Just try having a bad day after watching Alessandra Celletti play John Cage’s Suite for Toy Piano.
Just try having a bad day after watching Alessandra Celletti play John Cage’s Suite for Toy Piano.
[Although I stopped taking piano lessons in grade school, I’ve kept up a correspondence with my piano teacher, Mrs. Edna Perkins. Mrs. Perkins is 89 years old and is still giving lessons. I recently told her about my blog, and she was very interested in reading some of my stories. Unfortunately, she doesn’t own a computer, so I printed a few out and sent them to her. She wrote back saying I write the way I play piano. Hmm. Anyway, she went on to ask if I could post something she wrote. It was scribbled in an old Moleskine notebook she included with her letter. I agreed to type it up and publish it on my blog. In exchange, she has promised to give me a few piano lessons via correspondence. I’ve already received my first lesson. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must practice the five finger position. –Betterrock]
Learning Piano Is No Laughing Matter
By Mrs. Edna Perkins, Certified Piano Instructor
Mr. Charles M. Schulz may have built a cartoon empire with his beloved Peanuts comic strip, but the potential harm he has done to young piano students around the world is no laughing matter. Don’t get me wrong. I’m no Humorless Hilda. I have a hearty chuckle each morning over the Daily Jumble. Yet as someone who has taught piano for more than fifty years, I take music and the teaching of music very seriously, and I fear that Mr. Schulz’s little blond prodigy Schroeder sets a bad example for piano students everywhere.
Let us begin with the instrument. I will set aside the peculiar fact that Schroeder, who can be no more than five years old, is able to wrest a startling rendition of a late Beethoven piano sonata from a plastic instrument no larger than a toy wagon— one, moreover, without foot pedals, and with a keyboard no greater than two octaves. I understand that in the world of fiction, especially fiction involving children, we are required to suspend our disbelief somewhat. Yet this does not change the fact that poor Schroeder’s parents have chosen unwisely. I realize many parents today are on a budget and may not wish to go “all in” from the beginning of their child’s musical education. After all, children have the attention spans of sparrows, and there’s no reason parents should spend thousands of dollars on a quality instrument only to have it become a resting place for fashion magazines or a fortress for the family cat. Still, there are cheaper alternatives. For example, there are less expensive upright and spinet models. One can get a good deal on a used instrument by consulting the Yellow Pages (‘Let your fingers do the walking’). Rental too is an option. In the latter case, you will only be paying as long as the child’s fickle dedication holds out, or until the child reaches the age when he or she no longer cares about disappointing you.
Many parents make the mistake of believing that small hands require a small instrument. To the contrary, a child must learn from the beginning to adjust to the feel of a full-sized instrument. Otherwise, when the time comes to switch from the toy to the real thing, it will be a shock to their little systems. Young minds and fingers are meant to be stretched. Imagine if Arthur Rubinstein had begun on a Fisher-Price piano! Certainly, Schroeder’s parents must have been aware of the genius of their child from an early age. So why settle on a plaything? A child is an investment, and a child prodigy is an investment that promises to pay dividends, provided he or she is set up with the proper capital to begin with.
Related to this inadequacy of the instrument is the terrible posture of young Schroeder. He plays sitting down on the floor, or, worse, on the hard ground (!), head down, bent over the instrument, the keyboard resting between his knees, as if he were giving birth to it. That’s what I think of every time I see him. The boy is giving birth to music—a nice metaphor for the role of the musician, perhaps, but a beastly image in reality. Young Schroeder’s poor posture would be a difficult habit to break in a maturing musician. Nip it, I say. Nip it in the bud! For starters, give the boy a bench. Not too high or close to the piano. Back straight. Arms outstretched yet relaxed, elbows away from the body. Hands in a dome position, fingers resting gently on the keys. A pianist should have the lightest touch. He shouldn’t paw the keys the way Schroeder does, as if he were making a pepperoni pizza!
Now what about the feet? Well, if the boy had a proper instrument they would be poised near the pedals, ready for action, not slung beneath the bench as so many boys and girls (and some adults!) can’t avoid doing. As I always tell my students, if you wish to do that with your feet, go to the playground and sit in a swing. Nip it! Nip it in the bud!
Yet for all we know, young Schroeder could be playing his piano on a playground. He could be playing a Chopin Prelude or a Schubert Impromptu in the parking lot of a Denny’s. He carries that little toy piano around with him everywhere he goes and plays en plein air! This will not do for a student pianist. A student needs enclosure. A student needs privacy. The smaller and stuffier the room, the better. It’s the music the student must be focused on and the sound of the music, not car horns or ringing cell phones or public profanity. What’s more, playing outdoors is a sure way to lose your sheet music.
