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Let Them Eat Cake

Marie Antoinette never said, “let them eat cake,” although she was guilty of an epic failure of imaginative empathy. But if we'd been in her shoes, would we have lived otherwise? She was a charming, charismatic, not-overly-bright younger child from a big family. She didn't have a lush upbringing; she married young to a guy who had all the magnetism of a baked potato; she lived surrounded by silk, pleasure gardens, an enforced permanent deprivation of power and responsibility, loads of lovers and admirers, and the delicious Axel von Fersen on tap whenever she felt like having sex. How could she envision the mentality of scarcity that defined her people when all she knew in her adult life was constant surfeit of...cake?

Fast forward to today's milongueras, who have an obsessive relationship with cake. There's always those birthday cakes at milongas, and they are generally received as Devil Spawn sent to torment the women. As I've mentioned before, the energetic block milongueras have around birthday cake is nothing short of lethal, and I wouldn't want to get between them and the cake they're so busy denying themselves! It's not that they don't eat it. It's that they could power a nuclear plant with the control-game energy they put into not eating it.

Now let's step back to a time somewhere inbetween the French Revolution's charged relationship with cake and today's milongueras' charged relationship with cake, to when I was little and cake was a philosophical lesson that you got to eat afterwards. Cake was a once-in-a-while-treat, made at home, to celebrate special occasions, meant for sharing with multiple people . (Seems obvious to me, but I suspect I've already lost a number of you there.) I helped my mother make it so many times, the cells of my body could reproduce the sound of her voice, saying the same things over and over again. “First you fold in a little of the wet ingredients, then a little of the dry ingredients. Wet, dry, wet, dry.” Not too much of either at any one time, and mix in each addition thoroughly. Balance above all. Not nearly as much sugar as most Americans use, but on the other hand, if you don't put in enough, the texture suffers. Not too rich either, but on the other hand, without enough butter and eggs, you've got a nasty mouthful. Play around with whole wheat flour if you must, but if you use too much, your cake tastes like sand and is dry almost as soon as it comes out of the oven.

After I grew up I discovered there are lots and lots of ideas out there of what real cake should be. You can make them out of cornmeal and olive oil. You can make them with ground-up nuts instead of flour. You can make them with no flour at all (I personally loathe this kind). You can make them so they're still wet and oozy in the middle (another serious non-favourite). You can sit them in the basement for a year or more, soaking in booze. You can boil them. You can make them in a skillet. You can make them with vegetables, applesauce, soda-pop, flowers, no eggs, no milk...just about anything. And don't even get me started on the myriad options of whether, and how, to dress a naked cake.

How do we bake the cake of our lives? How do we fold in enough, but not too much, of the dry and the wet, fully incorporating each in their time, balancing a little of this with a little of that?

And am I the only one who had to reinvent the recipe the hard way, through trial and a lot of error? Am I the only one who had to insist on extremes in order to eventually say...actually, guys, the Middle Path is where it's at?

Am I the only one who has no idea what Middle Path Cake will taste like in real life?

I tried, with my whole soul, to bake a cake with all dry ingredients and no wet ones. It didn't work for anyone. And I kept thinking, if I just try harder, it will work out. If the Japanese can pound flour together through force of will alone and call it “udon,” I can sure as heck make a delicious cake using just flour, baking powder, and salt. All of these ingredients are good ingredients!

I tried very, very hard to bake a Marriage Cake. I used the solidest of best-quality ingredients. Here were the only ingredients that went into that cake: stability, security, honesty, openness, reliability, order, routine, dependability. Providing for the future, conserving, taking care of essentials, spending time with family, staying home. Togetherness. Biting my tongue all day long every day. Living a label. Going to bed early, practicality, modesty, prudence, frugality, appropriateness, monogamy, children, full disclosure at all times. Numbness and emptiness. Moral superiority, and to-the-letter upholding of all social codes. Lies. Strain. Ozzie, Harriet, Sylvia Plath, trips to New Jersey. An unbalanced emotional support network relying too heavily on one person. Bonds, ownership, debt, dependence, control, submission, investment, commitment, permanence, and the long haul. Shame, guilt, and self-hatred for being miserable when I was supposed to be happy.

