Catherine Ford Gets Personal

One year: A challenge for change

CHAPTER 49: TOO MUCH CHOICE IS NO CHOICE

with 4 comments

In one of the many brilliant scenes in Kathryn Bigelow’s multiple Academy Award-winning movie, The Hurt Locker, Sergeant First Class William James — played by Jeremy Renner — stands bewildered in the middle of a supermarket cereal aisle. He’s flummoxed by the range of choices presented to him.

Within days he’s back in Iraq, defusing bombs. The comparison is not lost on the audience – it’s easier to take an improvised explosive device apart than it is to decide among a bewildering array of choices that daily civilian life offers.

Surely there could be no person who doesn’t know how that leader of a bomb disposal squad felt. Who hasn’t been faced with the kind of simple decisions that leave you standing in the middle of rows and rows of jars and cans and bottles, unable to make a choice? Maybe that’s one of the reasons I so dislike grocery shopping — too much stuff on the shelves, too many choices, too much bewilderment. So, I let Ted do the shopping. He doesn’t appear to be lost in the midst of plenty, as I am.

So much of life is about making choices, from what politician to support to what brand of detergent to use. The former is obviously more important than the latter. But after years of writing about politics and the men and women who choose to run for office, desperate to win a popularity contest at the polls, I’m convinced we spend more time deciding among Tide, Cheer and Sunlight than among Conservative, Liberal or New Democrat.

Worse, too often when given a choice between brains and beauty, we choose beauty. Given a choice between smart and educated and folksy and likeable, we choose the latter. Maybe it’s because we want our politicians to be the kind of men or women who would make great neighbours, rather than great leaders.

As Frank Swinnerton, an English novelist and essayist who died at age 98 in 1982 so aptly put it: “We would rather be in the company of somebody we like than in the company of the most superior of our acquaintance.” That may explain why so many talented, educated, well-spoken and brilliant men and women get nowhere in politics. Too often, we simply don’t like them. They’re too cerebral, or too snooty or too this or too that — what it comes down to is a matter of likeability, not qualifications.

Rather than make a choice at election time, too many of us elect not to choose and stay home. When the Tories recorded their 11th straight majority win in the 2008 Alberta election, 59 percent of the electorate stayed away from the polls. That 41 percent voter turnout was the worst in Alberta history.

Alberta has had only four different governments since it became a province in 1905: Liberal from 1905 to 1921; United Farmers from 1921 to 1935; Social Credit from 1935 to 1971 and Progressive Conservatives ever since.

The Tories survive in Alberta because only once has there been a credible alternative on the horizon. Leader of the Liberal Party, the late Laurence Decore, managed to toss away what had been predicted as a sure thing (a Liberal win in the province in the 1993 election) when within the first days of that election campaign he came out against a woman’s right to choose. The ever-wily Ralph Klein, then the new Conservative leader and premier, simply said abortion was a matter between a woman, her doctor, and god.) We may not like all the choices with which we are presented, but above all, we want the right to make our own choices.

Eleanor Roosevelt said it best: “One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes … and the choices we make are ultimately our responsibility.”

The real underlying message is that life is all about choices and the privilege we have of making them for ourselves. That so many of us choose not to make those choices is not, as in the noted “jam” experiment because there are too few or too many options. Sheena Iyengar, a professor at Columbia Business School conducted the experiment and has written about it in her brand-new book, The Art Of Choosing.

As it turns out, making choices isn’t all that easy, and we are influenced by factors we may be unaware of. It’s not science, says Iyengar, it’s art. And despite the Western belief that the more choices one has, the better one’s life, it turns out it ain’t necessarily so.

Iyebngar writes: “It is a common supposition in American society, that ‘the more choices the better’ — that the human ability to desire and manage choice is infinite. From classic economic theories of free enterprise, to mundane marketing practices which provide customers with entire aisles devoted to potato chips or soft drinks, to important life decisions in which people contemplate alternative career options or multiple investment opportunities, this belief pervades our economics, norms, and customs. Ice cream parlors compete to offer the most flavors; a major fast-food chain urges us to ‘have it your way.’”

So she set about to test the theory. Customers at an upscale store were offered a choice among six “gourmet” jams or 24 of the same brand of exotic jams, with the more favourite flavours — strawberry and raspberry — being left out. Over a series of experiments and days, it turns out that customers were more likely to buy when their choices were restricted.

