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  • Writer's picturejamesbriankerr

Getting That Fall Fix, Without the Pumpkin Spice Latte

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it is that gets people through the ups and downs of life and I think I’ve figured it out.

Pumpkin spice latte.

Yes, fall is here and the pumpkin spice craze is in full force. Everywhere I go, I see pumpkin spice stuff for sale. Pumpkin spice coffee and latte. Pumpkin spice cookies and doughnuts. Pumpkin spice ice cream. Even pumpkin spice dog treats.

You name it, there’s a pumpkin spice version of it available somewhere. The fall menu will be out there for another month or so and then retreat from the shelves to make room for the Christmas cookies and the peppermint mocha.

All of this comes at a price, of course. I’ve never been much of a pumpkin spice latte person, but this past week, in the mood to treat myself, I decided to pick up a PSL (as aficionados call it for short) at the local Starbucks. I paid $5.25 for a “tall” PSL and the 12-ounce cup wasn’t even filled to the brim. The latte was yummy but much too sweet for my tastes, and I ended up not drinking all of it.

The anti-consumeristic part of me rebels against the pumpkin spice madness, in the same way that I shake my head when I see Christmas paraphernalia appear on the store shelves before September is even over. But there’s another part of me that understands what drives all this. Life is hard and we all need things to spice up the routine of our days and get us through the slog.

Imagine how dull and gray life would be if we didn’t have things to look forward to. Weekends. Vacations. Holidays. Family parties and get togethers. Sports games. The World Series. The Super Bowl.

Simple things too, like our morning coffee or tea. A favorite meal. The excitement of finding a new dress that fits you perfectly. The feel of a new pair of blue jeans.

As for me, I always look forward to the change of seasons, which is one of the reasons I love Pennsylvania so much. Fall has always been my favorite time of the year. I revel in the brilliant fall foliage, the cool air, the smell of the woods on a crisp autumn day. My spirit comes alive.

These are the things that keep us going through the slog. Unlike our animal counterparts, we human beings need things that not only feed our stomachs but nourish our souls and spirits as well. It’s important to our psychological and spiritual well-being that we have things to look forward to or else our well runs dry and life becomes dark and colorless.

Nostalgia plays a big part in the things that keep us going. One of the reasons I love this time of the year so much is that it transports me back to happy times growing up at our six-acre farmette in Montgomery County. There were so many wonderful things happening this time of the year between the holidays, the November birthdays (my father's and mine), the harvesting of the garden, the start of hunting season.

I don’t do much hunting anymore these days, but back then my father, brothers, and I spent many a crisp Saturday morning in October and November walking the fields in search of ringneck pheasants. The wild pheasants are long gone from Pennsylvania, but the memories remain, suspended in my mind like amber.

The consumer products companies are well aware of the power of nostalgia in people’s choices, and they play on those associations. When we pay five bucks for a pumpkin spice latte, we’re not just doing it for the flavor. We’re doing it for the associations those flavors and smells trigger in our minds. We are buying the warm, fuzzy memories of stepping into our grandmother’s kitchen and smelling the pumpkin pie baking in the oven.

I find it interesting that there’s actually very little real pumpkin in a Starbucks pumpkin spice latte. The pumpkin aroma and flavor are mimicked by the cinnamon and other spices in the drink. But it doesn’t matter to those who drink it because that cup of cream-covered, cinnamon-sprinkled pumpkin spice latte gives them those cozy, nostalgic feelings of home and Grandmom’s kitchen.

The other thing that makes pumpkin spice latte so popular, of course, is that it only comes two months in the year. If we could buy a PSL twelve months a year, it wouldn’t be special, and we’re willing to open up our wallets for special things.

Having worked in marketing for most of my career, I’m familiar with the methods used by the corporate marketing machine to get us to buy their products (or, in the words of my late father, to “separate us from our money”). Those methods are extremely sophisticated and getting more so every day with the growing power of algorithms and artificial intelligence.

As I write about in The Long Walk Home, it’s important to be aware of these methods as we make choices about how we spend our money. Why? Because our time on earth is limited and therefore precious, and every hour spent working to pay for that Starbucks pumpkin spice latte is an hour we could be doing something else.

So is that cup of PSL worth it?

Obviously, that’s an individual choice. For me, paying five bucks and change for a partially filled 12-ounce cup of whipped milk, sugar, spices, and a touch of pumpkin puree isn’t equivalent to the time I would need to work to pay for it. If I wanted to treat myself with a coffee that tastes of cinnamon and spices, I’ll make it at home or pick up a 16-ounce cup of pumpkin-flavored coffee at the local Wawa for less than half the cost of a Starbucks PSL.

To each his or her own. Pumpkin spice latte is not for me. To get my daily fix of autumn, this morning I’m going for a walk through the woods and breathe in that crisp air and the smell of acorns and leaves. When I come back, maybe I’ll make a bowl of oatmeal with apples and cinnamon.

Something to look forward to.

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