I could not eat my Marriage Cake, even though I worked so hard to bake it according to the recipe I'd devised. Even though I kept telling myself that this was what cake was, and that it was supposed to be delicious. I forced myself to take bites of it and it made me sick. Often literally sick...I was usually sick seven out of any ten calendar days. I would be sick for full months at a time, or more. And when I wasn't sick of body, I was still sick of heart and spirit, forcing myself to swallow yet more inedible cake. Nobody else much cared for my dry-ingredients-only Marriage Cake, even though it was long on nutritional content and extremely wholesome.

When I told friends, mentors, and trusted adults that this Marriage Cake was poisoning me from the inside out, their universal response was: tough shit. Life sucks. Grow up and deal with it, and shut up because you're unbelievably lucky. Stop being so ungrateful.

When I finally stopped forcing myself to stuff down yet more Marriage Cake, the universal unsolicited response was: you are insane, you have lost your mind, you've thrown away the only good thing in your life, you are an unmitigated failure, we can't associate with you any more.

Fortunately things got a whole lot better after that!

And suddenly, without quite knowing how it happened, I found the world baking a new kind of cake for me. This cake resembled those goopy things restaurants serve, that are usually called something ridiculous like, “Death by decadent dark chocolate flourless sinful molten-center torte with dark chocolate ganache and dark chocolate shavings.”

I never order those things in restaurants, and although a bite or two was fun in real life, getting a whole serving shoved down my gullet was just as poisonous and awful as the Marriage Cake! I felt just as sick of spirit after eating this cake made of all wet ingredients...if not, actually, worse.

This new cake was the very finest of all-wet-ingredient cakes. It only used the most alluring and desirable of ingredients! Here are the only ingredients that went into that cake: sex. Passion. Freedom. Truth, secrets, total independence, more sex. A free-for-all with everyone counting on themselves. Acceptance, permissiveness, openness, and more sex. Overflowing abundance. Sweetness and richness. Endless surprises and novelty. Open-hearted compassion, trust, living for and in the moment, and yet more sex. Violent grief and crushing emotional hurt. Philosophy, poetry, and a complete discarding of social codes. Silk, stilettos, lace thongs, and hickeys in odd places. Bruises in even odder places. Discovery, blossoming, revelations, drama, art, epic opera-sized emotions, sturm und drang, self-expression, fights, standing up for myself, equality, la vie bohème, true love, pain, suffering, hope, heartbreak, rabbit-like levels of mass polygamy, nobody relying on anybody for anything ever, nobody ever calling anybody on their bullshit, and...even more sex. What can I takes a lot of chocolate to make those chocolate restaurant things!

….And then once I'd had more of both kinds of cake than one person should probably consume in several lifetimes, I decided my mother was right and extremes do not work. In fact, why bother with cake at all? Maybe No Cake was the ideal cake.

No Cake is a wonderful option, and great for resetting ourselves to a certain baseline blood-sugar level. It's extremely Zen. Great for those of us who find solace in our upper chakras. I have, at many times in my life, been convinced that No Cake is the right cake to eat. It's certainly the easiest on the digestion.

However, although No Cake won't ever make you sick, a life with no cake in it at all is...missing something. We survive because we are a social species. We are hard-wired to live in tribes. The ones who truly prefer No Cake, all the time, are the ones whose genes have not continued into the present day.

So...what would it taste like, to live a life that has room for both No Cake and Middle Path Cake? What would that be? I know how it would be served...a right-sized slice that sated without overwhelming, on a handmade plate. The cake itself would be just one part of an artistically balanced presentation. A drizzle of tart coulis. A few fresh berries. Perhaps a tiny dollop of vanilla-bean-flecked crème anglaise, or a couple slivers of toasted almonds. Or a few shavings of the very best chocolate—but not all these things on one plate. Just the ones that let the true essence of the Middle Path Cake be tasted as it deserves. Can you imagine the exquisite taste of balance?

Both sides. Now.

Both Sides Now. Joni Mitchell. Written at 24, performed (yet again) at 57.

My mother's cocoa cake recipe, clearly well used, although I never make it exactly as written