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Old Dogs, New Tricks

We asked four grownups what they've always wanted to learn to do, then sent them to class.BUILT TO SCALEor, How a Double-jointed Nonpianist with Dreams of Grandeur Learns to Play Strauss in Three Weeks.Two major ambitions defined my childhood. One was to become what I imagined headlines would refer..

We asked four grownups what they've always wanted to learn to do, then sent them to class.


or, How a Double-jointed Nonpianist with Dreams of Grandeur Learns to Play Strauss in Three Weeks.

Two major ambitions defined my childhood. One was to become what I imagined headlines would refer to as "the first kid in space." The second, which seemed more reasonable, was to become a great pianist. I realized when I was very small that I wasn't like most people: I was double-jointed. I could bend the top joints of my fingers forward at will to create a sharp right angle, and pull my thumb all the way forward or backward to touch my wrist. This would, I thought, give me abilities at the keyboard that no other pianist could boast. I could only imagine the wild flourishes and the daring arpeggios I would master. I had a natural advantage, and I intended to use it

.I was also a bit of what you might call a quitter back in those days. So when my mother took me down to the music Conservatory and the stern woman in charge told me I would have to learn the recorder-that fat, beige, orthopedic-looking thing-I walked away in disgust.

I nurtured no lack of rock-star fantasies and concert pianist daydreams over the next couple of decades, but I never touched another instrument-until now, at the probably-too-late age of 31. Maya, my enthusiastic and very patient teacher, begins the process by explaining the basics of music theory: tones, pitches, harmonics, chords, rhythm. I'm also learning how to read music, a completely different challenge than the instrument itself. Getting from this theoretical stage to actually playing a song feels like learning to dance by studying the properties of gravity. How do you turn these concepts and rules into something beautiful?

Well, for one, you play a lot of scales. I play them until my hands ache. I feel like every sullen adolescent forced to practice by well-meaning parents. When was the last time I actually had to practice something, anyway? I'm out of practice at practicing.

For my piece, we choose Johann Strauss's The Blue Danube. It's a good choice for two reasons: One, it's in C major, so it's pretty much all white keys. Two, as a young nerd, I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey so many times that this lilting waltz is forever burned into my brain.

"The feeling is more important than the notes," Maya tells me. This is a little comforting but, squinting at the sheet music, both seem very far away. Still, every time I stumble through the melody with my right hand, I feel myself getting a tiny bit better. After a few days of rehearsal, I've got it all memorized. Now, I can focus on the playing itself. It feels like learning a superpower. I can actually play something that sounds almost like music! Now it's time for the left hand-rhythm. I learn that part even faster than the right; it's easy in comparison. Playing both at once, though? Another story.

I comfort myself with the idea that there is only so much I can do in two and a half weeks. I have a little recital scheduled-a mandatory benchmark my editor set for me-so I work at being able to play passably with my right. That's when I present myself to Amy Zanrosso, a concert pianist and a friend, to show her what I've learned.Amy is a friendly, low-pressure woman, but I still feel nauseated the day of the recital. Sitting at her grand piano-quite the step up from my tiny Yamaha, with its annoying habit of often not playing notes when you hit more than one key at a time-I'm exhilarated and terrified. I play.

"The way you move between the positions is pretty fluid," says Amy, adding that my progress is "good for two weeks." She tells me the most important thing is patience-patience for the weeks and months and years of practice I'll need to get anywhere near impressive.

I can't sit down and casually dazzle dinner guests with my virtuosity yet, but at least it feels like a goal I might conceivably achieve one day-distant, but not impossibly far away. And I can still play a killer C major scale. Hey, it's just the white keys.



or, How a Resolute Nondriver, With the Help of a 1976 Mercedes-Benz, Finally Learns to Love the Wheel.

My father is a true Midwest-erner: He has long equated his independence with a two-door sedan. When I was a kid, he would disappear for hours in that long-nosed steel-blue jalopy, driving around Montreal in search of the few spots where NPR comes in without static. The car was his home away from home. He loved it.

I loved it too, from the backseat.

When my 16th birthday came and went without me taking so much as one driver's ed class, my father, like most of the reasonable people in my life, was concerned. Who needs a license? I thought. I'm 16, living downtown with three girlfriends, and I've memorized the numbers of every cab company in the city. "It's a basic life skill," my father would say. "Just do it. Get it over with."

As it turns out, I take after my mother. She rode her bike to work in dresses until she hunkered down at 35 and got a license, not that she used it much. To this day, she won't drive on highways-a sure sign that people should not learn to drive at an age when they understand that, unlike teenagers, grownups are mortals. Driving, I reasoned, is dangerous and unnecessary. I would walk and bike and learn to love taxis. I might even have a boyfriend with a car one day.

