Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Is There Not A Choice?

Tis the time of year when the Christmas season is upon us. Actually, it’s all around us here in our neighborhood. Christmas lights are hanging everywhere; over garage doors, on trees, in windows. And the other day our neighbor’s house literally exploded in Christmas. We’re talking a Santa dangling from their second story and a candy cane lane leading up to their front door.

For all of the bright lights and merry décor around us, sometimes I wish the cheer and brightness would spread to people as well. There are some people out there whose bulbs could burn a bit brighter or whose attitude could use a bit of sprucing up. But that’s not always the case. In fact, why is it that Christmas seems to bring out the worse of us in the least amount of time.

And so it was Sunday, the Christmas season just having barely begun, when I found myself in Walgreen’s. Initially, I went there to pick up a prescription but found the pharmacy to be closed. So I decided to pick up a few other things.

It was one of those nights where there seemed to be no one in the store and every time you walked by the register it was empty. But then I was ready to checkout, went up to the register, and a line of 6 antsy, angry, I-shopped-way-too-much-this-weekend-and-I'm-not- willing-to-wait-in-this-line-patiently people formed right away.

I was quick but not quick enough and a woman snuck her way in front of me with her basket of good cheer. She started emptying her basket on to the counter – a can of mixed nuts, two bags of bridge mix, two sketch pads, two boxes of markers. Totally random items that seemed only to say I’m the kind of nut that likes to sit around and doodle and eat snacks. Lost in my own entertaining assessment of her items, I became startled when she slammed a box of Christmas lights on the counter while sharply saying, “Don’t you have the Christmas lights with the green wire? These have the white wire and I don’t want white wire.”

When God made Christmas surely this was not what he had in mind. The line just got infinitely longer. And I didn’t even move yet.

“Your ad shows the lights with the green wire,” she informed the clerk, pointing to the ad on the counter.

I rolled my eyes. Someone needs to tell this woman that Santa will visit you no matter what color wire is holding your lights. And tell her fast.

Looking at the woman with a polite you-have-got-to-be-shitting-me look, the clerk said, “If we have them, they’d be on the shelf.”

“Well, they’re not,” she replied tersely. “Why would you put them in an ad this morning if you weren’t going to have them?” she asked in a rude, rhetorical manner, her voice growing louder as her discontent grew larger.

If this clerk had any sense, he’d say something along the lines of sorry sister, it’s your bad timing. Or at least that’s what I’d say. If she wanted those lights so bad, why wasn’t she here at 8 am as opposed to 6 pm? Why wasn’t she waiting in line before the store opened? Anything can happen in 10 hours. Including sell out of green-wired Christmas lights.

“I came all the way down here because the ad says you have the green-wire lights,” she added.

Just when you think you’ve seen the last of something stupid, it goes out and proves that it can be stupider. She came all the way down here? From where – the North Pole? Or wait a minute, where does the Grinch live again? Has anyone else noticed that there is a Walgreen’s approximately every 3 – 5 miles around here? If this one doesn’t have it, chances are the next one, 3 miles down the road, is fully stocked. Take a risk, take a drive, take a hike and get the hell out of my Walgreen’s, I thought.


“Would you like me to ask the manager?” the clerk said. Oh thank you, clerk. You are officially a clerk in my book and not just a ‘kid’. You have the sense to communicate to the customer – politely if I may add – that listen, I don’t make enough money to take this kind of crap about Christmas lights from an ornery sag bag like you.

Behind me, a woman taps her foot and the man behind her looks restless. I think to myself that I shouldn’t even be in this situation, in this line. The pharmacy was closed for crying out loud. Way to justify the trip with toothpaste, body soap, and Claritin, Liz, way to justify.

“Yes, call the manager up here. This is ridiculous. It shouldn’t be in your ad if you don't have it,” she retorted. She was still pissed. You could see it. She was raising her arms and pointing to the box of lights. This was the worst part of her day. Her perfect day was going along perfectly and then Walgreen’s dropped this bomb on her. No lights with green wires. It just wouldn’t be Christmas around her house without the freakin' green wires.

At that moment, another clerk appeared and called the rest of us in our right mind over to the cosmetic counter. She rung me up quickly and as I walked towards the door I could still hear the woman raging about the lights, and the ad, and the discrepancies between what Walgreen’s actually had on the shelf and what was in the ad.

I walked out of the door and shook my head. What did I just witness here? Is this yet another sign that indeed the apocalypse is coming? Or is this just another sign that all of the wonderful choices we have in life can and will backfire when we simply do not get our particular choice?


Getting into the car, I questioned myself even further. Is our Christmas season not complete unless we have dozens of light colors, styles, and shapes to choose from? Are all of these choices really necessary? And will they really make our life much easier?

Ironically, in our modern world our lives have not become enriched or easier with more choices. Instead, they have become emptier and more complicated than before. Before we had all of these choices. Before the days of Christmas lights that came in blue, red, white, mulit-color, icicle, blinking, snowflake shape. In fact, we have so many choices now that most of us find it difficult to make a choice at all.

And that is the paradox of choice.

