Tuesday, May 26, 2009

What Do You Do?

Oh the dreaded dinner party conversation-- The topic that always come up, especially when men are doing the talking--  The "What Do You Do?" for a living conversation.

My husband and I regularly make the rounds on the "rubber chicken" circuit.  You know, the charity fund raising dinners and the business award banquets where you find yourself at a table full of strangers trying to make chit chat while some perky event chairperson on stage is asking people to take their seats, so the dreadfully long presentations can get started-- before the "rubber chicken" is served.  

In the year since I've retired, we've attended about a dozen such events and they all pretty much end up being the same thing.  That thing, in my case, is defeat.

For starters, the meals always costs at least $200 a plate-- All usually to a charitable cause, but still, $200 is $200!  And, the dinners often take way to long from start to finish, before you can then stand in the crowded valet parking line to get the heck out of there, before your feet-- in your "2 hour, 4-inch heels" self implode, because you've been wearing them for over 3 hours and your "comfortable shoes quota" has been met for the night.  

I've done so many of these dinners over the years, mostly at the same two or three hotel ballrooms, that I know what the entree will is based on which salad is served-- Caesar salad is followed by lemon chicken, unidentifiable vegetable puree and flourless chocolate cake.  Mix greens with edible flowers (What is that about anyway?) comes with chicken Marsala, whipped potatoes and a trio of sorbets and cookies.  And if you are lucky enough to get the greens with citrus wedges, you'll also get grilled chicken with the tiniest fillet of beef you've ever seen, along with creme brulee and fresh berries.  Trust me on this, I get around.

Once everyone is finally seated, guests start dodging the white-gloved waiters serving the salad dressing over our shoulders, while the idol chit chat starts up.  Seating is almost always alternating boy - girl, which means some full-of-himself man is usually sitting next to me-- Most often either a young, hip entertainment Agent or an older, very distinguished, stuffed shirt executive.  

When it's a business related dinner, these men have "worked the table" to sit next to someone equal to his intelligence and job stature.  I'm not kidding, you can see the jockeying-- Their wife/date is popping up and down in various seats around the table so the man can get the seat next to the table's "power player".  It's funny to watch, and since I don't really care who I sit with, I plop down in a seat that allows me to see the stage, in case by some lucky change, there is actually good entertainment at the soiree.  I save the seat next to me for my husband who's also off "working the room".  

And there I sit--  Fifty-something and retired, looking a bit like an over the hill trophy wife (which I am not-- a trophy wife, I mean.)   But, since I refuse to (Or is it, no longer have to?) play this game, I often feel like all the table jockeying is similar to being the last kid picked for the team in elementary school.

Anyway, since I don't engage in this kind of table hockey anymore, the man "stuck" next to me has dismissed me before the introductions have even begun, and is totally ignoring me and my overtures to chat.  If I can't get his attention to pass the dinner rolls, I know it's going to be a long night.

Eventually the man to my left, will reach his hand in front of me to introduce himself to my husband.  Since my husband has heard me complain about this ritual on more than one occasion, he immediately introduces me to the rude guy with his elbow in my face.  I don't mention that he's just dragged his tuxedo sleeve through my salad dressing.  He can figure that out on his own.

We all chat pretty much about nothing and then get back to our salads.  As plates are being cleared my seat mate starts up with the "What do you do?" questioning.  It took me a while to figure this one out.  In the beginning, I proudly proclaim that I recently retired.  But I started noticing the most annoying response--  The men's eyes would roll to the back of their head, followed by a fast scan of the table for an empty, "better" seat to change too.  In other words, the men seated next to me act like they got a lemon for a seat mate-- an empty headed woman that brought absolutely nothing to the party--their party.  It's as if I've became instantly invisible and totally irrelevant.  I kid you not!  

About the third time this happened, I thought maybe I should make up some bazaar job or life adventure to answer the predictable line of questioning.  But, that seemed like too much work.  Afterall, I didn't turn stupid simply because I'd earned the right to retire.  And, I live a very full life by the way.  Sure, I don't actually enjoy retirement, but I do a ton of meaningful charity work to take the place of my former career.  Apparently that doesn't count-- at least not at most banquet tables.

I've noticed a couple of other things about these men too.  If they are a young Agent, they usually have a lovely, usually wannabe actress, as a date.  Young Agents are usually too busy to be married.  And the older execs, always have a lovely wife by their side, who rarely speaks-- or is spoken to.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.  It's just a trend I've noticed.

