Why We Act

I can’t stop thinking about smash cakes since I learned about them last night.

Smash cakes are whole cakes that parents give to their babies on their first birthday to mash into with their faces, dig into with their hands, to messily revel in, like a tiny infant hurricane tearing through a frosted beachside villa.

99 times out of 100, I’m sure parents just want to have a fun day and a cute photo op.

But, parental intent be damned, there is more than just batter in this cake.

What is a smash cake made of?

1. Vicarious indulgence: Every single 30-year-old I’ve talked to about smash cakes has replied with some variation of, “Jesus, I want that immediately.” When we watch an infant grip her cake with two small fists and smear her cheeks in frosting, we are reminded of how rarely we let ourselves plunge recklessly, shamelessly into pleasure. Cake smashes are no doubt fun for the baby, but they are cathartic to the adults hovering behind the highchair, cameras in hand. For ten minutes, our imaginations smash the cake too, fully present, carelessly free. Just like Pixar movies and trampoline parks, smash cakes are really for us, not them.

2. Ritualized destruction: I am reminded of sand mandalas, the exquisite, kaleidoscopic depictions of the divine universe created by Buddhist monks over days or weeks. After completion, mandalas are destroyed, brushed into an urn, and poured into a river to demonstrate the impermanence of all things. Similar rituals of artistic destruction appear throughout history and across cultures, all the way to present day festivals like Burning Man. Smash cakes carry this lineage of sacred ephemerality. One could argue that infants are better participants than monks to carry out this act of destruction, for even their memories of the event are lost to time. Parents, as usual, miss the almighty point by documenting the occasion like a Kardashian wedding.

3. The first hit of sugar: Smash cakes provide many babies with their first taste of processed sugar. Parents see this as a moment to celebrate. I can’t help but mourn. For most in the Western world, sugar is less a treat than a chronic toxin, strongly linked to the wave of metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and obesity that is crushing entire communities. While sugar doesn’t create the physiological dependency that opioids do, the taste preferences and habits we acquire as infants are arduous to reprogram as we age. In this context, watching a cooing parent push a frosted slice under their reluctant child’s nose recalls the dread of a slasher flick. I yell at my screen, tell her to run, run. The protagonist is deaf to my cries.

4. Shut up, it’s just meaningless fun: You read all this and sigh, come on, man! It’s not a ritual or a meditation or a metaphor for jack shit. It’s a fucking cake and it’s a fun, silly thing. Shut up. It’s meaningless. But (I reply) that is meaningful. (You are on the verge of punching me at this point.) I continue: a first birthday marks the symbolic end of an age of meaninglessness.

We demand nothing of infants. They act on impulse, gleefully free of the cultural ideas and interpersonal norms that shape our every shudder. Outside of a few sensations (the sight and sounds and smells of parents prime among them), very little has meaning to them. They could crash a Rolls Royce into the last living polar bear without breaking a sweat, and no jury would convict them because they understand what none of those things are.

Around 12 months old, babies begin to develop mental representations of the world. They notice that Buzz Lightyear continues to exist even when he is hidden behind mommy’s back. They form a hazy understanding of cause and effect, of goal and intent. As they begin to comprehend that a world exists beyond their field of vision, that world starts to place basic expectations upon them about how to exist. We snack on the fruit of knowledge, and suddenly we’re told to put on some damn underpants.

A first birthday is our grand entrance into civil society, with its rules and taboos and demands. In this light, smash cakes form the centerpiece to a sort of baby stag party, one last sensuous celebration of egocentric independence, a hedonistic abandon that will soon be wrenched away forever.

This means nothing to them. What a gift.

I can’t stop thinking about smash cakes.

Why We Act

When a vote is held on the floor of Congress, the result is almost always known before the votes are cast. Party-line votes are more common than at any point in history. In a system where loyalty is prioritized over effective decision making, the details of laws, the stories from the people they affect, and the possible consequences twenty years down the road matter less to our representatives than what the person sitting next to them is voting for.

We legislate by attrition. It often appears that the role of congresspeople isn’t to evaluate and decide on a course of action, but to show up, be a warm body in a seat.

