Saturday, March 22, 2008

Facing my demons

I haven't made an entry in a while because I've been rather busy- traveling in Italy! We've found a lot of fascinating things traveling together- me, my wife, Ginger, and her mother (who I love), Marcia- but it was on a solo side trip that I found the most fascinating and terrifying experience of the trip so far.

We were in Florence, and a must-see on my list (but nobody else's) was the interior details of Dell Duomo. It's not that I'm a major fan of cathedrals, but this one has a very famous dome- huge, masterpiece painted on the inside, and the world's first example of the "dome within a dome" construction technique later used on our own capitol. Most important of all, you're allowed to climb to the top, within the walls, between the domes, to see the construction techniques all the way to the cupola on top, from where you can see nearly all of Tuscany.

I was slightly apprehensive about the climb, 463 vertical steps, but finally told myself, "So what if you're slow- let 'em go around!" As it happened, the kids did squeeze around me, at first, (at the landings, the stairs themselves were far too narrow for passing- in many places my shoulders touched on either side) After a few hundred steps, however, I was no longer being overtaken, my endurance had outlasted their youthful speed.

When we got up to the base of the dome, the path turned from inside the walls to inside the base of the dome itself- you could look up and see the magnificent paintings overhead, look down and see the marble floors hundreds of feet below. At this point I should mention that I have what other people call a fear of heights, and what I call a fear of falling. The distinction is not a silly one; if I feel secure, I can easily look into the abyss, height makes no difference. I can look out the window of an airplane without fear... but a five foot precepice with no railing can make me nervous. It's purely a question of how secure I feel, not how secure I really am.

This walkway, while high enough to thoroughly squick me out, was solid stone, part of the church; I was able to work my way around to the far side of the dome where it re-entered the wall. From there one climbs another seemingly endless spiral of stairs until one reaches a T intersection: straight to the cupola and observation deck, turn to exit.

Suddenly, I was afraid... I had a good idea why one had to turn to exit. I put it off for a while, but eventually one must exit. There was no question of going back the way I came, even if it were permitted, the tightness of the fit would have meant forcing everyone back down with me. Telling myself, "How bad could it possibly be?", I stepped through the archway labeled "Exit" that I knew would lead me back inside the dome.

It could be bad indeed. This time, the walkway was near the very top of the dome, even with the paintings, this time, the walkway was so narrow that not only did I have to turn sideways to fit, but suck it in, too- my butt pressed against the wall and my lower belly against the railing. A few steps, and some projection on the wall popped a suspender buckle off my pants in back; another step and something in front caught the top button of my pants. I slid my hand down between pants and railing and looked down to see what had caught me.

Here's a funny thing I didn't know about domes: when you're inside one like I was, not on the bottom looking up, it's very disorienting- there's nothing to differentiate "Wall" from "Ceiling"... and when I looked down, my perspective shifted and I was suddenly on the ceiling, looking straight down at the floor 463 steps below, with nothing but a stuck waist button to keep me from falling.

My eyes snapped shut, my head snapped back. I chewed on my tongue to prevent the scream that I knew would never stop if I permitted it to start. Tasting blood, I turned my head left (the direction I had to go) and opened my eyes, hoping to find a focal point to prevent me from looking in other directions. I found my self looking at the portion of the painting that depicts Hell. Well, more specifically at a sinner some demon had speared in the back, the poor guy's arms and legs splayed in agony. OK, to be more precise, I was staring at what this poor sinner, were he a Chuck Berry fan, would call "My Ding-a-ling". As stupid and childish as it sounds, I was able to get control of myself by focusing on a 600 year old painting of a wang.

I was able to start moving again. As I did, my eyes slid to the next figure in Hell- a woman this time. And I noticed something. (I had been anxious to notive something, to occupy my mind) The thing I noticed was that the agonies of Hell had caused her legs to come together, rather than splaying apart as the male sinner's had. This observation created a game to occupy my mind, to keep me from thinking of you know what. As my eyes slid from scene to scene, I noted how male nudity was handled differently from female nudity, and kept a running total of wangs / to whats (say it quickly). When I reached the safety of the stairs down, the count was 11-0.

When I rejoined Ginj and Marcia at the Galleria Dell Accademia, I resumed the count; by the time we left for dinner it was 73-2. Contemplating that count prevented me from having any nightmares.

Now you know how twisted I really am.


ms. kitty said...

Wow, Joel, what a story! Thanks for sharing it.

h sofia said...

Ooh, I love Italy!!! I'm so glad you're there (wish I was, too; pooh). Apart from your surreal experience (or perhaps including it), I'm glad you're having a great time!

Stentor said...

Yikes, you're triggering my fear of falling and I'm just sitting securely in my chair here at work.

Chalicechick said...

I happened across this just now and I think it is a great post. Just thought you should know three years later.


Kathleen Atwater said...

Oh, man. I don't have more than a healthy/survivalist fear of heights or falling. It's the CLOSED SPACE that puts me over the edge, and your description of shoulders touching, kids squeezing past you, sheesh, I got the willies. I even have trouble accompanying my Joel up the stairs to the observation deck in some of the monuments downtown. Because it gets too blasted tight on those stairs!
But back to the other kind of willies... they routinely showed them in historical artwork, but not now in advertising? I know breasts have always been open-book territory, but this amorphous yet enlarged bulge has me curious. I think I'll go dig out the rest of the Sunday ads!