“So, what do you do?” the doctor asks.
“When?” I answer.
“Just ... every day.”
“You mean ... for work?”
“I’m a writer.”
He’s still waiting. I wait, too.
“So ... what else do you do?”
What’s wrong with this guy? I wonder. First, he makes me wait in his stuffy, overcrowded waiting room for a whole hour past my appointment time, then he sends in a nurse, then a physician’s assistant to ask what’s wrong with me and why I’m there, as if the 200-page questionnaire the woman at the front desk made me fill out didn’t cover my financial, social and health history. And now he strides in, all fresh-faced and chipper and interested, it seems, in anything but my upper-respiratory condition.
“I don’t know ... I teach writing,” I say, hoping this will be the end of the small talk.
Do doctors ever read the answers they make you write in the questionnaires? Or their nurse’s and PA’s notes? Because, really, everything this guy is asking me is already answered on Page 1 of the encyclopedia I’ve had to write while waiting to be called out of the formal waiting room and into a so-called examination room, which is really just another waiting room, but with a bed and sink and a nurse who asks a thousand intrusive questions, then says, “Doctor will be with you in a few minutes,” and leaves. All this, in the middle of a workday.
The doctor’s still waiting for me to say something.
“I have three kids,” I say, “but they’re all grown.”
He’s still waiting.
Is this guy an ENT or a psychologist?
“Can we talk about why I’m here?” I ask.
He finally gives me a prescription for some antibiotics and lets me get back to work. A week later, his office sends a postcard thanking me for my visit and (this is very classy of them) apologizing for the wait. The respiratory issues are resolved, but the question, spurious as it seemed at the time, stays with me, settles in, and begins to weigh like guilt. What do I do, I wonder, and why wasn’t it enough for the good doctor?
I don’t do much, you see, but I spend all my time doing it. In fact, my entire waking life, these days, consists of two states: I’m either writing or not writing.
Writing is me with my MacBook Air, usually in my car, working on the same novel I worked on last year, and the year before, and the year before that. It’s also what I teach, which takes up a decent amount of time and a great deal of dedication. Not writing is me eating, sleeping, taking a shower, doing the dishes, ordering stuff I don’t need on Amazon and, very occasionally, when my spine feels like it will never move again, going to the gym — in short, wasting good writing time.
Which is why, I realize after days of pondering, I didn’t understand the meaning of the doctor’s question: What do you do, I think he was asking, other than work? As in, what is your hobby?
The word “hobby” has always struck me as bizarre, both its sound and in what it means.
It’s a purely First World creation — like calories — something invented by rich, well-fed and bored Westerners that only they keep track of. A hobby, as I understand it, is an activity one only engages in a.) when one is not working, and b.) purely for fun.
“Not working” and “fun” are also First World contrivances. Everywhere else, you work while you’re awake, and then you die. You work because you have to, or because you want to, or, let’s face it, because you wouldn’t know what to do with yourself if you didn’t work. Otherwise, if you’re rich enough and lazy enough not to have to work every waking minute, you “do” nothing. Or you become a writer or painter, which is the same as doing nothing.
Where I come from, you “do” things for a purpose — usually so you can eat — and if you happen to enjoy what you do, you will either not recognize it or be loath to confess it. In any case, if you’re halfway respectable, you know better than to have “fun” doing or not doing anything, because “fun” usually entails engaging in an immoral activity such as drinking, gambling or adultery.
This is the attitude, even now, in Los Angeles, among most people of my parents’ generation. They’re either working or not working, but either way, you can be sure they’re not having “fun.” They may go to parties, travel with friends, even participate in thrice-weekly card games at one another’s homes, but none of that is done purely for enjoyment’s sake. Instead, it’s by way of fulfilling a social obligation, or a necessary escape from having to spend time with their spouse, or a chore they must undertake in their old age in order to make sure their children and grandchildren find suitable spouses. It’s stressful, expensive and necessary.
Iranians of my generation do give themselves permission to enjoy things, but most of us still suffer from the goal-oriented, success-obsessed, “if you can’t sell it, it’s not worth buying” immigrant mentality. Women who don’t have to work become writers and painters or jewelry designers, or they go to self-improvement seminars and retreats, or sign up for a poetry-as-philosophy course, or get a religion. Overnight, however, having fun becomes either a profession or an obsession. One UCLA extension course or a few sessions of Dr. Shahparaki’s seminars later, the writers feel obliged to become best-selling, award-winning, international sensations, the painters expect to sell their work for six figures or more, and the poetry students all but speak in Shahparaki verse.
Among the men, “fun” is very serious, terribly competitive and usually very costly. They start going to shul just to relax or get away from their demanding wife and noisy kids on Saturday mornings; next thing you know, they’re die-hard Orthodox, plotting hostile takeovers of Conservative synagogues in the interest of making the establishment truly religious. They go to an auto show at the Convention Center, then go home and build a garage the size of the Coliseum, pack it with Ferraris and Bugattis and spend sleepless nights worrying about how many more Ferraris and Bugattis their friends own. A guy I know started out wanting to keep goldfish, and ended up with a koi pond. Then he entered his koi in international beauty pageants. These days, he’s teaching the koi to speak.
As for me, I do the writing for work, and I’m not rich enough or have enough free time to do anything else for fun. It’s not a healthy way to live, I grant you, this total inability to maintain balance and perspective, to do things for the sake of doing them or because they bring you joy. It makes me stressed out, uninteresting and, ironically, useless. It’s also quite embarrassing, as when my grown children ask me, “What did you do today?” and all I have to say, day after day, is “I wrote on my laptop, e-mailed on my laptop, and, for fun, ordered stuff I don’t need on my laptop.” I have enough Japanese shampoo and hair conditioner to turn the entire western coast of the United States into one large bubble bath, but though I live a mere half hour from Santa Monica, I haven’t been to the beach for at least three years. It takes too much time. The sand would get into my laptop. I’d see the water and feel I must include a plot line involving a massive, bubbly, leaves-your-hair-silky-smooth ocean in the book. That would set me back a year. I’m already two years behind. Who said writing is fun?
Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in the Journal.