I was in the supermarket the other day buying toothpaste and, staring at the shelf, it suddenly became clear why Western civilization is not going to hell in a handbasket but rather in an ultra-lightweight dual-grip handbasket manually woven from organic polyfibers harvested in the virgin Peruvian rainforest by a team of multilingual bio-farmers.
It's too much.
Things have gone too far.
My intention was to use currency to purchase toothpaste, drive it home in my automobile, unscrew the top, squeeze it onto a toothbrush and then move it up, over, across and around my teeth. Afterward I would spit.
Instead of a simple tube of toothpaste I wound up with Crest Whitening Expressions Cinnamon Rush! in a glistening red and blue metallic tube shaped like a Buck Rogers space ship. Other choices included Plaque Fighting Citrus Explosion! (I didn't like the idea of grapefruit blowing up in my mouth) and Wintermint Complete Oral Experience! which, living in Chicago, sounds like something you can get down on North Avenue for 50 bucks.
The toothpaste shelf, composed of hundreds of perfectly aligned rectangular multi-hued boxes, looked like an installation at MOMA. There was not a plain tube of toothpaste in sight.
At the checkout I used a combination credit, debit and ATM card which accrues points redeemable for hot-air balloon trips across Switzerland. I drove home in my car imported from Europe that has all-wheel drive, surround- sound, triple airbags, and little trays that fold down in the backseat should I feel the need for roadside tea and crumpets. At home, instead of unscrewing the tube, I flipped open the hinged top using the custom thumb-grip. I squeezed it onto my ribbed-handled, aerodynamically-designed toothbrush with alternating soft, medium and hard bristles designed to conform to the position and shape of my teeth. Afterward, I spit.
My teeth felt great.
It was the anxiety of whether I'd made the correct dental hygiene choice that was killing me.
I make a point of brushing several times a day partly because I'm a coffee drinker. My preference is a medium-sized cup of black coffee. As far as I can tell, this ordering option is not readily available at most coffee places, of which there are about ten million, all in my neighborhood. There are franchises with themes ranging from the north woods of Canada to Moroccan bistros, places tricked out as beatnik havens and wifi nerd lairs, places meant to evoke Italian cafes from the '50s and American diners from the '30s.
And then there's Starbucks, where it's impossible to order a cup of coffee from the menu without blushing or sounding like a French auctioneer.
Going into Starbucks is akin to being in a foreign country where you have only a passing knowledge of the language and mentally rehearse what you say before you say it so you don't sound like a tool. I was in line once behind an old fellow who asked for a "small" coffee. The incubus at the register looked at him as if he'd spoken Old Church Slavonic until his co-worker whispered, "He means tall."
Does anyone but me see how these words have nothing to do with one another? Was it a conscious decision by Starbucks to exchange traditional words that indicate size (small, medium, large) for words that sound vaguely big and European (tall, grande, venti) in order to create the illusion of more choices? Are Americans at the point now where there is so much to choose from that we require more, different words to indicate our choices?
Maybe it's me, but there's something about a hipster in a beanie ordering a venti triple soy half skim latte one pump low fat caramel macchiato that makes me want to pry open a can of Folgers with my teeth and eat it plain. The only thing that grates me more is that there's now so much to choose from in every conceivable category of life that everything...kindergartens, pot stickers, cities, floss, shoes, booze, strollers, universities, condoms, sunglasses, hamburger joints, grappas, you name it...is constantly being compiled, ranked and listed.
Is it possible there's anything left in America that couldn't somehow comprise a Top Ten list?
Top Ten List of Things That Have Gone Too Far
1) Fast food options: Aren't people fat enough with having to evoke Tuscany? What are the words "Barbecue chicken," "Tuscan" and "Wrap" even doing in the same sentence anyway?
2) Television in general: Can you imagine having this conversation even 10 years ago? "Do you want to watch UPN, CNN, TNT, HBO, TNN, TCN, or TCN?" "Naw, I'd rather see what's on the Puppy Channel." (hint: small dogs)
3) Porn sites using the word "ass": Asian-Ass, Ebony-Ass, Bubble-Ass, Milf-Ass, Chunky-Asses, Muscle-Ass, Mature-Ass (yikes,) Ass-Outdoors, Army-Ass. When it reaches Gravy-Ass can we be done?
4) Celebrities kids' names: With mock-me monikers like Pilot-Inspektor, Apple, Sailor, Dixie-Dot, Coco, Pax, Peaches, Pixie, Zahara, Racer, Rebel, and Kal-El, what's left? Besides Gravy-Ass?
5) Political talking heads: It all started with one Hibernian gasbag and his point-counterpoint pinheads on public TV and now every doughy comb-over who ever licked stamps in the White House is an expert.
6) Exercise methods: Big balls, little balls, medicine balls, barbells, dumbbells, rowing machines, tubes, belts, boots, wraps, treadmills, bikes, climbing walls, kick-boxing, and yet, Chunky-Asses.
7) Cosmetic surgical procedures: Her: eyes like a Siberian tiger. Him: hairline of a pubescent Italian. Her: jugs like actual ceramic jugs. Him: enough lipo to fill a beanbag chair. Her: hands like Bela Lugosi. Him: knew Bela Lugosi personally.
8) The Weather Channel: I can take the Ted Baxter-ish hyperbole (it's not just snow and ice, it's a "deadly wintry mix!") and even the fact that an alarm goes off at the studio every time it rains, but really, at this point, the only place left for Jim Cantore to report from live is the volcanic center of Mars.
9) Ryan Seacrest: This professional smile-head either replaced Dick Clark as America's most cloying MC of made-up events that no one cares about or Dick Clark shed his old body and climbed inside a Ryan suit.
Let me make something perfectly clear: I'm a proponent of innovation and technology. I want as many choices as possible when it comes to something I desire or need. In fact, I'm first in line for anything new and better. The problem is that there's not much that's new and better; there's just more.
I'm not referring to art, music or literature, of which there can never be enough, in every form. I mean the physical, mental, and emotional consumables which allow one to fold in on himself like a enormous self-absorbed burrito. There's so much to choose from and things have gone so far into the mode of hyper-detail and accessorization (Pam Anderson has hepatitis-B! My iPhone speaks French!) that people are distracted from important things that require attention and concentration.
Ray Bradbury predicted it in Fahrenheit 451; Patton Oswalt enunciated it brilliantly in his bit about Black Angus: daily life in America has become a blinding, gagging, deafening tidal wave of the same old crap that's been tarted up, now with biscuits on the side! There's so much noise, food, bodies, gossip, buttons to push, websites to visit, bullshit to parse, DVDs to buy, wines to sample, playgroups to compete for, and financial markets to invest in that in rare moments of reflection it becomes glaringly clear that while most of it is cheap and useless, the worst part is that, in general, most of it is condescending.
It's easier not to think about it.
Do some dip-stretch-crunches.
Have a grande spiced pumpkin skim latte.
I wonder what's on the Puppy Channel?