Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Finally, a New Rug

ye old rug

My living room rug has taken a beating in the four years I've owned it. Three cats are hard on a rug, especially an off-white one. Why would someone who has three cats even buy an off-white rug in the first place? I wanted a rug with a pattern that would hide any messes the cats, or boy, might make. But none of them worked and the off-white rug was the least offensive option I could find at the time.

We shopped for rugs online, in every store in the city for years but nothing quite worked. In the meantime, I tried DIY cleaning (major fail) and professional cleaning, but the rug was beyond saving.

Then I finally found what I was looking for at IKEA: cheap, easy to clean (compared to off-white wool anyway), and in colors that don't clash with my living room.

IKEA Skoghall

Suddenly my living room feels much more complete. I was surprised to discover how cozy the rug makes the living room feel, and, it's really comfortable to walk on, despite not being as thick as my old rug.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Review: Affluenza - The All-Consuming Epidemic

I've been continuing my anti-consumerism/eco reading extravaganza, this time with Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic (2nd edition) by John De Graaf, David Wann and Thomas Naylor.

I almost didn't pick up this book because I was less-than-impressed with the documentary with the same name that I watched on Netflix streaming. While the message of the documentar y is just as good, it's dated 1997 wrapping and kitsch was a bit too much for me to enjoy. The book however, is an entirely different story.

See, not long ago, I could barely make myself begin a nonfiction book, let alone find one that capture my interest long enough that I actually finish it. Affluenza is not one of those books. In fact, I'd put it just behind The Story of Stuff in being a rare nonfiction book that tells what could easily be a dry story in a very entertaining way. Far from being unable to finish the book, I hardly wanted to put it down.

Affluenza, as the authors define it, is "a painful, contagious socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more."

The book examines America's consumer-oriented society and its many downsides. It also reminds us that our lives weren't always this way. The authors tell how Americans went from working to live, to living to work, and give strategies of how we can--and must, for the sake of the planet and our own happiness--transition back to a more sustainable way of life. Other countries, like Europe, are already leading the way to do just that, the authors point out, and their citizens are consistently ranked happier and healthier because of it.

The book includes a lot of eye-opening stats about just how large, and quickly, our consumer obsession has grown and its negative effects on our lives, such as
  • In 1981...the United States ranked thirteenth among 22 leading industrial nations in income equality. But today we're dead last.

  • 90% of the waste we generate never even makes it into the products or services but remains at the point of extraction or manufacture.....Of the materials that do become products, 80% are thrown away after a single use.

  • Americans spend nearly seven times as much time shopping as we do playing with our kids

  • The rate of clinical depression in the US today is ten times what it was in 1945.

  • American college students now spend nearly $6 billion a year on booze, more than they spend on all other beverages and their books combined.

But while the causes and pervasiveness of affluenza are enlightening, I'm more concerned with how to stop it. The book offers some suggestions, many of which you've probably heard elsewhere. Still, repetition is helpful, afterall studies have shown we need to hear a message seven times before we act on it. Some of the tips suggested include:
  • The YMOYL Solution. The book talks a lot about the solutions promoted in Your Money or Your Life, such as (1) calculate how much money you've made in your lifetime and what you have to show for it (net worth). (2) Calculate your real hourly income by adding hours spent in commuting and other work activities and subtracting money spent on things needed for work. (3) Track income and spending for a month. (4) Evaluate whether the life energy spent was worth the value received.

  • Downshifting/Voluntary simplicity: To me these terms are rather interchangeable, though the authors discuss them separately. The basic idea is to slow down, cut back your consumption and reassess.

  • Spend more time learning about and experiencing nature.

  • Eat less meat

  • Drive less

  • Use energy efficient appliances

But, while individual action helps us feel involved and is worthwhile, group action is critical. We need new laws and tax systems that make it hard to impossible not to make the right individual choices. We need industry to produce more efficient, repairable, longer lasting products. Industry should be made accountable for the entire lifecycle of products. Redirect government subsidies from actions and organizations that harm the earth to better ones. We need to redefine our concept of work to set it at more sustainable levels which could mean less production and less pay. We need to educate our children--both at home and in schools--about advertising's effects and the difference between needs and wants.

Mostly importantly, we need to redefine what constitutes success, for the nation and ourselves.

I highly recommend Affluenza and give it a 5/5.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Black Friday Gone Too Far?

