Tidying Up: Discarding

Discarding

I’m already failing at following the directions in Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I’m stubborn and headstrong and I have a hard time in general following directions or listening to authority. Marie Kondo instructs her readers to complete her book in its entirety before embarking on the journey of tidying. I’m only on page 105 and I’ve already started to get rid of stuff.

Marie Kondo states that, “If you put your house in order properly, you’ll be able to keep [it] tidy, even if you are lazy or sloppy by nature.” She says that people who follow her method don’t “rebound” back into being slobs. If I rebound and become messy again, I take full responsibility for not following Marie Kondo’s directions exactly. Kondo states in her book that if you follow her directions honestly and precisely, you will never again fall into untidy habits and rebound to once again become an untidy person.

My partner read the whole book and has been serving as my gracious guide. I read the book up to the point about discarding clothes, books, and paper. I promptly started discarding clothes after I read the part about getting rid of clothes. I didn’t really believe Kondo when she said that her clients fill ten and twenty garbage bags full of clothes to get rid of. My partner and I managed to fill ten bags.

After reading the part about books, my partner and I filled 17 large boxes with books to haul away. I’m not even sure why I had kept so many books. Sometimes I would tell myself “Oh, I’ll read that later.” But even the books I knew I never would have read, I had kept for years. My partner and I got rid of nearly 1,000 books, about two-thirds of our total collection. Using the method of determining to keep something by whether or not it sparked joy left us with about 500 books.

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We aren’t yet organizing our remaining books. Marie Kondo is specific that we are supposed to discard first and then decide where to put things. Getting rid of books and clothes that I didn’t need, and never would have used, has brought me joy. The process freed up a lot of my space to focus on the things I love and will actually use. Discarding gave me the freedom to let go of clutter and to bring forth the useful and joyful.

Getting rid of papers has been a different experience entirely.

All I Want for Christmas is Balance

Christmas is less than one week away. (Sorry if you are suddenly filled with panic from this reality check.)

Last year, at this time, my partner and I were pretty depressed. We had been ignoring the Christmas tree my mother had bought us while she had visited for Thanksgiving. It wasn’t that we didn’t want the tree. We asked my mother to buy us the tree as a gift. It was just that the tree didn’t really fit with the rest of our Christmas season.

We had put the tree in the hallway and kept watering it. There were no presents. My mom had sent us slippers sometime in December and we left them in the package that they were mailed in; They were the closest things we had to Christmas gifts.

To paint an even more pathetic picture, our heater went out last year and didn’t get fixed for weeks so we had to stay huddled around a space heater to stay warm. (True story.)

We never bothered to decorate the tree. We left it naked for all of December, just sitting in the hallway. On New Year’s Eve, we finally took it outside, cut off all the branches and shoved it, piece by piece, into the Green Waste bin.

It is amazing how much can change in a year.

Yesterday, I worked a 15-hour day. When I got to the office, the sun hadn’t risen. And when I left, the sun had already set. I’m working two jobs now—three, if you count my gig as the quiz-master at Wednesday night trivia at our local pub.

This Christmas season has been a whirlwind. I haven’t watched a single holiday film.

I was so excited that we could actually afford to give gifts this year. I ordered a few things from online stores back in early November. I started shopping locally when most of the stores still had their Halloween decorations up. I had my Christmas shopping done by December 3rd.

This year, I bought presents for my family and ten different packs of holiday cards the week before Thanksgiving. We bought a tree and decorated it. We had the house all decked out by November 28th. I laid an adorable lumberjack-plaid table cloth on our kitchen table.

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Since then, I’ve written about seven holiday cards and I’ve wrapped zero gifts.

And when I say I’ve written about seven holiday cards, what I really mean is that I’ve written three. And when I say that I’ve wrapped zero gifts, what I actually mean is that there is at least one entire bag of gifts hidden somewhere in my house and I can’t remember what I did with it.

I’ve had friends call me who are visiting for the holidays from the East Coast to ask if we could get together for dinner. My responses have ranged from “no” to “would you be willing to drink eggnog in my kitchen while I wrap gifts”?

I put out tape and paper on Saturday last weekend and got called into the office. I have left my supplies on the kitchen table all week. I can’t remember the last time that I cooked a meal at home. I can’t remember the last time I checked the mail. I can’t remember the last time I took a bath. I’m just glad that my washer and dryer are willing to work nights.

