A long time ago, the Orange County Fair was a dangerous place for chameleons. One of the vendors profited by attaching live lizards by a string to children’s collars so we could delight in watching the reptiles’ color change to match our clothing. The oddity of a creature that altered its intrinsic nature to blend into its surroundings fascinated us—as freaky things at the fair always do—but how could we not see that the poor animal was just trying to save its life? Most of us were too young to understand the cruelty of the game.
Decades later, I have become the chameleon. Like most of us, I spend my days struggling to fit in and survive in the cubicle farm where I work. My gray fabric walls match the gray carpet and gray ceiling. And gray desk. And gray shelf. And gray phone. I spend almost every sunlit hour in my cube, so that I don’t lose my livelihood, my living, including my all-important health insurance.
I’m such a good chameleon that when shopping for business suits, I keep my eyes open for gray. And I’m just one of many. Orange County these days is overrun by chameleons. We design computers, handle accounts, set up billing cycles, write “content,” and more. And we make enough of a living at it to keep up, morphing ourselves into the greatest grays we can be.
Many cube farms in Orange County stand where actual farming used to flourish, where verdant life sprang from the earth in tidy rows and reached for the sun. Few of us can see the sun from our cubes. Still, the natural world is in us, if on an unconscious level. We refer to ourselves as cube “rats.” When something noisy happens in a cube farm, we all pop our heads up for a view of whatever it is—a reaction we call “prairie dogging.” And our output—our productivity—is measured as though it were produce, like bushels of corn, except corn has access to sunshine.
My yearning always is strongest in January. I arrive at my frigid cube just after daybreak and leave just after sunset. Maybe it’s because it’s the midway point between fairs, but what rolls through my brain is an annual longing for a day when I can be myself under a sunny sky—dancing and playing, joking and singing, just plain reveling in my Promethean soul. I always picture this happening at the fair.
The fair! I can do so much there: Wander through the arts and commerce buildings, animal exhibits, and minifarm. Ogle at the rodeo. Whoop and howl at the whirl and swoosh of carnival rides. See all the other chameleons with their true colors shining in daylight.
The months pass slowly while I look forward to the fair’s celebration of Orange County’s cultural history. Not that we in the cube farms don’t have culture, too. But it’s provided in varnished neutral we’re-a-team tones by our employers. We’re told when to celebrate, when to work, what to wear, and what to leave home. Deck shoes, yes; flip-flops, no. In cube culture, innovation is expected, but anything too frilly, funky, or avant-garde might hamper our ability to move up to one of those desired window offices, because promotions can be denied if you don’t fit in.
But once a year, the fair applauds our individual flair. In part, it does this by displaying handcrafted items from local artisans and artists. Competition here leads only to a blue ribbon … and fun. Remember fun? Even if you’re not participating, there’s so much to see: geometric quilts, woodworked chairs of polished burl, poignant paintings, dramatic photographs—each a splendid homage to our county’s character. The more imagination we see in the work, the more we marvel.
Of course, even the fair has been pressured to fit into today’s commercial world. For a while, it was threatened with extinction when the state toyed with the idea of selling the fairgrounds. It got a reprieve, so for now we can all heave a sigh of relief. But management has removed the old Craft Corral, where fairgoers could buy handmade triumphs of talent. Now we’re offered booths teeming with manufactured goods. Nice, but not the same. Also, there used to be a grandstand stage near the main entrance. Where we once sat and clapped for young tap-dancers from local performing arts schools, we now find an abundance of fried-food vendors.
Let’s not forget what a fair is—a celebration of the real roots of our county and its history of pioneering, out-of-the-box innovation and creativity. And our fair still has plenty of that. Sometimes it feels like one of the only places that still does.
So look for me among the quilts, the collections, the table settings, and the wild, screaming freedom of the carnival rides. Join me, and maybe you’ll discover your true hues, too. I hope so. Because they just don’t grow that in cubes.
Illustration by Megan Berkheiser and Mike Caldwell.
This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue.