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.