Sunday, January 31, 2010

Listopada Rain

I was in 2nd or 3rd grade when I first heard "Welcome to the Jungle" by Guns N Roses. Its impact was immediate. In a single day my aspirations in life went from growing up to be a princess-helicopter-pilot-prima-ballerina to growing up to be Guns N Roses' guitarist, Slash. (Or at least his guitar-shredding, face-melting, mega-riffing side kick.) Now it's almost 20 years later. I never joined Guns N Roses. (Shocking, I know.) But I did get another chance at becoming Slash just 2 weeks ago, and it all started with the words, "Dzien Dobre...."

In the late 80's and early 90's I was a tiny, chubby little girl clad solely in neons and black. Color was brought into my wardrobe mostly through puff paint, a variety of brightly colored and terrible berets, a series of turquoise shoes, and of course, scrunch socks. My fashion was metalhead meets Lisa Frank. It was pretty dope. (I was the only one who felt that way.) At the age of 9 or 10, Guns N Roses was my greatest joy in life. My Dad didn't let me listen to them, but my Mom did so I hid my "Use your Illusion" cassettes at her house and listened to them fervently on Wednesday afternoons, and every other weekend (my parents were divorced.) My Mom ALSO let me watch Headbanger's Ball on MTV, where my dream of becoming Slash was further cemented the day I first saw the video for "November Rain." In it, my idol stands outside of an old church in an expansive desert, utterly alone, wind whipping his hair and blowing open his leather jacket to reveal his shirtless chest as he shreds the most epic solo of all time. I thought, "OH MY GOD THAT IS SO ME."


(me at about the same time)

One of greatest moments of my childhood, which I remember more clearly than I remember this afternoon, was an evening at Grand City- a little hole-in-the-wall diner in a small town in central Maine. I was there with my Aunt Dianne and my Mom. My Aunt smoked cigarettes (as did everyone in Grand City), my Mom drank coffee, and after awhile she asked me if I'd like to have a hot fudge sundae for dinner. Before my ice cream came, I went to bathroom and on my way back caught sight of a jukebox. I flipped through the pages of offered songs... country... rock... blah blah blah... then I saw THE GREATEST THING EVER. I ran back to the table and started squealing and begging...

"AuntDianneMomdoyouhaveaquarterbecauseohmygodit''s PARADISE CITY!" My Aunt coughed up the change and, amidst a swirl of smoke and the scent of burnt toast and coffee, I ate the best dinner imaginable to one of the greatest songs of all time- and every one at Grand City, every single emphysema-afflicted 65 year old- was rocking along with me. It was glorious.

When I was 12 I started taking guitar lessons. This in my mind was but a very small part of reaching my goal of joining Guns N Roses. I was obviously going to shred. The real issue was getting my idol Slash to either stand down from his band entirely and let me take his place, or at least move over slightly to give me a little room. He seemed like a really reasonable dude. I had a poster of him on my wall (across from the Garfield poster that Aunt Dianne painted for me and next to the framed photo of my favorite teddy bear), and he seemed real laid back. He was so relaxed he couldn't even be bothered with shirts or haircuts. My Dad, for the record, after getting me the poster (since he wouldn't let me listen to the band), took it back, saying Slash was a bad influence because he smoked and drank. Until he mentioned it I had never noticed the cigarette in his mouth OR the whiskey at his side. I'm still a little mad over it.

My first guitar lesson was also my first real encounter with reality. I was a nerd that lived in a dream world. In my mind I already had a foot in that desert and my finger ready to pick that solo. But what I found out was that to play guitar I had to LEARN TO PLAY GUITAR. The first time I picked one up not only could I not play any Guns N Roses songs, but I couldn't even coax a Metallica (my 3rd or 4th favorite band of the time) song out it. I was not a musical prodigy as I had expected. In the times that Slash and I had talked (which was never) I had never heard him mention having to learn to play. The realization that I was not almost-already-practically-Slash was devastating, and discouraging.

I rarely practiced my guitar. Mostly I just looked at it with resentment. I picked it up periodically over the next few years to check if I had become gifted. I never did. I started many imaginary bands with my friends (where I played lead guitar and they played instruments that they also didn't know how to play), and eventually, in disgust, gave up guitar entirely. I picked up a mic instead. Singing was easy for me. My voice was always strong, I enjoyed public speaking, writing lyrics was fun. It was a slacker's Guns N Roses, it was a second best. It was Axl, but it was ok.

For years I've lamented my inability to play guitar. But rather than trying, I've convinced myself that I can't learn to play. "I'm too old to learn" (this is not true), or "I'd rather play the banjo" (this is true), and the fact is, like most people, I'd rather complain about shit than take care of it. It's less effort, and when you pile on enough excuses that in itself starts to feel like an accomplishment. "No, I can't play guitar, but let me list the incredibly legit reasons I've come up with not to, they're really impressive..."

