I recently spent two weeks in Spain promoting the translation of my book, Can I Keep My Jersey? (Me Puedo Quedar La Camiseta?, thanks for asking.) On the trip, I shook hands, I signed copies of the book and I did interviews for newspapers and radio stations.
I did all of those things, mostly, in Spanish.
I speak Spanish with the same level of expertise and craftsmanship that Dodge used when it built the Aries K. My relative inability to speak high-level Spanish bothers me almost as much as the Brooklyn Nets logo.
(Simple is good. Drawn by a third-grader is not.)
Having lived and worked in Spain, I should speak the language better than I do.
But I don’t. I try pretty hard – in fact, I spent a month prior to my trip to Spain making daily Skype trades of my English for their Spanish with two different Spanish women now living in Australia, but that’s another FlipCollective story entirely.
I just don’t have the knack, as they say. This is in part, I think, because I wasn’t raised around other languages, but it is more for the same reason that I don’t like the video games known as first-person shooters.
Allow me to explain.
I have a penis and am a child of the Nintendo era, which means that I was a prime target for the advent of the first-person shooter: those video games wherein you, the user, pretend that your television screen is your field of vision – a field of vision occupied mostly by enemies that you must kill by shooting them with a gun.
Wolfenstein came out when I was in middle school, Doom when I was in high school…you see what I mean.
They’re fun enough, these first-person shooters. You get to pretend that you’re ridding the past of Nazis or the Earth of aliens or the galaxy of genetically-engineered monsters that might have arisen from the love child of Heironymus Bosch, absinthe, and whomever designed the cover for Molly Hatchet’s Beatin’ The Odds.
The investment is low: a bit of your time and a few brain cells. The reward is relatively high: you don’t actually have to fight barbarians for a king or a lord or a baron; you can discharge your testosterone-induced rage on a foe that exists only on your television.
Except for me. Those first-person shooters make me nervous, and it’s not because I can’t handle pixilated explosions or computer-generated shrapnel.
It’s because I have a habit of always getting lost.
I’d like to think of myself as a man with a good sense of direction. I know where the sun rises and sets. I give directions using North and East and South and I try to use miles instead of minutes whenever possible. I don’t rely on homespun, largely ineffective Americana such as a left here and a right there and, “Oh, it’s just past the old Fitzsimmons place.” I even have an orienteering merit badge. (Well, I don’t still have it, but I did earn it once.)
But if the ease with which I get turned around in video games is any proof, I am not the man I’d like to be. Put me in a game of Doom and I’ll show you all the dead ends. Throw me a joystick and immerse me in Call Of Duty and in no time at all, you’ll find out how easy it is to sneak up behind me and remove my entrails with a knife.
This, I think, isn’t entirely abnormal – I have to assume that others struggle with the bizarre, unreal proprioception required by video games.
It’s my reaction that’s strange.
I panic. I begin to believe that it is possible that I will not find my way out of this situation soon and that I might not find my way out of this situation EVER.
This is how I feel when I speak Spanish and something goes wrong – as if my options are the four-headed zombiemonsters behind me, the brick wall to my left, the other brick wall to my right, and the pit of firegoo in front of me.
In my mind, if you and I are speaking Spanish, and we come to the impasse I’ve created when I launched into a discussion of the Spanish financial crisis, because I knew how to say “La gente penso que sus casas…” but don’t know how to say, “…would always rise in value.”
Well, if that happens, I don’t think,
OK, deep breath, you can figure this out.
OH HOLY SHIT WE CAN’T COMMUNICATE AND I’VE PROBABLY MISSED SOMETHING IMPORTANT TO THE CONVERSATION AND NOW THIS PERSON KNOWS I’M AN IDIOT AND THAT ANY INTELLIGENCE I HAVE IS MERELY A FAÇADE, A SHAM, A PATCHWORK OF SHODDY MASONRYWORK THAT COVERS WHAT’S REALLY BEHIND IT, WHICH IS A ROTTEN SHEET OF DRYWALL THAT SHOULD’VE BEEN THE WATERPROOF KIND BUT THE CONTRACTOR WAS TOO LAZY TO MAKE ANOTHER TRIP TO HOME DE…
You get the idea.
My mental conniption fit is unreasonable for many reasons, of course, not the least of which is that, in this hypothetical conversation, we could decide to drop the subject and move on to something else. Or we could rely on your English (where you are, in this hypothetical instance, at least partially bilingual) to lubricate our conversation.
Or I could have a little patience and wait until my brain recalls how, exactly, to use the past conditional tense, or whatever the fuck it’s called.
But these things do not occur to my brain. What does occur to my brain is a giant, red Eject button.
“Get out of here now!” it says.
“You’re in over your head!” it screams.
“Next time you’re going to be in Spain, get a tutor!” it yells.
What I’ve learned about the video games that make me feel like a blind man in the Minotaur’s maze, is that the only way I’ll have fun is if I set my expectations low. I have to pretend that each time is my first, and I have to admit that I don’t know what I’m doing.
It’s the same with speaking Spanish. On the Me Puedo World Tour, I realized that as long as I maintain a childlike attitude, as long as I never get ahead of myself and start to think I’m fluent, as long as I see each completed sentence as progress and not another step toward inevitable failure, I might be able to finish that conversation we started.
Dance like no one’s watching, they say. Work like you don’t need the money. Sing like no one’s listening.
And speak Spanish like you’re not the least bit afraid of judgmental frowns, blank stares, or the dead end created by a brick corridor and a pack of bloodthirsty alienzombies.
For more from Paul…
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