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