Friday, May 1, 2009

How Brad Pitt convinced me to sell my silver—and simplify my life

The following article, which I wrote a couple of years ago, is currently being featured at, a great website about organizing and simplifying.
When properly set, my dining room table could be dressed to impress. With service for 12, each place setting had a full complement of sterling silver flatware. My crystal stemware included glasses for water, red wine, white wine and champagne. My Lenox dishes and serving pieces would accommodate a five-course meal, followed by coffee and tea. If I didn’t feel like pulling out the really good stuff, I’d simply replace the antique sterling with my silver plate flatware and swap the Lenox for a similarly equipped set of Sango china.

Problem was, in more than a decade of owning such finery, which I acquired as wedding gifts and by inheritance, I never set my table as described. I never had a need or desire to, and because I expect I never will, I’ve been getting rid of what I can. Brad Pitt helped me realize it’s time.

The actor and I have never met or spoken. But while packing my home in the spring of 2005 to move for the second time in two years, I was flipping channels and happened upon Brad Pitt touring an Ethiopian village while being interviewed by Diane Sawyer.

As he dodged questions about Jennifer Aniston (from whom he was separated) and Angelina Jolie (with whom he was newly linked), Pitt spoke of how the poor in Africa struggle to survive with so little, and how he himself was aspiring to live “a more simple life” without so many possessions. “I have this romantic idea,” he said, “of getting my closet down to a section just like this …” (he placed his hand about waist high) “and a little pile of clothes.”

I was only half-listening to the program, but that comment caught my attention. (And not because the two-time Sexiest Man Alive seemed to have an odd sense of what’s romantic.) As I boxed-up an oversized house containing the belongings of two adults and three children, I realized that I, too, aspired to a simpler life.

At that particular moment, I aspired to a life in which I didn’t have to pack, protect, store and care for a valuable bounty of fine china, crystal and silver that had become as much a burden as a blessing. Brad Pitt was shedding his Hollywood Glam for Save the World Grunge. I was ready to shed the Formal Life I Never Lived for the Informal Life I Really Live.

Before the movers arrived two weeks later, I had sold the dining room set. At our new house, my husband and I turned the formal dining room into a library, and we didn’t unpack the china. The truth was our tabletop treasures weren’t treasured by us. When the prices make it worthwhile, I’ve been selling the pieces at consignment shops and to replacement dealers.

For most families, dining on fine china is a relic from a way of life we don’t live. (Desperate Housewives’ Bree Van De Kamp being one exception.) I registered for stemware at age 25 because, as a bride-to-be, I was told to. Relatives gave me china and silver because, as a married woman, I should set a proper table. But in our first apartment, my husband and I didn’t have room for either a proper table or the multitude of boxes filled with dining finery. Among my betrothed girlfriends who dutifully selected china, silver and stemware patterns at bridal registries, none got all the pieces she wanted, and few could afford to gather the basics she needed. Each of us was acquiring costly housewares for a lifestyle we wouldn’t have.

In my house today, my family and guests eat at a farm-style kitchen table set with run-of-the-mill glasses, stainless flatware and white ceramic plates. Breaking a wine glass or losing a fork doesn’t have financial consequences. In continuing my purge of excess possessions, I’ve donated my kitchenware doubles, passed along books I won’t read again and finally given up on the pre-pregnancy pants I’ll never get back into. I’ve also stopped keeping gifts I don’t want or need.

While Brad Pitt’s “small pile of clothes” ideal isn’t fully achievable for me—nor, I expect, for him—the thought of it has helped lighten my load.


SOME TIPS FOR BIDDING ADIEU TO YOUR HOUSEHOLD FINERY You may not want your Baccarat crystal, but you also don’t want to just toss it or give it away to any old charity. Here are some options:

REPLACEMENTS, LTD: Go to for an estimate of what this purveyor of old and new dinnerware will pay for your fine dining accessories. If you choose to sell, you can ship the items or take them directly to the company’s enormous warehouse in Greensboro, N.C. Hint: Selling during holiday seasons often yields better prices due to the higher demand and shrinking supply. However, during the current tough economic times, it’s less likely that lots of people are looking to buy china, silver, crystal. That said, if they are shopping, perhaps buying from a quality secondhand proprietor is the way they’ll go.

HIGH-END CONSIGNMENT SHOPS: You get a portion of the sale, which will likely be much less than the items are actually worth. As one shop told me, “Consigning is about you getting rid of what you don’t want and other people finding bargains. It’s not a way to make lots of money, no matter how good what you have is.” If your item is a valuable antique, you can inquire with a dealer who both buys and sells antiques.

Some thrift shops that benefit causes will accept fine home furnishings, as might a small college, private school, quality respite care facility or retirement home.

And, of course, there’s always or having a yard sale (where you can sell your wares) and (where you can give them away to an individual or organization).

