Archive | Consumerism

Cars In Adulthood: Are We Over Them Yet?

I’ve written before on this blog about cycling as the latest sign of maturity and the trend towards eco-friendly cars. (Pay no attention to that runaway Prius behind the curtain…)

Several trends now point to the beginning of the end of car culture in the United States. But are Americans seriously ready to embrace alternatives to automobiles?

Today I’m over on PoliticsDaily.com talking about the end of America’s romance with cars and what it might portend. Have a look…


Image: New Car by Sumlin via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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A few months back, I did a post on why we ought to limit children’s computer time. Here’s an interesting rejoinder to that post in Babble, by a Dad defending his decision to let his son play violent video games.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Ways To Make A Move Easier

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

I mentioned yesterday that we will soon be moving.

Did I mention how much I absolutely *hate* moving? If I had my fictitious wife, I think I’d put “orchestrate all moves” at the top of her list of duties.

Not everyone feels this way about moving. I think it’s a great example of something where there are just two kinds of people. One friend of mine, for instance, loves to move because it enables her to throw away all the things in her house that annoy her. My husband doesn’t actually mind it either. It gives him an excuse to re-allocate our many gadgets within an entirely new space. (Aha! So the Dustbuster really *can* fit on top of the television! Whaddya know?)

But for me, moving is the very embodiment of hell. So if, like me, you dread moving house, here are five tips to make the process easier:

1. Get boxes beforehand. Lots of them. This sounds obvious but it’s amazing how many boxes you need to carry out even a small move. Fortunately, after all of my work on the PTA soliciting donations from various local businesses, most of the merchants in my neighborhood on a speed-dial relationship with me already. So I don’t foresee a problem obtaining boxes when I need them. But if that weren’t the case, I’d begin collecting now. Buying them from Mailboxes Etc. really adds up. Trust me!

2. Make a Change of Address List. Right now – while you’re thinking about it – sit down and make a list of every possible place that needs to know that you’re moving. Not just obvious places like your kids’ schools and your doctor’s office, but all of your frequent flyer programs, any utility companies who send you a paper bill, your grocery store if you have food delivered, and especially your local voting authority. There are way more than you think.

3. Declutter Now. I’m not a natural de-clutterer. I tend to favor putting things into neatly stacked piles, only to ignore them until said pile topples over under the weight of freshly sorted material. And particularly with this move we’re about to embark on, it looks like we’ll be moving into a considerably larger space. So it’s really tempting to just hang on to that PlayMobil Castle and all its attendant turrets, even though my son hasn’t played with it for years. But that would be a huge mistake. Because there are so many things – clothes, toys, kitchen aids – that we simply don’t use and must go buh-bye. (Unsure of what to toss? Here are 8 specific tips from the decluttering guru, Gretchen Rubin.)

4. Have someone else pack for you. Sadly, we can’t afford to pay someone to pack up for us this time round. But I have done that twice in my life and my husband often comments that those may well have been the two happiest days of my life. (Too bad all I owned at the time was a suitcase, a guitar and a futon, which did take a bit of zing out of the pleasure, it must be said.) But there is *nothing* like having a couple of people whisk into your house and pack up your belongings while you sit there sipping a cup of tea with your feet up.

5. Buy some Xanax. Really, just do it now. You’ll thank me later.

*****

Speaking of moving, Aiden Donnelly Rowley had an interesting post over the weekend on Ivy League Insecurities about what it’s like to sell a house and that bitter-sweet feeling that accompanies the open house. Have a look…

Image: Packed Boxes Upstairs by Arthaye via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Renting Or Buying: Which Is More Grown Up?

We’re about to move.

We just got notice from our landlord that we have 60 days to vacate our home. And among the many things we’ve had to contemplate on short notice is whether or not we want to continue to rent or go ahead and buy.

I’ll cut to the chase and reveal that it looks like we’re going to be renting our next flat (which – in an act I can only attribute to God or Karma or both – we may have miraculously already found, the very day that we got kicked out!) But for a brief moment over the weekend- 48 hours or so – we thought seriously about buying.

I’ve written before in this space about how I find safety in movement. For me, buying a house falls into a long list of things – jobs…careers…continents – which make me feel trapped, and from which I instinctively flee.

