8/25/2003

how about intelligent life on earth?

I can’t cope.

I just got back from a trip to the post office on Center Street. People are nuts. I was locking my bike up in front of the ice cream shop next to the post office and there were two middle-aged adults sitting at a table chatting while their two two-and-a-half or three year old kids had found a stash of little stones (larger than pebbles, smaller than rocks, let’s say) and were gathering up handfuls and throwing them against a wall. They would dash against the wall and then ricochet off in every direction.

I watched while they did this over and over again, in plain view of their parents (the parents were friends and the kids were playmates, by the looks of it), who were chatting merrily away at the table.

The thing that floored me was: not only were the children clearly—clearly—making a nuisance of themselves, they were also endangering themselves and others in the process. It was one of those things that’s sort of the minimum responsibility of parents to deal with. I mean, everybody knows you’re not supposed to throw stones. That’s one of those things—the very first things—parents are supposed to tell you, to admonish you for when you’re little.

I walked into the post office, and there was a long line of people waiting. I had this cover letter and résumé I was sending to the Museum of Fine Arts. I had phoned the museum earlier to try and figure out who to address the letter to, since I didn’t want to write ‘Dear Sir/Madam,’ or ‘To Whom it May Concern,’ which everybody knows is the last line they’ll read. But I got HR and they were most unhelpful, as HR always is. The guy was like, ‘most people just address it “To Whom it May Concern.”’ I was like, well, that’s my point, you jumped-up little cunt, most people don’t get the job, do they? But lacking a better method of getting the information I just addressed the cover letter ‘To Whom it May Concern,’ and had done with it. I mean, fuck it, fuck them, fuck everything. Waste of time.

So there I was in line for, like, twenty minutes, trying to think of a way to ask for a first-class stamp so as not to piss off the clerk. Because if they can, they always want to just punch in the first-class code on their little computer and print out a bar-code sticker for it, or rubber-stamp it, and I wanted the personal touch of an actual stamp, something nice, something sort of artistic, I mean without being pretentious. But if they have to open up that drawer with the big book of stamps in it, they get all huffy.

Well, I got up there and asked him for a stamp, and you could feel him tense up. He opened the drawer, opened the book, and without showing me any of the first class stamps available to me, he ripped one out that had ‘HAPPY BIRTHDAY!’ emblazoned on it in big, ugly bubble-letters, and slapped it on the envelope. He could clearly see it was not a personal letter. It was in a legal envelope, not one of those big, stupid birthday card envelopes. The address was typed on the envelope. There was no name, it clearly read ‘Human Resources Department,’ so that it was perfectly obvious it wasn’t to anyone in particular, much less for someone’s birthday.

It was one of those teeny, tiny acts of spite that you just can’t do anything about without coming off as even more petty and spiteful yourself. And they’re betting you won’t.

And of course, I didn’t. I’ve got no hope whatsoever of getting this job anyway, so I just let it go.

As I was unchaining my bike I noticed the couple with the kids were on their way out. The corner of the terrace of the ice cream place was a shambolic mess, with all those little stones the children had thrown left lying where they fell, all over the place, for someone else to clean up. Truly despicable people. By all appearances, fine, respectable upper middle class, middle-aged parents and tax-paying citizens of the commonwealth. And truly and utterly despicable.

As I passed them on the sidewalk I wanted to point out the mess their children had made, and they had left for someone else to pick up. But people like that get hostile. They have a sense of entitlement. They get awfully offended when you point out how offensive they are. And what right do I have? So I peddled off home as fast as I could to get away from them. From all of them.

is there life on Mars?


Robert came over and we went to the Oak Ridge Observatory in Harvard, MA, to try to see Mars. Didn’t actually manage it. The clouds sort of rolled in around sunset and obscured the view. But I doubt we would have been able to get in to see it anyway. There was limited space, obviously, and a lottery to determine which sixty lucky visitors would get in. They actually have several telescopes on the premises, but the really big one’s the one you want to look through, obviously. It’s a 61” Wyeth reflector telescope. But even it’s not state of the art anymore, though some guy who, in the chaos and confusion that ensued as darkness fell, claimed to be an astronomer there, says it was the telescope the first planet outside our solar system was I.D.’d with, in 1995. In 1995! I could’ve told you there was one out there if you’d asked. But that’s science for you.

