“Someone upstairs saved me from being ordinary.”

I don’t know exactly when I figured out that I was ugly. Certainly I knew it by the time I was twelve or so; kids tend to be mean to each other regardless of looks, but there was an obvious difference in the way adults treated me compared to the way they treated some of my classmates. Thankfully, I wasn’t both ugly and short for very long, which would have been too much.

My particular defects — an alien ratio of massive skull to petite face, a caveman brow but soft cheekbones, barrel chest and monkey arms — were a tremendous source of sorrow to me in my teen and twentysomething years. I would have given anything to be handsome. Scratch that: I would have given anything to just be plain-looking. It frequently occurred to me that the combination of below-average intelligence and above-average looks is a recipe for happiness as surely as the reverse is a prescription for misery.

After lo these many years I’ve come to be grateful for my ugliness. It has stripped me of illusions regarding the world. I never worry that someone is being nice to me just because they like the way I look. If a woman tells me that I’m handsome, I know she is insane and I can plan accordingly. Nobody bothers me on the street. The mere suggestion of unpleasantness on my part is usually enough to get what I want; the only thing worse than having me in your face is having an angry me in your face.

Of course, there are times I’m tempted to blame my appearance for why I haven’t been able to achieve certain goals. This is cowardice and stupidity, made doubly plain by the fellow you see in the video above.

I don’t know how Michel Petrucciani escaped my notice until recently; he played on all sorts of gigs with the musicians to whom my brother and I listen on a religious basis. Thankfully, the evil algorithm of Spotify served him up to me a few months ago, and I’ve been coming to grips with his work ever since.

There’s a great piece on Petrucciani at UDiscover but I was particularly struck by this:

“Sometimes I think someone upstairs saved me from being ordinary,” he said.
Petrucciani was born to Italian parents in Montpellier, France. He could not walk and his bones fractured constantly. He grew to only three feet tall and weighed barely 50 pounds. Petrucciani had to be carried on to the stage and had a special attachment to use the sustaining pedal of the piano. Yet his long, graceful fingers played with a seemingly tireless energy and verve…
“When I was young I thought the keyboard looked like teeth,” Petrucciani recalled. “It was as though it was laughing at me. You have to be strong enough to make the piano feel little. That took a lot of work. The piano was strictly for classical studies – no jazz – for eight years. Studying orthodox piano teaches discipline and develops technique. You learn to take your instrument seriously.”
Petrucciani said he did not believe in genius, he believed in hard work. He was still full of plans and musical ambitions when he was rushed to Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan at the start of 1999. It was there that he died on January 6, aged 36. He used to joke that he was told he would not live past 20, but had outlasted Charlie Parker, who died at 34. Petrucciani is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, next to the tomb of Chopin.

In the video above, when it’s time for Michel to solo, you can see his hands forming phantom patterns over the keyboard as various ideas occur to him and are then disposed of. It is obvious that playing the piano is as much of a physical effort for him as a downhill mountain bike run is for me, but he plays with a light touch when he needs to. He doesn’t believe in genius, he believes in hard work. Something to consider, when a goal seems out of reach, particularly for someone like me: if you cannot immediately achieve it with genius, try substituting hard work.

It is also worth noting that Petrucciani doesn’t exactly have the hands of Rachmaninoff at the ends of his deformed arms; he’s in constant motion to get his chords and notes. Last week I gave up on a John Mayer tune because I can’t wrap my thumb around the guitar’s neck the way he can. This video makes me feel a double helping of shame for that.

I don’t know what personal shortcomings or setbacks are facing you, my valued reader, but consider this: Whether you’re broke, or tired, or buried by bad luck, or simply ugly, maybe that’s not the curse it appears to be. Maybe you’re just in the process of being saved from being ordinary. If you believe in God, consider it to be a challenge from Him. If you don’t, then ask yourself if what you are facing is as hard as being carried to a piano that hurts you with every note you play. Act accordingly.

35 Replies to ““Someone upstairs saved me from being ordinary.””

  1. SteveG

    If the internet provided nothing else for me as a parent other than the ability to, when my son complains he cannot do something, immediately provide a counterexample of someone who has, in fact, done it, and through actual hardship, it would be enough.

  2. David Florida

    “I felt sorry for myself because I had no shoes. Then, I met a man who had no feet.”

    Who was the originator of “the unexamined life is not worth living?” Proust, perhaps?

  3. John Van Stry

    Remember when Genesis got a grammy and were asked to perform on TV at the show? But they wouldn’t let Phil Collins, who actually SUNG the song, perform on TV because he was ‘too ugly’ so they had to hire someone else to sing the song, at the awards presentation?