Oh, but our little cartoon prodigy does not bother with sheet music! This brings me to my final point. Not once in Mr. Schulz’s daily strips or holiday specials have I witnessed a single sheet of music resting on Schroeder’s piano. He doesn’t even appear to have a music holder on the thing (see above). The boy plays everything from memory, as if he were Van Cliburn. This may seem admirable to non-musicians, but one of the fundamental things a child must learn is sight-reading. And where memory may be, and often is, faulty, the musical score never lies about the correct notes to be played, the proper dynamic markings, or the placement of repeat signs. What’s more, it makes Schroeder appear to be a show off, and this is not a good example for him or other young musicians. Believe me, I have witnessed many a child prodigy fall from the heights of self-regard to the depths of manual labor. Nip it. Nip it in the bud!
I hope I have not come across as overly harsh toward Mr. Schulz and his popular creation. I recognize that Peanuts is an American institution and I am a mere piano teacher. Times change. The shocking rise of hemlines and rock ‘n roll music show where the hearts of the American people lie. Loosey-goosey is the order of the day. Yet I remain steadfast about sound teaching methods. As my old piano teacher, Mr. Gravis, used to say, “When you’re in my Colosseum, you fight with my lions.”
Think of the above as not so much a roar as a purr.
Avery Temple watched the sleek toy motor boats zip effortlessly across Cyrus Lake. It was an autumn afternoon, and Avery was taking a stroll through Reinert Park after grading a stack of dismal student papers. The air was chilly but bracing, a welcome change from the stuffiness of his university office.
A flock of pigeons descended toward a bench at the edge of the lake near where Avery stood. Sitting on one end of the bench was an elderly woman clutching a small white paper bag to her chest. She wore a brown wool coat with a dingy fur-lined collar. A blue knit cap covered her small head.
The old woman reached into the paper bag, her hand trembling slightly, and slowly pulled out a fistful of breadcrumbs. With a quick arm motion that surprised Avery, she sent the crumbs scattering along the asphalt path before her. The pigeons immediately formed an unruly scrum.
As frail as the old woman appeared, Avery admired her fortitude. Here she was out on this cold day among people and other living creatures rather than shut away inside her (likely lonely, Avery was sure) home or apartment surrounded by the dusty memories of her life. Her compassion for these birds must be what brought her out. Or perhaps it was just a connection, however tenuous, to life, any life.
“Old age. The crown of life,” Avery said aloud quoting Cicero as he watched a thin cloud pass across the sun. “Our play’s last act.”
The old woman did not appear to hear him. She was mesmerized by the pigeons as they pecked away at the breadcrumbs and at each other.
“Small friends, but true friends,” Avery said, smiling at the old woman and her feathered coterie. He thought of his mother, who before she died liked to sit in her backyard garden and look at the flowers. Sometimes she spoke to them, as if they were close friends. Avery would watch her from a window. He hoped he would have the same gentle connection to life when his time came.
His time. Alas, Avery knew he was not getting younger. One day he too would have to reconcile himself to his play’s last act. He hoped he could bear it with the same quiet dignity as…
Avery was startled by a sudden and terrible squawk from the throng of birds. He watched as a lone pigeon circled uneasily, huffing and puffing, let out a final half-squawk, and collapsed amidst the crumbs on the asphalt. The other birds scampered away from it before diffidently returning to peck at the crumbs surrounding its now lifeless body. More squawks pitched up from the multitude, followed by more aimless circling and collapsing birds.
“What’s going on?” Avery said in horror as he watched bird after bird fall around his feet. He looked down at the old woman on the bench, who was watching them with an unsettling smile on her lips.
“What have you done?” Avery asked her.
She looked up at him, squinting in the afternoon sun, and with the smile still on her lips said, “Rat poison. I mixed it in with the breadcrumbs.”
“But why?” Avery asked in disbelief. “Why would you do such an awful thing?”
She fixed him with the eye that wasn’t squinting.
“You will find young man that when you reach my age, you have a lot of time on your hands. Time to think. And you will chide yourself for the things you never dared to do in life, the slights you let go by, the affronts you failed to avenge. The needling hatreds you kept tucked away inside you.”
She glanced contentedly down at her handiwork before continuing.
“All my life I’ve had one overriding disgust, and that is for pigeons. They’ve nested beneath my eaves, destroyed my rose bushes, and shat on every car I’ve ever owned. They’re ugly, vile little creatures that deserve nothing but contempt. And today is their day of reckoning.”
