What doesn't the public understand or appreciate about your job? You told us. We listened. Here are our favorite testimonials, one for each letter.
Over the summer, The Atlantic gave our readers a simple prompt: Tell us what people don't get or appreciate about your job. The response was so eloquent and overwhelming, it was practically encyclopedic.
So we made an encyclopedia. From A to Z, we went through your responses to find the best vocational essays for each letter. These essays are as short as a short sentence and as long as an full article. They are funny, sad, often indignant, and always insightful. We hope you enjoy reading them as much as we enjoyed finding them in our comment sections and emails.
As always, keep writing.
A is for Army Soldier
"Some of the most free-thinking people in the United States are in the US Army."
Hollywood portrays Soldiers in many different ways. Sometimes we are burnt out social misfits that are incapable of fitting in and plagued by PTSD and associated terrors. Sometimes we are the devil-may-care thrill seekers that are an equal danger to the enemy and ourselves. Sometimes we are rapists and killers given to wanton slaughter. Most of all, we are often portrayed as mindless automatons that are incapable of independent thought. The reality is very different.
The thing that surprises people is that some of the most free-thinking people in the United States are in the US Army. The problems that we have to contend with require innovative solutions and given the breadth of educational backgrounds of Army Officers, you find some incredibly adaptive people. Deployments and combat result in an environment where evolution is sped up by a million and those that cannot adapt fail. As long as basic forms are obeyed, you find that most leaders actively encourage free thinking within their ranks. To be sure, we have our share of intellectual dullards and buffoons but the reality is that the more time you spend with Soldiers, the more you begin to realize how vibrant, adaptive and broad they are in their thoughts.
The other thing that surprises people is the discipline in our ranks particularly towards issues of morality and restraint. Because matters of life and death are involved, you find an incredible focus amongst Soldiers. Given the combat environments of the last ten years and the close proximity of civilians and the media, there is a focus within the ranks towards acting responsibly and very often the decision is not when to shoot...but when not to shoot. I have personally been involved in many decisions where people were literally in our sights and moments from death, but the round was never fired because the cost in collateral would have been too high and/or the information was not ironclad that we were looking at a bad guy so we decided to err on caution. A lot of ink is spilled on our mistakes but one thing that few understand is that thousands of contacts with civilians happen in the environment everyday and situations like this occur every single day and it is a testament to the discipline, morality and restraint of the forces involved that mistakes do not occur more often.
At the end of the day, I would say to all that being a Soldier is a profession with its own language and its own set of skills that are every bit as precise and intricate as a Doctor and Lawyer and those of us in this role pay a lot of heed towards being the best. Few understand the life/death complex issues of morality/restraint that we put on our young kids in these positions and just how well they perform in some of the most stressful environments imaginable.
B is for Bass Player
"I'm making their backsides wiggle and bringing us all together in funky communion."
As they stare at the singer who has abandoned the melody in favor of melismatically emoting, or the guitar player who has put his foot on the monitor and thrown his hair back to squintily wee a mishmash of pentatonic drivel, people don't understand that I'm making their backsides wiggle and bringing us all together in funky communion.
Of course, I kind of like it like that...
C is for Construction Worker
"People see a man with a shovel in his hand working on a job site and think he's lazy."
It's 95 degrees and the humidity is 80%. People don't understand that. People see a man with a shovel in his hand working on a job site and think he's lazy because he's just standing there. What they don't see is the struggle going on inside your brain. The part of you that has lived in the wild for millions of years is saying it's too exhausting, it's too hot, why don't you go lay in the shade for a while. That part of your brain sees the shovel, sees the ditch, sees the pipe to be laid, and it doesn't see how this is getting you food or sex. That other civilized part of you is saying, there is food and sex to be found in that ditch. You just need to hunch over that pipe for another 5 hours, and then for another three days, and then it'll be this made up thing, Friday, and you'll have this other made up thing, money. Then you can go out and eat and try to procure a mate.
You just need to clinch that shovel tightly for a little longer and you can get what you want. The little tribesman in your mind doesn't understand this. Things were easier in his time. Sure you only lived to be 26, but if it was too hot you didn't move, if some bit of fruit was too hard to reach you walked to the next tree and looked for lower fruit. There is no low hanging fruit left in this world though.
