For years, I was a vocabulary nerd (“Was? WAS”? I can hear those of you know me shouting). I’m sure this is some genetic quirk, which bloomed into full blown disease around 1974 when I began Latin classes and my sophomore English teacher began her own personal mission to turn us into SAT champions.
Ahhhhhh…I dream about those pre-No-Child-Left-Behind days, when teachers could actually give their students what they needed rather than what the state thought they needed. We actually were held accountable for what we were supposed to learn; no retaking tests until our grades were high, a practice my buddies with older children inform me is rampant.
My friends and I would sit around my dining room table, trying to trip each other up. Those teachers were like drug dealers; that vocabulary workbook and those declensions and conjugations were my gateway drugs. Next thing I knew it, I was an English major…and you all know where that leads.
Anyway, a whole mess o’ words ended up in my head, and their meanings became specialized with additional training. Along the way, I developed an intense loathing for jargon (I had kind of a rumspringa in grad school, but we all need some youthful rebellion). To this day, terms like “network” used as a verb set my teeth on edge as surely as a Styrofoam cooler squeaking in the back seat. But every vocation has its own language, and I became proficient in mine.
This is all fine and good, until you find yourself in what I’ll call The Land of Missing Vocabulary (insert diabolical laugh here). I first ventured across its borders in a precalculus-type class when I encountered the term “function.” I simply could not get my mind around that word’s mathematical meaning. I dug in my heels after that year: no more math for me. I was staying at home.
Fast-forward 30 years. Last weekend, six of my friends and I headed south to The Suburbs of the Big City for a couple of days of self-indulgence involving a spa, long meals, some killer caramel corn, and a reasonable amount of alcohol. All was going well until two of them entered the suite we were using as a gathering place, brandished some shopping bags, and announced, “We have a wonderful idea!” They proceed to open the bags and then dropped onto the table - right in front of me -
Paint. Canvases. Brushes.
“We’re each going to make a painting,” announced European Art College Graduate Painter (EACGP). “Then we can arrange it and I’ll hang it in my house.”
The two of them looked at my increasingly pale face.
“Come on. It’ll be fun,” chimed in Talented Painter II (TP2). “You can do it.”
“What a great idea,” chortled She Who Makes Amazing Assemblages and Altered Books, also known in this blog as DYR.
Luckily, there were seven of us and only six canvases. I pointed this out and said, “That’s okay, because I haven’t the first idea what to do.”
“Nonsense. You simply can’t screw up. These are acrylics. They’re very forgiving. You can split a canvas with someone,” said EACGP. And the die was cast.
Resigned, I picked up a brush.
About an hour in, it hit me. I'd wandered across a border into a group of natives, people who know the meaning of “gesso.” And the following words came out of my mouth, “I know what I want to do, but I can’t describe it or translate it onto this canvas. I just don’t have the vocabulary for this.”
The native speakers were helpful. TP2 offered a couple of technical hints. EACGP told me to just keep going. We had a marvelous time, and the final product was amazing. Somehow my half of the canvas didn’t embarrass me.
On reflection, I realized I’d been through two hours of the painting equivalent of language immersion. I remember walking into the first day of college French class and walking out without having understood a single word. By the end of the term, despite my inability to get the “R” right (you can take the girl out of Texas…), I could exchange a couple of sentences with a native speaker. It took going underwater, a place where I am not comfortable (at least not without scuba gear). But it worked.
This last week, I bought my own set of paints and brushes. I ordered some books. I’ve decided that it’s not too late to learn a second language. Most likely I'll never become fluent. But you never know. My friends and I are going to spend the next few months sharing our various talents and trying new media. Maybe one of these dialects will suit my ear.
I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.