Before, there may have been two choices – white or blue Christmas lights – but now there’s over a dozen. And imagine the time and mental cost of weighing the advantages and disadvantages of each and every one of those choices. Indeed life has not become easier, it has become exponentially more difficult as our choices keep multiplying, diversifying in so many different directions.

Have we become so accustomed to so many choices that our lives have been increasingly more complicated and our most mundane tasks become more time-consuming than ever? If you want Christmas lights, you should be able to take a box of a shelf, put your money down, and walk out of the store with Christmas lights. Not so easy, though. Have you tried shopping for lights lately? I thought about picking up a box at Walgreen’s to complete the shrub in front of our house. Within one minute I was completely confused – the number of lights, the price, the color, whether they moved or stood still, outdoor or indoor. There were so many choices, so many details to decipher that I abandoned the idea all together and walked away without any lights at all.

And it’s not just the Christmas lights. Choices are exploding and expanding everywhere. Been to the grocery store lately? Tried picking out a bag of cheese? I don’t eat or buy cheese often, so buying a bag of cheese for me often involves sorting through two dozen different bags filled with orange cheese, white cheese, seasoned cheese, plain cheese, low fat, part skim, fat free, full fat, the list goes on and on with so many choices that after reading through them all my head hurts. Where do you even begin making a choice like this? Do you look to price? Package design? Fat grams? Brand name? Or simply the size? Making a simple choice – a bag of cheese – turns into a 10 minute ordeal and makes me not want to buy the cheese at all. And that’s just one of about 50 items I might buy in that trip to the store.

And therein lies the problem. Our lives have become fully stocked and overloaded grocery stores offering a smorgasboard of choices. To many, this might sound like a most attractive and heavenly place to shop and live. A land of unabridged choice. Indeed we want more choices because choices imply our freedom, choices empower our self, choices give us the independence to decide.

But like most sinfully good things, balance begs for moderation. Ironically, too many choices are just as confining and empty as too few at all. “The ordinary man believes he is free when he is permitted to act arbitrarily, but in this very arbitrariness lies the fact that he is unfree.” The words of Hegel - suggesting that our limitless choices do not release us or fill us with freedoms, they simply trap us in the decision-making process, waffling with lack of direction with so many different directions to go towards. Cheddar? Mexican-flavored? Italian mix? Colby-Jack blend? Screw it, there will be no cheese tonight at dinner at all!

It even feels like many of us are living our lives in search of the best option. Never satisfied with what we have, seeing our satisfaction as simply 'settling' and instead giving it up to search for something better. But is better really out there? And if so, how long will it take for us to find it? And will it be worth the cost? Will it be the cost of our happiness, our fulfillment with our own lives and the choices we’ve made? Are we actually setting ourselves up for dissatisfaction and depression because we simply have lost the ability to be happy with the choices that have left us what we have and where we are?

At times, I even find myself restricting my choices to simplify my life. Coffee is a perfect example. There are so many different coffee drinks out there that it’s best to just stick with one. If I tried all of my choices, I might be in line drinking coffee for days, weeks, months. There’s just too many choices. Foam, no foam, hot, extra hot, skim, two percent. Listening to people order their coffee choices sometimes leaves my head spinning as they talk another language of I-want-it-the-way-I-choose or no-way-at-all. And so I just ask for coffee. In a cup. Hot.

And sometimes, as I stand in a line at a store while someone rants and raves about not having exactly what they wanted, what they chose, I long for a life in a simpler time. When there were just two sizes of coffee – small or large. When there were just two types of coffee – decaf or regular. When in came in one temperature - hot.


And so here stands this woman, in Walgreen’s, possibly a victim of one too many choices. So many Christmas lights to choose from that she became hell-bent on finding exactly the right one that she wanted. And if she didn’t get what she wanted – well, there it was right in front of me - case and point. She’d complain and scream at the counter until someone heard her plight – that they didn’t have the exact choice of Christmas lights that she wanted, her day was ruined, call Christmas off and get on to New Years.

Or maybe I had it all wrong. Maybe back in her time there were only two choices and she just wanted what she knew was right. Maybe she was saying it loud and clear all along – if Walgreen’s didn’t carry so many damn choices of lights that did everything short of singing Christmas songs (though I think I’ve seen those somewhere….) they might be able to carry a larger quantity of fewer choices of lights and please more of the customers.

Either way, I can’t help but feel that the Christmas season was not meant to enrage us to tantrum in the Walgreen’s about a set of lights. And if that’s what all of our choices have done to us, made us prone to tantrums when we don’t get what we want or what we expect, then maybe it’s time to put ourselves on a choice diet and accept what we have been given or what we’ve found. It’s not food that will fatten the average American up to 7 lbs heavier this Christmas season, it’s the choices, the options, the advertisements tempting us with better prices, better selections, sucking our time as we search from store to store for exactly what we want. And when we don’t get it, those 7 lbs are ready and loaded to explode all over some clerk in some store.


So be satisfied with whatever you’ve found on the shelf, throw up some blue lights with white wires, and call it Christmas. And that's not a choice.

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