Trials and Hazards at the Sistine Chapel


Conspiracies hatched by rivals, a boss with a temper, backaches and eyestrain, family problems, and loneliness—Michelangelo’s letters reveal both the personal problems and occupational hazards he faced while painting the Sistine Chapel. In preparation for a mural I am painting (with a team) downtown, I have been reading about the famous artist’s tough time with his fresco.

In a letter to his friend Sangallo, Michelangelo feared for his life: “There was something else besides, which I do not want to write about. It is enough to say that I had cause to think that if I had remained in Rome, my own tomb would be sooner made than the pope’s. This, then, was the reason for my sudden departure.” Michelangelo may have feared the architect Bramante and later Raphael, both of whom he suspected of a conspiracy.

“I am living here in a great state of great anxiety and the greatest physical fatigue,” he wrote his brother. “I have no friends of any sort and want none. I haven’t even time to eat as much as I should. So you must not bother me with additional worries, for I could not bear another thing.” He wrote about his “great fear,” which may have been fear of the conspiracy or working so close to the pope, subjected to the political climate of Rome and the whims of and abuse by Pope Julius. “All of the discords that arose between Pope Julius and me were owing to the envy of Bramante and Raphael,” Michelangelo wrote.

Working for Pope Julius II, who was called il papa terrible or the dreadful pope, carried risks of its own. Julius was strong and violent and known to strike his subordinates. He even hit Michelangelo with his staff for not painting the fresco quickly enough, though he later called it a “mark of affection.” Still, Michelangelo stood up to the Pope, painting on his own schedule and in private, with the chapel closed to an audience. He even removed the first section he painted of twelve giornatta depicting Noah’s flood; although, his letters do not indicate why. Michelangelo also argued with the Pope over content. As a sculptor, he wanted to concentrate on the human figure. He repeatedly complains that frescoing is not his occupation: he is a sculptor, not a painter: “My work does not seem to go ahead in a way to merit anything,” he wrote his father, “This is due to the difficulty of the work and also because it is not my profession.”

The chapel itself presented a different set of challenges. Rather than frescoing a flat wall, Michelangelo’s canvas was 12,000 square feet of space of vaulted ceiling, featuring spandrels, lunettes, and pendentives. Michelangelo’s initial team of assistants worked to build a scaffold so the artist could reach the ceiling. One of the perils common to fresco painters was falling from such structures.

Even today, the work environment painters experience is a dangerous one, according the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics:

“Painting requires a lot of climbing, bending, kneeling, and reaching. Those who paint bridges or buildings may be exposed to extreme heights and uncomfortable positions […] Painters have one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all occupations. Falls from ladders, muscle strains from lifting, and exposure to irritants such as drywall dust are common risks.”

The first four stanzas of a comic poem that Michelangelo wrote to Giovanni da Pistoia describe the extreme physical discomfort he endured while painting.

I’ve got myself a goiter from this strain,

As water gives the cats in Lombardy

Or maybe it’s in some other country;

My belly’s pushed beneath my chin.

Michelangelo included an amusing sketch of himself painting along with the poem. In the sketch he has depicted his neck hyperextended with a bulge at the front, which could be a goiter. However, goiters are not induced by work strain but by thyroid problems and drinking iodine-poor water; therefore we cannot consider this problem as an occupational hazard from painting the Sistine Chapel. However, prolonged hours of tilting his head backward to view his work likely would have strained his neck muscles.

My beard toward heaven, I feel the back of my brain

Upon my neck, I grow the breast of a Harpy;

My brush above my face continually,

Makes it a splendid floor by dripping down.

Bending his head back and peering at the ceiling for long shifts must have strained his neck considerably. King points out the bizarre vision problem that Michelangelo developed from the eyestrain from always looking up: he could only clearly see drawings and letters if they were held above his head, at arm’s length.

One must imagine Michelangelo’s beard and face a palette of colors as paint dripped down on him. While it is comical to imagine the painter’s head as a drop cloth, coated in a variety of colors, this, too, could be considered an occupational hazard. Some of the pigments he used contained ground glass (smaltino), arsenic (cobalt), and lead dust (minium is a kind of lead that was used to cut powdered vermillion). Judging by his sketch of himself painting that accompanies this poem, he painted without protective goggles, meaning his eyes may also have been exposed to various irritants such as dust from the drying plaster or airborne powdered pigment.

