Q: What Do You Do In Maine? A: Live Here
The first thing I noticed about life in Maine — not about Maine itself, but about the experience of actually living here — was that nobody asked me, "So Richard, what do you do?"
This was disorienting. I am a native of Washington, DC, and I can state with some confidence that every introductory conversation of my adult life began with this ritual question. (Before that, as an adolescent, every conversation began, "So Richard, what do you want to do?") And this makes sense in Washington, doesn't it, because how you make your living pretty well defines who you are in a place like that. People naturally want to find out. They need to know whether it's safe, or even possible, to talk to you.
Mainers were different, and for a while I found them hard to get. Weren't they interested in me? What was I supposed to talk to them about? They seemed friendly enough, but they had a way of standing there smiling with a sort of polite expectancy. More often than not I found myself answering the question they had not asked, and my listeners, as I recall, were kind enough to express some level of courteous interest. But for the most part they didn't seem actually to care.
Mark me down as a slow learner. It took me a while to realize that what you do, in the sense of how you earn a living, how you pay your bills, is of no great interest to a typical Mainer (assuming for the purpose of discussion that such a person exists). Mainers on the whole are much more interested in who you are — and here, as against Washington, the two things are not at all the same.
There were plenty of clues. Sometimes when I asked the un-Maine-like question ("So Charlie, what you do?"), the other person would laugh and say, "I don't know, what month is it?" Or, "Nobody in Maine has only one job." Or, "I'm a carpenter — but then again, everybody in Maine is a carpenter!" (It goes without saying, this has nothing to do with the actual profession of carpentry.) After a while I figured it out.
As it happens, when I moved to Maine what I did was write science fiction. In Washington, this answer did not appear on the form. It was an undefined concept, and hence a conversation killer. People would look at me blankly or perhaps give me a terse smile and edge away. Here things were different, but not quite in the way I expected. Should the question come up, then "I write science fiction" was an acceptable response — any reponse would have been acceptable, short of "I run a meth lab" — but at the same time, it was kind of no big deal. If every Mainer is a carpenter, then at least half of us are some kind of artist/writer/musician/whatever type of thing, part of the time anyway. (What month is it?)
Three of four times, upon revealing my occupation, I had someone say, "Oh, really, do you know Steve King?" — which in my foolishness I took to be a naive sort of question. I'd be halfway through some condescending answer before I realized that the other person did know Steve King, had known him for years, used to drink beer with him in Gorham, taught his kids to swim, helped him build a fence that one time. So here were two more lessons I was slow to learn: Maine is a big small town, and I was taking myself way too seriously.
Herewith, then, a piece of unsolicited advice for any new Mainers out there, or anyone visiting these parts who aspires to be a Mainer someday: Do not ask people what they do, and do not tell them what you do, no matter how impressive you think it is. Mainers are impressed by many things — kindness, humor, vintage Harley-Davidsons — but not by resumes. If you feel a need to discuss something more nuanced than the weather, tell them where you live, or who you're visiting, or where you're planning to go tomorrow. The person you're speaking with undoubtedly was born there, or has a sister living up the road, or sells firewood to that fellow, or owns a couple of his paintings— the Mrs. doesn't like them much — and from that point, all you really need to do is listen. You'll be remembered as a heckuva nice person and your name may come up in future conversations of this sort. Trust me, you could do worse.