What Do You Do?

As happens in so many situations, I don’t consider my work life to be unusual until it’s thrown into relief against the way normies do it…

I just looked over this year’s tax forms and, as usual, felt some free-floating trepidation upon encountering the “Occupation” field. I know it’s not a crime to have more than one job or to change occupations year to year, but I can’t help but feel like it’s a repetitive anomaly that somehow, someday, could get me flagged for a financial body-cavity search.

In general, I answer with the job that made/cost me the most money that year, or the one on which I spent the majority of my resources (a.k.a. expenses to be written off). Most years I’m a choreographer. Sometimes I’m an editor. For a couple of years I was a producer. Now I might be an organizer… OK, you know what? FINE. You caught me, IRS! I’m a heroin mule! I’ve always been a heroin mule. Now go ahead and audit my “transport facilities!”

I imagine that many grown Americans don’t have to think twice when they’re asked, “What do you do?” — especially because when Americans ask that question, they’re really asking, “Who are you and how can I categorize you?” Even not having a job is at least a definitive, digestible answer (as much as it can suck to have to say it out loud).

When I’m asked that question, I have to run through a mental obstacle course of variables before I answer — where am I, who’s asking, in what kind of tone, in what possible context, for polite conversation or for a professional reason, is there a potential for some freelance work depending on the answer, etc. … And even then I can’t always anticipate the reaction.

Once many years ago, I told a childhood friend of my brother’s that I was a dancer, and was momentarily confused by his reddening face and the look of shock he directed at my brother — until I realized that he thought Little Ellen had grown up to be a stripper, and was blithely proclaiming it within earshot of her big brother! (Explaining “modern dancer… clothes on… artistic endeavor… yes, for a living…” was harder than just letting him think I was a stripper.)

It’s a common issue for artists in this country, who almost always work multiple jobs to subsidize their art. But in the current financial climate and the very different way that lots of Americans are trying to earn a living now, I wonder if more and more people regard the innocuous “What do you do?” as a difficult question.

When asked, what do you say?


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