Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production


©1979, James A. Clapp

©1979, James A. Clapp

Many years ago I was wandering in the streets of Amsterdam—no I was not stoned on some hash that they sell right of the streets there. But I happened to not be paying much attention when a Dutchman yelled to me to watch where I was walking. There, above my head about three stories up, was a grand piano that was being winched up to a window in the upper floor, the only way such a large object can be installed in those narrow Dutch houses along the canals.

For some reason, all that day I imagined what it would be like if that piano had cut loose and fallen on my head. I remembered it for many days, and I still remember it. I think of it every time I see a big black grand piano. [1] (No! I told you, I was not narc’ed out on ganja!). I wonder what would have happened of that winch gave way and that piano fell on my head. Well, for one thing, you wouldn’t be suffering through another of my pieces.

It’s about how we account for things that happen in our lives. How we interpret and even assign purpose and meaning to things that happen to us. It’s about how we try to make sense, or nonsense, of things that happen to us, not just some dumb explicative expletive like “s**t happens,” but something that addresses the “why” of things.

So, I was walking down a street in Amsterdam and a piano falls on my head.   In that split second before my teeth are replaced by a new set of ivories and I become one with (what actually is) my favorite musical instrument my last thought considers the great imponderable of life— why is this happening to me? To some people there is one, single explanation, but which one is it, because there are several explanations as to why a piano might fall on your—OK, let’s make that Jim’s—head.   In no particular order of importance or validity are, it was . . .

Foreordained. Yes, that piano and I were destined to meet up on a street in Amsterdam well before either me nor the piano knew about it.   Indeed, the entire trajectory of my life was pointed to that rendezvous with that nine-foot grand piano.   It was meant to be.   In some way, a way that I’ll never be able to comprehend, that piano smashing me to the sidewalk with some great resounding, cacophonous chord echoing off the surrounding buildings plays its part in some great symphony, some plan in which that piano and I play a part.   Nothing could have stopped me from being there that day at that time and place; it was appointed.  No matter what the Dutch newspapers were going to run a headline the following day:   “Millions Mourn After One of World’s Greatest Professors Killed by Falling Boesendorfer.” [2]   Regrettably, reporters made some oblique references to hashish that was pure speculation.   Some people just said:   “It was meant to be.”

The Las Vegas Line.   This is the actuarial explanation.  Las Vegas bookies will give you odds on just about anything, even the odds of a piano falling on Jim’s head in a street in Amsterdam. The odds are that, if pianos are installed in some places by lifting them into upper story windows, that people walk along those streets, and some of them don’t pay much attention to where they are walking, and ropes or winches sometimes fail, etc. etc. that eventually, at some odds, a piano will fall on somebody’s head.   And so, Jim was just not one of those who was fulfilling the actuarial odds of being on the Titanic, eating a bad piece of sashimi, driving by an IED on a Baghdad street, or any other circumstance on which there are also betting odds. [3]

The Le Carré.   This explanation for why a piano falls on Jim’s head is favored by people who have read too many John Le Carré novels.   To them there just has to be an explanation that is part of an extremely complicated intrigue in which dark and secret contending forces of men from MI-6, and CIA and KGB battle with weaponry like 9mm Glocks, Uzis, the stiletto, Plutonium tea, and may even include the lethal 3-metre Boesendorfer grand piano. [4] Jim must have been covertly involved in some espionage that was kept even from his closest friends and many beautiful women lovers. [5]   The “piano drop” must have been the best approach his adversaries took to removing Jim without arousing much suspicion that he was a casualty of a dark and sinister cold war. Of course there is always the chance that Jim was not involved in any such Le Carré type adventures, in which case he might have been what has come to be called “collateral damage.”   That leads to an alternative explanation . . .

Bad Luck.   Jim was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.   Or, S**T Happens.   Tough luck, Jim.   Hard cheese, old boy, and all that.