Her vengeance complete, the old woman calmly stood up, brushed away a few crumbs that clung to her coat, and said good day. She walked on a few steps before stopping, turning, and saying to Avery, “I’m writing this last act, Cicero.”
Avery stood dumbfounded in the center of the old woman’s avian killing field as he watched her disappear behind the boathouse.
When I was a boy, maybe five or six years old, my mother would buy me Peter Max sneakers. I wore out several pairs in rapid succession, mostly through playing Wiffle ball in the street with the other kids in the neighborhood. Each time my mother brought home a new pair, I couldn’t wait to take them out of the box, smell that new sneaker smell, and put them on my feet. Their vivid colors and psychedelic designs were always a hit with my friends and classmates.
For those who don’t know or are not old enough to remember, Peter Max is an illustrator and graphic designer (still kicking) who was very popular in the 1960s and 70s. He appeared on the cover of Life magazine in 1969. His style is similar to the animation used in the Beatles’ film Yellow Submarine. As a matter of fact, for a long time I assumed Peter Max had done the animation for the film. Apparently, he didn’t, although today Max claims to have had a strong influence on it:
I was very, very close friends with The Beatles, and they were going to make a movie. I remember getting a call from John, saying they wanted me to do it. So I designed it. And then I flew to Europe and found out that they wanted me to stay in Europe for seventeen months and make the whole film. I said, ‘I can’t.’ I had a fifteen-month-old boy and my wife was going to give birth to another kid in four or five months, and I was not going to stay away for a whole year. There was an artist in Europe, in Düsseldorf, Germany, named Heinz Edelmann, who called himself ‘the German Peter Max.’ I called him and gave him the opportunity to do the film. When I met him and he gave me his card that said ‘Heinz Edelmann: The German Peter Max,’ I said, ‘Heinz, I don’t mind if you copy my work, but please don’t copy it exactly and please take my name off of your card.’ (Westchester Magazine, September, 2012)
Some dispute this account and Max’s connection to the film, but I’ll leave it to popular culture historians to work out the facts.
Another thing about Yellow Submarine I learned recently: The Fab Four didn’t provide the voices for the Beatles’ characters. Voice actors were used, one of whom had to be replaced during filming when it was discovered he was a British army deserter. Paul was voiced by Geoff Hughes—Onslow from Keeping Up Appearances! The Beatles’ only involvement in the movie were the songs (a few of which were new but considered not good enough to include on their albums!) and appearing in a live-action cameo at the end of the film. Oh, and, I imagine, collecting the loot.
Back to the shoes. Recently, I was putting on my Airwalks and feeling a tad Prousty, so I decided to track down a pair of my beloved childhood sneakers. Turns out a guy in Nashville, Tennessee is selling a pair on Ebay—for $1200! They’re in terrific condition and come with the original box. But $1200? Currently, the colorful sneaks have 20 watchers. I can’t tell if they’re interested in buying or just want to see if anyone is crazy enough to pay that price.
Anyway, I’m kicking myself (with my $15 Airwalks) for not holding on to a pair, especially as the ones I had were much cooler than the ones this guy is selling on Ebay. Mine had a big toothy grin that ran along the front of each sneaker, not unlike the evil grins of the Blue Meanies.
You can find a few photos of old Peter Max sneakers online, but I have yet to see a pair like the ones I had as a kid. I figure mine would fetch around $5000 on today’s market.
Then again, maybe I’m overvaluing my childhood.
The life of a whaling ship captain is hard. You’re at sea for years on end, away from family and friends, commanding a crew of some of the most unsavory and unchristian men New England has to offer. When you finally do return home, oftentimes you have little to show for your efforts, maybe a few hundred barrels at most. You dock your ship, collect your lay, and pray it lasts until your next outing. That is, assuming you can get a ship’s owner to take you on at a fair price. Some of these Quakers drive a hard bargain!
It was early evening on Nantucket Island, and I was busy preparing for a voyage around the Horn– consulting maps and navigation charts, vetting crew members, making sure the ship was equipped and ready to go. We were scheduled to depart the next morning. I would have liked nothing more than to spend my last night on the island at home with Polk, my cat. Yet through an odd series of circumstances, I had been shanghaied into accepting an offer to have dinner with a man I had been avoiding for years.
His name was Ahab. At one time, he had been one of the most celebrated whaling captains in New England. My first voyage had been as a sailor aboard his ship. He promoted me to first mate and was instrumental in getting me my first captain’s gig.
