SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

July 24, 2013

Anderson: Drowning in a sea of choices

Barbara Anderson
The Salem News

---- — With our national Independence Day having been properly celebrated with flag, fireworks and family cookout, I now find myself thinking about our personal independence, 2013.

Unfortunately, it’s become rather self-evident that while, sure, we’re created equal and endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, like Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, we Americans also seem to have assumed once-alien rights to a Comfortable yet Distracted Life, the Liberty to get bogged down in hundreds of choices and the pursuit of novelty.

Two things were bothering me during last week’s heat wave. One, I was certain that if the electricity failed, I was going to die. What would I do if there was no fan in my bedroom window or air conditioner in the living room protecting the fish in the aquarium?

My family, visiting from a dry climate, appreciated that we could gather in that one room to cool off, though my son said my fish are tropical, so what do they care how hot it gets? Well, it seems to me that at some point, even tropical fish can be cooked. There is a similar point about humans having evolved near the equator, which may or may not have been humid at the time.

People do live in the tropics, though. The closest I’ve come was June ’67 in the Florida panhandle, in a mobile home, no air conditioning, gasping for air the way a fish would gasp for water were he removed from it. The humidity was so thick that it seemed one should be able to float.

Western Pennsylvania isn’t considered tropical, but I think there was global warming during my childhood. My friends and I played tennis and softball in the mornings but headed home in the midday sun to have tournaments of board games in the cool basement. I don’t remember my house having fans, never mind air conditioning, though there was a dehumidifier. No one seemed to complain much.

We hear occasionally about frail people dying during a heat wave and are told to check on elderly neighbors and relatives. I suppose if the electricity had failed, I could have slept in my car, the first I’ve owned that has air conditioning.

I wonder how our Founding Fathers had the energy during the hot Philadelphia summer to pursue the right to the pursuit of happiness on our behalf.

I also wonder how much of my current happiness depends upon my Tempur-Pedic mattress and floor fan, not to mention screens and indoor plumbing.

The second thing that bothered me was the realization of how I have become a servant of the consumer society. I stand, paralyzed with indecision, in the cereal aisle of the grocery store, overwhelmed by the variety. In other aisles, I try to compute the coupon price against that week’s sale or the usual unit pricing.

Last week, I needed groceries but forgot to take my little packet, which for years I’ve filled with coupons clipped from the newspaper circulars and sorted into categories. Instead of searching for the brand for which I had a coupon, I just bought what I wanted. Feeling oddly liberated, I ignored the two for the price of one, and the 20 for $10 specials, and just bought what I needed. It was ... amazing. I wonder: Can I do it again?

Then, there are the cards I’ve accumulated from various stores that make me a preferred customer and give me a discount on something or a gift after I’ve spent a certain amount; my wallet is stuffed with them. I often go out of my way to shop at those stores, or respond to a special even if I don’t want it, or would rather try something else. I’ll bet at least half of my excess pounds are the result of such responding, along with television advertising. The craving for a bacon double cheeseburger really doesn’t come from my genes.

So I wonder: Is this freedom, Thomas Jefferson, to have become a nation of Pavlovian puppies? Or does our modern lifestyle simply reflect American appreciation of all life has to offer, as well as a sensible desire to save money where we can?

Maybe. But I’ll bet there’s a connection with our recent inability as voters to sort through the choices, the complexity, the clever advertising in the electoral arena. I’m pretty focused politically but am also easily distracted by a new issue. Why are we talking about racism all of a sudden, when the national debt is approaching $20 trillion? What part of illegal don’t we understand, in so many areas from immigration to the limited presidential power allowed by the Constitution? Were we smarter voters when we had only a few television channels to watch and no Internet?

I know one thing: If all voters don’t start taking some time from their pursuit of comfort and variety to understand what is happening in our country, the comfort and consumerism will go from being simple pleasures to pathetic escapes from a hard lesson learned too late. We’ll no longer have what really matters: our Right to the pursuit of the real Happiness that is only possible with Liberty.

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Barbara Anderson of Marblehead is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation and a Salem News columnist.