August 08, 2002

Resigned to Voyeuristic Amateurism

It’s unnaturally cold here at the west end of North America, almost an actual dark day in paradise. Everything is gray and damp and dull, as if November forced its way into the beginning of August, but that won’t stop Santa Barbara from going batshit crazy this weekend. Today begins the annual Old Spanish Days celebration, locally known as Fiesta Weekend, when tourists from Fresno and Lancaster and Riverside will be whooping it up in demented depravity for three days straight.

The looming debauchery has already affected productivity—my supervisors are gone for the day and the workload is miniscule anyway. Still, six hours of dealing with bitchy arguments over petty cash reimbursement has dulled my senses, and since this stuff will just be back with a vengeance on Monday, with me likely hung over from a prolonged Fiesta binge, I don’t think any more real work will get done today. I listen for any hints of nearby life, but the front office is pretty quiet, so I subtly take the phone off the hook, moving it just slightly so that it still seems in place, and try not to think about all the meaningful, creative things I haven’t accomplished today while sitting in a cube.

I shouldn’t dwell on it too much, cause sooner or later it’ll get overwhelming and I’ll psych myself out with the realization that life seems less and less likely to grant me the holy privilege of “doing what I want to do.” I’ve mired myself in that horrible place before, and the worries always seem to pop up whenever I’m bored at work, and I have to remind myself that creative minds are always doomed to similar purgatories before someone deigns to give them a paycheck for their brilliance.

Too bad for me that brilliance has been in short supply lately. My writing has sucked, and I’m not enough of a maniacal self-promoter to survive the brutal jockeying of literary fiends that compete for the attention of newspapers or publishing houses. That sort of thing takes a kind of willpower just short of genius, and I’m not a genius. I used to assume that no one else in my immediate socio-creative radius showed more promise with equal talent, but of course that proved as wrong as every other naïve assumption I held when I thought that people would naturally beat down my door in frenzied anticipation of the next masterpiece.

I file some more pay stubs and refund receipts and try not to feel like a fraud. No one else I know has leeched more mileage from their idols than I have, and the wider world will guess at it sooner or later. Someone will probably detect the smoldering desire for validation that plagues people like me, or maybe they’ll notice a blatant bit of plagiarism without thinking it’s some insane originality, and then my cheap ego-fort of cover will be blown and I’ll be just another imitator. Just another frustrated also-ran in the great race of desperate whores, except for one debilitating difference: an inconveniently interrupting inner monologue.

“That’s right,” it says, burbling up from the depths of my mind, a brutal voice of Reason that shatters all scams with its fearsome hammer of reality. “Yeah, forget about all that crap, man. Drop it. You’re not a writer and not an artist. You’re just a bureaucrat, sniping and clawing for any slice of soothing survival you can get. How many more days do you think you’ll be able to slouch into your tiny apartment at the end of the day, dude?”

Whatever you say. Sure, fine. And yeah, grand theft is too easy to spot in print to get away with it, especially the odious kind that pretends to be an homage. Uh-huh, everyone’s a crook, but some are smart enough to fess up if they ever get caught, and they grovel and plead like children for their infractions to be forgotten until the next time, so that they might be seen in the eyes of the world as perpetual first-time offenders.

“Yeah, that’s more like it,” agrees the Voice. “You’re not an artist yet, but you might become one someday, when you step out from under the shadow of Emulation, and keep from being obscured by the blazing light of history and the combined intensity of universal appreciation and abject envy. It’s been a long time since those glory days of wild and bizarre prose, let alone the odd interview of a C-list musician or politician, hasn’t it? It was one headlong rush down with by total lies and blatant plugs for a band that doesn’t play anymore.”

I silently agree, but the voice takes this as a cue to continue. “You’ll be an artist when you can string together something less puerile, less self-aggrandizing than that juvenile shit you passed off as criticism in the school paper. Until then, you'll keep sitting in front of a computer at a dead-end job by day, and playing with a no-hoper, nobody band at night. Come on, just try not to cobble together tunes that reek of revenge. Until you can do that, pal, you’ll just be a perpetual interpreter, bereft of ambition and innovation.”

It’s hard to really, truly admit psychological defeat when I’m only arguing with myself, but that’s what happens, and I go back to work, filing forms and answering emails and phone calls from curious and desperate job applicants for the next few hours. It’s pretty soul-crushing, and I can’t help but think ahead to rehearsal with the guys tonight, when ear-splitting noise will drown out the worst doubts and nastiest self-recriminations.

I pull up our rinky-dink website on the computer and click through it in a fit of vanity. The site had crashed earlier today, when I tried to upload a few pages’ worth of new lyrics for the songs we’ll be practicing, but it seems fine now. The lyrics are the first ones I’ve finished in six months, having spilled out of the burbling stew of my brain as epic, monstrous things that cannot be controlled by tight, clever titles. Indeed, they must be given big words like “forever” and “oblivion” and such, bloated with pretension and crippled by hubris.

The day is just slouching by, so I pull a lyric sheet out of my pocket and give it a quick scan, a self-critical impulse that must mean my mental worms are truly ready to turn. Future cerebral expeditions to unearth more meaningful scrawl will now probably have to be shelved in favor of mock self-absorption and gratuitous daydreaming over some lame semi-hip ennui midlife crisis shock-mode bullshit. Well, that’s not entirely true, but it can’t be made to sound like anything else, so enough of this crap. Most people will not be bothered with such selfish tripe on their good days, so any karmic mercy on a wretched afternoon like today is out of the question.

