What do you do?
This is a very common question during our interactions with people. It is most often asked by those we do not yet know, or only casually. Perhaps it is the once in a while haircut. During the customary small talk, this question and one other are always asked in one form or another: what are you doing the rest of the day, and what do you do.
The first question is straightforward and simple to answer, without much effort or thought. What was I planning to do afterwards? Maybe spend a few hours at a cafe sipping a latte and reading the latest collection of poems form Robert Bly; maybe a long walk with the dog; perhaps nothing more than deli chicken from the grocery store and another Scrubs episode. The second question, however, is gut wrenching and may result in sweaty palms, moisture above the lip, and stuttering.
“What do you do?”
Do you mean in response to some other question or is this related to the first? Did something just happen requiring my attention or a response? Oh, you mean for my job, my career, perhaps the paycheck that I get every two weeks?
“Well, um, I …”
There is tremendous significance in your answer to this question, not only in what you say, but how it is said, and how long the pause becomes. How much time do you need to think about the activities, the career, that consumes most of the workweek and a good chunk of your life?
I usually answer this question the same way, with the same cagey, generic response that I don’t necessarily have a good grasp of what it entails – I manage computers for a call center.
What does that mean? Do I keep them in line? What would happen if they were not managed? Perhaps they would enter into a life of crime, wandering aimlessly, looking for answers to their own grand questions. Maybe they phone home.
After saying the words out loud, I have the same thoughts and take the same vow to make up a story next time. But what? Do I go for something mysterious or suspenseful – my name is 008. I go through the same motions trying to come up with something clever and meaningful, only to repeat the same words verbatim when the question is asked at the next haircut, sometimes by the same person.
“What do you do?”
At some point over the years, from experience, learning, and studying, I have come to the conclusion that I could say “I’m a writer”. Whoa, that would be a breakthrough from this status quo. Nothing in particular, just a writer. It leaves open the possibility of more questions and conversation while the #3 razor is nearly shaving my greying head. With anticipation I ponder any follow-up questions they may throw at me, and I prepare brilliant responses, stemming from illusions of grandeur and the pending Pulitzer Prize waiting in the mailbox.
“What do you write?”
Perfect. The perfect setup is playing into my hands. What do I write: I could say poetry, but that is fairly generic, and could end the conversation, or change directions. I could say I write essays, but they are few and far between, and usually about the writing process itself, which becomes circular and does very little to answer the question. I could become philosophical and leave form out of the answer and respond that I write whatever I am moved by, or I channel the words given to me from elsewhere. At this point, they may think I am a crackpot, and I may have to find another place for a haircut.
What do I write? I decide, if the question ever does come up, to answer with this: I write nature poems, but with no rhyming. There, it gets to a specific point with a subject that just about everyone can relate to, and leaves a little humor in the mix. People beyond a certain age were required to read and write poetry in middle school or high school. This was my in.
Time for the next haircut, and I have my answers all set. I’m going to let them have it with writing as my career, my life. Sitting in the chair, it starts out quiet. Make sure the neck-wrap is not too tight. That’s ok though, I have time to refine my answers, and plan the perfect cadence and flow: not too fast, and not too slow, and with confidence. Yes, the answers must have confidence and that this is truly who I am.
“What do you think of all this snow?”
Well, I was not anticipating that one. Snow? Who cares about snow? It is April and it is snowing, yes, I get that. I answer, with no sympathy whatsoever,
“I love snow. I hope we get a ton. Great for snowshoeing.”
Apparently she is from Arizona and hates the snow. All snow. All snow from the past, the future, and definitely the present. And with that grand finale on my part, no more questions were asked, and the rest of the haircut finished more quickly than normal.
I guess the questions in my mind were meant for me, and me only.