Of Cake and Compliments

I baked a sponge cake, and then my mother complimented it. Actually, she somewhat praised it. You know, six times. Which is somewhat more than the number of times I was complimented in the nineties.

24 December 2021 | 7 Minutes

I learned an important lesson the other day: don’t tell a friend that you’re baking a cake later in the day, without first knowing their precise date of birth.

“So anyway, it’s my birthday tomorrow,” says my mate. Straight away! Which was rude, I think. Hadn’t I just finished explaining my plans to finesse a notoriously difficult sponge cake recipe?

Still, I suppose it’s nice that a man these days can straight out admit to making cakes and nobody looks at him like he’s having a midlife crisis.

So let’s summarise, it was almost my mate’s birthday – he’s turning fifty – and we go back a long way, it’s true. Of course, it is /also/ true that this one particular recipe calls for eight eggs.

“Eight,” I explained. “I’ve got a dozen in the fridge, and my little girls are on what they call *a ‘scrambly egg’ kick. The pressing issue here is I don’t seem to want to go back to the shops to buy more eggs, man. There’s a global pandemic happening, remember.”

“So I guess the point I’m trying to make here is – I’m not giving you this cake.”

Then, in case his feelings were hurt, I told Andy that he didn’t look too terrible for a man his age. You know, I’m always uneasy when I compliment another bloke. Australians of my generation were rarely praised as children. Our parents’ generation worried, I suspect, that if you compliment a child then they might turn homosexual.

The irony is, I’ve occasionally wished I were a bit that way inclined. Every man does, sooner or later – in fact, there has never been a heterosexual man who hasn’t, at some point, thought to himself, “Jesus Christ, I wouldn’t be having this stupid conversation if I was gay.”

I have also suspected that if I were gay, my relatives would have to treat my creativity as a legitimate pastime, and not as a bewildering aberration. I still have extended family calling me up every second month about the matter. Wouldn’t I rather join the police force? Or the army? Until I do, I suspect I shall always be that very distant relative who ‘does something with computers’.

To be fair, this is the culture in which I grew up. Creative pursuits have little legitimacy in Australia unless they can be monetised.

As some of you know, this year I moved back to Australia after living overseas for roughly eighteen years. Here’s a singular difference. If anyone here discovers I write books, the next question is typically, “you make any money from that?”

They’re not being rude, they’re being practical. How is it rude to inquire about a stranger’s paystubs?

Whenever I sense that someone is angling for an opportunity to lecture me from the pulpit of practicality, I feel no obligation to speak truthfully.

“Oh, don’t worry about my finances,” I tell them. “I made a small fortune slinging cocaine in inner-city D.C.” Then, I say something like, “Don’t tell anybody, though.”

It’s all in the delivery, of course, but generally speaking, nobody wants to be condescending after that.

Where was I? Cakes, that’s right. No, wait, it wasn’t cakes; it was compliments. I believe I mentioned I grew up without compliments. A lovely thing happened this past month. Someone wrote to me and paid me an enormous compliment. They’d read my Blue Bandicoot novels twice, and then placed me among some of his (and my) favourite comedic authors.

It was a really nice thing to happen. But I couldn’t respond for a few weeks because – as I mentioned above – I didn’t grow up hearing compliments. In fact, I can remember all the compliments I received in the nineties.

Then I moved to the United States. People do, rather more commonly, say nice things to each other there. Suddenly, I was working at Harvard University and now, once or twice a week, I would hear, “You did a great job!” It was bewildering. Eventually, I learned to stare past their left ear and mumble, ’thank you much, that is very kind of you to say’, and then I’d shamble out, feeling like a complete wreck.

So I made a sponge cake the other day – you know what? I was mistaken; turns out this newsletter is about cake, after all. (Apologies, it’s Christmas, there’s a lot of things on my mind).

Let me start again. I baked a sponge cake, and then my mother complimented it. Actually … it was more that she praised it. Like, six times. Which is somewhat more than the number of times I was complimented in the nineties.

I’m unused to it, of course. That was a lot of validation to take in all at once. She also suggested that I become a chef. I am not accustomed to such exalted levels of encouragement. I muttered something about how a few thousand people are waiting for my next novel, but not so loud as she might hear. We don’t talk about my writing novels in my extended family. It’s a working class family. The rules are sacred and inviolable; we stay in our lanes, and we don’t write novels!

My brother-in-law, who I like a great deal actually, only found out that I write novels last week. He was astonished. Nobody had ever mentioned it to him. Then one day, his daughter – my eleven-year-old niece – started reading The Harvard Skull Fiasco, which incidentally makes her the first person in my extended family to read one of my novels.

You might think that odd. It’s not. She’s an excellent reader and loves good books. As for the rest of my extended family – siblings, parents, and such – I’m positively certain I could come up with nice things to say about them, if pressed, and had a few hours to sit down and think hard on the subject. My nieces, on the other hand, are perfect in every way!

Anyway – for the record, I wasn’t supposed to become a writer. I was supposed to be an electrician or even a plumber. Because if you do that in Australia, you’ll earn more money than God. By now, I’m supposed to be onto my third or fourth investment home and my mother should be boasting about her son, the electrician, to her doctor – who’d be stewing with jealousy, of course, because he’s still paying off debts incurred from his last visit from an electrician – six years ago!

Now, as I’ve been trying to say, I baked a cake, and it was well-received overall. If I was the sort of person who thrived on impressing others, I’d just do that professionally. The compliments would fall from the sky like … bad metaphors in prose – written in haste, perhaps, on Christmas Eve.

But compliments, I have found, are not a trail of breadcrumbs that lead inexorably to a meaningful life. So what does? Well, there is in answer. And I’ll tell you what it is because it’s Christmas Eve, and I’m feeling sentimental.

I believe that the only way to live a truly meaningful life is to go to Amazon and review my books. Because – goddamn it, people! – this is my livelihood! And I have all these idiots coming up to me, saying, ‘oh you’re a writer, hur dur, do you make any money with that?’ and I have to keep making up fanciful nonsense about peddling cocaine.

So honestly, I would truly consider it a solid if you would all go off to Amazon right now and give my books the five star ratings you know they deserve. There’s this one and this one and this one. And if you sprinkle in a few compliments, so much the better. Thank you – believe me, it all helps.

I think you know this, but I’ll say it again, anyway – writing these newsletters is the highlight of my month, and I truly appreciate you being here for me. I love you all; I love the letters you send, and hearing how you’re all doing. Stay safe and well.

With chaste affection, and seasons greetings,

Kris St Gabriel

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