Mark has a beautiful singing voice, of which I am the prime beneficiary. Whether it’s “Love Me Tender” or “May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose,” he’s on key and on beat with a mellow tone that always melts my heart. A recent round of karaoke on our cruise reminded me that not everyone is similarly talented. In fact, when a friend with whom we were going to karaoke announced that she was leaving at the first flat note, I thought to myself that really there was no point in her sitting down. However, she was a good sport and stayed through some notes with topography that would put pancakes and Kansas to shame, and in fact she did a creditable version of “Back to the USSR.” The only awkward moment in the evening didn’t concern music at all, but instead involved an inebriated Canadian passenger who kept grabbing folks who were leaving and demanding that they stay and have fun. Said Canadian’s spouse sat morosely in a nearby, cruise-gaudy bar, nursing a drink and looking on with a gaze that suggested that this was not the couple’s first karaoke rodeo.
This experience got me contemplating a question vital to the continuation of life on Earth: is it a mistake to sing karaoke when you really can’t sing? The Canadian spouse at the bar aside, we all had fun, even if it wasn’t as long a fun as the inebriated better half wanted us to. What is a mistake, anyway?
My contemplation brought me to the attached picture, which I’d taken some time ago. Presumably the firm marketing the apartments have enough English to know about “secondhand” goods and extrapolated, incorrectly but endearingly, to “newhand.” Intentionally or not, they avoided advertising “firsthand” apartments, which is a good thing, since I probably would still be scratching my head over what a non-firsthand apartment would look like. Maybe that’s when you live in a virtual reality pod that looks like an apartment? Shades of The Matrix movies!
So that was a benign mistake, a concept with which I’m well acquainted. I feel the sign owner’s linguistic pain as I struggle with Spanish. I last studied this tongue formally when Jimmy Carter was president, so most of the verb tenses have long since evaporated or been buried by handy items I learned for the bar exam (the six requirements for a valid indictment in Texas, for example – I use that a lot in daily life) or the words to Barney songs (no doubt I’ll be muttering “I love you, you love me” through my dentures in a nursing home some day). So the other day I completely confused some poor elderly lady when I offered to stand in her place on a crowded bus. “¿Quiero este asiento?” (Do I want this seat?) I asked nicely. What I meant to say, of course, was “¿Quiere este asiento?” (Do you want this seat?) (I’m sure I’ve made a mistake in punctuation here, but tough.) She gave me a look not unlike the one I gave the drunk Canadian on the ship and edged away a little. Poor lady.
So that was an odd but inadvertent mistake. Other linguistic transgressions are more intentional. For example, Spanish nouns have the audacity to have genders. So you can’t just skate by with an all-encompassing “the” as your definite article. Oh, no, you have to choose between “la” for a feminine noun and “el” for a male one. And don’t ask me what you have to do to adjectives in terms of gender, because it makes me cry. So in an effort to simplify my life and strike a blow against the patriarchy, I’ve decided that all of my nouns are feminine, except on Sunday, when out of Christian charity I make them all masculine to even things up a little. I’m therefore wrong about 50% of the time, but I’m never uncertain. Hey, it works for Sarah Sanders!
True confession (Is it a confession if it’s not true? Thought for another blog post): I make intentional mistakes all the time. For example, our church back home performs a sing-along “Hallelujah Chorus ” at Easter. I sing along, picking the part that I like most which is currently being sung. That way I always get the best lines. You’ve heard of a one-man band? I’m a one-woman chorale and proud of it.
And then there are mistakes that are born from deep confusion. Here my prime example is the two Spanish verbs for “to be.” On some level, it’s philosophically enchanting that “ser” denotes a permanent condition – Yo soy un humano – and “estar” is for temporary conditions – Yo estoy feliz, but I might not be tomorrow. But using estar for locations makes zero sense to me. I get that my location is not permanent; after all, we just moved to another continent. But unless you’re thinking in terms of continental drift, many locations are darn permanent. New York is on the Atlantic (unless we’re talking about global warming, in which case New York is at the same latitude and longitude but could be under the Atlantic). And even after Gondwana reforms itself and you can walk from San Francisco to Delhi without getting your feet wet, Amarillo is still going to be in the middle of nowhere. And does the concept of what’s permanent change? Google translates “I am blonde” as “Soy rubia,” but we all know several blondes who are a couple of missed hair appointments away from mousy brown. So there’s that.
In any event, whether intentional or not, mistakes are going to happen. On good days, making mistakes is like jamming in music; you make a mistake and you get a new song. On bad days, it’s more like losing a game of Battleship: you had way too many misses and no hits to speak of. And then there are the great days, when you start to make a ho-hum, new glue and end up with Post-its. The important point is that you own your mistakes, learn from them, and make them part of who you are. That way, I suppose, they’re newhand. And that shall be a sign unto you.