The beginning of my sophomore year in college, I had a moment that was both mundane and packed with meaning. It was around 6 or 6:30 p.m. on a Tuesday; I’d gone to the grocery store to get food for the next few days. Making my way to the produce section, I was hit hard by the sweet, buttery smells floating from the bakery’s gleaming glass cases. I was routinely assaulted by their tempting scents, and almost as routinely, I’d yield. I’d grab a couple cookies or a bear claw for an afternoon snack or to have after dinner.
But that day was different. I wanted a piece of cake, and I wanted it right then. For my evening meal. Not following it. As it.
Had anyone been looking, they’d have seen a crazed combo of glee and determination glowing in my eyes. I was going to have dessert for dinner, and nobody could stop me.
The very idea brought with it a jolt of energy that went beyond the anticipation of the sugar high I knew was coming. I wasn’t having a sandwich and then a piece of cake. I wasn’t having some pasta and then a piece of cake. I was having just a piece of cake. There was no dinner preceding it. Dessert was dinner. Dinner was dessert. I’d never felt more in charge of my own life.
I bought a seven-layer vanilla cake with chocolate icing and a half gallon of 1-percent milk, and left the rest of my list for later. When I got back to the house I cut a four-inch, white-and-brown-striped wedge, placed it on a plate, grabbed a fork, and dug into it with gusto.
It's not like I grew up in a house that banned sugary treats. My mom often made us cookies, cakes, pies, and my favorite, "pudding in a cloud," a dollop of creamy chocolate resting between two pillowy layers of whipped cream. But this treat and any others were only to be enjoyed when every bite of our dinner and a full glass of milk had been consumed. As I washed down that first mouthful of cake with a gulp from my cup, I thought, "At least if mom saw me she wouldn't be wholly disappointed. I am drinking my milk."
When a roommate got home, she nodded at my slab of cake. "That looks good," she said. "So what’d you have for dinner?"
"This is it. This is my dinner," I said.
"Ha! What are you, five years old?" she said.
My hand gripping my fork, heavy with a particularly large clump of cake, froze midway between the plate and my gaping mouth.
"No. I’m eating dessert for dinner because I’m not a kid. Kids aren’t allowed to do this." I widened my eyes to emphasize my point, and as "this" came out of my mouth I replaced it quickly with a giant bite.
"Really? You think that’s a good idea?"
"No. But that doesn’t matter."
She left me to go study, and I thought about what she said as I pressed the last few scattered crumbs onto my index fingertip and then licked it clean. I was only a year into the freedom that comes with leaving home, but I’d made some poor decisions already. With no bedtime and no curfew, I’d twice gone to Walmart alone at 2:30 a.m. because the novelty of anything other than a gas station near the interstate being open for 24 hours was too much to resist, and because I was up. With no questioning father around, I went out with a few questionable boys.
Yet this was a bigger thrill than those, and some other ill-advised activities, mainly because I didn’t see the other "bad" choices as bad, at least not then. But I knew that eating cake for dinner wasn’t wise. I knew it wasn’t "healthy." It was something my parents never would have allowed their child to do. But I was not a child anymore, and this was my decision, that I made alone, without asking anyone else for their opinion or permission.
As I cut a second (much smaller) piece of cake, I knew I would go on making my own decisions and some of them would be just as foolish as dessert for dinner. I was right. I’ve made thousands of decisions, big and small, in the 20 years since. Many have been impulsive, some have been just plain stupid, but a few have been pretty smart and one has proven the best ever.
And I’ve gained as much from my missteps as I have from my achievements. The most important lesson I’ve learned is how bad not making a decision can be. Being so worried about choosing wrong and then making no choice at all can be as detrimental to your future as making a mistake.
Yes, it is advisable to look before you leap, to think before you act. But don’t overthink it. Do it. Or don’t. Just don’t be frozen by fear.
So go ahead and have a cookie for breakfast. Have a piece of pie for lunch. Have ice cream for dinner and then another bowl – with sprinkles – for real dessert. Just remember, when you have a tummy ache or a blood-sugar crash that brings on brain fog, you made the choice all by yourself, and then maybe don’t make that one again.