worst recession since the Great Depression could be coming to an end shortly, with a fresh [economic] report raising hopes that a recovery may be stronger than previously projected."

I hope that optimistic prediction is right, but the current global financial mess still indicates that charitable giving is needed from any of us who can afford to give it. With that in mind, here are three ideas for giving -- our cash, our clutter or our time.

(1) Donate cash: Regular blog reader Sue Sorensen alerted me to an unusual project that's being initiated in Edmonds, Washington:

"A friend, Carol Schillios, runs a nonprofit organization that provides micro-loans to women in Third World countries and runs a craft training school in Africa for young women beggars. The Fabric of Life Foundation also has a fair trade boutique on Main Street in Edmonds, WA, where I live. You will be seeing a lot of Carol in the news later this week when she moves to the roof of the boutique to promote awareness that we can all be of service to the world in our own small ways. Carol will live in a tent on the roof [for one month to encourage] one million people to send her a dollar and tell her one small thing they're doing to help their community or the world."

All the donations to the charity are tax-deductible. Carol's already camping out and will begin blogging on Monday, August 3rd. You'll be able to go "Up On the Roof with Carol" to find out more about the progress of her unique fund-raising plan. Her seven-year old foundation is currently setting up credit unions, savings cooperatives and educational training opportunities in West Africa and Viet Nam, but in the past they have worked in other countries from Kenya to Thailand. Sounds worthwhile. I hope it doesn't rain very much in Edmonds!

(2) Unclutter your home: Sometimes the most obvious and familiar charities may get overlooked or taken for granted. Goodwill has been around for over one hundred years, providing not only well-stocked stores filled with our gently used household items, but also offering job training and employment placement to disadvantaged people who truly need this assistance.

Goodwill of Southern California ranks number nine in the top ten charities with the most consecutive four-star ratings from the very useful organization, Charity Navigator, "America's premier independent charity evaluator."

As I continue uncluttering with my 365 Item Toss challenge, I'll be hauling more useless stuff to Goodwill so that those things can become useful again in someone else's life.

(3) Give your time: There are many charities that appreciate volunteers, but if you happen to be a health care professional, Remote Area Medical, "pioneers of no-cost health care," needs your help. RAM was founded in 1985 as a "non-profit, volunteer, airborne relief corps dedicated to serving mankind by providing free health care, dental care, eye care, veterinary services, and technical and educational assistance to people in remote areas of the United States and the world." This amazing volunteer group now stages special short-term health care events and expeditions in both rural and urban locations, offering free medical attention to anyone who is "uninsured, under-insured, unemployed, or under-employed."

The health care crisis in this country surpasses the housing crisis in severity. These medical angels make a tremendous difference in the lives they touch. They'll be here in Los Angeles at the Forum in Inglewood from August 11-18th.

Is there something, one small thing, we all can do, no matter what our circumstances, that will make a difference? Here's a quote that will help us answer that question:
"A bone to the dog is not charity. Charity is the bone shared with the dog, when you are just as hungry as the dog."

Jack London

U.S. adventurer, author and sailor (1876 - 1916)

© 2009 Cynthia Friedlob

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Small Houses, No Houses

In this economy, it should come as no surprise to anyone that, as a society, we are reconsidering what home ownership means. For the many people who are unable to make their mortgage payments or are dealing with foreclosure, owning a home may not be an option again for a very long time, if ever.

With property values depressed, even fortunate or frugal homeowners who aren't at risk are also reassessing the amount of space they need to live in to be comfortable. Is that big monthly payment for a 5000-square-foot home starting to look a bit pricey for a family of two? Is paying for the upkeep on a half-acre of land plus swimming pool feeling like it may not be worth it after all? If you've got two kids, is it really necessary to have six bedrooms, a den, a "great room" and a full finished basement? "Trading down" at the next opportunity to do so is starting to sound like a good idea to a lot of homeowners.

Of course, how much space you and your family need to live is a personal decision, but the previously popular belief that bigger equals better when it comes to houses has fallen out of favor. There are obvious advantages to this change of opinion, at least the way thoughtful consumers see it. Better use of natural resources and lower expenses that allow for better allocation of personal resources are two that come to mind immediately.

