On the Nature of Choice: My Aunt April

My life is about to change in a number of substantial ways, the outcome of which I cannot clearly foresee. Thus, I've been meditating at some length on choice, not the choices with which I am now faced so much as on the very substance of choice itself. While thinking on this, I realized that, when I first moved to the United States, the concept of a grocery store was new to me. (This connects, I promise).

Grocery stores, as we understand them, did not exist in rural England in the early nineteen-eighties. There were neighborhood markets, butchers, dairies, fishmongers, of course. Every town of any size had a "Grocery" but it was a small store that sold vegetables, canned goods and perhaps ice cream. The one in our town was scarcely larger than my current apartment and carried no more than two kinds of anything. It was certainly not one of the sprawling, fluorescent, warehouses that we find in US suburbs, carrying perhaps a half-million individual products stacked from floor to highest reach with dozens of varieties of anything one cares to eat plus housewares, paper goods, magazines and patio furniture. We still had a milk man, after all.

I remember distinctly when my Aunt April first came to visit us a year or so after we moved to America. She'd never conceived of such a place. She stood in the aisle of the Piggly Wiggly for twenty minutes, mouth agape, unable to comprehend the selection of salad dressing.

During my Aunt's life, English salad was livened up with one of only three things. First was white vinegar, the same kind one uses to clean a drip coffee maker. After that was Branston Pickle, a concoction of diced vegetables, spices and brown sludge that resembles a hybrid of sweet pickle relish, chunky salsa and week old ratatouille.* Finally, we had "salad cream" which is a bit like watered down Miracle Whip. I presume we only bothered to have three salad toppings because they were all so terrible that we didn't want to subject ourselves to any more such horrors.

To anyone who's gone shopping in the US in the last few decades, this is obviously not the case here. American salad dressing boggled her and not just because she presumed it was all terrible and thus had trouble imagining the depths of America's masochism. She was boggled because there were simply so many possibilities. Vinegar dressings, oil dressings, cream dressings, fat free, extra-chunky, dozens of varieties and brands and sizes of each. That's not even counting extras like croutons, sunflower seeds or synthetic bacon. My aunt, who had only ever known three such possibilities was in decision overload. She simply couldn't handle that many options.

Remember also that this was in 1985 when the salad dressing aisle was only a few feet long and offered only twenty or so choices.

I tried to count the options at the Publix across the street and I gave up at 175 when I realized that I hadn't made a dent. I paced the length of the shelves and found them to be just shy of fifty feet long, whilst taking up both sides of the aisle. That means there was enough salad dressing in my neighborhood grocery store to fill a city bus.

After more than a quarter hour staring vacant-eyed at the myriad of condiments, absolutely unprepared for the dearth of options that so often manifest in the capitalist temples of middle-class America, Aunt April simply decided that we'd skip the salad altogether.

Herein lies the problem of choosing; it's not, contrary to popular understanding, simply a matter of weighing preferences, of evaluating pros an cons. Choosing from any substantial number of options requires understanding of the items, their potential properties and knowing your preferences about them. Without these things choice becomes impossible.

More options often do not make for better decisions and, faced with a choice of any difficulty, most people will chose not to chose at all.

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Yesterday's Values Living in Tomorrow's Industry

As a teen, I never experienced the restlessness of youth. I never complained to myself about the great things I should be doing. I never felt oppressed by the expectations of the world and I never chafed against authority and opportunity. The words, "until I can get out of here," were always spoken by others and not by me.

As an adult I have come to have these feelings that I lacked as a youth.

More bothersome, as I approach the beginning of my third decade, none of the people that felt and thought this way fifteen years ago continue to do so. What did they know then that they don't know now? Likewise, the reciprocal.

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Missionaria Protectiva

Much that was called religion has carried an unconscious attitude of hostility toward life. True religion must teach that life is filled with joys pleasing to the eye of God, that knowledge without action is empty. All men must see that the teachings of religion by rules and rote is largely a hoax. The proper teaching is recognized with ease. you can know it without fail because it awakens within you that sensation which tells you this is something you've always known.

-- Frank Herbert

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Effluvium, in List Form

A smattering of things I happen to have noticed recently:

My coffee shop has four distinct styles of patio chair, though only one style of table.

USA today is only published 5 out of every 7 days.

The Creative Loafing box across from my apartment has a theft chain but it's not chained to anything.

I currently have four pens in my pocket: one red, two purple, one green but none that are black or blue.

The sign in front of the neighboring parking lot says "Parking for Chelsea Building Only" but does not indicate which building that is. Nor is the building in question labeled as such.

Strollers have gotten steadily larger over the last 25 years. The one my mother used for me weighed about five pounds and could be folded up like an umbrella. Modern strollers are nearly the size of compact cars.

There are no red maple trees in Georgia. I don't actually think there are any maple trees at all but it's the absence of the red ones that I notice.

The apartment building next to mine is falling to ruins. The interior is condemned and the windows mostly shattered. Despite this the landscaping is continuously maintained.

Doogie Howser's journal entries are so vague that, were he to ever go back and read them, he'd have no idea what actually happened that day.

Some days it's best to just look around and save the meaning of things for another time.

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Wicked in their banality, vicious task masters, they count off neat quantities of an imaginary substance by which we are to measure the velocity of our lives. They force us to engage the world in seconds and decades rather than moments and seasons. Through them we are divorced from the rhythms of the world that made us and married to the tempo of the world that we made for ourselves, all the while leaving so much of ourselves behind.

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