My loins have penetrated to my paunch,

My rump’s a crupper, as a counterweight,

And pointless the unseeing steps I go.

A crupper is part of the saddle that goes behind the horse, under its tail, to keep the saddle from sliding forward while riding on hilly terrain. You can almost feel the tightness of his muscles. In this pose, his gluteus would have been contracted, as well as his upper abdominal muscles for months on end (give it a try). In the final line, he notes the “unseeing steps,” possibly saying that he rarely, if ever, straightens his body, bends forward, or looks down. Given his peculiar vision problem, it could be that looking down would have been pointless. He wouldn’t have been able to see the ground except for several feet in front of him, as a person on a road bike can see the road in front of them by looking up instead of forward.

In front of me my skin is being stretched

While it folds up behind and forms a knot,
And I am bending like a Syrian bow.

Syrian bows have adrastic curve in them. Reading this stanza we imagine Michelangelo standing and bent backward, almost like a lowercase “q” or a person at the beginning stages of a backhand spring.

It’s also interesting to note what he leaves out of this poem: namely any kind of shoulder pain. Holding a brush above his head (or possibly two brushes, one in both hand, one charged with light paint and the other with dark paint) all day

could have produced a repetitive stress injury or tendonitis.

In addition to these physical complaints, Michelangelo was also dealing with personal problems as he worked on the fresco. His father was sued by a sister-in-law over the return of a dowry and preceded to borrow some money from Michelangelo’s bank account without consulting him first. His brothers were lay-abouts, misfits, and dreamers. Michelangelo berated his brother Giovansimone for some unknown wrongdoing:

“For twelve years now, I have gone about all over Italy, leading a miserable life. I have borne every kind of humiliation, suffered every kind of hardship, worn myself to the bone with every kind of labor, risked my very life in a thousan

d dangers, solely to help my family. And now when I begin to raise it up a little, you alone must be the one to confound and destroy in one hour what I have accomplished during so many years and with such pains.”

While family dramas aren’t particular to the work at the chapel, these letters to and from home likely weighed on Michelangelo’s mind. Art historians have suggested that Michelangelo painted some of dramas, or the emotions surrounding them, into a few of the panels in the fresco.

Throughout his letters, Michelangelo does not shy away from announcing his grievances with his rivals, the Pope, or physical or emotional stresses while painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. King appears to have found corresponding sources that match the dates of these letters to build a fuller picture of what problems and issues Michelangelo faced while working on the famous fresco.

Michelangelo doodled the little image above beside his poem.

To learn more, check out Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King.

One from Star Trek, One from the New Mexico Statutes



The other day, I sat having coffee with a friend who has just entered his second year of law school. We talked about the tomes he carries to class, the massive amounts of reading and writing, and the creativity needed to frame information as arguments.

He surprised me with an off-the-cuff comment, saying, “You know the thing that most prepared me for law school? Legal writing feels like composing Star Trek fan fiction.”

Fan fiction is—in case you’ve missed the Fifty Shades of Grey racket—derivative work that appropriates the setting, characters, and sometimes, longer arcs to create a new story. I was floored: I immediately understood his metaphor. I worked it out a little more and asked him some questions, so in case you are wondering whether you can put your fan fic cred next to your LSAT score on that up-coming application, here’s a reconstruction of our conversation:

Both have an Official Narrative. The story bible of American law comes from court opinions, commentaries, and of course, bills passed on Capitol Hill. When researching, that’s a lot of conceptual material to draw upon. The Star Trek canon, while disputed, is also fairly developed: over six hundred television episodes and eleven feature films have contributed to the Starfleet’s universe.

“Sorting through all of that source material gave me the patience and stamina needed for legal research,” he said. “I developed a sense of how the whole fits together, so that even if I don’t know where a passage is, I know where to find it—whether it’s biographical information on Captain James T. Kirk or something on acequias and water rights.”

But his metaphor extended beyond research as an act—Star Trek fan fiction taught him about constructing an argument that works within the confines of an accepted reality. While the Official Narrative is fragmented, storylines and premises offered by the source must be followed. If you are presenting an argument to the court, it has to fit in what has been established in our legal universe.