    And people wondered why he released that album with his face as the cover…

    • jwinks6500

      Are you sure about that? I don’t think they won any Grammys until after Phil was big stuff, had been in a movie and all. Plus he is good looking guy. He had the problem of too many women! There is a point where that will break a man if he’s not careful and the number is pretty low.

  4. Dr smith

    Thanks, Jack, for helping us keep life and all the crappiness around today in perspective. Just what the doctor ordered.

  5. Gene

    This is why I read you Jack. I have been introduced to people and ideas and music and stuff that enrich my life and make me think. Your contribution to the internet is about so much more than “content”.

    I’ll also point out that it’s not just you. Riverside Green provides commentary from the readership that is often just as enlightening and educational. This is a damn fine spot.

  6. Sobro

    Surely, Jack, your parents didn’t have to tie a pork chop around your neck just to get the dog to play with you. And if they did, it means they loved you more than they loved pork chops.

    • Jack Baruth Post author

      That’s one thing that women actually like about me, no idea why, I agree with you that it’s weird.

  7. Ronnie Schreiber

    Speaking as a fat redhead who is too short for 80% of American women to even consider dating, yeah you were a goofy looking teenager, and you may not have classic movie star good looks, but if you were truly ugly you would never have been with the women you’ve been with. Your perception of your looks probably made you work harder at pitching woo, but you’re a far cry from Russell Greer.

  8. Ice Age

    People have told me I have a voice for radio. I’ve usually responded by saying that I have the face and body to go with it.

  9. Ronnie Schreiber

    I just found out that until Felix Mendelsohn championed his works, J.S. Bach’s music was barely known to the general public. There is so, so much talent all around us and so little of it ever gets noticed beyond a small circle.

    • stingray65

      Sadly, music departments in many universities are actively trying to forget the music of Mendelsohn, Bach, Mozart, and all those other dead toxic males of white privilege.

  10. Disinterested-Observer

    Some times your taste in music strikes me as noodley or even pretentious, but that was amazing. Thank you for that.

  11. Wulfgar

    Amazing story and beautiful music. Sadly none of his work is among the LPs I have but that will be corrected today. As a fellow graduate of the school of unfortunate looks (called Basketball at one point and not due to my skills on the court), I had many lean years. Oddly enough, I found as I developed confidence in myself and who I really was, that had as much to do with attracting women as looks did for so many others.

  12. CRM114

    I’m just now learning guitar at 40 and sometimes I try to skip chords that require the pinky, because I cut off the very tip when I was young and it still hurts to press down on the strings after my other fingers have toughened up. Then I think about Django Reinhardt and realize I’m just a pussy.

  13. dejal

    When I was born I was so ugly the doctor slapped my mother.

    Yeah, I know I’m ugly… I said to a bartender, ‘Make me a zombie.’ He said ‘God beat me to it.’

    My mother had morning sickness after I was born.

    I was so ugly my mother used to feed me with a sling shot.

    I have good looking kids. Thank goodness my wife cheats on me.

    When I played in the sandbox, the cat kept covering me up.

    My psychiatrist told me I was crazy and I said I want a second opinion. He said okay, you’re ugly too.

  14. benjohnson

    Me and two of my sons are good looking in a “what a nice man” looking way – gets us free food and the assumption that were competent. Some females do like tall, blonde, and blue-eyed Swiss men.

    However – among some frail-status males we seem to have punchable faces, and among a certain female types we are loathed for looking the part of the aristocracy. While my oldest makes a recursive decent parser it’s the multicultural kid that vomits “Hello World” who gets the attention.

  15. 98horn

    Have you noticed that popular culture sells the idea of being “natually good” at things? As if the task portrayed is effortless, and just showing up and letting everyone bask in your special snowflake genius is sufficient for fantastic success. I tell my daughter all the time that such ideas are pure bunk. The real path to success is through Gong Fu, which translates roughly to “skill acquired through time.” Want to be good at soccer? Nobody’s Pele on the first day. Want to be a cheerleader? Better go practice tumbling. Want an “A”? Better hit those books.

  16. AoLetsGo

    Reminds me of Kevin
    For many years some of my friends and I would do an annual charity ride for MS. Cycling for 300 miles in 3 days across Michigan. We were all in decent shape on expensive bikes but sometimes you get tired, sore, crabby and feel sorry for yourself.
    Then we would pass Kevin.
    Kevin had MS and had started riding that day at 5am.
    He was riding a big, heavy, 3 wheel bike and basically doing it with one leg and one arm.
    He was ALWAYS big smiles and words of encouragement.
    The best I could do was smile and be friendly back – and be ashamed for feeling sorry for myself.


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