But then something happened to Ahab on his last voyage, something terrible. A whale had bitten his leg clean off. It very nearly killed him. Once a strict but otherwise good-natured captain, Ahab, it was said by those who came across him since the accident, was given to dark moods, punctuated by disquieting fits of monomania. During such fits, it was always “the white whale this” and “the white whale that.” You would try and change the subject, maybe talk about Mendelssohn’s violin concerto or the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, yet somehow Ahab would bring the conversation right back to that damned white whale!
Friends abandoned Ahab (alas, I was one of them). His marriage suffered. He had been married fairly recently, before the accident, to a beautiful young woman who bore him an adorable baby girl. At one time, Ahab couldn’t wait to return home from a voyage. Now, he couldn’t wait to get back to sea and continue his mad hunt for the one sailors dubbed “Moby-Dick.”
Captain Peleg, who had arranged the dinner between Ahab and me, claimed that once during a midnight stroll along the docks—Peleg suffered from insomnia–he happened upon Ahab standing there speaking forlornly to a dolphin bobbing in the water below. After a few minutes, even the dolphin had had enough and briskly disappeared beneath the inky water.
I entered the Try Pots Inn, all the while chiding myself, “Wallace, what are you doing here? You’re a ship’s captain, not a doctor. What could you possibly do for Ahab?”
As I peered around the dining hall, I was relieved to find that Ahab was nowhere in sight. Perhaps he had changed his mind. I decided I would have a drink at the bar. One drink. If Ahab didn’t show up by the time I finished, so much the better. I would go back to my seaside bungalow and split a can of sardines with Polk.
A young man sitting alone on the opposite end of the bar caught my eye as I ordered a glass of whiskey. The man appeared to have two sheets to the wind, and the third one was unraveling fast. I recognized him. We had met a few days earlier in this very inn. He was a merchant seaman lodging in the Try Pots until his ship sailed. Coincidentally, he was booked to go on his first whaling voyage aboard the Pequod, Captain Ahab’s ship.
The young man grabbed his mug of grog and stumbled over to where I was standing. I began to panic. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember his name. There seems to be a universal law that a person whose name you can’t recall is always the one most eager to say hello to you.
“Calpan Wallace,” the young man said with an outstretched arm and a stumbling tongue. “Glood to see you!”
“Good to see you, Mr. —”
“Call me Ilshmael,” he said, patting my shoulder.
Ilshmael? Oh, right, Ishmael! How could I forget? What parent names his kid Ishmael? Giving the kid a bad start, the poor bastard. Still, a decent lad. Saved me the embarrassment of not remembering his name.
A few minutes into our conversation, I couldn’t wait to get away from him. This Ishmael was an unrepentant drunk! And he talked incessantly, INCESSANTLY, squeezing as many words between hiccups as he was able. Even Polk would have tired of his endless yarns. Fortunately, Ahab arrived before Ishmael could ask me to buy another round.
I heard Ahab before I saw him. Everyone in the Try Pots did. His peg leg clomped ominously along the boards leading up to the inn before Ahab paused and violently flung open the door. A veritable sea Atlas, Ahab filled the doorway. Straight off, your eyes went to that gleaming ivory leg.
All conversation at the bar stopped as patrons turned to look at this otherworldly figure. He had changed since I last saw him. Yes, of course, he was down a leg. But there was something else. Was it the lengthy scar that ran down his face? He had always had that, hadn’t he? Even as a boy. Something to do with a clumsy childhood reenactment of Captain Cook’s final aloha. It always made him look like he had been split in two and glued back together. You couldn’t help but stare at it, it was so long and white on an otherwise sunburnt face. Thank goodness the peg leg was there to distract you.
I excused myself from Ishmael, who immediately latched onto another hapless patron at the bar. “Did I tell you about this clannibal I’m shlaring a bed with?” I heard him tell the unlucky fellow.
A freckled blond woman of few words and hurried movements seated Ahab and me at a table in the middle of the dining room. Menus were unnecessary. The restaurant served only one thing, chowder, and only two kinds. I picked clam. Ahab chose cod. Right away, I regretted my choice. But the woman was already flitting back to the kitchen. Oh, well. Maybe Ahab would let me try some of his. Was he the sharing type, I wondered? The scowl on his face suggested otherwise.
Didn’t Ahab used to smile more often? And where was that great bellowing laugh? He knew at least a hundred limericks about a man from Nantucket, each one dirtier than the last. Should I ask him to recite one to break the ice?
Better not, I thought to myself.
