Saturday, April 2, 2011


Originally posted in the Annapolis Capital-Gazette: April 12, 7:53 am 

Overwhelmed by the variety in the mustard aisle of Publix.

After we’d caught up on our sleep, we removed the dinghy from where it had been secured on deck and set off for the grocery store. We must have seemed very odd to the people around us. Maybe like country bumpkins visiting the big city for the first time and gawking at the skyscrapers, but not exactly. More like … have you ever watched an afternoon movie let out? People come out of the theater and stand confused for a few minutes, blinking in the bright sunshine, disoriented at leaving the fantasy world they’d been immersed in for the last 2 hours and reentering our everyday world. We were like that. We had to get used to cars again, traffic and busy streets. We were definitely back in the land of plenty. I salivated over vegetables that weren’t bruised or shriveled, pencil-thin baby asparagus and mushrooms with caps that weren’t yet opened, and remembered a shopkeeper in Black Point explain that he only had powdered or boxed milk, never got fresh milk because it had passed its expiration date by the time it arrived on the mail boat.

We were paralyzed by indecision in the store – unlike in the Bahamas where there was one, or at most two options for each of the few staples that were available – here were so many choices, so many subtle variations of each product! Extra-sharp cheddar, or sharp, or aged, or mild? Dijon mustard, or golden, or brown? I counted. There were fifty-two varieties of mustard on the shelf, large and small, spicy or mild, horseradish or chipotle or bourbon, in glass jars or plastic squeeze bottles. Fifty-two! What abundance! What wealth! Uh, which one to buy?

I never realized it, but it should be obvious: making decisions, large or small, takes energy. There’s a class of decisions, I call them micro-decisions, and they come from having too much stuff. These are absolutely trivial decisions, about things that never affect anyone else and never have consequences in the long run. Here’s one example: when we lived on land we had a few different coffee cups in the kitchen cabinet – there was one with the logo from a company that sponsored a conference I attended, another was a souvenir from a visit to Canada the previous summer, yet another was the amber one that used to be my mother’s, and finally there were the ones that match our dishes. So every morning I’m standing in front of the cabinet bleary-eyed, trying to figure out which mug to use, what matches my mood best, wasting energy on this meaningless decision … and that was by definition before I’d been able to have my coffee!! And after having the coffee, I realize it made no difference which mug I had used. Of course, here on the boat my life is simplified by only having space for one – unbreakable – mug. No clutter, no choices, no decisions.

Back at the supermarket, we settled on a subtle Dijon mustard, welcome after the brittle sharpness of the stuff that was before. Ah, taste buds! And yet …now there’s always going to be a nagging little voice in the back of my head urging me to wonder, if having 52 varieties of mustard is true wealth, or an energy-sapping micro-decision like the coffee mug.

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