Today is my birthday. I’ve always been a fan of the bittersweet story, of the Blues, and of the Fado (called Portuguese blues by some, the fado is a music genre usually linked to the Portuguese word saudade which refers to the feeling of longing for something or someone that you love, and which is lost). These all seem to be lovely, if maudlin, ways to give expression to a glass-half-empty kind of perspective. Combine that outlook with another birthday, and you get two concepts which I think aptly describe my preoccupations at my present stage in life:
The first is esprit d’escalier. This is the perfect comeback to a comment that you only think of after the opportunity to use it. These are words that only come to you when you’re lying in bed at 3 a.m. and it’s too late to use them. One can accumulate a bunch of these over a lifetime, and one can even extend the concept to apply to a bunch of opportunities one missed by not being ready for them when they presented themselves.
The second is torschlusspanik. This is a German word which has the literal translation “gate-closing panic,” and refers to the fear of diminishing opportunities as one ages. Yes, I can read all the young adult books I want, but I will never ever again be able to experience a first love, or even a young, naive, un-cynical love. I can’t take off for parts unknown without any cares and responsibilities and travel the world or conquer new physical or mental vistas that take years and youth to attain. I can’t study a new subject or feel righteous outrage without thinking, “but what’s the point?”
For I have known them all already, known them all:—
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.”
Ah well, as Prufrock concluded:
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.”
But, I’ll say this. As melancholy as I tend to be, reading beautiful words or hearing wonderful music can always make me feel sated and relatively content. And a nice big piece of carrot cake (no raisins, coconut, or pineapple, please) doesn’t hurt, either.
Here is one of my favorite recipes for carrot cake, from The Silver Palate Cookbook, with my own adaptations added in parentheses.
(10 to 12 portions)
Butter, for greasing the pan
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
3 cups sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking soda
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1-1⁄2 cups corn oil
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1-1/2 cups shelled walnuts, chopped
1-1/2 cups shredded coconut [I omit this]
1-1/3 cups puréed cooked carrots [I use jars of baby food carrots]
3/4 cup drained crushed pineapple [I omit this]
Cream Cheese Frosting (recipe follows)
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease two 9-inch springform pans.
2. Sift the dry ingredients into a bowl. Add the oil, eggs, and vanilla. Beat well. Fold in the walnuts, coconut, carrots, and pineapple. [I omit the coconut and pineapple.]
3. Pour the batter into the prepared pans. Set on the center rack of the oven and bake until the edges have pulled away from the sides and a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean, 50 minutes.
4. Cool on a cake rack for 3 hours. [as if I would wait that long!]
5. Fill and frost the cake with the cream cheese frosting.
Cream Cheese Frosting
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Juice of 1/2 lemon (optional)
1. Cream together the cream cheese and butter in a mixing bowl.
2. Slowly sift in the confectioners’ sugar and continue beating until fully incorporated. The mixture should be free of lumps.
3. Stir in the vanilla, and lemon juice if desired.
Frosting for a 2-layer cake