Red Velvet and Revolution

I want to talk about making mistakes. Yet again, baking can act as an allegory for my mistake-making, in life. Most of the time, things go smoothly when I bake. Because I’ve been baking for so long, it’s not intimidating for me. I can reasonably expect that when I cream butter and sugar, add some eggs, vanilla, milk, flour, and baking powder, I’ll get a nice cake at the other end of a sojourn of 25 minutes at 350 degrees.

Sometimes I get ambitious, though. I approach baking with reckless abandon, never thinking to myself “well this is going to fail.” In general, it’s a great approach. It has led me down many baking rabbit holes that have yielded either deliciously crispy oil-fried doughnuts, to … crying on the kitchen floor covered in two types of icing and countless layers of unevenly textured cake layers.

I approach my work with reckless abandon, too. Unfortunately, because I work in academia, I do often expect to fail when I try to push up against the boundaries of the academic status quo. When I prepare a new paper or apply for a grant, I always suspect that somewhere in my future I’ll be lying on the kitchen floor crying, covered, this time, in rejected manuscripts and lost forms.

It all sounds terribly melodramatic, doesn’t it? Most of the time, my work, and my baking, fall somewhere in between. My manuscripts get rejected a few times and then, finally, get to be revised and resubmitted. Usually my red velvet cupcakes come out pink.

Sometimes I get ambitious, though. I expect myself to juggle too many projects and say yes a lot. I wind up answering emails at all hours of the night and in the early morning, I have trouble just watching a movie when I could be simultaneously searching the literature or cleaning my data. I push the burnout under the rug until it bubbles up uncontrolled, revealing to me oversights and errors I missed in my rush to get everything done on time.

When I buy into the busy contest, I am the one who ends up losing. When I buy into the busy contest, it’s like accidentally swapping baking soda for baking powder: it all bubbles over, and I have a big old mess on my hands.

I am currently emerging from a week of acute anxiety over mistakes I made while buying into the busy contest, trying to be perfect, and not asking for help. The visceral character of the anxiety – making it hard to eat, to sleep, to be – taught me a number of lessons I’ve been intellectually aware of for a while but somehow unable to incorporate into my self-concept.

That’s just the thing, isn’t it? You can know that you’re burning out, and not want to contribute to the busy contest, and yet still have it happen and contribute to the very thing(s) you hate. For me, step one has been admitting that the way I’ve been working over the past few years is not sustainable – I’m beginning to finally let myself accept that work, and life, are for the long-game.

Of course, this all sounds quite idealistic and ignorant of the social strictures that require people to work constantly, and often for low pay, to live in this world. Certainly, I recognize my privilege in being able to decide that I won’t be answering emails after 10pm (or at least I will try not to…) and that I’m only going to say yes to projects that truly excite me. This shouldn’t be a privilege, though – and it reveals the paramount need to transform the systems that bind us in an ever-owing relationship with capital.

Undoing these ties will not be easy – particularly not for those who have been multiply marginalized. The last thing I would want to say is that we all just need to breathe, take a bubble bath, and bake some red velvet cupcakes and it will all be ok. I know that it won’t; but baking the damn cupcakes is going to give me the energy that I need, right now, to do the work that might yield one of the many microscopic shifts required for widespread systems change.

So is this a post about red velvet cupcakes, or revolution?

[Baking notes: I used Sweetapolita's red velvet cake recipe for the cupcakes and her cream cheese icing recipe from her cookbook for the frosting]