I can’t wait for Christmas day. I can’t wait to give presents. I can’t wait to hang out with my friends and family. I can’t wait for time.

Last year, I had time but no money. This year I have money but no time.

Next year, I’m hoping to have balance.

Quit Your Yelping

In March of this year, the Sacramento News and Review published an article called “The Yelp Factor” by Nick Miller. Its subheading read, “After 10 years of crowd-sourced criticism, one-star missives and exclusive Elite parties, many Sacramento shop and restaurant owners pretty much hate Yelp.” As a regular Yelp user, Nick Miller’s subheading immediately pissed me off. Yelp is fairly straight forward. Good businesses get good reviews. Bad businesses get bad reviews. Businesses and restaurant owners need to quit whining and face the facts. If a business has several poor reviews on Yelp, it’s time for that business to review its policies. If a restaurant has 67 reviews on Yelp and a two-star rating, it is most likely because that restaurant is a two-star restaurant. The crowds don’t lie.

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For those who are not familiar with Yelp.com, or simply “Yelp,” it is a website and app that is open to the public and allows regular people to rate and review stores, services and restaurants- everything from pet food suppliers to auto-parts manufacturers to sushi bars and beyond. Yelp users can give a business a 1-5 star rating and can additionally write quick tips or lengthy reviews. It is a crowd-sourced website and anyone can join. People using the Yelp app on their cell phone can check local listings for reviews, search for businesses near their phone using GPS, and can additionally “check in” to a location to get discounts. It is especially helpful when traveling to a new town or when looking for something new to do near home.

The Yelp website is supervised for fraud and trolls. It is maintained for business information accuracy. While anyone can post a review, the reviews are monitored. If a review seems fake, made-up, retaliatory, or insincere, the employees at Yelp will take the review down. For example, if a person opens a restaurant and suddenly there are fifteen reviews from new users, all with the same last name as the owner, it’s probably a safe bet that the owner’s family is trying to boost the Yelp rating and some or all of the reviews may be taken down. Additionally, if the reviews contain personal attacks or inappropriate language, the reviews can be flagged for removal. Businesses can pay for ads on the website to get listed at the top of the page but the ads are marked and do not change the ratings for the business. It’s not an entirely perfect system but it is a very useful tool for basic information and when looking for specific businesses or services.

My partner and I were in Truckee, California yesterday for the first time and we used Yelp to choose our lunch destination. We went to a place called Moody’s. It didn’t have a perfect Yelp rating but it had good reviews and the reviews mentioned French Fries tossed in truffle oil. We couldn’t resist. The food was great. The restaurant was in a great location. We ate lunch, wrote postcards, and had a fantastic afternoon.

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There is a lot of information on Yelp and it’s good to know how to sort through it. When looking at Yelp reviews for guidance, be sure to note how many reviews have been submitted. If a business has less than ten reviews, the rating probably isn’t very accurate because the sampling is too small. It’s also a good idea to look at the reviews by date and to take note of the more recent reviews and any obvious changes. If, for example, a restaurant has a four-star rating but five out of the last six reviews gave the restaurant a one-star rating, it might be going though a management change or a staffing update that should be avoided. It’s always best to read some of the more extensive commentary and decide if a specific business or restaurant might suit your tastes. One man’s meat is another man’s poison. Still, if a business has one-star and two-star ratings over and over and over, don’t be surprised if you have a one-star or two-star experience. Sometimes a place just sucks.

While more and more consumers and patrons are turning to Yelp for advice, it seems that the media is siding with whiney store owners and adopting a Yelp-hating attitude. There have been several recent articles about restaurant owners feeling oppressed by their poor Yelp ratings. In September, USA Today highlighted a story about Botto Bistro, an Italian Restaurant in Richmond, California. USA Today reported that the restaurant “launched a deliberate attempt to show the world that the restaurant doesn’t care what the world thinks of its Italian cuisine.” The restaurant is championing their bad attitude by asking that restaurant goers give the restaurant a one-star review on Yelp. I’m not Stephen Covey but I’m pretty sure that not giving a shit about what your customers think is a bad business strategy.

