Guitar Hero

On the long 9-hour flight from Chicago to Madrid, I attempted a Sudoku puzzle.  The attempt lasted a whole 15 minutes, until I got so frustrated by trying to fit numbers into logical patterns on a 3 x 9 grid.  3, 5, 9 is 17 across, but I can’t figure out another pattern that will get me 17 going down and diagonal without using double digits.  There are 3 spaces each way, and I’m blocked by the number 4.  How do I get 17 without using another double digit (I just wanted to put in 13 and call it a day)?  I looked at my watch:  8 hours and 45 mins to go until my destination.  This was going to be a long flight.  I didn’t want to resort to my ipod or book yet, so I barreled away at Sudoku one more time.  I sneaked a peak at the back where the answers were.  The next thing I know, I had completed the entire puzzle -with no help from my analytical brain, but from the cheat sheet on back.  I was worthless at this brain-teaser, and I began beating up on myself, telling myself that I was stupid and my brain would rot in my old age from disuse.  I shoved the paper book into the seat-back.  I muttered “Screw you,” to this wretched booklet of numbers and squares.   I crossed my arms and glared at my seat mate who, by no fault of his own, apologized for having his knees and elbows in my space.

A few weeks prior to the trip, I was standing in the Crosswords Puzzles and Humor section at Borders when I spotted “Sudoku for Beginners:  Easy Puzzles to Stimulate the Brain.”  I thought, “Why not?  I’m OCD enough that numbers into patterns might be fun.”  After returning from my first trip to Las Vegas, I was under the influence of BlackJack.  I couldn’t get enough of adding numbers up to 21 – that beautiful numbers game where face cards can make or break you and an Ace can be 1 or 11, your choice.  I was experiencing withdrawal, so I concocted “license plate BlackJack.”  “LVMCHN 2” is a sure bust (no number to add up to 21), but “NERD 470” has beauty in it:  “4 + 7 + 10 = 21!  (Zeros are tens in license plate BlackJack; whereas ones are either one or eleven.)

The obsession of “clicking” things into place all started in 7th grade typing class -when Mrs. Hannah introduced us to proper fingering on the QWERTY keyboard.   I started out fumbling and looking at the letters and my fingerings, but as class progressed, I was snapping out dictated words and sentences faster than most kids around me.  I got so good at typing (I think my record was 72 wpm no errors) that even when I was away from the computer I wanted to type.  Enter my newest, obsessive compulsion:  “air-typing.”

“Air typing” is like “air guitar,” but instead of jamming out to your favorite song, you type out bits and pieces of TV dialogue or your friends’ conversations.  With fingers floating in the air, hovering around an imaginary keyboard, typing, and clicking and snapping words and sentences into place with a few fast motions of the finger, you feel that power of turning chaos into order.  Ah, sweet relief!

I wasn’t subtle with air typing at first.   When it became an annoyance and then later a concern to family and friends when I asked them to repeat what they said, I began learning the subtle art of twitching my fingers.  I would twitch and type as my hands rested on the chair cushion or my pants’ legs.  Other times, to fight the urge of hard-core typing, I would sit on my hands, telling people I was cold, while all along pressing my fingers into the chair spelling out the story of our lives at that moment.

Air-typing, license plate BlackJack, and Sudoku puzzles aside, I do crave some type of creativity and stimulation to keep up with my overactive mind.  That’s why I found it normal to want to play guitar.  The urge has been there for awhile.  I would dream of playing guitar, but never ventured outside of my box to give it a try.  It seemed a bit silly that a 35 year old woman would want to take up guitar -one of the hardest instruments to learn.  I fought the compelling urge to make my fingers and brain create something real instead of pretending to type conversations, adding up license plate numbers or ripping up stupid math brain-teaser booklets.

That urge stayed under the surface until a month ago.  I decided to be adventurous and bought a $200 left-handed Fender acoustic guitar.  I signed myself up for guitar lessons, and haven’t looked back since.  I’ve rocked out “Ode to Joy” and “Aura Lee” (aka “Love Me Tender”) and finally got my fingers to form the “bear claw” to move across the 6 strings for the G major scale (think “Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do”).

At first, it seemed easy. I could read music and so I was learning at lightning speed.  My fingers, just as in typing class, fell into place and I didn’t have to look at the string to see where to place my finger to strike the right note or chord.  OCD settled in and I was rushing through the notes and ready to tackle the next challenge.  Lesson 4 came, and my guitar teacher drew out a chord for me.  Being a left-hander, I have to transpose everything upside down and redo the fingering to fit in a right-handed guitar world.  It took me awhile.  My teacher is patient, and he lets me struggle right to the point where the challenge becomes too good to pass up, and I work hard at figuring it out on my own.  He drops subtle hints, and draws the example a different way.  Sometimes he shows me how to figure it out myself.  (What a great teacher!)  He’s now teaching me music theory along with techniques, and I am starting to see the beauty of music on a whole other level.

The technical aspects of the guitar are falling into place for me, and now I am satisfied with learning at a basic level every step I need to take.  Not knowing if I can accomplish something is a motivator as well; and when I do finally manage to make notes sound like a song, I feel like a little kid who just learned a basic skill like tying her shoe.  Learning to play little pieces of songs and scales makes me also appreciate the intricacies of such a beautiful instrument, and the people who have mastered it.  I will never listen to guitar the same because I know to a small degree what type of work goes into blending harmony and melody and rhythm all at once.  (Imagine all the work a classical flamenco guitarist does in one song!)

Before I start sounding like “Rain Man” and you worry that I am addicted to counting the spin-cycles of the washing machine or can identify how many jelly beans are in a jar, let me just say that for 30 minutes a day I get to set aside all of my worries and anxieties (which are still occasionally released through air-typing and license plate BlackJack) and create music.  What a joy!  I get to blend analytical obsessive compulsive behavior of moving my fingers across strings with the intuitive feeling of making sounds come alive from ringing tones, melody, and harmony.  In that moment I am mesmerized by music and how it can transport me to a different part of myself:  free from distractions, free from worries, free from a world of Sudoku puzzles.

Music has the benefit of bringing unexpected beauty and emotions to the surface.  The correct combination of notes or phrasing of some lyric can evoke joy, unlock hidden sorrows, or release long held pain.  Music gives you permission to simply feel what it’s like to be alive in the moment.  What is better than that?  (Please don’t tell me 3-D puzzles or anagrams.  I might just have to chuck my guitar at you.)