Interview with Elizabeth Stewart, Author of “No Thanks Mom!”

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Elizabeth Stewart is a certified member of the Appraisers Association of America with an expertise in appraising art and antiques for estate planning. She knows the best places to sell “stuff” and why certain things are worth keeping. She has a master’s degree in historic preservation from the University of San Diego, and a doctorate from Pacifica Institute in Mythological Studies, with an emphasis on material culture: her dissertation was a scholarly study of consumers, collectors, connoisseurs, and hoarders. She writes a weekly column in the Santa Barbara News Press under the pseudonym “The Gold-Digger,” and hosts a weekly radio show on the arts on KZSB radio. “No Thanks Mom: The Top Ten Objects Your Kids Do NOT Want (and What to Do With Them)” is her second book. She recently took the time to discuss the “generation gap” between baby boomers and millennials in regards to “stuff” with Janet Hulstrand, via email. 

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Janet: What inspired you to write this book? Was there a particular professional or personal experience that made you realize that there is a kind of generation gap between boomers and millennials when it comes to how they feel about “stuff” and how they want to decorate their homes?

Elizabeth: Was there ever! My son was newly married, and they had just found a house they loved in North Carolina, across the country from me. (I am in Santa Barbara, California.) Thus I had a storage locker dedicated to things I was collecting that I thought a young couple COULD NOT entertain/live/decorate/feather their nest WITHOUT. So for about nine months I sent them about a box a week. When I got the call to come and help them paint their house, I went there. Seeing none of the things I had sent, I thought, “Ok, they’re in storage, because we’re house painting.” Yes, they were stored, all right: in the local Goodwill shop!

Janet: What do you see as the biggest difference between millennials and their baby-boomer parents, especially when it comes to how they feel about possessions?

Elizabeth: The influence of the technology-centered lifestyle. Take memories such as photos and letters, and cards on paper. A mom can have boxes of these. Or in my case, since I am the eldest child of five siblings, steamer trunks of these. The actual physical objects will not be welcomed in the kids’ houses. But a memory stick of them will.

Janet: I get it (and my son has made sure I understand) that millennials DO NOT want their parents’ stuff (which often is actually stuff that has been handed down from grandparents or even great-grandparents). And that this has caused the value of items like crystal, china, silverware, Persian rugs, etc. to plummet.  My question for you is, as a professional appraiser, what do you think about the permanency of this trend? Do you think these things are NEVER going to be valuable again? Or will the pendulum swing back again, as most trends do? And if so, what is the best advice for people who are upset by the thought of giving away (or selling at a very low price) things that might gain value again in 20 years or so?

Elizabeth: The concept of nostalgia is a fraction, which is essentially sentimentality over TIME. The TIME part is the shrinking coefficient here, Janet. It used to be that a collectible was 100 years old. Now we see the market for objects from the 1970s and 80s booming. So what is desirable has a shrinking effect, because of two factors. There’s so many children of the boomers—and most of them were born in the 1970s and 80s…We are nostalgic for the things of our youth. And we are living longer. And these youngsters have grown up on the visual IMAGES of things, not necessarily the actual things. (Think of  the board games we played with, as opposed to their video games.)

Therefore, yes, the “turnaround” for market prominence of an object will become shorter and shorter as time seems to move faster.

Secondly, there are good reasons that formal china, silver, and glassware might have a resurgence. First, tableware like this is about ritual, and like all rituals they fade and return. Second, because no one wants tableware today, the market 20 years from now will be slim, and the rarity factor will make the values go up.

Janet: What do you think is hardest about letting go of heirlooms that have been in the family for several generations? Do you have any advice or comfort to offer people who realize it’s the right thing to (or maybe the only thing to do!) but still find it painful? Also, are there ways that the millennials can make this process a little less difficult for their parents? 

Elizabeth: I read your piece about your father’s dresser, Janet. Well said.

But there’s no way millennials can make it easier on us –because we are witness to two divergent philosophies of material culture between two generations. I call  it the intrinsic/extrinsic divide. We believe that objects passed down have intrinsic value because they contain the essence of someone or some past time. Our kids see those objects as extrinsic. They see them for their usability factor… they are what they APPEAR, and contain nothing more than the materials which they are made of, and the use for which they are made. And much of our stuff and our grandparents’ stuff is not designed to be used in the modern house of today.

In other words, the image of the object trumps what essence the object contains.

That’s because our kids from birth have been flooded with superficial visual images (think of all the screens around them and all the visual content contained thereupon.) So they are expert curators of the visual, not of the material itself. These two philosophies will never coexist.

