The other day I took a slice of cellophane-wrapped cheese out of the fridge to make myself a grilled cheese sandwich. Only, once I unwrapped it, I could hardly tell which was the cheese and which was the cellophane.
That's because the cheese itself was literally almost transparent. And no, it wasn't cheap store-brand cheese, nor was it government cheese. We're not there yet, thank you, although you should check back with me in January if Congress doesn't extend the Bush tax cuts.
No, this was relatively expensive processed American cheese food, from a highly respected national manufacturer. I've used the same brand of cheese for years to make my world famous grilled cheese sandwiches, and this was the first time I've ever noticed that I could see my hand through the product. I had to apply two slices in order to make something that actually qualified as a cheese sandwich under international law.
Yet this is just one example of a trend that I've noticed more and more in recent years: a kind of atrophy that seems to be wearing away at our consumer confidence. You know what I mean by "atrophy" -- a general shrinking, weakening, or lessening. And no, I'm not talking about UGA's defensive line again.
Atrophy is apparent in the cereal box that's still the same size but now holds only two-thirds as much sugar-coated puffed grain. In the "two-by-four" that is actually only about one and a half by three and three-fourths. In the feature film that stars Leonardo DiCaprio instead of an actual leading man.
Just in the past few months, my family has also noticed a number of items with packaging malfunctions: a jar of peanut butter with a broken freshness seal. Bread bags with suspicious, nibble-like holes. A box of snack cakes in which several were already opened, and which led to the following exchange with my wife:
"Those were for the kids' lunches!"
"I swear they were already opened."
"OK, I had two. But the others were already opened."
But I digress. I was talking about atrophy as it applies to our goods and services, not to my interpersonal relationships. And speaking of services, atrophy is also apparent in the general sorriness of the customer care that we now receive: the fast-food server who doesn't care if your order is right, the department store clerk who can't be bothered to check whether an item is in stock, the DMV employee who acts as though your presence is a personal affront.
Back in 1919, following "the war to end all wars" -- which turned out not to be -- the Irish poet William Butler Yeats penned the following lines, which ring even more true today:
"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world."
OK, maybe not anarchy. But definitely some awfully thin cheese slices.
Rob Jenkins is a free-lance writer who lives in Lawrenceville. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.