So what's my beef?  I think it's all tied to my angst over being 50-something and feeling invisible.  50 and retirement at the same time was probably not my best idea. Retirement with this huge chip on my shoulder, not so smart either.  But how to cope with these two major life changes escapes me.  

At 49 I would have described myself as a successful business woman with a well rounded life.  Actually, if asked "what I did" I would have said I was an advertising executive-- Something most table mates found interesting.   And that's probably the core of the problem. I identified myself too closely by "what I did" in my job, rather than "who I am" as a person.  Since I am no longer working, I'm not sure who I am or who I'm supposed to be anymore.  

I know "complaining" about retirement in these tough economic times is not politically correct.  And honestly, if retirement was on the table today, I'd have never done it specifically because of these economic times.  But I did and that's that.  Now it seems, my full time job is trying to figure out how to make this transition a successful one.   It's a journey and I am definitely open to suggestions!

As for all those fund raisers we attend-- My all time favorite entertainment industry fund raiser was The No Show Ball.  I loved that one.  Their beautiful invitations arrived each year-- oh so clever and inviting.  All you had to do was send the charity your loot and you got to stay home and eat hot dogs (or what ever you wanted) in your jammies-- guilt free!  That's my kind of gala.  And there's none of the annoying chit chat.

How do you identify yourself?
Welcome to The Fifty Factor  -  Joanna


  1. Me? I'm one of the servers at your banquet! Really!

    I get paid to be an executive assistant. But what I really am is an unpublished author.



  2. Joanna, I think you need time first of all to adjust to retirement, it can take a year. Then, of course, you could always come out of retirement and start a second career! (still young). I believe one always has to have a purpose in life, and you have the time now to find that true meaning! the first step may be to stop going to these dinners! Although I love anything I don't have to make myself and the fancier the food the better!

  3. Sounds too complicated and takes too mu.ch effort for an evening

  4. Hi, Joanna--

    I'm a writer. By day I'm a technical writer, but I also write creatively. I've even written an article entitled "Are Middle-Aged Women Invisible? Not in Las Vegas!" Check it out if you get a chance at http://tiny.cc/jWucO

    Because I do a significant amount of creative writing and have a couple of publications under my belt, I feel justified saying that I'm simply "a writer." But back when I only did tech writing, I'd tell people I was an actress on As the World Turns. It just sounds so much more glamourous.

  5. I so know what you mean. Well not the Hollywood dinners exactly but business dinners in a different industry and different place, yes.

    I used to travel extensively with my ex and was always at one dinner or another. It was incredibly boring as much as I tried to involve myself in the converations. I gave up my own career to travel with him and assist him in his company. BIG MISTAKE. For me anyway. Let's just say that the boys network has never broken down in most major industries (his was restaurants, stadia and football clubs ie soccer). Enter the invisible woman who looks good and says the right thing at all times. SO NOT ME.

    I suddenly felt very vulnerable. And unimportant. Another big lesson for me.

    I still cringe thinking about dinner with all these pompous wealthy businessmen who would look straight through me or treat me as some dumb blonde who was just there to fill a seat. I learned quickly it was a mistake to have an opinion on anything.

    Although I am just reminded of a time I took my mother who was visiting us from Oz to one of these dinners. She was 70 at the time. Grey hair, the works. This wealthy Russian sat next to her and said so how do you keep busy in your retirement. She said I am just about to finish my next book. The look on his face was priceless. I think he expected her to say that she was knitting or looking after grandchildren or gardening or something.

    The issue for me was that a lot of my self worth was equated with my career. Thats who I was more than a partner or mother in many respects.

    I learnt, a little late, that the important thing is to have balance so that if one of these things gets taken away, like health, job, relationship, family, charity or whatever then we can easily cope. We become more resilient to all apsects of our life. I had a totally unblanced life. I was giving my all to a couple of things - or putting all my eggs in one or two baskets. This all coincided with my daughter leaving high school and becoming semi independent as well.

    Then disaster struck (its going to so make a great movie one day) because it was something I could never imagine, and I was totally lost at sea.

    Its tough trying to reinvent yourself. However, its also time to reflect on what burning desires you may have had as a child or teenager. What career did you want back then or variations of it. What are your inherent strengths? I am getting back into creative pursuits. That is where I feel most comfortable regardless of whether its great or mediocre. I will keep trying.

    I think next time someone asks you, what do you do, say you are a writer. Every day on the blog you share your writing and opinions with people across the world. You write legitimate stories.