This morning I read Michelle Singletary's column, "Early Black Friday Idea Is a Turkey," and heartily agree with her message, to stay home with your families this Thanksgiving, so that retail employees have the chance to do the same.

Black Friday sales hours have been getting more ridiculous for years, but now starting in the wee hours of Friday isn't enough. Retailers are opening as early as 9pm.

Let's face it, the holidays are a horrible time to be a retail employee. Not only are the malls and stores packed with moody shoppers, but their holiday time with family is cut short so that we can shop during ours. And why? Because we all truly need more clutter to add to our overstuff houses? Let's stop the insanity!

My first time venturing out for Black Friday sales was horrible enough to make me never want to experience it again. Although, I have caved to peer and family pressure and gone out again. But not this year.

If we all spent our Thanksgiving's celebrating our many blessings with family, and make Black Friday a Buy Nothing Day, the madness would eventually cease. Oh, there would still be sales, but they might be pushed back to more reasonable hours of the day. That's why this year, I'm pledging to not shop on Thursday or Friday, no matter what last-minute deals may entice me.

Won't you join me?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Downshifter or Slacker?

Are you on the fast track or nap track?

I recently stumbled across David Robert's great, five-month-old article on Grist, "The Medium Chill." If it's new to you too, you should go give it a read, like, stat. Go ahead, I'll wait.

This article touches upon something I've been realizing over the past few months (maybe longer?) that would surprise my younger self: I no longer want to climb the career ladder. In fact, I think I'm pretty happy at the level I'm at. I'm thrilled to know that others are thinking along these lines and want to have these discussions, not just for the sake of our planet, but also for the sake of our sanity.

In my college days I used to daydream of being so busy and important, that I too would need to have my cell phone glued to my ear as I drove (my expensive luxury sedan) into the office. There would be important notes from my secretary that couldn't wait, and vital decisions that only I could make, NOW! I know, major eye roll, right? I mean, who dreams of being a yuppie? Me, apparently.

Ah the folly of youth. Now those long-lost dreams make me laugh and give thanks that they never came true. The stress of a job that required me to be constantly connected would be agony. While I wouldn't turn down more money if my bosses decided to give it to me (I'm no dummy), I've realized that moving up would almost undoubtedly require more stress than the requisite bump in pay would be worth. I want to spend more time away from work, not less. And supervising others? Total pain in the tookus.

A year or so ago I had a networking lunch with a friend of a friend who is doing extremely well in his career. A long-time VP of a large organization, this guy is about as close to the top as someone in my industry gets. I was sweating this lunch big time. First, I'm not great with meeting people in general. I get nervous, freeze up and can't think of anything to say. Plus, this was someone almost twice my age, definitely twice (and then some) my income bracket, who was levels above me careerwise, and who's favor I wanted to earn.

I need not have worried. This very successful man is the nicest, most-down-to-earth guy you'll ever meet. He was a pleasure to chat with. At the time I was having some career angst. I was debating the need for a change and wasn't sure how, or if, to go about it. This gentleman was a great listener who provided great advice and went out of his way to offer his assistance. I was at that point in my career, he advised, where moving up gets more challenging. Among some of the less-personal advice he gave me was to pursue a master's (since I was thinking about it), join a professional organization in our field, and volunteer in a capacity that was resume-worthy. But what I remember most about our conversation, is what happened after he finished telling me about his action-packed summer, which was full of meetings, work travel and major projects.

"Isn't it hard to have a work-life balance with all the responsibilities you have?" I asked, mostly because I was struggling with the same issue, with a schedule that was less than 25% as full as his.

He laughed, oh how he laughed. There is no work-life balance in this job, he said, it's all work, no life.

Umm, I want to have a life outside the office. In fact, I want more of a life outside the office, not less.

In the days that followed that meeting, it hit me. I didn't want to invest even more of my time to a career, that while it can be creatively rewarding, can also sometimes feel like the bane of my existence. I didn't want the extra hours of my life energy drained, and certainly not the extra stress involved with climbing the career ladder.

