Dog Birthdays and the Perils of Thoughtlessness


When I was maybe eight or nine-- although I can't remember as well as my cousins might, since the dog in question was theirs, not mine, and this episode is an outlier with very few tethers in my own timeline-- my cousins had a dog and we decided to celebrate her birthday.

I am a little fuzzy on the particulars, like a memory partially submerged in murky water. I'm sure you know the feeling-- sometimes you'll see a corner, or a flash of a color, and you have a sense of the general form of the object but you can never be absolutely sure that you know it in its entirety. Anyway, that's beside the point. My cousins had a dog and somehow we decided on a date (I think pretty arbitrarily, since she was adopted) and decided to celebrate her birthday.

None of us were the type of person to genuinely believe this dog needed a birthday celebration. We just wanted something to do and it seemed like a fun idea that would pass the time in a way that's more interesting than watching TV together. My sister, my two cousins (also sisters) and I would hang out together somewhat regularly during the summers, and we'd begun to fall into boring routines. We were determined to bust our boredom in a new way.

However, we didn't put a lot of planning into it-- it was supposed to be fun! We were being spontaneous! So we embarked (get it?) on this adventure by baking a cake for this birthday, because as far as we were concerned, you could be alone, you could be giftless, but as long as there was a cake, it still felt like a birthday.

How the dog would know the difference, we didn't know or care.

I cannot emphasize enough how little thought went into this process.

We worked off a box of cake mix, but in what seemed like a stroke of genius at the time, we thought to add some cooked ground beef to the mix. It was a cake for a dog birthday and it only seemed fitting that we include meat in the cake.

We baked it and frosted it with excitement and care.

And then we realized we had no idea what to do with it. We couldn't conceivably feed it to a dog-- it had so much sugar in it and other things that dogs should not eat. But we also did not want to eat yellow cake with ground beef in it. The realization came upon all of us very suddenly, and then we shared a sort of frustration, as though someone had made a fool us us, but even worse was that that 'someone' was ourselves.

Looking back on it now, it's a hilarious story. Most of my memories often read as hilarious to me (sometimes even as they are happening, which is sometimes a gift, and other times, makes other people think I'm laughing at them, because they are not yet at a place that can qualify as me laughing with them), because they seem to fit into a ridiculous sitcom of my life where I find myself in absurd scenarios. We baked a cake with ground beef mixed in. It's reminiscent that episode of Friends where Rachel decided to make a Trifle for Thanksgiving and accidentally added components of Shepherd's Pie in, creating a dessert with ladyfingers, jam, ground beef, and gravy. Except we did it on purpose. Kind of.

This experience, as hilarious and embarrassing as it was, taught me some really important things.

Don't rely on others to be responsible. During this entire fiasco, I think we all thought that if this was a really bad idea, someone would say something, but because everyone thought someone else would say something, we each absolved ourselves of any actual responsibility to think through what we were doing. Fortunately, in this iteration it only resulted in the relatively small tragedies of wasted cake supplies and ground beef, but there are far worse ways this can play out. It's incredibly dangerous to fall into pattern of believing that if something is happening, it can't be all that bad, because someone would have stopped it before it got to this point. That's not to say that we shouldn't try to trust others-- it just means that our trust in others shouldn't be used as a crutch or be-all-end-all of judgment. Even big groups can agree to do dumb things.

Work with purpose. Why did we really think we were baking this cake? Who was it even for? What problem were we solving? We didn't really know. We didn't really care. If we had gone in solely expecting to have passed some time on a hilarious, ridiculous project, I think we wouldn't have been so caught off guard by the reality of our relatively inedible dog birthday cake. But we really hadn't thought about our goals and because of that, we had these excited, vague expectations that were let down. We didn't accomplish anything, and it made us feel let down.

Manage expectations early. I am a big proponent of dreaming big, but expectations have to be managed in order to actually accomplish anything and feel good about it. If we had set our sights lower, I think we would have been pretty happy with this weird little culinary adventure.

Do not straddle markets. This is business-speak for not making the mistake of trying to please everyone, only to end up pleasing no one. We had not firmly decided to make a cake the dog could enjoy, nor had we decided to bake something that we would eat. I'm pretty sure one of us attempted to eat the cake and promptly spat it out in disgust. We just made a cake that no one would eat. Had we decided firmly one way or the other, I'm sure it would have ended much better than it did.

Dogs don't care. Some things are relatively pointless, and that's okay, but it doesn't do any good to convince yourself that things that don't matter really do-- even if other people try to convince you those silly things matter.

Have you ever group-thinked yourself into a corner? Or a vomit-inducing baked good?

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