You Can’t Have It All, but You Can Have Cake


Published in the New York Times Op-Ed


MY favorite thing is a bakery, and my favorite thing about where I live is how many bakeries are a dog’s walk away. Dogs aren’t allowed in bakeries, but many Manhattan bakeries have little benches in front so you can tie your dog’s leash to a bench leg and keep watch out the window to make sure your dog isn’t dognapped while you are buying a croissant.


If I head to the West Village, I stop at the O Café for a pão de queijo, a Brazilian cheese puff that really tastes best if you happen to arrive when it is just out of the oven. (I’m pro anything bakery-wise that fools you into thinking it’s healthy. I consider a peanut butter cookie a source of protein.) From there I visit Amy’s Bread on Bleecker Street for a ham, pickle and butter sandwich on a baguette and — or — a slice of layer cake. American layer cake is a great invention and, if you consider the variations, as remarkable as jazz. From there I’m off to the Blue Ribbon Bakery, where they make my favorite open-face sandwich: roasted tomatoes, arugula and a special lemony olive oil on their toasted white Pullman.

Perhaps rather than go west, I head north to Breads Bakery. I am currently eating my way through the shelves and to date have tasted the almond croissant, the regular croissant, the challah (off the charts, only Thursday through Saturday), the chocolate babka (too chocolaty for me), the walnut bread (highly recommended), the pain au raisin and the seven-grain bread (not dense enough). Then I head up to Tbsp for their perfect chocolate brownie, which I take home and eat the tiniest sliver of now and then.

I haven’t mentioned any lemon sweets, and lemon is my favorite flavor. I wish someone in the Village would make a great lemon meringue pie. But I don’t want to complain. I am lucky to live in carb paradise, and I am lucky to be afflicted with a syndrome that my husband calls Discardia — the tendency to throw things away after a few bites unless I fall in love. Thank God for Discardia, or I would be someone who had to be removed from my house with a crane.

I have been thinking about bakeries a lot recently because I have been reading yet another spate of articles about having it all. Women claiming it’s possible to have it all, women claiming they can’t have it all, at least one man chiming in, Hey, what about me, I don’t have it all, either. Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook is the current guru in negotiating this imperfect paradise. With her enviable job, helpful husband, two children (not to mention her best seller), right now she is Queen Have-It-All.

There is a statistical theory, degrees of freedom, that proves that every single choice you make narrows your choices (the choices you might make in the future), rendering having it all impossible. I dropped out of Advanced Algebra, nevertheless, I will attempt to explain. Take Anthony Weiner, for instance. Anthony Weiner discovered that he could not be a United States congressman and tweet a picture of his penis. Becoming a congressman ruled out that possibility. He could not have it all.

I’m sure when Anthony Weiner found out he couldn’t have it all, he changed the definition. “Having it all” meant having his pregnant wife not leave him. “That’s all I want,” I bet he said to himself when he was exposed and had to resign. “Just don’t let Huma leave me.” In other words, “all” shrank. However, once he persuaded his wife not to leave him, he wasn’t satisfied. “All” expanded once again.

Having it all seems to breed wanting more. And since we can’t have it all because it is statistically impossible, and since there is no such thing as more than all, the whole notion seems, I’m sorry to say, depressingly American.

In many countries, having it all is learning to read. Having it all is getting to choose whom you love. Having it all is walking to school without worrying that you might get raped on the way.

One of the most revolting parts about the American female version — and there are many — is that having it all defines “all” one way: marriage, children, career. It assumes all women want the same thing. Success rests on achieving three goals (life viewed not as a continuum, but an endpoint), and these goals, as it happens, are exactly the ones that will declare you a success at your high school reunion.

This might not be a coincidence.

Never underestimate the power of high school. It’s the identity everyone wants to live down, the approval everyone aspires to. Being able to check the boxes — marriage, children, career — is more important at a high school reunion than anywhere else, which is why I think that high school, not feminism, is the reason an idea of happiness got framed this way. It instantly creates the social world of high school: haves, have-nots, wannabes and freaks. Freaks are those who aspire to other versions of life, who want to march to their own tune. Thanks to this definition of success, they will always be freaks.

My friend Molly graduated from high school in 2003, and keeps bumping into her classmates on Facebook, even those she hasn’t spoken to since high school. Daily she is bombarded by photos and news of the have-it-alls. She keeps redefining what she wants, she says, by seeing what everyone else has.

GETTING away from high school is supposed to free you from the pressure to conform. But now that there’s no getting away, high school is forever. Perhaps Sheryl Sandberg is not Queen Have-It-All. She is Prom Queen Have-It-All.

To me, having it all — if one wants to define it at all — is the magical time when what you want and what you have match up. Like an eclipse. A total eclipse is when the moon is at its perigee, the earth is at its greatest distance from the sun, and when the sun is observed near zenith. I have no idea what that means. I got the description off a science Web site, but one thing is clear: it’s rare. This eclipse never lasts more than seven minutes and 31 seconds.

Personally, I believe having it all can last longer than that. It might be a fleeting moment — drinking a cup of coffee on a Sunday morning when the light is especially bright. It might also be a few undisturbed hours with a novel I’m in love with, a three-hour lunch with my best friend, reading “Goodnight Moon” to a child, watching a Nadal-Federer match. Having it all definitely involves an ability to seize the moment, especially when it comes to sports. It can be eating in bed when you’re living on your own for the first time or the first weeks of a new job when everything is new, uncertain and a bit scary. It’s when all your senses are engaged. It’s when you feel at peace with someone you love. And that isn’t often. Loving someone and being at peace with him (or her) are two different things. Having it all are moments in life when you suspend judgment. It’s when I attain that elusive thing called peace of mind.

Not particularly American, unquantifiable, unidentifiable, different for everyone, but you know it when you have it.

Which is why I love bakeries. Peace descends the second I enter, the second I smell the intoxicating aroma of fresh bread, see apricot cookies with scalloped edges, chocolate dreams, cinnamon and raisin concoctions, flights of a baker’s imagination, and I know I am the luckiest person in the world. At that moment, in spite of statistical proof that this is not possible, I have it all. And not only that, I can have more. 

adapted from “Sister Mother Husband Dog (etc.)"
published in the New York Times