The other day I went to dinner with someone who has been a friend for more than twenty years and at some point toward the end of the conversation it became clear that this person has no idea what I do for a living. Or even that I . . . work.
This wouldn’t be surprising in a recent acquaintance; I resist the NYC social imperative to self-promote. Countless dinner parties have involved me waving away questions, refusing to discuss, changing the subject, twisting in all manner of creative ways to avoid recognition of my achievements in any field. I don’t talk about work. Not the writing, and certainly not running companies. Not with people who do understand, not with people who are curious, not any of it, not with anyone.
I know this is unusual, and, well, I don’t care.
But to have a friend who has known me for so long have literally no clue about my occupation is extraordinary. How did this friend imagine I fed and educated myself, clothed and entertained my children, paid for health insurance, bought my house, moved around the world?
I’ve been paying my own way since age sixteen. I had no support from my parents, no public aid, no partner when I became a teen parent. I worked three jobs in college and graduate school, scrabbling for scholarships to make sure I finished without debts. Once I acquired a partner I worked while he went to grad school and launched a career as an academic. Yes, we share responsibility for family finances, but the emphasis is on the word share. I’ve worked through life-threatening illness, during school field trips, on family excursions to theme parks, through half a dozen funerals. I sat under a reception table and worked during the wedding of dear friends. I worked in the recovery room after my most recent cancer surgery. I sat on hiring committees, ran board meetings, and took my kid to a sci-fi festival in another country while my surgically reconstructed forehead was held together with stitches and tape. Oh yeah, and I never take any drug stronger than coffee.
I work all the time, ceaselessly, and I truly cannot imagine not working. This is my nature, and also my training: it doesn’t matter how much I earn or own. I was born working class and that means I work.
Do I sound a little defensive? I’m certainly sensitive about the subject. But I wasn’t offended, only mystified. And that is the virtue of friendship.