We demand the same from our peers. During an election season, we tend to chastise those who show ideological uncertainty. We mock undecided voters, who seem to require a little more evidence before they make a decision.

Yet, when we look at the habits of our congresspeople, you wonder whether we could use a little more indecision up and down the political ladder. A few more people that wanted to learn more. A few more people open to either outcome. To alternative outcomes. A few more cautious optimists.

We get frustrated at undecided voters, but it might be marvelous if we were able to elect more of them.

Why We Act

Space-time is, broadly, the concept that time and space are not independent structures; the flow of time changes relative to an object’s position and movement through space.

As I sipped absinthe in a secret red-walled bar down a Shibuya alleyway, I considered the existence of a new theory of relativity: the space-food continuum.

What I discovered in my liquor-ish haze, is that my food selection changes relative to my position and movement around the globe.

I treat food like I treat maps.

When I visit unfamiliar cities, I discard maps. Fuck a map, I am a space explorer. I lose time. I lose myself. I pick a point and wander, turning randomly at intersections, no destination in mind. I prioritize novelty over all else. I don’t particularly care where I end up, or when. I trust curiosity, fortune, and friends to lead me to the right spaces.

And the right foods.

Plunk me in a new city, and I will eat everything, try anything. I chuck calorie tracking and nutrient density out the window. My intention is to amble about the culinary topography, to taste the strange, the banal, the obvious and obscure; to let luck guide my tongue.

At home, I turn from explorer to engineer. Space is an optimization exercise. I study the map. I figure out where the fewest stop signs are located and I track the lengths of stoplights in order to shave seconds off my travel time. Beating Google Maps’ estimated travel duration brings me great joy. Missing an exit on the freeway brings me great shame. The purpose of commuting isn’t to commute; the purpose of commuting is to Get There.

At home, food becomes a route to a specific destination. To lower blood levels of LDL-P. To reduce body fat by 5%. To deadlift 35 more pounds. In the kitchen, I track macros and weigh meat. I record weekly averages. Food follows function: I prioritize effectiveness and efficiency over aesthetics and chance.

My tolerance for serendipity increases as a factor of distance from my house.

This is what I define as the space-food continuum.

Why We Act

You would though.

Given the right set of circumstances, you would vote for an erratic, dangerous, anti-democratic nitwit, assuming that she or he represented the majority of your political priorities.

So let’s build a liberal Donald Trump.

First off, it wouldn’t be Donald Trump, because an old white male would have difficulty channeling the younger, less-white, less-male Democratic base. However, this person could have all of Trump’s other qualities: narcissism, inexperience, troubling attitudes toward women, bluntness, and the ability to entertain large crowds by saying nothing.

Look: Kanye West would be liberal Donald Trump.

And what would be the characteristics of a Kanye candidacy? In order to appeal to a liberal base in a Trumpian fashion, we would see appealing far-left positions framed with a naive understanding of policy and diplomacy.

On the Kanye platform:

  • Monetary reparations for Black, Native, and Asian Americans
  • A promise to end to “all war”, including suspension of drone strike program
  • Federal legalization of marijuana and psychedelics
  • Expansion of women’s rights, including equal pay, parental leave, and greater access to reproductive health care (unfortunately including an off-color joke about being the cause of many abortions himself)
  • Amnesty to undocumented immigrants and uncapping the number of work visas granted per year
  • Commitment to move U.S. energy sources to “future shit”: solar, wind, etc. by 2030
  • Free Tidal accounts for all citizens (taxpayer subsidized)

Sounds pretty appealing, doesn’t it? The fact that he is a musician and entrepreneur with no political experience no longer strikes you as a deal-breaker. His inability to discuss these issues with any clarity or nuance on the campaign trail becomes easier to overlook.