I can understand why print media, news outlets, TV journalism and radio stations might have a hard time swallowing the “Yelp factor.” It wasn’t that long ago that these institutions were the keepers of the keys to culture. These organizations would review businesses, cafes, bars, and restaurants. They would send snooty food critics out into the world to review a dining experience and judge it using a refined pallet, exquisite manners, and superfluous sentences strung together with overly-large words that signified nothing. Restaurants and businesses used to be reviewed by “experts.” Now they are reviewed by the public.

A business owner or restauranteur can rail against Yelp all day long but it won’t fix their business.

Yelp gives a voice and a platform to the consumer class and to the community. Yelp isn’t produced by a bunch of highfalutin entrepreneurs or restaurant snobs, sommeliers and graduates of the Cordon Bleu. Yelp is the ultimate Shark Tank and Top Chef and regular people are the judges. The website and app are free to access. Reviews are written 365 days out of the year. The Yelp community includes a diverse population. Each reviewer comes from a different background and has different standards, values, and tastes. The reviews are plenty and enough of them are honest enough to be accurate.

If you are a business owner or restaurant manager and have a bad review on Yelp, it’s not the fault of Yelp. It’s not the fault of the reviewers. It’s not the fault of the community. It’s your fault. Stop blaming others. Take ownership. Stop whining. Make changes. Get better. Get better reviews. The crowds don’t lie.

Blue Christmas

Blue Christmas

I have never been a fan of Christmas. My parents divorced when I was five. Our last Christmas together was in 1985. The median household income was $23,618.00. A first class stamp cost $.20. A dozen eggs averaged $.80. A gallon of gas was $1.20. I’m not sure if my parents knew it was going to be our last Christmas together, and therefore spent the holidays trying to out-do each other, but, that year, I had gotten everything I had asked Santa for. Everything. I laugh at the faded pictures of us in our matching pajamas, crowded by hundreds of toys on the living room floor: cabbage patch kids, care bears, barbies, a playskool playhouse, a kitchen set filled with plastic food and a pretend coffee maker, a mickey mouse train set…the list goes on.

After that, my Christmases were spent at one parent’s house, breaking the heart of the other, and oscillating between the two every year after. It was a terrible precedent. I can’t remember a single gift I received from any year after 1985. Not even from last year. I quickly stopped believing in Santa and by the time I was 12, I had started writing poetry about how much I hated the holiday and everything I knew it stood for.

For many people, Christmas is a special time of year. The wallets come out for charity. Parents try to spoil their kids. Some take time to acknowledge Jesus Christ and his message of peace. (After all, it is called Christmas.)

I’m not a Christian. But I like what Jesus had to say. One of my favorite bumper stickers is: “Obama is not a brown-skinned, anti-war socialist who gives away free healthcare- you’re thinking of Jesus.” I think we’d all be better off if more people who claim to follow the teachings of Christ actually did so. The hypocrisy of Christmas appalls me. (I know there are Christians who teach peace and model charity. My best friends Julie and Jovi and my mother are examples. I’m saddened that they are not a majority.)

Every year, like seasonal clockwork, Thanksgiving ends and I am plummeted into a sense of darkness until the Christmas season is over. It’s so bad that it makes me wish Leonard Cohen would convert and put out a Christmas album.

My partner and I were at the Roseville Galleria Mall last night. Her boss, in a very sweet gesture of gratitude, for her hard work and thoughtful dedication to her job, bought her an iPad and presented it to her yesterday afternoon. (He’s not a Christian either so I can’t call it a Christmas bonus.) We are certainly grateful. But, honestly, we have never wanted or needed an iPad. (Just so you get an idea about how far from the iPad spectrum we fall, we have been saving our money to buy a flock of sheep this spring.) When she told me about the gift, it was so unexpected that I almost fell off my chair. And, less than an hour later, she dropped it and it shattered into smithereens. We were both devastated and dumbfounded—not because we suddenly needed the iPad because it was in our possession, or because, now that we had one, we were fantasizing about Smurfville, but because it really was a beyond-generous gift and we didn’t want to disappoint the gift-giver. We went to the mall and bought a replacement.