You hold that shovel and think if only I could bludgeon that little tribesman in my brain. Then I could be free to give myself to wage labor, free to force my body to do what it doesn't want to. So when you see a man on the side of the road not moving just watching some machine manipulate earth, know that he may not be lazy, but just engaged in a struggle between a past that shaped us and a present that was made by us but not for us.
D is for Dad
"Being a stay-at-home Dad is like unemployment."
I am an engineer. Most people are scientifically and mathematically illiterate. Consequently, most people cannot fathom how much pleasure and delight I derive from my work. Of course I am also lucky to have a great job with great coworkers. But the pleasure of analyzing, say, the overall efficiency of a combined heat and power facility is hard to describe.
Well, this is partially true. My wife actually gets irritated that I never mind going to work. She does not feel exactly the same about her job.
I also wish children could understand how much fun I have. Because we need more engineers in this country for sure if we hope to remain globally competitive.
F is for Fashion Model
"Here it is, plain and simple - some girls eat, some don't."
Reading and re-reading common misconceptions about other professions, I scrape up as much as I can to cohesively explain the backward-ology that exists in the professional modeling industry. Personally, being signed to a few different agencies in my short, three-year career, I have seen the group mentality about the fashion industry and how the media propagates the information it receives. Which, isn't much. You can ask any Joe or Jane Schmo on the street about what they know about the modeling industry itself, not the fashion industry, and they are probably 70 percent likely to explain what they have previously seen on television in shows like America's Next Top Model or any of those design-based model-offs.
These are the questions I am most likely to be asked by someone in Anywheretown, USA.
Number 1: Do you have aspirations to be on America's Next Top Model?
I already have an agency. They found me, they instilled some belief that I will make them money. They gave me a contract, now they send me out on castings that will (fingers crossed) get me work. I go to my castings, I give clients my book and comp(osite) card, I leave. There is a 99 percent chance I will not get it. I move on to the next. Reality show be damned, this is a business.
Number 2: Wait, so you must make a ton of money, right?
Well, you can. And people do. I know models and commercial actors who can go for 10,000 dollar days - and then get residuals. It's madness. It changes by the person, the 'look', the size, how you looked at someone wrong or right, or if the casting director was hung-over or not that day. It also depends on how your agency is promoting your specific look to a client. If you are more of a commercial model, you won't be submitted for a fashion editorial and vice versa -- once again, all depending on the client and the requirements.
The large markets (New York, Paris, Milan, Los Angeles) are very model-saturated and it's harder and harder to get clients to book new people when they have used a lot of the same models for years. This is especially so in the commercial industry, (Target, Old Navy, Payless, Amazon, etc). So, just as anyone in the freelance world knows - it's trial by fire. You live on an everlasting roller coaster ride that takes you wherever it pleases.
Number 3: But it's okay when you book a job, right? Because they pay you right away and you just move on to the next job?
I wish it were that easy. By agency/client relations, they have 60-90 days to pay their till. That in itself is not binding, let alone enforced. Some of the biggest money jobs I've had have taken almost six months to pay, while the smaller jobs (think in the 300-500 dollar range, editorial rate - if there is one), pay within the bracket. You would think those massive clients would be more than happy to shed off a grand for your time within those three months? [Insert sad jalopy horn sound here] They are more likely to take their time, knowing that they are a huge company who books continuously through your agency - and they will.
Number 4: Well, when you do get your money finally, it must be pretty rewarding?
It is, it really is. It's even more so rewarding when you see those images/commercials that you are in and were actually paid for. It keeps you in it and keeps you working hard.
But, don't forget that as an agency-signed model, you are contract bound. They do find you the work, send your book to clients, print your comp-cards, host your digital book on their website - so they will take a percentage and charge where necessary, as they should. Though, it is in your own self (business) interest to check and recheck where the money is going and how often it's going out with every paycheck you're dolled out.
Number 5: So, you're a model. You don't eat then, right? None of you eat, that's just what you do.
I cannot tell you how much this is asked of me, it's even more of a stigma propagated within my own work environment. It is also something that gives me the most anxiety about the way that my industry is viewed. Here it is, plain and simple - some girls eat, some don't. Some work for the measurements on the back of their comp-card, some don't at all. Some are forced to lose weight by their agencies; some are dropped from their contracts for it. It's a variant situation with a lot of sad outcomes. As an appearance-only based profession, no one cares how you can deliver a line or cry on cue like an actor - it's solely based in the way you appear on camera and how a piece of clothing looks on you. This is a topic I can go on about forever, but I will spare you.