But are you willing to overlook his more disturbing habits? Let’s also imagine:

  • An open war with police unions, including public musing over whether he will “shut down” the NYPD and prosecute officers for biased policing
  • Insults toward any opposition, including families of fallen officers
  • A full-throated defense of celebrity rapists
  • Behind-the-scenes recordings of him making demeaning comments about women and bragging about sexual exploits with questionable consent
  • A pledge to outlaw paparazzi and jail media outlets critical of his albums
  • 3AM Twitter ranting on biased journalism
  • A disgusting insistence that he will finally sleep with Taylor Swift as president
  • First Lady Kim Kardashian

You’re on the fence now. When 2024 rolls around, you don’t vote for Kanye in the Democratic primary, but he wins the nomination on a wave of (now-greying) millennial support. And who does the Republican party nominate?

Bionic Dick Cheney.

It has to be him. It has to be him because Dick Cheney makes liberals shudder the way Hillary makes conservatives furious. Their records aren’t equivalent, but they both represent the worst of the opposition party, and they have for decades.

We now have a 2016-style election between a dangerous asshole who you mostly agree with as long as he keeps his mouth shut (which is rare), and a literal zombie that hates everything you stand for.

You could, of course, make a protest vote. But you balk at people who do that. After all, there really is no such thing as a protest vote: Either Kanye West or Dick Cheney is going to be the next President of the United States.

And you aren’t going to vote for Dick Cheney. No way. No way.

You are going to vote for liberal Donald Trump.

Why We Act

In the summer of 1993, I ate nothing but Goldfish and ice cream, just to get out of playing Little League.

In third grade, my grandma signed me up for Little League. She’d noticed that I spent all of my free time playing Sega Genesis and reading Calvin and Hobbes and (rightfully) insisted that I’d benefit from physical activity and socialization.

It did not go well.

There were two problems:

  1. I didn’t watch baseball.
  2. I didn’t care about winning.

As a result, I tried very hard to not try very hard. I’ll never forget the time I spent an at-bat slowly striking out while my coach barked from the dugout, “Choke up on your bat!”

I still don’t know what that means.

The last day of Little League season was Family Day, a full day potluck cookout. Each of the players’ families was responsible for bringing something for everybody on the team to eat. I asked my mom to buy a giant tub of Goldfish crackers, since that wouldn’t require any preparation. That, and napkins. People always need more napkins.

However, when Family Day arrived, I refused to go. I had already decided I was done with Little League, so why would I have lunch with teammates I didn’t care about? My mom was relieved, because she didn’t have to waste a day in the hot sun small-talking yuppie parents.

Thus, I spent the rest of the summer eating through that Family-size tub myself, handful by tiny handful.

I cared so little about Little League that I couldn’t even bother to show up to a potluck.

That’s about the least you can care about anything.

Why We Act

When I started out in customer support, thousands of people would contact us every day about resetting their password. In order to do so, they would have to answer a security question which they set when they created their account. It was easy to predict which users could answer their question and which would fail and ultimately call us assholes and fascists.

It had nothing to do with the people and everything to do with the question they chose.

In 2007, there were two types of security questions:

  1. Factual: E.g. The name of your third grade teacher, grandmother’s maiden name, etc.
  2. Opinions: E.g. Favorite pizza topping, favorite hobby, name of your best friend, etc.

Factual questions were never a problem. Facts don’t change. You might forget the name of your third grade teacher, but her name is fully independent of your feelings, preferences, and desires. Conversely, opinions are nothing but the shifting sum of our feelings, preferences, and desires. Opinions are the meals we cook with whatever happens to be in the fridge at the time.

Whenever we told a user that no, their favorite pizza topping was not pineapple, they’d go apeshit. “I know what pizza I goddamn like, you dicks, now let me into my account.”

I will repeat, the problem wasn’t the users, it was the questions. We make the mistake of thinking about our preferences as malleable in the past, but stable in the future. People create their account thinking they’ll always love pepperoni, not imagining the possibility that in eight months a pushy date will insist they try Hawaiian pizza and blow their mind.

Our favorites are fickle.

And so is our motivation.

In an ecstatic midnight fit of passion, we bought the domain name, mocked up designs, drafted our blog posts. It went really well. Really well. We got a lot of Likes that first month.

Six weeks in, something changed.The thought of working on our side project didn’t move us like it first did. We wanted to spend Saturday morning testing AdWords, but we just weren’t Feeling It. We wanted to join that new morning running group instead. Or we hadn’t had a good brunch in a while and wanted to hang out with our friends. Pepperoni turned to pineapple.

