Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Easy Life


I'm sitting in our apartment in Firenze in the former Palazzo Baccio Valori looking out the window at the Duomo. The lights on the monuments have just come on as the sun has set, the last of the bells are dying out, and the mosquitos are now let loose in the city.  In the days of the Medici, the mosquitos were fierce and malarial, but in the modern age they move slowly, engorged on drunken tourists.  We sometimes find the opportunity to dissect them, not with scalpel but with shoe or paperback or oven mitt, and this is ok, the way of things, and with some touch-up paint we can remove their little lives from history, much as we ourselves will disappear one day, when our great-great or great-great-great grandchildren, cleaning the urns on the mantel, no longer remember which urn is which and whether this one is great granduncle Teddy and maybe they need to make some room for more hyper-photos of people they do remember, at which point one hopes that enough life force has endured in those remains to give them just the slightest jolt as they toss you out into the mulched hyper-roses causing them to trip and fall into the pond.

Like so many of those who wish not to be tossed into the hyper-roses, I have vainly attempted to leave a mark on the world. My CV goes on a bit, and although we are constantly reminded of those who have accomplished so very much more, I do take it out of the old box of clippings and read it from time to time, along with all the fading notices of my time on the stage, the limelight and the girls on shoulders of boys and the applause. I was doing this just the other day in fact, and came across Joshua Kosman's article on me from a few years back and found this bit:
At 50, he has the amiable demeanor of a practiced collaborator and the buzzing nervous energy of someone with a long history of getting twice as much done in a day as the rest of us.
Is that true?  I've always thought of myself as fundamentally lazy and fundamentally not so bright. When I was an underage boy at Caltech, freshly deflowered and still wet behind the ears, I met people whose brains seemed to be running at a speed I could not imagine, and I spent most of my time drinking and sleeping all day and skipping class, but I remember that my friend Billy B. was envious about how much I got done even with all the drinking and sleeping through class, so maybe he felt the same. And in my later years - in graduate school and in the working world - I've been pretty sure that I am in fact a fraud, just clever enough to hide my inadequacies and hoodwink everyone around me, the snake oil salesman in their midst, somehow able to knock something together that works, and as long as no one looks too closely for the shoddiness (and don't even talk to me about my doctoral thesis) one might miss it, but luckily I've been able to find jobs where such slipshod work is enough to get by, and fortunately I'm not building airplanes or pacemakers or nuclear bombs.

Of course I know of the inverse Dunning-Kruger effect, but just knowing that that effect doesn't help you - you yourself can't tell if you are an actually competent person who downplays their abilities or if you are simply mediocre.

But there is the other side, the looming shadow-side of the self-thought-to-be-incompetent Wold boy, the one who secretly thinks that he is smarter than everyone else, who wants everyone to know, who carries intellectual books about with covers displayed so that others can see, who does look through the aforementioned box and remembers that he did fight long and hard for those Scholar of the Year awards, printed on fake parchment, remembering too that when he was called up to the podium to receive the first one, his name was proceeded by "and now for the Freshman girls" and although he wasn't quite yet the cross dresser he would later become, his hair was well down his back and that did earn him some cheek-reddening catcalls from construction workers on his way to school. And then there are those moments when, expecting that well of course everyone knows this or understands that, he discovers with mind-splitting incredulity that people he assumed were as competent as he is actually don't understand some bit of mathematics so totally obvious and straightforward, or find Ulysses "too hard," or haven't read the vi or emacs manual and learned all the arcane details, or whatever else he can hold over everyone's head, even though some of accomplishments actually were kind of hard back when he faced them himself but seem so easy now in retrospect.  And all of this happens in both aspects of his life, the science-y math-y engineering-y bits and the art-y music-y literature-y bits.

But even writing this now brings the fear on for the Wold boy, the fear that he is one of those people to whom Dunning-Kruger really does apply, who worries above everything, even that maybe he is worse than stupid, maybe he is actually delusional, as in delusions-of-grandeur delusional. So we'll set that aside for a time when the room isn't so dark and the candles aren't guttering.

What I really wanted to talk about here - and the reason for the photo of the totally gorgeous telescopes in the Galileo Museum above - is the epiphany I had the other day while walking through this beautiful city, which is that, even though I've come out in some ways, although in the article above there is this bit:
Wold is a little reticent about his sexual autobiography, despite the fact that his Web site identifies him as a composer, producer of operas, and "libertine." He volunteers only that after his divorce, he moved across the bay in part out of an attraction to San Francisco's gay scene - despite the fact that he is, by his own description, "queer but not gay."
and finding this bit the other day made me wonder if I'd ever actually read the whole interview, as I didn't remember it at all, but as I was saying, even though I've come out in some ways, I tend to avoid coming out as an engineer/math guy to the art world and as an art/lit guy to the engineering world, thinking that somehow there is a stigma of un-seriousness about being one to the other, but my epiphany the other day was that there is of course no stigma, not the slightest at all. The Galileo Museum is filled with objects that are both gorgeously scientific and gorgeously artistic, and being here in goddamned Firenze makes one remember that we intellectual types used to gather to make decisions about all aspects of the world and that article one on the agendum list that afternoon might be do mathematical objects exist in a Platonic reality of their own and article two might be be shouldn't we create a whole new art form? Leonardo was given a commission one day to paint the adoration of the magi or whatever and then the next day hired to figure out better methods to slaughter the good citizens of Pisa and it didn't seem to matter to either commissioner about the other. So where did that change? Or is this perceived stigma just my own problem? Hey, that reminds me that I did in fact work on a weapons system once, a parallel-pipeline FFT processor inside the F-16 or maybe it was the -15 radar, being built by Westinghouse Electric Corp, and I had published a paper on fast parallel-pipeline FFT construction, so was the go to guy, and I needed some money because I was a poor graduate student and like everyone else whose hands are bloodied for some bit of money, I just had to wash them with a little bit stiffer brush when I got home in the evenings, and I wonder now if they still would have hired me if I had told them about the other stuff, the settings of the Antonin Artaud poems and the readings of the Kathy Acker books and suchlike.

Oh wait, that reminds me of the other bit that gnaws at me - the piece of paper that says whether you are capable of doing a job - a notion that is so obviously crazy that one wonders how it even got started. I remember years ago reading some nonsense by Charles Wuorinen (note I may be misremembering this and maybe it was someone else but whatever, it's my memory so there) about how Charles Ives couldn't be that good a composer because he didn't really have that much schooling.  Hey, I have a PhD but the only reason I have it is because 1) one of my first girlfriends basically dared me to do it and 2) I didn't really like having a real job. Smart people can do smart things regardless of the particulars, and having the piece of paper doesn't even say that much anyway. I'll tell you the simple way to figure out whether someone is capable of doing something - ready? - have them actually do it. The best engineering/math work I did in graduate school wasn't even for my thesis, and almost none of what I do now was what I studied then - in art or the other.

And finally there is the last part of the engineering/art equation or should I say minuet, and the basis of the title of this essay: money. It's the weird and strange specter of the art world, a world in which no one has enough unless they inherited it from someone or they happened to be one of the lucky few that connected with the mass market, or they have a day job. Engineering gives me the easy life, and pays for this trip to Firenze, and gives me the support to do my art, and asks only that I work all the fucking time, day and night, never to see the beauty of summer, never knowing the joy of a day wasted without care.

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