When I tell people what I do, and receive such questions, I always say, "It is about a bottom line, and you are it." All you can do is enjoy your time, go to your castings and give it your best - all without losing yourself. It's possible.
I'm sure it is.
G is for Graphic Designer
"The vast majority of designers make ugly things for incompetent people."
Thanks to Mad Men and the countless ads on TV for schools that "allow you to express your creativity to its fullest potential," the thought is that every design job is a sexy glamorous job. Once you're through with school, you'll land a job at Leo Burnett, BBDO, Nike, Apple, or another company that has a pool table, sexy promiscuous secretaries, very entertaining socio-political drama, or something your parents and friends would recognize on the shelf.
The reality of it is the vast majority of designers will work to make ugly things for strategically incompetent people only to have more people still think very little of you. The GAP logo for instance, was more than likely the victim of a long line of vice presidents, product managers, communication directors, marketing chiefs, and other people with business degrees who think themselves experts in design solely because they work for a company that is reputed to care about design. Even designers across the world joined the flogging though they, by personal experience, know how little it takes from a VP to completely destroy the integrity of a project.
There is also the myth that by sheer virtue of your talent, you will receive adulation and recognition. That is the most accurate theme in Mad Men that can translate to today: we are an industry of networking and meritocracy. Who do you know? What clients have you worked for you? If you went to a fantastic school like SVA, Parsons, SCAD, SAIC, ACD, or another acronym that none of your friends or family will recognize, it won't matter till your portfolio can reflect where you want to work. You are an ant in a colony with many queens.
Most clients are small, so your work will likely go unnoticed. Nobody who looks at a can of Coke thinks a big agency hired a small firm who in turn assigned an underpaid designer to typeset the word "classic" on the can. The credit goes to one hotshot designer that billions of people cannot and should not be able to name. I say they shouldn't because the biggest myth about design is about recognition.
Design isn't a job, a career, or a calling. It's a total lifestyle. We dominate decision making that is about cultural construction and make-up: music, food, bikes, clothing. You can't walk down the street and safely guess who's a doctor or lawyer, but you can guess who has an interest in graphic design.
It's not simply pushing a button and clicking a few functions in Photoshop. It's a complicated industry with its own ecology made up of incredibly hard work individuals that is routinely undermined by its own customers.I love what I do. I wouldn't change much about what I do. Some people can't go vegetarian, I can't stop thinking or practicing design.
H is for Historical Archivist
"I am the preserver of history itself."
I am an Archivist.
This statement receives blank looks at parties, or excited platitudes on how much they loved Nicolas Cage in National Treasure. My job also gets very easily misconstrued with being a curator, historian, librarian, or office clerk. Though I can understand the confusion as my job encompasses all of the above.
I preserve, organize, and make accessible every old historical document, photograph, and 3d ephemera that enters into the Archives. I am the preserver of history itself, and I roll up my sleeves to make sure the documents are taken care of so that they can last beyond several of our lifetimes. I make sure the documents are organized so that you can easily find what you need. I then digitize as much as I can because society now expects everything to be online (despite crippling funding issues), and if it's not online it doesn't exist. I also promote, promote, promote these online resources and tirelessly work to make them better so that your research is as pleasant and effortless as possible.
I is for IRS Employee
"You are the middle class! I'm helping you!"
I have the job to be in between you and the most intimate part of your life: your money. With a tax code that can stretch around the world three times, can anyone really be 100% certain they are in compliance when they get a letter from me? With the populist anti-tax fervor among the nation, now more than ever my job has become one of ridicule and despise.
What people don't understand about my job is that chances are you are not the person I'm examining. I examine doctors who expense three Cadillacs, insurance brokers who claim jet skis for business use only, and real estate agents who haven't paid taxes in eight years. The public doesn't realize that tax auditors are the only people between a balanced effective tax rate among all social classes and the bourgeoisie stealing what isn't bolted down. Don't kid yourself; these people are stealing from you. This money helps pay for schools, roads and with any luck can keep mortgage interest deduction alive for a few more years. I read a report on NPR that Italy has 40% of its population evading taxes. Imagine our debt crisis if we had the same problem. (Our tax evasion rate is estimated between 8-18%).