So it comes as no surprise to read in the Globe and Mail business section, a quote from Duncan MacNaughton, chief merchandising officer at Wal-Mart in Mississauga (just outside Toronto.) He said: “Folks can get overwhelmed with too much variety. With too many choices, they actually don’t buy.”

The retailing giant had just pulled two of the five brands of peanut butter it offered off its shelves without losing a single sale. Reports Marina Strauss: “Retailers are now reducing the amount of choice in their shelves, after years of tempting customers with ever-expanding arrays of brands, hues, sizes and flavours, they’re racing to simplify their offerings.

“Reducing the number of products can help companies increase sales by as much as 40 percent while cutting costs by between 10 and 35 percent.”

So what does peanut butter and jam have to do with my campaign? (Other than being two of the three constituent parts of my favourite sandwich — the third being bread.)

Because if you’re on a self-improvement campaign, you need to take that kind of ruthless attitude to your closets.

If it doesn’t fit, give it away or throw it out. It’s not that I’ve been good in this department, but I’m getting better. I’ve managed to donate at least a dozen business suits to an organization that helps women get back into the work force with the proper clothes, but it took five years of retirement before I realized I was never going to need those “uniforms” again, regardless of their original price tags.

But the hardest chore was parting with all the expensive clothes I had put aside when my weight crept up yet-again. Even the words of advice that rang in my head — “so your reward for losing weight is a five-year-old dress?” — so sagely (and appropriately sarcastically) offered by a Weight Watchers’ leader still wasn’t enough to make me clean out the closet properly.

The “dressy” stuff is the hardest to get rid of.

I claim the right to a certain amount of sentiment – the ivory-coloured dress and coat with satin lapels and the turquoise raw silk suit with its matching hat and purse I’ll keep forever, although likely never wear again. Nobody discards the outfits in which they were married, right?

Only bridesmaids’ dresses are eminently disposable, although even the ugliest live on in pictures. The yellow net dress and bolero jacket I wore as one cousin’s bridesmaid is one of the more unfortunate of its kind, although as close to high fashion as was possible in 1958 in the wilds of Saskatchewan. By the time the bride’s only sister was married, the fashion had advanced to less-formidable amount of frothy cloth and that dress was a simple green peau-de-soie. As I was the only bridesmaid, my mother suggested she make the dress from her choice of fabric, a suggestion readily approved by her own cousin, the bride’s mother. The bride made only one request — so that the flowergirl would match, could my mother send a couple of yards of the fabric she chose to the flowergirl’s mother, so that the wedding party would be coordinated?

Mother complied. What she neglected to do was to tell the little girl’s mother — who had never seen peau de soie before — which side of the fabric was the “right’ side.

The flowegirl’s dress came out backwards, with the matte side out and the shiny side in. It was one if those “wedding” moments that live forever, and every time I look at that wedding photograph, I can’t help but smile. Of such things are fond memories made.

I’ve kept the white grecian-draped gown I wore to meet the Queen about 30 years ago and my collection of hats — likely never to be worn again —doesn’t take up any room in the closet, being stuffed into hat boxes on the top of the shelves. Who knows but tea parties may come back into style?

But all the fat clothes are gone — donated to a worthy cause. It’s like a ton of weight — pun intended — off my shoulders.

NEXT: Spring cleaning should include one’s memories.

