THE BLOG
03/04/2014 02:38 pm ET Updated May 04, 2014

Have Your Cake and Cut It Too: An Essay on Usefulness

I could have been doing plenty of things on Sunday. I could have been catching up on sleep, or I could have been catching up with a friend from high school, something I don't do quite often enough. I could have been at the gym, or at a food pantry, or at CVS, purchasing gummy bears and deodorant. I could have been at the library, and come to think of it, I probably should have been at the library. The most useful way I could have spent my Sunday, probably, was by studying -- by reading a book about the job market before and after World War II, by reading a chapter in Niebuhr Reinhold's Moral Man and Immoral Society, by diagramming the many concentric, socioeconomic rings that make up urban centers in Latin America, or by, perhaps, sitting down to a few poems by Wordsworth. Instead, I found myself cutting cake.

Much of my extended family has made the trip to my mom's place from various regions of New England for my beautiful nephew Ronan's second birthday party. When I asked my sister Audrey, upon my arrival a few hours earlier, whom I should expect to see at the party, she had answered, "Everyone!" with a high note of surprise in her voice, as if to add, "And all for a 2-year-old, who will likely be throwing rocks in the hallway all afternoon." Ronan has recently reached a top speed fast enough to outrun his pursuers if they don't jog as well, and in this moment, having just blown out his birthday candles, he has escaped, indeed, down the hallway to throw rocks. And I'm really shitty at cutting cake.

I undertook the role of cake-server in an attempt to make myself useful. As the brother of the mother of the boy of honor, I felt inclined to help out in some way, knowing also that, if I didn't, my mom would probably be up here right now, measuring her angles and plating with precision and not fully enjoying her grandson's party in her own home. So I'm the cake-cutter, a job that, while seemingly trivial, actually puts a 20-year-old boy under quite a lot of pressure.

I've been asked to divide the iconic birthday dessert into thirty pieces, which means carving at about a twelve degree angle, which means cutting pretty damn thin slices, which means I'm currently destroying the cake. No, destroying isn't the right word -- I'm mutilating it. I swear it's impossible to cut a layered cake into thirty pieces. Each slice crumbles as I run the knife through it, and I'm lucky if I get two or three solid chunks onto each plate, which I then sheepishly place on the table for guests to eat. I'm thinking to myself, in this moment, in this valiant attempt to make myself useful, that I'm actually not being of any use at all. All I am is a detriment to the cake and a detriment to the party and a detriment to those who prefer their frosting on the top, as opposed to the side of their plate.

And then I notice Ronan, my little baby nephew, at his little baby table, eating a piece of cake with his little baby hands and not knowing or caring for a second that his piece of frosted fun, which has now spread itself in globs across his face and arms, had originally been mutilated by his uncle's poor knifing skills. And all of a sudden I couldn't give a shit what my cake plating looks like. I had made myself useful, in one way at least, on this Sunday.

I had gone home from school for a few hours. I had seen my sister, and my mother, and my father and brother-in-law and uncles and aunts and, last but not least, my favorite nephew, Ronan. I hadn't done my Wordsworth reading, and maybe I'd have to do it later that night when the library intercom would jar me awake, telling me I'd have only thirty more minutes until I'd need to trek back to my dorm in the cold. Or maybe I'd just skip that Wordsworth poem altogether. College can get the best of us in the sense that, with all our worrying about this assignment and that assignment or the other one, it becomes easy to get bogged down in the little things. Yet, this Sunday I was reminded of a few of the big things in my life. I worry all the time, as most college students do, that I'm not being useful with my time. Sometimes, however, the most useful thing you can do is make yourself happy, or try to make others happy, or get away from school for an afternoon, or maybe even spare your mother the role of cake-server, just once, on a Sunday afternoon. And maybe chase your nephew down a hallway. Niebuhr Reinhold can wait.