So if you're one of those "Joe the Plumber" people who take time out of work to throw teabags at me on my way into the office in the morning: You are the middle class! I'm helping you!
J is for Journalist
"The purpose of opinion journalism is to make money ... to generate ideas ... to get on television...."
This profession encompasses a significant part of my writerly output. The insight I want to offer is that among the people who do this on a daily basis, there is a lot of implicit disagreement about what our purpose is or should be. I'll just list some of the different approaches I perceive.
The purpose of opinion journalism is...
1) ...to make money.
2) ...to attract an audience.
3) ...to influence people.
4) ... to generate ideas.
5) ...to advance conversations.
6) ...to help air different sides of a debate.
7) ...to help the political prospects of your ideological coalition.
8) ...to disparage ideological adversaries.
9) ...to raise the political price of trying you or your former colleagues for war crimes.
10) ...to earn a living as a writer.
11) ...to get on television.
12) ...to produce an intellectually honest argument.
13) ...to accrue social prestige.
Insofar as you see animosity among opinion journalists, the root of it is often different value judgments about which of these things, or combination of these things, is or should be our object. - Conor Friedersdorf
K is for Kindergarten Teacher
"I am not only a teacher, but a security officer, tutor, mentor, and counselor."
I am an elementary art teacher. I teach 450 kids each week in 45 minute sessions. I am not only a teacher, but a security officer, tutor, mentor, and counselor. Here are a couple of common misconceptions about what I do: No, we do not sit around and finger paint all day long. No, we do not do a bunch of cutsie activities where the students all make the exact same penguin with googely eyes. I teach the kids about art. What this means is that we look at art and talk about it. For example: artists intent, elements and principles of design, criticism and aesthetics, art history. Art class is not a filler, where the kids are dropped off to a babysitter so their "real" teacher can get their much needed break. Art teaches kids about history, other cultures, how to problem solve and think outside the box. It teachers them that sometimes there is not just one right answer. I also teach them about visual culture and challenge them to question their surroundings. I use art to teach other subjects like language arts, science and math.
L is for Librarian
"We are not mere cart pushers. This job requires a Masters degree for a reason."
People have made an extremely strong link between librarians, libraries and books. This is only natural, but it really sells short the full value of libraries and the full scope of librarian work. Libraries offer so much more than moldy old books. There's also music, movies, TV shows, video games, and electronic databases that span a whole galaxy of scholarly and practical information unavailable to any level of googling. Additionally, libraries offer free internet access that is utterly vital in many poor and rural communities. As government services migrate online, good citizenship almost requires an internet connection. Libraries also provide a free space for local groups and communities and have been at the forefront of job search training and computer instruction. Coordinating all of this are the humble librarians. We are not mere cart pushers, let me assure you. This job requires a Masters degree for a reason.
M is for Movie Theater Clerk
"Yes, I know the prices are ridiculous. And I have dreams beyond this popcorn counter."
N is for Nanny
"Seeing the world through children's eyes is intense and beautiful and fleeting. Don't call me a manny."
I am a nanny. I care for a rambunctious one-year-old and occasionally his nine-year-old brother.
I am not starting a daycare, I am not a babysitter, and I do not nanny to make extra cash. Nannying is what I do. Seeing the world through children's eyes is intense and beautiful and fleeting, and I get to experience it every day. I don't just change diapers, I teach a new person how to engage and interact with the world. Right now I am teaching the kid I care for to sign before he can speak. I am teaching him to be gentle and kind, to appreciate music and books, and to respect boundaries. At his age, children can make between ten and twenty thousand new connections in the brain every second they are awake. That's an incredible amount of 'teachable moments' where I can actually change the course of this child's life. It's an awesome responsibility and I take it seriously.
What I don't love? All of the good-natured ribbing about how what I do is so easy. The questions about why, as a guy, I am a nanny. Childcare isn't the sole domain of women and I am not engaging in role-reversal. It doesn't mean I'm feminine. It doesn't mean I'm gay (It doesn't mean I'm not any of those things but I shouldn't have to go into this). And please stop calling me a "manny." What it means is that I'm well equipped for and interested in caring for children, and that I have found a way to match that with a child that needs looking after.
