Here’s a joke:
Mrs. Patterson is baking a cake, but, as she gathers her ingredients, she realizes she is one cup of sugar short. Really she’s like between two thirds and three quarters of a cup short but she rounds it up in her head to one cup because it is simpler and she feels like it makes more sense to go borrow a nice even cup of sugar rather than get into the whole fraction-of-a-cup thing.
So she sets out for the home of her closest neighbor, Mrs. Vattanatham, in the hope of borrowing a cup of sugar. I should mention right now that this is not going to be an ethic joke, nor does it hinge on the discrepancy between the amount she needs and the amount she is going to ask to borrow; I’m just giving you this information so that you will have an accurate picture of the world Mrs. Patterson lives in. Her neighborhood is surprisingly diverse, populated by emigrants from countries she hardly ever thought about when she was a girl growing up in Beaverton. Maybe it’s not exactly the way she pictured things when she was a young bride, maybe she wishes Mrs. Vattanatham would dress a little more normally or make a decent cup of coffee, but she can’t deny that she’s a good neighbor and basically a lot of fun to sit and chat with.
Strangely, though, Mrs. Patterson has not seen Mrs. Vattanatham in a while—quite a few weeks, really—and as she makes her way toward the Vattanatham house, Mrs. P is pondering the reasons for this hiatus in Vattanatham/Patterson relations. The same brain chemistry that makes her consider the difference between the sugar she needs and the sugar she is going to ask for is now dedicated to churning through this new discrepancy.
Well, the ball was technically in Mrs. Patterson’s court, since Mrs. Vattanatham had had Mrs. Patterson over last. That was, what, three weeks ago, for a cup of tea? But before that, the Pattersons had had the Vattanathams over for dinner, which is a considerably bigger deal than tea, so it’s not like, if we’re keeping score, a cup of tea discharges the social obligation entailed by an entire evening of cocktails, potato leek soup, roast lamb and the special trifle cake that is a bit of a Patterson specialty. Yes, it had been a pretty fine dinner indeed, even if Mrs. Patterson did say so herself, to herself. Much wine had been drunk. Or is it drunken. She’s never sure. But you can bet Mrs. Vattanatham would know. Not even her original language. Been in the country what, ten years? But she knows all the grammar stuff. And speaks in that little alluring accent. Or at least it seems to be alluring to Mr. Patterson, who spent the entire dinner gazing—yes, gazing—at Mrs. Vattanatham and smiling at her jokes and saying, “Oh, tell me more about that. Oh, my, that’s interesting.” And she, Mrs. Vattanatham, doing nothing to discourage him in the least. Not encouraging him either, which would at least give Mrs. Patterson the satisfaction of knowing that her neighbor was that kind of woman. No, Mrs. Vattanatham had been irreproachable in behavior and demeanor. To make matters worse, Mr. Vattanatham seemed as taken with her as was Mr. Patterson.
All in all, the evening had been a lovely, cordial disaster, and if Mrs. Patterson had been a little cool, or even a little evasive, in the ensuing weeks, well, that was the way of the world. Even the best of friendships have their ups and downs, their hot and cold streaks—surely Mrs. Vattanatham must understand that, unless friendships were somehow fundamentally different in her country of origin, which seemed unlikely and was, in any event, not something Mrs. Patterson could be expected to know.
So now Mrs. Patterson needed the sugar for her pie, and while it might feel a little awkward to come by at this moment, when she needed something, after steering clear when Mrs. Vattanatham needed her (Mr. Vattanatham had actually been taken away by ambulance a week ago Wednesday for a suspected heart attack that turned out to be a powerful case of indigestion, an event which Mrs. Patterson, she remembered with some shame, had watched from her bathroom, peering surreptitiously through the blinds), well there was nothing to be done about that now. Areturn to normal relations had to begin at some point and so why not now. And if Mrs. Vattanatham would really deny her neighbor a cup of sugar because she’d been a little fragile and acted less than beautifully, well, on whom did that really reflect. It seemed hard to believe, actually, that anyone would really take something like this into account when what was being asked for was something as basic as sugar. Hard to fathom. Outrageous, even.
