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Baby’s first birthday in corporate hell
No matter where you are in my city, you can always see the downtown skyline. Every chance I had, I’d steal a glance of it to coat myself in its glory. The buildings felt like antennas from which consequential people fired off electric ideas that moved the world. I really, really wanted to be in those buildings. Doing what? It almost didn’t matter, as long as I could feel the excitement of moving the world from its center.
It was frustrating, my inability to break into this center. I had a fine, ho-hum dead-end job in my residential neighborhood. After work, my neighborhood friends would have barbecues to celebrate someone’s birthday, or a holiday, or whatever else—and there was always something— you could decree barbecue for.
I became impatient at these barbecues, thinking of time passing by in idle chit chat in someone’s shabby yard while those glistening buildings buzzed into the night with people doing actual things. When MY birthday came around, I made it a point to decline any invites, barbecue or otherwise, to spend it working on personal hustles. No birthdays off, not if I wanted to get into that skyline.
I eventually burned myself out with nothing show for it, not even a clearer sense of what I wanted to do in these buildings. I spent the next year using affordable group therapy and fitness programs (shout out to my city’s well-funded public systems) to recover.
During this time, I developed some appreciation for rest, recreation, conversation, and community. How an hour talking about seemingly nothing can generate the most moving, profound glimpses into my own soul. Indisputably, these “idle” pursuits helped me more “productively” create ideas than my previous neurotic regiment.
And then, without me trying, it happened: a friend who had worked in advertising—who I reconnected with at one of those loathed barbecues and bothered to ask for help after coming to peace with the idea in group therapy—arranged for me to have coffee with one of his former colleagues. This guy liked me for whatever reason, became my boss, and within weeks I was in one of these buildings, part of the skyline, riding the elevator to the top.
While my first days were full of excitement and novelty, I quickly started to see some cracks.
The relentless pace of the place—how people ran around all day—was a bit disconcerting. But it wasn’t surprising. In fact, I had craved the activity! the action! all these years. So even though this seemed to betray my newly discovered values of reflection and leisure, I still embraced it. Stress and tunnel vision would be a small price for the electric feeling of forging friendships with brilliant people through the production of stimulating, important ideas.
But instead, after a few months I could only feel lifelessness behind all this activity. Conversations were always strained, if they even happened. No one seemed to want be caught going too deep into anything. Instead of collaborative evenings, after people left (and most did as fast as they could) I was left with an empty building interior which, without the bustle to distract you from looking closely, revealed itself to be cheap, plastic, and modular.
All in theme with the cut-and-paste hollow ideas we produced, corpses of the culture we imagined “real” people outside of the skyline enjoyed.
It hit me fully on my birthday. Tired and isolated (but without earned PTO), I decided treat myself to a slow, leisurely office day where I’d put off anything that wasn’t urgent until tomorrow.
Except that, on that day, just like every day, things were especially urgent. I don’t remember what I was working on—in the grand scheme of life, it was clearly not important. But it dominated the day, and soon it became clear that it would demand me staying that night.
On his way out, my boss stopped by and said “I almost forgot to tell you—happy birthday!” I’ve always been bad at hiding my emotions, which is why he followed with “are you ok?” I barked out a yes, fine, gotta run to a meeting and, just before my eyes welled up, ran off to wander aimlessly until I found a seat by a window.
That was the first time I stole a glance of the residential neighborhoods—something which I’d go on to do countless times over the ensuing years. The green yards and shabby houses suddenly felt comfortable and inviting, barbecue chatter suddenly alive as I felt myself becoming dumber and number with every office buzzword exchange.
Up in the downtown skyline, I longed for the fringes below.