I tag along with my wife to her work functions, mingle with people whom I am trying desperately to assign names to faces. I get the question often enough. And it’s begun to rattle me like empty dinner glasses.
So, what do you do?
I infer that “what do you do” is really “how do you make money”. For a long while my answer was simple and I gave it without thinking: I work in television. But these days I don’t get a paycheck. In The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, a visiting parent to a university in Wisconsin observes that “it’s only Americans who insist on asking everyone what they do.” Perhaps because we are a country obsessed with wealth.
Maybe it sounds like I’m offended by the question? Resentful because I’m a man and I don’t make any money? I’m not. I see and know the value in being a stay-at-home father homeschooling three kids. And I love doing it. So this has become my polite response. After all, it adheres to the social mores of the casual conversation of the dinner party. And this way I can wrap it up and get on with enjoying my steak.
But my answer bothers me like a hangover.
In the Episode 3 of the Relief Podcast, D.L. Mayfield speaks about her hesitancy to call herself a writer. I don’t hesitate to call myself a writer. But I hesitate to say that writing is what I do.
The main character of The Art of Fielding is Henry Skrimshander. Without a doubt he is a baseball player with a work ethic not merely American, it’s near Herculean. I’m an athlete—or was until Howard proved me otherwise—and I can’t even fathom the lengths to which Skrimshander subjects his body. By the end it’s his singular determination to ‘doing what he does’ that becomes his undoing.
Maybe this is why I don’t want to say writing is something I do. I don’t do writing and then not do writing. It’s more than something I do. It’s who I am.
Recall Jesus with his disciples. The men and women who hung out with him. Followed him for years. Christ did a lot of things: healer, reformer, prophesier, miracle-worker, comedian, storyteller, etc. But it wasn’t a question of wondering what he did.
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks.
Imagine the eyes if I were to posit that question at a party: “Who do you say that you are?” I’d follow it up by finding another bottle of wine, or beer, and quoting Over The Rhine:
Come on lighten up Let me fill your cup I’m just trying to imagine a situation Where we might have a real conversation.
But I think it’s the better question. Because there’s a spark of being human we are snuffing out with innocuous questions about how we make money that waste, as Mary Oliver opines, “this one wild and precious life”.