Behind the Eight Ball
If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.
–George Bernard Shaw
It’s Saturday night in Buenos Aires and I have met my friend Joaquin and his friend Silvia to shoot some pool. He had proposed “billiards” not knowing that we play “pool” and have the same word for the game. I told him I had no idea how the Brits play “billiards,” or for that matter most anything else.
The game is a classic game of 8 ball. We shoot rayados (stripes) and lisas (“plains” or solids). There are a couple of rule variations for scratches (the other person gets two turns after a scratch) and for winning with the 8 ball (it must be hit into the pocket of your last regular ball) but otherwise it is the same game.
It’s been a long time since I have played pool. The last was about a year ago at the Cue n’ Cushion in Houston and I notice the same phenomenon. I am deadly the first game, my stick sharply snapping the cue ball and the cue ball spinning back after clapping against the target ball, which lands with authority in the pocket. However, in the second and third games my attention flags, I get in a rush, the aim is no longer true and I become frustrated and sloppy.
I have the same issue in bowling. The muscle memory is good. The mind is elsewhere. It is the problem I have with many things: attention span.
My life runs by intuition and not by systems, yet if I don’t have enough structure the dreaminess sets in and I wander aimlessly through the day in my own space–outer space–and ruminate. It is what leads to creative breakthroughs and to leaving things in cafés, falling down stairs and the inability to remember simple Spanish phrases when under pressure. (SEE: “Big Feet, Short Attention Span.”)
After much advice that I need to practice my Spanish in las calles (the streets), I decided that for this visit I won’t enroll in group lessons. I decide to do a few private lessons and depend on intercambio–language exchange–to further my education. A good theory, but unfortunately my Spanish has regressed since the last time I was in Buenos Aires and with the lack of structure I have been spacey and crazy the first two weeks. I decide to go back to my school.
Silvia, who is in the last year of certification to become an English teacher, gives me advice about how to learn language: “You must fail. You must fail every day. You should knock on the door and meet your neighbor and ask for some sugar.” Joaquin observes “that might not be the best idea if his neighbor is a man.” I tell her that it seems that no one has the patience to speak with me. She says, “perhaps it is you who does not have the patience.”
At dinner, Silvia insists that we converse in Spanish, which we do for about half-an-hour. I tell her about this project and about my life before and she gently corrects me when I get the verb tense or the vocabulary wrong. It doesn’t go too badly, but I am relieved when we switch back to English.
After a game of pool and a nice dinner, it is always good to see a bad movie. We choose the movie BELLE TOUJOURS because it is in French with Spanish subtiles and I think perhaps I could follow along more easily since I have taken French and can read Spanish. I understand about 20% of the French and about 50% of the Spanish. The film is an homage to Luis Buñuel. It seems to be too much of a self-parody for it not to be a self-conscious one. It has many of the clichés of French film: the slow beginning, the panoramic shots of Paris with allegro symphonic music, the repetitious insert shots of 19th-century statues and statuettes, and a story of sexual perversion. There are moody nighttime scenes of rain-soaked Paris streets. The protagonist, an alcoholic man in his seventies, spends the first 45 minutes of the film searching for a woman from his past that he has spied at a concert. I would like to say that I could spoil the plot, but there doesn’t seem to be much of one. The man tells a barman that the he and the mystery woman had engaged in a sadomasochistic affair decades earlier and that he was the best friend of the woman’s husband. There is mystery about whether the husband knew. The man finally finds the woman, arranges a private dinner, and after more panoramic shots of Paris, more symphonic music, and more inserts of statues, the man and the woman eat in a fancy room attended by waiters and eat a three-course meal without speaking a word. The man drinks a decanter of scotch. He gives the woman arch looks, chuckles and enjoys his food. Finally after dinner, the two have a conversation for a few minutes that does not go well. The woman leaves in a huff, the man lingers a bit and exits, and waiters clean the room for the last five or six minutes of the film and comment that the protagonist is really “a type.” The credits roll.
I don’t understand much of the French. It has been too long since I studied the language and now my knowledge of the language is limited to Pepé Le Pew like phrases such as “I am ze locksmith of love, no?” I chuckle when I hear the word “désillusion,” a common sentiment in a French film. I can’t quite follow the subtitles in Spanish. Of course, I don’t understand the meaning of the plot in English, either. I am an American in Argentina watching a French homage to a Spanish director and I am unable to comprehend the film in three languages.
Joaquin, a web entrepreneur, likes to say that he is becoming more successful because he is failing faster all the time, learning quickly what to do. I would like to have the same attitude. When I am in group classes, the material moves very quickly and I don’t understand either the exercises, the explanations, or the chit-chat. I start to feel a heaviness in my diaphragm, my breathing becomes shallow, the words mix together and I start to lose hope. My private tutor tells me that I know a lot of Spanish and that my problem is not my skills, it’s my anxiety. Désillusion sets in and I become the statue, searching for the words and feeling the fear.
This Saturday night, though, I am with Joaquin and Silvia and we have a relaxing evening: we shoot pool, we eat a good dinner, we see a bad movie and I get some valuable coaching on how to fail more quickly.
April 16, 2009 - Posted by Sam Krisch | Uncategorized | Argentina, Being Fearful, Buenos Aires, french film cliches, intercambio, Learning at Fifty, Learning Spanish, learning to fail, midlife, phobia, Playing Pool, turning fifty
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