“Fan fiction is an argument to the audience, though if you want to contribute in an official way, you’d have to present the same argument to executive producers, Paramount, etc.”

To a certain degree, you have to conform to the expectations of what’s been established, though the common conception might be debatable.

“Look at Captain James T. Kirk,” he said. “The formative events in Kirk’s life have been developed in the show. If you write about Kirk, those stories have to support a recognized version of him. Is he a womanizing and reckless swashbuckler who relies on his audacity, will, and personality to win?

“Or is he a disciplined, driven strategist willing to bluff his way out of any situation? I’d say he’s not improvising—he’s calculating. Out of seventy-two episodes, he has sex in eleven, and of those, only three are casual and the rest are part of a strategy. He’s not womanizing like James Bond, but he is using people. Anyway, that’s debatable. That would be part of the argument.”

Sometimes, the Official Narrative has a need: a plot point hasn’t been fully developed, small details sound like suggestions, or there’s an inconsistency. If Star Trek is taken on a series-by-series basis, there might be multiple Official Narratives, so some are excluded while others follow their own continuities. New Mexico might mix Spanish and Mexican laws, Western American traditions, and historic pueblo rights.

“The law is filled with incongruities. Our legal tradition has no problem with the idea that contradictions exist, and we don’t worry about them until they become relevant in a specific case. When it benefits us, we’ll say, ‘Wait, New Mexico! You said this in 1993 and this other thing in 2008!’ And you write a new rule to resolve the problem.”

Or something unforeseen comes up. An actor takes a new job and must be written out of the series.

“Legal thought evolves episodically. In the 1950s, judges would have been asking themselves, ‘How will our torts deal with legal problems caused by superhighways when everything we have in place is set up for horses, buggies, the odd automobile?’ And when demonstrations spread across the South, demanding equal rights for African Americans, the judges are blindsided. The question becomes to ‘how can we write new decisions on something we were unprepared for and have them read like a natural evolution of the law?’ You have to be creative to do that.

“Both law and fan fiction add to an ongoing story, contributing something new and creative. It’s a mixture of persuasion, logic, and imagination.”

So he takes the episodic fragments and shapes them into a plausible narrative. His peers view legal writing as a dry, color-by-numbers approach to technical problems, but my friend doesn’t believe that making an argument is just a logical exercise. He’s gotten comfortable with the ambiguities in our legal system. Deep in his heart, I think he knows that only our suspension of disbelief holds it all together.





  1. The Official Narrative: A story bible exists. Conceptual material. ST Canon:


court opinions, academic commentaries, and pieces of legislation passed by congress or the state legislature, sometimes fragments or conglomerations. taken together, creates one narrative, have to make an argument to the authorities that your addition should come


st 600 television episodes and 11 feature films—the canon—if you want to contribute to it in an official way, you have to present an argument to exec produces and paramount, etc.


fan fic is an argument to the audience, telling the audience that your piece fits.


so you know who kirk and picard and the united federations. you have to conform to expectations.


I want the court to issue this opinion and this piece will follow the body of knowledge/narrative/universe that we have. it behaves by the same rules.


good fan fic is making it fit, but also doing something new and creative


law must evolve to fit changing circumstances—while this fits with prior American traditions set forth in our constitution.


legal thought happens episodically. an actor suddenly leaves, must be written out of series. demonstrations across the south for equal rights for African americans. 1950s judge wouldn’t have predicted (would be how will our torts deal with superhighways and the legal problems that come up when we’re set up for horses??), but then the


have to make it look like a natural evolution.


took pitches from anyone, not necessarily the writers guild—slush pile of submissions, the production staff would have to (third season—“yesterday’s enterprise” how history had been altered through time travel—was pitched, but then production staff had to deal with the consequences)


take court cases in the 1860s not conceived for present day—here’s a law doesn’t seem relative, but with a great analogy, this is applicable (time travel story)


fan fic is an persuasion, logic, and imagination. adding to an ongoing story.



  1. Although the Official Narrative is fragmented, storylines and premises offered by the source material must be followed:
    1. New Mexico’s water law is derived from the mixture of Spanish and Mexican law with the West’s traditional rule of first in time, first in right. While New Mexico is clearly a prior appropriation state, New Mexico’s water law also accommodates historic pueblo rights and reserved Indian rights.




