22 December 2008

I'm a lover, not a fighter

Went to a Solstice party last night to celebrate the shortest day of the year and learned a few things in the process. A very civilised affair, this semi-regular occurrence is hosted by a friend that the Very Understanding Girlfriend has known since school and errs on the side of grown-up cocktail party with finger food, mingling and the making of small-talk, and it was this conversation manufacturing that led to both of the night's observations.

Firstly, even in your mid-thirties when you are at an event with friends' parents you will always be a child. There was a distinct segregation of the party goers into the over and the under 55s. I would have thought that with my spirit crushed by years of working for multinationals, a mortgage that hangs around my neck like a great Rai stone from Yap (look it up, its a very apt metaphor) and a disturbing tendency to lean out the window at night and yell at the kids drinking in the street to "keep it down, there are people trying to sleep, and get a haircut you damn hippies", that I would have much to talk about with the old folks, but alas they could not see past my youthful smattering of grey and ability to control my own bladder, and I was thus relegated to the children's table (metaphorically speaking of course, for everyone was actually standing).

Secondly, and of even greater interest, was the realisation of just how difficult it is to introduce yourself in the obligatory ice-breaking moments of cocktail-conversation, without making reference to your job. Think about that for a moment, how would describe yourself by way of introduction to a complete stranger without mentioning your employment/course/prison sentence? It's really quite difficult.

Since leaving my former employer and entering a period of retirement, I have realised just how much my former company defined my public perception of myself. When meeting someone for the first time I would make a snap decision as to whether I would say, "Hi, I'm Dave and I work at X", or if I would simply say 'I work in the internets".

The former would be used if I thought with some certainty that in the eyes of whoever I was being introduced to I would not suddenly become the repository for every idea and/or complaint that they had about my company, assigning me the role of company spokesperson and/or whipping boy and answerable for every infraction and perceived injustice visited upon them, their government, or the founder of their modern secular state. However given the scope of feelings my company generated in most folks (even in The Very Understanding Girlfriend's 94 year-old grandmother), I usually went with the latter, and if pressed would add something only slightly less generic ("I put ads in the tubes, like on the sides of buses").

But whether anonymously or with some pride I would still invariably define myself by the job that I did. Admittedly this did have something to do with the sixty-hour weeks that I spent the last four years working, which didn't leave much room for any other activity or past-time with which I could label myself ("Hi, I'm Dave and I like breathing and sleeping"), but surprisingly in the last six months I still haven't come-up with anything better.

I had a conversation on this very subject last night with someone who has recently published a book. The book is of a very specialised academic content, so is unlikely to have mass market appeal, and thus by day he works as a librarian. He introduced himself as a librarian, rather than an author, and when asked why he said that a) he is not making a living from writing, and b) he is not currently writing, the book is something he has done in the past. He did not feel comfortable describing himself as an author without a number of publications, both past and ongoing, and yet felt unhappy with the description of librarian because although he enjoys his work, it is only a small part of what he spends his time doing. 'Writer' is aspirational, 'Librarian' is a reduction.

I have a home studio and spend a fair amount of my time recording music, but as I haven't produced an album (yet) or played a live gig I don't consider myself to be a musician. Although I have DJ'ed fairly regularly over the last 5 years, because I don't make a living from it (nor do I want to) I don't call myself a DJ. I blog on an almost daily basis, but would have to invest in industrial quantities of disinfectant if I were ever to call myself a blogger, so great would the stain on my soul be (Biz Stone has soured the term for the rest of humanity). So it looks like I'm back to being a 'Breather' and a 'Sleeper', both of which I highly recommend to others as activities.

Of course the real problem here is not with my inability to adequately label myself to any degree of satisfaction, it is with the concept of small talk itself, an action that seeks to reduce the majesty of an individual human existence into a bite-sized piece of information as bland and inoffensive as the crudities you nibble while pretending to listen to the proffered introduction.

Just as it is customary to arrive at a party with some form of material gift (wine, chocolates, flowers, giant wooden horse etc), I believe that one should also make an effort to arrive with a few salutatory bons mots, not esoteric enough that they bemuse and alienate, but exotic enough to reduce the chance that someone else has referenced them already thus taking the wind out of your introductory sails and leaving you to fall back on the less conversationally salubrious "Hi, I'm Dave, and I work in the internets"

If the most interesting thing you can do in an icebreaking situation is offer up your profession as a conversation starter, you need to subscribe to better RSS feeds.


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