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26 Nov 2009

Cupcakes and life – This is probably going to be relatively short, because I’m quite tired, but I want to write this now while it’s still fresh. (OK, in retrospect, perhaps it’s not that short after all—just imagine how much I might have written had I not been so tired.) This past weekend, I received a surprise package from a friend of mine in the States. I was even more surprised when I opened up the package and saw what was inside—among the contents was an eight-pack of Hostess CupCakes (yeah, I didn’t know the second “c” was capitalized, either).

“It’s like a Twinkie, but it’s a cupcake! And chocolate!”

I suppose I should back up and explain how this came about. This friend of mine who sent the package is a member of a small message board community of which I am a part (in fact, it is the only message board I still frequent these days). And when I say small, I really do mean small: there are a little over a dozen regular posters, you can’t even read the boards if you’re not a member, and membership is by invitation only. It’s not your typical message board, where you have a large population with a high turnover rate, with a smaller core of dedicated members. It’s more like a small group of friends that hangs out in a dimly-lit corner of cyberspace, swapping stories over beers. As you can imagine, we are pretty tight-knit.

My memory is a bit fuzzy on the subject at hand, but I’m pretty sure there was a discussion of Hostess Twinkies at some point, and I mentioned that I had always been more a fan of the cupcakes (if you followed the link for the cupcakes above, you’ll know that I’m not alone—the cupcake is, in fact, “the best selling Hostess snack cake”). At least, that’s probably what happened. It sounds right, as I am indeed on the dark side when it comes to Hostess snack cakes.

So when I opened up the surprise package and found, tucked safely away at the bottom, that eight-pack of Hostess CupCakes. I was genuinely touched. It’s funny how something as simple as some cupcakes can do that to you. I reverently put the box of cupcakes on top of the refrigerator. Later that day, when my wife got home, I showed them to her. I carefully opened the box and took out one of the individually-wrapped delectable treats.

“You have to try this,” I said. “Let’s split one.”

You must understand, it had been at least fifteen years, if not twenty, since I had had a Hostess CupCake, and I didn’t want to overdose on the awesomeness. I unwrapped the cupcake, took out a knife, and carefully cut the cake in half. I excitedly gave one half to my wife and held onto the other half, waiting for her to try hers first.

She tilted her head. “It’s a cupcake,” she said, like I had just handed her an ordinary rock and claimed that it was the Rosetta Stone.

“But it’s got cream inside!” I exclaimed. “It’s like a Twinkie, but it’s a cupcake! And chocolate!”

“A what?”

“A Twi—wait, you don’t know what a Twinkie is?”

She shook her head.

Oh dear. “Just eat it,” I said.

So she put the whole half cupcake in her mouth (they’re not that big, thankfully), ate it, shrugged noncommittally, and said, “It’s good.”

I didn’t bother replying, because my own half cupcake was on its way into my mouth. I could already smell it, and even though it had been probably close to two decades since I had last tasted one, I knew exactly what it was going to taste like—the moist chocolate cake, the smooth cream, the sweet icing. And there I was, on the other side of the world, a much younger man who was far less concerned about what he ate then he is now.

It is difficult to describe the experience, and not just because taste is a very subjective thing. In fact, it has nothing to do with the taste. Truth be told, I’ve had far tastier cupcakes than Hostess CupCakes. I’ve had chocolate cakes that activate pleasure centers in the brain generally reserved for other activities. I’ve had cream-filled confections so rich and smooth that my mouth wept for joy. But when I put that carefully dissected half of a Hostess CupCake in my mouth, I was so flooded with emotions that I was lost for a moment.

At first, I was tempted to say that I was flooded with memories—and, in fact, I did use this very phrase when describing the experience on the message board—but the more I think about it, the more I realize that there were no distinct memories in that flood. I cannot remember a single instance of actually eating a Hostess CupCake in the United States. I know that I did consume a goodly amount, but I cannot recall any details at all from any of those experiences.

So it is more accurate to say that I was flooded with emotions. It’s fairly common knowledge that emotions can be tied to sensory perception, and the strongest of these ties probably occur with smells and tastes. When a particularly powerful experience—powerful either because of intensity or repetition—becomes associated with a particular taste or smell, experiencing that taste or smell again tends to bring back not the memories of the experience itself, but whatever emotions we felt during that experience. For me and the Hostess CupCakes, well, it’s a bit difficult to describe emotions, but I suppose the overriding impression I got was that life was suddenly much simpler in some ways, but it was also a time of apprehension and doubt. Yes, I got all that from a cupcake.

There is a bakery near us that opened up a while back. Every so often, Hyunjin would come home with some strangely-shaped confection from this bakery. Most of them I had seen before, and some of them I had even eaten before. But they were all very old-fashioned treats, baked goods from Hyunjin’s childhood. She called them “pastries of memory,” which sounds better in Korean and means something along the lines of “pastries of days gone by.” As I did with the Hostess CupCake, she would split them with me, and I would dutifully eat them. To be honest, most of them tasted rather rich or left a pasty coating on the roof of my mouth, probably from too much butter or margarine. But I know what my wife was experiencing when she ate them. Well, not exactly, of course, but I understand the type of experience she was having.

Since we split that first cupcake, I have eaten another. There are now six left in the box. To be honest, I am reluctant to eat them, because I know that if I eat them in quick succession, the impact that each cupcake has will be lessened. I would like to save them, to space them out a bit, and thus maximize the effect of each. Like I said above, it’s not really about the taste itself, but the emotions, or sense memories, that the taste triggers. So I think I will probably save them for times when life starts to feel a little too complicated. Seeing as we’re getting toward the end of the year and I have a mountain of work facing me both now and in the new year, I have a feeling that the cupcakes might not last all that long.

I’ve already thanked my friend in private for the gift, but I’d like to thank him again here. It may seem silly to get emotional about some cupcakes, but it’s not really the cupcakes that touched me. It’s the fact that he listened to what I said, took an off-hand comment seriously, and then acted on it for the sole purpose of doing something nice for me. And this is not the first time he has done something like this for me—once, after a discussion of Batman comics and the Joker, he sent me a hardcover copy of The Killing Joke. I have been so touched by his thoughtfulness that it has made me really think about life and why we are here. Yes, I know, that sounds like an awfully big leap from cupcakes and comic books, but bear with me for a moment.

At some point in our lives, we all ask ourselves: what is the point of it all? After all, we are born, we suffer, and then we die. It is hard for me at this point in my life to grasp the concept of my own mortality, but on an intellectual level I do know that there will come a day when I will no longer be on this earth. When that happens, what will remain of me? What impact will I have had on the world? How will I be remembered? I would like to think that I will have written something that people will remember, or achieved something else worthy of notice.

But the more I think about this, the more I realize that it is not the big things that count. Wait, let me rephrase that: yes, the big things do count, but they do not exist in isolation. People who achieve great things do not generally do so out of the blue—they achieve these things because of the way they lived their lives. People may be remembered for the big things they do, but in the end these big things are simply the culmination of all the little things that punctuate everyday life. Put simply, if I really want to leave my mark on the world, I need to leave my mark on the people who make up that world, and I need to start with the little things.

I try to be conscious of this as I live my life. In everything I do, I try to have some positive influence on the people in my life. I would like to say that I am always successful, but that would be an obvious lie. I’m not sure if I can even say that I am successful most of the time, to be honest. What is the point of it all? To make the lives of others just a little brighter. This is the best answer I can give to this question.

So, Mark, thank you again for the cupcakes—and for the life lessons.

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