  1. Parts of the Official Narrative are under debate—are they self-consistent? These storylines and premises may contain contradictions. If there are multiple Official Narratives, are some excluded while some are encouraged to follow their own continuities, like series-by-series?
    1. the law is contradictory all the time. our legal tradition has no problem with the idea that contradictions—don’t worry about it until becomes relevant in a specific case. “wait co! you said this in 1993 and this other thing in 2008!” you must wirte a new rule to resolve this.
    2. canon not consistent: the official dates of the first ST could support either time frame: 2264-2269 or 2270?? the tie-in writer would have to go the eds. at pocket books and say “for the purpose of this book, will be 2269.” or have writers put in a line of dialogue “when our mission ended in 2270.”
  2. The Official Narrative has a need: a plot point hasn’t been fully developed, the details sound like suggestions.
  3. Characters and settings are appropriated:
    1. James T. Kirk. The formative events in Kirks life. If you write about Kirk, those stories have to support the version of (is he womanizing, reckless, flies by seats of pants swashbuckler, casual meaningless sex, audacity and will of personality makes him win.
      1. in 1960s disciplined, driven, calculating strategist willing to bluff his way out of a situation is he has to, but not improvising—he’s calculating. in 72 episodes, he has sex in 11 episodes, and of those only three are casual and the other are part of strategy to . not like james bond. he does use people, but not womanizing. (maybe someone would disagree, but then an argument ensues—that’s what lawyers do.)
    2. the characters in the law are ideas and concepts. (?)
    3. A new story emerges:
    4. Our suspension of disbelief holds it all together.



a lot of law students think that writing legal arguments is like technical writing, but is fascinating and creative. a chore, suck, mechanical.


civil rights and con rights tend to be less dry and technical, more like something you would want to read. a sense of place and character.


oil companies can come to Albuquerque and drill because city and county govs can’t say no once a company was issued permits by the state. look to Colorado for a case that seems similar. a lot of opinions there say (privacy) people have basic individual human rights that the state government hasn’t acknowledged—how will drilling



I have to extract dozens of scattered story fragments (bits of TV episodes, or of judicial opinions) from an Official Narrative (a TV show, or the ironclad statements of the courts), then shape them into a coherent narrative (a Star Trek story that plausibly resonates with previously aired episodes, despite its unofficial status; a legal argument that plausibly fits into the tapestry of US judicial opinions, despite its whacky and unconventional makeup).


making an argument is not just a logical exercise. being comfortable with ambiguities.



“the crossroads of time and character” (welty)

Apply for your self-publishing patent today!


Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman sounds like an interesting book:

“Drawing on decades of research in psychology that resulted in a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, Daniel Kahneman takes readers on an exploration of what influences thought example by example, sometimes with unlikely word pairs like “vomit and banana.” […}Thinking, Fast and Slow gives deep—and sometimes frightening—insight about what goes on inside our heads: the psychological basis for reactions, judgments, recognition, choices, conclusions, and much more.  –JoVon Sotak

Thinking, Fast and Slow was selected as one of the best books of 2011 by New York Times Book Review, Globe and Mail, The Economist, and The Wall Street Journal, which means more people searching Amazon for the book. Except they might find something else by accident.

Thinking, Fast and Slow was published on October 24th, 2011, the same day that Fast and Slow Thinking by Karl Daniels became available on Amazon.

It’s not a coincidence that the titles and author names appear similar. The second book piggybacked on Kahneman’s, selling Kindle copies to the confused. The author of Fast and Slow Thinking does not exist, because that book is not really a book: it’s internet “content” searched and skimmed and compiled by bots. Some pages only have two words on them. Some of the writing, apparently, even quotes Kahneman.

Who knows who developed this little scheme—when I looked last night, I couldn’t find the book again. But it’s a great trick. All you need is algorithm and you, too, can become a self-publisher and rake in the dough. After all, what’s an e-book market explosion without book-spam to flood your bandwidth?

The internet is nothing but a giant database that you’re already accessing every day, so why not devote a desktop to search, plagiarize, and publish while you play Words with Friends? Call it the “Hello, World!” bot. Once you develop your algorithm, do yourself a favor and patent it.

