Sugar-Fixing Our Stress

Illustration: James Yang

Silicon Valley’s never-ending growth makes talking about constraint seem almost impolite. But since silence isn’t useful for connecting with others, here’s our situation: A tight Bay Area budget requires dual incomes and dual commutes. That means less time together and more time at work. Which is where I am now.

“But it’s the only time everyone can meet” is the official excuse for why I’m in a brown-bag meeting on a Friday. On the projector, there’s a diagram of our software. A box points to the wrong circle. And half the engineering team has been called in to sort it out.

We’ll be working late, and I feel my mood start to plummet. I rummage around in my lunch bag for the coffee cake that isn’t there. Dammit. Everything’s gone haywire since my doctor encouraged me to ease off the carbs.

“But I need carbs,” I told my doctor. “If I’m having a bad week, my wife bakes cupcakes and everything is right with the world. On work days, I slip coffee cake into our lunches so we’ll feel connected.”

His response, though compassionate and professional, amounted to this: “Tough cookies.” And that’s why I’ve got carrots and hummus in my bag during my hour of need.

Just then, I see a news headline flash across my phone. The actual text doesn’t matter. What matters is the gloom it engenders. Maybe you know what I mean. It’s the feeling that the world is coming apart at the hinges. I excuse myself, head for the bathroom and just break down.

Our losses are small: time-stealing meetings, energy-sapping traffic, peace-of-mind-pilfering headlines, coffee cake deprivation. By themselves, they’re nothing to complain about. But in the aggregate, if they are not countered emotionally, these small losses will rob us of our joy. Accordingly, my wife and I have established a more permanent fix.

Each Saturday, we retire to the couch and shamelessly gawk at a carnival of carbs.

On today’s episode of The Great British Bake Off, a dozen contestants compete to make a finicky phyllo dough in an absurdly short amount of time. My wife and I hold each other like children clutching a teddy bear, salivating over a ballet of baklava.

To the left, cardamom and pistachio nestle in phyllo. To the right, masala chai tea infuses a crunchy, sugary treat. I say, “Good God, are they going to drizzle all that golden honey over all those nutty morsels?” My wife smiles. Indeed they are!

The bakers are not professionals. They are ordinary people who face small losses, like us. The show resonates deeply with Brits still reeling from the divisive rhetoric of Brexit. If inclusion through confection could work for them, maybe it could soothe a stressed-out U.S. couple.

Time’s up. The bakers stand at attention as the judge bites into one of the finished confections. “Good flake,” the judge begins as we hold our breath. We lean forward on the couch. “No soggy bottom. Bake is good. And the flavors . . .” He pauses to consider them. “The flavors are excellent!”

A continent away, in our living room, we exhale and turn to kiss each other. In an instant, we are ourselves again. A week of coffee cake denied, brown-bag meetings, well-meaning doctors, doomsday headlines and tyrannical twin commutes is banished from memory.

In its place, we are the first cupcake on our first date. We are the first bite of our wedding cake. We melt back onto the couch, holding hands. Another week survived.

Mark Otuteye, '05, MA '06, lives in San Mateo with his wife, Karen. They both cried tears of joy when the winner was announced on season six of The Great British Bake Off.