Opportunism vs Selectivism

In conversation with my partner the other day, she asked me the simple question ‘what is your favourite chocolate bar?” I think I surprised both of us by not really having an answer. Well, not having a satisfying answer – my response was “I usually just get whatever’s on special.” It was true when I had a dollar or two to take to 7-11 as a little tacker, and it remains true now. Not because I don’t like chocolate or don’t have preferences, but I do tend towards thrift and my habits are such that I very rarely get specific cravings for something sweet, only general ones.

This isn’t always exactly true, nor is it true of everything. For example, the other week, I had the most acutely specific craving for tempura udon. This was notable because it had literally never happened before and the strength of it was overwhelming. But it certainly is true of my craving for sweet things. That is the operational word – sweet. I will only really get a craving for something sugary, without much care as to the specifics. That means that the itch may be scratched by anything to hand, provided it is a ‘dull’ sweet. A slice of cake, a few blocks of a mass-produced milk or an artisanal dark chocolate number, a cannoli, some ice cream, a donut, a spoonful of Nutella, some biscuits, custard – truly, anything sweet and rich. I don’t tend to like ‘sharp’ sweet – I like fruit, but not fruit-flavoured things. I never crave lollies; jelly beans, snakes alive, party mix, boiled lollies or anything like that.

So, to satisfy those desires I usually just get whatever is on special. The craving is indiscriminate. Get the block of Cadbury’s, the Whittaker’s, the Green & Black’s – whatever. Which I had never really considered before, but it seems to be becoming more and more true in so many areas in my life. Almost all of the music I listen to – and I listen to music probably every day – is a playlist. A shuffle, a randomised selection: sometimes curated by me, sometimes by algorithm. Even my tastes in beer are practically random. There is almost no ‘old faithful’ – I’m always trying something new, something different, something interesting. And if I’m not, if I just need some table beers, I’ll buy whichever is on offer – a Coopers or a Creatures, or a Dainton 4 pack, whatever it may be that represents the best deal within the limits of acceptability and availability.

I write this just a few hours after coming home with a slab of Palm (a Belgian amber ale, and an exemplar of the style) that I picked up at Dan Murphy’s. It’s not my favourite beer in the world, but it is one that I like and which has an added potency for having some very fond travel memories attached, (detailed here) and it was hard to pass up. You see, they were selling it for nine dollars a six-pack. Which is a stupidly cheap price for a beer, especially one that is imported, still within date, full strength and a quality drop. It usually goes for something like $65 a slab, but I brought this one home with me for just $36.

This is probably the predominant pattern of my consumption. Call it canny, cheap, thrifty, pov, tightarsed, sensible, random: whatever you like. It allows me to be very easily open to new and interesting things – I have tried so many things that couldn’t possibly be good, but you just have to make sure. In this, I always come back to hakarl – described to me by a worldly Icelander as being like Vegemite; “you either love it or you hate it. About half of us love hakarl, and half hate it.” * Hakarl is ammonia fermented rotten shark. There is literally nothing appealing or, frankly, palatable about it. It has its origins in the viking age – fishermen would bring a shark back that would cause a glut. In order to have something left for the lean times, they dug a hole, tossed the shark in and took turns pissing on it. They then buried it and dug it back up months later in what I can only imagine was an hour of extreme need. Theoretically, this is a process of preservation, but it reads like someone had a vendetta against that particular shark; killed it, defiled it and in a textbook display of hubris, was later forced to subsist on it.

                *Which is a similar proportion of Icelanders who believe in the Hidden Folk – trolls, fairies and the like. Which is slightly besides the point

Now, they don’t use urine anymore** but it is sill an ammonia cured rotten shark. Its smell is revolting. Its texture is repellent. Its taste is criminal. And do you know why? Because of course it is! What part of that process or description could lead to anything resembling magic? And yet, muggins here goes “oh yeah, alright, why not give it a try?” Why not? Better to ask why. There is no reason for a person who isn’t starving to eat the stuff. And yet, people say the same of Vegemite which I love, so maybe there’s something to it?***

                ** I hope

                ***Spoilers: nope. Nothing.

This is not to say that open-mindedness is a bad thing. It has led to many wonderful discoveries, in beer, food, music, people, movies – everything. But I have to wonder – what are the relative merits of discernment and being selective? The picky or selective person may set things up in such a way as to only consume things they enjoy or need, but they miss out on a lot. They can’t save money and buy the cheap thing if they think they don’t like it, they can’t eat the new thing because they may not like it. They may not be able to have what it is that they like or even crave; if the restaurant doesn’t make the food they enjoy, the store doesn’t sell their brand, the bottle-o doesn’t carry their beer then they just have to miss out.