That’s what Phillip M. Parker did, and now Amazon lists him as the author of 107,000 books.

You read that correctly: 107,000 books published. And he says that he’s created over 200,000. He’s the most prolific “author” to date, with more titles than Alexandre Dumas, R.L. Stine, Isaac Asimov, and Nora Roberts combined (and multiplied by 153).

Parker doesn’t stop at the Amazon marketplace, either. He “generates” poetry, too. According his Wikipedia biography:

Parker has applied his techniques within his dictionary project to digital poetry; he reports posting over 1.3 million didactic poems, aspiring to reach one poem for each of words found in the English language. He refers to these as “edge poems” since they are generated using graph theory, where “edge” refers to mathematical values that relate words to each other in a semantic web. He has posted in the thesaurus section of his online dictionary the values used in these algorithms. Genres produced include the following: acrostic, butterfly, cinquaindiamanteekphrasticfib or Fibonacci poetry, gnomic poetryhaikuKurallimerick, mirror cinquain, nonetoctosyllable, pi, quinzaineRondeletsonnettanaka, unitoum, waka, simple verse, and xenia epigram. Genres were created by Parker to allow one genre of poem for each letter of the English alphabet, including Yoda, for Y (poetry using the grammar structure of the famous Star Wars character), and Zedd for Z (poems shaped in the letter Z). His poems are didactic in nature, and either define the entry word in question, or highlight its antonyms. He has stated plans to expand these to many languages and is experimenting with other poetic forms.

Parker plans to tap the lucrative romance novel market next.

It’s no secret what a raunchy database the Internet makes. Might be time to revisit some small presses.

Do Androids Dream of the Road Not Taken?


To quantify, to know for certain whether a piece of writing is good: this desire is one of my students. I tell them vague, mysterious qualifications. Does it help you transcend time and space and feel for a moment free of some constraint you didn’t know what there? Does it surprise you or lift a veil that you may see human experience more clearly? Does it have image, rhythm, and envoi? But are these quantifiable? Can we develop a system to give a poem a raw score and know whether it’s good?

The Poetry Assessor is designed to do just that.

After reviewing previous studies, Michael Coleman Dalvean was able to develop a set of criteria to weigh the poems. For instance, one study analyzed a sample of 85 known (“successful”) poems and 85 obscure (“unsuccessful”) poems. Successful poems had fewer syllables per word in the first line, tending toward the monosyllabic. They used more common words and had simpler syntax. Simple, direct poems were more likely to be reproduced in anthologies.

Another study reviewed 100 sample poems from professionals (from drawn from Contemporary American Poetry, Poulin and Waters, 2006), 100 from amateurs (at, and found that professionals used more concrete words. Amateur poets were more likely to use exact rhymes (rather than approximate, or “slant” rhymes), more alliteration, and less variety in word choice. This second study formed much of the research material of the computation study that has resulted in the score generator.

Using another set of variables—including Negative Emotion, Affect, Psychological Process—and the average age of acquisition of a word, the machine captures the content and the presumed difficulty of the words.

To score a poem, simply paste the body into the textbox and click the calculate button. A number will be generated. It would appear that poems scoring in the negative numbers are closer to amateur writing and those in the positive, more professional:

As an indication of how to interpret the placing of the poem on the scale, Sylvia Plath’s poem “Crossing the Water” scores 2.53 indicating that it shares more characteristics of a professional poem than an amateur poem. On the other hand, John Laws’ poem “There are so many Things” scores -2.05 indicating that it is closer to the amateur end of the spectrum.

Of course, I tried out some of my poems. My poems scored between -1.8 and +3.4, with most hitting 1.5, a median, well below the 2.53 Plath level. The poems on the lowest end of the spectrum are forthcoming in a couple magazines; the highest ranked are not. I’m prone to say that it doesn’t mean anything, but I am biased against a quantifiable world.

I suggest that you try some—either your own writing or some of your favorite poems—and let me know what you think. Is the Assessor accurate?

