I have won many things in my life.
Concert tickets, raffle prizes, a beach vacation thanks to an elaborate Halloween costume, even $5.00 on a $2.00 Power Ball ticket. (Not exactly the Return on Investment I'd hoped for but what can you do?) I once won $2Gs on a game show that never aired; Majority Rules. I would have won much more if I'd gone with the (untrue) answer "Disneyland" when asked "Where do you most connect with your childhood?" but I couldn't bring myself to endorse bullshit Disney.
Instead, I went with 'Kindergarten classroom' and painted a lovely picture of little desks, cute ABC cut outs on the wall, the distinctive, pungent scent of Play Doh, but the other guy said "Disneyland" and of course the audience voted for him (because it's MAJORITY Rules - duh, Anne!) and I think he won something like $15,000 so let THAT be a lesson for me.
Of all my wins (greatly eclipsed by my many, many losses but, as my Dad wrote in What He Learned in Boxing: "If you get in the ring, you're bound to get hit."), the three prizes that stand out most vividly in my memory are:
1. a cake
2. a concert
3. a certificate
When I was in third grade, my school had a "carnival" (I use quotation marks because there were no rides, no animals, no clowns, nobody doing flips or tricks on stilts, it was basically a bunch of group games and one sullen high school sophomore making deformed balloon animals.)
The only game I was interested in was the Cake Walk. The name is self-explanatory – we walked around the room in a circle to Henry Mancini’s cheeky, boogie woogie jam Baby Elephant Walk and when the music stopped, we were to run and stand on the nearest bright blue dot. The PTA Mom running this nail-biting contest would then draw a number from a bowl. If the number of your blue dot corresponded to the pulled number, you won a cake. Unlike the other carnival games available, which required either speed, agility, or at least decent hand/eye coordination, in this one, all we had to do was walk. (I guess that’s where the phase ‘easy as a cake walk’ comes from?)
I had three tickets, therefore three chances to win a cake. A whole, entire, full sized, all to myself CAKE! Cakes made by class Moms who were trying to outdo each other so these weren’t simple sheet cakes with some half assed plastic princess on top, oh no, these cakes were three to four tiered beauties, slathered in rich frosting, dripping with shiny, chocolate ganache, festooned with piped frosting curlicues, edible pearls, and a rainbow of thick, icing roses.
On my first ticket, a girl I sort of knew from the other third grade class won. I instantly hated her. On my second, someone’s older brother, a seventh grader (why was he even allowed to take part?!) won but on my third and last ticket, lo and behold, my number was called! The cake was MINE!
The funny thing is, I don’t recall which cake I chose, nor do I recall eating it. Perhaps I shared it with my family? I probably did as I don’t see how I could’ve smuggled a four layered cake home in my pockets without being discovered. (Trust me, if there was a way, I would have. In grade 6, the one year I was a Girl Scout, I ate 70% of the cookies I was supposed to sell and had to double up on babysitting so I could pay for them.)
What I do recall is the visceral feeling I got when I won. I began to tingle all over, my head dizzy with the possibility that I’d won something, which meant maybe, just maybe I was the type of person who could win? That maybe I was, at least, a little special? Maybe I was not a permanent member of the downtrodden? As early as age eight I’d internalized my family’s inherent belief that the world was divided into Winners and Losers and we were fated to be the latter. (Oh, the Irish and their depressing fatalism.)
Obviously, I know now that the win was pure chance but at the time, that cake was a sign. A sign that maybe I wasn’t destined to always fail.
Thanks to my long-term membership and enthusiastic support of Public Radio, I’ve won a few prizes through the years, including an all expense paid weekend to the Ojai music festival, complete with a suite at the picturesque and historic Pierpont Inn where I was to be wined and dined and feted with champagne, chocolates and a deluxe fruit basket and, without giving it too much conscious thought, I went… alone.
I was in a relationship (of sorts) but told myself I needed some contemplative “me” time. But once I was there, sitting alone in my sumptuous suite, I felt like an idiot – I’d won an undeniably romantic getaway and I opted to go solo? What the hell?
Cracking open my complimentary bottle of champagne, I had to admit I’d received my wake-up call even though it was still night – I was in a dead end, toxic relationship; I needed to cut my losses and move on. Which I did. Thanks, NPR!
Roughly twelve years after my victorious Cake Walk, I won my college’s coveted creative writing award. I was a double major in Theater and Journalism with a minor in Psych, so my win was something of a surprise. It certainly was to the pretentious, self-proclaimed Writer Writers majoring in English; “Wait a minute - her?!”
At the ceremony, I received a certificate and $500 bucks. While the money was a much-needed windfall, it was the certificate that gave me the same tingly sensation I’d had at age eight; my head once again dizzy with possibility: maybe I’d found something I could do? Not just do adequately, but well? Maybe, just maybe, I had some talent?
Again, like the cake realization, maybe I was meant to, at least sometimes, win?
It’s unfortunate that I soon abandoned writing for other creative pursuits but, like Odysseus’ Penelope, it stood by patiently while I stumbled through life. Years later, battered and beaten, I returned to find it faithfully waiting for me. I’ve since won several writing awards, but the certificate stands out as a watershed moment.
It was a cosmic sign, a harbinger of my future, a subtle whisper, “This. This is your way.”