Either the universe really wants me to play the guitar, or it really doesn’t. I’m having trouble reading the signs.
I decided back in the spring that I should learn the guitar. Everyone else in my family can play multiple instruments and often shows off their talents while silently pitying me and my lack of musical ability. I thought that knowing some guitar basics might be a good skill for me to have, and it would help me to join in when my mom gets out her ukulele or sits down at the piano, intent on a family music hour.
The first step, of course, was procuring a guitar, which I knew would be the most difficult for Scroogey spend-thrift me. Luckily, my boyfriend found a guitar in his grandmother’s overstuffed basement and gave it to me for free. It felt like a gift from the universe (although technically it was a gift from Nonnina.) I was ready to start taking lessons.
My plan was to take a group class in Seattle called “Guitar for Grownups” because it was cheap and I thought maybe I’d make some friends there. I signed up for a beginner’s class that started in October.
But then the universe stepped in, shaking its cosmic head. The day before the first class, I received a call from the the director of Guitar for Grownups. “Unfortunately,” she said, “you’re the only person signed up. There were two other people, but they dropped out, so we’re going to have to cancel the class.” Ironically, this is exactly what happen to my mother with her bike tour of France. Us Langstons are always signing up for group adventures that get canceled at the last minute.
I was bummed. I looked into some private guitar lesson options I found on the Internet, but they were all either too expensive, too sketchy, or too far away. Frustrated, I went out for a walk. As I strolled passed the Lake Union docks, I noticed a little, red sign: Hillman Guitar Instruction. Introductory Rate: 4 lessons for $75. Boom, I thought. A sign from the universe.
And so I started taking guitar lessons with David Hillman. Maybe, I thought, it was meant to work out this way. Maybe I would have gotten frustrated learning “Amazing Grace” and “Under the Boardwalk” in a group class. With one-on-one instruction I got tailored lessons and a promise from David that he would teach me Nirvana songs, which is, to be honest, my number one goal in this whole venture.
I thought about that Chinese proverb about a man who lost his horse. Everyone said it was bad luck, but then the horse returned with another beautiful horse — so it was good luck! But then his son took the new horse riding and fell off and broke his leg. Now everyone thought the man had bad luck. But with a broken leg, the son couldn’t go off to war like the other young men in the village. His leg eventually healed, while the other sons of the village died in battle. So maybe losing the horse was lucky after all.
I guess the point is, good luck can turn into bad luck, and bad luck can turn into good luck, and “luck” really just depends on your perspective. So maybe I was having bad luck with my guitar, maybe I was having good luck. Only time would tell.
Over the next few weeks, I started learning basic chords and chord changes. I also learned something I had already sort of guessed: my guitar was a piece of crap.
“I’m going to be honest with you,” David said. “This guitar is terrible.” Almost immediately, he started encouraging me to consider buying or renting a better guitar. “I think you’re going to find it’s easier to play and you enjoy it more with a better guitar.” He told me to check out Dusty Strings in Freemont, where I could rent a super sweet Taylor for $40 a month.
So, that weekend I headed to Dusty Strings, and I tried out some of their Taylors. Oh man, what a difference! I realized then that the guitar from Nonnina’s basement might as well have been the dulcimer I made out of cardboard one summer at scout camp. I marched up to the counter and announced my desire to rent a guitar.
But then the universe put it’s foot down.
“Sorry,” the girl said. “All of our rental guitars are out right now. I can put you on the waiting list.”
Onto the waiting list I went. And there I stayed for several weeks. I visited a few more guitar places, but none of them had rental programs, or Taylors, and their large selection of guitars overwhelmed me. I was afraid of making the wrong choice, so I didn’t buy anything. Every time I went to a guitar lesson, I could see my teacher inwardly sighing to see me still lugging around my case-less piece of crap. “Still with the old guitar?” he’d ask. “OK.”
Finally, after three weeks, I called Dusty Strings. “I’m just checking in on the status of your rental guitars,” I said.
But they still didn’t have any in, and they didn’t expect to have any in for another three or four weeks. I hung up the phone and decided, no more dilly-dallying — I was going to get a new guitar today. I headed out to Kennelly Keys, a place which seems to specialize in band instrument rentals for middle school children. I thought that maybe I could rent a guitar from them. As it turned out, their rental system was sketchy, but I decided that I’d go ahead and buy one.
With the help of the sales clerk, I narrowed it down to a mahogany solid-top Fender with a curvy, folk-style body, and a basic spruce-top Yamaha that came with a grab bag of extras: a strap, tuner, extra strings and picks, and a soft case. The Fender was the better guitar. It was also prettier, and it didn’t poke into my boob the way the Yamaha did. But it had to be sent off to the shop for some minor tune-ups, the clerk said, whereas the Yamaha, which was the same price (and came with goodies), was ready to leave the store.
I let my desire of having a new guitar immediately (and my Scroogey love of free extras) win out, and I bought the Yamaha. As I was leaving the store, my phone rang. It was Dusty Strings. “Great news,” the woman on the phone said. “We just got a rental guitar back in!”
I heard the deep, belly laughter of the universe, mocking me.
“I literally just bought a guitar,” I said. I considered going back into the store and returning it so I could rent the Taylor from Dusty Strings, but then I thought about the Chinese man and his lucky horse. Maybe I was meant to own the Yamaha. “Thanks anyway, though,” I told the lady from Dustry Strings, and I hung up the phone.
I was feeling good about my decision and my purchase until I went home and tried out my new guitar. That’s when I realized with dismay that it pressed into my boob in a most uncomfortable way — something I think I had ignored while testing it out at the store. Also, the grab bag of extras was a grab bag of cheap crap. I realized that I had really wanted the mahogany Fender, whose pretty, feminine curves fit well with my own. I had been so eager to have a new guitar today that I hadn’t bought the one I really wanted. Was this the universe’s fault, or my own?
In the morning I called Kennelly Key’s and explained the situation. I bought the Fender over the phone and told them to send it off to the shop straight-away. It will be ready at the end of next week, at which point I will go pick up my pretty brown baby and return this pale, fat Yamaha I have now. I’m excited about my new guitar, and I think my guitar teacher will be, too.
As for the universe and all the pranks it’s been playing on me lately, I have this to say: I’m going to keep playing the guitar whether you like it or not. And if you throw more bad luck my way, I’ll just shrug my shoulders and wait. Bad luck might turn out to be good in the end, and besides, luck is all in the way you look at it.
Chinese Proverb: Sai Weng Lost His Horse