I followed my wife’s voice to the scene of the carnage. Heather stood there aghast, with an over-muscled Labrador mix on one side, and a half-empty cake pan on the other.
Big Blake, it seemed, had discovered my belated birthday cake.
At two weeks late, it had been meant as a bit of a surprise. It succeeded. Instead of getting frosted by Heather and Missy, it had gotten a two-minute sampling by our canine connoisseur of all things semi-edible.
At first, I was horrified. Then, a little worried for the big guy (needlessly, as it turned out). And then, finally, amused.
After all this time, my cake karma seemed to have finally come full circle.
It’s an old family story, told by me as often as by anyone. My youngest sister Carey had had a birthday and knew exactly where she wanted it to be: Chuck E. Cheese. (I’ll pause for a parental shudder.) As the joke goes, it was our early childhood lesson in junk food and gambling, and we plunged with abandon into both, gladly running from pizza to video games to Skee-Ball and back again.
Since this was a birthday, naturally there was a cake. Since we were a family of five, naturally we didn’t finish it in one sitting. As the big brother (all of 10 years old or so), I volunteered to carry it out to the car when we left, holding it proudly as we entered the parking lot.
A little too proudly, perhaps. With a timing worthy of Mr. Bean, the cake left my hands.
And with one simple plunge, Abstract Art Piece No. 7, a study in frosting and pavement, had been born.
It’s been 30 years since then. My sister has long since started talking to me again. But the funny thing is, I can remember that incident more quickly and clearly than my college graduation. In terms of sheer vividness, it competes with the opening-night play at the Longmont Theatre Company where I took one downstage step too many, descending into the orchestra pit.
Some things, it seems, your brain hangs on to. With relish.
(No, the cake didn’t have relish. Chuck E. Cheese wasn’t that bizarre.)
Oddly enough, that’s been a subject of major research over the last few years: why our mind clings so hard to mortifying memories. The hope is to be able to better treat post-traumatic stress disorder. And the studies seem to suggest that it’s a combination of a particular brain chemical – norepinephrine, released in times of strong emotion – and an understandable need to obsessively examine a situation and figure out “Why did I do that?”
“It’s our need to control,” scientist Angela Londoño-McConnell told msnbc. com in 2009. “person might have thrown up simply because they were getting sick. It just happened. But it’s very difficult to tell the brain, ‘It just happened.’ So we go over it, trying to figure it out, trying to make sure we won’t be embarrassed again.”
That can actually be a valuable way to learn. But it can also mean you beat yourself up for a long period of time and blow a small event into a huge one.
Gee, that sounds familiar.
“Our greatest glory is not in never failing,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “but in rising up each time we fail.” Anyone can screw up – heck, Thomas Edison once burned down the family barn as a child. The question is what you do next.
I’ve had a lot of “nexts.” So have most of us, I suspect. More than enough to let a few cringes go, however vivid.
I know, it’s not often easy. But now that the years have worn this one from embarrassment to amusement, letting go shouldn’t be too hard.
You could call it a piece of cake.
But don’t tell Blake if you do.