02/10/2015 03:04 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

79 Sticks of Deodorant on the Wall

by guest blogger Renee James, humorist and blogger

Here's today's quiz: What's the difference between 108,000 square feet and 3,600 square feet? Answer: 50 years.

No, this isn't a Common Core math problem. Let me explain...

Prior to the last blizzard that never arrived in eastern Pennsylvania, I made my way to the grocery store, like hundreds of inexplicably panicked citizens. I stocked up as if we were planning an extended stay in cozy Vostok Station, Antarctica. Among other items, I picked up soup (but not the kind I wanted, because they were out), coffee (but not hot chocolate, because they were out), and cookies--I never said I was stocking up healthfully--and checked my list. One more thing: deodorant. That's it. A quick stop in the personal care aisle, and I was out of there.

Wrong. I wanted a replacement of the same kind of deodorant I'd run out of that morning. The one I'd purchased not long ago at this same store. But when I turned down the aisle, I found a display containing something like 79 different options, all varieties of the same brand. (That's an odd number, but I snapped a picture of it and counted later. The display showed some empty slots, so maybe the total should have been more like 84 or 88. I was bleary-eyed. Who can say?)

Despite the scores of options in front of me, I finally spied the one I wanted. Am I the only person who sees this kind of excess and thinks: Why?

A few days later, I read an article about the latest innovations in slow cookers. The article described other "time-saving" devices that were meant to change the lives of "housewives" in America and did nothing of the kind. Why? Well, according to the report, it turns out that many women did take advantage of modern appliances like clothes washers and dryers that all but eliminated the labor-intensive nature of laundry that our mothers and grandmothers managed with wringer-washers and clotheslines. Then what? I'll tell you then what. We didn't use that "saved time" to read or exercise or play with our kids or see our friends or volunteer or plant a garden or take a pottery class. We ran out of the house and found jobs. Which meant that we saved exactly no time to do anything. (I'm getting to the math problem, I promise!)

This isn't about women's choices or empowerment or equality. Those are topics for another day. No, all of this left me wondering: What good are more choices or "modern" options if they just leave us perplexed, scattered, or exhausted? What are we not thinking about because we spend way too much time thinking about deodorant? Maybe not much, but then again, if we face hundreds of these inconsequential decisions every day or every week, when will we think about what matters? Marriage, children, friendships, communities--God knows.

I'm all for convenience and innovation. I just can't get too excited about it when, despite managing everything at the touch of a button, I have no more free time than I had before I ever heard of a self-stirring Crock-Pot.

This is where I start to recognize that my mother was a genius. (This is also where I explain the math problem.) Fifty years ago, my mom shopped for groceries once a week in a neighborhood market. And how big was that market? It was 3,600 square feet. And I'm pretty sure it never ran out of anything.

These days, we all seem to shop a few days a week in grocery stores that are something like 108,000 square feet and stock 88 different kinds of one brand of deodorant, along with 726 options for water, including artesian water. No joke.

I don't remember what kind of deodorant she bought, but 50 years ago, my mother had an endless bottle of Jean Naté in the bathroom. I don't think the bottle or the logo--let alone the formula--ever changed. There was one kind of Jean Naté, and one kind was all any woman needed. Brilliant.

At that time, my mom and her friends used to have what they called a weekly "coffee klatch." Translation: Several of them got together--in person--to share coffee and conversation for an entire morning, not a Crock-Pot (self-stirring or otherwise) or a grand coffee-picking choice (have you seen coffee shop menus these days?) among them. Impressive; where did they find the time?

Well, turns out I'm not alone in my dismay. Psychologists call this concept "decision fatigue," and in terms of the workplace, it boils down to this: Stressing over largely inconsequential things and pointless details makes us less productive. In other areas of our lives, when faced with choice after choice after choice, our resistance is lowered, and we are vulnerable to making all kinds of ill-advised decisions as a result. There's a reason candy is displayed at every checkout aisle in America. You've just made hundreds of decisions while shopping. Wouldn't a hit of sugar feel pretty good right now?

I swear I would pay an annual membership fee to shop in a 3,600-square-foot grocery store that offered a reasonable variety of everyday, ordinary, nothing-artesian-about-them groceries. Imagine what I could think about with all that extra time.

Renee A. James works at Rodale Inc. and wrote an award-winning op-ed column for The Morning Call, the Allentown, Pennsylvania, newspaper, for almost 10 years. Her essays were included in the humor anthology, 101 Damnations: A Humorists' Tour of Personal Hells (Thomas Dunne Books, 2002), and are also found online at Jewish World Review and The Daily Caller. She invites you to Like her Facebook page, where she celebrates--and broods about--life on a regular basis, mostly as a voice in the crowd that shouts, "Really? You're kidding me, right?" (or wants to, anyway), and she welcomes your suggestions, comments, and feedback to the mix.

For more from Maria Rodale, visit