Scientists really are just as stupid and scatter-brained as is supposed, at least by the evidence of this event. I mean, there was no order and no organization. No one to tell you where to go to register for the lottery—or even that there was going to be one. Basically when you arrived, you saw all these queues, but if you asked anybody in one of them what they were queuing for, chances are they’d just shrug. I mean, people were just queuing up, trusting that at the head of the queue there was actually something worth queuing for. We did, too. We ended up in the queue for the lottery, as it turns out, but there were no instructions and no one manning the tables once we got in.

I suppose we could have filled out more than one ticket, you can bet some people did, but I don’t think it would’ve done any good in the end. I’ve never had any luck in drawings like this. I don’t think I’ve ever won anything. I decided if I did this time, and Robert didn’t, I’d let him go in my place. The whole thing was his idea.

After we got that out of the way (and no one told us when the drawing would be, or where, or anything), we had a look around.

There were four other buildings on the site, one was an administrative building, it looked like, two housed older telescopes, and in the fourth was some kind of jerry-rigged tin-foil and cellophane contraption they claimed was a receiver for messages from outer space. It looked like something your dad would’ve built in the basement when you were a kid. When I was growing up, my dad always had his little secret projects, and they all looked a little like this thing, only smaller.

There was some crackpot in the room talking out his ass about it, saying it was designed to receive about three terabytes—that’s three trillion bytes—of information per second. And? One guy was like, so what do you do with all that information? Well, the old quack said, we throw most of it out! He burst out in a fit of laughter. We left.

On our way out there was a kid—he looked about thirteen—one of these painfully brainy kids who maybe works with the crank, explaining something no one could possibly understand. And there was a lot of that going on. You could’ve told these sods in the crowd just about anything—just throw some jargon in there, and they’d think you knew what you were talking about. I mean, people just assume, don’t they? You could say, ‘yes, and this instrument here is called an ologyrit, and it’s function is to praxillate dicuplurobra, which it does, ingeniously if I may say, by airfibrolating the ionchiaphanth right here at a rate of approximately a trillian decatrophs a second!’ And so long as you said it loud enough, people would be like, damn, he’s smart! He must be in charge. You could be speaking Pig Latin and these clowns would be nodding, squinting their eyes, and stroking their beards thoughtfully, following you around, tripping over tree trunks as they did.

Because they’d just cut down a whole bunch of trees—that very day, by the looks of it. In this age of liability law suits, I was shocked to see so little effort put into crowd control. I mean, here you had all these kids and old people stumbling and staggering around in the dark, on this lot like an obstacle course. This was lawsuit heaven!

We had a lot of time to mill around in the dark tripping over things, too, since Mars wouldn’t make an appearance in any case until a quarter after ten. There was no real order anywhere, like I said, no signs telling you what to do, no PA system. Occasionally you’d bump into a little pocket of order, where someone people assumed was in charge because he was talking louder than everyone else was badgered with questions by the others.

Chuck disappeared at one point, and we found him off by himself smoking a fag. We had just heard one of the declaimers in the crowd declaiming on how, if extra terrestrials were going to contact us it would be with densely-packed bursts of laser light, like in Carl Sagen’s Contact.

Robert asked me what I thought about extra-terrestrial life, about space aliens. I said I thought they were already among us. One in three, he said.

Then he revealed that some years ago when he had lived in New Mexico he had had very realistic dreams of having been abducted by aliens, but he said he was pretty sure they were just dreams. But they were very realistic.

I said if I were an alien and had a choice of any of the three of us to abduct I’d probably choose Robert, too.

Then I told them about my incubus experience. It’s supposed to be a succubus that visits men, but it was definitely not a female demon that oppressed me one night in the cellar of the old house on Prow where I lived for a couple of years while attending Indiana University.