When I moved to New York, I felt right at home. There were nondrivers everywhere, and they were proud of it. I even stopped caring when people, ever generous, would say, "So you never got the piece of paper, but you can still drive, right?" Depends on what you mean by drive. A boyfriend let me drive his car around a park in Brooklyn once, and I laughed so hard he made me pull over. If anyone had told me then that years later I'd be cramming for the privilege to risk my life behind the wheel of a car, I'd have rolled my eyes.

And yet for the past two weeks, I've carried my DMV study guide with me everywhere I go-meetings, subway rides, work, bars. A co-worker quizzes me in the morning, which helps. Then he tells me to think of myself as the front left wheel of the car, which doesn't. Before the front left wheel of anything is going to make sense to me, I'll have to pass my theory test.

The Department of Motor Vehicles in lower Manhattan is, like all DMVs, a great equalizer. Everyone takes a number to take a number, the lines seem endless, and no one goes to the right window on their first try. When my number finally blinks overhead, my stomach drops. It's my second attempt at passing the test this week, and my confidence is shaken. In the hour I've been here, six spastic teenagers have whizzed through their tests and passed. The only two adults I see-a 30-something woman and a recent arrivé from Bangladesh-do not.

"Take your time," says the guy behind the counter, mustering a reassuring smile. I take his advice, and in a few minutes he exclaims, "You passed." I feel like a million bucks.

A week later, I'm in Long Island with friends-the perfect place for me to practice. My friend Katie will handle the highways; I'll do the parking lots and the side streets. A friend has agreed to let me practice on his pristine 1976 Mercedes-Benz, which turns out to be just the boost I need. It suits me, I tell myself. I feel like a pro. Within five minutes of my first lesson in an empty parking lot, a security guard zooms our way. "Is this a driving lesson, or angel dust?" he asks.

He's kidding, kind of, but I take it as a cue to be careful. In no time, I'm cornering tight turns, speeding up and stopping at imaginary stop signs, even reversing into a parking spot, clear on both sides. It isn't parallel parking, but it's a start-baby steps. About an hour later, Katie decides I'm ready for real streets. As I pull out of the parking lot, making a left turn, then a right, I'm exhilarated.

As I roll along the quiet road, I understand for the first time how my father could spend hours in his Plymouth, alone with the road and the radio, clearheaded, in control. I feel calm. But just as I pull around a bend, another car comes into view. Panicked, I slam on the brake, jamming the shifter into park at the same time. The car grunts at me, furious. I'm done for today, I tell them. I'll practice again soon, and I'll get my license, but I'm done for today. Baby steps, indeed.



or, How One Man, Disgraced on the Basketball Court as a Teenager, Tries to Conquer Rucker Park

On May 28, 1994, some stranger with anger-management issues and an ugly pair of goggles humiliated me in front of my friends. We were on opposing teams playing five-on-five basketball and he was taking it way too seriously. At one point, he scored, glared at me, and screamed, "Ahhhh! What?" in my direction. I shouldn't have laughed. Seconds later, we were chest to chest. I was 15 years old at the time. He had a receding hairline and muscles.

In the 14 years since, I've used every excuse to avoid playing pickup basketball-"My legs are tired." "I don't own basketball sneakers." "My ball is flat." If I did shoot hoops, it was typically in the morning, and it was clear to me that something was sorely missing-and not just other people on the court. Practice is fun and all, but what's the point if you never compete?

Determined to play again, I call up my old neighbor Harry, a former member of the Greek Junior National Team. "Are you in shape?" he asks me. "Sure." "But are you in basketball shape?" I have no clue, but at our first practice together, it's quickly made clear that I'm not. He recommends some drills.

Now, if there's anything more embarrassing than writing about "six-inch slides," "suicides," and "pitty-pats," it's performing them in public at 8 a.m. Twice a week for three weeks, I do at least three sets of each and then shoot around (by myself, of course). Finally, I'm ready for game action. I think.

A masochist by nature, I decide to jump straight to the toughest game in New York-Harlem's Rucker Park. It's where Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played back when he was still called Lew Alcindor. Wilt Chamberlain played here too; so did Dr. J. And it's here that I, at 29 years of age, will make my triumphant return to the court. But first, I will need an in. I enlist Bobbito Garcia, a New York City asphalt legend who has played professionally in Puerto Rico.

Armed with my official NBA Spalding and my new buddy Garcia, I hit the Rucker to play some three-on-three pickup basketball. He advises me that the best way to get into a pick-up game is asking, "Who got last next?" That and going with a friend, because if you're not dressed appropriately, you can prepare to watch from the sidelines. "Right now, you look horrible," he tells me. "Don't wear [Nike] Dunks, they haven't been a performance shoe for over 20 years." I cringe and hope that he doesn't comment on the NYU gym shorts I'm wearing under my warm-ups.