Janet: Your book has a ton of really helpful practical tips, and to get them, of course, people have to buy your book!  But what is one of your favorite tips, or perhaps one of the ones people have told you is the most helpful?

Elizabeth: Most helpful has been my suggestion to speak in millennial language: that is, to use visual technology to make a case for the millennials to keep something in the family. For example, go around your home, have someone film you, stand in front of each item, narrate the object’s story, and then send CD’s of this to all family members.

Janet: What was the most interesting or surprising thing you learned in the process of writing this book? 

Elizabeth: How upset my daughter in law was that I was going public with this! She wrote a rebuttal to my book, which I published on my website, and she spent hours reacting to my book. Mostly she was upset about the inherent paternalism in our culture, which forces the MOM to do the hard work of defending her objects. And she was concerned that I didn’t focus on that, as well as concerned that her generation had a good reason for wanting to start over fresh—-thus to be allowed to say NO.

Janet: I think it was generous of you, and can be quite helpful to others, that you posted your daughter-in-law’s rebuttal to your book on your website. I also think her rebuttal is quite eloquent, and that she articulated her position both clearly and sensitively. I’d  like to ask how you weathered the rocky period between when you realized all your special gifts for your son and daughter-in-law were being rejected, and now. How difficult was that period, and does this story have a happy ending? 

Elizabeth: My daughter in-law is in her last year at Duke Law School, and is an eloquent debater and writer. Her rebuttal is indeed illuminating as it brings an additional layer to the problem of  downsizing, which is so deep in our culture that we don’t even think about it: but really, who made MOM the curator of stuff?!

And who made daughters-in-law the RECEIVERS of stuff?

There’s a feminist angle here which I didn’t see until she pointed it out. Why, furthermore, should it be the female role to feather the nest or defeather the nest, to entertain, to even think that way?

My writing the book and Meredith’s rebuttal was slightly painful to both myself and her, but we learned that the generations indeed do look at stuff differently, and along with changing trends in decorating and entertaining, there’s a gender bias there as well. So now we are in even deeper!

Janet: What are the main lessons learned from what you went through in this regard in your own family?

Elizabeth: When I downsized my 87-year-old mom’s house last month, I saved for her the valuable and irreplaceable objects. I ditched the toaster, the old computer, the old pots, the tv trays, the potty seat raiser, the old towels.

What did she want when we moved her into the new house? The toaster, the old towels, the potty seat raiser. I had neglected to remember that even the act of shopping is exhausting at her age. So, again, I should have listened to specific issues germane to the age and generation of the woman involved.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of  Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home. Elizabeth Stewart is a certified member of the Appraisers Association of America, and the author of “No Thanks Mom! The Top Ten Objects Your Kids Do NOT Want.” 

 

 

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Looking for Ways to Make Money While Decluttering?

We were honored and pleased to be asked recently, as the authors of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home and this blog, to share our thoughts about decluttering for an article titled “15 Ways to Make Some Extra Money.”

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Here’s the link to the article: https://www.wpdiamonds.com/ways-to-make-money/

If you scroll down past the infographic (which has some great ideas, by the way!) you’ll see our place in the piece. Many thanks to WP Diamonds for helping us spread the word about our book and our blog–and for inviting us to share some of the wisdom we’ve gathered along the way with their readers.

We’ll be back next week with our next post–in the meantime, wishing all a good, safe, pleasant weekend!

Linda Hetzer and Janet Hulstrand are the authors of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, and of this blog.

 

 

Downsizing Dilemmas: Who Gets What

After a recent talk I gave about downsizing, the questions turned toward issues about how to work with siblings in sharing family items, some of the items real treasures. A woman shared a story and asked for advice. The story made me think of other stories I’ve heard or witnessed over the years since writing Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home and I thought I would share a few of them with you today (with all names changed).

Mary and her sister cleaned out the family home after her mother’s death more than 25 years ago. There were many paintings, portraits painted by a relative who was a portrait painter. Two were very large, one each of her parents. At the time, no one seemed to want them. Mary took them, somewhat as a favor and because she didn’t want to let them go, but also because she had the room in her house for them. Other family members took various other family items. In the years since, Mary’s daughters have talked among themselves as to who would get which portrait. One daughter recently bought a house and was hoping to get a portrait to hang in her house now, rather than waiting to inherit it from her mother. Seemingly out of the blue, Mary’s sister called and said her daughter had purchased a house and could Mary give her the portrait of their mother for her new house. Mary said her first reaction was to say that all that had been decided years ago. She and her daughters assumed that the portraits were Mary’s and Mary would decide what to do with them. Mary asked us what we thought she should do.