The freckled woman returned with our bowls of chowder and slammed them on the table. As an afterthought, she dug into her apron pockets and pulled out a couple of handfuls of crackers, tossing them unceremoniously between the bowls before leaving.
“No nickel for her, eh?” I said smiling at Ahab. Ahab merely grunted.
An uncomfortable silence followed. I tried the chowder. Not bad! I decided to break the silence by asking Ahab a few questions about his family.
“How’s the wife?”
“Still breathing,” Ahab spit out.
“Been almost three years since your marriage, hasn’t it?”
“And your baby? I hear you have a beautiful little girl.”
He fixed me with a stern stare and said through gritted teeth, “And what of beauty in this world, Captain Wallace? Are ye not aware that it merely rots on the vine?”
Boy, was he in a mood!
I ceased with the questions and sat slurping my soup. Apparently, Ahab wasn’t the least bit hungry. He pulled out a pipe, filled it, lit it, took a puff, and with a look of disgust, threw the pipe into his chowder.
I guess I wouldn’t get to try the cod.
Every now and then, I glanced at the gleaming leg lurking beneath the table. A couple of times I crossed my own legs and kicked it by accident. Ahab didn’t appear to notice. At one point, between silences, he caught me gawking at the leg. To my surprise and embarrassment, he yanked it out from under the table and threw it right on top, between our bowls of chowder. Crackers went flying everywhere. The restaurant again fell silent as patrons stared in our direction.
“Ye want to know about the beast that dismasted me, aye Captain Wallace?” Ahab asked.
I really didn’t. Then again, I kind of did. I nodded, slowly. Ahab leaned back in his chair and removed his fake leg from the table.
“It was a white whale, Captain Wallace. A great white sperm whale, as white as the ivory of this here bogus leg. Whiter still. Moby-Dick, he’s called. As big as this very inn, with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw that make him look all the more ferocious, as if he were forged in Hell’s fiery furnace, and the devilish blacksmith responsible for creating him was but an apprentice, and not a very good one at that, as he got some of the parts a little wrong.”
I was frightened already. Ahab continued.
“’Twas off the island of Japan that the beast bested me. We were in the skiff, my harpooners and me, when we saw the spout big as an oak coming straight for us. The beast turned his mountain of a body sideways as he slipped ’neath the boat. The twisted harpoons of all the whalers who had tried and failed to slay him over the years still stuck in his flank. My own harpooners were white with fear, whiter even than the whale itself, which again, I tell ye, was very, very white.”
“The whole whale?” I asked.
“What?!” Ahab snapped, apparently unaccustomed to being interrupted.
“The entire whale was solid white, from head to tail?”
“No, just the head was white,” he grumbled. “And a few spots here and there.”
“Well, that’s not really a white whale is it?” I said. “I mean, Polk has a white chin and belly, but I wouldn’t call him a white cat.”
“It’s a white whale, I tell ye!” Ahab shouted, grabbing the edges of the table, his eyes flashing with fury.
“OK,” I said, terrified. “ He’s white. I’m wrong. You’re right.”
Ahab brought a finger up to his eye and continued. “The beast fixed me with one awful eye, an eye of hatred, an eye of malice. Then he twisted his body and overturned our little boat in the dark waters. And as he turned back, that crooked jaw came skimming along the water and severed my leg, leaving me a poor pegging lubber for the rest of my days.”
Ahab fell silent. Seeing my chance, I took up another spoonful of chowder. But before I could shovel it into my mouth, Ahab’s fist came crashing down on the table.
“But I’ll have my revenge, Captain Wallace! Aye. I’ll follow him around Cape Hope and the Horn, through perdition’s flames, before I give up. If it costs me my other leg to do so!”
A legless sea captain. It seemed such a silly image. But I wasn’t about to say anything. You know how it is. Someone goes through a traumatic experience and you don’t want to appear insensitive. After all, you don’t know what another person is going through. Why, I had a toothache once…. Still, Ahab was laying it on a bit thick, I felt.
“But certainly, Ahab,” I said, letting my spoon drop. “Seeking revenge on a dumb brute that was merely reacting out of instinct. It’s unwise.”
“A dumb brute? A dumb brute ye say? Why, you’re as thick as Captain Delano. Look here, Wallace. This thing may appear to be but a dumb brute. But there’s more to him. Vastly more. Infinitely more. All visible things are but masks hiding what lies underneath. And beneath the mask of this white whale, sir, is a dark, inscrutable hatred, and it is this that I despise above all else. Why, I would strike the sun if it insulted me!”
He was starting to sound like a book. For my part, I had had just about enough. I signaled for the check.
