An American in Berlin
6 May, 2021
So yeah, forty. The Big Four-Oh. Lemme tell you something about forty. It’s like this weird, gray purgatory of an age. When you hang out with people younger than you, it’s definitively and incontrovertibly old. Like, late thirties is the end of anything that pretends to youth. People who are forty are like, ugh, grown ups. Not necessarily adults, mind you. You can start adulting the minute you move out of your parents’ house if you have your shit together. But though you be adulating at 25, you ain’t no grown up. Forty though? Grown Up City, Population: You.
On the other hand, people who are over fifty start commenting on how young you are. Nobody comments on how young you are when you’re actually young though, do they? No, of course not. Nobody comments on the sky being blue either. But when you turn forty, the Boomer crowd begins to beckon with their agéd, crooked fingers. “One of us. One of us.” The Gen-X’ers smile at you more softly. But in that “Come on in, the the water’s not so bad,” kind of way. Yet they are shivering.
At forty, you’re no longer objectively young. You’re now only comparatively young. When old people tell you you’re young, it’s to make you feel better. And nobody says shit to make other people feel better unless there’s clearly have something they have a right to actually feel shitty about. “You’re only as old as you feel.” “Forty is just a number.” Well, I feel about eighty, but thanks. And also, I’m terrible at math, so you can fuck the fuck off with your numbers, pal.
But enough grumping. In turning forty, I’ve done some reflecting. Not on my life, per se. Gods no, that would be terrifying. No, just on the general state of things. Like, I’m beginning to realize just how long I’ve been around. More to the point, how much the world has changed in my forty years.
Now on some level, I assume that every generation since the industrial revolution has experienced this to greater or lesser degrees. I remember reading a passing comment in a history book once. Something along the lines of, every general from Alexander the Great to Napoleon could only move their armies at the speed of marching men, or at best, at the speed of a horse. For over two thousand years, things just didn’t change all that much. But since the industrial revolution, the pace of change has been astounding. From railroad to powered flight to space flight in about 100 years. Computers the size of a room to iPhones in less time than that. And that’s just technology. The world of 1918 was unrecognizable when compared to the world of 1914. And the world of 1918 was just as unrecognizable to the world of 1945.
But on a personal level, all that may as well be ancient history. Where I begin to struggle, though it is only the beginning, is when I consider that when I was born, I knew people who made the world of 1945. My grandparents fought in “The War,” no specification needed. And so, in my childhood, the world of 1945 wasn’t ancient history, because the people of that world were still walking around and taking me to amusement parks.1 But they’re all gone now. So that reading about the Great Depression doesn’t feel all that different from reading about the Civil War. Both events shaped the world we live in today. But so did the Roman Empire. It’s all ancient history.
The struggle grows, uh, strugglier(?) when I think about the actual world that I grew up in. A world which also no longer exists. Because let’s face it. We’ve been through some epochal shit in my lifetime. I could make this political and talk about what Republicans have done to the economy and working people in general. I saw a great tweet. The general point was this: When the Simpsons first aired, over 30 years ago, a family of five living in a two-level house was solidly middle class, what any working (albeit white) family could expect. Now, what the Simpsons have, dysfunctional as they are, is a pipe dream from most Millenials and Gen-Z’ers.
When I say ‘epochal,’ though, I’m probably talking about 9/11. The pre-9/11 world is, to me anyway, unrecognizable from the post 9/11 world. I joke with my younger friends who were only kids when 9/11 happened that this is the only world they know, that they don’t actually know what “freedom” is. I say joke, but it’s really one of those kidding-not-kidding kind of things.
People are aware of this though, even if indirectly. I refer you to the popular Netflix series Stranger Things. Also, I could probably just say “Stranger Things.” Saying “the popular Netflix series Stranger Things” strikes me as something an old person would say. Anyway, the point is, everybody notices the same things, just through different lenses.
People my age and up say things like, “Omg, remember when we could just get on our bikes (without helmets!) and just go? No cell phones. Nobody knew where were going or what were doing. It was just, make sure you’re home by x-o’clock.”
People younger than me though, they say things like, “Omg, how did people ride bikes without helmets? How were they ever able to find and meet their friends without cell phones? And what kind of parents are these that don’t know where their kids are every minute of the day?”
For some of us, we look on that with a wistful nostalgia, knowing that that particular shade of personal freedom is pretty much gone forever. Others, I suppose, look on it with bewildered amazement and wonder how anybody got out of the 80’s without being abducted or murdered or without dying in a helmetless bicycle accident. But for all of us, it is a world that – though it shares many of the trappings and the suits of 2021 – is largely unrecognizable. But these are big picture things.
