I am at a writer’s conference. I’m about to make a speech on a stage before a roomful of writers. Real writers.
These are the kinds of dedicated, rugged, field-journalism professionals who if they were stranded on a deserted island with nothing to eat would be experienced enough to start diagramming sentences.
I don’t even know if I remember how to diagram a sentence. Certainly, I diagrammed in grade school, but mostly because of peer pressure. Those were wild times, everyone was sneaking off and diagramming in those days.
Truth be told, I have a hard enough time figuring out how many syllables are in words. On the first day of kindergarten our teacher taught us to clap out syllables.
“TA-BLE!” she’d say, clapping, “that has two syllables. PI-A-NO! That has three.”
This is a deceptively simple game. The teacher gave me the word “fire” to clap out before class. I dare you to try it. I’ve always understood “fire” to have two syllables. Just like “chair” and “floor” and “is.”
But anyway, I don’t feel confident enough to talk to these writers. Namely, because I don’t really know what I am. I don’t consider myself to BE anything other than consistently late.
I’ve never known what I am. In fact, this has been one of the main issues of my lifetime. You could call it sort of an existential unsolved math equation. What am I? I ask my wife this all the time. She usually smiles and says, “Take out the trash and we’ll talk about it later.”
There’s a lot of pressure on people today to figure out what they are. Have you ever noticed that people at parties always ask the same two questions when they shake your hand? They ask what your name is, and they ask what you “do.”
“Hi, my name’s Joe,” says Joe Mercedesbenz, chewing the olive from his Manhattan. “What do you do?”
This question. It’s difficult for a guy like me. Time and space sort of slow down. I grope around in the dim recesses of my mind searching for a definition of myself. What DO I do?
I’ve DONE a lot of jobs. Then again, Joe isn’t really asking what I do. If we diagram his sentence correctly we can see that he is actually asking what kind of car I drive.
This is what American men do to each other in social situations. And it’s stupid. Have you ever hung out with Europeans? I have. Europeans rarely ask each other what the other one “does for a living.”
At first, this is a little weird to my American brain, not knowing what the other guy does. But you can literally shoot the breeze with a bunch of Europeans and talk about nothing but famous soccer players, the best kinds of Turkish toilets, Nutella, or which person in the room can neglect using deodorant the longest.
When the party ends the Europeans shake hands, finish the contents of their 254th pint of beer, and walk away without ever knowing what the other one “does” for a living. And they’re perfectly fine with this.
Not Americans. We ask these questions up front. Even waiters ask what you do for a living before they take your order. And most customers will, in return, ASK THE WAITER WHAT HE DOES FOR A LIVING.
No waiter in the history of food service will ever admit that he’s a waiter. Once, we were in Santa Monica, California, and every waiter who ever visited our table would say, “I’m not really a waiter.”
“Nope, I’m an actor.”
“I’m starring in a new commercial for skin moisturizer,” he’d say, before giving you an autographed photograph. “Can I refill your tea?”
And it’s not just California, either. Many waiters here in Florida are the same way. Only they aren’t actors, they’re real estate developers.
Real estate developers couldn’t care less about refilling your tea.
What I’m trying to say is that even though I worked as a tile-layer for a long time, I don’t call myself a tile-layer. And even though I have hung a lot of sheet rock, I’m no drywall man. I worked in an ice cream parlor, but I’m sure as hailstones not a soda jerk.
I even worked part time at a church once as a music guy. I was ordained for thirty-six hours before being defrocked because I know all the words to every Conway Twitty song. But what am I? What do I do? I wish I knew.
Polite applause from the crowd. It’s time for me to figure out what I am because I am looking at a lot of people who want me to tell them that I’m a writer, or that I have my life figured out. But I don’t. I have nothing figured out.
The emcee introduces me to the roomful of authors. I am about to take the stage. I look out at the gracious audience of accomplished writers who are all smiling at me.
And I know what’s going to happen next. They’re all going to discover sooner or later that I am really a drywall man, an ice-cream scoop, and a guy who couldn’t clap out syllables if his life depended on it. What am I?
“You’re a human being,” my wife whispers before I go on stage. “So get out there and be a good one.”
One day, I’m going to learn how to diagram her sentence.