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 Learn

There are some days I wish I was less curious.

There was a once a six week stretch when I was obsessed with learning how to make juices. I read an article by a fitness coach about how we can get a lot of missing nutrients when we puree vegetables and fruits into a frothy liquid, add chia seeds, and gulp it down. I spent weeks researching various juicers on Amazon. I read up on the best juicing recipes: which veggies retained their nutritional value during the juicing process, and which didn’t. How to clean seeds and pulp from a juicer.

Maybe I could have become great at juicing, but after a few weeks a new curiosity gripped me: Parkinson’s Law. Parkinson’s Law is the observation that the amount of time you spend on a task expands to fit the amount of time you have to complete it. So, if you have six months to get in shape for your trip to Hawaii, it will take six months of working out and eating well. If you only have one month, then you will find a way to do the same amount of work and see the same amount of progress in one month.

For a few weeks I blabbed to my coworkers about Parkinson’s Law. I read and thought about thirty different applications and corollaries of the idea. I was a Parkinson’s Law evangelist, a true believer. Until I started playing a game called Papers, Please..

In the movie Independence Day, we learn that the aliens move planet to planet, eradicating life and harvesting all the resources. But what do they ever use the resources for? Who knows. Perhaps they just enjoy traveling to new planets. Perhaps on their home planet they just have enormous, untouched piles of carbon, magnesium, and silicon, and in front of the piles there are little signs listing the planets of origin. They were just curious.

This is passive curiosity. The passively curious discover a topic, absorb everything they can, then move on to a new subject. It is a curiosity that is useful for cocktail chatter and racking up library fines. Students are implicitly taught to develop their passive curiosity: to focus lesson to lesson, remember what they can long enough to complete a test, then move to the next chapter. Nomadic knowledge.

Passive curiosity answers the question: “What have other people learned about this?”

So what question would active curiosity answer?