So, what's in the news about this enforced reassessment of how we're "supposed" to live? has an article entitled, New Realty Reality: Small Is the New Big, written by Jay MacDonald. The article says that we're getting a healthier perspective than we've had in a long time about what a home is:

"As Americans focused more and more on the financial appreciation of their address, many lost the thread of what makes a house a home in the first place.
. . . [Real estate expert Barbara] Corcoran says, 'When someone decided to renovate a kitchen, the first priority was, what changes would sell well, and the second priority was, what changes would we enjoy? People sacrificed many things they would personally enjoy for the sake of resale. I saw that over and over.'

". . . You don't have to own everything that you make use of. You don't need one room for exercise equipment, one room for a movie theater," says Marc Vassallo [co-author with architect Sarah Susanka of Not So Big Remodeling: Tailoring Your Home for the Way You Really Live.]
". . . The 'Not So Big' movement advocates downsizing toward cozier, more enjoyable homes that emphasize quality over quantity."
Last week the Fort Worth Star-Telegram ran an article entitled, "For Some, Tiny Houses Are Just the Right Size," by Steve Campbell. It discusses "super-downsizing:"

". . . but that’s just the extreme edge of a growing movement away from suburban castles and into 'right-sized' homes that require less energy, upkeep and money. . .

". . . In a June survey by the National Association of Home Builders, 59 percent of respondents said they are building smaller homes . . ."

All this is good news for the small house builders. (Please see my 2007 post, Small House, Big Benefits? for examples of very small homes. Also, several months ago, Michael Janzan at Tiny House Design posted about his Tiny Simple House and the shotgun houses that inspired it.)

But you don't have to go "super-small" to rightsize into something that works. Habitat 15 is a Hollywood, CA, development that boasts fifteen townhouses on a 14,000 square foot lot:

"Design elements such as the irregular window placement are not merely some artistic statement. Their positioning on all the exterior walls, as well as on the roof in the form of skylights, is driven less by the aesthetic demands for symmetry and more by the need to draw light inside the homes, some of which are two stories tall, some of which are three. Lucky for the architects, the final result is functional and idiosyncratically arresting."

Not cheap, however, with prices from $590,000 to $849,000. Photo tour here.

In Eagle Rock, CA, just a brief freeway ride from Hollywood, fifteen "environmentally friendly, almost-townhouses" share a half-acre of land.

"'The buildings don’t share a common wall,' says architect Kevin Wronsky, who with brother Hardy also is the developer of the project, called Rock Row. 'There is five inches of space between each of them that is totally open.' The gaps allow each building to move independently of the others in an earthquake. Perhaps most important, the space serves as sound insulation, lessening how much noise transfers from one unit to the next.'"

Take a photo tour here. The units range from about 1300 to 1600 square feet and they're also expensive. However, if you can afford them, they have a special feature:

"With prices running $482,000 to $569,000, Rock Row has the first homes in Los Angeles under $500,000 to be LEED certified, winning a U.S. Green Building Council rating for green design and sustainable construction methods."

Obviously, one doesn't need to spend at the steep prices we still have in Los Angeles to find a suitable smaller home. Unless you're here in LA or New York or San Francisco, you'll undoubtedly be able to find or build a house at a smaller scale and more reasonable price that will serve you well.

If you want to buy a house. If you can afford to buy a house. There is nothing wrong with renting and it may offer benefits many of us haven't considered. According to a 2007 article in eFinanceDirectory that lists some of those benefits, thanks to the collapse of the housing bubble, people who bought houses in 1987 would have been better off investing their money in stocks from 1987 to 2007. Of course, between 2007 and today, the financial markets have taken such a beating that the average person might have done better stashing cash in a mattress.

The serious problem we face right now is that the economy has been so devastated that many people can't even afford to rent.

In April, Patrick Oppman of wrote about a tent city in Seattle:

"Set up in the parking lot of a church near Seattle, Washington, the camp houses anywhere from 50 to 100 homeless people each day.

"Residents call it Nickelsville. The name takes a page from the infamous 'Hooverville' shantytowns of the Great Depression that were named for a president many thought did not care about their economic hardships. . . .

". . . 'In shelters, if you don't get there in time enough, you don't have your bed no more 'cause there are so many people trying to rush in to get it,' [a resident] says. 'Got a lotta people losing their homes. You don't want to go all the way to the bottom. Nickelsville is kind of a catch in between.'"

California's collapsed economy has resulted tent cities, too. Over a year ago, the BBC reported on a tent city in Ontario, forty miles east of LA.

You can listen here to an NPR report about the situation in our capital: "Sacramento's Tent Cities Still Bloom In Secret," by Ben Adler on today's "Weekend Edition."