So does the opportunist have an advantage here? Or are they just some sort of glutton, taking what they can when they can? It may be linked to a childhood deprivation, or a reduced financial circumstance. But these alone are not the motivations. Both castes are found across all social strata. Perhaps it’s just habit. Habits get ground in deep. If you are taught young that you need to worry about money, or that waste is a sin, you probably don’t have to consciously think about it again. It just gets internalised and practised at every opportunity. On the other hand, perhaps this will lead you to incline to largess and self indulgence at every opportunity once it becomes available to you. Who knows? People are funny.

To be honest I have no strong opinions on which is the righteous option, one way or t’other. I think I’m maybe just more interested in what the split is, and having a conversation with those people who think differently to me. I’ve always been shocked and sorrowful for friends who tells me that they don’t, say, eat seafood because there is so much variety and delight to be had from it. I’m always enthusiastic to convert people who don’t like beer, because there are so many kinds to try, and it gives me so much pleasure. I very much want everyone to take in and benefit from the same movies, albums, books or TV shows that I have, because I have found so much enjoyment and edification and satisfaction from them, or maybe just some really good ideas or attitudes.

On the flip side, on paper, I respect people who are creatures of habit. Those people who order the same dish every time they go to their restaurant, who order the same beer every time they go to their pub, those people who only drink one kind of wine. I respect that they know what they like, or what they want, and I understand that they have chosen the thing that they enjoy, and that yes, they could branch out and try new things, but why risk missing out on the opportunity to have something that they know they’ll enjoy? Those people who say I like this and not that. Those people who travel extensively around their own country because they don’t know what they want to see outside of it, but do want to broaden and deepen their understanding of their home.

On paper, I understand that. In reality, I have a bit more difficulty.

I do, however, very much rate people who choose to eat mindfully rather than for enjoyment. I heartily endorse the efforts of people who, despite loving it tremendously, give up booze or junk food or forsake animal products and go vegetarian or vegan for the sake of their health, animal welfare, the planet – any number of reasons. They may miss it dearly, they may lament its absence, they may have loved nothing in the world so much as fried chicken or eggs or cheese but they still gave it up for a principle and I respect that very much. It’s just a form of coding that I struggle to uptake.

And that’s why I would be interested to stoke the conversation around all that. Are you picky, or easy? Open and enthusiastic about your choices or furtively playing your cards close to your chest? Heterodox or orthodox in your tastes? More than anything else, I would love to hear why. Do you suffer from FOMO or revel in JOMO? Have you arrived at your conclusions after living an untethered life and this is where you have settled? Or are you still in the comfortably trod paths you’ve always known?

As I become more and more willing to be a bobbing cork tossed on the seas of chance, I wonder if this is an unravelling of my mind, my ego. My preconceptions are less and less resolute – I think I feel in my own head that this is something like maturing, though I wouldn’t be altogether shocked to have someone read this and DM me saying “uh, actually, according to the DSM-5, this sounds like an absolutely textbook case of…” It almost seems like every day I learn something that tells me that I didn’t really know all that much yesterday. Every day I try a new beer or a new food, or, if I’m lucky, a whole new cuisine. Every day I learn something new about personal tastes, about motivations, about psychological triggers and incentives. About sexuality or gender, about society, about the human condition. In the face of that, with an endless sea of things yet to know in front of me and a swathe broadening by orders of magnitude behind me that still pales in comparison to the vast unknown ahead, it seems like folly to try and say “I have it all figured out. This is correct. This is the way.” Surely, this is madness of the highest order? And yet, I also see how some people may take comfort, with the vast tide ahead of them, in turning around and facing instead towards the familiar.

I don’t know. I think this is one of those ones for behavioural psychs to ponder and write their papers on. Me, I’m just going to keep on trying a pint of what’s new on tap, and ordering the Special of the Day. What can I get for you?

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