Long ago, when I was a Washington, D.C., latchkey kid, 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 "our" grocery store, load a basket, cross my fingers I'd have enough money not have to put anything back - and then carry my bounty home in a double brown bag.
Forty years later, I shop in a suburban megamarket 40 times the size of that humble grocery store. Between leaving my empty van and returning to fill it with our family's food supply, I walk at least a mile, browsing aisles brimming with an assortment of food fit for a king: a dozen varieties of apples, a hundred imported cheeses, scores of pasta possibilities, 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.
It hit me the other morning. In a mustard aisle meltdown, 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.
A similar panic hit me that afternoon at the post officeas I was trying to buy a hundred 37-cent stamps. The clerk offered me a vast selection from which to choose - including Audrey Hepburn, a pair of mallards, Mary Cassatt miniature artworks, Stop Family Violence, and creepy-crawly reptiles.
"What about a roll of regular stamps?" I pleaded. I was 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 O'Connell High (Arlington, Va.) insignia and 1965. That year, my only choice was to order the boy's ring or the diminutive girl's version.
I don't remember feeling shortchanged at all.
By contrast, today I feel ripped off, seeing how my most precious resource - time - is 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.
And now, with extra minutes to ponder the things that matter, I'm seeing there's something even more maleficent than the moments we lose as our marketplace mushrooms. There's the deception by which our sense of freedom shifts from inalienable rights to economic choices - thus becoming largely an illusion, based on which car you drive, detergent you use, or hamburger you eat. Have it your way!
The more options Americans have, the more our need for self-determination is sated by ridiculous choices like stamps and mustard and rings - the less fire we have for the choices our government continues to withhold (school vouchers) or begins to take away (gun ownership, 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 buy only the truth.
The truth is that when it comes to options, sometimes less is more.
• Barbara Curtis is a writer and mother of 12. Her latest book, due out in January, is 'Lord, Please Meet Me in the Laundry Room.'