When I was four years old I knew that stealing a cookie today is worth more than the promise of any number of future cookies. I knew it in my marrow, and my sneaky fingers knew it too. I forgot this knowledge once I got an allowance and could buy my own cookie. Today I can express the concept, but I don’t really know it anymore, not like I did when I was four.

It’s aggravating to forget things. It’s worse when you remember that you used to know something and that you don’t know it now.

As I’ve grown older my mind has emptied itself like a pitcher, and it hasn’t always been refilled with similarly precious knowledge. For example, when I was in high school I could talk calculus to you all day. Now I can barely figure tips and make change. I have bartered away my math skills to instead become the Michelangelo of Powerpoint slides.

Other knowledge has drained out of me throughout my life. When I was seven I could look at a picture of a dinosaur, tell you the beast’s name, and pinpoint when it lived, within a hundred million years or so. Now when I hear paleontologists talk they use entirely unfamiliar dinosaur names that I believe they’re just making up to screw with us. As another example, at twenty-four I could diagnose and repair about any gasoline engine. Now when I open a car’s hood it makes no more sense to me than looking into the abdomen of a dissected hippo.

Today I find myself needing to learn German. The idea fills me with perplexity and dread because I don’t know any German at all. This despite the fact that I once had a German class. I had several. One time I said some German sentences to real people who spoke German in a real country called Germany. They answered me, and I said some more sentences, and I think I ended up in a stuffy restaurant eating a gigantic, greasy pig shank with a warm beer.

I don’t understand a single word of German today. In college, I studied German in Germany and minored in German. I should be ashamed.

As an aside, I majored in sociology, specializing in statistics and research methods. That includes telephone surveys, like the calls you get on Sunday afternoons asking what radio stations you like. If you think about it, I literally have a university degree in how to annoy people.

I need help to learn German again, and for that help I turned to my servant and companion, Google. Like a faithful Irish Water Spaniel, Google brought me three German-learning options and laid them at my metaphorical feet. I shall refer to these as “Option X,” “Option Spends-A-Lot-On-Advertising,” and “Option Holy-Crap-It’s-Free.” Here’s what I found.

Option X has an informational video that includes a drawing of Yoda, so that was in its favor. It claimed I’d learn just like a small child learns, and lots of testimonials promised that this system is amazing. It made so much sense and was so popular that I immediately developed a virulent, suspicious hatred for it. And yet, it includes no writing or grammar, and I can take the lessons in the bathtub if I want. I was promised that I’d learn useful phrases quickly, and the basic course costs less than the Lord of the Rings Trilogy on Blu-Ray, so I ended up pretty impressed.

Option Spends-A-Lot-On-Advertising must indeed spend a lot on advertising, since the full course costs as much as an iPad Mini. Even the basic course is pricey. Instead of buying it, my wife and I could each have our own Lord of the Rings Trilogy Blu-Rays, with another copy for our cats, and we could all learn to speak Elvish. But the cool thing is that I’d get a sophisticated computer learning experience with audio feedback to tell me that my German words sound like a ’58 Impala shifting gears. The less cool thing is that I can’t do that in the bathtub without electrocuting myself. It teaches grammar, writing, and a huge vocabulary, although it may take a while to get past phrases like, “the girl is above the train station.” I figure if I want to approximate two years of 8 a.m. German classes, this is the way to go.

Option Holy-Crap-It’s-Free has some German lessons you can take on the computer. But really, who gives a shit? It’s free.

I know which one I’m choosing.

In the spirit if getting off to a good start, I decided to begin reclaiming the German language and my profound childhood cookie philosophy at the same time. I thought I remembered that the German word for cookie might be “kuchen.” A short web search showed that a “kuchen” is actually a cake, and “küche” is the room in which you cook a cake. The German word for cookie is in fact “cookie.”

That seemed too easy. And it was. If cookie is “cookie,” then why is the Cookie Monster called “Krümelmonster” by German children? And I’d think that “Christmas cookie” would be “Weihnachts cookie,” but sadly it’s “Weihnachtsplätzchen” instead.


I wonder how you say “Tyrannosaurus Rex” in German?

I hope to soon be able to speak to this German Shepherd in its native language—bratwurst.
I hope to soon be able to speak to this German Shepherd in its native language—bratwurst.

Photo by Marilyn Peddle

Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

The words of my people are no longer spoken. My people came to this country with nothing a century and a half ago. A century later they had little more than nothing. My people were country people, and they lived on farms. When farming became the same as suicide they moved their families to the cities, and they built roads and painted houses, but they never fully understood that they’d left the country behind.

I knew my people when I was a boy, and they felt pride, and they had no regrets. They raised big families, because that’s what farmers did. Their children raised small families, and their children’s children raised tiny families, or no families at all. The generation of my people who left their farms is now gone, and their children are nearly gone, and the children who remain are no different from the children of any other people. We are not adequate vessels to carry the spirit of my people.

The language of a people defines them. It’s difficult to think of something without naming it. Saying the words makes the thing real to us. The way you say the words declares where you stand in that reality. Many of my people’s words I have never heard elsewhere. They sound strange and crude and backward to modern ears. You may laugh at them, and I guarantee that my people would feel fine about that. My people liked to laugh.

From my earliest memories I recall the phrase Tear up a cast iron jackass. Most of the time it arrived as part of the sentence, “I swear to God, you kids would tear up a cast iron jackass!” You can imagine the kind of thing that prompted this, because I suspect you were a child once yourself. When this phrase appeared, a smart child ceased what he was doing and found a place to hide. My people harbored no doubts about the value of corporal punishment.

On rare occasions my people would say Ain’t been so happy since the pigs ate my little brother. These words appeared when something good happened, such as, “Sears fixed my refrigerator for free. I ain’t been so happy since the pigs ate my little brother.” Clearly this idiom sprang from growing up in large and contentious families. It wasn’t used seriously—all my people of those generations had brothers or sisters who died in childhood. This phrase does say a lot about their understanding of the nature of pigs though.

My people reserved this last phrase for dire situations. This idiom is Makes my ass want to take a dip of snuff. Only extremely unpleasant events warranted this phrase. For example, “I had kidney stones last week. Made my ass want to take a dip of snuff.” I lack even a decent guess about where this phrase came from. Somebody knew about snuff, and clearly they knew enough to say that sticking it in your behind would be unpleasant. But stating that your ass actually desires such a thing is remarkable. My people outdid themselves in this case.

We were a raucous clan, with our own history and way of looking at the world. We’ve become a few cousins who rarely cross paths. One of the last of my people lies dying tonight, and when he goes then one of the last chapters of my people’s story will go with him.

Makes my ass want to take a dip of snuff.