Why an incubus and not a succubus? I think probably demons are pretty clever, and they knew a succubus would get nowhere with me. Actually, it was widely believed, by the likes of Thomas Aquinas, in fact, that the same demon could appear as incubus or succubus. The same demon could, as a succubus, steal the semen from a sleeping man, and then go off and, in incubus form, impregnate a sleeping woman. Aquinas wanted it noted that the semen was not the demon’s own—it was purloined human sperm. According to Caesarius of Heisterbach, this is how the demons created new bodies for themselves. According to one 17th century source,

What incubi introduce into the womb is not any ordinary human semen in normal quantity, but abundant, very thick, very warm, rich in spirits and free from serosity. This, moreover, is an easy thing for them, since they merely have to choose ardent, robust men, whose semen is naturally very copious, and with whom the succubus has relations; and then the incubus copulates with women of a like constitution, taking care that both shall enjoy a more than normal orgasm, for the greater the venereal excitement the more abundant is the semen.

By the 18th century they’d pretty much figured out that incubi and succubi were either clever covers for real-life lovers, or the wild imaginings of hysterical, horny bitches.

My incubus didn’t actually do anything nasty. But otherwise he behaved as incubi generally do these days, although I was not really aware of their existence before the episode. I mean, we’ve all seen the famous painting—Fuseli’s The Nightmare ...


...where the demon crouches on the swooning woman’s trunk. Well, that’s just what it looked like when it happened to me, although I was not quite so elegantly dressed. I don’t remember what I was wearing. I sleep in the nude whenever it’s feasible, but that cellar was not the place for languishing in the all-in-all.

It was pretty creepy even before the demon came along. I was working the graveyard shift in those days, and was napping before work. I felt as if something had leapt onto my chest and I awoke with it, crouching there, staring me in the eye. I will never forget it. It looked like a miniature version of the already sort of miniature Michael Mazer, whom I’d known since my first days in the dorm at college. All but the eyes. See, Mazer was a major stoner. He could not have opened his eyes that wide had he just been told he’d won 300 million dollars in the state lottery.

I was paralyzed for a moment in absolute shock and fear, but managed finally to shake the demon off, whereupon I ran upstairs, screaming like an hysterical bitch, and, as I said, never slept in the cellar again.

I never had an alien abduct me. There’s definitely something sort of exciting about that probe. Though Robert assured me there was nothing in the least arousing about it.

We talked a little about the movie Contact and Chuck reiterated his admiration for Jodie Foster. She was so god-awful in that film, but then the film itself was pretty slushy. I mean, the script and all. She was perfect for it, actually. I don’t think she has a subtle bone in her body.

At some point we moseyed back over to the Wyeth building, where they were already calling off numbers for the lottery. No one had said anything, of course, so we had no idea how many they’d already called. They never called ours, though, not even any number close. Robert said he hoped it wouldn’t clear up, so nobody would see it. And that’s just what happened in the end.

8/22/2003

Notes on the Gainsborough exhibition at the MFA

Went to the Thomas Gainsborough exhibition last night at the MFA. I must admit I wasn’t madly keen on going. Of all the eras in art, Gainsborough’s has got to be among the most blah. He was a passable portrait artist, it’s true (of note are his scrumptious Blue Boy and An Officer of the Fourth Regiment of Foot), but certainly no better than Reynolds. The fact that he was the It Boy of portraiture in swinging eighteenth-century Bath tells you there wasn’t much else going on in the neighborhood at the time.

Even elsewhere in the world for the bulk of the eighteenth century there was nothing to get too excited about as far as the arts were concerned, except maybe the Rococo Movement in France and the Neoclassical rebellion against it everywhere else. Revolution, Restoration and Romanticism came late in the century, of course, and overturned and overshadowed what came before, so that when we look back, the early- to mid-eighteenth century seems timid, uninspired, and actually terribly unsexy by comparison. There was a lot of foment early in the century, of course, a lot was about to happen, but Gainsborough wasn’t in on any of it, as far as I can see.

