Thursday, December 15, 2005

One good thing about getting older, maybe

LAKEWOOD, N.Y. (CIRCA 1963) - When I was 15, my mother (after much pleading on my part), bought me an acoustical guitar, a not-too-expensive model, because she was a very smart woman. She knew the attention span of teenagers, particularly her son.

Anyway, I learned about a one half of one song, never really got the whole 'tuning' thing down and gave it up, probably after a week, and maybe a half-dozen hours of practice.

Fast forward the Wayback Machine to 2005.

(Jaysus, not so damn fast! I get dizzy quite easy when sober.)

Now I have an acoustic guitar that a friend (whose house I am housesitting) lent to me and after about a week of puttering around, I can almost play about five songs and not wince at the sound coming out of the instrument - or the sound of my voice singing.

I haven't had the courage to record anything yet. I gratefully accept my wife's white lies about how good I'm getting.

So why is it in 2005 I can do this, but couldn't in 1963?

Some of it is attention span, though I'm not sure I have that good an attention span right now anyway.

What I think it might be that now I believe - no, make that understand - that things are within my reach and I never believed before.

(Hmmm... you are thinking...'Has old Fitz slipped what few cogs are left on his wheel?')

Maybe, but here's a case in point for me: foreign languages.

Jon Giacco and a raft of other high school teachers/zombies convinced me at SWCS that I had zero aptitude for foreign languages. Zero, zip, zilch, nada, cero, etc... Bad news for me. (Lots of crappy grades in high school.) Worse for my mother when you consider that my late father spoke (and could write in) eight languages. My mom could only handle three, English, German and Latin. I believed that I was at the end of the anti-evolutionary scale when it came to language learning, though curiously, I had read at least 100 of the novels in the SWCS library by 9th grade, including a few that Mrs. Levine, the librarian, thought I was too young for. Yes, the library had interesting books. They just never seemed to make it into our English classrooms.

But that is another story.

In 1985, when I went to Spain, part of the deal I made with my university was I would learn enough Spanish to read my lectures aloud (at four Spanish universities) and also be able to do a little polite conversations in the social gatherings that were part of the Fulbright grant and a monthlong tour of the country with other college profs.

I learned Spanish (enough) in eight weeks (8 weeks!) to avoid making a total ass of myself (the key word there is total), and since then have gotten semi-fluent.

Why? Had to for that trip to Spain. And some years later, knowing I would be sailing Mexican waters, really wanted to.

Ditto for French. When I went to France and toured on a canal boat for two weeks a few years ago, within a couple of days I was jabbering like a madman in every bakery and bistro - en Francais, merci beaucoup. I wasn't afraid of it anymore and besides, it just isn't that hard to understand with a little study and extremely attractive female French tutor. (Oops... delete, delete, delete..)

So that leads me to one of the goals I set for myself when I turned 55, a goal to achieve before I, um, well, you know, pass to the next world. It's to learn to play a musical instrument. I chose the ukelele first, but had that choice vetoed by my wife, Admiral Fox, who feared endless choruses of Tiny Bubbles - or worse, Tiptoe Through the Tulips.

When I did pick up the guitar this time, I thought about all the people I know who have mastered the guitar - at least enough to sing a few tunes - and thought, hell, I can do it if they can, fer Chrissakes.

I wish I had adopted that attitude say, 20 years ago (when I started learning Spanish), but the important thing isn't when you wake up to realize something, it's waking up and realizing something - ever.

So after I get done banging on this keyboard, I'll sing Fre-re Jacques and a few other tunes for my captive audience (a half-deaf old Labrador named Bear) and then put my feet up and read a little Spanish to tune up my language skills for my trip to Mexico Christmas Eve.

We're going to Puerto Vallarta, where you can't move without tripping over a gringo, but after a few days it's on to more remote places where you better be able to ask directions in Spanish - and be able to understand the answer.

And maybe before I go, I'll be able to strum enough to get away with playing the song below, made famous by the Texas Tornados, among other folks.

Una Mas Cerveza
by Tommy Alverson

Was down in Mexico where I had roamed
Not too much Spanish by then had I known
I found myself in a terrible mess
There were ten bad banditos, one gringo to mess

I was surrounded no where could I run
They had Los Pistols and I had no gun
I searched my memory for something to say
I had to think quick this could be my last day

Una mas cerveza
Una mas cerveza
Una mas cerveza
Was all I could say
Una mas cerveza
Una mas cerveza
Una mas cerveza
Just let me go my way

I saw a cantina so I went inside
I found a dark corner a good place to hide
I was no safer when I looked around
Not una mas gringo was there to be found

A small crowd had gathered around to my chair
“Eduardo Dormito” they pointed and stared
They gave me a guitar but what could I say
Oh yes I remember that mexican phrase

Una mas cerveza
Una mas cerveza
Una mas cerveza
Was all I could say
Una mas cerveza
Una mas cerveza
Una mas cerveza
Just let me go my way