It was at this moment, in this frame of mind, that Mrs. Patterson reached the Vattanatham home and knocked on the door, which was opened in a matter of seconds by Mrs. Vattanatham.
“You know what?” Mrs. Patterson said without preamble. “You can keep your fucking sugar.”
I’ve always had a warm place in my heart for that joke, but I am sharing it with you now in part to free up space in my heart for other, more useful things and in part because it does a decent sideways job of describing the author’s current conflict, in which he feels compelled to apologize for being so long between entries and, simultaneously, reluctant to make that apology.
In this cake I am baking I need your sugar, for sure. But there are many other required ingredients, time and effort not least among them, but some even harder to come by and almost impossible to accurately identify. Does Mrs. Patterson wake up at night and wonder, “Why a cake? Who really wants this cake? Would they rather have a torte? Who am I to dictate the flavor and consistency? Why am I the one to make the little buttercream roses and to pipe on the decorative trim? Why my cake at all when there are so many professionally made cake options available to people these days?”
It is amazing to me, in retrospect, that Mrs. P. had the confidence to go to her neighbor’s house at all. Yet if she hadn’t, if she’d listened to the little voices in her head—or in my head, anyway—then we would’ve all been deprived of this excellent little joke.
So there it is. It turns out that the crucial ingredient isn’t that hard to identify: It’s confidence. Confidence is power. Confidence gets things done. Confidence is infectious; it’s fun to be around; it builds the things that otherwise would seem impossible. In other words, Confidence is Lunacy’s older brother.
Therefore I will cleave to Confidence and I will from this point forward ignore the little doubting voices. Ok . . . Done. . . Now what? It seems to me sometimes that there’s nothing to me but these little voices, constantly weighing in from this side and that, unbidden. Any one of them taken alone would be a hindrance at best, but together they form an elaborate lacework of flying buttresses, in opposition to each other, all in support of the otherwise flimsy walls of this cathedral of thought which soar ever higher even as they grow lighter and less substantial.
And look! There, near the altar, kneels a lone figure, the one and only worshipper in this church, who is, as I like to imagine it, my true self.
Sometimes I despair of ever getting closer to him than this, even as I gather around myself the ingredients of a happy life—a wife who knows me better than I could’ve ever hoped and loves me still, two truly wonderful children who amaze me with their kindness and their wisdom, a third son who showed me a different side of the world when he could not join it, and now this infant, this child who shouldn’t be here but is, whose crooked smile seems like a promise of things to come—all these riches and still I struggle.
Tonight I was reading to my older boys from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. It’s taken us forever, but we’re at the part where Becky and Tom are in the caves. They’ve gotten turned around, separated from the others, and have been wandering for what seems like days. Now they have come upon a subterranean spring and here they stop so that they will have water to drink when this last candle end burns out. Then the utter blackness. The dead silence made somehow deeper by the trickling of the spring. They sit and wait to be found or die of hunger in the dark. It is truly horrible.
Yet in this bleakest of moments, they are just a turn or two from the light of day and the kiss of fresh air. With a little perspective, we can see the route clearly and we’d like to be able to say, “Now come on, Tom. You’ve come this far. Just poke around a little more and you’ll find your way through and be done with Injun Joe in the process.” But we can’t. They’re just characters in a book and we are just readers. We have to wait for them to find it in themselves, or for Mr. Clemens to put it there for them, to seek their own salvation.
Sure enough, Clemens comes through in time and gives them what they need to forge ahead. And come to think of it, in a roundabout way, he’s done the same for me.
So I’ll continue baking this peculiar cake and not worry too much if it seems at times that it’s too much about one thing and not enough about another, too long, too short, too infrequent, too demanding, too delusional, too indulgent, too ridiculous or, for that matter, not ridiculous enough. I’m not even going to worry too, too much about whether it’s done to satisfaction or not.
In fact, you know what? Here’s your fucking cake.