But what I do isn't easy. For example, diaper-changing time. This is an exercise in rule-enforcement: there is no wiggling, no kicking, and no stray hands groping for the diaper straps. Then it's breakfast time while I go over his development with Dad. We quibble over things like allowing him to climb a playscape unattended (absolutely not!) and what he's not allowed to eat yet and why (let's wait on that brisket, hm?). Then Dad goes to work and it's playtime til his first nap. Naptime is a ritual that I follow so he'll be comfortable, get to sleep quickly, and stay asleep as long as he needs to. Any interruption of the ritual is a domino that sets off the rest of the day so it is important that it remains undisturbed. The fan goes on high, the blinds are drawn, and the pacifier (only for sleeping) goes in. I lay him down in the same direction, tuck the blanket around him so he's comfortable enough to close his eyes. Then I leave immediately, perhaps read a few pages in my book before I start cooking lunch so it can be ready when he wakes up. Having lunch ready is important because if he doesn't eat right after nap #1 he won't release breakfast before nap #2. Which means he will wake up in the middle of the nap needing a diaper change. Hence, domino effect. Then Mom comes home and we go over when he's scheduled to sleep the rest of the day, what signs we are learning, problems in behavior that need to be addressed.
I love teaching and I love children. The amount of attention required to raise a small child precludes my watching more than just a few at a time so I am a nanny. It's sometimes stressful but always rewarding. As long as the adults don't make my profession a joke.
O is for Opera Singer
"We sing without microphones about 99% of the time."
P is for Professional Philosopher
"I love being a philosopher, even though it may sound pretentious."
I am a philosopher. (And yes, even I cringe because of the pretension this statement seems to contain.) It would be better if I were also a philosophy professor, because then I could say I teach. But I don't teach philosophy. Teaching is only part of what a philosopher does. Research, which consists mainly of reading books and writing books, is also a small part of what I do. The bulk of what a philosopher does is think. I think about politics, art, society, culture, science, music, language, technology, teaching, ethics, literature, history, religion, and philosophy. And yes, I think about the meaning of life. But because I am a philosopher, I can't unquestioningly rely on the criteria from other fields as justification for either those fields themselves or for the value I find in them. Instead, I have to think about history, for example, without relying on historical methodology. I have to question the value of art without merely resorting to historical or aesthetic or theoretical justifications for that value. I love being a philosopher, even though it may sound pretentious. I wish there were more of us enamored with thinking.
Q is for Quiz Master
"I know the answer to 75% of the questions I ask. They call it quiz master for a reason."
The first thing people don't understand is how much time I put into developing trivia night at bars. It takes hours. First, I consult my brain. I probably know the answer to about 75% of the questions I end up asking. (They call it quiz master for a reason.) Second, I follow some ideas on Wikipedia. Then I search around in the general Internet for the remaining questions. I also use old Trivia Pursuit cards -- not the recent ones, the 1980s version. Those have some good, tough geography questions.
During a round, people don't understand how annoying it is when multiple teams are asking me to police the room for cell phones. If you're on a cell phone, that sucks. But I'm not going to run around looking over peoples' shoulders. I can't see everybody. So don't cheat. And don't blame me if you suspect cheating.
R is for Referee
"You can't imagine that I don't care who wins. But I really don't."
I could care less who wins this or any game. My kids always ask who my favorite team is - in all sorts of sports. They are continually flabbergasted when I tell them I don't have one, 'I just want to see a well-played game.'
That is the essence of my job -- to protect something precious. The fair opportunity to compete for something very scarce. The win. It is my privilege to share the game with the best players there are.
I also want to make sure that it is a safe opportunity and do whatever I can to maintain the flow of the game -- mostly by staying out of the way unless I have to intervene to protect fairness and safety. I do all this while hustling to maintain my position, staying calm in a hurricane of emotion, watching a dizzying assortment of interactions and comparing them to the spirit and letter of a rule book that may not be all that consistent or clear at times.
So when you tell me that I've made three calls against your team and none against the other team, you need to know some things:
- I probably don't even know because I don't keep track
- Fair doesn't mean everyone gets the same number of penalties or fouls called against them
- Your team needs to make some adjustments
I know you want me to care like you care about your team winning. That's why there are referees - you can't be trusted to know what is fair. That is why you can't imagine that I don't care who wins. But I really don't.
If you try to make your struggle my issue, your struggle will deepen and I won't accept the burden. Play the game. I'll do my level best to make sure it is fair and safe.
S is for Social Services Worker
"They call us baby snatchers. But my job is to keep your family together."