As someone who follows the peak oil movement, believes the economic downturn is permanent, believes that technology can’t save us and as someone who is gainfully unemployed, the purchase seemed so silly. My partner’s birthday is next week and I had planned to find her a nice pair of boots and shears for sheep hoof-care. The fact that we were spending money on another trinket of supposedly-life-improving technology was mind-blowing.

But that wasn’t the worst of it.

While the purchase seemed frivolous and incongruent with my values, the iPad really wasn’t the problem. I hope to use its powers for good and utilize its technology to write and post more often. As such, I feel like, for now, the gift has real value. When I told my friends about the gift, most people were blown away by our new-found treasure. But the whole mall and gifting experience has really opened my eyes to how far out of the mainstream my life has become. I’m so far out of the main stream that I don’t think anyone in my life knows how to relate to me anymore. It is a very lonely feeling.

I get that there is a psychological element to gift-giving. I understand that people to do it to bring joy to their loved ones and to show appreciation. But what if, for every gift we gave, the gift came with all the pain that went into making it? The pain of the earth after stripping its resources. The pain of oppressive labor. The pain of the social consequences. So many of the gifts we give to our loved ones come from a background of disreputable and grimy exploitation.

We moved up here to the farm almost eight months ago. I left a good-paying, (albeit insolvent,) job in social services with benefits to seek a more sustainable life. We moved away from our friends and family in Sacramento because we understand that, with the coming changes, the lack of assistance programs, budget cuts to basic services such as law enforcement and the increasing costs of food, cities will become unsafe. My partner and I are both highly-educated and critical thinkers and the writing seemed to be on the wall.

Now that we have been here for a while and have extensively lost contact with those close to us, and now that we are entering the biggest shopping season of the year, I find that I am doubting our position. Everyone else seems to be so happy with their day jobs and assorted purchases, surrounded by mounds of store-bought junk, television shows and cushy furniture.

My partner and I went and hung out with old friends while we awaited our appointment at the Apple Store at the mall. They are progressive people with progressive values. They have a six-year-old son and a son in college. I’ve know them both for twelve years. He is a song-writer and a manager of a corporate coffee store. She is a banker at a credit union. We talked about Christmas. Their 6-year-old hopes for a video game from Santa. She hopes for reduced hours at work after the New Year and more time to spend with her 6-year-old while he is little. Her husband didn’t say what he hopes for. The visit reminded me how much I don’t have in common with the average American.

Liberalism seemed simpler not just a year ago. Values were opinions that could be expressed over a glass of Chianti and a consensus could be reached by the time dinner was over. It used to be that we could all agree on social issues. Gays should have equal access to marriage. Women should have access to safe and legal choices about their reproductive health. Education is a human right. Access to health care is a social justice issue, especially for the socially-disenfranchised. World-wide hunger is an atrocity, especially when compared to the abundance and obesity in this nation. The death penalty is corrupt because it is used against people of color more so than against whites. Free speech is a constitutionally protected entitlement and sacred. These seemed to be simple values, Christian values even, and easily agreed upon.

Something has changed in my psyche, and seemingly on a national level of late, that has brought me to conclude that these issues, the issues of upmost importance, issues pertaining to social justice, are no longer as simple as we once thought. As I see it, these issues boil down to socio-economic corporatism and the chains within that corporatism that bind us. Our politicians are in bed with big business and work for corporate executives instead of the American people. Because the vast majority of our elected officials have demonstrated that they can’t be trusted to do the right thing, it is no longer enough to go to the ballot box and hope for the best. We must vote with our dollars. This truth is alienating, especially at Christmas time.