Here’s another idea
: If you never took that Wedgwood candy dish out of its box, wrap it up as a gift. Hey, another bride might really like and want it, even if you don’t.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Good Works: Pampers global outreach for moms in need

As noted in an earlier post, I attended a blogger event at Pampers' headquarters in Cincinnati last week. (Yes, Pampers, as in diapers.) As I'm thankfully beyond my kids' diaper days, I wasn't as interested in the latest advances in diaper technology (and there are many) as I was in the company's efforts to improve maternal and fetal health in some of the most desperate parts of the world. Of the three Pampers-specific programs I'll write about here, only one involves the direct sale and marketing of diapers abroad, but even that campaign has positive public health benefits. (I have a master's in public health so I was impressed to see a global corporation working within a public health perspective.)

1) Pampers & UNICEF: Tetanus is one of the leading causes of maternal and infant mortality in the world. We don't worry much about tetanus here in the U.S. because we get vaccinated as kids (the
DPT shot) and receive boosters during adulthood. But in less developed nations women routinely give birth in unsanitary surroundings: babies and moms are touched by unclean hands, they lay on filthy floors, umbilical cords are cut with dirty knives and even sugar cane stalks. An estimated 130,000 babies and 30,000 women die from pregnancy-related tetanus infections each year.

To help prevent such deaths, Pampers has teamed with UNICEF to vaccinate
women who are pregnant or of childbearing age. (Immunity from the mother will protect the infant at birth.) Much of the Pampers/UNICEF outreach has occurred in Sierra Leone, where, according to the aid organization White Ribbon Alliance, a woman has a 1 in 7 chance of dying during childbirth. In most developed nations the odds are about 1 in 50,000.

Since its partnership began in 2006, the Pampers/UNICEF program has administered
45 million vaccines. Another 30 million are expected this year. The program is referred to as 1 Pack = 1 Vaccine (as in the sale of one pack of diapers funds one vaccine) and actress Salma Hayek (right) is the effort's celebrity spokesperson. (Remember the ridiculous uproar earlier this year about Hayek nursing a hungry baby whose mother didn't have enough milk? That encounter occurred during her Pampers/UNICEF trip to Sierra Leone.)

2) Pampers/Johns Hopkins "Birth Kits" for Nepal: In conjunction with the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, Pampers infused its
disposable baby wipes with medical sanitizers for use during home births in Nepal. The kits have helped improve the mortality rates among premature and low-birthweight babies.

3) The "Cloth-like Dry-Dry" Chinese Diaper: China is a huge market for U.S. companies (and vice versa). But a diaper Pampers sells in China was specifically developed for—and with—poor families that can't afford disposable diapers and, due to cultural norms, likely wouldn't use them.

Babies in China are often diaperless, and when they are diapered the diaper is typically made from a few flimsy layers of cloth, such as scraps from a T-shirt or bedsheet.
Aside from the ensuing mess, the problem is that when a baby wears a thin cloth diaper at night, he or she wakes up a lot for changes.
(As often as 4 or 5 times a night.) Because Chinese families often sleep in very tight quarters, when baby wakes up, everyone wakes up. Hygiene and infections are also a concern, since cloth diapers are hard to clean well (especially if the local water is polluted) and a diaper's wetness sits directly against a baby's skin, which can cause rashes and infections.

To address the sleep problem of new parents Pampers researchers spent two years working with hundreds of families in a rural area of Northern China to develop a thin, low-cost, clothlike overnight diaper specifically for the Chinese market. The diaper, called "Cloth-like Dry-Dry," is now being sold in China and India. Parents typically buy one diaper at a time (each is equivalent in cost to the price of an egg) and only use the disposable at night, when everyone—including the baby—needs a good stretch of sleep.

Fama Francisco
, Pampers' general manager of global baby care innovations, showed the diaper to me and my fellow bloggers. It's impressively thin, yet sturdy. Pampers isn't selling the diaper in the U.S., in part out of concern that American consumers would reject it. Americans like thicker diapers, with reusable tabs, wetness indicators, cartoon characters, etc. Those features aren't available in the low-cost, plain white "Dry-Dry" diaper. I hope the company does try to market the simpler, smaller (hence it takes up less space and resources) diaper here. The blogger parents in our meeting said they would try it. Do we really need Elmo and Dora and wetness indicators on our diapers?

Speaking of diapers, we had several discussions at the event about the environmental impact of cloth vs. disposable diapers. In a nutshell, both have environmental impact, either on water systems (cloth) or adding to landfills (disposable), and both have significant pros and cons. In a way, the only way not to feel guilty about the consequences of your diapering choice is to do as many cultures do and not diaper, which means children just "go" where they go, and parents with good instincts and fast reflexes hold babies over toilets or pots at just the right moment.

Well, that's enough potty talk for now. If you're still in diapers (so to speak) and want to learn more about the aforementioned outreach efforts—or get coupons and frequent buyer breaks for the Pampers brand—visit

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