    The demographics are changing and the population is aging. We are the youth of the elderly so there is plenty of life in us yet.

    What about a book. Seriously under a pseudonym even. What fun!

    I identify myself as a consultant (everyone's a consultant lol) but I do a mix of things these days. Market research, makeup design, interior design BUT I would really like to be a full time writer or a columnist). And I have also been toying with this idea to help females with self esteem issues - I used to run Girls Nights Out when living in the UK and its a variation on those. Self esteem is at the root of so many issues. For everyone.

    Great post and I apologise for writing a book in reply. I am verbose but I guess you realised that. Oops.

  6. I think Christine is on to something. Those old farts are all about self-congratulations and ego.

    You are secure enough not to buy into it no matter how entertaining it can be.

    Create a second career for yourself, volunteer, work with children or anything else that suits you. And F=2k the sleazballs. You're way beyond that.

  7. I was thinking about this the other day. What if someone asked me what I´d do when retired? To tell you the truth I don´t know.... I´m an executive assistant and still very much enjoying my work. But I completely understand what you are going through. I think you should give yourself time to get used to your new "position".

  8. I wholeheartedly agree with Lilly...you're a writer. Now, some will ask, "Do you have anything published?" as if that makes a difference in your worth. My response to that would be, "Yes, but more than likely, not the type of genres you'd be knowledgeable."

    You volunteer and you know what? That's great! If it sounds, "Boring" to those snobbish folks, then that's their problem. The problem is that there are probably quite a few people barely making ends meet attending these dinners with hopes of being "discovered". You've already been discovered!

    I would ditch the dinners if it makes you feel bad about you.

  9. I'm a clinical social worker. I will probably work until I drop, so I can pay off my student loans.

    I would ditch the dinners too--they sound horrible (and expensive)

  10. You've all got me thinking now. What do I do? I raise kids, but I am so much more than just a mom. But why is that? Why do I think I am? I don't have the works to prove it. I don't really do anything other than wife and blog and parent. So I am right there with joanne. I might as well be retired. all I can say, is thank heavens I don't have to go to a rubber chicken dinner anytime soon.

  11. Sounds like a miserable evening, and you have to pay big money for this misery! I like the idea of the No show ball!
    I say you have may more worth than those guys jockeying for position!

  12. Wow! It sounds to me like you live the life of a rock star!! I'd tell those guys that I was a Playmate or an ex-porn star just to shut them up!!
    What do I do? It's not glamorous, that's for sure!!
    I've never been to a dinner event like you described.
    Maybe you should tell people that you're and author and you write about how people should behave in public. That's not far from the truth!!
    I'll bet you didn't see any butt crack at those dinners!!


  13. s/b an author....
    Sorry, I can't let a typo go...even when I'm sick. I shouldn't type in the dark...


  14. I think you should throw them off ... I love to do that! However, you should probably be careful if your hubby is needing to 'work the room' -- lest you say something you should not! :-)

    But I always try to ask the questions first. Truly! I love asking people questions.

    In answer to what you do, tell them that you study people and are drafting your autobiography. Have they written theirs yet? And what's keeping them from doing that? Life is short. And blah, blah, blah. ♥

  15. Ladies, THANK YOU ALL for your comments. First off-

    - I am taking a leave from the rubber chicken circuit! I'll send my contribution to the charities I support and skip the meal and bad table company for a while.

    -Reinventing myself is one of the reasons I started blogging-- To try to figure out what the next chapter in life was going to be. I started as an angry menopausal woman ranting and found a "voice" along the way as my ranting turned to writing. I'd never written before and each post helps me figure out which direction to head next.

    -As Lily said, not having BALANCE was a big mistake. I completely identified myself with my job and pretty much only my job. And since I am not a mother and I was an "old" bride, homemaking and a family are not part of my universe, so I realllly didn't have any balance. It was ALL work and then it was gone.

    Until I figure out what to do next, I'll keep blogging. And I'll remember Lilly's wise words-- "We are the youth of the elderly and there's plenty of life in us yet." I LOVE THAT! xo

  16. A Hooker. You should have told him you were a professional hooker.

    Then when there's silence at the table, you look around and say, "What? I'm in advertising. I'm paid to 'hook' the client. And let's see....you'd be in the coveted, 18-24 year-old 'dude slacker' demographic, am I right?"

