Saturday, May 11, 2013

Here's Cake in Your Eye

Kids birthdays cost three-hundred dollars. I've done this math a dozen different ways, and every time it comes out to three hundred bucks. You rent a place and invite some friends. three-hundred. You throw the party yourself and invite a few friends, three-hundo. Between the cake, some thematic party plates, a gift, some pizza pies, a treat bag, and a miscellaneous extra, three-hundred big ones. I've never figured out another way.

This year I said, smaller, please, more manageable. I can't make four cakes in two weeks. A party cake and a day-of cake for each, a week apart. Can't do it. Right? That's crazy talk. And I can't do a massive sleepover thing for one and not the other, and no human should have to suffer two consecutive weekends of house abuse, bodies strewn about like a refugee camp, toilets overflowing and muggings in the hallway.

So, for the boy, we're going to a place, with two friends. It's got lasers and a coin-snarfing arcade. At thirty bucks a head, before anyone's eaten a hot dog or whacked at a golf ball, you can figure my three hundred is not far from spent.

But it feels a little less than personal. I have a romantic notion of homemade things and crafts. These notions have nothing whatsoever to do with what my eight-year old wants and everything to do with some warbling call from my fantasy past, one that never existed, but one that I continue to conjure so that it can mock me in the present with its perfect untruth. What my kid wants, really, is to play video games with his friends. He doesn't give a shit about my sock puppet fantasy. Nothing he wants has yarn hair, hand stamping or raffia. He craves only pixels and maybe some candy, to go with the pixels.

But do not underestimate my ability to over think this thing. I will not rest until I have set expectations for myself that are so beyond my capacity to achieve them that I am almost immediately exhausted and  stress-barfing. Because nothing says happy birthday like a mother who is overwrought with anxiety and  aglow with the patina of disappointment.

So I head to Michaels, the craft mega store, where people like me can go, armed with glossy photos from Pinterest, to gather the close-but-not-quite-it supplies required for baking a Minecraft cake. Minecraft, for those of you not in the vortex, is a video game without any signifying themes. You build worlds out of pixelated bricks. I think. Something like that.

I went with this picture from Pinterest:

Ok, so you're thinking, "What the hell is that?" And the answer is, I don't totally know, but I know it reads Minecraft. It's a pixel-y building block thing. I knew Louis would get it immediately, and he really does like my cake. It's a mix, but it's my mix, and he likes that.

So I'm in the Michaels, looking for some pre-made fondant. I've got a plan. It's a plan that involves a lot of food-colored fondant, cut into tiny squares and arranged just so on top of my mix cake that Louis likes so very much. But my first stop is the cake box aisle, because I'm going to have to transport my finished masterwork to the blacktop laser park. So I'll need a box big enough to hold it.

I'm in front of the rack that holds the collapsed boxes at an angle. Kind of like this:

The dimensions and prices are typed in a very tiny font, and I've forgotten my glasses. So I'm kneeling in front of this thing, fingering the different flattened boxes, trying to find the one that will properly contain my dream.  What are the dimensions and price of such a box?

Michaels has inconveniently overfilled the display, so the cardboard boxes are really jammed in there while also spilling over their containment wires.  I have to yank and hold back simultaneously.  In what turns out to be less than the blink of an eye, I dislodge the corner of a box at close range and with great velocity directly into my eyeball. It's a direct hit, as if the rack was using my pupil for target practice.

It was both startling and excruciating.  I was blinded. Tears streamed from my eye in an overkill of protective eye washing. Water ran off my cheek soaking my shirt in an instant. I staggered around among the food dyes and cookie cutters, fondants and frosting bags, trying to open my eye, which was impossible. I careened over to the mosaic aisle to find a shard of mirror so that i might inspect the damage. On my way there an employee asked if he could help me find anything. Winking, and sniffling through the onslaught of tears I said, "No, actually, I've just jammed something into my eye...hard." He said, "Oh..." and after about ten mum seconds of staring, wandered away.

I somehow paid for the stuff that was in the cart, grossing out the clerk with my wet hand. Still without being able to open my eye, I drove across the parking lot to the Walmart, where they have a vision center. This is America. You too can receive sub par health care from a mass retailer. Using a shopping cart as a walker,  I approached a woman wearing an authoritative lab coat. I told her my story. Without expression she said, "There are no doctors here today." She stared at me blankly.  She didn't so much as offer me a tissue, or a seat. No humanitarian murmurs of consolation.  The eye specialist just stared at me until I went away with my damaged eye.

Later I found my way to an actual eye doctor, who did a lot very comforting things with special dyes and looky-lenses. He dimmed the lights and dropped anesthetic drops into the window of my soul.  He found a nasty scratch on my cornea and a bit of cake box still lodged in there. He did an entirely painless procedure to remove the cake box shrapnel. I left with prescriptions and reassurances that my vision would self correct.

But there was still cake to be made. Because no ill-conceived project shall be shelved before its time. I had to continue toward a conclusion that no one but me cared about, getting there using skills I do not possess, in an impossible time frame, with limited resources and now impaired vision. I made three layers of cake in varying sizes, to make a stepped platform for the many many fondant tiles I would the next day weigh them down with.

My friend, Carie, who is entirely up for anything, bless her soul, offered her kitchen for the project. We rolled fondant in our hands with food coloring so we could get the five shades required to form this nebulous construct. When Carie saw my stacked layers she looked doubtful. I said defensively,
"It's a crumb coat, it's not supposed to look like anything yet."

We mixed that fondant in our hands like stroke victims using therapy balls, smashing color into its resistant folds, until we had five shades that were nothing like what we'd hoped for. We cut tiles with a pizza cutter, about a hundred and fifty in all. We laid them down, one after the next in a random pattern, like the picture. And the more we laid them down, the worse it looked. The brown was an Oscar Meyer bologna brown, not the rich cappuccino brown I'd imaged. The greens failed to differentiate themselves. The tiles, when we had them all in a row, were of such different sizes and shapes that the pixelated quality was lost entirely and it looked more like a dadaist cake. A Rorschach cake. What do you see when you look at this dessert?

Me, I see a one-eyed dreamer, on her way to the supermarket to buy a cake.


  1. So funny Jess...& genius too! Love the Michael's & Wal Mart's just never worth going out! Love this gem, "and everything to do with some warbling call from my fantasy past, one that never existed, but one that I continue to conjure so that it can mock me in the present with its perfect untruth." Stole your Tina Fey Mother's Day piece...& hope your special day is, well...special! john

  2. are you KIDDING me??? I was crying with laughter at this entire story. you are my hero. beginning, middle and end of tale. I LOVE YOU!
    and I bet Lou LOVED the cake!!

  3. Answer: it's clearly a woven lawn chair. Or was. Before the fat man sat in it. During the heat wave of '59.

  4. To quote Admiral Akbar (in regards to Pinterest) "It's a trap!" And you no doubt spent more than you budgeted as you had to buy an ancillary cake.

    Answer: Looks like Kraft singles. Shitloads of partially degrading Kraft Singles.

  5. my belly is jiggling like mad reading yet another classic Schickel piece--seeking top notch optical- care at the mega walmart across the parking lot! good lord.
    ps...lawsuit filed against michaels yet?