Friday, March 30, 2007
Questionable Distraction: Part One
Scene: Night-time. Three men - let's call them Brad, Greg and Geoffrey - are perched on stools in a busy inner-city pub drinking beer. Brad and Geoffrey used to work together ... and they love to laugh and share a beer or ten - which, sadly, they do less and less these days. They haven't seen each other for a long time and are engaged in lively, nicotine-fuelled gossip. Greg (who knows Brad well but has only just met Geoffrey) is clearly enjoying their waspish repartee ... and of course Brad and Geoffrey are showing off shamelessly - like tipsy peacocks. In the midst of a veritable torrent of snide put-downs and caustic character assassinations, they pause for breath. Greg, taking the opportunity to participate, leans bravely into the conversation. "So, what do you do Geoffrey - if you don't mind me asking?"
It's an interesting question: "What do you do?" ... and one I find increasingly difficult to answer. Frankly, it's a real conversation stopper. My problem, you see, is that I don't really 'do' anything - at least not by the generally recognisable standards of polite social order and interaction. More for the sake of expediency than anything else, I told Greg* I was a "Fee Slut". I have come to really love and respect the term "Fee Slut". I first heard the term when, perhaps ironically now that I think about it, I had asked a gorgeously interesting woman I had just met at a party what she 'did'. A Fee Slut, as I expect you have already figured out, is someone who does anything for a fee. Fee Sluts are also people who can't be bothered going into what we perceive to be superfluous (not to mention difficult to summarise and justify in a minute or two) details about our lives with someone we've just met ... and are unlikely to ever see again.
One of the problems I have with the whole 'what I do defines who I am' concept, is that it can lead to somewhat premature conclusions about what we're worth ... what we offer to the world, or - at the very least - the conversation. It's as though the mundane, lung-cancer inducing thing(s) I 'do' to keep the roof over my head, the nicotine coursing through my veins and the caffeine coursing through whatever part of my anatomy caffeine courses through, somehow collectively offer a key to a greater understanding of who I am. I 'do' graphic design because my clients pay me to. I 'do' the odd little publicity or public relations gig because my clients pay me to. I write the very occasional Brand Management Discussion Paper because my clients pay me to. I typeset, I write copy, I mess around in Photoshop and Illustrator, I design display advertisements, brochures, catalogues, business cards, websites, letterheads, CD slicks and presentation folders because my clients pay me to. It reveals no more about who I really am than it does about who you really are.
Why do we do it? Why is it that with almost monotonous regularity, people - myself included - always ask this question within minutes of meeting someone ... and in just about any given circumstance? Is it that we expect the answer might put whoever it is we're asking it of in some kind of, I don't know, illuminating context? Does the answer ever really tell us more about the person than if we'd asked, say, "So, tea or coffee - what's your preference?" ... or "So, toilet paper - folder or scruncher?"
I have to be honest. Apart from the fact that I 'do' so many different things (most of which I find too common, ordinary and inane to even bother mentioning), the biggest problem I have with being asked this question is that I always imagined that by this stage of my life, people wouldn't have to ask me what I 'do' ... because they'd already know. You've just been introduced to Al Pacino at a party. What are you going to say? "Hi Al, Geoffrey. So, what do you do?" Or Steven Spielberg ... "Hi Steve. Nice suit. So Steve, what do you do?" You see my problem? I am wracked with pain, guilt, fear and regret about having failed to live up to the expectations I set for myself.
I expected to be famous.
I actually was famous once, albeit in a very suburban fashion. I used to have a career as an actor in television - until a nasty amphetamine habit rendered my eyeballs and my powers of short-term memory entirely useless for the purposes of an actor's requisite proximity to a television camera ... not to mention the messy little details associated with character development and story narrative. I was stumbling through what turned out to be an almost embarrassingly brief contract on a television show called Carson's Law. I was so drug-fucked that I once managed to get from North Dandenong (where I lived in heterosexual bliss) to Collingwood (where we were filming) in eighteen minutes. In morning peak hour.
Perhaps most problematic where my acting for television was concerned, is that I could never remember what I had just 'done'. My vainglorious association with the show came to an abrupt end when, during a scene featuring Lorraine Bailey and some poor hapless guest in the witness stand, my character had apparently 'done' something interesting by way of a reaction to what was going on. Make-up was called ... and as Ms Bailey looked on with thinly veiled impatience, a light metre was held up next to my blood-shot eyes, tape measures assured the cameraman of an appropriate distance between me and the camera, a light - about three metres from me - was inched closer, the large and heavy front panelled section of the jury box was moved out of the way, and the confidence-erradicating beast which is The Television Camera was swung in my direction and floated toward me. "Do that again", said the director. "Rehearsal! ... and, standing by ... and ... action!" "What ... exactly" I asked. "What you just did ... when you looked from Lorraine to (whoever it was in the witness stand)." I gave it a go. A crew member shifted his considerable weight from one foot to the other ... and as anyone who has ever worked as an actor for television will confirm, once you have the crew offside you can quite literally count what remains of your career options in nano-seconds. "No, no," said the director, "do the look ... ". Poor Lorraine, bless her. I still recall her wan smile of encouragement ... her vain hope that I might rise to the occasion. I gave it another go ... and the director looked at me with an expression that, today, I would recognise as a mixture of disdain, disappointment, contempt and bewilderment. Without either further adieu or the shot, he turned his back on me. The light that had been inched closer to me was moved back, the large and heavy front panelled section of the jury box was put back, and the confidence-erradicating beast which is The Television Camera was swung away from me and floated back to where the real actors were.
Some weeks later, an episode of Carson's Law I had been in was on television and the following day, I went with my Mum to Safeway to help with the grocery shopping. I wore my baseball cap and sunglasses ... masquerading as some kind of Glen Waverley-based, lame excuse for television royalty. As we stood in the check-out queue, both Mum and I started to notice that people were looking at me. A woman asked my Mum if it was in fact her son who had been on Carson's Law last night ... and Mum, who has never been more proud, nodded and smiled. As a small audience of admirers began to form around us, we gathered our groceries and left the shopping centre ... my wonderful Mum and her famous son.
Today, I feel Universally blessed to have had so many wonderful opportunities throughout my life to have had a go at 'doing' all sorts of interesting things ... but to what extent they define who we are is a subject I am really looking forward to exploring. Bear with me. This could get interesting.
So, what don't you do?
*Greg, by the way, is an Architect, Photographer and Writer.