  17. Yes, well, Lilly might have the answer (she almost always writes a book, so that might be a way forward).

    However, a little more seriously - you've already figured out the problem - it's YOUR identity that matters and you gave that up! The others who said start a new career were right. What about something online? Don't take any notice of all the "how to make a million in ten minutes a day" sites, of course, but I'm sure you know that. I'd say that the fact that you have taken up blogging is telling you something. You understand advertising, you understand business, you obviously like to write, you presumably like the "online world" or can at least cope with it emotionally and you must have contacts from your past in almost every field of expertise, so ... when are you going to make a bid for Google?

    As to the charity dinners, you know perfectly well that most people only go to those events in order to "network" - they mostly wouldn't spend that sort of money on the charity alone.

    At those dinners, though, I love Lulu's suggestion, but I think I'd leave out the "explanation" and see what happens as the boredom sets in and becomes more and more intolerable for the male guests. If you get stuck with one who's a nuisance, you can just say, "Oh, sorry, didn't I say? All my clients are female!" and watch his face!

  18. As a Yooper, I would go with the No Show Ball, stay at home and eat Pasties (not to be confused with what strippers wear..it IS a Yooper "delicacy"!). As a woman who use to be in a corporate life, DON'T MISS THIS STUFF AT ALL. My visibility on the ladder wasn't nearly "out there" as yours, but I KNOW I would have pulled my hair out and threw my 2" heels (yep, two whole inches) at someone!

    WONDERFUL reading!!

  19. Very interesting post. I am going to sound like a total dweeb with cartoon birds flying around my head chirping happy songs BUT, screw these arrogant people. It is an issue THEY have and I don't need to be visible to anyone who feels seeing through me gives them a clearer view. If someone is rude, I am all the nicer, and it seems to sometimes make them aware of how obnoxious they are. Life is too short for people like that to crawl under my skin. Then I let them in my space where the ego and attitude they have do NOT belong.

    Make sense?

  20. I get what you're saying. The response is similar when I'm at one of my husband's Industry Things and I tell someone I'm a housewife, Rolling of eyes and conspicuous ignoring. Fortunately for me, there's another woman usually there, who I know well and is in the same situation. So, we sit together and discuss genetic manipulation of soybeans and how it has benefitted East Africa. She's Ethiopean, and has an opinion about it. It weirds the rest of the table out and is a source of great entertainment for our husbands.
    I'm not sure how I identify myself. I've been on both sides of the table at these events. I'm not a Society Dame, not a trophy wife or a doormat. I'm just who I am, with my skinny Ethiopean friend, having a conversation that the menfolk can't keep up with and the women don't comprehend.

  21. Wow, my head is spinning just reading about those dinners! lol I would be all over the "No Show Ball"! lol

  22. The "stay at home mom" answer to that question is always a show stopper which is always followed up with..."will you be returning to work soon?"

    What freaking kills me now is people not only have to tell you what then do, but then list all of their committee/not for profit engagements. The women I know are FAMOUS for doing this. Everyone can't wait to tell each other how "busy" they are....

    I'll tell you where this really grates on my nerves...Facebook. I so don't give a crap about how a person is stretched thin between work, family and volunteering. I think FB should have a disclaimer that states being busy is a given so either write something entertaining about your experiences or log the hell off.

    As for your salad/entree correlations...I am so going to test that!

    Fantastic post once again!

  23. Great post. Thanks for leaving a wonderful comment on my blog. Do come back again.

  24. You could also blot your lipstick on the tuxedo/suitcoat sleeve too.

    Thanks for stopping by my blog! I'll be back too!

  25. I think they do that whole charity thing all wrong. I know the perfect solution. $200 a plate if there is a long boring speech....$250 a plate and they'll shut up and get you out of there faster. They'd make soooo much more money! I can understand the thing about finding your identity in your job. I had a very fulfilling job that I was very proud of...and then I moved across the country to New England to get married. I now have a job that is pitiful and I find no pride in whatsoever. And it's hard to figure out where my value is any more. Although I turn 50 in a couple years...and I would be THRILLED to be able to retire like you did. Hey, maybe that's the secret...the year before you retire...you take a crappy job that you hate. And then retirement looks like a beautiful thing! Gosh I have all sorts of things figured out today lol.

