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.
can contact Jo Page at email@example.com.