Last week at camp, I met a family with whom, it turned out, I had a coincidental connection.
I met them for the first time at "S'mores and Singalong Night," and was privately amused at the dad's protest after a counselor broke the sad news that not only were we not going to sing "Tom Dooley," but that "Tom Dooley" had, in fact, been excised from the camp song book due to inappropriate lyrics. A day or two later, while making small talk with him in the breakfast line over the heads of our seven-through-nine-year-olds, we discovered that we had something in common.
The connection was this: Both the mother and the father had done their graduate work in the same engineering department at the same university from which I got my doctoral degree. They had finished less than a year before I arrived to begin my Ph.D., but they had returned a few years later so that he could join the faculty of another department in the same college. She had taken a job at a local company, undoubtedly with other people I know from those graduate school days. I had never met him after he became a professor, but of course we knew many of the same people; he'd served on the thesis committee for at least one of my FB friends, and probably more.
Meeting someone with whom I have a professional connection is a rare these days, and that alone made the conversation notable.
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But the conversation was notable (to me) because of another event, which occurred just a few minutes in -- just as we got to the front of the serving line and were picking up our plates -- and which nearly passed by without my even noticing.
"You graduated only eight years ago?" he asked me. "And your advisor was S___? I can't believe I never ran into you!"
"Well, I wasn't in the building very much," I explained. "I had my first baby when I was a fourth-year, and after that my heart wasn't really in it anymore, so I went part-time. I decided to finish up as quickly as I could so I could focus on being a mom."
He nodded with interest. "Well, who was on your thesis committee? Did you ever know Dr. ____? How about my student M___ -- he finished around the time you did?"
And so forth and so on. I introduced him to Mark when we got back to the table with our plates. The professor turned out to be a friendly and interesting dinner companion. Although, unfortunately, I did not get a chance to talk to his wife, Mark and I had a lively conversation with him over a couple of meals in the dining hall about various engineering-college-related topics, like grade inflation and professor rating. Mark serves on a departmental industrial advisory board at a different university, so it's a topic of professional interest to him too. At the end of the week we exchanged contacts, and perhaps we will meet again.
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Here is why this was a milestone: Because my explanation came right out of my mouth, concisely and truthfully, without any sort of hesitation or trepidation or drama.
You know, I'm truly happy doing what I do. I am also grateful for the education and training I had, which are part of who I am and which formed the perspective I bring to my work -- past, present, and future. I have little difficulty expressing that satisfaction within my circles -- to those who know something about living a home-based vocation; or to people who know me well enough to know the way I attack things, which is the way I have always attacked them, albeit with (I hope) a little more maturity and wisdom every year.
Still, I sometimes stumble over the "so what do you do?" when it comes from strangers, or the "so what do you do now?" when it comes from someone I knew once (back when I coulda been a contender instead of a bum).
It isn't that I dread the possible responses -- and don't we all know the kinds of responses I'm talking about? (The ones that amount to It must be so nice for you to be a bum.) I mean, I can take it. But knowing me, I am quite likely to say something unhelpful. And by "something unhelpful," I should add, I do not mean "devastatingly witty."
So I sometimes overthink what I am going to say when people ask me what I do.
But this time, it came out as if it were natural and normal and true to say who I am, what I do, and why. And -- perhaps not coincidentally -- the conversation continued as if what I said was a natural and normal thing to hear.
Which should not, of course, be pleasantly surprising, because it should not be surprising at all. Nevertheless, I mark it.