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Friday, December 09, 2005


Rajneesh leaned in and took a pinch of my shirt between his index finger and thumb.

"What material is this? Is it silk?"

He was very interested, almost entranced by the texture as he rubbed the swatch between his digits, as if some mysterious power lay between the threads. He could harness that power if only he could determine what the garment was made of.

"I don't know," I tried to reply politely, but I'm pretty sure my wariness leaked out at least a bit.

The day before, a manila folder containing three birthday cards, each positioned under the flap of its corresponding envelope was distributed throughout the department, so that each employee who wasn't born during the last half of November or the first half of December could add a personal well-wish and signature. I've always been really bad at those. Something about knowing that all your co-workers will see whatever you write is stifling. It’s a lot of pressure to be witty in a very small space. I usually cave and just write, "Happy Birthday, [insert birth-person's name here] ! - Tom" That's what I did the day before and then passed on the envelope.

Today we all received this email:

Quite ominous if taken out of context. Fortunately—and by fortunately, I mean unfortunately—I knew the true purpose of the invitation.

When I see a depiction of the office birthday party (OBP) on sitcoms, I'm always struck by the inaccuracy. On television, the OBP includes:
  • the employees who are a little too excited
  • the employees who feel the need to make speeches
  • hats
  • gifts
  • singing
  • applause
I've been at my current job almost six years and it's been my experience that the real OBP is much more mundane than the TV version. I've been to many parties in my life, from teenage candlepin bowling fetes to debaucherous keg-based affairs at college. To include those events in the same genus as the OBP is unreasonable. In fact, nothing that transpired in the boardroom between 2:30 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. in the most general of terms could be fairly considered a "celebration." A "recognition?" Eh, that still exaggerates the level of participant effort and interest. I'll settle for "acknowledgment" as the most defensible description.

The office manager left in the morning to get three pies from Marie Callender's – one razzleberry and two banana creme. Usually the only memorable part about the OBP is the food, whether for its goodness, its badness, or its averageness. We all remembered the razzleberry being really good the last time although none of us could remember for whose birthday it had been served.

I quickly sampled both pies, scraping the last globs of whipped cream and pastry crumbs off the yellow plastic plate with my spork. I wadded up my napkin before tossing the whole lot into the small office wastebasket which would soon be overflowing with identical sets of refuse. A soon-to-be former manager was holding court on the other side of the room, endowing his soon-to-be former legions with a lesson in the history of New York City's boroughs. I stood with my hands behind my back, quietly determined to ride out the festivities.

That's when Rajneesh started in.

"It looks like silk."

The day before I had gone to a department store on my lunch break and bought a black dress shirt. I find something really appealing about the way brand new, never-been-worn, straight-from-the-manufacturer dress shirts look. They come folded like some kind of origami piece held together by countless pins that hide within the fabric, revealing their secret locations only with teeny tiny silver pinheads that peek out mid-sleeve or inside the cuff. The collar is held in place with a structure of cardboard, plastic and more pins. And the material never again looks as good as it does the day the shirt is purchased. This particular black shirt had a sheen to it that reflected light off the deep black of the fabric. Cool, I thought, and brought it up to the counter.

"No, it's not silk. I don't know what it is, but I'm sure it's not silk," I told Rajneesh. I think I bought one silk shirt in my life and found it to be a pain in the ass although now I can't recall why.

"I think it's silk." Ranjneesh was now annoyed and taking a stand. His tone was reaching a level with which I wasn't comfortable, so I just smiled while basically ignoring his last remark. I just wanted this OBP to end.

"What is it?" Rajneesh's voice was now a full octave above where it was when the conversation started.

"I don't know, man. It's just a shirt." Now I was trying to fight back with some annoyed vibes of my own.

"You don't know? What do you mean you don't know?" The interaction was definitely escalating. Was he actually being confrontational about my inability to identify my garment's material? Was he insulted by it? Indignant? Maybe it was cultural. Maybe where he's from, a man's choice of textiles indicates something important about his character like a particular belief system or something else so foreign to me that I can't even imagine it. Or maybe he had too much pie and was hosting some chemical conflagration in his brain. His eyelids started to almost pulsate up and down, exposing more of his eyeballs as he continued to look the shirt up and down. I leaned back and away just a bit, fearing that his next move would be to reach behind me and grab the collar so he could read the label. The pressure got to me and I offered an opinion I hoped would satisfy, dousing his rising ire and ending this conversation.

"I think it's cotton," I said.

Big mistake.

"Oh, no, no! No, no, no, no, N-N-NO! That's not cotton! That is NOT COTTON! How can you say that's cotton? Cotton is totally different. Totally different! No, it's not cotton. Certainly not. No, it's silk. I'm positive it's silk. Yes, silk. Definitely."

He was flummoxed and not happy about it one bit. I was freaked out and now my eyelids were pulsating. Speechless, I just stood there and waited which turned out to be the right approach. I waited and waited for Rajneesh's agitation to dissipate, to run its course and deflate like a balloon with a slow leak. I stood there quietly and looked straight ahead as blankly as I could. Soon, Rajneesh's gaze dropped to the floor as he mumbled, "Yes, I'm sure it's silk. Yes. Definitely."

Eventually, I sensed something and took the opportunity to insert myself into another nearby conversation which lasted about four minutes before concluding with, "That's why it's called the Bronx," indicating quite clearly that this OBP was over.



At 12/10/2005 4:45 AM, Jackie Davies said...

You better tell us what the shirt was made out of.

At 12/10/2005 7:14 AM, Tom in L.A. said...

Turns out it was cotton.

At 12/14/2005 3:21 PM, Kim Leigh said...

Will you spare Rajneesh the truth about your shirt?

Also, I had never heard of Razzleberry pie. I assumed it was a jazzy name used to evoke the flavor/color of raspberries, but in fact void of real raspberries. What's wrong with "Mixed berry"?Are these the same people who market cod as "Krab" Do you know anyone who thinks cod tastes like real crabmeat?

At 12/14/2005 3:46 PM, Tom in L.A. said...

No way. I'm not starting any new conversations with Rajneesh.

I also stay away from food products that use substitute letters in their names and then stick a registered trademark at the end.


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