After I finally finished school for the first time, most new encounters eventually got around to: “What do you do?” Come to think of it, when I went back to school 20 years ago, I was old enough that people still asked that, so I guess it has more to do with being “working age” than with whether or not we’re still in school.
Anyway, I understood the question as asking, “What do you do for money?”
Which I ultimately took to mean, “Who are you?”
Soldier, sailor, tailor, dancer, singer, teacher, teller, janitor, chauffeur, doctor, welder, farmer, lawyer …?
Are those some of who we are? Are those roles that define us?
Nurse, accountant, model, machinist, model-machinist, CEO, COO, dentist, explorer, astronaut, consultant (beware consultants!)?
Oh, and blogger. Gotta have bloggers!
Are those who we are?
Do we still have explorers, now that our technology has mapped the lands and seas so thoroughly? Explorer always sounded adventurous, if also kind of … unspecific.
Astronaut remains a personal favorite, but it’s actually an awful lot of hard work. I just want to go into space for awhile, without all the rigorous study, training and discipline. No need to pay me. Shoot, I’ll pay you for the privilege. Would that disqualify me from earning the label astronaut? Doing it for free, or for less than free?
I’ve often wondered at the implications of the “What do you do?” question. Maybe I’m just feeling insecure about who I am, but if our occupations define us, does unemployment mean we’re no one? If so, I ceased to exist for a few months in the late 90s, when I was, you know, “transitioning.”
What of Barack Obama? He was President. That’s defining. But he’s not that anymore. Is he unemployed? I’m not sure what he does now, but isn’t just being Barack Obama enough, however, wherever, whenever he does whatever defines him now?
Is there a question more noble than, “May I be of service?” So, maybe servant is the highest aspiration? Although, public servant didn’t feel particularly noble when I was one. Now that I’m not one, I’m actually of a lot more service to the public than when I was paid to be one.
I was a student for about 20 years, off and on, then worked another 20 as a lawyer, then yet another 20 as a writer/editor, then the last six years doing whatever this is more than anything else. If those years don’t add up, credit overlap, but what one-word or hyphenated term describes what I do/am now? No, it’s not pedaling astronomer. That would be silly.
I was giving an astronomy presentation at an elementary school, when a skeptical young student asked, “Are you a real scientist?” Maybe it was the bike shorts. Anyway, I pinched myself and answered, “I feel real enough.” It was obvious he knew something was wrong with that response, but not exactly what. He was a bright kid; I’m sure he soon figured my dodge out. Did he awaken at 3:00am, thinking, “That rat bastard!”? That’s how and when I usually catch up to the things that evaded me during the day.
And yes, I have answered to that, too, but mostly when I was a rat-bastard public servant.
I sometimes think of myself as a scientist, particularly when I’m feeling especially clueless around women. Well, actually, it was a specific woman, and she called me “silly scientist.” I like that label, although I don’t think she meant it as a compliment.
Given the mundane realities of bike travel, I camp outdoors far more nights than not and spend many more hours outside than in, but I don’t think of myself as an outdoorsman. They hunt and fish, right?
When traveling by bike, I camp two nights of three, on average, which is quite a lot of camping, but am I still a camper the one night in three I don’t camp? If not, camper status is awfully fragile.
I continue to study photography and have taken hundreds of thousands of photographs in the last two decades. I’ve even been paid for photos, but I don’t think of myself as a photographer, even when I’m aiming a camera. Maybe who we are is a matter of skill level or certification?
I’m paid to write, but I also write when I’m not paid. Basically, if I’m not engaged in some physical activity, I’m either reading or writing. Come to think of it, I’ve also been paid to read. Well, to proofread.
I travel far by bicycle carrying everything I need to sustain my journey. Bicycle tourists do that, but I don’t think of myself as a tourist, or even a bicyclist, and I’m not paid to do either, although sometimes I’m paid while doing both.
I’ve been paid to write about astronomy, and I’ve been paid to talk about astronomy, but I have not been paid to do astronomy, despite that I’ve actually done a lot of astronomy. Am I an astronomer?
My point was obvious paragraphs ago: No one-word or hyphenated label can convey the complex, ever-growing essences of any of us. Our modern consumer society fixates on what we do for money, and that cheapens what’s really significant about our lives.
If I had to pick one label to describe most accurately who I am, I prefer son, brother, partner, father, friend, or companion – something along those lines – but which one of those would be a difficult choice.
On further reflection, I’d go with Father. Yeah, father.
Oh, I forgot grandfather. That’s a big one, too.
I’ve a friend who always introduces me with, “This is my friend Gary.” That’s a badge I’m proud to wear, given that she awarded it. Yes, that’s a big part of who I am; I am a friend to Evalyn. Oh course, I’m quite fond of her husband Tommy, too.
I’ve been “Daddy-O” for a few decades now, and I know no greater honorific, nor do I aspire to more. Daddy-O even trumps Father, but only when used by daughters.
If we meet – and I hope we do – I’d rather show you who I am by deed, than tell you with some self-applied label.
And I aspire to be he who would delight in your company, if only for a moment. And if you’ve longer, I will be he who would love to hear your story. I’m not sure what one word that makes me, but Friend will do.
And while you’re sharing your story, have you ever actually seen the Sun? Would you like to view it through an exquisite little telescope? I always have one at hand.
May I be of that service?
(Photo: The handsome guy on the right is Tom. I know him as a bicycling husband/father/friend/writer/artist who lives, works and plays in Connecticut, known widely in his hometown as a tireless volunteer for all worthy causes, including facilitating bicycle infrastructure there – a soul too magnificent for mundane who-are-you? badges. I’m the other guy. In fairness, I’d just had a tooth pulled, according to my journal, so…)