December 27, 2007
Get a life, hire someone to handle it
The Washington Post
SUSAN BIDDLE / THE WASHINGTON POST
WASHINGTON – Initially, the busy McLean, Va., couple hired Ezra Glass for a few mundane chores, like waiting for the cable guy. But over time, they gradually began turning over more intimate tasks to him – planning their last-minute vacations and picking up their kids from time to time.
Now Glass takes their cars to be serviced, is a house- and dog- sitter and advises them on their home audio-visual system. He planned the funeral reception for a relative, ferrying the death certificate and the suit for burial to the funeral home.
"We've come to rely on him more and more," said Ken Nunnenkamp, 46, a lawyer. "He'll essentially do anything we can't get around to. ... You definitely get spoiled by it."
Forget the dog walker and the errand runner. Today, some busy two-career families are turning over virtually every aspect of their existence to lifestyle managers. These hired hands – who charge a monthly membership fee or up to $100 an hour – become like an extra member of the family.
Lifestyle managers have searched for a reliable used car for a client's 16-year-old or taken over their scrapbooking. One helper penned an online dating profile for a client.
Others have negotiated overseas adoptions or bailed their clients out of jail. Another was handed a brown paper bag full of insurance documents after a client's surgery with the command to sort it out.
"People are ceding more and more of their lives to others," said Glass, a Potomac, Md., native. "It's going to be a huge trend around here. Our clients are mostly suburban families because they have a whole range of problems to deal with – kids, carpools, dogs, houses."
Three years ago, Glass co-founded a lifestyle-management company in Rockville, Md., named Serenity Now, a name inspired by an episode of the television show "Seinfeld." It's modeled on similar lifestyle-management firms that are in vogue in Europe, where clients pay a membership fee for round-the-clock advisers who can cater to their every need, including entree into chic clubs and restaurants.
Glass' clients pay a membership fee that ranges from $450 to $1,500 a month.
Experts say the industry is on the rise because people are overwhelmed by basic tasks and with their increasingly fragmented lives and long commutes.
Pets need constant attention, not just someone to walk them. One of Glass' employees flew a dog to Colorado so it could summer with his family in Aspen, Colo.
Other helpers changed the TV channel daily at one client's house; her beagle liked the Animal Planet network, but the client didn't want the dog watching its more troubling animal-rescue shows.
Lori Welch's JCL Services in Alexandria, Va., offers a "personalized, customized approach to lifestyle management." She has gone so far as to complete such homey projects as scrapbooks for clients too stressed out to do the hobbies that once calmed them.
One of the best-known European lifestyle-management firms, Quintessentially, started a Washington branch last summer and has 100 clients.
The "Q," as it is known, was started in London by a nephew of Camilla Parker Bowles, Prince Charles' wife, and earned early fame by catering to such rich and famous clients as Madonna (to whom they air-expressed her favorite herbal tea bags, according to the British media) and Jennifer Lopez (for whom they located a dozen albino peacocks).
Personal concierge services and errand runners, an industry that has grown exponentially in the past decade, are embracing lifestyle management as well, said Katharine Giovanni, chairman of the International Concierge and Errand Association.
"Originally, concierges were errand runners. Now it's 'Let me do everything for you so you don't have to,' " Giovanni said.
Confidentiality is important because of the volume of personal information these helpers are handed – credit-card numbers, health-insurance papers, Social Security numbers.
"You see, hear and know it all," said Indra Books, who runs On the Go 4 U concierge service in Virginia. "I personally would not give out the amount of information about myself that I have about my clients. It's amazing how much information people trust in me. It shows to me how much people really do need help."
Such personal helpers are often hired by mothers who want to appear as if they're doing it all and don't want their neighbors – or their husbands – to know otherwise.
One Leesburg, Va., firm has its employees carefully remove the magnetized signs from their cars when they visit certain homes.
An Arlington, Va., woman wanted two key-lime pies in the middle of winter. And a sitar player for one of her parties.
By the end of the day, Glass had the two pies sitting on her countertop in her kitchen. He found a sitar player, too (and when that guy broke his finger, he found another one).
When Maureen Coleman and her husband, Tim, moved from New York City three years ago, she struggled with a chaotic schedule that included caring for their two young children, a busy career and remodeling their Potomac home.
In addition, she and her husband each work two to three days in New York each week.
Then her garage door broke.
"That's when realized I need another 'me,' " she said.
They hired Judy Laist from Potomac Concierge.
On a recent weekday, Laist and Coleman sat down in her dining room to discuss items in a binder Laist had made for house maintenance.
Laist also handed Coleman a thick folder of birthday cards she'd chosen for all of Coleman's friends and family members, carefully stamped and arranged by month. Coleman had guiltily requested this after she had forgotten a relative's birthday.
Coleman said that hiring Laist to manage the pesky details frees her up to spend time with family. She has held on to certain rituals with her children, such as driving them to school – even if she's on her way to catch the New York shuttle – or packing their favorite lunch of Mediterranean rice and yogurt.
But she sometimes feels a twinge of regret.
"I don't mean to brag but I am a very efficient person," Coleman said. "But even with this highly efficient multitasking thing I've become in life these days, there is still more. How do you let it go? Am I going to miss out?"
Coleman reached across the table to look at the birthday- card folder Laist had assembled. She pulled out the card Laist had selected for her son, Christopher, about to turn 7.
It was a sports-themed card, covered in colorful drawings of baseballs. Perfect for any little boy.
"Who would have thought I'd be giving my son a birthday card I didn't buy? But it's a great card. It's a card I would have bought myself," Coleman said.
In the end, though, she couldn't bring herself to do it. She went out and bought a card she had chosen herself.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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