Every time I return to the United States I observe something new about my country that formerly remained out of sight.

Since we arrived to Seattle I have been thinking about Malcolm Gladwell’s TED talk, the one about the 20 types of Ragu spaghetti sauce. The talk is a celebration of choice and a silent condemnation of taste-makers, those insecure souls that spend their lives insisting you should drink/eat/wear/read/do this but not that. The philosophical celebration of Gladwell’s talk is that there is no best spaghetti sauce; there are different spaghetti sauces for different people.

I’m sitting in a venti-sized Starbucks in a suburban plaza while Iris works and I read a Carlos Fuentes collection of essays. I remember thinking when I first heard that Gladwell talk: how in the hell does anyone decide which of the 20 Ragu spaghetti sauces is for her/him? By the time I get to the 10th sauce, I am certain I will forget the flavor of the first.

But somehow my fellow Americans know their kind of spaghetti sauce. They know the difference between a mocha cookie crumble frappuccino and a java chip frappuccino. They know the ideal temperature of their drinks. They know what is gluten free and which snacks have peanut oil versus soy oil. They know the cacao percentage of their chocolate and the ideal arc of their running shoes and the best waterproof fabric for their autumn hiking. They’ve been given this overwhelming, impossible assortment of choice in every facet of their lives. But they are not overwhelmed; on the contrary, they seem to take great comfort in these personal choices, these micro-decisions that in aggregate construct something that can easily be mistaken for an identity.

95% of the individuals in this Starbucks are obese, which is significant only in that it seems to represent a larger loss of willpower. The more choices we have, the poorer choices we make.

Playing the part of visiting ethnographer, everyone here appears so confident when deciding between blueberry and gogiberry granola, but so completely lacking in any sort of ethical or intellectual self-confidence. I can’t imagine striking up a conversation with anyone about anything other than the technical specifications of their flat screen TV or the difference between blueberry and gogiberry granola.