His early portraits are almost naïve. Which makes sense, as he was a poor boy from Suffolk with little formal training. Awkward and folksy, the early portraits bear next to no resemblance to his technically flawless later works, in which a premium is placed on likeness. He gained his amazing facility for painting faces partly from painting full-scale copies of works by Anthony Van Dyck, the 17th-century Flemish painter, and his landscapes allude to the Dutch idylls of the previous century, too. His entire oeuvre, in fact, shows a kind of harkening back, a nostalgia, that is sometimes sincere and other times, as with his Blue Boy, a bit cynical. One thing is for sure, if in the beginning Gainsborough was naïve, by the end he had learnt the lucrative art of marketing. His society portraits pander to the elite of Bath, and his ‘fancy pictures of rural life’ do, too. His Cottage Girl with Dog and Pitcher is pure sentimental fabrication of rural poverty for his rich clientele.

For me, at least, Gainsborough’s work is particularly uninspired and uninspiring. He is much beloved in England to this day because his portraits seem to—seem to—show a vanished world in which the English behaved themselves with a little dignity. Relative to how people behave today maybe. Even when he portrayed them a bit saucily, as he did in his portrait of Mrs. Philip Thicknesse, nee Anne Ford (the subject is seated with legs crossed in what at the time was considered a manly fashion, but would now be considered effeminate) they look more dignified than the modern-day freaks now populating that wretched, god-forsaken island. The fact is, Gainsborough’s real claim to fame, and the reason he has remained revered is that he was a chronicler of emergent empire. His portraits were the products of a new luxury culture in which a rising mercantile class sought all the fineries previously reserved for royalty. According to the London Magazine of 1773:

"The constitution of this country, from the effeminacy of our manners, and from the luxury of our entertainments, seems not to rest on a permanent foundation. True nobility now consists in splendid titles, gay equipage, and princely palaces ..."

while a rampant `middle class' sought `to acquire respect and esteem from the vulgar.' And Bath was one place they came to do it. As one novelist of the time (Tobias Smollett) had it:

"... Clerks and factors from the East Indies, loaded with the spoil of plundered provinces; planters, negro-drivers, and hucksters, from our American plantations ... agents, commissaries, and contractors ... usurers, brokers and jobbers of every kind ... [men of] low birth [who] hurry to Bath because here, without any further qualification, they can mingle with the princes and nobles of the land."

It’s little wonder his portraits resonate for some today.

Basically, Gainsborough was the Herb Ritts of mid-seventeenth century England. He was a skilled schmoozer and society painter. And just like in the 1980s having your portrait snapped by Ritts meant you’d arrived, the same was true, in the 1780s, of having your portrait painted by Gainsborough. Both men were indisputably talented, maybe or maybe not principally in art. Only when the memory of the celebrities Ritts snapped have been obliterated will anyone know for sure the value of the portraits themselves. Is his portrait of Madonna as a mouseketeer a masterpiece? That’s really the question with Gainsborough now. His portraits are of very limited appeal to the general public, except as either executions of technical skill or glimpses into a bygone historical era. Which is precisely what made the exhibition such a big yawn.

So the exhibition didn’t really change my mind about anything, though it did reveal in Gainsborough one of the great animal-portraiture artists of his time. Along with his contemporary George Stubbs. John James Auduban comes to mind, too. But he was born three years before Gainsborough’s death. And Auduban was not an artist in the same sense Gainsborough was. He was a naturalist with an amazing facility for art on a scientific mission to catalogue the birds of America. Gainsborough wasn’t so much interested in birds. Whenever the composition allowed, he incorporated dogs into his work. He wasn’t the one who painted all those pictures of dogs playing poker (left), though. That was Cassius Marcellus Coolidge who was born six years before Audubon’s death (is there a pattern emerging here?). But, for Gainsborough the dogs may simply have been another accoutrement, along with the jewelry and gowns, the medals and musical instruments, meant to show his subjects’ place in society. Just as today, if you take a walk downtown in any fashionable neighborhood you find people parading their dogs up and down the sidewalk. Their dogs are as much advertisements for who they think they are, or how they would like to be perceived as they are dogs.