So now I'm 27. I sing in a couple bands, still Axling my way out. I Axl my way out of a lot of things. It's an amazingly easy life, being Axl. Do what I'm good at immediately, not what challenges me. It's a hot fudge sundae for dinner and I have very few complaints. But, as you'll see, I'm always complaining. There's something immensely satisfying about it. There's also something distinctly Jewish about it, so really I'm just keeping in touch with my heritage. (See how great I am at excuses?) So while my life has been by all means pretty fantastic, it's missing something vitally important. It's missing that epic solo in the desert.

In high school I had another goal that went unreached, but this time not for lack of trying. I wanted to learn to speak Spanish with the idea that I'd move to Mexico after I graduated. This dream was based mostly on my love of the colors orange and red and a few photos I had seen of brightly colored Mexican houses. My dedication in my 3 years in Spanish was unrivaled by anyone else in my class (most of whom were asleep.) I took notes, I studied, and at the end of 3 years I was left with, "Yo soy Davin."

This convinced me that I was an idiot.

I've never really said this, but hey, it's a new blog and from what I've read your attention spans last 1 paragraph so you're probably not reading this anyway, but since high school Spanish I've always kind of thought I was stupid. Like a happy idiot, you know? Nice but dumb. Good intentioned but short on brains. And I've learned to be ok with that. I like the color red. I like singing in a band. Not everyone is a genius, and that's ok.

A few weeks ago I got hired by a language learning software company called Rosetta Stone. They offer 31 different language programs, and all employees are asked to try at least the first few minutes of each one when they're hired (part of the job is demonstrating the program so it's best to know what each language looks and sounds like before you show it to someone.) So on my first shift alone I started putzing around with the languages. The program grades your pronunciation and I wasn't surprised when I struggled with Spanish and failed French entirely, but then I opened Polish, level 1. "Dzien Dobre..."

The words came flowing out my mouth with a perfect Warsaw accent. I went past the first few minutes and got to the meat of the lesson. It was so fun to speak, so delightful to hear the words come from me, so easy to understand. A few minutes became 30, then an hour, then a customer stopped to ask me what I was learning. Me, LEARNING a language? "No no no, I'm just playing", I told them. They left, and I got right back it. "Kobieta prowadzie samochod." I was thrilled as I learned to sound out the words. "Ohhhh.. the w sounds like a v and d is like a t and the 'dzie' like a g... easy!" The night passed this way, playing with Polish, talking to customers about it, playing with Polish, and then my shift was over.

The next day I was at my other job (one I've had for years) as a face painter. As I painted a little girl to look like a tiger, a little boy went running by. I saw him and immediately thought, "chłopiec." That means "boy" in Polish. I realized, suddenly, that I had just THOUGHT in Polish. Not translated, not even intended to think, but that's just what a thought is, it's an unintentional mental interpretation of feeling and surrounding. And I thought in a foreign tongue, because it made sense to me. Because I had learned it.

The next shift at Rosetta Stone I went straight for the Polish program. A perk of the job is that we are encouraged to learn languages at work. I had intended to do this when I got hired but had assumed I would fail, being an idiot and all. Again it came easily, it made sense to me, and I passed each lesson. Again, someone came over and asked what I was learning. I answered proudly, "I'm learning Polish." That night bits and pieces of my dreams were in Polish.

Yesterday I reached the end of my first unit. The last lesson in the unit uses everything you've learned and puts you in a real life situation where you hold up your end of a conversation, without prompting, in Polish. I stood nervous but ready, with my little headset mic clutched in my sweaty hand. The scene is you and your dog meeting some people in the woods. You say hello, ask them what they're doing, they offer you coffee, you offer them bread, your dog eats some, and everyone laughs. I'd showed it to customers 100 times. But then, it was my turn. My stomach was in a knot. My brain felt tingly. It started and I immediately aced my pronunciation of hello. After that, I fell flat on my face. I failed the lesson. Like I fail everything. I almost cried.

I went home last night ready to give up Polish, ready to Axl-out and be content with English. I was immediately good at Polish but in the end I STILL didn't do well, which only further proved to me that I am a hopeless, unteachable moron. My boyfriend on the other hand is brilliant. He's whizzing through Russian, he already speaks Spanish, and he's learning German. I came home defeated and angry and told him my end-of-lesson sob story. Then he told me that he failed Russian the first time he had tried, and suggested I review the core lessons then and try again.

Try AGAIN? Trying at all was new for me, but trying twice? But... then again... if my genius boyfriend struggled, then I guess anyone could. It was worth a shot.

We spent our night chatting about slavic languages. We talked past midnight about gendered nouns and the similar vocabulary between "our" languages and how great our next trips to Warsaw and Moscow will be. It certainly was exciting. If I could actually learn...

Today I went into work and faced my old friend, Polish. I spent my shift reviewing the key things I messed up, things I hadn't fully understood, and was shocked to find that today they were simple. Speaking Polish into that little microphone was as easy as singing into a bigger one. I was Axling and Slashing at the same time. I was so proud and so excited that I felt like I was going to burst. Like rays of warm summer sunshine were going to shoot out of me. I felt like a cloud. Or like a floating little feather. Or like a hot fudge sundae. And I realized what I was feeling. It was my foot inching its way to the desert.
Until next time...

Do Widzenia.