Sunday, August 21, 2011


"So, what do you do?"
"I play the accordian
 and collect Pez dispensers."
So, what do you do? It appears to be such a simple question, a harmless inquiry motivated by mere curiosity. It’s a standard in the getting-to-know-you repertoire, popular at parties and other social gatherings. It’s often the only thing I can think to ask someone who I don’t know very well, even though I kind of loathe the way it sounds. And, of course, it’s often the  question we dread having to answer. Oh if only I had gone to medical school so that I would have a better response to this question, one that would make me seem intelligent and interesting and concerned about the well-being of my fellow human beings.

Oddly, while attending my high school reunion recently, it was not necessarily a question I expected to be asked and I discovered, much to my horror, it was not a question for which I had a well-thought-out and carefully-rehearsed answer. On more than one occasion, I listened as the words “Uh… I’m just a mom” issued from my mouth, all the while screaming inside my head, “No! No, no, no, don’t say that or at least don’t say it like that, choose a different word, a different intonation, oh for the love of god, at least smile when you say it instead of making that pained, slightly confused expression.” Ugh… Too late. Damnit.

Of course, there were many people I encountered who are my friends on Facebook and absolutely, under no circumstances, do they need to ask me what I do. They know. They are excruciatingly aware of the minutiae of my life as a result of my frequent and somewhat random status updates. Upon seeing them I was ready to fling my arms open and say how good it was to see them and what on earth have they been up to for the last 25 years. But as they inquired about the lives of other fellow alums, their eyes would alight on me and with a wave of their hand it was clear they were thinking “Oh, there’s Christen. We know all about her.” And that’s okay. I have this experience with my neighbors all the time. I run into them while walking the dog and my initial excitement about catching up with them turns to dismay as I realize I have already updated them relentlessly about the latest developments in my life, including, but not limited to, clever, funny things my daughter recently said and the latest ailment of my feet, knees, or gluteus region. Oh yes, my life is rich.

But one friend I saw in Denver was kind and genuine enough to clarify that she did not intend the question “What do you do?” as an inquiry into how I pay my bills. She literally meant, what do I do? As in, how do I spend my time, how do I occupy myself? Which, you have to admit, is really a good question. If you want to know what your old high school pals’ lives are really like, you have to know what do they do with themselves, in general (not necessarily on a minute-to-minute basis). Well, I am a mom and I am not currently engaged in paid employment. I volunteer at my daughter’s school, sometimes several days a week. I walk the dog every day, Monday through Friday. At the risk of sounding shallow and boring, I work out a lot, but primarily because it is beneficial to my mental health. I write. I work in my yard. I stare at the computer too much, but not as much as I used to. I drive my daughter to weekly violin and piano lessons. I manage her time. I keep track of all kinds of things. And I do other stuff, on a varied and/or regular basis. Do I have an abundance of free time? No. Am I constantly pressed for time? No. My life, I would argue, is not easy, but neither is it fraught with difficulty and stress. There are many other women who work a lot more hours than me. There are probably also those who work less (I don't have a cleaning service). But there is no value in comparisons, so I try to avoid that sort of activity.

Just think, 200 years ago, it was rare that adults to had a 9 to 5 job where they left home early in the morning and reported to an “office” and received a regular paycheck. Men were farmers or practiced a trade and women took care of families and no one judged their own self worth (or hopefully that of others) based on what they did to earn a living and care for themselves. So how is that a useful exercise now? What you do is just what you do. It should be neutral, not good or bad. Well, unless you are a serial killer or some manner of evil criminal. Then, you know, that’s bad; shame on you. But you see my point, which is just that the potential answers to the question “what do you do?” can be fairly meaningless.

On the other hand, you don’t necessarily want to go around asking your old high school chums a more specific question like “so, who are you anyway? I mean, who are you really? What do you like, what do you think about, what do you do with your time?” This could really freak a person out, even more so than the basic “what do you do?” question. When my dad and step-mother first met my future husband, my step-mom actually did ask him “So, what kind of person are you?” To which my then-boyfriend responded with an utterly blank expression and mouth agape, an obvious sign that what he was really thinking was “What the hell is wrong with you? Why are you asking me a question like that?” I mean, my step-mom is a good person, don’t get me wrong, she asked this question with the sincerest of intentions, but seriously, that is one difficult fucking question to answer on the spot. Especially without being totally sarcastic and snotty.

So what do you do? Here are a few things I don’t do: I don’t take naps. I don’t eat bon-bons. I don’t have 3 martini lunches, or really ever drink martinis at any meal, on any occasion. I am not part of a coffee klatch. I don’t go on shopping sprees. I don’t wash the windows. I don’t cook dinner every night. I don’t watch soap operas. And I don’t mop the kitchen floor in heels with curlers in my hair (I do occasionally clean the kitchen floor in a variety of ways such as sweeping, vacuuming, mopping, or even scrubbing on hands and knees but I absolutely do not put curlers in my hair). And here are a few things I wish I did: I wish I had become an auto mechanic. How sweet would that be to be able to fix your own car? I wish I had considered a career as a speech pathologist or physical therapist. I used to think being a plumber would also be a practical, money-making career but really, you have no idea what the hell kind of spooge is hanging out in the depths of those pipes… So, you know, ixnay on umbingplay.

What do you do? Whatever it is, I hope it is fulfilling and brings you at least a tiny bit of peace and/or happiness. And if you feel so inclined, let me know what you do. Maybe I want to do that, too.

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