When overcooked bullshit like this is piling up, though, you gotta get out from under it, and I need some air anyway, so I get up from my desk and leave the HR office without permission to deposit a long-awaited check at the billing office downstairs. I step out into the open Admin building hallway and shiver; the faint shadows and the weak breeze offer small consolation since I’d spent most of the day sitting inside a cubicle. I take the elevator down and, after a wham-bam visit with the lifers in Billing, am not in the mood to go back up three floors and simply try to look busy for the next two hours.

As I turn toward the elevator, though, a brunette of indeterminate-student age passes in front of me, walking briskly through the quasi-tunnel of Admin’s first floor. It’s been a long, boring day, and she is absolutely stunning—I caught a brief glimpse of a snub-nosed, high-cheeked profile—so I decide to skip out on work and follow her. Not in a devious, obsessive, or psychotic way, I tell myself, knowing full well this would be near-impossible to explain to anyone else on the receiving end of even the most benign form of this behavior. I do it anyway, however, because at this point it’s almost routine.

Seriously, it’s sad but true. Back when I was a student it was easy to follow pretty girls all over campus, crowded as the paths were between classes, with everyone out and about keeping decidedly cool and to themselves (this was before the proliferation of cellphones). It goes further back than that, though; I've indulged this sick impulse at every academic institution I've ever attended since grade school, for no other apparent reason than the challenge of keeping far enough behind to escape notice and compensating for the girl's speed or lack thereof as she walked.

She seems like she could fall into almost any assumption I could make about her, all favorable. She’s dressed up for this gray day in a tastefully sleeveless white blouse with a neck-high cut that compliments her khaki ankle-length skirt well. All is skin-tight. Skirt not slit very high up her legs at all, creating the effect of short and frequent strides; it isn't long before she turns the corner around Admin and is out of sight, forcing me to either pick up the pace or be conscientious and go back up the stairs to my cube.

The Voice is on to me, though. “Yeah, think fast, you lecherous sloth. Your lack of a proper, enthusiastic, all-American work ethic has already thrown you into fuck-it mode, so just speed up. You’re already in trouble. Might as well make it worth the grief you’ll get back at the office. Your tibialis anterior muscles will protest the only way they know how, and your front lower legs will ache with indignation, because you’re A) still pathetically out of shape despite biking to work daily, and B) you wouldn’t have even remembered “tibialis anterior” if not for your girlfriend’s (yes, as in actual co-habiting female sexual partner) semester of anatomy lab last year. Yeah, dipshit, she wouldn’t enjoy this, would she?”

Well, it’s not like I’m going to talk to this girl anyway. I dismiss the Voice with a shrug and pick up her trail immediately after turning the corner. It’s the hips in that skirt that did it. “This girl would not give you the goddamn time of day, you asshole. You stalk like an amateur and she probably knows it by now.” Shit. You think so? Come on, I don’t even know what her whole face looks like. I gotta find that one out, man. “Suit yourself, slimeball.”

I fall back from around fifteen feet to about thirty, clomping around in ragged faux-Docs like a troglodytic frat guy—except frat guys wouldn’t chase this girl, or at least she wouldn’t’ let them catch her. She doesn’t really look anything like the blonde, low-watt, short-tempered coeds that now constitute fifty-four percent of the current student body. Those girls binge on alcohol as often as they over-exercise at the gym, their bodies unconsciously breaking even in a vicious cycle until their strained physiques finally show dissatisfaction via protruding pouches of tummies and handles that spill out of the tight baby t-shirts or spaghetti straps that compliment their frighteningly tight jeans.

So yeah, this girl doesn’t look like that. She looks like the daughter of a rich daddy, like every girl I dated in high school. This of course presents a few Freudian problems—I remember the story of how my parents met at school thirty years ago, when my dad followed my mom home—and the replay reel starts to run, with audio commentary included for my listening pleasure. "Struggling semi-sensitive guy from broken home seeks sheltered little rich girl, brunette if possible." Fuck off- you know it wasn't really like that. "Are you sure? You weren't there, now were you?" Freud's overrated. Besides, I've never snorted cocaine, so shut up. Overanalyzing this is not helping, okay? Let’s just keep going.

By this time I’d crossed the Arbor and main square in front of the Library, in what I’d thought was a parallel trajectory, but apparently not as focused or attentive to the rapidly exploding directional possibilities that the girl might take, because before I can follow her around to the dorms on the far side of the windowless Psych building, the world is suddenly full of people, and she melts into the oncoming throng with ease. Undergrads and vendors and professors and grad students and university support staff all converge on the same spot, and the beautiful vision that spurred my bent truancy is gone.

Gone, and all I can do is go back. There’s nothing for it. It’s been at least twenty minutes, and the fucking phones back at the office won’t answer themselves—on or off the hook—and the job applicants and grievance-filers and staffers confused over their health benefits will still be there. My legs ache, my feet are cramping up with fatigue, and I’m sweating like a horse, right through the feeble clothing that passes for dress-casual in this apathetic day and age.

I turn around and start walking slowly toward the bus loop, back the long way. Might as well make the most of the remaining minutes of fresh air, drab and displaced gloom that it is. I try not to think about the vile reasons for what just happened, but I can’t completely banish the idea of sin. I may not be an artist, but at least I’m not psychotic. I’m just a lazy, voyeuristic asshole with not enough free time.

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