I am not a birthday-party person. Inviting people over for a big gathering in honor of me feels embarrassing. And yet, I have noticed that people who are birthday-party people seem to know how to celebrate—not just others—but themselves. Two years ago, I decided I would try to learn from them. I thought, "What would make me happy on my birthday?" It was 8 a.m in the morning. I did not have the money to go to Paris. I did not have the energy to book a table at a happening restaurant where my kids would order french fries then knock over their ginger ales. I wanted to eat at home. But I did not want to cook, which is a skill that, sadly, my husband doesn’t possess. So: Sushi! You’re supposed to have a cake on your birthday, but I don’t like cake. So: Gummy bears! You’re also supposed to have streamers and balloons. But streamers and balloons feel like stuffing myself into frilly party dresses with patent shoes—at age 40. So: Lilacs!
Then I called my husband, who was able to purchase all this and arrive home by 7 p.m. and lay it out on the table. The party took 30 minutes. We ate. We sang a song. We blew out a candle on the gummy bears. And I felt great, not just because I got what I wanted, but because I had an equation that would make me feel festive about this one loaded, inevitable day of the year—and I could simply repeat it the next year. It was not a complex equation. Nobody at Princeton was going to invite me on staff or invite me out to a desert to experiment with molecules. It was the simple math of how to make myself happy. And it occurred to me that there are times when all of us need to have these kind of no-fail formulas, specific to our needs, fears and understanding of ourselves. So I came up with a few for those situations that crop up and challenge us, again and again.