December 31, 2020 – Learning Something New

I don’t know about you, but I try to make a point to do something each day to keep my gray matter from turning into the equivalent of a septic tank. One great way to do that? Learn something new. There are so many things to learn about in this great big world! Don’t know where to start? Just look around. Do you need to make repairs on your apartment or home but you cannot afford to pay a contractor? Pull up YouTube on your computer or phone or tablet or whatever you use when you access the internet. It contains a treasure trove of ‘how to’ videos on practically everything. It’s how I learned how to refurbish cell phones, among other things. And it’s how my husband learned many of the aspects of rebuilding a fiberglass boat. But it’s not necessarily the be-all end-all in sources for learning new things.

One thing that has always fascinated me is languages. The first time I made an attempt to learn a new language, sign language to be exact, was when I was around 10 years old. I started babysitting for the neighbors that lived across the street, who both happened to be deaf. The primary way we communicated was on paper. The mom would write something down on a piece of paper and then she’d slide it over to me. I would then write my response and anything else I wanted to share at the time and pass it back to her. We could go through quite a few sheets of paper! I wanted to learn how to communicate with her in a better way, so I decided to learn sign language. First lesson? Learn how to ‘sign’ A-Z. Sounds easy enough! I had a little sheet of paper that had illustrations of how each letter should look. And each day, I would set it on my lap or on a nearby surface and practice.

Countless times I went over the alphabet until I nearly had it down. But it didn’t matter how many times I practiced, I could never remember G, H, P & Q. Why? Why did those particular letters elude me? And if I couldn’t even get down the most basic of symbols, why even bother trying to learn how to communicate actual words? I knew ‘thank you’ and ‘milk’ just because the kids used those words so often, but that was as far as I got. To this day, I still cannot remember G, H, P & Q. I always have to go on the internet to reference them and each time I look them up, I say to myself, “That’s right! I should be able to remember now!” But it never fails, within a week, any recollection that I might have had is gone. Poof! Just like that.

Another ‘skill’ I learned when I was slightly older (around 15 years old) was ‘how to drive’. When I was in high school, it was part of the curriculum, clearly before all of the budget cuts took place and Driver’s Education was eliminated along with nearly all of the music and art programs. My teacher was an older man that clearly had nerves of steel. He taught every single student that enrolled in his class. And he got paid just like everyone else. I didn’t think that was necessarily fair. If anything, he should have at least got ‘hazard pay’ on top of his normal salary. The thing is, that poor man tried to teach me. And he nearly taught me everything I needed to learn to be a qualified driver, however, the one thing I could never grasp was ‘parallel parking’. I don’t care how many times he had me try, I simply couldn’t do it.

It was just like with sign language and my inability to grasp how to sign G, H, P & Q! What the heck?! And when I went to get my license, I couldn’t do it either. I tried several times but I could not, for the life of me, figure out how to squeeze my car between two other cars parked on the side of the street. The person who was testing me was clearly annoyed, but they passed me anyway. Fortunately, my family lived in the suburbs so I really didn’t need that skill to get by. Even now, it rarely is an issue. When it becomes a problem, however, is anytime I need to drive in a big city. What is it about big cities and parallel parking? Ack! I can handle city traffic. I can handle busses pulling out in front of me and one way streets and jaywalkers, but ask me to parallel park? Kill me now! My friends, I have tried!

I cannot explain it, but something happens to me when I pull up alongside the car that is directly in front of the ‘available space’. I go into an instant panic. I think to myself, “There’s no way THIS car is going to fit into that TINY space.” I don’t know if I psych myself out or what happens exactly but it never goes well. When I finally do start to pull in, it’s either too early or too late. Inevitably, my right, rear tire hits the curb and then I have to pull back out again. The cars that continually pull up behind me don’t help matters. All that does is add an extra layer of anxiety to the ongoing panic. Most of the time, I give up after several failed attempts and find the nearest parking garage to pull into. The other option? There is one other option if parallel parking is required, delegate the passenger to do the dirty work.

The great thing is, if I am travelling with a passenger, after they’ve watched in horror and embarrassment after I’ve made several attempts to parallel park, they usually volunteer. And I cannot tell you what a relief that is! My husband and I actually have it worked out. He hates to drive in ‘the city’, it doesn’t matter which one, so I always drive and he navigates. But when it comes time to park the car, I pull over and we switch places. Parallel parking for him is effortless. I watch him in awe each time he does it. He doesn’t panic, he doesn’t break a sweat, and the car always fits, no matter how convinced I am that it won’t. It is a great system we have worked out! But enough about cars and parallel parking, I was talking about ‘learning something new’, so let’s get back to it, shall we?

Before I got caught up in talking about driving, I had shared a little about my love of languages. After my not terribly successful attempt at learning sign language, I decided to try German. I was part German, after all. That was another course that was available in high school at the time. When I took the course, I absolutely loved it! I took to it like a duck to water. By the time I graduated, I had completed two years of German instruction and had become pretty familiar with the language. And it’s odd how life works, because after I graduated, I joined the military. My first assignment? A base in North Germany. That worked out well! Because I knew the language, I didn’t have to stumble around like the rest of the folks in my squadron. It made it so much easier to get around and do things, not having the language barrier getting in the way.

After my assignment in Germany, my husband and I were assigned to a tactical unit in Spain. Knowing how to speak German wasn’t exactly helpful any longer. I remember walking around downtown Madrid completely lost. What did the signs mean? What were people saying? And once I got hungry and had to read a menu? Forget about it! It drove me nuts. The solution? Learn Spanish. No problem! I had already ‘mastered’ German, Spanish should be a piece of cake! Haha! Sehr komisch! You know the thing I mentioned earlier about my brain having trouble with certain things? It happened again. I am not sure what was taking place (in my brain) but it appeared that the Krauts didn’t want the Spaniards moving in on their territory. Nein, wir waren hier zuerst! That means ‘no, we were here first’, by the way.

Once I thought I had a pretty good understanding (of the basics) of the Spanish language, I tried to put it to good use. But the Germans weren’t having it! Someone would ask me a yes/no question and I would respond with ‘ja’ or ‘nein’ instead of ‘si’ or ‘no’. No matter how much I studied, I couldn’t seem to untangle the two languages. It drove me bonkers! I would get flummoxed so easily and trying to put together a coherent sentence was nearly impossible. I finally gave up. We were returning ‘to the states’ soon enough anyway. Why bother with a language I’ll probably never need or use again? Why bother? Famous last words! Have you applied for a job lately? Almost every job posting I look up says ‘Bilingual in Spanish required or preferred’. Yep! Looks like it is a good language to be familiar with.

Why did I give up so easily? If I’d stuck with it, I could be rolling my r’s like the best of ’em by now! Still, it’s not too late. Now that the German has faded more into the background, I think Spanish might have a better chance at taking hold. I actually purchased some software and have been practicing on a regular basis. Some of the stuff sticks and some of it doesn’t. But practice makes perfect, right? I’m going to keep at it and hopefully someday I can say I’m fluent. If for no other reason, it’d be nice to know the language if we get a chance to visit our son and daughter-in-law while they’re stationed in Spain. If that doesn’t happen, maybe it’ll give me an edge over other jobseekers. And hey, either way, the good it does for my brain is worth it. ‘Use it or lose it’ they say! Anyway, I’d better sign off. I was up until four o’clock in the morning and I’m fried. I hope you have a fabulous New Year’s Eve, whatever you choose to do (my guess is watch a movie). And I truly hope next year brings you joy, comfort, health and prosperity!

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