So I was heartened when renowned Yale economist Robert Shiller gave me an out from forcing myself to confront my commitment-phobia in a column that he wrote for the New York Times last week. Shiller points out that the United States government has been subsidizing home ownership for decades. And it has done so largely for cultural reasons:  for many Americans, owning a home is intimately bound up with our notions of citizenship. Home ownership is the very embodiment of individual liberty, whereas renting has been linked (culturally) with the oppression of the landlord.

Shiller wants to suggest that this American attachment to owning a home needs to end. Financial theory tells us that people should diversify their assets, rather than dumping them all in one place (a home). And by encouraging people to take a leveraged position in the real estate market at all costs, mortgage institutions have encouraged this culturally rational – but economically irrational – practice. And we all know where that got us. (Thank you, sub-prime mortgage crisis.) (For an interesting perspective that argues the exact opposite, see this article in Forbes.)

Shiller’s bottom line, then, is that we should re-think the idea of renting because it might make more sense for the majority of Americans. He gives Switzerland as an example of a country that has re-jiggered its housing finance institutions in the direction of rentals without sacrificing national pride.

Shiller isn’t framing it this way, but another way to put what he’s saying is that in the present economic climate, it may actually be more grown-up to rent, rather than to buy. Which is the exact opposite of how we normally think about this issue.

To which I say: Amen. When can I sign the lease?

*****

Yesterday, I was over on PoliticsDaily.com talking about the never-ending War In Iraq and its ongoing political and cultural legacy.Have a look.

Image: For Rent – Reduced??!! by Kelly Sims via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Adulthood Quiz: What Can You Live Without?

Awhile back, I posted on five household items you can do without, as well as five household items you *can’t* do without. Both posts were inspired by the myriad tchotchkes that pepper our house, courtesy of my gadget-loving husband.

I got to thinking about this very issue once again this weekend on a somewhat grander scale when two things that had gone missing from my life unexpectedly reappeared.

The first was a dishwasher. As I noted when talking about why we all need a wife, my dishwasher died about six weeks ago. Ever since, I’ve been washing dishes for our four-person household by hand. On Friday, the new dishwasher finally arrived and I’ll say it here first:  God, do I love my new dishwasher. Yes, I could have managed just fine without one. But I literally feel *blessed* everytime I place a dish in its new home, rather than piling them up in the sink.

The second thing from a former life which reappeared over the weekend was – oddly enough – a health club. When I first moved to London, I wrote an essay for the Guardian Weekly about how the cost of living was so high in this city that my husband and were forced to become Green by default. It wasn’t so much that we embraced Green living as that we had no choice; overnight, certain things had just become prohibitively expensive. So we gave up those staples of middle-class American life: two cars…a tumble dryer… and our health club memberships. And both of us started exercising outdoors; he cycling and I running.

But this past weekend my son was invited to a birthday party at a health club. While the kids played, the adults got a free workout. I went nuts. I climbed a StairMaster, I used an elliptical trainer, I lifted some weights…heck, I even took a sauna. And I topped it all off with a lovely cappuccino in the adjoining cafe where – posh mama that I am…(not) – I purchased some long overdue yoga gear. In a word: spectacular.

But unlike my new dishwasher, I came away from the whole health club experience thinking that – much as I enjoyed being in a fancy gym for two hours – I’m not sure that it’s something I actually need in my life. I’m actually quite happy just going running. I like the feeling of freedom it affords. I like the odd assortment of people and animals that I encounter along the way (which in my hood’ runs the gamut from Helena Bonham Carter to wild foxes). I like the cold air waking me up as it hits my face. And most of all, I like that it doesn’t cost a penny (pence).

In short, I learned that I could live without a health club.

As we grow older, it’s worth reflecting now and again on what we need in our lives to make us happy and what we can do without.

How about you? What creature comforts could you let go of?

*****

I was absolutely thrilled to get this shout out from the blog This Bird’s Day about my essay “Married to a Metrosexual” in the forthcoming Chicken Soup For The Soul: True Love. It made my day!


Image: day1DSC_0055.jpg by journojen via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Reasons We All Need A Wife

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

You know when you read something and it really doesn’t resonate right at the moment. But then – I don’t know – an hour later…maybe a day…maybe even a week later you think: “Ah yes! Precisely!”

I had one of those experiences the other day after reading Sandra Tsing Loh’s hilarious and spot-on reaction in the New York Times to the recent Pew Study about marriage, education and income.

Read about it here on PoliticsDaily.com

Image: Sasspony’s Pretty Bra by Hysterical Bertha via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Signposts of Adulthood: Finding Your "Forever House"

I got a one-line email from a friend the other day. It read: “We’ve found our forever house!” Attached was a photo of a large, stately English country home, with columned entrance and a wrap-around drive.

