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The pumpkin spice paradox

On coffee, impatience, and the illusion of agency

A Pumpkin Spice Latte drink rests on a table at a Starbucks in New York on Aug. 24. Associated Press/Photo by Peter Morgan

The pumpkin spice paradox
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I’m a college professor. Traveling with my students is an exercise in watching them get coffee multiple times daily. Not because they necessarily even want or need the taste of coffee or the caffeine of coffee, but rather it’s the activity of the coffee—and the multiple choices it entails—that ends up being the important part. The little printed label with all of the customer’s unique preferences ends up becoming something of an adhesive personality profile. It might say:

I’m unique … or … my stomach is a very delicate ecosystem … or … I’m undergoing something of a persona rebrand … or I don’t even like coffee but just want to be a part of the group.

Many of these students come from (ahem) extremely over-parented backgrounds, so the coffee run is also an opportunity to exercise some independence and make some non-parented choices. I don’t blame them. Six bucks is a small price to pay (apart from still being scandalous and highway robbery) for the appearance of agency.

Today, in August, it is currently 96 degrees Fahrenheit, with a heat index of 111. Naturally, Starbucks is already promoting its Pumpkin Spice Latte, which has—like football and leaves changing color—become a staple of American Autumn. Except it is nowhere near autumn. Or anything pumpkin-related. Even my house seems to be sweating in the morning because it is so hot.

Fall starts, essentially, when Starbucks tells us it does. At its inception, Starbucks promised leather and Michael Buble’ and upscale coffee. Now it is like coffee-McDonald's, but with more choices to make. These choices are supposed to deliver peak happiness—that “first sip” feeling. But for the most part, they don’t, because now a large part of the entertainment of going to Starbucks is complaining about what part of your order they got wrong.

I freeze while ordering coffee and go for something very basic because if I get complicated with it and it’s bad, then it’s my fault.

My students are fascinated with the ’90s, and sometimes I think they like me only because I can story-tell on command about anything ’90s-related. They can’t believe that, in the ’90s, to “get coffee,” your options were to go to a gas station or a diner. And the coffee was coffee-flavored only. We didn’t concern ourselves with the number of origins of the roast. Your only additional choices were to add cream or sugar. For the most part, especially in the early ’90s, “going to get coffee” wasn’t an activity. We talked about ourselves in dorm rooms or grimy apartments—not in coffee shops or on the internet.

Our coffee choices were limited. Our entertainment choices were limited (a few channels or whatever we could rent at a video store). The number of people we “knew” was limited by geography, family, and the people who went to our college. We could listen to the radio or whatever CDs hung in a rack on our wall. That was it. We didn’t have the option of “knowing” everyone in the world or listening to every song ever made.

In general, I think we were happier.

I freeze in the presence of too many choices. Spotify is a real anxiety-inducer for me. I use YouTube only for obscure heavyweight sparring sessions and offensive-line coaching tape. In general, I freeze while ordering coffee and go for something very basic because if I get complicated with it and it’s bad, then it’s my fault. What was supposed to deliver peak satisfaction has only given us more opportunities to be dissatisfied.

There is now a website with a link called “Obnoxious Starbucks Drink Order Generator.” I participated once and got this: Trenta Whip Non-fat Tiramisu Frappuccino in a Venti cup with 5 pumps of vanilla.

The thought of spitting that order out to a barista with her pierced septum, who at a deep level hates me and everything I stand for, fills me with existential dread. There’s a 100-percent chance I’d screw it up.

You now can choose Pumpkin Spice Cheerios, Pumpkin Spice Yogurt, Pumpkin Spice Twinkies, and Pumpkin Spice Marshmallows. All of these are calibrated to deliver a feeling—the feeling of Fall. Which is a feeling you can also get by … just waiting for Fall.

Ted Kluck

Ted Kluck is the award-winning internationally published author of 30 books, and his journalism has appeared in ESPN the Magazine, USA Today, and many other outlets. He is screenwriter and co-producer on the upcoming feature film Silverdome and co-hosts The Happy Rant Podcast and The Kluck Podcast.  Ted won back-to-back Christianity Today Book of the Year Awards in 2007 and 2008 and was a 2008 Michigan Notable Book Award winner for his football memoir, Paper Tiger: One Athlete’s Journey to the Underbelly of Pro Football.  He currently serves as an associate professor of journalism at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., and coaches long snappers at Lane College. He and his wife Kristin have two children.

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