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Written by Catherine Ford

May 26, 2010 at 5:09 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses

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  1. Hello Catherine,
    This morning, after I loaded my oven with banana-blueberry-bran muffin batter-filled pans,(treats I’ll take to the volunteers at our still standing elevators) I went to your blog.
    For the first time in ages I was able to enjoy reading your words. Reading the Calgary Herald was a regular part of my mornings,right up until door-to-door delivery within our small town,ceased a few years back. Seemed no one would take on the task. Not enough pay for too much effort and too much responsibility was expected, in order to get this daily paper distributed.
    Sure I could go pick one up at a couple of locations in town, but that meant I’d have to get dressed, go out at 4 or 5 in the morning when I used to just read my paper, and I really did not want to do that at all. Now I treat myself once in awhile and buy a Herald, but mostly, I end up reading more books and magazine articles and try catching CBC News on tv or the radio.
    Yup, I’m an old duck when it comes to reading the paper. When we were in the process of planning and building our house here in Nanton,about 14 years ago, I was shooting for hardwood flooring throughout most of our main floor. Then one day me eldest son,Angus, said,”Are you sure you want hardwood in the living room,Mom?” I replied,”Angus,it will be so much nicer….way less dust!” He then said,” But Mom, what do you do every morning? Don’t you think you’d rather have a nice brand new carpet to spread your newspaper out on, when you lay in front of the fireplace and read every morning?”
    Enough said. Carpet was installed and most mornings, I’d treat myself to reading your column and many others, before our brood of 4 kids woke, and we all headed off to school and work.
    Ahhh…those were the years! Changes come along and we must make adjustments. Children grew up,work and businesses took on new faces and papers stopped coming to my door! But as you said in one of your blogs…there is something about reading hard copy…an actual book! When I read about the gift your husband gave to you… the Oxford Dictionaries…I thought to myself…YES..there are others who automatically reach for a dictionary instead of typing in that thing on Google!
    Why am I writing to you Catherine, you must be wondering? I stopped in at one of our local shops,Cottonwoods, yesterday, to see my pal Julie Anderson, and when I walked up to her counter, she said to me,”Geneva,I need more of your papers…you’ll never guess who was in here and took one with her.” Of course I asked and she said your name. I sort of felt this huge ache in my stomach, and I’m sure my face went red with fear and shock. Julie then said, “Do you know who Cathering Ford is?” And I said, “Do you mean Catherine Ford the retired Calgary Herald major writer?” And then Julie said, ” YES!You know Geneva she has a blog…and she took one of your papers with her and I need more copies, because everyone who comes in here takes one, and I have to hide them to keep one for myself.” After Julie sadi those words, I immediately felt huge self-doubt and thought to myself,”Crap…she’;ll see that glaring edit I missed! And then I thought…oh well, I must work harder and get better at what I’m doing now.
    I’m taking way too long to get my words off to you here…I know…but I just have to tell you how much I enjoyed reading everything on your blog. As always,I found reading your words to be affortless…sort of like sitting and having a cup of tea and an in-person conversation with you! Great information,sharing of your thoughts,experiences and humourous bits to make me belly laugh right out loud all by myslef here in my quiet home right now. My husband flies home tonight after business meetings this week in Saskatoon and he’ll not be happy when he has to drive back to Nanton in this crazy snow and cold!
    All this blogging stuff is foreign to me. My grown up children keep telling me I should be writing my own blog thingy… should be getting my stories out there.I’ve been putting out the Nanton Review twice a month since September of 2008 and it has sort of become something I’m able to do from my home and within this community,since ms entered my life. No longer am I able to physically get everything done that I used to, but my hope is to bring important things to light, through writing. Things like encouraging children every step of the way. I’m so thankfull that I was a strong as I needed to be when our 4 kids were younger and they learned to pitch in and stand by each other. Today, they are each others’ best friends and have travelled, worked and gone to school all over the world.
    Your article about seniors also struck a chord. The Silver Willow Lodge here in Nanton is one of the places I stop by to visit with people and then I am able to write and share stories about how active many of them are here.
    I really have blathred on far too long to you Cathering, but I’m so pleased to have discovered your blog and can get my fix from reading your words! Thanks for being such a great example to many women and being a leader and an encouraging people in many areas!
    Can hardly wait to read your next piece…but now I must pack up my cooled muffines and head down to the elevators! And it’s snowing and blowing out there…still ! Enough already! And …gee I hope there aren’t too many type-os in here!
    Hope you have a wonderful day…and maybe even have a hunk of Callebaut Milk chocolate…sadly, one of my very favourite things in the world too!

    Very fondly yours,
    Geneva Macgillivray
    Nanton,Alberta

    Geneva Macgillivray

    May 29, 2010 at 8:27 am

  2. hardwood floorings are very durable and they look nice too in the kitchen and living room ,,’

    Round Mirror

    November 16, 2010 at 6:43 pm

  3. Fantastic site. A lot of useful information here. I’m sending it to several friends ans also sharing in delicious. And of course, thank you for your sweat!

  4. I think this is one of the most important info for me.
    And i’m glad reading your article. But want to remark on some general things, The web site style is perfect, the articles is really excellent : D. Good job, cheers

    Ramiro

    August 11, 2013 at 5:26 am


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