We opted for the audio tour, by the way. At the end of the exhibition, you can sign a visitor’s register with your comments. One visitor had just written about how having to listen to other people’s headphones was distracting, but she—the handwriting looked like it belonged to a she—was just being snooty. It’s pathetic how people have to prove to themselves that they’re better than somebody else (and everybody else if at all possible) by making a fuss over things like this.

I couldn’t resist writing next to her entry: ‘you would not have heard our headphones if you had been wearing a pair yourself.’ I mean, let’s be solution-oriented. All this bitch wanted was for everybody who read it to know that she—whoever she was—was better than them, was a real art-appreciator, not some headphone-wearing philistine. But what makes her any better than anyone else just for not wearing the bloody headphones? And who the hell cares anyway? That’s kind of what it boils down to. And what good does it do to write something nasty in the guest register?

I mean, first of all, the museum makes five bucks a pop over and above the cost of admission on the audio tours. So if you really like art, that’s money well-spent, isn’t it? Secondly, the audio tours are in different languages. Before the technology came along, there’d be an actual tour guide making a lot more noise than those headphones were. Thirdly, other people are already an annoyance in the gallery, bumbling around, bumping into you, walking in front of you, blocking your view of the pictures—the fact that you can hear the murmur of tiny voices from their headphones is just a drop in the bucket when you think about it. And if you’re such a hot-shit art maven, I guess you’d have known all that before you forked over twenty bucks for your ticket, wouldn’t you?

People are very snobbish when it comes to art, of course, but who the hell cares when it’s a Thomas Gainsborough exhibition? I mean it’s more history of art than art, really. And anyway, the environment is totally artificial, the set-up itself is a distraction. An art gallery or exhibition hall is not a library. Not now, and not in Gainsborough’s day, either. Why should you stop at just looking? Why not take the audio tour, where you can hear music from the same place and time as the pictures, and get all sorts of little tidbits they don’t write on the little plaques on the wall next to the paintings? Why not? What’s wrong with it?

And bless the Lindas’ little hearts, they really were trying. I suppose I have grown comfortable enough with art to be able to say I don’t know what it is, but I know what I like. I’m not too intimidated by it, at any rate. But people are. Especially when you make a big scary deal out of it like they do at the MFA. You charge people all that money—I mean, twenty bucks a head?—and you have to present it to them like it’s something pretty posh. And if they don’t understand it, they know it must be worth it. It’s like nuveau cuisine. You pay fifty bucks a head for dinner and they serve you a hotdog you’re gonna be pretty upset, but if they come out with a piece of Asiago D'Allevo on a leaf of Krizet suddenly it’s worth it.

Afterwards we wandered through some of the other galleries, The Impressionists were cramped together in a tiny room. Degas had a chamber of his own the size of a water closet. I have to say I was enormously impressed with Degas, an artist who has always annoyed me—or I should say, the marketing of Degas has focused on those little ballerinas, and they have always annoyed me. You’d think all he ever did was lurk around the dance studio leering at the little ballerinas from the way he’s been marketed. But his sketches are sublime. The pages of his sketchbooks reveal a keen eye and a big heart. At any rate, I much prefer his sketches from the brothels to anything he ever did at the ballet.

In a hallway crammed with art (thank the gods there will soon be a huge new extension built, although I doubt they’ll devote all that much space to the actual art – they’re spending millions on chichi restaurants and huge empty open spaces)—in the hallway was a Piazzetta I quite liked. Piazzetta had a foot fetish, I’m sure of it. He did feet better than almost anyone.

On our way out we passed another Chuck Close. This wasn’t in a gallery, it was out in the big foyer down the way from the coat check and the gift shop. And once again it was hung to totally neutralize the effect it was painted for. Chuck Close is, and has always been, a Photorealist. The Gee-Whiz thing about Chuck Close’s work—I mean, every painting he’s painted since he was paralyzed in 1988—is that close up it looks totally abstract, but from several meters back it all comes together, looks like a photograph. Except if you happen to have the misfortune of seeing it at the BMFA.