See photos from an earlier NY Times story about the Fresno and Sacramento area tent cities here.

And, as I've always said, when a story makes it onto "Oprah," it's hit the mainstream. See Lisa Ling's report here about her trip to Sacramento.

We've come a long way from the days of the mandatory McMansion, from the peculiar concept of "starter houses," from rampant speculating because housing prices were "always" going to go up. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily, if it forces us to be more realistic about our expectations rather than having feelings of entitlement that usually lead to very bad judgment. Is it a bad thing for the people who are affected personally by the mess we're in? Of course. And that's why remembering the importance of charitable giving at this critical time is important for those of us who are fortunate to have a roof over our heads – whether we rent it or own it. (I'll be talking more about charities in my next post.)

Meanwhile, I've been reminded of the cleverness of people who design for all kinds of challenging housing situations. Take a look at this unusual $5,000 "paper" house by a Swiss company called The Wall AG. These unique houses are stronger and more resilient than they may appear, just like the people who will live in them.

I feel certain that the strength and resiliency of our society will pull us through our current housing crisis. But I haven't dismissed the idea of hiding some cash in the mattress.

© 2009 Cynthia Friedlob

Photo credit: Salvatore Vuono

Related posts:

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Roots & Shoots & White Roofs

Jane Goodall was interviewed in the LA Times today. I have always admired her dedication to her work, her sensitivity and her awareness of the interconnectedness of life on our small planet. Among her other accomplishments, she created Roots and Shoots, a non-profit organization for activist young people:

"Roots creep underground everywhere and make a firm foundation. Shoots seem very weak, but to reach the light, they can break open brick walls. Imagine that the brick walls are all the problems we have inflicted on our planet. Hundreds of thousands of roots & shoots, hundreds of thousands of young people around the world, can break through these walls. We CAN change the world."

When asked what just one person could do to help, she suggested that we all could ". . . spend just a little bit of time learning about the consequences of the choices you make each day – what you buy, what you eat, what you wear, how you interact with people and animals – and start consciously making choices that would be beneficial rather than harmful."

In other words, be thoughtful consumers.

Over the last several months of my blogging hiatus, I've read many news stories that I thought warranted a Thoughtful Consumer blog post. I found that I missed the opportunity to write about those topics that you, my readers, and I seem to agree are interesting. Reading the Jane Goodall interview made me decide to make time to return to blogging. The posts may be briefer and they may be sporadic, but I hope you'll enjoy continuing to ponder with me some of these issues, from architecture to advertising to clutter and whatever else affects us as consumers.

I also don't think anyone is ever too old to qualify as a "shoot" that can break down some of those brick walls of problems we face.

Retired Air Force colonel and chemical engineer Ronald Savin is a perfect example. In 2006, he invented a type of reflective paint that was recently used by the Anaheim Hilton Hotel on its roof. It creates a "blindingly white" surface that "deflects nearly 85% of the heat that hits it, reducing the surface temperature by as much as 50 degrees. That means less energy is needed to cool the hotel's interior, cutting air-conditioning costs and carbon emissions."

Savin was inspired by a documentary on the History Channel about recycling rubber.

"His Hyperglass top coat is designed like a Rice Krispies treat. Glass 'microspheres,' which are used to lighten airplane parts and bowling balls, are suspended in a paint that includes Teflon. The whiter the titanium dioxide tint, the more heat bounces off. Underneath, his Hyperflex primer serves as an insulation layer that also helps prevent water damage and erosion. And because it uses powdered recycled rubber, it helps address another thorny environmental issue: the millions of tires discarded annually in the U.S."

Although Savin's unique paint is a recent invention, the concept of using white roofs to save energy is not new. But the realization of its potential positive effect on curbing global warming is resulting in the idea slowly picking up steam (see a 2008 LA Times article).

An ABC Channel 7 News blog recent post about white roofs reported:

"Several states have already started to push white or light-colored roofs. Four years ago, California made it law that all new flat roofs be white. In July [2009], the state will demand that any new roofs that slope (including homes) be light or white. Georgia and Florida, among others, offer incentives for white roofs."

In May, Energy Secretary Steven Chu advocated white roofs to fight global warming.

In addition to the links above, you can take a look at a related Thoughtful Consumer post from 2008 (Green White Roofs) that provides more information about the topic.

Such a simple solution, at least for those of us in the Sun Belt. If you need a new roof, this will give you an opportunity to save money on your air conditioning bills and do some good for the planet.


© 2009 Cynthia Friedlob