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

Robert Fulghum wrote a wonderful book called “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” It’s about the simple rules that people learn in kindergarten for how to act and be and treat others, and how those rules are really the wisdom we need to live a good life. It’s a great book. Read it right away.

Unfortunately, I didn’t go to kindergarten. My younger sister went, so the reasons I missed it always seemed vague to me. I was a squinty little runt then, so perhaps my parents wanted to hold off and give me from age 5 to age 6 to fill out. But the fact is that I didn’t go, so I didn’t learn any of that important stuff that Mr. Fulghum wrote about in his book.

Instead of spending that year in kindergarten, I spent it at home annoying my parents. That may be less socially acceptable, but I maintain that it was not time wasted. I learned lessons just as valuable as any that kindergarten could have taught me. These are the things I learned:

Persistence pays off. You can ask for something more times than someone else can say no without bursting a blood vessel.

Don’t get caught.

When the beatings are taking place, be somewhere else.

Playing outside is always more rewarding than working inside.

If you just lie, you will always get caught. If you tell most of the truth, you will often get away with it.

Be nice to the dog. He’ll hang out under the table, and you can slip him the food you hate.

Crying to get what you want is only successful in proportion to how cute you are.

Any number of things can be temporarily hidden while you make your getaway.

You should always share while people who have power over you are watching.

There’s always someone stronger and smarter than you. You have to be sneakier and more ruthless.

When you’re in trouble, your peers make valuable allies and convenient scapegoats.

When you have time, imagination, and people to target, there’s no such thing as boredom.

Sometimes you have to accept that the answer is, “No.” You do not have to accept that the answer is, “Never.”

Indulging in too many good things will make you puke.

If you want something, always ask first. If that doesn’t work, then you can employ other methods.

Anger is normal and acceptable for human beings. Force feeding someone a Tonka truck is not.

Stealing something (like a cookie) always makes noise, even if you don’t think it does.

They can make you go to bed, but they can’t make you stop asking for glasses of water.

And finally, never underestimate people’s capacity to forgive you, even when you absolutely don’t deserve it.

They won’t let you cut out a guy’s kidney unless you have a college degree. I asked. And it has to be a medical degree. Medieval Russian Literature won’t convince them to let you scrub and order a nurse to hand you any of those obscure, scary surgical instruments. So, if you want to do something like this, I recommend snagging a college degree or two. Even if cutting out kidneys holds no appeal for you, a degree looks really snappy on a resume. It gives you something to list below your first job at Hobby Lobby and above your personal interests in Angry Birds and pornographic origami.

Keep in mind that if you don’t want to do something specialized like medicine, the exact type of degree may not matter much. I personally went for one of those degrees that makes some people say, “What do you expect to do with a degree in THAT?” Now, I would like you to please do me a personal favor. The next time you hear someone say that to a kid, look around for the heaviest thing you can lift and hit that person on the knee with it as hard as you can, because he is a damned moron who deserves to limp for the rest of his life.

I’m not the brightest guy on my block, but my degree never kept me from getting a job. Think of an employer’s problem this way. Employers only hire when they’re in pain. If everything was fine and they weren’t in pain, they’d just keep the money and not hire anybody. Now, if you were in pain, say from your hand being crushed in a car door, would you care whether the guy running towards you was a certified mechanic?

If you’re considering college, I’d like to share a little of my perspective. During my years in college there were facts being tossed around by the bushel basket. But in the end I learned only three significant things.

First, I learned what makes soap work. I mean how soap works from the chemical standpoint. I won’t go into the details, but this is the coolest piece of knowledge ever, and learning it justified every dollar and every hour I put into college.

The second thing I learned was almost as great. One day I was walking through the Student Union. That’s the place on campus where guys go to pretend to study while they look at pretty girls out of the corner of their eye. A crowd blocked the hallway, and I saw that the dean of my university was giving a speech. I had never before heard him speak nor even seen him in his actual flesh. Then I heard the golden, magical portion of his speech. He explained that he, the administrators, the professors, and the staff were the university. The students would come and go—we were transitory, and when we moved on the people who ran the place would still be there. We, the students, did not count—and we’d damned well better not forget it.

That did make me cock my head in a Scooby-Doo moment. But the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to kiss the man right on the mouth. Oh, certainly he was a nasty sack of moose piss, but amidst his mean-spirited locust swarm of a diatribe soared a single white dove. That dove landed on my shoulder and said to me, “Grow the hell up.”

The third thing I learned was, oddly, about learning. Sometimes people call universities “institutions of higher learning.” People do not call universities “institutions of higher teaching,” and there’s a reason for that. University professors will point you in generally the correct direction, but they have better things to do than spend a bunch of time teaching you stuff. It’s your responsibility to teach your own damn self. During my college career, the occasional dedicated teacher manifested, but as a rule my professors treated students the way alligators treat their young: “There’s the bayou, kid. Either teach yourself to hunt or get eaten by a muskrat, I don’t give a shit which.”

To summarize, my advanced university education consisted of the lovely mystery of soap, the revelation “Grow the hell up,” and the directive “Teach yourself if you don’t want to remain as ignorant as a sack of rusty screws.” Everything else was secondary, although I admit that lots of it was interesting.

I consider it all to be time and money wisely invested.