Where things get more interesting – and more difficult to process – is when I look at things through a more personal lens. Every now and then, I’ll see pictures of my childhood. You know, cos my mom has Instagram now. And it’s the little things. The clothes that are so uniquely 80’s. Or the brickwork that lined the front lawns of the houses where I grew up in Brooklyn, where the spacing of the bricks was the perfect size to set your child-feet between. I mean, that’s a world that just doesn’t exist anymore. And this kind of stuff is not epochal, right? I mean, this is the kind of stuff every generation deals with. I’m sure my parents have similar experiences when they look at pictures from the 50’s or 60’s. So I’m hardly unique in these observations. It’s just that you, or I, begin to notice it in a more poignant way at forty.
So, when I was in my 20’s, yes it was post 9/11, but I never felt like 20 years was a super long time. I mean, yeah, it was my whole life. But I wasn’t old, so twenty years just wasn’t that long ago. To put it another way, when you’re 20, you’re fairly self-aware, I’d say. And you kinda realize that 20 years is your whole life. Well now, at forty, it’s like I’ve lived two whole life times. Does that make sense? I mean, we count twenty years to a generation for a reason.
Language is another place where you notice these things. Or I do, anyway. Maybe I’m more tuned into these things because I teach English. Here’s an example. There has been a very real shift just in the way people pronounce their vowels. Now, to be sure, there are regional and dialectal exceptions to this, so I’m speaking in broad strokes here.
But a good example of this is something which linguists refer to as the ‘caught-cot merger.’ Or at least, that’s how one linguist whose podcast I listen to refers to it. The idea is basically this. People my age will pronounce the word ‘caught’ something like ‘cawt.’ And yes, if you’re from New York, that’s exceptionally noticeable, right? We say ‘cawfee’ (coffee) and ‘waw-duh’ (water) and so on. But let’s return to the word ‘caught.’ Even if you’re British (and my age +), you’re going to pronounce something like ‘cawt.’ Go on, try saying in it a British accent. I’ll wait. See?
But for younger people, that sound has shifted much closer to something like ‘cot.’ So that the past tense of catch and that little extra bed you can request at a hotel basically sound the same. That’s a young people thing. I mean, it’s to the point where all you have to do is listen to a person talk (‘tawk’ or ‘tok’) and you can figure out pretty quickly whether they’re Millenials and younger or Gen-X and older.
But even that shift is a fairly macro phenomenon. So let’s take the principle and apply it to something more personal. First of all, though, this is not entirely new ground for this blogue, but; I wrote about the sound of my Great Uncle’s voice after he died. How it was a sound from another world. I have these recordings of my great-grandmother, with her thick Eastern European Yiddish accent; and that’s altogether a different world.
But now my parents are of the patriarchal/matriarchal generation. And I’ve begun to realize that their sound is not entirely of the present world either. Yes, the New York accent is still very much a going concern. But this particular brand of it is receding.
I’ve written about this before as well, but it bears repeating here. Whenever I listen to people speak Yiddish, it never ceases to amaze me how familiar it sounds. Not the words or even the language. But the pace, the phrasing, the stress, the rise-and-fall, the melody; in a word, the music of it. And the reason it sounds so familiar is, because that’s how my dad speaks. If you’ll indulge me and permit me to borrow from the Latin poet Lucretius, the species may be different, but the ratio is the same.2 In any case, that musicis a result of the influence that the Old World language had on the children who grew up in homes where it was spoken. Even if the Old World language was never taught. And that – sadly, I’d say – is a thing of the past, not the now.
Speaking of language and things from the past. I recently reconnected with an old college friend via Instragram. We were really close in college but fell out of touch not long after. Her dad was a sweet, quirky old Jewish man. I didn’t know him well, but I’d met him more than a few times. He was full of great sayings. “Never take any wooden nickels” is one I’ll always remember. Anyway, I asked how he was doing and she told me that he’d passed away. Of course I said I was sorry to hear that and that I always liked the guy. And what did she say? She said, “He always said you were a mensch.”
The word mensch, in Yiddish just as in German, simply means ‘human (being).’ But in Yiddish, it carries the additional sense of ‘good person’ or ‘decent’ in the best sense of the word. It’s more nuanced than that, but that’s the general idea. The point is, it’s not a compliment you hear very often these days. Anyway, when she said, “My father always said you were a mensch,” that hit me pretty hard. Because from an old, secular Jewish man, there’s basically no higher compliment. But old, secular Jewish men who bestow the compliment of menschare fewer and fewer these days. They belong to 2021 about as much as a child riding a bicycle without a helmet.
Tangentially – well, not tangential to the last two paragraphs, but tangential to the larger post here – there’s a Netflix doc on Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock on Star Trek, among other things.3 And there are all these people talking about what a great guy he was. How he stood up for female cast members who made less money, how he’d do anything to help anybody. But what was interesting to me was how these people described him. Younger actors who’d worked with him praised him with any number of kind words. But the old Jewish Hollywood types only ever needed one word. “What can I say? Lenny was a mensch.” What the younger actors needed a paragraph of effusion for, the old Yids could sum up in a single word. But that word, like the time before iPhones, is receding.
