For years, when my generation was young, the Soviet Union was contrasted unfavorably with the United States. We were the greatest consumer economy the world had ever seen. They were a grim, gray, land of scarcity.
We had cars good enough to write songs about — T-Birds, GTOs, Pink Cadillacs. They had clunky, dirge-like Ladas and Zils or the Zaz, which was anything buy zazzy. It was Vladimir Putin’s first car with a mighty 41 horsepower. We had cheeseburgers in paradise. They stood in line to buy a head of cabbage in Murmansk.
Lately, though, I’m beginning to feel this cornucopia thing may have gotten out of hand. I don’t want us to turn into the Soviet Union, a place that regularly ran out of toothpaste. But we’ve gone absurdly to the other extreme. At your local drugstore, there’s an aisle yards long and many shelves high chockablock with tube after competing tube of dentifrice in a confusing profusion.
Do I want Aim or Aquafresh, Gleem or Arm and Hammer, Close-Up or Crest? Having decided that, I can get my toothpaste in a variety of colors — white or blue or green or even white with red stripes like a candy cane. I can get the stuff in flavors — spearmint or peppermint, a nasty baking soda medicinal flavor and others not easy to identify.
Most toothpaste is still reliably slimy, but some is positively abrasive. If I’ve got timid teeth, I can brush them with Sensodyne to keep them from complaining and, of course, I can get toothpastes making all sorts of extravagant promises.
Most say they will keep me from getting cavities with fluoride or some other neologistical additive. Others claim they will whiten my day. Gleam, in fact. All of this is nice, but I really don’t want to spend an hour trying to sort through the brands and their claims and variants. Carolus Linnaeus couldn’t sort all these into their competing species.
Like most people, I took the easy way out decades ago and opted for one brand and stuck with it. So, I’ve used Crest without having to think about it forever. But recently I opened a new tube, squirted it on my toothbrush and went to work. But it was disgusting. It wasn’t my old reliable spearmint flavor. What had gone wrong? Was this a New Coke fiasco in the making? No, it was an example of what happens in the land of lunatic, out-of-control line extensions.
It turns out Crest now comes in versions without number. There’s Crest ProHealth (does that means there’s a Crest AntiHealth) Crest 3D White, Crest Tartar Protection (though why we need to protect Tartars, I don’t know), Crest Whitening (which seems like it should have been covered by 3D White), Scope Flavored Crest and God knows what else.
The upshot is, I can’t figure out which of these many Crests is my old familiar Crest. Surely it is lurking somewhere on those acres of shelves, but without a program I can’t tell one from the other. And don’t get me started on dental floss. Do I want it waxed or unwaxed, minty or tasteless, like string or like tape, would I rather yank it or glide it?
Who cares? Life is too short to spend it making decisions on products whose distinctions are without a difference. I begin to feel Solzhenitsyn was able to write Ivan Denisovich with the time he saved by not having to make choices at the Siberian branch of the GUM department store. Until further notice, make my tooth products plain vanilla, please. And hold the sprinkles.