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Let Me Eat Cake

It is not a good thing for me to be left alone in the house with a cake.

But that’s just what has happened.

My children’s father is in town to celebrate Linnea’s birthday. They are all staying at a bright and shiny hotel where there is room service and in-room hot cocoa and little refrigerators and a breakfast bar in the lobby that serves hot oatmeal with brown sugar and raisins.

I am staying home alone with a cake.

Not just any cake, but birthday cake. One of those nasty ones with flowers the size of a toddler’s fist on a bed of butter cream an inch thick. Oh my, oh my.

I have always subscribed to the theory of moderation in, if not all, then many, things.

But cake has never been one of them. That’s because cake—the kind with the thick, fat frosting and gaudy flowers—is a rare treat. So my thinking is, wouldn’t it be wasteful to let it go stale? Isn’t it my epicurean duty to consume it?

Of course I usually get in trouble with my kids for that kind of thinking. They will come from school looking for cake and Mommy will have eaten more than her allotted share. This is even worse when it comes to birthday cake.

But I am alone in the house jonesing for English breakfast tea and a tidy wedge of cake that’s already verging on stale. In addition to that, I’m writing. It burns energy to write. Frosting is the ideal fuel for this.

Now my little cake drama may seem trivial—and, OK, it is. But it is also a comic expression of a less-comic, but widespread way of thinking that turns denying our emotional or biological desires into a warped kind of virtue.

Among many people there seems to be this need to shear desire as close to nothing as possible. Then the choice to live without enough food or sex or sleep or time for goofing off becomes an upside-down merit badge. “If I can deny myself something, I must be a person of worth.”

But who benefits from this? Is there some virtue in withholding from ourselves or others what it is we most crave?

In college, my fashionably anorexic roommate used to partially cook up a batch of oatmeal, throw away the oats, toss a dash of cinnamon into the water that remained and spoon it up for breakfast. Or dinner.

I was actually very jealous of her. She seemed so blithely fulfilled by her viscous gruel. So I started cooking oats and eating the water, too. It was actually pretty decent-tasting. My problem was I had a boyfriend who loved to cook. With him desire counted for something—and that more or less ruined my go at fashionable self-denial.

My mother had a fear of being caught sleeping. Somehow sleeping was bad. It meant you weren’t working.

Of course, we routinely caught my mother sleeping. She would sit on the couch every night with a box of chocolates and a cup of decaf coffee. And she would nod off before the 11 o’clock news and stay that way until well into the night.

But the thing was, sleeping didn’t count when it was on the couch! So, invariably, in the mornings she would claim she hadn’t slept at all the previous night.

By her reckonings, she never slept. She was like some early church ascetic with a wacky sense of what was sacred—Simon the Pole Sitter, for example, who actually did perch high up on a pole in the desert for a whole bunch of years. Sweet.

My particular brand of self-denial is to make a cult of virtue out of how little I get to spend time on myself. There’s some inside-out satisfaction about being overcommitted. And something really horrible about the guilt you feel if you are “bad” and do something you truly want to do.

Last week I went to a midweek matinee of Amélie. I never, ever do things like this (she says, defensively). I was complaining later to Madeleine that I hadn’t got anything accomplished because I had been at the movies. She sighed with irritation, “Mom, why can’t you just figure that going to the movies did accomplish something. For you.”

I’m not sure why there is for many people such a niggling sense of shame about our basic needs. People apologize when they yawn, mumble, “I shouldn’t” before second helpings. The best sex is “nasty” and being slothful is, well, being slothful, which doesn’t flatter either human or sloth.

I know a few truly appetitive people, but most of us seem to make all these excuses for why we actually do need to partake of those things that make us, elementally, human.

I’ve been trying over the past 11 years to learn a lesson from my daughter, Linnea. She was generally an easygoing baby, very affectionate. She liked playing in her bath, she slept deeply, nursed well and was usually contented.

But every now and then, her appetites and our schedules were out of whack. She’d be hungry and we’d be driving. Or she’d be sleepy and we’d be shopping. And deprived of either food when she was hungry or sleep when she was tired turned her into a baby-sized harridan.

She could shriek bloody murder then. There was no mistaking the fury of her appetites. And she was young enough to know no shame about sounding the alarm until they were well satisfied.

I’m not saying we should shriek every time we are hungry or want to make love. Somehow I just don’t think that works as well with grown-ups as it does with infants. But there is something earthy and honest about admitting to what we need as humans, and letting the shame fall away.

Anyway, it’s a goal. I’ve given up oatmeal gruel. Unlike my mother, I actually do sleep (not enough, of course, since I’m too busy denying myself pleasure . . . ).

And even though it is hard to type with a plateful of cake on my lap and a steaming mug of tea by the keypad, I am managing all that butter cream just fine.

—Jo Page

You can contact Jo Page at jopage@graceniska.org. 

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