I wanted to speak my mind there in that inn. I wanted to tell Ahab what I thought of all this ridiculous whale hatred. Why couldn’t he forgive and forget, turn the other cheek? Wasn’t that the Christian thing to do? Get on with your life, man. Enough with these whale woes! Here we were in this nice restaurant, with a couple of delicious bowls of chowder, at least one of them still edible. Life wasn’t as bad as all that. You go on a whaling voyage every few years to pay the bills. You come back with a tan, some scrimshaw, a few shrunken heads for the kids in the neighborhood. Maybe a plump whitefish for Polk. And you resume your nice little life onshore. You write some letters, smoke a few pipes of tobacco, take a long walk along the beach with a pretty girl now and then before preparing for your next voyage. What more do you need in life, really? Why spend the rest of it nursing a grudge against some stupid animal that absconded with your leg? It won’t help you get it back.
I wanted to tell Ahab all of this. I wanted to tell him, but I didn’t. Clearly, Ahab was mad. But what was I supposed to do about it? I had my own problems. For example, who was going to watch Polk while I was away? And maybe going back out to sea would be the best thing for Ahab. Maybe his family could use the break. Maybe a long chase of this Moby-Dick might help Ahab get it out of his system once and for all. Who knows, maybe he’ll succeed and bring back the white whale’s head–and enough spermaceti to make candles for the entire Eastern seaboard!
I guess I’m an optimist at heart. Still, the crazy captain gave me a lot to think about that night.
Ahab picked up the check, bless his tortured heart. We said our goodbyes. I wished him luck on his voyage, he on mine. Okay, he didn’t wish me luck. But I like to think he thought it.
I decided to spoil myself and take a carriage ride home. I needed the rest. Tomorrow was a big day.
As the carriage made its way through these Nantucket streets I would soon leave behind, I couldn’t wait to get home and tell Polk all about my dinner with Ahab.
Review Date: August 14, 2014
The Good / The Sistine Chapel comes loaded: Elegant Renaissance-era architecture, a wealth of stunning interior frescoes, the blessings of countless popes, and a UNESCO World Heritage site designation.
The Bad / Functionally, the Sistine Chapel is only a small upgrade over the Cappella Maggiore it replaced. As a result, the chapel is long on art but short on cutting-edge technology.
The Bottom Line / While the Sistine Chapel is worth a look if you happen to be visiting Vatican City, your experience won’t be as fulfilling as a trip to your local Apple Store.
Commissioned in 1477 by Pope Sixtus IV, the Sistine Chapel was designed by architect Baccio Pontelli. First time visitors may be surprised by the plainness of the chapel’s exterior. No fancy bells or whistles here. Pontelli eschewed ornamentation and, according to the visitor’s guide, based the chapel’s simple rectangular layout on the Temple of Solomon as depicted in the Old Testament. Yet one suspects Sixtus may have skimped on the architectural budget in order to plow money into the artwork. I like art like the next person, but I would have preferred a flashier design.
The main draw of the Sistine Chapel are its beautiful frescoes–and boy do they pack a punch! Some of the Italian Renaissance’s most famous artists were called on to contribute their prodigious talents—Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Perugino, and, of course, Michelangelo. It’s because of these frescoes that 5 million visitors a year from around the world come to see the Chapel. The entrance fees alone, which are hardly bargain basement, would buy a bevy of new pope mobiles!
The sidewall frescoes are divided into three tiers. The main tier is made up of two cycles of paintings facing one another, one depicting the Life of Moses and the opposite the Life of Christ. Above these are the gallery of popes and ancestors of Christ, topped by biblical narratives from Genesis.
You get the idea. Lots of religious paintings. Lots! They’re lovely, really, but I could have gone for a nice sunset or landscape here and there. Or perhaps Raphael’s School of Athens–which, it just so happens, can be found in the adjoining Apostolic Palace, the Pope’s residence. If the Pope can get a break from bible study, why can’t we?
The showpiece of the Sistine Chapel is its remarkable ceiling. Beginning in 1508, Michelangelo replaced the original blue ceiling with a rocking series of frescoes depicting God’s Creation of the World, God’s Relationship with Mankind, and Mankind’s Fall from God’s Grace.
But good heavens, why put them on the ceiling? Couldn’t they have been placed somewhere a little more user-friendly? After staring up at these frescoes for a few minutes, I got a terrible crick in my neck. I’ll bet Michelangelo experienced the same problem when he painted them. I know artists are meant to suffer for their art, but why make the viewing public suffer?