None of this is to say, by the way, that the 80’s were some kind of gan eyden, some kind of paradise. We are, largely – though it’s a still a fight – a more tolerant society now. If we are somehow less ‘free’ today, we nevertheless reap great benefits from the technology available to us. The ease with which we can communicate over vast distances and maintain relationships with people on the other side of the world was the stuff of science fiction when I was a kid. And if you were to ask somebody in a hundred years whether they’d rather grow up in the 80’s or in the 2000’s, who knows what they’d pick. One ought not complain about, much less stand in the way of, progress. But even in the march of progress, things are lost. Some things are best left behind, to be sure. But some things are missed, too.
In line with that, I don’t want to come across here as if I’m kvetching, as if I’m complaining. That is not my purpose here. The life I’m living now, and the so many of the things that bring me joy in this life, would not have been possible in the 80’s. I would not be able to have a home studio in my kitchen, as I do now. Just this last week, I read Yiddish with a friend in Poland. I read Yiddish with another friend in Boston. I read Greek with a friend in New York. I taught (‘tawt’? ‘tot’?) my English classes online. On Friday, I’m going to have a video chat with my whole family, spread over four states (plus Germany). I mean, this is all Jetsons-level shit. So no, I’m not complaining.
But I am observing. I’m noticing. And I’m becoming increasingly aware that the sights and sounds of my childhood belong to the past just as much as Lucretius or Homer or Bashevis Singer belong to worlds that no longer exist. And there is a nostalgia in that.
Here we should take a moment to consider the world nostalgia. It is a Greek word, of two components. The first, nostos, means something like ‘homecoming.’ Indeed, this is the leitmotifof the Odyssey. It’s all about Odysseus’ nostos, his trying to get back home. The other element is algos, which means ‘pain.’ And this we can see in any number of English words, from ‘analgesic’ (medicine against pain) to ‘pathology’ (the suffering of pain). In any case, the word ‘nostalgia,’ denotes something bittersweet. On the one hand, it is the fond remembrance of something lost. On the other hand, it is the bitterness of knowing that the thing is, in fact, well and truly lost.
So yeah, there’s a nostalgia that comes with considering the world I grew up in. A world that, now, may as well be ancient history. And if I spend too much time on it, it can get me down. I mean, put aside all the macro bullshit. Put aside the politics and the economics and the linguistics and the pre-9/11 ‘freedom’ mishigas. Because at the end of the day, it’s not really about that.
What I’m talking about is the world where my parents read stories to me at bed time. That was the world where the best thing that could ever happen was somebody bringing over a box of rainbow cookies from a Brooklyn bakery. That was the world of Transformers and G.I. Joe and imagination. It was a world of grandparents. A world of mystery. And it was a world where the music in the way people spoke was yourmusic.
But that world is mostly gone. There are echoes of it, to be sure. It’s there, on the fringes. But it’s not thisworld. And that creeps up on you. Mostly, you’re just going about your business, trying to make your way in this world; ‘this world’ being the world of today, whatever day ‘today’ happens to be. And mostly, when I look around, I think, “Look how far I’ve come.” And the words “how far I’ve come” mean something like, “Look at all I’ve accomplished.” But sometimes – and more often, now that I’ve turned 40 – I look around and think, “Look how far I’ve come.” But the words “how far I’ve come” mean something like, “Look how far away I am from the world I grew up in.” און דער אמת איז, איך בענק די וועלט פֿון אַמָל. ס׳איז דווקא אַן אַנדערע מין שלעפּן גלות.
So yeah, when I think about being 40, that’s what hits me. Not some existential bullshit about “Oh, I’m so old!” OK, fine, there’s a bit of that. But it’s more just the realization of how far away I am from where I started and that there’s no going back. I mean, yeah, there’s that bullshit about “You can never go home again.” Sure, fine, whatever. But it’s not really about that. It’s not about how the now-you wouldn’t have a place in that time. It’s just this realization that the world you grew up in, the world that produced you, simply doesn’t exist anymore. And if I spend too much time on that, I begin to feel unmoored.
So let this post be the place where I try to get that out of my system. Which I think I’ve done, even if temporarily. But having gotten that out of my system, for the time being, let me end this session of solipsistic introspection on a positive note.
The world I now inhabit, it ain’t so bad. Yeah, sometimes I stop and look back. And when I look back, I might a gut-punch of nostalgia. But mostly, when I stop to look, I don’t look back. I look around. And when I look around, I have to admit, I got it pretty good.
זײַט זשע מיר אַלע געזונט
- Shout out to the amusement park in the Woodbine mall in Toronto. [↩]
- Species and ratio are to be pronounced ‘spek-ee-ās’ and ‘rah-t-io’. Lucretius was a philosopher poet who is remembered for his epic poem De Rerum Natura– On the Nature of Things. Super ahead of his time, and if you’re into this kind of shit, you should absolutely find a modern translation and read it. Anyway, species refers to the outward appearance of something. Ratio is more about its inner nature. That’s a rough outline, anyway. [↩]
- And if you needed that explained to you, how are we even friends? [↩]