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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #11, 8/26/2006

The Buffet Dilemma

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

"Eat anything you want."

This is the generous offer of my hosts, upon leaving me with a refrigerator and pantry packed with food of all description. I am housesitting (or more precisely, catsitting), and my hosts think they are doing me a favor.

I think it is a curse.

On my first day in the house, I am back and forth to the fridge every five minutes, even though I am not really hungry, and my modest weight loss of the past couple of months is at risk of evaporating.

What is most disturbing to me is that I seem to have little control over it. I am working on a writing project, and every time I pause to think, I find myself back in the kitchen, searching for something to eat.

My hosts also have television, which I otherwise don't have access to. If I turn it on, I can't help but surf the 60 or so channels. There is nothing that really interests me, but soon an hour has gone by, and I feel as queasy as eating a box full of Twinkies in a single go.

I am experiencing what I call the "Buffet Dilemma"—the problem of too much choice.

I don't suffer this problem in the desert. (See Homelessness.) When I am ten miles from the nearest store, with only a bottle of juice, two apples and a bag of pretzels in the car, I don't face much temptation. Eventually, when I am hungry enough, I will eat the apples and enjoy them. I am not distracted by television because there isn't any.

In the desert, there are very few choices and nothing between me and whatever project I am working on. I am no longer impulsive, and I don't feel bloated all the time.

Everybody likes choice. If you were offered a TV that got three channels vs. one that got 150 for the same price, almost everyone would choose 150. All this choice comes at a cost, however. There are hidden burdens in having too many options.

One burden is a loss of control. You may think that more choices give you more freedom, but this isn't necessarily true. Choices, when available, have to be evaluated, and being forced to constantly evaluate things zaps your resources.

When you have 150 channels, look at how much time is wasted just deciding what to watch. If you had only one channel, it wouldn't be so difficult. What was on would either interest you or it wouldn't, and if it didn't interest you, you might turn the TV off.

Or leave it on. A television, if present in a room, tends to be turned on. Food, if present in the refrigerator, tends to get eaten. The presence of an available option provides a built-in bias toward use, even if it is not best for us.

Modern life gives us a plethora of choices, and part of the delusion of the so-called "good life" is that we want as many of these choices available to us as possible.

Part of this attitude is driven by advertizing. One of the most often repeated mantras of all forms of advertizing is "More Choices." A cable company that offers 150 channels is better than one that offers 100. If you offer people "Fewer Choices," most would feel cheated.

Having obtained a TV with 150 choices, you are going to use it. You are paying the cable bill, so you almost feel obligated to turn on the TV when you have nothing better to do.

What isn't obvious about choices is that they also bring with them a sense of obligation. Choices can be vampire things that suck away your discretion and resources.

When you buy a house, you have made a choice, but you have also made a committment. When you first move into your house, it seems like an exciting blank slate. Think of all the things you can do with it! You can decorate it any way you choose: perhaps with a safari motif or some Andy Warhol minimalism. You now have the illusion of choice, forgetting the fact that you are now committed to the mortgage payments. One thing is certain: You have to fill your new house with something.

Owning your own home gives you more choices than, say, living in a tiny studio apartment. However, the mere presence of this spectrum of choices, which you have paid big bucks for, demands that at least some of the choices be used. When you start exercising your discretion by filling your house with objects and activities, each of those things then need to be maintained and will eventually take away your discretion.

If you have an extra bedroom, it will inevitably be used for some superfluous hobby, like scrapbooking or a model train set. This activity, in turn, will start to suck your resources on its own, even if you know it isn't very important.

Once you start investing in some activity, be it scrapbooking, marathon running or volunteering at the public library, it can be really hard to pull back. The investment itself creates an obligation.

If you buy a boat, for example, you have gained not just the option of taking it to the water, but also the unspoken obligation to do so. To justify the cost, you will probably find yourself out on the water every weekend, which is fun at first but gets routine after a while. In the meantime, your boating keeps you from more meaningful pursuits.

I used to be a buffet maven. My useless project, since I was living near the Strip in Las Vegas, was to visit every casino buffet and publish my reviews on the internet. I was even seen briefly on CNN and the Food Channel as a Las Vegas buffet critic (15 seconds of fame to supplement my 15 minutes at Area 15). In fact, most buffets in Las Vegas are full-fledged gourmet experiences, offering not just quantity but also quality.

