This is “the” joke I read in Spanish at a restaurant in Tulsa many years ago. Upon reading it, I realized that whatever controls language had clicked full-on for me in Spanish. The subtlety of the dumb joke caught me off guard and I’ve not forgotten that moment.
A Sergeant and his Lieutenant are on the edge of a wide prairie. Both are laying behind a slight rise on the perimeter of the prairie. The Lieutenant looks through his spyglass.
“Sarge, take this and look at the group of Indians riding toward us and tell me if you think they are friends or enemies!” The Lieutenant hands Sarge the telescope.
The Sargeant hits the Lieutenant on the shoulder. “Duh! I don’t need to use the telescope. They must be friends if they are riding so close together like that!”
The title of this post popped into my head as I ran from work today. All of us have our struggles. I catch myself in surprise by the dusk in my head. Though I wasn’t consciously thinking about it, I’d walked across the parking lots and sidewalks in the rain, still wearing my mask. It was an absurd moment. “Lost in my thoughts” doesn’t begin to describe the floorless circumstance of my mind. If you’re lucky, you’ve had meditative moments of selflessness like that. In dense moments, they often save us from what streams in our heads.
Ricardo Arjona recently released another album. One of the songs, “El Amor Que Me Tenía,” among others, hit me like an anvil. I learned a lot of poetry and vocabulary from Arjona. He’s known for his turn of phrase. It fundamentally resonates with me. Musicians like him broke open the capacity in me to see beyond language. If Spanish were to become my primary language, I would devote myself to speaking like Ricardo Arjona writes his music, no matter how perplexed people become. I find myself wishing we spoke English the same way, too, but it is difficult to find anyone interested and willing to spend the day deconstructing the absurdity and content of what we say. (Yes, such a willingness is one of the things by which I evaluate a person. Those who demonstrate such an interest won’t ever be disappointed by circumstance.)
One of my co-workers from another department is an avid Arjona fan, too. He got excited when he realized that I had the new album. It amazes him that a gringo like me can appreciate such musicians’ subtle capture in his native language. I brought it, and though we don’t overlap many hours a week at work, I played it on the computer/jukebox I rebuilt at work. Today, my co-worker returned briefly to pick up something. He asked me to put “El Amor Que Me Tenía” on again. I did and increased the volume in the vast space to the point that the angels trembled. I left him there in the back of the room. As the song started, he sat and listened with the rapt attention of one enthralled. It’s rare to see another adult so rapturously engage with a song. When the song ended, he stayed seated for the next song. He emerged from the shadowy area in the back and looked reinvigorated. Whatever it is in that song, it found its way inside him. We now have a shorthand we can use to connect to that kind of music and message.
Whatever the moment with his immersion in the song was, it is a shame that we don’t have such moments several times a day. They ground us in our humanity, and in the parts of our lives we let slide from our grasp. *
P.S. “This amazing story was brought to you by me.” (A line I felt obligated to steal from a winsome writer.)
After decades of watching people, I can share an obvious secret with you.
People don’t work to learn another language because it exposes us to our ignorance. It’s not because they’re lazy. They are nervous or scared. If you find someone who doesn’t fear their ignorance being on display as it diminishes, keep that person in your life. They are rare. All of us start from complete ignorance for every language. When we already know one before starting a new one, what we think we know trips us like an endless bucket of banana peels.
If you are lucky enough to speak English as a first language, trust me when I tell you that you won the lottery without purchasing a ticket. Please do everything in your power to forgive others as they struggle with the mess we’ve made of our language. Please take a second and consider that they’re using another language. I know that the necessity of needing to speak or write another language ADDS pressure to those in that position and adds difficulty. Whether it is the case for you, I’m an idiot if a proverbial gun is to my head.
Also, if your accent is remotely like mine, you might sound a bit weird. As the old joke says, the last thing you want to hear your brain surgeon say is, “Y’all are going to be alright.” I’ve butchered so many words that I should have a Dexter spinoff. One thing some don’t know about me, though, is that language is a melody that excites me, and when I find myself forgetting what once was at my disposal, I feel a bit of loss.
For language, all any reasonable person is going to ask is that you try. It helps to be able to laugh at yourself. People learning other languages is a joy to witness. There’s no better comparison than observing a child conquer something complex; mastery soon seems inevitable. Laughter and self-observance is a considerable part of a good learning plan.
Yes, people don’t take the time, that’s true. With a couple of other people before, I proved to them that a person could learn a LOT of another language by just learning one word a day. Like all learning, words begin to associate, stick to another, and create grooves in your brain that you might even realize have formed, in the same way lyrics fall surprisingly from your lips. You’ll soon learn phrases, insults, and wit. Anyone lucky enough to hit the milestone of laughing at a joke that isn’t directly translatable experiences a deep satisfaction at having done so. For me, I will never forget the abstract joy of telling my Sarge/Lieutenant On the Edge of The Prairie joke in Spanish.
Most of us only use around 800 different words a day. I’m not talking about Tiffany or Jessica, who seems to rattle off 800 a minute. They only use four different words, and two of them are both the word “like.” Sorry, Tiffany.
Truthfully, it is not the words per se that create difficulty for us. It’s the connecting words and the ridiculous verb tenses we allow in our language. If you can overcome your initial fear, you can communicate a lot of information using words as a toddler does. You don’t need the word “sublime” in your vocabulary during a typical day – nor do you need to master the future perfect tense, subjunctive or otherwise, in either English or the language you are learning.
I know there are people out there who have always toyed with the idea of another language. If you learn nothing else from me, please hear this: if I can get to a decent level of mastery, anyone can. Even if you only remember a few words, those few words will push your mind outside of its normal limits.
A couple of nights ago, I was scrolling YouTube on the FireTv app. I tend to discover a trove of songs in other languages. When I began to learn Spanish enough to discover nuance, music in Spanish opened my mind and heart to other styles I hadn’t appreciated. There are many words that I still associate with the first time I understood them through music. Artists with clear voices gave my dubious English-oriented mind the opportunity to understand them.
If I’ve heard it before, I don’t remember it. A song titled, “¿Quién Dice Que No?” by Oscar Cruz played. The video was overly dramatic but the song in its simplicity hit me in the face. Listening to the song again, I was struck by the simple majesty of Oscar’s voice.
As I do with all such songs, I listened to it several more times the next day.
Curiosity overtook me. I discovered that Oscar Cruz won the first season of the Mexican version of “The Voice.” And rightly so. The show and his judge/coach failed to return Oscar’s contribution by helping him afterward. After all, people like Oscar are what makes the judges million dollar salaries possible. While Oscar plays several instruments and has a booming voice, his advancing age make stardom an elusive goal for him.
While there is a lot of his music I’m not partial too, I will always remember the first time I heard this song. Oscar plays several instruments.
After reading about Oscar’s story, I realized I had seen his performance of Piano Man in Spanish on La Voz Mexico a few years ago.
I wonder what he thinks of his momentary fame a decade ago.
*I’m old – but not so old that I can’t see value in other cultures. Some can’t even listen to music from another genre or decade, much less from another country. Put down your chips and salsa and listen to other voices, even if they can make you uncomfortable.