8/12/2003

My IQ

This morning after wanking I decided to take an IQ test online. I’m not quite sure where I got the idea to do it. I had never taken one before, and I’ve always thought they were of very limited value in determining whether one has any kind of really useful intelligence. Still, after spending the requisite 45 minutes answering 60 questions (of four different types: mathematical, visual-spatial, linguistic and logical, in no particular order) I was pleased to have garnered a 134, placing me in the ‘gifted’ category.

Being the brainy scientific type that I now certifiably am, I was not satisfied with just one test, but required a second opinion. So I took another one, at a site called ‘emode,’ which offers various IQ and personality tests, with a detailed 15-page analysis of your results for sale at a cost of just $14.95! And, if you order now, you get a month’s membership on the site absolutely FREE! Membership allows you to take as many different psychometric tests as you want, with unlimited free access to everything on Emode — all tests, all personalized reports, and all self-improvement programs! Plus the Friend Network and the Emode Matchmaker service, where you can find romance and friends with scientific matching! Taking the test is free, and you can get your score for free, too, and a brief, tantalizing preview of your 15-page personal analysis! Hot damn, what a deal!

I took the test (there were some questions on this one very similar to the questions on the other one, but fewer—forty rather than sixty), and I got a 136! Two points smarter than a half hour before! (I’m going to take another one around dinnertime. By then I should be absolutely brilliant!) My brief analysis, after assuring me that my test results were ‘scientifically accurate’ revealed that my ‘Intellectual Type’ is an ‘Insightful Linguist’. ‘This means you are highly intelligent and have the natural fluency of a writer and the visual and spatial strengths of an artist. Those skills contribute to your creative and expressive mind. And that's just some of what we know about you from your test results.’ Boy oh boy! Now, I could do with 15 more pages of that!

But being SO smart, I decided to see what would happen if I wasn’t, which is just one of the many things smart people can do that stupid ones can’t. I took the test again, but this time I didn’t pay any attention to the answers, just clicked on whatever. It was much quicker that way, that’s for sure. This method yielded an IQ of 88. Not bad, hey? But what was really cool is that when it came to my little analysis, they didn’t call me a moron or a cretin or anything. In fact, just as they had congratulated me on my 136, the fine folks at emode congratulated me on my 88, too. How nice! And really there’s no reason that people should be nasty to you just because you’re dumb as a brick, is there? Especially if you have a credit card.

The analysis was just as well thought-out for an 88 as for a 136 (the internet really is democratic, after all). My ‘Intellectual Type’ this time was—no, not Mongoloid—it was ‘a Word Warrior. This means you have exceptional verbal skills. Which you use to shout things like "faggot!" and "Ho!" out your car window, and get into bar brawls on Friday nights. Furthermore, you can easily make sense of complex issues and take an unusually creative approach to solving problems. Like spitting your beer in someone's face and sucker-punching them when they call you a faggot or a ho. Your strengths also make you a visionary. Even without trying you're able to come up with lots of new and creative ideas. Like instead of shouting "faggot!" or "ho!" out your car window, you impress your friends with astonishing innovations like, "homo!" and "biyatch!" And that's just a small part of what we know about you from your test results. The local authorities have been informed as regards the rest.’

Still not entirely satisfied, I went back through, and very carefully answered each of the forty questions wrong, garnering the still rather impressive score of 73, and the regal title Inventive Inquisitor. Which means you say "wut?" a lot. ‘You have the unusual distinction of being equally good at math and verbal skills. This means you are a creative thinker and are uniquely good at teaching others through experiences. But NO HITTING! NO BITING, either! You are also a great improviser (even if some mean people call it lying) and very good at handling change. How many quarters in a dollar? Betcha you know!’

My last time out I made the extra effort to not only choose wrong, but to make the worst possible choice I could, which got me a 37, and the following message: ‘HOORAH! U REAL smart guy :-) U soooo SMART u got CREDIT CARD 4 shure. We give BIG kewl paper to u wif lots of BIG words on it! Some REAL REAL BIG ones, 2!! 4 FREE (almost hehehe!!!) 4 u 2 show 2 ALL ur kewl frenz. They say WOW. Big hooter Girls like it, 2;-) Only $34.95!’