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Dirtbaggery, Vol. 3: Surviving Thanksgiving Small Talk

“What do you do?”

The question froze me in place. Uncle Marv didn’t mean anything by it. He’s one of those distant in-laws I hadn’t ever met, but recognized from the refrigerator photo. Still, his question had me pinned like verbal jiu-jitsu. And from holiday parties to crowded Thanksgiving tables, I couldn’t escape it that season. I know I shouldn’t worry about impressing my relatives and new acquaintances. But I do. And I can’t just say, “I’m a climber.”

“Blake’s famous!” interjected my mother-in-law, offering my Googleability as proof of popularity. She had searched for me online (probably a wise move when I started taking her daughter on mountain climbing trips) and found my blog. She’s my number one reader.

“That’s a webpage I created about myself!” But she’s old school, and not having any of my excuses.

“There’s a Facebook site about you too!” And I reminded her for the umpteenth time that anyone can register a Facebook site. My neighbors have one for their dog. Fiddle is a frequent invite to local climber parties. If I’m famous, so is Fiddle. Except Fiddle probably has more people “friending” her.

But I knew my mother-in-law’s interjection was done on my behalf upon hearing Uncle Marv ask me a simple question she knew I couldn’t answer. When we meet people for the first time, we ask their name, and we ask them their job. And although I know climbers who’ve adopted unorthodox monikers such as Trout Man, Chongo, Coach or Alf, they have no trouble answering their names. The job category, that one’s often tougher. What’s the standard small-talk procedure to explain that you’re a seasonally employed, part-time laborer who has worked eight jobs in the past five years, flown twice around the world to get partway up big mountains you’d always dreamed of, climbed on tropical limestone painted red by the sunset, skied blower Alaskan powder amid 20-hour daylight, barely kept your bank account in the black and completely neglected that liberal arts degree that took you five years to earn? If you’re like me, you put on a sheepish grin and give a halfway-there explanation, and struggle until failure to explain what you’re doing with yourself and why.

The Thanksgiving table, with its distant relations and seemingly benign questions, is an arena fraught with conversational peril for the committed climber or perennial ski bum. Asking what we’d each been up to, I learned that Uncle Marv had just switched to managing the computer network for a municipal utilities district. How was I supposed to follow that up with a story about the Patagonian Ice Cap? Then I tried to explain why I wasn’t famous, wasn’t professional, and why I wait tables and mop floors at a tourist-filled cafe. He’d nodded and said he’d look me up on the Internet.

I feel a bond to my fellow obsessives, picturing friends across the country struggling to justify their professional sacrifices while regaling saucer-eyed relatives with climber tales and PG versions of their associated freegan enterprises. Maybe it’s just my own thoroughly WASPy upbringing, but somehow even my best climbing stories, the ones that absolutely killed around the campfire at The Creek, just don’t resonate during the holiday events. And to be honest, I’m usually too shy to tell them.

I guess the one benefit to making my career secondary (on a good day) to climbing is the ability to honestly answer a “What do you do?” with just about whatever sounds most interesting at the time. Since quitting my office job in the fall of 2008, I’ve been a backpack assembly laborer, a copywriter, a solar-thermal systems installer, a moving company worker, a delivery truck driver, a census taker, a freelance outdoor writer, a restaurant waiter, a fitness center instructor, a tool assemblyman, a fine-dining maitre-d’, a book editor, an academic tutor, a Facebook marketer, a sales-rep, I’ve purchased coins from the US Mint (just to deposit them at the bank and keep the credit card rewards) and a guidebook author. Maybe I should just give that entire list to the next person who asks.

A follow-up question I prefer, after learning someone’s name, is “How do you get your calluses?” This was first posed to me by a recent boss, a cranky and energetic ex-Alaskan who’d biked to all 50 states after turning 50 and claimed he’d been bitten by an arctic fox. Twice. I’ll be reminded of his question as my weathered and gobied hands shake the impossibly soft skin of distant cousins and in-laws I meet for the first time. Even if they have any, I’ll probably lack the nerve to ask them about their calluses. And if anyone asks about mine I’ll just say they’re from so much blogging. After all, I’ve got a mother-in-law to impress. If I’m not going to have a career, I better at least stay famous on the Internet.