As marathon runners know, motivation will not get you across the finish line. Motivation won’t get you further than a dozen blocks. We must plan to feel indifferently about the thing we love right now.

My favorite resource on how to develop that plan is Seth Godin’s The Dip.

Of course, it might not be my favorite in a year.

Why We Act

Who are you in the shower?

As a teenager, Kristen Wiig was an actor, as she explains in conversation with Marc Maron (27:15) :

Maron: So when did you start thinking, “Maybe I’m going to be hilarious?”

Wiig: Well I never thought that. I don’t know, I think it’s a normal thing to like, perform in front of the mirror and pretend you’re on stage when you’re in the shower, and use the curtain as a curtain for the stage… I was always fascinated with it, but I think every kid is.”

No, every kid is not fascinated with show business. I offer myself as disconfirmatory proof; I did not and do not (and will not and shall not) spend my shower hour performing scenes from Hamilton to a rapt, imaginary audience.

Instead, I might find myself behind a DJ deck, lining up the BPM of No Church in the Wild’s vocal track to the chorus of On’N’On. I swipe a slider at just the right moment and they sync immaculately, delivering a thousand sweaty, glowing dancers into rapture.

Whoever we are in the shower is the best clue we have for how to spend a free evening, an open weekend, a new class, or a leap of faith.

The goal isn’t to turn our shower career into our dry career (though that might happen too). You don’t even need to tell your friends about your shower career.

It’s good enough to just make soup.

Why We Act

When we look up:

“When we [look at stars in the night sky], we feel ourselves pleasantly diminished by the majesty of what we contemplate. As we renew our connection with immensity we’re humbled without being humiliated. It’s not just us, personally and individually who are diminished in comparison. The things that trouble and bother us seem smaller as well.”

The Book of Life, On Stars

When we look down:

“When [space physiologist] Russomano met Buzz Aldrin, he told her of how, as he stood on the Moon, he held his finger over the distant globe of Earth, effectively erasing it from view. Nothing in an astronaut’s training, he suggested, could possibly prepare a human being for such an immutable revelation of our own smallness, our own fragility, amid the endless universe. ‘This is, according to psychiatrists, something too big for a human to experience,” Russomano said.”

– Leigh Alexander, never go to space it’s terrible omg

Career aspirations, relationship fulfillment, choice of movie on a Friday evening: there is much that is capable of making us feel our insignificance. Grandeur or terror. Humility or dread. It’s not the stars that change. It’s where we look.

Why We Act

A confession: I used to be a person that rolled my eyes at the superstitious. When friends searched for wood to knock on, or kept a charm around their ankle, or pointed out the presence of a full moon, I’d puff my chest and poke holes in their mystic caution.

I might ask: Well, what exactly do you think will happen if you don’t touch wood? Why would that have any effect? I’ve never done that and nothing bad has happened to me, isn’t that weird, hm?

With the asphyxiating condescension of a true nerd, I’d insist on reason, logic, proof.

Later that weekend I would watch professional wrestling.

The next morning I’d bark to blank faces about the heart-rending rivalries between these athletes: years-long tales of kinship and betrayal, cowardice and grit, of heroes and heels scratching and clawing, inch by inch, setback after setback, toward the grand prize, the golden belt, the roaring fans, to immortality itself.

My friends reply: “Mm, yeah it’s fake, right?”

In that moment, I understood the meaning of a full moon:

Superstitions shine a light toward the limits of our understanding. They are a ritualized reminder that disconnected events can harm us (or help us) in ways we can’t predict. Take them literally, or don’t. Like pro wrestling, to challenge the reality of superstitions is to miss the idea entirely. In their unreality, they amplify our human truths.

In a scientific age, our superstitions form a lonely tribute to the weird, the wonderful, the dancing inexplicable.

Why We Act

People visit tabloid sites to envy the famous,
The Economist to envy the wealthy,
ESPN to envy the athletic,
Vice to envy the deviant,
The Atlantic to envy the victimized,
Twitter to envy the offended,
Facebook to envy their friends,
Instagram to envy themselves.