They call us baby snatchers. We are referred to as "the state" as "the hotline." Our lettered abbreviation is CPS, DFS, DCFS, but it all means the same, Child Services.
We are in the business of people, specifically in trying to save people, trying to save children. What people don't understand is that we most often help families rebuild their lives. Ten times out of ten, we knock on a door and walk into a world of chaos. The families we meet have been under burdens of stress, unemployment, poverty, isolation, addiction, and countless other problems. Our job is to enter that world with them, pick apart the chaos, and find salvageable pieces to start rebuilding a life. Nine times out of ten, we use glue, string and spit, we engage our inner MacGyver, we hustle, convince, beg, borrow, and plead for anything (we have zero dollars)... nine times out of ten, we keep a family together.
People don't realize, don't know, don't appreciate that we are in the business of family. My job is to keep your family together and to keep your kids safe. I will do everything I can, with everything I don't have and everything I do have, to make sure your child stays safe and stays in your arms. People call us baby snatchers. When answering the question of what we do, conversations stop. Friends are wary of us watching their parenting techniques. What they don't realize is we don't want your kids. We want you to keep them, keep them safe, and keep yourself safe.
T is for Telecommuter
"Working from home means I never leave the office."
Working from home doesn't mean "slacking off". It means I never leave the office. I literally start working the moment I wake up, and finish when I shut down my laptop and go to sleep. In between I eat, exercise, see my children off to school. Sometimes I'll throw in a load of laundry. I made the transition to working in my home office a few years ago, and although I was productive before, I find I get so much more done in a day now. I don't sit in traffic. I don't need to pick up dry cleaning, or shower and do my hair before work unless I feel like it. I don't get caught up in non-productive water-cooler chitchat about the latest TV show (I don't watch TV anyway, there's no time). I do miss the face to face social interaction, but think it would be very hard to go back to commuting to and working from an office every day.
U is for Unemployed
"I have never known this desperation."
There are three stories, here: one is about the girl I was; the second, about who that girl became; the third, about what that girl doesn't know. They are all important to my narrative of unemployment. I am sure they are not entirely unique.
In the first, I am in seventh grade. Small (like I will remain). A good athlete, already: a runner and a soccer player. Later that year, I will make the school lacrosse team, having never played before. But right now, it is the start of basketball season, and the first year I'm eligible to play for the school. I am small - this is crucial: I do not make the team. I was cut before they put a ball in my hands. I am my father's daughter. I don't remember what he told me that evening; whatever it was, it refused to let me quit. I got better. I showed up, humbled and irate, at the same summer basketball camps as the girls who made the team. I ran (probably too much). I lifted (also probably too much). I worked with a speed trainer. The next winter, in eighth grade, I made the freshman team - I jumped an entire level. In eighth grade, I believed that raw ability and a ferocious work ethic knew no smallness.
In the second, I am in college - a senior. I've earned a scholarship to play lacrosse at one of the best programs in the country - at one of the best academic schools in the world. I have been hurt, now, for a long time. Hip surgeries, shin injuries, stress fractures - all have sidelined me intermittently since my sophomore year. College for me becomes learning how to be without the uniform. I spend hours in rehab. My backpack rattles with pill bottles - anti-inflammatories of every variety, painkillers, antacids, vitamins (glucosamine, chondroitin, E, B, Calcium +D) that unfairly promise hope. About to graduate now, it has been over a year since I last held a lacrosse stick. I redirected: I win several major university awards for my writing abilities. On my college graduation day, I believe what college graduates should: that I can turn any challenge into success. I have been blessed with talents; I have been tested in how to use them - in how to carry the characteristics of one into the other. I do not believe in fate: I believe that I have done the work, and it will pay off. It has been this simple for ten years.
The last story takes place this morning. Mornings are the easiest part of the day: they follow a routine, one virtually unchanged in over a decade. Wake up. Flex out the kinks. Change. Still half-asleep, guide my mess of blonde into a high ponytail. Slip on and tie up the running shoes. Bound out the door, reluctant at first, still sore, still stiff, a little cold on this early fall morning. Wander down the driveway, stretching a calf against the fence, a quad by the tree whose roots threaten the blacktop. I take a deep breath - and I'm off. This is the best part of my day: it is the only part that is quiet, the only part that is simple, the only part that involves that unique combination of talent (my speed, my lungs, my heart) and work ethic (this run, as so many runners know, is the result of tens of thousands of miles before it). For however long I run, the world goes still. When I finish, I will face a day without structure; a day marked by unanswered emails and phone calls and desperate Internet scouring. I have never known this desperation. I foolishly did not think I ever would. I believed that I was uniquely gifted, and uniquely focused.
