midpoint (2006-30)

The Confusion of Choice

Opting Out

by Stephanie Piper

I’m standing in front of my closet and feeling a sudden nostalgia for my old school uniform. Plaid pleated skirt. Starched white blouse. Gray blazer. Black oxfords. Modest, concealing of flaws, guaranteed to wear like iron. Who could have guessed, all those years ago, that I would ever feel anything but loathing for that dowdy get-up? But this morning, I would willingly put it on. I would cheerfully button up the scratchy blouse and tie up the sensible shoes and stride purposefully into the day if it meant I would never again have to stand in front of these rows of pants and tops and dresses and jackets and make a choice.   

Here’s my latest insight about Life in the 21st Century: Variety is the enemy of serenity. It came to me in the dental hygiene aisle of the drugstore, an unlikely place for inspiration, but no matter. I’ll take it where I can get it.

All I wanted was dental floss. How hard could this be? Answer: Very hard. Reason: Variety. Waxed. Unwaxed. Mint. Plain. Narrow. Thick. Generic. Name brand. Store brand.

There was a time when this kind of decision-making was limited to paint colors and wallpaper samples. Not any more. Now the dizzying array of options covers every category from sneakers to seltzer. And let’s not even get started on coffee.

I remember reading once that supermarkets were danger zones for people with nervous disorders. I didn’t get it. It’s just groceries, right? Wrong. It’s basil-tarragon infused, reduced fat, low-carb, soy-based, high-fiber hell. I now empathize with people who burst into tears in the cereal section. I had my own mini-meltdown last week in front of the Triscuits. I wanted plain ones, like they used to have in the olden days. Not sun-dried-rosemary-pesto. Not organic-sesame-gruyere. Just Triscuits, the kind you eat with tomato soup.

A friend of mine spent a year living on a remote island in the Indian Ocean, where everything but fish and coconuts had to be imported. Cargo ships arrived infrequently, and when they did, the provisions were unpredictable: a thousand cans of tomato paste one week, several gross of paper towels the next. Shopping was a kind of scavenger hunt, my friend said, but there was no confusion of choice. If they had it, you bought it. If they didn’t, you made do with whatever there was and waited for the next ship.

Sounds like paradise to me.

There’s a marketing niche here. I’m fantasizing about a store called Limited Options, a cozy emporium where the narrow shelves hold the secret of happiness: one, maybe two varieties of every product. Imagine the speed and tranquility with which shopping could be accomplished! Corn flakes, waxed dental floss, plain Triscuits. Done.

And why, you ask, is abundant choice so daunting to me? Variety, after all, is the spice of life. Variety is a trademark of prosperity. The more choices people have, the more they buy.

Or the more they obsess about what to buy, to eat, to wear. It’s not that I want to divest myself of all my worldly goods and go live off the land. I like worldly goods. I just wish there weren’t quite so many of them, in so many colors and models and designs.

Maybe my school uniform nostalgia means I’ve just reached the point where I’d like to reflect more and choose less, where the need to safeguard some quiet, product-free space trumps the need for five kinds of snack crackers or more clothes to add to my overflowing closet.

“Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers,” Wordsworth wrote. Getting and spending. Today, he might add choosing.