Sometimes I feel out of place for thinking these things. I have many co-workers who are always worrying about getting ahead, bettering themselves, and getting the next promotion. I have a friend who made disparaging remarks about a neighbor who retired young and "wasted his time" not working or achieving. I want to argue with these people, to tell them I admire anyone who has managed to retire young, or thrive on less, but I generally take the easy way out and keep my mouth shut.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not talking about being stagnate. I still want to learn new skills, I still want to grow, to be challenged. But moving up and dealing with the politics, meetings, stress, demands, etc. that come with it? No thanks.

I think the view from here is just fine.

What about you? Is downshifting more your speed? If so, do you openly discuss this with friends and family, or do you keep your quest for less to yourself?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Review: A Material World

I recently finished A Material World: A Global Family Portrait by Peter Menzel, Charles Mann, Paul Kennedy. Not only does this book have a great concept--which involves the team photographing a statistical average family in each of 30 nations outside their home along with their possessions--but it's also great inspiration for minimalists and budding minimalists.

At first, I just flipped through page after page taking in the vibrant photos of the amazingly few possessions that most families around the world own. Bu really made an impact was when I went back through the book and read every chart, every story, and studied the pictures again. The heartbreaking story of the Russian family who lost so much after their photo was taken. Families whose soul wish was a cow, or a goat, or a bicycle to improve their lives. The statistics about how little income families around the world exist on.

This book provided excellent inspiration for my continued decluttering efforts. More importantly, however it has inspired me to do what little I can to help people in other countries.

Get a taste of the book in this feature on the PBS website.

Rating: 5.0/5.0 Highly recommended!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Energy Audit

Bonus: Now I know I never want a red front door!

One of the most popular tips one reads when deciding to go green is to seal and insulate your home. But how do you know where to start or which jobs provide the biggest payoff? Two weeks ago I had an energy audit that helped answer these questions. Getting the audit was something I had been thinking about for some time, especially given the fact that my house is just shy of 70 years old. Since Columbia Gas has a program for their customers to get a complete audit for just $50, I finally took the plunge.

What happens during an energy audit?
Well, first the contractor (for lack of anything better to call him) took a tour around the house and asked about any problems or concerns I had. Were any of the rooms hotter or colder than the others, etc. Then he started the safety check. This was the part of the program I wasn't expecting, but I find it comforting to know that my gas appliance are drafting properly and not leaking. He checked the hot water heater, furnace, stove and dryer; all were working properly. While everything was running, he checked for carbon monoxide, and again all was well.

Then came the part I was most excited about: the blower door test. With all the windows and doors shut, a fan was placed in the front door to create negative pressure. Then we walked around, the contractor armed with an infrared camera, in search of air leaks.

Surprisingly, my little old house is pretty well sealed, especially considering its age. There are two big areas which could be improved: sealing around the rim joist in the basement, and sealing the attic and adding insulation to the attic floor. The contractor also pointed out some smaller fixes, most of which I can handle myself with just a tube of caulking.

One area which wasn't on the upgrade list is my original, single-pane wood windows. I was delighted to hear the contractor say that the need to replace old windows tends to be majorly over-hyped when it comes to energy efficiency. Now, I do have--and use--the original storm windows that came with the house, which makes a big difference.

"Many people spend thousands to upgrade the efficiency of 5% of their house, when it would be way more cost-effective to spend hundreds to seal and insulate the other 95% of their home."

Plus I hate the idea of replacing old, repairable wood windows with new, cheap toxic PVC ones. Not to mention the cost factor. So my time spent painting and repairing my windows hasn't gone to waste -- they're staying!

If you happen to be a Columbia Gas customer, you should check out the Home Performance Solutions program and see if it's offered in your area. Many other utilities offer similar programs as well. The best part is that if you end up getting the recommended work done, you can be eligible for major rebates.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Good Reads

my favorite reading spot of late

Some recent goods reads, in case you missed them:

  • Type A Minimalist: Occupied
    Type A said it better than I could have. Hitting companies in the wallet is a major way to make them take notice. If we want things to change, then reexamining our current non-sustainable consumption levels is essential.

  • Simple Savvy: A Minimalist's Halloween
    Yes, I know, Halloween is over, but it's always great to see someone else questioning our holiday decorating obsession. If you enjoy decorating for holidays, then by all means continue, but if it feels more like a chore than fun, then you might want to try something different. I go with a combo approach. I love decorating the living room for Christmas, but that's it.

  • Unconsumption
    I'm totally picking up what this new-to-me tumblr is laying down. I've been devouring the archives like a fiend and already found some great gems.


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