I suppose this has been humbling. One can only run so many miles in a day.
V is for Video Producer
"Video is not film. Video is not easy. Video is not fast. Video is slooooooooooow."
What people don't get about video, is that they don't get video. Here are the four misconceptions that drive me really crazy:
1) Video is not film. People still goof this one all the time, even in 2011. Film is still photographs on celluloid tape running through a mechanical projector at 24 frames per second. Video is what you see on TV, what you watch on YouTube, what you shoot with your phone. Video is information encoded digitally (unless you still have a VCR, in which case you are either a video artist or very... quaint. Anyway, VHS tapes store information magnetic tape, but we don't do that anymore). So 90% of people calling themselves "filmmakers" today never actually shoot film, but hey, maybe it sounds classier than "videomaker." Maybe you don't care, but I do.
2) Video is not easy. Ok, you can shoot a video about your hilarious cat on your cellphone and get a million YouTube views. But constructing beautiful images and compelling narratives is actually incredibly difficult. I studied it -- at a fancy university, actually -- and I probably pulled more all nighters than you did. We were the only department with keys and 24-7 access to our building. And we logged countless nights in tiny, windowless, basement closets editing, learning from our mistakes, watching our shitty student films hundreds of times until we had no idea if they even made sense anymore.
3) Video is not fast. Video is slooooooooooooooooooow. Video is getting faster, thanks to amazing advances in technology, but I can only shoot and watch video in real time. So I can only shoot a video as fast as my interview subject can talk, and every time someone makes a mistake we have to go back and do it again. Try working an 18 hour nonunion shoot with no overtime... and then do that every day for a week. Editing is even slower. To cut two hours of footage down to five minutes, I start by watching two hours of footage. Good, now I'm ready to begin editing. Every new cut, I watch again, and again, and again, ironing out kinks, masking mistakes, cutting out the thousands of "ums," "uhs," "likes," and dead pauses, just so that my interview subject doesn't sound like an idiot. But then, magically, after hours, days, or weeks, the story runs quickly and smoothly and my interview subjects sounds like a genius. Every cut just pops with dynamic energy -- except when they're invisible. Like ninjas! It's almost like... magic.
4) Video is not cheap. Even the most basic project (see above) is incredibly time consuming, and that means hours and hours of people's time. These folks are highly trained, they keep on top of new tools and programs, they have a finely tuned visual sensibility, and they are cool under pressure. These folks need to get paid. It is fun, but it is work, and we do it all day (and often late into the night). So unfortunately, much as I would love to edit your 20 hours of footage from your conference/wedding/documentary about urban gardening, I can't. But your cat video is totally awesome, by the way.
W is for Waiter
"If you don't leave me a tip, I have to pay to serve you."
I am a server at a chain restaurant. There are many things most people don't understand about my job. I make $3 and some change an hour. My paychecks end up being around $20 for two weeks, after taxes are taken out. I am one year away from graduating with my bachelors, and most of the people I work with are also in college. I have to "tip out" other employees. Three percent of my total sales goes to the bartender and the hosts. Even if a table doesn't order an alcoholic drink, I still have to pay the bartender. So if you come in and don't leave me a tip, I have to pay to serve you. If you use a coupon or a gift card, please tip according to the full amount of your bill. Kindness goes much farther than anger does. I didn't cook your food, and I did everything within my power to ensure it came to your table correctly. However, people occasionally mess up.
What people don't see is that every second I'm running around in circles as fast as I can, trying to remember to bring a diet to table 23, extra barbecue sauce to 34, more napkins to 26, and the man at 35 is snapping his fingers at me to get my attention while the baby at 21 is screaming and I'm getting sass at table 33. While I'm sweating and trying to fake a smile for you, please don't yell at me because a minimum wage employee cooked your steak to medium instead of medium well. We can easily fix that, and no, the cooks won't mess with your food. Waiting is a fictional movie.
Also, it won't kill you to sit at a table instead of a booth.
X is for Xenobiologist
"Xenobiology is the study of what life outside our planets might be like."