Now I see buffets as evil. They're as destructive and soul-sucking as the slot machines.

It is a documented fact that the greater the variety of food you have available, the more you are going to eat. In theory, you can go into a buffet and have only soup and a sandwich, but in practice this never happens. "All you can eat" inevitably means eating all you can eat, and you usually feel stuffed and slightly ill upon exit.

Buffets, which seem so "good" on the surface, are in fact a detriment to ones health, in their implicit promotion of obesity. A wide variety of choice is NOT necessarily a good thing.

On the other hand, a complete lack of choice is also not desirable. No one wants to live in a prison, where you lose the power to regulate your own environment and activities. You don't want to put yourself in the position where you are forced to eat only fish, morning, noon and night. For your own health, you need to retain some discretion.

You don't need this discretion every moment of every day, however.

What is sometimes useful is making broad but changeable systemic choices, then living with only limited choice within that structure. I am doing exactly this when I choose to live in the desert.

Faced with a fridge full of food or a TV with 150 channels, I quite honestly cannot regulate myself. I don't feel weak; I just find that having too many choices available to me is a distraction. Whenever my mind slips, I find myself falling into the easiest choice available: turning on the TV or munching on chips.

It is a lot easier to quit smoking if there are no cigarettes for miles than if there is a full pack sitting on your desk.

In the desert, there are no distractions. I have not barred myself from food or entertainment, but if I am going to seek these things I have to be deliberate about it, not impulsive.

I don't eat until I am hungry. This is partly regulated by the fact that I have to drive somewhere to find food. I keep bland food in my car, so I am not going to die, but I'm also not afflicted with the "munchies" when I am not really hungry.

What I have found in the desert, with some happenstance and creativity, is a self-regulating device. I recognize that I have weaknesses, and I have rearranged my environment to protect myself from them.

One thing I have not done is committed myself to the desert. I have not bought property here, and my vehicle is still a rental. Maybe at some point I will return to a normal house or apartment, but I should do it only when I have developed the discipline to handle all those superfluous choices.

I have already licked my shopping problem. I can now go into Wal-Mart or a shopping mall, spend an hour there, and not see a single thing I want to buy, even if I had unlimited money. I am also pretty controlled in my use of the internet. I look up what I need to and don't do much "surfing." Now, I need to master my fridge and TV problems.

In the meantime, I know what makes me comfortable and uncomfortable. After spending a day in the house of my friends, I have decided that catsitting is best done remotely.

I come in every day, feed the cats, then go back to the desert.

Reader Comments

“This is an insightful look at how material things fetter the spirit” — 4/26/07 (rating=5)

“Nothing worse than pans of old food congealing in a buffet.” —Karen 6/26/07 (rating=4)

“I am also a naysayer for the "all you can eat" extravaganza, but for a different reason. All you can eat for $5.95 conjures up a sumptuous breakfast or brunch under the fried variety which could eventually lead to all sorts of unforseen ailments. Now, at another establishment one could expect to spend $22.95 and consume all the snow crab a person would want. If you have never done that, I strongly recommend against it also. Inevitably, if one gorges out of control with no regard to quality/quantity versus economy, you're gonna be gypped! I have no desire to eat as much as I can at one sitting (unless I'm getting paid for said consumption. I am an English woman and my upbringing did not entail gorging at Thanksgiving and Christmas until one became ill. I prefer to count calories and benefit as much as possible getting the best bang for my buck. I have a routine that costs me in the neighbourhood of $5 per day as such: 1 soya milk drink or yoghurt drink for brekkie (1.25). 1 peach or apple for lunch (1.00). 1 Wendy's Chicken Sandwich with lettuce, tomato and mayo $.99 for dinner. 2oz sharp cheddar and 5 saltine crackers snack $1.00. This works for me on a regular basis. Sometimes I splurge on a $12.95 rib dinner - baked potato and the works. It gets me what I want and generally need. I take a multi-vitamin daily and cod liver oil. I don't get sick” —Dawn am seriously considering homelessness. 7/6/09 (rating=2)

Ratings so far: 4 5 4 4 4 4 2 (Average=3.8)

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