I was really happy for her. I knew that this was exactly what she wanted. She recently left London with her husband and three children in search of more space, better schools and a better quality of life.

But a tiny voice inside my head asked: “Where’s *my* forever house?”

The truth is, I don’t have one and I’m not sure that I ever will. Unlike most people, for whom home ownership remains a universal aspiration, I’ve never really fantasized about having a dream house.

A lot of that has to do with my own (admittedly odd) psyche. I’ve written before about how I find safety in movement. This means that I actually feel more secure when I know that change is on the horizon, or at least potentially so. It explains why I like to change careers and why I like to change continents (though fortunately – so far, at least – *not* why I like to change husbands.) So committing to anything beyond my family – and especially a place – makes me feel…anxious.

In the extreme, of course, this kind of rootlessness can induce a certain anomie and soullessness. Mike T has a thoughtful review of the new George Clooney movie – Up In The Air – over on his blog A Boat Against The Current. Mike points out that when such mobility becomes a national past time, you get a country full of people who are loyal to plastic (in the form of frequent flyer miles) rather than blood or community.

Quite possibly. In my own case, however,  I prefer to think that I just have a different definition of home than most people do. It’s one that – as Kristen put it so nicely on Motherese awhile back – is rooted more in a state of being than in a place on the map.

Or maybe I just haven’t grown up yet…Gosh, let’s hope not. What on Earth would I blog about?

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Image: Evanston Art Center by beautifulcataya via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

Tips For Adulthood: Five Board Games (Still) Worth Playing

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

This year, for reasons that elude me – nostalgia for my own childhood? getting fed up with video games? – I decided to give my kids a bunch of board games for Hanukkah. And, as the story goes, I’m enjoying them more than they are.

If you’re in the same boat – or have simply forgotten how much fun board games can be – here are five that are worth your while:

1. Monopoly – Yes, it’s nothing more than unadulterated, crass capitalism. And why – in this day and age – would we want to teach our children that? But it’s loads of fun. And particularly for a child who has outgrown Chutes/Snakes and Ladders but isn’t quite ready for the strategy entailed in something like Risk, it’s a great introduction to what a real board game is, replete as it is with choices, consequences and a fun, colorful board. Best of all: kids love it and will happily play for hours.

2. Scrabble – OK, this is another old chestnut. But once your kids have a decent-sized vocabulary, it gets no better than this. I hadn’t played Scrabble in years, but when some friends showed up this summer, we played in teams (with our kids) and stayed up half the night. Plus, a great excuse to use the word poi. (I know I’m always looking for one.)

3. Scrambled States of America – On to the more obscure. Someone gave my son this game as a birthday present a few years back and I filed it under “random.” But then we opened the box and we’ve been playing ever since. It’s basically a really fun way to learn both the geography of the American states, as well as their capitols and nicknames. (Quick Test: What’s the nickname for Nebraska? Answer: The Cornhusker State. See! Aren’t you glad I reminded you?) Perfect for the 7-9 crowd.

4. Once Upon A Time – My mother gave us this one, so I knew it would be a gem. If you have a child who likes telling stories, this is a must. You hand each player 10 cards and they have to come up with a story that links the different people, places and events on their cards. But the other players can interrupt the story – based on their own cards – and take it in an entirely new direction, which you then riff off of when you interrupt them. Together, you jointly make your way to an ending. It’s loads of good, old-fashioned fun. (Remember that?)

5. Settlers of Catan – I can’t say much about this game yet – which we just bought for my about-to-be 9 year old son – other than to note that one of my husband’s colleagues said it was – and I quote – the best game “ever.” Based on this write up in Wired Magazine, I think I’d have to agree. The story behind the game’s invention (as told in Wired) was enough to make me buy it on the spot. Plus, it’s German. So it has to be good, right?

Happy Holidays!

Image: Come quando fiore piove by Auro via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Tips For Adulthood: Unconventional Gift Ideas For Adults

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

Last week, I offered some suggestions for how to buy holiday gifts for kids. This week, I’m going to tackle adults. The premise here is that you are either broke, bored or utterly stymied and need some fresh ideas. Here goes:

1. Give A Charitable Gift. I’ve posted before about the trend towards un-gifting, or giving someone a charitable donation in lieu of an actual present. This could be as diverse as an animal gift for someone in the developing world or helping to pay down the UK’s national debt. The only addendum I’d tack on here is to always remember that age-old bromide: “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” I remember one Christmas when my sister decided that we would all get $25 donations to the charity of our choice, but she’d be happy to take the brand new VCR, thank you very much. I’m not *quite* sure that her intended message got through.

