So . . . what do you do?

by tjmHolden

30 September 2007


Why does he do the things he does?
Why does he do these things?
Why does he march
Through that dream that he’s in,
Covered with glory and rusty old tin?
Why does he live in a world that can’t be . . .

What Do You Want of Me, The Man of La Mancha

This is the song that has been going through my head of late, since I end up listening to it every time I ferry my daughter to and from school, ballet class, voice lessons, her SAT tutor. Wherever. We listen to it (well, she sings along, so I listen to it) since she’s thinking of auditioning for that part in the up-coming school play. She’s rehearsed it so often, though, that it is now lodged in my mid(-to-middling)-term memory. Which probably accounts for why the words came on thick, accompanied by full orchestration, last night when I went to my son’s ninth grade parental mixer.

Because—what a bunch of bluster that was! Twenty-five bucks a plate, endless wine refills and hot hors d’oeuvres from roving people-in-waiting, main course of roast beef—medium—and blackened rosemary chicken, two kinds of salads, four kinds of dessert, and plenty of adult puffery, all at a former Nobel Prize-winning physicist’s ex-abode. A stone’s throw from CalTech and light year’s away from my income bracket. Enough to get my pipes working on that other La Mancha tune: “The Impossible Dream.


In the couple hours of mixing, the stuff I learned (that triggered the spinning of the La Mancha themes), was that—big surprise—everyone does something. The

what may be infinitely fascinating, but it’s the why

part that may not always be clear. What we had at my table for 8 was an astro-physicist from JPL, a consultant working on training applicants for executive hires, a former ballerina-turned-lawyer, a former lawyer-turned-comedic writer, a substitute math teacher for a local school district, a medical instrument and product-sales lady, and an extemely fit 50-something housewife who seems to do nothing more than work out all day. There were sundry others of similarly disparate ilk sprinkled around the other 14 tables.

Don’t get me wrong: they all seemed to be top-notch people. Serious, and engaging, and committed to making the corner of the world that their children had exposure to better. And the talk was stimulating. But . . . why do they do the things they do? I couldn’t possibly begin to fathom.

In the end, after a little reconnaisance and a lot of thinking, I settled upon the usual suspects: Fate. Passion. Chance. Life-long commitment. Luck. The search for something different. A second chance. A life-threatening illness. A divorce. A good marriage. A financial windfall. Whim.

For instance, the physicist—he clearly was in it for passion.

“Basically, what I’m doing is looking for signs of planets in our galaxy. My current project is photographing 160,000 stars and trying to determine the number of planets each may possess.”
“How can you determine that?”
“Well, based on the dispersion of shadows periodically cast on the surface of whatever star we’re looking at.”
“How many planets have you found?”
“At this point? None. But, actually that doesn’t mean they aren’t out there.”
“How do you know?”
“Because only 10% of the planets arrayed around any star can be spied by the telescope, so in the case of our sun - you know, if someone were similarly gazing at us at a distance of a few thousand light years away—they might not even catch one of our planets.”

Which I guess means this is a faith-based science.

The math teacher was doing it for her family, where the hubby had been knocked off stride by a bout with cancer.

“I’m stationed in North Hollywood, which is—well, let me put it this way: not the perfect environment to educate.”
“Why is that?”
“Okay. An example. The kid walks into my class jabbering into his cell phone and I tell him ‘you’ve gotta turn it off,’ and he’s like: ‘Lady, I don’t nevuh turn this cell off. How else kin I do biznessssss?’ And I’m like: ‘how can I teach in an environment like that?’ No one can concentrate while he’s talking into his phone, being the big dealer on campus.”
“Can’t you cite him or something to get him in line?”
“No, no. These kids? Most of them have records and if they get written up, then there’s a chance that they get kicked out of school and then they go back to juvie and then it’s my fault. It’s on me. I’m not really interested in being targeted by a gang with a grudge. So, we don’t really want to write ‘em up.”
“So, they have the power.”
“Yeah. But, the good thing—the great thing—and I felt really jazzed when this happened—was that I was away for a couple days and during that time I guess what happened was the sub wrote the kid up. Didn’t know any better and no one told her that you shouldn’t write these kids up, and she did. But apparently the kid didn’t go to the Principal’s office, just kept on walking out of school. And so, the next day when I came back, the Principal told me about it and told me that he needed to see the kid and, because of the violation, was going to have to suspend him, which would, you know, place the kid in jeopardy down at juvie and—inside I was like: YES!!!! because maybe there was a chance that we could get him out of my class, but I didn’t let on. I saw the kid that day just before class and said, you know, ‘the Principal wants to see you. I have no idea what it is about—did anything happen when I was gone?’—you know: big innocent eyes and plenty of faux empathy, and . . . that was the last I ever saw of the kid.”
“The Principal expelled him?”
“Nu-uh. Never got that far. The kid just booked. But it was great cause he could never lay it on me.”

Proving that some people do the things they do through the aegis of other (foolish) agents.

And so on and so forth.

A lot of the men I never got a chance to find out what they do. They were glued to the USC game on the 70-inch wall-mounted LCD HD. On the other hand, it is always funner to talk to the women.

One mom, the petite dancer-turned-lawyer, said that her older boy was applying to colleges where he could wed film with business.

“So,” I said, “he’s thinking, what?: NYU and US. . .”
“USC . . .” the mom butt in, “USC, USC, USC, USC . . . and



Although Lucas and Spielberg are alums, this might also have something to do with the football effect. Power being both aphrodesiac and magnet. And in 20 years, when someone asks of that boy-now-man: “why does he do the things he does?”, the answer might reside in athletic recruitment lodged in a by-gone popular cultural epoch.

As for my favorite answer to the La Mancha riddle, it came from the comic-writer, ne lawyer. His own take on the query:

“I was disappointed that the principles were severed from the practice.”

Which, if I ever figure out why I do the things I do, I hope I could offer a similar conclusion. After all this peripatacity, seeing the world in all its infinite permutations and possibilities; after trying this and that on for size, I hope that I can some day say:

“yeah, I did that, then that, then that. But, after a lot of disappointment, I settled on doing this.

“Oh. And why do you do this thing you do?”

And my response will be:

“Because I decided that I can’t do anything where the principles don’t match the practice.”

Which, if you think about it is not a bad policy for a peripatetic . . .  or any fellow human voyager.


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