Has your child ever asked what you do for a living and, unless you are lucky enough to be something self-explanatory such as a fireman or doctor, you stumbled through a vague explanation that left your offspring glassy-eyed and as clueless as when you started?
As a child-slash-teenager I always hated being asked what my parents did as, although my mother was nice and simple – secretary (thanks mom!) – I always had trouble explaining exactly what it was my father did. He worked for the South African version of British Telecommunications and the closest I got to what he did was that he planned where telephone cables should be laid for new properties. Not something easily described to one’s peers when one is young, and even Googling it now still leaves me at a loss for a succinct one-or-two word appellation. But apparently, what goes around comes around, and it is now Miss S’s turn to try and get her head around what it is her parents do for a living.
At school recently it was careers week and the teacher went round the class asking what everyone’s parents did. Fortunately for Miss S at least one of her parents has a job that is easily described and well-recognized so she was quite happy to inform her classmates that Mr. S is a vet. Apparently this career path is synonymous with saving puppies and Christmas and so Miss S was able to bask in the glory of having a parent who does something really interesting. From Miss S’s point of view it gets bonus points as her father periodically brings his work home in the form of a stray cat to add to our ever-expanding collection of adopted felines. The most recent adoptee, Eileen, is a fun-loving tabby kitten with a penchant for eating Pringles, destroying Christmas trees and hogging more than her fair share of my duvet at night. As I already share my bed with one of our other cats my nights are getting a tad crowded. You know those chalk outlines that you see on murder mystery TV shows? Well, that’s what I now look like when I sleep as I try to fit myself around the cats. And as cute as Eileen is, if she continues to assume that my Pringles are some exotic form of feline treat she is in for a rude awakening because the whole family knows that when it comes to Pringles, I don’t share. It will shortly be ten paces and handbags at dawn if she doesn’t learn that lesson very quickly.
And so, having summed up Mr. S in a word, it was on to trying to describe what I do, which is actually not that easy for a youngster to comprehend. A few years ago, when asked what I do, Miss S replied ‘My mom sits at a desk all day and plays on her computer’. Possibly not how my boss would describe what I do, and actually not that informative when you consider that, in this day and age, a large proportion of jobs can be thusly described. But it was a good try for a five-year old.
Yes, my job involves sitting at a desk and working – not playing! – on a computer. I am in fact a spatial epidemiologist which in the simplest terms means that I create maps to show, among other things, where diseases currently occur or might occur in the future. Not, I’ll admit, the easier thing for a seven-year old to wrap her head around and as Miss S has frequently seen me in front of my computer ‘playing’ around with maps it came as no surprise that she told her class ‘my mom makes maps’. At least it is a step up from playing on the computer!
Despite being quite impressed with her answer I decided to educate her a little so sat her down in front of my laptop and tried to explain, in the simplest of terms, what spatial epidemiology is all about. I should have known better than to waste my breathe but for some reason I actually thought I had a shot at it – must have been the end of a long, caffeine-free day at work. And so I proceeded to elucidate, using the simplest of terms, what it is I actually do. When I got to the end of my little spiel there was silence for a few beats while she stared intently at my laptop screen, mental cogs spinning, before her eyes lit up with, what I assumed was understanding.
‘Yes!’ I thought exultantly. ‘I am the best teacher ever!’
I waited, practically quivering with excitement, for the questions I knew would come tumbling from her. I was finally going to trump Mr. S and his kittens.
She pointed to the screen and turned to me excitedly. ‘Can you make that map pink? It would look so much better in pink!’
I thunked my head on my desk. Repeatedly.
And made the map pink.
However, that wasn’t the end of the ‘what I do’ saga. A few days later Miss S saw me inspecting the graph which shows the number of views this website gets each day and asked what it was. This is what followed:
Me: It’s a graph that shows the number of people that read what I write.
Miss S (suddenly very excited): So, you’re an author?
Me: Uh, yes, I suppose so…
Miss S (even more excited): Are your books at Waterstones?
Me: Uh, no. What I write is only on the Internet.
Miss S (somewhat less excited): So they’re on Amazon?
Me: No. They’re only on my own website. Miss S (disappointedly): Oh….
Miss S (peering intently at the graph): Ooh look, only two people read what you wrote that day!
Me (abruptly closing iPad): Yes, thank you for pointing that out, dear.
Apparently ‘author’ is not a word Miss S will be using to describe me at the next careers week.