2. Throw a White Elephant Party. This one comes courtesy of my colleague Donna Trussell over at PoliticsDaily.com. She recommends throwing a white elephant party, where everyone brings a wrapped gift, and people select one at random. It was at just such a party that she had the best laugh of the last 15 years when a friend of hers unwrapped a large (3-by-5-foot ) framed print of The Blue Boy by Gainsborough. And I quote: “It took five minutes for the room to calm down and move on to the next present.”

3. Give Money Or A Choice Of Gifts. Some people think that it’s really tacky to just give cash but I’m not sure I follow the logic. After all, why waste money on something that the recipient doesn’t want? One of my readers, newly married, was horrified by the plethora of “junk” which flowed to her from her in-laws after the wedding. Her feeling was, “If they insist on buying us gifts, then why don’t they just pay for our tennis classes next summer…buy us play tickets…buy us an experience?” Or – I would add – just give them cash to do any one of those things. Alternatively, if you really groove on the whole present thing, you can also give a choice of gifts. One year my sister-in-law gave my sister the choice between getting a haircut or a frying pan. My sister really appreciated the offer because she really needed a haircut and didn’t need a frying pan. Problem solved.

4. Give an Inbox Stuffer or Nothing At All. I was really intrigued by Huffington Post contributor Pavel Somov’s idea of the “inbox stuffer” as an out-of-the-box gift idea this holiday season. In an information age, he argues, it’s so much more useful (not to mention fun) to expand our loved one’s minds – rather than their cupboards – by sending them a list of our favorite readings. Another writer at the Huffington Post, Dr. Judith Rich, makes a compelling case for giving nothing at all. She recommends substituting the tedium of the gift-giving rat race with a list of alternative activities.

5. When All Else Fails, Give A Pap Smear. Ah! You think I’m kidding, don’t you? See for yourself

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Image: White Elephant 2009 by heyloved c via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Tips For Adulthood: How To Buy Holiday Gifts For Kids

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

Well, tis’ the season and all that. Unfortunately, the impending holidays don’t seem like they’re a source of much good cheer this year. Instead, when I scanned my Facebook account this morning, one friend talked about how much she hates Christmas shopping, while another openly voiced a concern about *how many*gifts were appropriate for her two kids. I was so stressed out that I bought all my presents in November.

Gift-giving can be overwhelming, particularly during a recession. And, not surprisingly, this year many have opted to give no gifts at all.

But if, like me, you’re dead set on buying presents – at least for your kids – here are five tips to make that experience less stressful (I’ll do adults next week):

1. Figure out what they want, what they need, and what’s appropriate. Remember those Venn Diagrams they used to make us draw back in elementary school? You know, the ones with the overlapping circles? That’s what you need to do with kids’ gifts. Figure out the intersection of their wants, their needs and what you can live with, and you can easily eliminate some alleged “must haves.” To wit: my son desperately wants a video game this Christmas. And needless to say, the more violent the better. But we’ve been trying to reduce his time on the computer, not encourage it. So rather than pull a total Scrooge, I emailed a friend of mine with older boys and asked her to recommend a non-violent and yet sufficiently absorbing game that would satisfy his needs to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but without shooting anyone along the way. She came back to me with  a game called Civilization, in which you adopt the persona of a historical character like Julius Caesar and basically try to take over the world. Done.

2. Figure out what you can afford. It’s so easy to get swept away in the tide of gift-giving that you forget to look at your wallet. But you don’t always have to spend a lot of money to make your kids happy. Take my daughter. This year, she decided that she wanted to start a collection of Sylvanian families. You know, those little mouse families and their teeny, tiny accoutrements? I was delighted: so small…so easy to store…so gentle! But those mice-y can be pretty price-y, if you buy, say, the Grand Hotel. In contrast, the blue twin-tub and ironing set? Not so much. Now, you’re talking…

3. Reframe things they need as things they want. Last year, I realized in early December that my son needed a new pair of gloves. Sure, I could have easily just gone to the Gap and bought him a pair of gloves. Instead, I decided to make them a present. Knowing, however, that no child ever wants to get something useful as a gift, I craftily re-packaged these gloves as “Keeper” (“Goalie”) gloves, even though they were really just fairly standard issue. But by catering to his abiding love of football, they instantly became his favorite gift!

