The Rules

By a circuitous route well known to people who click from one Internet link to another, I found myself reading Jonathan Franzen’s rules for writing–and reliving my long-ago love of rules, real and fanciful.

For years, I had a poster on the wall next to my desk with versions of Murphy’s Law:  If anything can go wrong, it will. For me, the most memorable observation was an everyday one: Toast with jelly, dropped on the floor, will always land jelly side down.

I never conducted experiments to see if this hypothesis could be verified, but I clearly remember being eleven or twelve years old and making a chocolate-frosted vanilla layer cake for my father’s birthday, sans my mother’s help.

Somehow–did I put the oven rack in crooked?–one of the two square layers came out higher on one side than on the other. Bright idea:  Shave off the excess on the high side with a large kitchen knife. I ended up doing what people do when they cut their own hair: slicing too much off the high side, which made it the low side, so I compensated by carving some off the now-high side, and so forth.

At some point before the layer reached paper thinness, I gave up, frosted the bottom layer, settled the still-uneven top layer on it, and frosted that.

I rummaged in my mother’s junk drawer for birthday candles and lucked out, finding forty-plus yellow ones, so I wouldn’t have to figure out a pattern using multiple hues that wouldn’t look too dorky. Mother had recently suggested that we start using one candle for each decade for adults, but I wasn’t having it. I wanted that cake to look like a wildfire. I wanted to watch my father blow out all the candles at once to get his wish–not considering that he might wish his daughter was less of a smart-aleck.

As I turned back toward my culinary creation, a slow but accelerating movement caught my eye. The top layer of the cake, lubricated by a substrate of chocolate frosting, slid off as I grabbed for it. It passed an eighth of an inch from my fingertips, tumbled in mid-air, and splatted, frosting down, on the linoleum floor.

My mother came home from shopping to find me crying while I fended off our dachshund with one hand and tried to rescue the top layer of the cake with the other. Cushioned by a thick layer of chocolate, it was still whole.

Whatever my mother’s problems (mostly depression, self-medicated with martinis), she had a knack for softening the blow of these little domestic disasters. She lured the dog outside with promises of Milk-Bonesâ, patted me on the shoulder until I stopped sniffling, and pulled two broad pancake spatulas from the utensil drawer. Together we lifted the cake layer onto a plate and cleaned up the frosting. 

Here’s the brilliant part: She rummaged in the junk drawer until she found a box of wooden toothpicks. They were just long enough to go all the way through the bottom layer of the cake and stick up half an inch or so. She instructed me to press the top layer down on them. Voilà , it stayed put.

Fortunately, there was another box of frosting in the pantry. Mother made certain, when she cut the cake after dinner, to pull out the half-dozen toothpicks.

This tale demonstrates less about Murphy’s law than it does about the workings of this author’s mind and its propensity to wander off where memory, rather than logic, would lead it. I actually started out to write about writing rules. Maybe I’ll do that–in some future post.

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