Later, in 1537, Michelangelo would begin work on the Last Judgment, perhaps the most arresting of all of the interior frescoes. It’s a sturdy piece that extends from the chapel’s alter all the way up to the ceiling. I was especially drawn to this painting. The deep blues remind me of the Facebook and Instagram banners.
Lack of Technology
One big drawback of the Sistine Chapel is its lack of accessible technology. Would it kill them to add WiFi? How many people show up with their smartphones or tablets and are disappointed when they can’t look up information about a particular fresco, pope, biblical narrative, or architectural feature? The Episcopal church down the street from my house has WiFi. Why doesn’t the Sistine Chapel? Heck, they’ve got UNESCO money!
Is the Sistine Chapel a game changer? Perhaps–if you’re a Catholic living in 16th century Europe. Today, not so much. Goethe famously wrote: “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.” Sure. One man. But look at what teams of men and women can do today. Ours is a social, interconnected world where any piece of information you could possibly want is accessible with a tap of a screen or click of a button. Today, our most creative minds come together to give us what we want in this life, not fanciful notions of what awaits us in the next.
Interior dimensions: 44 ft. x 134 ft.
Vaulted ceiling height: 68 ft.
Number of frescoes: 90
Number of visitors per year: ~5 million
Evelyn Adams watched eagerly from the other side of the bar as Sarah Godwin, the gruff but semi-benevolent owner of the Green Garden Tavern, poured her a third pint of Guinness. Both women stared at the stream of thick brown liquid as it oozed out of the tap and ran down the inside of the glass. When the glass was three-quarters full, Godwin set it on the counter to let the foamy head settle as she engaged in small chores around the bar—collecting empty glasses, collating bar tabs, wiping down counters.
Evelyn, impatient, tried to distract herself with a pretzel. She nibbled it slowly, never taking her eyes off the partially filled pint glass.
“Let’s go, Sarah,” she finally said. “Lady is thirsty.”
Tall and, thanks to a pack-a-day habit, slender, Evelyn was in her mid-thirties but appeared older. Something about her eyes, as if they had seen everything this mortal coil could squeeze out of a person, as well as a few things from the next. She wore a bedraggled blue raincoat over a floral print dress. Her graying auburn hair was long and unkempt.
Sitting next to her at the bar and staring up vacantly at a television screen was her husband, Manfred. At least a foot shorter than his wife and nearly ten years older, Manfred sported a filthy black beret and a white beard. Some said he bore a passing resemblance to Dr. John. Or maybe Oliver Sacks. However, neither comparison seemed apt when Manfred opened his mouth and revealed a nasally Midwestern twang.
It was rumored around the tavern that Manfred Adams was a descendant of the Founding Father of the same surname. In fact, Manfred had started the rumor himself several years back, when he and Evelyn first began frequenting the Garden. Then one day, a patron who had had enough of his tall tales took one look at Manfred’s slovenly attire—the unwashed beret, the torn and faded jeans jacket, the polyester slacks– and asked, “How the hell did the family fall so far?” Manfred was so hurt by this stinging query that he didn’t come into the Garden for several nights afterwards. Evelyn, on the other hand, continued to show up at her regular time.
“You think Scott can do something for the Lakers?” Manfred asked Sarah.
“If he can keep Kobe in check,” Sarah replied as she finished dispensing Evelyn’s beer.
“No one can keep Kobe in check,” Evelyn said, pushing her hair out of her face.
They all quietly acknowledged this was probably true.
The only other patron in the bar was an aging Goth woman, who sat alone at one of the tables with her head down, her dyed black hair splayed over the tabletop, one hand clutching a whiskey glass for dear life. Every so often Sarah went over to check on her to make sure she was still alive.
“Hey Sarah, what is that?” Evelyn asked, pointing at a black unlabeled tap handle next to the Guinness tap.
“Special reserve,” Sarah said, setting down the freshly poured pint before Evelyn.
“Of what?” Manfred asked, becoming interested.
Sarah paused for a moment, as if reluctant to say. She scratched below her left eye with a ruddy thumb and said, “Guinness.”
Evelyn and Manfred looked at each other.
“You’ve been holding out on us,” Evelyn said.
“Let’s give her a try, Sarah,” Manfred said, holding out his empty glass.
“I’m afraid not,” Sarah replied, picking up a rag to wipe down the bar.
“It’s for VIP customers only, and only on special occasions.”
Evelyn and Manfred again exchanged a glance.
“Bullshit, Sarah. We want to try it,” Evelyn demanded. “Give us a taste.”