Betty inherited from her parents a diamond pin that had belonged to her grandmother. It was one of just a few of her grandmother’s possessions because, due to circumstances near of the end of her grandmother’s life, there was nothing else that was kept. Betty, who has two daughters, wears the pin very infrequently and had thought to have it appraised. But she’s afraid that if she finds out that the pin is actually worth a lot of money that she will have to sell it and share the money with her cousin who could use the money. Her cousin doesn’t know of the existence of the pin. Rather than have it appraised, Betty keeps the pin safely tucked away in her jewelry box. She wonders what she should do, what is the right thing to do, in these circumstances.

Connie is one of three sisters and she and one of her sisters helped clean out their father’s house after he died. They took a few items but donated most of them to charity. They kept some items that weren’t spoken for but that they didn’t want to part with. The third sister came to town later and asked for a pair of silver candlesticks that had belonged to their grandparents. Connie liked the candlesticks, but then Connie liked many of the old items in the house. She had taken more than enough for herself and her family. When her sister asked for the candlesticks, Connie hesitated just long enough for her sister to say, okay, you take them. Connie took them but then regretted it. She wanted her sister to have them. So she called her sister and told her that. Her sister said I don’t want them now, you should have given them to me when I asked for them. Connie feels bad but also feels that her sister is acting like a spoiled child. So the candlesticks sit on a shelf in Connie’s living room.

Families are complicated.

Years ago, the New York Times ran an article about two brothers, professional men, who had successfully divided up their father’s estate according to his will. Neither one of them needed the money so it was all done amicably. But then there was their father’s guitar. Rather than read them a bedtime story, their father had sung them a song every night. To the brothers, it represented the essence of their father, his talent, and his love. Both wanted the guitar. The brothers stopped talking, as I recall from the article, and communicated only through their lawyers, as to who would get the guitar.

There must be ways to work successfully on downsizing a family home so that each of the siblings feels they have been heard and seen. We have discussed some of those ways in our book.

But what about the answers to each of the specific cases above? How would you respond? We would love to hear what you would do. Leave us your sage words in a comment in the comment box.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

More on the Limits of Sparking Joy

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Photo by Janet Hulstrand. c 2015

Last year I wrote about Marie Kondo’s great success, about my skepticism in approaching her books, and about my surprise that I found her advice to be more sensitive toward and respectful of the “keepers” of this world than I thought it would be.

But at the time, I didn’t really admit that I was basically pretty uncomfortable with her famous phrase “sparking joy.” To me the whole “sparking joy” thing just seemed a little bit too facile. To me that phrase did not really seem like it would be a very useful mantra to use when trying to figure out what to keep and what to let go of.

One reason for this is that to be honest, it is very hard for me to joyful at all when I am immersed in the task of downsizing. Getting rid of things is not really something I enjoy a whole lot: it is something I do because I know I must.

Another reason is that, when I’m not in a bad mood because I’m trying to downsize, way too many of my things spark joy. For example, this book:

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This book is called Sailor Dog, and it was absolutely one of my favorite favorite books when I was a little girl. I loved this book, and I particularly loved these two pages. So. Although this book has always sparked joy in me, and always will, when I was working on emptying out my storage locker last spring, I knew it had to go. So I asked my son to take a picture of my favorite pages, and I just kept the photo. That worked just fine for me.

On the other hand, what you see below is one of the things I did keep, and it does not spark joy at all for me. What it sparks is sadness about the younger brother who wrote this letter to Santa when he was a little boy; about the fact that he died too young, and that he never really found the happiness in life I wish he could have found; and that he is gone now, and I miss him.

Still. I kept this letter when I found it in his storage locker after he died. (And I wrote about the experience of finding it here.) And I put it in our family’s book of Christmas-time remembrances. And I treasure it.

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So you see? For me, this whole notion that you would keep only the things that “spark joy,” and that this would pretty much solve the problem is problematic, to say the least.

Sometimes when I am speaking to groups about downsizing, I am asked about Marie Kondo’s book, and about the concept of “sparking joy.”

What I usually say is that apparently for a lot of people that advice has been extremely helpful, and for them, that’s a wonderful thing.

But that if it doesn’t really work for you, or doesn’t seem to help, there are lots of other ways to manage to get rid of the things you don’t need, and don’t want anymore.

And that you can always just listen to yourself too. Most people don’t need anyone else’s advice when it comes to making these decisions, not really. And even if they do, they appreciate having the chance to make the final decisions about what to keep and what to let go, and why, and how, themselves.

