My 9-year-old daughter, Lauren, and I sat in the Dane County Fair Exhibition Hall B surrounded by perfect cakes. They had smooth, glass-like sides. Their tops had imaginatively-elaborate decorations of molded shapes and figures that seemed to defy gravity, -decorations that made Lauren and I gasp, “How did they DO THAT?!” Beside Lauren was her own cake, -a simple, round, white cake frosted on top with a rainbow and a small black pot of gold. Its butter-cream frosting looked delicious, -definitely mouth-watering, but it was not perfectly smooth. The pattern of spatula lines could easily be traced. The colorful rainbow was fun and frolicky, but its edges bled a bit. The green frosting around the base of the cake was uneven, more like a moat on windy day than a lake of glass. Yes, a 9-year-old had surely frosted this cake. And it was beautiful. We had thought the cake perfect when we left the house. Lauren was hoping she would win the 4-H Club, cake-decorating contest at the Dane County Fair. But now, surrounded by perfection, we discussed failure as a first step on a path to perfection.
I tried to explain the ages-old, Japanese artists’ practice of completing a work of art and then in the last stroke, adding some small mark to make the work imperfect. Lauren asked why the artist would do that. Rapidly trying to remember a concept I once thought I had understood, I said, “Well, the artist didn’t want it to be perfect.”
“Why not?” she’d asked.
“Because,” I replied, “then it wouldn’t be perfect.” I was obviously getting this all wrong. Somewhere in those words was wisdom, but it remained cryptic as always. Lauren gave me that well-practiced, would-be pre-teen look of Mom’s really making no sense now.
4-H club friends came over. They could see our disappointment. I asked how people got the sides of their cakes so smooth. “A damp, patternless Viva paper towel,” was their answer. Apply the frosting, then smooth it down with the damp towel. Well, now we know. But could a damp paper towel really accomplish all that?