Revisiting Expectations Through Ugly Play-Doh Cupcakes

We are a society of unrealistic expectations. Cosmo tells women they should resemble airbrushed toothpicks. Men’s Fitness suggests their readers can have washboard abs if only they follow the simple guidance that is wedged in-between forty seven subscription renewal cards (Actually, picking those cards up off the floor is really good exercise). Aspiring musicians feel like they have to sound like the auto-tuned, electronically enhanced performers they hear on television. Even a new writer can fall victim to having the bar set unreasonably high and therefore not finish a manuscript because she fears it won’t be a NY Times bestseller or be made into a movie.


So, how to we guard against these expectations and convince ourselves to push forward? After all, aren’t unrealistic expectations thrown at us from an early age? If so, how early?

My daughter turned four this week. One of her gifts was a Play-Doh Cupcake Celebration Playset. As my wife and I do whatever we can to encourage creativity in our child, we were thrilled to see her show interest in this toy. I immediately knew it was going to be a blast. I mean, just look at it!


Note the myriad of tools and shapes that can be used in the making of neat, colorful, multi-layered cupcakes. There is a mechanism for putting icing on the cupcakes, a series of cups with a variety of designs, and – of course – the mandatory cupcake Ferris wheel. The entire mechanism really is quite extraordinary. And the photos on the box do a wonderful job of demonstrating the expected results. The Play-Doh cupcakes you can create are colorful, detailed, and artistic. I’d be proud to serve these at the wedding of any of my Claymation friends.

As my daughter is of pre-school age, she struggled a bit at using the shape impressions and tended to rip the shapes when she attempted to peel the spare clay away from the form. She also had a little difficulty keeping the layers separate from each other, as the colors tended to mix and bleed into each other.   It became frustrating to her, because she kept looking at the photos on the box and couldn’t figure out why she could create the awesome yellow star that was outlined by the blue clay. I want her to be independent, but sometimes kids need help. So, I decided to come to the rescue. Hey… she’s a pre-schooler, so it didn’t bother me one bit to lend my adult expertise to resolve the situation. So, I went to work.


My (inaudible) reactions were as follows:

This monkey shape is a little fragile. Why does the Play-Doh keep tearing right now the middle?

How am I supposed to cut the green Play-Doh and the orange Play-Doh with the same tool and NOT mix the colors? After the first cut, the tool looks like it was used to kill Gumby! Does this stuff ever come off?

I wish our beagle would stop eating the Play-Doh. Seriously, stop eating the Play-Doh!

It’s a f&^$@!# yellow star! How hard can it be to make one f&^$@!# yellow star????!!!!!!

Screw it. I’m making a blue cupcake with a red owl on top.

And… done.


Nailed it.

As you can see, it is nearly a mirror image of the cupcakes photos found on the box. Note the smooth texture, the rounded form, and the distinct red owl that tops it off. Marvelous.

Now, my daughter found a bit of fault with our (my) creation, but we managed to get through this disappointment. The process shifted from a game of imitation (no more looking at the damn box) to one of creation. The experience became all about finding new colorful patterns, combining unusual shapes, and keeping the beagle from regurgitating pink clay.

As with writing a novel, composing a piece of music, or simply finding a new business solution at work, the entire enterprise became fun once the unrealistic expectations and attempts at imitation were set aside. When we stop aspiring to another’s idea of perfection, we stop expecting to see perfection in the mirror. And why would we want to do that anyway? After all, you don’t enter a Fun House to gaze into normal, everyday reflections. You walk through the hall of misshapen mirrors to see what crazy, distorted, images bounce back at you.  When we ignore unrealistic expectations, we tend to discover – and enjoy –  the unexpected.

J.J. Hensley is the author of RESOLVE, which is set against the backdrop of the Pittsburgh Marathon, Measure Twice, and other works. Hensley is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service.
Twitter @JJHensleyauthor


An addict is killing Pittsburgh city officials, but Homicide Detective Jackson Channing has his own addiction.



In the Pittsburgh Marathon, more than 18,000 people will participate. 4,500 people will attempt to cover the full 26.2 miles. Over 200 of the participants will quit, realizing it just wasn’t their day. More than 100 will get injured and require medical treatment. One man is going to be murdered.  When Dr. Cyprus Keller lines up to start the race, he knows a man is going to die for one simple reason. He’s going to kill him.


Finalist – 2014 International Thriller Writers Awards – Best First Novel
Named one of the BEST BOOKS of 2013 by Suspense Magazine!
Top Ten Books of the Year – Authors on the Air

 And look for my short story FOUR DAYS FOREVER in the LEGACY anthology

Legacy cover

2 thoughts on “Revisiting Expectations Through Ugly Play-Doh Cupcakes

  1. hollyida

    Ok, not only did I like this post but absolutely f&^$@!#ing loved it! If you heard about a librarian laughing hysterically while at the circulation desk, it might have been me. Great humorous piece with a lot of heart.


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