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Taking the Cake

I am writing this column from the intersection of Competitiveness and Fair Play. It’s kind of lonely here. It’s always been a tricky intersection to find. Sure, the parenting experts all talk about it, and some even claim to offer a map to help you find it, but far too often you arrive alone, your children having long since been lured down Stack-The-Deck Street or Bend- The-Rules Beltway.

My younger son, Sam, is only twelve, and yet he is already plumbing the depths of an activity so nefarious that I am not sure he will ever find his way to this hallowed intersection.

Sam, you see, is a competitive cakewalker.

We’ve all heard stories of the win-atall- costs mentality found in unexpected places, like cornhole or bonsai sculpting.In this vein, I call your attention to pumpkin-growing and the village of Beckbury, England, where the longtime pumpkingrowing champion confessed to being full of it. Literally. Barry Truss admitted to filling his prize-winning pumpkins with water to pump up their weight. Truss had to roll the water-doped pumpkins around in his back yard to make sure they did not gurgle, and that no water leaked out of the pumpkin’s cleverly crafted bunghole. Post confession, he described his anxiety when he discovered one of his winning pumpkins was going to be given to the competition sponsor’s children: “If they’d cut into that thing, the tidal wave would’ve swept them away.”

But Truss’ methods pale in comparison to the low-down, nasty, and downright dirty world of competitive cakewalking.

For the uninitiated, the cakewalk is a combination of musical chairs and a lottery. Contestants take their places on a large board with numbered squares along the perimeter. When the music begins, the cakewalkers (as indeed they are called) proceed in a dignified fashion around the board. When the music stops, they freeze in a numbered square.A numbered ball is then selected at random by a judge called the ballpicker.(I’m sorry, these are official terms.) If a cakewalker occupies the corresponding square, a cake is awarded. If not, the music begins playing again and the process repeats. Cakewalks are a staple of school and church fundraisers, and since October is fundraiser season, that also means it’s cakewalk season.

Sam has been a cakewalking devotee since he could stand on his own two feet. Before that, if there had been such a thing as a cakecrawl, he would have been in the thick of it. For Sam, as with many other cakewalkers, the cakewalk is more about winning than the actual prize. I suspect that if someone organized a carbunclewalk, he would endeavor to dominate it.

You might think the random elements of the cakewalk – the length of the music, the drawing of the number – would reduce the outcome to mere chance. You would be wrong. Shrewd cakewalkers seek the advantage before they even hand over their tickets to play.What do the other players look like?How many walkers will you be competing against? The fewer the cakewalkers, the greater your chances of winning. Are they tiny children – susceptible to bribes, intimidation, or just plan wandering off mid-walk? Or, are they bigger than you, and therefore capable of shoulderchecking you off a winning square?

When the music starts the maneuvering begins. Try to stop on a 6 or a 9 and hope to claim victory in the confusion if the other number is picked. Double chances of winning. Then there’s the block-and-ooze, when an alert cakewalker clears space on the numbers either side of him just as the music stops. Then, if the winning number is not his number, but is one of the numbers on either side, he oozes over to the winning number and takes the cake. Voilá! Triple chances of winning. I have even witnessed one cakewalker so adept at this strategy that she oozed over two spaces and managed to perfectly execute the innocent glee of someone who just happened to find herself atop the winning number.

But the cakewalkers are downright angelic compared to the adults surrounding the competition. Parents, intent on preserving their child’s carefully-groomed image of themselves as can’t-losers, wheedle the judges to pick their child’s number “because going so many rounds without winning is damaging his self esteem.” I am pretty sure I have seen cash exchange hands to ensure a favorable outcome.

And the judges’ corruption goes beyond mere bribery to outright revenge. A ballpicker with an axe to grind can ensure that little Louise will never, ever win a cake after what she said about Timmy’s lunchbox – I don’t care if she stays on the board all day and squanders all her tickets and cries big crocodile tears and misses her dinner because no one, especially not you little miss buttonnosed Louise, says mean things about my Timmy and gets away with it!

I could go on, but you get my meaning: Cakewalking is a nasty bit of business, corrupt to the core. But my son is hooked. And although I admit that I have yet to see him stooping to some of the base behaviors I have described here, I still have doubts he will ever find me here, waiting for him, at the corner of Fair Play and Competitiveness. You see, his cakewalking performance at a recent school fundraiser had begun to lag a bit, so he’s thinking about a personal coach to help him regain his edge.

His name is Barry Truss.

A writer and photographer, Chris Moore lives in the West End with his wife and their two sons. A regular contributor to RFM, he writes features, contributes photo essays, and for six years, chronicled true stories of parenting in the DadZone.
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