I thought I was pretty slick last week checking out Neil Young’s latest release Living with War from the public library for a five-hour drive to Ann Arbor.
Great album. He’s the real deal, Neil. You know how quickly we grow tired of CD’s and how expensive they are and how easily they get lost, damaged or misplaced? Try the library. Then you get the whole thing, not just a song or two that someone downloads for you.
But I got too confident. Someone tipped off the technology gods how happy I was and just like that, they cut me off. Somewhere around Youngstown, Ohio - where Mike Tyson was fighting a four-round exhibition match, the start of his improbable “World Tour” - after playing the CD through three or four times (I couldn’t believe “Impeach the President”; go, Neil), I got nothing, nada, bupkis (Yiddish for nothing).
The thing was spinning. I could hear some static. But no music. No Neil Young. No deal. And no one in the next truck stop could help.
“Buy another player?” someone tried suggesting.
Back to radio. Back to NPR. But each state I was driving through, each station I picked up, was pitching that eternal, repetitive fund-drive. Someone, save me! I switch to AM and catch Jerry Springer on Air America, my first Air America experience hit on the road. It really does exist. I could probably agree with Springer’s politics but who could get past the nutcase, hysterical ravings? He sounded just like the boys on Fox News. Is this what we do? Imitate the enemy?
For backup I had a collection of Edith Wharton short stories on cassette tapes. A friend of mine’s daughter was reading Edith Wharton for school over the summer and I thought it might be a good time to review. She’s not bad in a pinch. In fact last night, trying to break a developing and stupid addiction to watching sports on television, I slipped in a tape and listened to some stories of upper-class New Yorkers in turn-of-the-century America while I watched the World Series on mute and folded some laundry.
The perfect multitasking evening. Especially since by the time I went to bed I could see the Detroit Tigers were winning.
But on that dreary fall day of highway driving, Edith Wharton’s patrician, intercontinental world wasn’t what I wanted. So I bit the bullet and put into the old, reliable cassette deck the first of a 12-tape set of French instruction I had also checked out of the library.
For me, French, something I took in high school and college, is a language that produces prodigious sweating and lots of agitation. I like French. It doesn’t like me, but that doesn’t stop me. For some reason or another I keep trying.
I know the French are whiners and they’re cold and snotty and that Spanish is the language du jour to learn. Yet I continue.
But in the same way I don’t think I’ll ever fit into a size 10 dress or a size 6 pair of stilettos, it’s going to take a miracle for this French thing to happen, despite the efforts of a Quebecois friend I met through an ad I put on Craig’s List (“Wanted: someone to speak French with”).
When we met we had one rule: no English. We would converse. We would drink wine. We would tell a story - une histoire - en Francais, in French.
“Raconte moi une histoire,” she said. “Tell me a story.”
I made her go first. Turns out my young Canadian friend moved to the States for love. In her real life, she teaches drama to small children in her beloved adopted province, British Columbia, but in this country the only job she could get was as a nanny.
Her story, she said, was tres triste. Very sad. One day, realizing she forgot something, she stopped back into her apartment with her two-year-old charge only to find her boyfriend kissing someone else - another man.
At least I think that’s what she said. It was in French!
“Un homme?” I said. “Il embrace un homme?”
Then I tried to tell her a story someone sent me about the politically correct, progressive, eco-friendly city of Seattle and how it was using goats - chevre - to cut grass - herbe.
“Marijuana?” she said, good British Columbia hippy that she was.
No. Grass! Verde? Green?
Like my deal with trying to relearn French (or wear stilettos), choosing this saga to translate was a tough assignment. Fortunately I had a printed copy of the story.
Better yet, when I gave her a lift home, she knew how to fix my CD. I had pushed the wrong button.
“C’est magnifique!” I said.
Life is good.