But you might want to consider buying our book. People have told us it’s been very helpful for them. Even though we never once used the words “sparking joy.” 🙂

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

 

 

Fix Your Broken Window and Other Great Tips for Feeling Less Stressed

There is a social science theory that one broken window on the block can lead to the downfall of a neighborhood. Broken-window policing, the practice of combatting minor offenses in an effort to deter more serious ones, was popular in many cities and former New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton, for one, was a strong supporter.

Today that practice is somewhat controversial as a police policy but it may have a place in our arsenal against clutter. It can be a new way of looking at small messes in our home. Rather than seeing the mess and feeling overwhelmed by it, we can fix the small things.

As Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, says, even something as small as a stack of unsorted mail can feel defeating. She continues: “Maybe your broken window is dirty laundry, a sink full of dishes, clutter on your counter. Whatever it is, it undermines your goals because it gives you a sense of chaos. The act of fixing broken windows, however, is liberating. The task takes on symbolic weight. It doesn’t just feel like you’re sorting the mail you’ve been meaning to sort—it feels like you’re taking the first step toward doing everything you’ve been meaning to.” So fixing small messes means they’re less likely to become big messes.

Another tip is to be prepared. Yes, the Girl Scout motto comes in handy for adults, too. When you don’t have the time to do a complete job – of any household task including battling clutter – the more you prepare ahead of time, the more you can get done. As Dwight D. Eisenhower said, of his command of the troops in World War II, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”

A Navy Seal reminds us: “Under pressure you don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training. That’s why we train so hard.” Let’s look at our training at home. You have a mail sorter and wastebasket near your front door? Your mail never has to become an unwieldy pile. You’ve posted important phone numbers on your refrigerator? No need for a frantic search when you need one in a hurry. Bought fruit and vegetables at the farmer’s market this weekend? You’re halfway to a healthy meal after a stressful day at work. Systems that are firmly in place often reduce stress.

Remember to appreciate the small things in your life. Do you have a painting you love to look at? Make sure to hang it in a prominent spot away from clutter or other distractions so you can enjoy it. You love to read but find your books are always in a jumble? Make it easier on yourself by straightening up your bookshelf so you can find the titles you want. You love your grandmother’s china but never have an occasion to use it? Hang one plate on the wall so you see it every day. Live with the things you love.

Learn something useful. So much of life today involves paperwork or using technology, or both, which is so disheartening. To combat that feeling, learn to do something useful. You can share your expertise with a friend and ask her to teach you something. Ask your grandmother for tips. Or take a course, if you like. But be useful. Grow vegetables. Knit a hat. Fix your toilet. Bake a cake. Paint the porch. The results of a first try may not be as wonderful as you would like but you’ll feel like you’re contributing to your home. You’ll empower yourself.

And, lastly, help someone else. Lend a hand. Do a good deed for someone in need. As Woodrow Wilson said, “You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.”

Do you have a favorite stress-buster? We’d love to hear from you.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

12 (or More) Surprising Ways Clutter Is Ruining Your Life

Our friends at MakeSpace (https://makespace.com/los-angeles/) have come up with this infographic to illustrate ways that clutter harms our lives. Here’s what they have to say about it.

Clutter and its causes are in a constant game of ping-pong with each other.

A distraction at work causes chores to go unfinished at home. The mountain of plates in the sink causes tension between you and your partner. A disagreement with your spouse makes it difficult to complete that home improvement project together. And back and forth we go.

If the game continues, it could have a seriously detrimental impact on your life. From your physical and mental health, to your relationships, career, and finances, clutter can negatively affect you in a myriad of ways.

This clutter infographic from MakeSpace, (with offices in Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, and Washington, DC) helps us determine if clutter is, in fact, ruining our lives, and how to get back in control.

What other ways can you think of that clutter impacts your life negatively? Does having too much stuff in your life hinder you from moving forward? Here are a few more ways that clutter interferes with…well, with just about everything.

You miss out on family gatherings.

You can’t ever host a family gathering.

Your kids don’t learn that everything has its place because there are more things than places.

Your morning routine with your kids is fraught.

You arrive at the office in a frantic state.

Your evening rituals are taken up with finding the things your kids need for school the next day rather than reading to them.

Your friends are upset because you’re always late because you can’t find the clothes you wanted to wear.

Your library books are always late.

You seldom get to read the library book because you’re always behind on your chores.

You can’t make the meal you wanted to make because you’re missing one key ingredient, which you thought you had but can’t find in the pantry.

You have clothes in your closet from a decade ago, or more.

You have shoes that don’t fit alongside shoes that do fit.

You have so much stuff around that you hate to dust. (Okay, everyone hates to dust.)