God’s Plan.   This is sort of the Chaos Theory version, that we all have our place in God’s Plan (whatever the hell that is) for the universe.   The amazing thing is that religious authorities can even presume that there is such a thing as God’s Plan (which, of course, they like to imply to their adherents that they have a good idea what that plan is).   The God’s Plan explanation for why a piano falls on Jim’s head has all sorts of wonderful little cosmological tricks built into it.   Not the least of these is the “God works his wonders in mysterious ways” trick.   This is when religious authorities can’t seem to come up with a godly reason why Jim should be dispatched by a 3,200 caliber pianoforte.   So they say it’s one of “God’s wonders” [6] and we should just accept that God had a part in His plan that involved the necessity for Jim to be clobbered on an Amsterdam street by the musical instrument he loved most—God likes a bit of irony in his Plan.   So by some twisted logic you should be made to feel good, not bad, that Jim is reduced to a mess of protoplasm because he has played his part in the great mysterious plan God has for the universe.   Weird, huh?   Until you remember that this is the God who had a Son born of a Virgin and then had the Son crucified so that the sins of people who haven’t even been born yet would eat his body and drink his blood and have their sins forgiven and live forever on some clouds.   But I digress a bit.   So I save the best for last.

Wages of Sin.   Yup, there will be people that will shake their heads and say “Jim must have done something terribly wrong to deserve going out this way.”   Some of them will even get poetic about it:  “The way Jim played piano, he deserved to go out this way.”   But whatever, most people see life as some kind of accounting process in which good and evil need to be balanced out.   Life is full of what appear to be logical cause and effect circumstances—drink too much and you die by the bottle; drive to fast and you might die in a crash; live by the sword, die by the sword, etc. [7] Maybe even Jim, in that nano-second of last consciousness, will think, “I had this coming to me; I wasn’t a good boy all the time.” [8] Then again, if he gets another nano, he might think “I would rather have gone out like Nelson Rockefeller or John Garfield. [9]  

So there are many ways of explicating and giving meaning to that piano falling on Jim’s head in Amsterdam. Of course we could ponder what it meant that the piano didn’t fall on Jim’s head.   Nah.   It was more fun for you this way, wasn’t it?  

OK, but I’m not finished with you just yet. There is something you can do to make sure that, in fact, a piano does not fall on Jim’s head.

•  Copy this essay

•  Paste the essay into emails of ten of your friends and family

•  Ask them to keep the chain going because, if they don’t, Jim is reallygoing to get clobbered by that piano. [10]


[1] I think it was a Boesendorfer, but it might have been a Erard or Pleyel, but I’m certain it was a nine foot concert grand.   I figured that you would be interested in these details.

[2] OK, so it wasn’t quite millions, but it was somewhere between 37 people and four million. You know these estimates are never accurate.

[3] The odds of a piano falling on Jim’s head on a street in Amsterdam are, according to Sammy the Book, of Las Vegas, 1,000,000,000,000,000 to one. They are even greater if you want to add that Jim was whistling “On the Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady just before the piano hit.

[4] Some agents prefer the 2-metre Steinway upright, which is more compact and easier to conceal. Other CIA operatives have been known to employ the Baldwin spinet, but others contend that spinets just don’t have the “knock down” power of a grand.

[5] No, I am not going to name them!   Would you have me to put them in jeopardy. There are a lot of grand pianos teetering from upper story window ledges and I am not going to be a Scooter Libby and endanger these many, beautiful and passionate women who have shared intimacies with me that I usually only boast about when I am very drunk and trying to out impress some guys in bars.   Alright, alright, I’ll give you this much:   one of them has a first name that is spelled the same as Angelina.

[6] Maybe for God it is, but for Jim it sucks.

[7] On the other hand you are cautioned against trying to make this sort of divine accounting work in explaining why a couple of hundred school kids are killed by an earthquake or tsunami.

[8] Yes, like millions of guys do every day I have said “I did not have sex with that woman” (but was not impeached for it.)

[9] And you can guess what they were doing when things came to an end for them.

[10] If they prefer to break the chain they may send $100 to the “Ship What’s Left of Jim’s Body Back from Amsterdam in a Tupper Ware Container Fund.”   Dragon City Journal accepts all currencies.

©2007, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 8.18.2007)