4. Eight is Enough. We celebrate Hanukkah in our house, which automatically places a limit on the number of gifts you need to give out. (Hanukkah lasts 8 days). I recognize that eight presents may already seem ridiculously generous to some folks (and not nearly enough to others). But it works well for me because I also use the 8-day schedule to alternate large gifts with small (see below).

5. Stagger large gifts with smaller ones. I learned this tip from a friend of mine back before I even had kids. Her son was devastated when –  following some huge Lego contraption on the first and second nights of Hanukkah – all he got was a coloring book on the third. Thereafter, my friend learned that the key was  to alternate large and small from the get go, so that he understood that you don’t always land a Mercedes. This year I’ve actually purchased a chess board (yes, just the board!) as one of my son’s gifts (something he needs – see #1), and will sandwich it between two large-ish gifts. You can also use this staggering principle with a holiday like Christmas or Eid, where you give all the gifts all at once.

Happy Shopping!

Image: Olympus E510 – Christmas 2007 012 by N!(K — loveforphotography — via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Things To Avoid In America

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

Last Wednesday I posted about five things I love about America, gleaned from my recent trip home. As I looked that post over, however, I realized that in my zeal to express my joy over certain features of my home country, I also forgot to frame them as tips. So allow me to quickly rectify that problem ex-post:

Celebrate our superstores!

Take pleasure in your helpful salesperson!

Smile at a stranger!

Eat BBQ!

Volunteer!

I got a lot of positive feedback on that post, for which I’m duly grateful. But fair is fair and – as noted last week – all is not rosy back in the US of A. So, as promised, this week I’m going to post about five things that drove me nuts about my visit back to America and which you should try to avoid when/as/if you go there:

1. Fast Food. As last week’s rant over at PoliticsDaily.com suggests, I was overwhelmed – and appalled – by the quality and quantity of fast food I encountered in the States. It’s everywhere. And the more you stay, the harder it is to avoid. I think I knew I’d hit rock bottom when I began to contemplate the Hawaiian pancakes at IHOP in earnest. I mean seriously, folks. Who can honestly stomach caramel sauce and macadamia nuts over breakfast? As my colleagues over at PoliticsDaily remind us, fast food isn’t just bad from a nutritional, environmental and ethical standpoint. It’s directly linked to our current health care crisis.

2. Driving. My goodness, we did a lot of driving while we were in America. Sure, we took a road trip from New Jersey to Cape Cod and that racked up a lot of miles. But what really struck me was how much driving we did even when we weren’t traveling. Trips to the corner store. Trips to get coffee. Trips to the beach. Everything required a car. Granted, I’m a bit out of practice, given that we’ve now lived in London for three years without a car. I’ve grown used to just walking everywhere, or taking a bus or a subway. And those things aren’t always readily available in suburban America (or a rural peninsula!) But all that driving just makes you feel fat and tired. Yuck.

3. Over-abundance. Another thing that hit me back home was the ridiculously over-sized nature of just about everything there. Breakfast buffets. Televisions. Back yards. One friend I visited had – I kid you not – ten different pairs of running shoes. Ten!! What is up with that?

4. Partisanship. I was also taken aback by the gun-toting partisanship that has overtaken my country. I mean sure, I’d seen the town hall coverage on TV and the Internet. But I wasn’t prepared to take it on personally. At one point, my mother and I were having breakfast in a diner and began chatting with our neighbors at the next table. Somehow, the topic of health care reform came up, at which point my mother and I defended the public option as just that: an option. The other couple countered that, in their opinion, the “rest of us” shouldn’t be subsidizing the health care of the poor. Fair enough. But the next thing I knew, the husband of said couple allowed that if he ever saw the President in person, he’d shoot him. Whoops! As my mother and I beat a hasty exit towards the door, the wife ventured that she’d also like to talk about abortion. Um…taxi?

5. Starbucks. Ok, I drank it every single day I was there. Sometimes twice. (Finding good coffee on the Cape is surprisingly difficult. Where are all those shrinks buying their coffee?) And I know the company has fallen on hard times. But if I never hear the words “dopio macchiato” again, I’ll be all the happier. See #1.

Image: Gotta Love Starbucks by She Watched The Sky via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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