Binge Storytelling and the Brain


Summer is here and I am not on contract. Between exhausting bouts of research and even more exhausting bouts of socializing for the first time since last summer, I have been binging. One evening each weekend, some friends and I have been watching four, sometimes five, hours of Game of Thrones. After I walk home at midnight, I dream of sword fights, beautiful dresses, or maiden friends French-braiding my hair in gardens of trumpet vines. One night, I even woke to my boyfriend singing the soundtrack in his sleep: la-la la laa.

Powerfully creeped out, I laid awake thinking about how our Bacchanalian viewing is affecting us.

Binge watching—the practice of watching two or more hours of a television show in rapid succession—is a relatively new form of binging, made possible by digital recording or streaming. Netflix encourages it, as the next episode starts automatically, sometimes even before the credits have finished rolling for episode you just saw. This new way of “consuming” TV is changing us, it’s changing the way television stories are told and the way audiences interact with stories.

There’s a theory—you’ve probably heard it in politics—that TV has long-term effects on society, that it can influence our beliefs and change our cultural cores. According to “cultivation theory,” it has the power to alter our understandings of right and wrong, as well as change our perceptions of racial or ethnic differences. I have even heard that Will and Grace taught the government that gay men were regular people. But the Will and Grace effect was a byproduct of the “network era” of TV, when ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC still ruled the tube and everyone had the same selection of sitcoms to choose from.

Most of those shows were episodic, meaning that the audience could enter the story at any episode to know what was going on. You didn’t have to watch the whole season to understand the characters’ motivations because these motivations were reactionary and simplistic. Episodic shows were great in syndication—because there was no overarching storyline, the episodes could be played in any order.

There were soap operas, too, with one extensive, unbroken plot. The same characters stayed in the same place, working through the same melodramatic relationships. Even though they’re continuous, the soap plot often moves so slowly you can pick it up a year later and still have an idea of what’s happening. TV serials such as the X-Files combined the two, “monster of the week” episodes mixed with an long-arc storyline of government conspiracy.

Now, without any time passing between the air dates of episodes, the made-for-Netflix shows can capitalize off of much more complicated storylines. The audience remembers what happened in the last episode, or four episodes ago, because they just finished it, and they can follow more minor characters through plot twists and character arcs. There is no need for flashbacks. Cliffhangers can end each episode, just as they conclude each chapter of a Vonnegut book. Finish the chapter and you must turn the page; you must click to watch the next episode. The TV serial is becoming much more like novel.

Game of Thrones, while it isn’t made for Netflix, is great for binge watching because there is no main character. I remember hearing so many complaints when the presumed main character was decapitated, because it was such a jarring, blunt way to cue the audience into the fact that this plot would follow a host of major and minor characters.

According to a student from the University of Oregon television studies program, whom I had the pleasure of listening to at popular culture conference, people have always watched TV for a number of reasons: to engage with complex storylines, relax, pass time, and to enjoy particular aesthetics.

Hedonism is another reason. He didn’t mean the sheer adrenaline rush of seeing something explicitly sexual or terrifyingly violent, but the hedonism that comes with binging. To brag that you have seen a show in its entirety, over the course of a weekend, is little different than bragging that you polished off a case of Coors Summer Brew in one afternoon. And yet, that’s what an estimated 7.5 million people did when they watched the entire fourth season of Arrested Development within a week of Netflix’s release. By 2017, Netflix hopes to tap into our hedonistic urges by airing a new show every two weeks.

Companionship, another notable reason people watch TV, has also changed. Known as “parasocial interactions,” these one-sided relationships toy with the brain in bizarre ways. They are context-bound to their medium, one-sided, controlled by the character, creating an illusion of a relationship, but strangely satisfying. The character acts how we expect him or her to act, creating an emotional consistency like a good friend. While adolescent girls model life choices after characters, boys fantasize about hanging out with sports heroes. What’s more, the less we sleep as we stay awake all night binging, to more cognitive disconnect between the fictional world and real life disappears.

I recently heard a girl talking about a parasocial breakup she’d had when she finished watching some TV show. The seasons were over, her character friends and crushes gone. She became as depressed as if she had just gone through a real breakup, laying in bed and eating chocolate ice cream while mourning her loss.

Are our brains ready for binge storytelling?

I’m not quite sure, but I have a sword fight waiting and some men to drink wine with, and I better get going.