We can no longer simply fight for social issues from a social principal. We have to fight against corporate greed to have our voices heard and justice realized. We have to fight against the very institutions that are supposed to protect us and improve our lives. Our values are tied up in a monetized system that uses the system to dismantle those values. Allowing gays to marry would give gays access to survival and inheritance rights, rights which they don’t currently have under DOMA and various state laws, a phenomenon that now contributes to unequal taxation and a disenfranchisement that serves to bolster banks and contributes confiscated property to the big banks’ benefit. Continuing to allow women to have access to birth control or abortions, furthers the notion that women should have access to equal opportunities in family planning that help them to plan for careers and upward mobility that they otherwise might not have access to. Education in this country has been defunded by traditional means (taxes) while corporations get tax breaks and use private money to subsidize public colleges and manipulate access and the scope of education. Health care is dominated by profitability, disenfranchising the most uncared-for populations of this country, such as the elderly and mentally ill, while zombifying the rightfully-enraged with prescriptions for medications like Prozac and Lithium and increasing the profit margin of companies like Upjohn and Pfizer. Industrialized farming gets subsidies from the government to make food that is less-nutritious while those subsidies simultaneously put small, organic, family-run farms out of business. Black men and women are put to death on subjective evidence against them, while white executives at institutions like coal-mining companies willfully ignore federal regulations and kill people while executing illegal and dangerous working conditions but face no jail time. Corporate donations have become a federally-protected version of free-speech and financial regulations are ignored while those protesting the discrepancy, with permanent markers and poster board, are violently pepper-sprayed or hit in the head by tear-gas cannons. The people of this country are, in short, fucked.

And the whole Christmas shopping season, which props-up these lawless corporations, putting them in the “black,” under the guise of gratitude and selflessness, only serves to further the disenfranchisement of marginalized populations in this country. When we put money into the hat of our corporate churches and lobbying charities, we lessen the chance that our child will be able to marry if he is gay because those institutions use our money to fund anti-equality initiatives. When we allow state and federal regulations to diminish access to reproductive healthcare, we weaken the possibility for women to have enough power to make decisions on behalf of other women and with the entire gender spectrum in mind. When we acquiesce to educational budget cuts, we allow corporations to command the terms of education, making the education weak and biased. When we skip a public option in health care reform, we make way for corporations to dictate the needs of our health in a way that remains profitable to those in power and results in the detriment of public health. When we feed our children genetically-modified food from factory farms, we burden and toture animals while simultaneously lessening our future generation’s chances to have a long and healthy life. When we allow our brothers and sisters of color to be put to death while congruently ignoring white-collar crimes, often of of greater magnitude, and the history of socio-economic disenfranchisement that puts people of color at great risk in society, we further the legacy of slavery and white-supremacy in this country. When we forfeit our rights to free speech by allowing a police state to dictate the terms of our constitution, we sacrifice any possibility for our country’s salvation.

We did not sign up for this. Our forefathers didn’t intend for this. And it certainly isn’t the meaning of Christmas.

The desire to protest Christmas has been immortalized by Dickens’ Scrooge and Seuss’ Grinch. Neither character paint a rosy picture of Christmas protest. Alas, literary references to Christmas protest have been dominated by villains. No wonder I feel like an asshole. But maybe it’s time we switch our consciousness. Maybe it’s time that we start seeing the Christmas grab-bag for what it is: derogatory and detrimental. And for those of us, who are declining to participate in its madness, well good for us. But sad for us as well.

It is 2011. The median income in the US is $26,364.00. A first class stamp costs $.44. The average cost of a dozen eggs is about $2.00. A gallon of gas costs, on average, $3.50. Barring the underlying social issues, these numbers indicate that we are facing a critical disconnect in this country.

While I see the whole Christmas shopping tradition as just another way to contribute to the demise of social values, most of the people around me are failing to see it that way. In fact, I’m pretty sure that most people would compare me to Scrooge or the Grinch. Let’s face it: my liberal guilt and social input ruins the traditions of Christmas. Many people, my friends included, have embraced the acquisition of store-bought goods as a way to show their love for others and prop-up a dying economy, truly believing that this gesture is one that is beneficial. The fact that I find the whole institution to be corrosive and mordant makes me the anomaly, a humbug and quite frankly, very lonely.

If you’re inspired to join me in skipping Christmas this year, it won’t make you popular. But there are those that would proclaim that Christ, the man for whom Christmas is coined, was crucified for his own unpopular messages, messages of hope, charity and peace. He had the right idea. And maybe, just maybe, we could get back to that. And maybe, just maybe we could save Christmas, and the rest of us while we are at it.

In 1985, my parents used the shopping element of Christmas to fortify one final memory and set a precedent. For me, that attempt ruined Christmas for the rest of my life. In 2011, many around me are doing the same thing and with the same result. We cannot transplant the message of Christ with a message of consumerism and expect peace to follow. On the contrary, by perpetuating the status quo and extending the reaches of corporate America, we are ruining the true spirit of Christmas for everyone and for generations to come.