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Mike Nichols: Fat Tuesday doesn't last forever

5:50 PM, Feb. 15, 2013  |  Comments
President Barack Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, gestures as he gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool)
President Barack Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, gestures as he gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool)

Surely, it was just a coincidence - though an apt one - that the State of the Union address was on Fat Tuesday.

It's impossible not to love Fat Tuesday, especially in the old Polish parts of Wisconsin, where there must be a million paczkis baked and stuffed and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Heidi Schuerstedt made 4,000 just in her bakery in Paddock Lake alone - including half a dozen for me.

"It's like a holiday," said Heidi, the owner of Heidi's Bakery along State 50. "People are so happy."

It's said that old-time Polish bakers made paczkis in order to use up all the lard and sugar and eggs before the Lenten fast. I bought mine on Fat Tuesday itself, just happened to stop as I was passing by because it's hard to resist a paczki filled with apple or custard or "cherry cheese."

But then I forgot them in the backseat of the car when I got home and - violating all the old laws and even the reason for Fat Tuesday itself - ate them on Ash Wednesday morning.

I felt only slightly less guilty when I called Heidi before 7 a.m. that Ash Wednesday morning and found out I was not the only weak one. Two of her first three customers on Wednesday, she said, had requested the Polish pastry.

"I missed yesterday. Can I get an apricot one?" one of them asked, according to Heidi, adding she had just gotten them off the fryer.

Heidi is a better person than I am. She is well aware of the traditions of Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, of the eating and the abstaining, the enjoying and then the sacrificing.

In addition to making herself eat fish on Fridays, she's giving up her own baked goods for seven weeks during Lent. She's also a little more optimistic than I am about our collective ability to deny ourselves all the things we love and have come to feel entitled to.

"I think people give up things but in different ways," she said. "People may not give up their sweets but they may give up something else, like people will give up smoking. Or wine."

I suppose. But I'm much less convinced that we're about to give up things of importance because, I suspect, there's a feeling in this country no one else is being asked to really sacrifice, either.

People like Heidi are rare nowadays. I suspect she'll keep her pledge because she even asked me to call her back after Easter and check in, just to make sure she abstained. I agreed, even though I don't think I'm the best person to do that, given my Ash Wednesday paczki-eating.

I wish somebody else would take it upon himself to call all of us out - and not just during Lent. I wish one of our leaders, someone with real authority, would be capable of something like that.

I continue to think President Barack Obama is a mesmerizing speaker, if you don't listen too closely. He's as good as a custard-filled paczki at making us feel good - festive even - when he talks about new government spending on infrastructure and clean energy and manufacturing.

He mentions modest entitlement reforms and the deficit, but we have a $16 trillion debt and liabilities we can't even tally up in our entitlement programs. And tackling those would require sacrifice - a serious, collective fast.

Fasting, after all, isn't just a meaningless ritual. Part of the idea is that it will make us more aware of the needs of others who don't have much - and won't in the future if we continue apace.

I wish he would have told us that Fat Tuesday - fun as it is - was never meant to last forever.

- Mike Nichols: mrnichols@wi.rr.com

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