Category: "Reduce"

When it Comes to Stuff, I Guess We Can't Help Ourselves

December 21st, 2010
[Happy Solstice everyone. There's lots of talk about the lunar eclipse coinciding with the Winter solstice on the web waves today. I forced myself out of bed to see it last night and was rewarded with a very clear night. Today's post, however, is about a topic that came up yesterday on popular TV.] Whatever you think of her and her show, you cannot deny that Oprah Winfrey is a standout. She's brought attention to tough issues, funded schools so impoverished kids can learn, promoted reading through her book club, inspired audiences to show each other compassion, kindness and respect and launched a campaign to get people to stop the deadly act of texting while driving. From poverty she built an empire so resilient her name is engraved on the world's richest people list. She manages to hide from the tabloids and their invented scandals, and she rarely makes a mistake, especially when compared to the shenanigans of other wealthy celebrities like OJ Simpson, Brittany Spears and Mel Gibson. But amidst this praise is a twist that I find contradictory to her affirmations. Titled Oprah's Favorite Things, she always dedicates an entire holiday show to audience giveaways where clothes, snacks, gadgets and even diamond rings are handed out like candy while the audience -- mostly comprised of women -- screams like they're on a schoolyard playground. Some grab onto one another for support, as if their knees are ready to collapse. Most hold their hands to their cheeks in shock. Some even cry big tears. While it's very nice that Oprah gives away all this stuff, doesn't it go against the message of many of her favorite books and advisers: to cherish the moments instead of the material? Yet once each year we get to see women weep over a jewelry box. It's clear that the whole event is an advertising megapromo, and Oprah does include some sort of fundraising campaign for the needy, but what's really sad is that never does she draw such a crowd reaction like the one received when she hands out free stuff. We will soon say goodbye to the Oprah show. Someone's going to have a tough act to follow. I can't help but wonder, when we look back on a quarter-century of interviews, advice and inspirational messages, if we won't only remember that hers was the first talk show to surprise everyone in the audience with a new car. It easy to say we want less materialism; it's not so easy to act that way.

Exploration 101

November 8th, 2010
With the holiday season approaching, gift buyers are in a quandary once again. What to buy? Like last year, many will probably be getting a Global Positioning System (GPS). Me? I say buy a map instead. First, I must be honest and tell you that I've never used a GPS. This is not just because I refuse to relinquish navigational control over to a robot, I like map reading. Besides, I really have no desire to study a manual to learn how to use a product to pay for a service to find an answer that already lies within a paper in my back seat. Traditionally if I open a map, it probably means one of two things: 1.) I'm lost, or 2.) I'm going to a place I've never been or don't remember how to get to. History has shown that when I get lost, I need to pull over for a minute. Otherwise I will drive faster and faster into bigger and bigger circles. Taking the time to stop, open the map, figure out where I am, understand where I went wrong, and analyse the best route back lowers my heart rate and thereby lightens my gas foot. The map lets me compare the shortest way against the way that would be best for me. I can choose the kind of roads I like, avoid cities I don't and make adjustments for known areas of congestion, etc. As for going on a road trip, I want to feel immersed in the destination. To do that, I like to understand what is around me. Is it near the ocean? Is there a wildlife sanctuary nearby? How many large cities are clustered around me? When I'm not driving, I like to watch the map: "three exists to go, two exits, wow look how far we got in the last half hour!" I want to see if I'll be passing a town where I might know someone. I want to see the big picture of where I'm going and know how far away it is from where I am. Sometimes I even pick my vacation destination by how few or how skinny the lines are on my map. Maps also help me pass the time; I despise long drives. Reading a map gives me something to do and turns me from a mere passenger into a navigator. I love the challenge of successfully feeding information to my driver so that he or she can get us there, not just as fast as possible but also as pleasantly as possible. Finally, yes, I refuse to relinquish control. No one taught me how to read a map, it is one of those skills I developed out of necessity. Today, no matter where I am -- hiking in the woods or driving along the coast -- I can move freely about with no satellite required. GPS systems are terrific in professional environments particularly for pinpointing locations in field work, etc. Meanwhile, for the civilian who has everything, a GPS may seem like a nice gift, but a better gift is one of exploration, independence and adventure. A better gift is a good old-fashioned map.

What Have You Got?

August 3rd, 2010
In the 1980s the late George Carlin delivered his "A Place for My Stuff" skit. The satirical comedian exposed how we must buy more to maintain what we already have. As we accumulate stuff, we need to buy a house to put it in and then a lock to keep it safe. You have stuff. I have stuff. Everybody's got stuff. We have tons of extra stuff, too. There are about 14,000 self-storage units in America. How many of those renters do you think need, much less remember, what is even in their unit? Before the European's arrived, the American Indian traded their possessions to survive. The method required strategic choices about what was given up and bargained for with each exchange. While it had its share of conflicts, trade worked for generations, and frankly a man could die from carelessness or misguided decisions that would leave him without his most important stuff. No Indian of any stature would go to a swap and let the other side tell him what he should buy? He'd come knowing exactly what it is he needed for his family and his survival. We, on the other hand, talk to salespeople and get distracted by gimmicks, only to get home and wonder "why did I buy this?" The Indian trader would gain no respect if he was always asking his tribe to setup the extra storage tepee for his tangled pile of impulse buys, periodically declaring, "I don't even know what's in there anymore." We have serious challenges when we try to reduce our stuff. Crafty marketers are trained to get in our heads, play on our emotions and guide us through our own natural responses until we can't see that the white elephant is really a purple cow, and it won't go at all with anything in the living room. And every time we begin to come to our senses, economists yell, "Go shopping; our economy depends on it. If you don't buy, we'll all be poor." We have become servants to our stuff. George Carlin knew it 30 years ago, and we know it today. The question is, what are we going to do about it?