It was my birthday and I was at work. I like to think of myself as one of those especially evolved adults who doesn’t require a #birthdayweek or (worse) #birthdaymonth worth of attention via social media comments and posts, strings of nights out celebrating, tiaras or gifts. Thus, I was absolutely appalled at myself as I heard myself beginning a whiny sentence to one of my colleagues with, “not to be a birthday diva, but…”
You see, the office “fun committee” had provided their annual birthday surprise of flowers, a card signed by the staff, and one’s favorite dessert, which they had gotten wrong. I’d been working there for three birthdays, and an on-boarding check box for new staff was the filling out of an “about me” questionnaire that controlled for preferences, filed in the employee’s HR folder. Mine clearly, explicitly said, I love all things chocolate, dark only, and all chocolate, only chocolate, all the time. Imagine my injured surprise when I followed the post-it note the fun committee left on my desk pointing me to the freezer and pulled out the freezer drawer to find a pint of vanilla gelato with my name on it. WHAT WAS THE MEANING OF THIS? I stormed over to the committee head’s desk to investigate.
This righteous indignation did not fit with my self-image, or my strongly-held beliefs about how adults should behave on their birthdays, but there I was, propelled forward out of the staff kitchen, barreling toward a colleague’s desk to find out why I was so uncared about the fun committee couldn’t bother to buy me chocolate. When they had known me for three years. When it said so, in black and white, in no uncertain terms, on my “about me” sheet. How could they possibly have fucked up such a simple task, when the information was right at their fingertips? See, this is why I didn’t pay much attention to my birthday in the first place, because too many letdowns, too much potential for error on a high stakes day. But the level of incompetence was staggering. Needed to get to the bottom of this, because being presented with vanilla, which I hate, which I think tastes like water, on my birthday, was unacceptable, and I needed to understand the root of this major transgression. Or so the internal dialogue must have gone.
Without thinking, I stood in my colleague’s cubicle, throwing off the yoke of birthday diva, but insisting it be explained how vanilla was chosen for my birthday treat, when it’s been clearly stated, since the beginning of my tenure, that chocolate is my drug. “Well,” she said slowly, likely in a state of disbelief at my uncalled for and highly inappropriate and ungrateful tantrum, “I guess someone made a mistake. Can I take you out for chocolate gelato at lunch to make up for it?” The perceived wrong righted, I accepted, and off to gelato we went a few hours later, an excursion that took time out of her day, unwarranted, time I did not deserve.
Pretty selfish, immature behavior from someone who purports not to care much for her birthday, or adult birthdays in general. Pretty paradoxical behavior from someone who considers work just a job, a group of colleagues just that: never a passion; never a family. If that be the case, what does it matter that one’s birthday be honored with precision, or at all, for that matter, especially in a work setting? I needed a swift kick in the ass.
My colleague saw her opportunity to upbraid me for my gross behavior and took it later that week. I was chatting with her about some work-related issue and how I felt I was able to take on more than leadership was giving me, or feeling passed over, or some such thing, when she chimed in, “that’s right, you are NOT the vanilla gelato at the back of the freezer!” Her words, perfectly timed, and delivered with a straight face, had the figurative effect of placing a bridle over my mouth and jerking my head backward. “Oh god,” I managed to choke out, “I was really horrible earlier, wasn’t I?” “You sure were!” she cheerfully replied, with her trademark musical laugh. She’d indulged me previously, by rectifying something that didn’t require it, taking time out to serve me up the chocolate that represented my self-worth and needs and wants (apparently), but she wasn’t going to let me get away with it.
I loved her for being able to penetrate the perfectionistic, self-righteous bubble I’d placed myself in with no awareness on my part of having done so. With one well-aimed, pointed riff, she popped it, dissolving my bad attitude into glaring self-awareness. And not a moment too soon. I desperately needed a comeuppance in order to see the inconsistencies between my beliefs and behaviors. It was a chance to reintegrate myself and get back on track, on the path to being the person I want to be. She got through to me, and helped me see some important truths I was missing.
For one, perhaps my high-minded “birthdays are for kids” ideal was just that, an ideal more challenging to live than I understood. Maybe my lack of caring came from a place of judgement for those that do care, and the narcissism I perceive when scrolling through a social feed of an electronic friend who is celebrating their birthday for the fifth time that week, hashtags a gogo. Well, the cure for that is to spend less time on social feeds, which will never not invite and enshrine narcissism, my own included.
Or maybe my high-minded “birthdays are for kids” ideal was designed for self protection. What if the anniversary of the day of my birth had become so imbued with impossible standards for others and heightened emotional content it felt easier to push it away and restore myself to sanity? How could an adult birthday ever top the experience of being an only child in a neighborhood full of kids, always corresponding with Blue Angels’ flight practice and sunny summer weather? Imagine being feted in your front yard, doors opening up and down the block, and people streaming outside to greet you under the warm summer sun, jets roaring overhead, chocolate cake with your name on it for all. Yeah, meeting folks at a bar for some bday drinks just doesn’t have the same majesty. So every year starting with the teens, each one was more of a crushing disappointment until you shook yourself, admonishing yourself to get a goddamn grip and give it up, be an adult.
And for certain, any friendly gesture of recognition made should be accepted with sincere thanks, regardless of the gesture’s precision. My perfection was killing me, extinguishing the good, like a bucket of water thrown on a cake to blow out the candles, when a breath would have sufficed. If the point of not caring was to guard against irrationality, what could be less reasonable than complaining that a kind gesture wasn’t exactly, 100% correct? Not. Who. I. Want. To. Be. What a thankless gig, remembering the preferences of thiry-odd people in an office, taking time out of your personal life to shop for treats, every month, all year, your role to recall and make special. And there I was, at my desk adjacent to a wall on which was printed our organization’s mission statement, stewing that my colleagues had not assigned my gelato preferences a similar urgency or status. Not. Who. I. Want. To. Be. Not who I think I am! And yet, exactly how I acted.
The best gift I received that birthday was the ironic admonition that I was not the vanilla gelato at the back of the freezer. Oh, but I was, attitudinally, crammed all the way in the back, covered in ice crystals, freezer burnt and destined for the trash. It was an opportunity to compare my behaviors to my beliefs and see just how disintegrated I was becoming without noticing. And there was a friend who was willing to call me on my bad behavior and feed me chocolate, and if that’s not birthday perfection, I don’t know what is.