“Can’t do. Sorry. That’s the rules. Listen, you can drink all you want to from this tap.” Sarah pointed at the regular Guinness tap. “But you can’t drink from this one.” She cocked a thumb at the unlabeled handle. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go to the back and get some more pretzels. You two gourmands have cleaned me out.”
Evelyn and Manfred watched Sarah walk to the storeroom. As soon as the storeroom door closed behind her, the couple lunged for the special reserve tap. They immediately discovered Sarah had rigged it with some sort of locking device.
“Can you beat that?” Evelyn said.
“We’re not VIPs?” Manfred asked. “We’ve been coming here for years.”
“It must really be special. What do you think it tastes like, Manfred?” Evelyn wondered. “I’ll bet it tastes like angels’ wings.” She had a wistful look in her eyes.
As Evelyn pondered the possibilities of liquid heaven, Manfred diverted his attention with the more earthly concerns of television. Several moments passed when, from out of nowhere, an elegant young man came walking up to them from behind the bar. Manfred and Evelyn had never seen him before. He wore a black suit vest and a crimson tie. His long, dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail. A wisp of a beard peppered his long chin.
“Would you like to try the special reserve?” he asked the couple.
“It’s locked,” Evelyn informed him.
“I have the key,” the young bartender replied, holding up a shiny gold key as proof.
“I’m not sure….” Manfred began.
“Hell yes!” Evelyn cut off her husband.
“I don’t know, Evelyn. Maybe we shouldn’t,” Manfred said. “Sarah told us not too. And I’m not sure who this guy is. Have you seen him before?”
“I have the key,” the young man repeated, unlocking the special reserve tap.
“Manfred, the man has the key,” Evelyn reiterated.
Manfred glanced anxiously around the bar. The Goth woman was gone. Manfred hadn’t even seen her leave. He looked back at the mysterious bartender, who took a fresh glass and placed it beneath the spigot of the unlabeled tap at the requisite 45-degree angle. The bartender pulled the tap handle forward. A smooth, dark stream eased out and splashed luxuriously down the inside of the glass. It looked like black silk, forming a fluffy, frothy head that resembled a pile of goose feathers. Just the appearance of the beverage made Manfred weak in the knees.
The bartender eased the glass down until it was upright. He topped it off–there was no excess foam to patiently wait out–and handed the glass to Evelyn. Evelyn took the glass carefully with both hands, as if it were a baby. She glanced at Manfred a little nervously, then took a sip.
“Oh, God!” Evelyn exclaimed in a sonorous voice that seemed to bubble up from her very soul. Her eyes welled up with tears. “I…don’t…have…words.” She passed the glass to Manfred. Manfred stared at it, both eager and afraid. He looked toward the storeroom to make sure Sarah wasn’t coming. Then he tipped the glass and took a drink.
“It’s like drinking stars,” he said with extraterrestrial astonishment. A foam cloud clung to the bottom of his mustache. “It’s like drinking fucking stars!”
Evelyn stooped down, held her face close to Manfred’s, and gently licked the foam from his top lip. The couple embraced and began crying. There on the barroom floor, in each other’s arms, they had a good long wail over what they had just experienced. It was like everything in the world was new again.
Sarah’s voice interrupted this tender scene.
“Haven’t you two got a bedroom?” she asked, tossing a clear plastic bag of pretzels onto the bar. As she began undoing the twisty tie, she caught a glimpse of the special reserve tap and noticed it was unlocked. She saw the half-full glass sitting on the bar. Her eyes turned furiously on Manfred and Evelyn.
“You just couldn’t help yourselves, could you?” she said. “Couple of drunks. I told you this was for VIPs only. And what do you do? You pick the goddamn lock!”
“No, Sarah, we didn’t,” Manfred explained. “The other bartender unlocked it for us.”
“What other bartender? I’m the only one tending bar here.”
“A guy with a ponytail,” Evelyn said. “He had a key.”
“Liars!” Sarah snapped. “Couple of drunken liars. I want you out. I want you both out of this bar. Now!”
“But Sarah, we’ve been coming here for years,” Manfred protested. “You’ve got it all wrong. There really was….”
“I said get out!” Sarah boomed. “Get out! And never come back!”
She grabbed a monkey wrench from behind the bar. In a panic, Manfred began frantically pushing Evelyn toward the door. He glanced at the half-full glass and considered grabbing it, but Sarah was already halfway around the counter. At the exit, Manfred turned to Sarah one last time and said, “I’m sorry, Sarah. I didn’t want to. She made….”
“Oh no you don’t!” Evelyn said, grabbing Manfred by the collar and pulling him out the door with her.
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