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Behind the surprise

I didn't like surprise parties till I finally realized what they meant.

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Party time: When artist Wayne Thiebaud painted ‘Cakes,’ he made them look real by slathering on paint like frosting.

National Gallery of Art

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My husband's ability to keep a secret enables him to plan wonderful surprise celebrations for me. Recently, however, I told him I didn't want him to plan one for an upcoming milestone.

"Why?" he asked.

"I am embarrassed being the center of attention," I quickly explained.

Later, I began to think more deeply about this reason. Then I recalled the surprise celebration I had planned for my friend Nancy on her 44th wedding anniversary.

It was the same day as the opening day of the Beijing Olympics. Her husband and mine were at home in the United States. She and I were roommates on an exotic three-week tour following the Silk Road on those famous steppes – and through the mountains – of central Asia.

That afternoon we had arrived at our hotel in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. The young man at the hotel desk told me about a bakery about 10 minutes away. After giving me detailed directions, he added, "Your nose will let you know when you arrive there."

The temperature was 104 degrees F. Soon, my olfaction proved to be an unfailing guide. Outside the bakery, a delicious aroma wafted. Inside were buzzing flies.

I was the sole foreign customer and made myself understood with only limited fluency in Russian. The young salesclerks giggled.

There were several kinds of breads, cookies, and pastries on display in glass cases; fancy iced cakes were on refrigerated shelves. With no way to keep a frosted cake chilled, I chose a pound cake topped with powdered sugar.

Near the cake was a price tag for 2,200 Uzbekistani soum. I soon discovered the weight of the cake determined its cost.The bill was the equivalent of $1.55 – lower than the money needed to purchase a package of pound cake mix back home.

Later at the Karim Bek Restaurant, Nancy didn't see the young waiter walk up the steps with the cake. When I began singing "Happy Anniversary," everyone at our table – except Nancy – joined in.

It took her a moment to realize what was happening. Then the grinning guest of honor thanked me, blew out the candles on the cake, and ate three slices of it.

Today, after mentally reliving this experience, I told my husband to ignore my initial request. I now understand what a surprise party is about: It is not having one but rather the anticipation and delight in giving it. That is what brings the satisfying joy.

In the future, I don't want to deprive my family or friends of feeling that way, even if I am in the spotlight.

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