Our third man, Roman Perez, a 21-year-old with a really smooth jump shot, informs us that we're up next. Our opponents include Yuta and Bang Lee, two guys from Japan who moved to New York for the specific purpose of playing more streetball. (Outdoor courts are rare in Japan; New York has hundreds.) I spend most of the first game setting screens for Garcia and Perez and chasing around Yuta on defense. All those six-inch slides and I'm still not in basketball shape. I'm sweating buckets and turning a dangerous shade of red. After the game, which we win, Yuta offers me some sunscreen. I accept because I don't feel like explaining that my complexion has nothing to do with the sun.

Our next run doesn't go so well, for me at least. Once again we're victorious, but I blow a wide-open game-clinching layup. Luckily, we get the ball back and score. Later, as I walk down Frederick Douglass Boulevard, I can't shake that miss. This is a good thing. It means I'm not satisfied with just participating. That evening, I call Garcia for his post-game analysis. "You did your thing," he says. "You didn't chuck and you didn't talk shit." Translation: If you're a beginner, only shoot when open and don't be a jerk. Over these next months, I'll keep playing. I'm going to work on my lateral movement, and keep at the pitty-pats. More importantly, though, I'm going to buy some new sneakers.



or, How One Woman Uses Her Mastery of Italian to Conquer Spanish in Two Weeks

It's Friday afternoon and Benjamin Bratt is standing at my front door. He says his name is Marlon, he's from Language Trainers, and he's here to teach me Spanish, but that doesn't change the fact that he's the spitting image of the actor-albeit with an Ecuadorian accent. I realize now, and will come to think this several times over the next few weeks, that my doorman must suspect untoward activity. The work-from-home writer in 10H seems to have taken a Latin lover. And it's the guy from Law & Order.

I have exactly four classes to master Spanish-or at least memorize enough words to order dinner. As it stands, my foreign-language skill set includes a hundred words of Swedish, high school French, and fairly decent Italian. But unlike Swedish or Italian, Spanish is not a language of diminishing importance-there are (almost) entire continents that speak it, not to mention large pockets of New York.

Marlon starts me off with the verb "to be" (ser) and the other verb "to be" (estar). I'm already annoyed. Why would any language need to two forms of "I am"? Naturally, I think I can make it better. Forgetting for a moment that I don't speak Spanish, I decide that it's up to me to tweak the language spoken by billions of people for thousands of years, to make it smoother, more logical, smarter. This is part of my process. Right between denial and acceptance, between prepositions and Marlon's work sheet for "Things Found in the Kitchen."

No matter how many times I do it, learning a new language is discombobulating. Not only is it hard to find the signposts pointing to comprehension, but it's hard to read them even when you find them. I can't get through the process without fighting off the twin demons of confusion and shame-which I remember all too well from my AP French class. So I just say "What?" 75 times until I get it.And eventually, I do. Between classes, I've been slipping Spanish words into conversations with my husband and the Dominican guy at the deli, rolling my "R"s, lisping my "Z"s, and flicking my tongue on the back of my teeth for that satisfying "nyah" sound. By my last class, I feel great. Tonight, for my final exam, I will have dinner in Spanish Harlem-where I'm going to order an entire meal in Spanish. No pointing, no dictionary, no pictures, no English. Bring on the cervezas! Another dash of sal, senorita! Mas agua, por favor!

Marlon looks a little panicky. "We will practice," he says warily. He stands up and, wielding an imaginary pen, folds an imaginary napkin over his arm, poised to take my order. This goes on for a few minutes, and as I say my muchas gracias para todo, I silently hope my husband is okay with soup for dinner. Because if he wants pasta, I'll have no idea how to order it.

Later, we head up to my final exam at a tiny restaurant on East 116th Street, where the corner delis have taqueria counters and men wear cowboy boots. I sweat through my very choppy dinner order, managing to request water with no ice. I even haltingly ask the cute Mexican waitress to stick to the Español. She seems confused. It's clearly so painful for me, and she has a decent grasp of restaurant English, but she's a good sport. She plays along.

As the dinner continues and the beer bottles multiply, my Spanish gets muy meglio. Soon I'm telling the waitress that I'm a vegetariana, that I favor food that is speziato, and that dinner was eccellente.When we get up to leave, the waitress gives us a warm goodbye and laughs a little. "I think I did pretty well," I say to my husband. "I wonder why she's smiling."

He smiles too. "Probably because you were speaking Italian."


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