Long ago, when I was a Washington, D.C. latchkey kid (before the term was coined), my mother would leave a couple of dollars and a list for me to go to the store after school. I'd walk down New Hampshire Avenue to the store on the corner, load a basket, cross my fingers that I'd have enough money, and then carry our bounty home in a double brown bag.
Fifty years later, I shop in a suburban megamarket 50 times bigger. Between leaving my BMW (Big Mama Wagon) and returning to fill it with our family's food supply, I walk at least a mile, browsing aisles brimming with food: a dozen apple varieties, a hundred imported cheeses, meat and seafood fit for a king, frozen foods galore, an astonishing assortment of breads, and an increasingly outrageous array of ice creams.
These days, grocery shopping is more an art form than a survival tactic - each grocery cart a highly personal expression of all that we fancy ourselves to be.
But oh, how much we've lost - even as we've gained.
In a mustard aisle meltdown the other morning I nearly collapsed beneath the weight of all my choices. A multitude of specialty items - my cart in standby mode, my hand reaching, then hesitating, the labels becoming a blur. So many mustards, so little time.
That afternoon at the Post Office I just wanted a hundred stamps, but the clerk offered me a vast selection: Love Ribbons, Heart Health, Aloha Shirts, Vanishing Species, Tiffany Lamps and New Mexico Statehood.
"What about a roll of regular stamps?" I pleaded, trying to avert the mind-numbing selection process. Which stamp would send the right message to my editors? Which would be the perfect expression of Me?
That evening I was in the throes of comparing cellphone rates when my son, a high school junior, brought me a catalog from which to order his design-your-own senior ring - 12 models, 10 colors, five cuts of stones, and 50 (count 'em) possible side engravings. The selection took us an hour.
Overcome with nostalgia, I spent the rest of the evening searching for and finding my own high school ring. The stone was blue - our official school color - the sides engraved with the Bishop O'Connell High insignia and 1965. My only choice was whether to order the boy's ring or the smaller girl's version.
And I don't remember feeling shortchanged at all.
By contrast, today I feel ripped off, seeing my most precious resource - time - steadily stolen away with each meaningless decision I make. I'm remembering with fondness the '50s grocery where I chose between white bread and brown, red apples and green, American and Swiss, dill and sweet. Only two mustards graced the shelf then: the regular and its racy cousin. Today I grab the original like a lifeline, determined to negotiate the remaining aisles of this Vanity Fair with as much detachment as I can muster.
There's something even more maleficent than losing moments in our mushrooming marketplace: the basis for our sense of freedom shifts from inalienable rights to economic choices - thus becoming largely an illusion, a deception based on which car you drive, detergent you use, jewelry you collect, or hamburger you eat.
The more options Americans have, the more our need for self-determination is sated by stupid choices between varieties of stamps and mustard and rings, and the less fire we have for the freedoms our government continues to withhold (school vouchers) or begins to take away (religious expression).
In Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan notes that we cannot avoid Vanity Fair unless we leave this world. But we can pass through without getting caught up in the lust of the marketplace if, as his hero Christian says, we only buy the truth.
The truth is that there is only one decision that really matters: "Then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve." (Joshua 24:15) When I focus on that choice, the others fade in importance - and I'm reminded that when it comes to options, less can really mean more.