Friday, September 19, 2008

Choice and Change 1: The Farmers Market Example

Though I was, by my own memory, for the most part, a low-maintenance child who was content to read in her bedroom, sing herself to sleep, and play quietly on the piano in the living room, the one thing I would really work myself up into a rage about was being asked to make small, unimportant decisions.

Every Saturday, there was a farmers market about a mile from our house. Every Saturday, my mom asked me whether I wanted to go with her to the market or stay home with my dad. And every Saturday, without fail, my endless and increasingly desperate deliberations ended with me howling in the entryway with one foot outside the house and one foot inside the house, watching my mom walk down the street towards the car and feeling my body pushed and pulled from both directions as I frantically thought about the wonderful things that would undoubtably happen at the market if I stayed home, and the wonderful things that would undoubtably happen at home if I went to the market.

There were so many things for my small, obsessive mind to consider. The farmers market was a mixed bag. Occasionally, we'd take my little portable keyboard with us and I'd improvise songs on it while sitting next to the carrot-seller. People would throw me money whether they could hear what I was playing or not (and usually they couldn't because I was shy and turned the volume way down) because I was little and cute. However, the ground was uncomfortable and the noise was distracting and people would fawn over me, my mom included, and the one thing I hated more than anything was being fawned over. So usually we didn't bring the keyboard.

Keyboard aside, there were so many other things. I liked choosing what we would buy. I had strong opinions about which vegetables I liked and which vegetables I didn't. I liked all fruit, but I was picky about bruises and ripeness. Sometimes there were seafood stands and they would give samples of fine lox and even caviar. Hippies, who weren't quite as prevalent in the 80's, proffered granola, which my mom, and therefore I, distrusted. And other men, usually grizzled and in wide-brimmed hats, would be playing their guitars next to their favorite vendors, and my mom would give me a dollar and let me creep up next to him and drop it in his open case. That short bout of being in front of the crowd was about all I could take. No thank-you's or what's-your-name's or invitations to sing along to children's songs. Just a dollar in the case and a hurried return to my mom.

But sometimes I got tired of the market. I was, even then, an introvert. Grownups and conversation and the sun and the crowds eventually got under my skin and I would start whining and acting like a spoiled bratty only child, which, of course, I was. All I ever ended up wanting to do, after an hour at the market, was to flop on the couch with a book and a bunch of carrots. I hated this feeling of dragging my sluggish feet around and having to smile whenever we ran into anyone my mom knew, which was everyone, since she taught in the local school system, and answer questions about how my piano playing was going and what new songs I was learning.

With one foot out and one foot in the house, I'd consider all these things, and more. My best friend who lived across the street might come home while I was at the market and want to do something fun - more fun than going to the market. Like having a water balloon advance against some unsuspecting kid's porch, or throwing our plastic parachuters off the roof. By the time I got back from the market, he might be gone!

I could also go to the beach - while also sunny, and filled with people who knew my parents, the advantage to the beach was that I could lay down and read and still have the general feeling of having done something social. But I might miss my favorite guitar man, or my mom might not bring home the right kind of apples.

The bottom line was that I was positive that whichever totally insignificant path I chose, I would spend the time steeping in regret for having made the 'wrong choice'. Even though it was clear that going to the farmers market or not going to the farmers market wouldn't have any huge, lasting impact on my life, I was convinced that it would.

Similar quandaries happened when: my mom asked me what I wanted to eat for breakfast; whether I wanted to take the car or the train downtown; whether I wanted to have my birthday dinner on my birthday or on the nearest weekend night... the list goes on and on.

I remember laying in bed on a school morning and my mom asking me what I wanted for breakfast. Listing off all my options. Pancakes. Scrambled eggs. Hard boiled eggs. Cream of Wheat. Toast. I could never decide. And then my dad would be yelling at my mom: 'Why give her a choice? You're doing her a favor! Make what you want to make! If she doesn't like it, she'll have to deal with it or else make her own!'

The funny thing is, even as I lay worrying about tragically making the wrong breakfast choice and having to suffer the regretful consequences, I realized that I would have actually preferred it had she just chosen something and made it for me without asking. Even if I hadn't particularly felt like whatever-it-was, I could just think, gross, Cream of Wheat', probably sulk a little, because I was spoiled, and then eat it and get over it with little result except maybe a less-than-satisfied stomach. Instead of having to agonize over a decision, get the pancakes, eat them, and think, if only I had gotten the Cream of Wheat.

I realize that this entry is ridiculous, because my child's mind had no idea how to distinguish important decisions from unimportant ones, and so I'm forced to write about the intricacies of breakfast cereal, but I think it does have larger implications. Namely, I still have less trouble with the outcome of a crossroads if it was forced upon me, and more trouble if I was responsible for choosing.

So obviously that causes me to wonder if it's possible to fool oneself into changing by making it seem like it's a forced change, and not a willpower-based-change. I'll hold off on commenting further, though, until I read the next book from the library that I have, which is called The Paradox of Choice and which has, I'm sure, insight that I can draw on if not totally just quote wildly and at will.

1 comment:

Dan R said...

We are lead to believe that every small decision we make will have some kind of ripple-effect-style lasting impact on ourselves, our environment, and everything we understand about the world.

To some degree, we can easily guess that it's true by the mere fact that good things sometimes happen when we make small choices.

If I go to a CGDA meeting, will I meet someone who wants to hire me? I don't know. I won't know until I go there.

It's important in my line of work to put yourself into a position where opportunity can present itself, but understanding where opportunity will be is like trying to guess the lottery.

All I know is that I can't win the lotto unless I play, even if that means making a lot of potentially misguided small choices.