Xenobiology is the study of what life outside our planets might be like. Xenobiologists seek to make accurate predictions about life on other worlds. Most people don't understand that xenobiology is different than simply being a fan of alien movies. While xenobiology can discuss and evaluate aliens from movies, the two are different from one another.
Y is for Yoga Instructor
"I'm not able to just hop into the perfect adho mukha vrksasana."
I am yoga instructor. I love teaching yoga to women, men, children, parents and babies, pregnant ladies. In a class, I try to respond to some of the specific needs in the class and they vary, whether it's someone with a herniated disc, someone who's looking for a quiet place to process a difficult situation, or someone who heard yoga is good for flexibility and is giving it a try. Students are usually there for some sort of self-care and want to be in class. Many are appreciative, so I usually leave a yoga class feeling rejuvenated.
As far as the physical practice goes, It might be a bit surprising to some people that I'm not able to just hop into the perfect adho mukha vrksasana away from the support of the wall. This usually helps my students know that I'm approachable and not their to perform, but to teach. I don't speak in yoga jargon. I give precise instruction. I think good and hard before I speak with any authority in class about the spiritual aspects of yoga. I can pick out a yoga teacher who has no idea why they are saying what they are saying, so I try to make sure I know the purpose of what I'm communicating in front of a paying, attentive audience.
There are all kinds of yoga teachers out there. The main thing I love is the actual teaching and connecting with students. On the spectrum of teachers, there are those who love the spiritual aspect of yoga, many who love the physical practice, and many who have found the balance in both. There are a few not so nice yoga teachers who simply love to be bad-asses in front of a crowd, but they are thankfully few and far between. The yoga community consists of mainly kind and compassionate people, which I suppose isn't too surprising or unanticipated when it comes to yoga.
Z is for Zookeeper
"No, we do not hug our animals."
I think that zoo keeping is one of the most complex, inspiring and rewarding professions, but very few people outside of the field really understand everything that goes into it. Most think that it's all about cleaning enclosures and feeding animals, and while those activities are certainly an essential part of the work, they are only part of the job. In addition to the cleaning and the feeding, zoo keepers also:
• develop and implement complex training and enrichment programs for their animals;
• work with veterinarians to conduct animal health checks and veterinary procedures;
• design new exhibits and enhance existing exhibits with new features;
• create and present public education programs and animal demonstrations for zoo visitors;
• initiate research projects of their own and assist in the collection of data for research projects led by others;
• transport animals between zoos, and manage and observe introductions of animals to new exhibit areas, to new social situations, and to new breeding partners - all in an effort to maintain sustainable captive populations with the best possible genetic diversity;
• and a host of other activities - every day brings a new challenge.
On a busy day, a zoo keeper might assist with a veterinary exam, conduct a tour for zoo donors, present a keeper talk to a large crowd, install a new climbing structure in an animal enclosure, observe a breeding introduction, collect behavioral data for a research study, and train an animal to perform a new behavior. Oh yes - all this AND the animals still get fed and their enclosures still get cleaned!
What are some other interesting things that most people don't realize about zoo keeping? There are so many, but for now I'll share three:
1. Zoo keepers today are a highly educated bunch - most positions now require at least a bachelor's degree, and an increasing number of zoo keepers either come into the job with a graduate degree or complete graduate programs while they work full time. At the Smithsonian's National Zoo we even have zoo keepers with PhDs!
2. No, we do not hug our animals. It's so surprising how often we are asked that question! We certainly do bond with and develop relationships with the animals we work with, but they are wild animals. And no, we don't think these animals would make good pets in our homes, but they are great colleagues at work. It's incredibly rewarding to work with an animal so that it participates voluntarily in a veterinary procedure or performs a natural behavior on cue so the public can learn about the species' unique adaptations. And it feels great to go home at the end of the day knowing that both you and that animal had fun working together to accomplish those goals.
3. A lot of what we do for the animals in our care is invisible to the public even though it's right there in front of them. For example, when visitors come to the sloth bear exhibit at the National Zoo, they don't realize that when the bear keepers set up the yard in the morning they sprinkled cinnamon on that log, dabbed spearmint extract on that rock, moved those fallen branches into a new configuration, and buried mealworms and peanuts under that mulch. Visitors might not know it, but every day that exhibit is a whole new experience for the bears.
E is for Engineer
"I wish children could understand how much fun I have."
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