You are late paying the bills because the bills due are mixed up with other papers.

You forget to make a follow-up doctor visit because the card the doctor’s office gave you is lost in a pile of other papers.

You missed your friend’s dinner party because you mislaid the invitation.

You put off exercising at home because you don’t have the space on your floor to do sit-ups.

Your sister’s birthday card is always late, not because you don’t remember her birthday, but because you can’t find the stamps.

You haven’t written a will because you can’t find the necessary financial papers.

You’re reluctant to get rid of anything; you want to keep it, just in case.

What other ways does having too much clutter interfere with your life? What’s on your list? We would love to have you share it with us.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Do Downsizing (and Decluttering) ALWAYS feel liberating?

DownsiingAgainWell, no. Honestly, they don’t. At least not for everyone. I know at least ONE person for whom it is not always so: myself!

And I have talked to quite a few others who feel the same. 🙂

This post is for those who may find it anywhere from a little bit, to very, discouraging to hear about how the process of downsizing is so liberating for others, when they don’t feel that way AT ALL…

This post is for those for whom the task is really difficult and painful, EVEN THOUGH WE ALL KNOW IT IS NECESSARY!!! 

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. As the coauthor of a book on downsizing, people often assume (quite reasonably) that I am someone who is really good at getting rid of things.

But this is SO not the case…I am, on the contrary, someone who has learned to grit my teeth, gather my resolve, roll up my sleeves, and then grin (not very merrily), and BEAR IT!

I am also a person who has managed to find ways to get past my aversion to getting rid of things. Writing our book helped me a lot to become this kind of person, and in the downsizing experiences I’ve engaged in since we wrote it, I found it very helpful to follow our own advice. I often tell people, I know our book is a good one, because it has helped me! 🙂

I think part of what our book offers that many decluttering and downsizing books do not, is acknowledgement that this process is really not so easy at all, especially for those people we call “keepers”–as well as more sympathy for the “keeper” point of view.

What we found through our own experiences, as well as in talking to people as we wrote our book, is that it IS possible, even for the most adamant keepers, to find ways to part with many of the things that are cluttering their homes, or garages, or storage lockers, or simply their minds; and it is possible to do it without breaking their hearts or destroying (or losing) precious memories.

But. I still say it is not all that easy, and for me it really hardly ever actually, truly feels “liberating.” For me, there is always something a little bit sad and unsettling about it.

The process certainly does include moments of feeling liberated, but a far more prevalent feeling is a kind of unnerving fluctuating between being plunged into the past in a not-very-pleasant way, in which the past feels more like a trap from which you’ll never escape than a pleasant field of memories. And then being kind of jolted from those moments into a present in which the words disorienting, or exhausting, or jangling come much more quickly to mind than liberating.

In my most recent bout of downsizing, I had some conversations with friends who were reminiscing (or commiserating) about their past, or current, decluttering projects. One of them remarked on a phenomenon I have noticed too. “You keep finding yourself holding objects that have no relation to each other in your two hands, and not knowing what to do with either one of them,” she said, with a bewildered and frustrated shake of her head. “I KNOW it!” I said, and together we shook our heads some more.

Why this should be so distressing is beyond me, but for me, and clearly for my friend as well, it just is.

I suppose it is possible that people who are much more adept at arranging physical spaces and objects than I am, or my friend is, don’t have this kind of thing happen to them nearly as much, or perhaps they find it challenging, or amusing, rather than distressing. I wouldn’t know.

But I do know that there are many ways to overcome the aversion to getting rid of things. We share a lot of those ways in our book. But there’s one new tactic I came up with in my last downsizing adventure that I hadn’t thought of before: invoking a war chant!

As I got into the car, and took a deep breath before driving out to the storage locker where the next stage of downsizing awaited me, I remembered that I had a CD in the car with some beautiful, and rather stirring, Icelandic folk music on it. I have to admit I’m not sure if this particular song really is a war chant of some kind, or not. But the music certainly sounds martial, or at least very determined, to me: and listening to it as I drove toward what I was thinking of as the Battle of the Storage Locker both made me laugh and gave me the surge of physical energy I needed to begin the task.

On another day, as I headed away from the storage locker, when what I needed was more calming down than revving up, I played some of my favorite soothing Hawaiian music.

Both things helped!

So, you might want to think about putting that into your bag of tricks, keepers of the world, next time you’re ready to attack “the beast”–music to downsize by!

OR…take a look at our last post, in which my coauthor has a list of 50 things that can be fairly easy to get rid of, even for most keepers. Especially if you put on a war chant! 🙂

Whatever works!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

 

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