  26. The most important thing I heard as I read your post was that when you were working you identified who you were with what you did and now that you are not doing that anymore you are not quite sure who you are. This is an important lesson for all of us. We do spend more time at our job or doing our job than we do at anything else. Sleeping comes in a close second. We must develop a sense of who we are apart from what we do.
    You could have fun with the question "What do you do" by saying "I do whatever I damn well please, because I am retired" or "I do life" or " I drive people like yourself nuts". In the end, it is not what we do that makes us who we are, it is who we are that makes us do what we do. Maybe you could say you are a retirement consultant, ha.

  27. thanks for that post -
    Those pompous jerks at the dinner parties should read your blog. I'll never understand why some jerks get so far in their career.

    Retired at 50 - wow that's an achievement to be proud of but I can now related to that "what now" feeling. I lost my best job back in 2006 and tell people that I'm now practicing for retirement. My wife doesn't see the humor in it.

    Well to throw some advice your way I would suggest this woman's speech
    Elizabeth Gilbert on youtube

    The key has been mentioned about BALANCE. I'm so grateful to my late mother for teaching me that lesson.

  28. You should truly have fun with this and come up with a different persona for each evening. What fun!

  29. The more I read your comments, the more I'm thinking of making up crazy jobs or personas the next time I have to endure some boring jerk at a dinner. THANK YOU for all your great comments. And I like nikkicrumpet's suggestion of paying the dinner fee based on how boring the night is. That's a hoot! You are all the greatest!

  30. Wow, I'd love to retire at 50! As for those rubber chicken dos - turn vegetarian and see if the rubber tofu is any better!

    How do I identify myself? I usually look in the mirror, do a double take at all those wrinkles, and then realize that - yes - it is me.

  31. I don't try to "identify" myself much anymore, which doesn't help much but at the same time I think it's too damn limiting. I'm all kinds of things. Why should my job alone define me?

    I find it hilarious when people ask me what my husband does- as if his ability to make a buck is all he's good for. "Oh, he likes camping and wood turning and fishing, and he just got a new camcorder..." So they'll ask me "But what does he do for a LIVING?" He lives just fine. "What is his chosen career?" The annoyed person will finally ask, thinking by now that I'm a complete dolt. "Oh, that. He's in screen printing."
    Oh, ok. Conversation over. They walk away shaking their heads and muttering while I snicker.

  32. Hi sweetie what a great post. I wish we could really say what we wanted to at social gatherings like... I have a sugar daddy and slept in until noon.

    Come stop by and tell me what's in your make up bag today!

  33. I identify myself as a child of God who loves inspiring others. Do I get paid for this? No, but I'm probably happier than any of those big wigs at those fund raisers any day. :)

  34. That was all very interesting to read, along with the comments. I retired in 04 [33 yrs of teaching and liked it,too! for health reasons[RA}, and now I am taking care of my mom [97] post stroke, and so there are days that I don't really want to think about anything...and other days I'm feeling bored[which is my own responsibility...I know that] when I am pondering my existence in the universe. Your post helped me, so thank you.

  35. Eek, $200 a plate? Um, if the evenings are that boring and the food that blah, I think I'd rather donate the $200 directly to a charity and the time you'd normally spend sitting at that table making small talk, I think I'd rather spend it doing volunteer work.
    When people ask what I do and I tell them I work in the death-care industry (cemetery/funeral home), all it does is open the door for them to make a lot of corny jokes that I've heard too many times to count.
    On the occasions we have to go to banquets/awards dinners, I very often take a book to read or puzzle book to work on. It might be bad manners, but I'm not there to impress anybody.

  36. Oh my, you are bringing back memories ... When my son was small, I began working from home (after my travel magazine folded). Everyone figured I was a stay-at-home mom -- which was unusual in my neighborhood in the late 1980s. A lot of people, especially other working women, looked down their noses at me, and some asked me "what I did all day." Many didn't know I was a freelance writer, and sometimes got my byline in magazines like Reader's Digest or Country Gardens. You should have seen the looks change on their faces when I mentioned that I'd been published nationally.

    Truthfully, I always felt that being a mom was a very important job -- and I was just as proud of that as my national bylines. So it always made me sad when I discovered that my writing career was more interesting/impressive than my parenting.

    So, yes, tell people you are a writer ....Tell them you're online and more places than you can possibly list. That said, as more Boomers retire, I think we'll all start feeling more at ease when we talk about having a real life beyond careers and nine-to-five jobs.

  37. I'm with you and the 'no show' ball! In my past life I did events for Paramount Pictures. We use to take a walk around the room, say 'hi' to the guests and in twenty minutes would bolt out the door and head for the local Fat Burger. Don't miss it at all!


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