Thursday, January 20, 2011

surprise, surprise

One day, a lot of years ago, I was walking around near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin when a couple approached me and asked politely, "Parlez-vous Fran├žais?" My mind immediately segued back to college where I had taken a lot of French classes. But that same mind neglected the fact that since college, I had joined the army, gone to what was then called the Army Language School, undergone a pretty rigorous six months of learning German, and been shipped to Berlin where, on a daily basis, I listened to and translated East German (the bad guys') telephone calls... not to mention beer-y nights on the town trying to get the attention of pretty women.

And so, when the polite couple asked me, "Parlez-vous Fran├žais?" I felt confident in my college education, but the first word out of my mouth was, "Ja," the German word for "yes." And whatever directions I offered to those tourists was halting at best. I had forgotten French. It was gone, though I had a recollection of being fairly fluent at another time.

This morning, I had an email asking if I would be willing to take a look at and tweak-if-necessary a German translation of an English article. In another time, a time whose expertise I could recall, I would have done it in a New York minute. But now, as with the college French, I had to admit to facts that outweigh the memories: The German is all but gone. Since I was pretty good at it, the recognition of loss brought some twinging surprise and sorrow with it: Really, how could I lose something I had once been so good at?

And that put me on a reflective course: How much stuff could I once do that I cannot do any longer? What have I lost in fact, if not in memory? These were facets that made me recognizable as a fellow human being, a member of one community or another ... skiing, perhaps, or tennis or French or German or news reporting or thinking or having a political stance or Buddhism or ... well, the list went on and on, stuff I once relied on for definition and took pleasure in had dissolved like Alka Seltzer tablet in a glass of water ... the remembered fizz was there, but the concreteness of the tablet was gone.

Who was I without these attributes? How much had these attributes supported my vision of my place and satisfaction in society or alone? How realistic was that? What was left when the tablets dissolved and only the fizz of memory remained?

I suppose that sometimes it can be rather sad-making and lonely, faced with more and more fizz and fewer and fewer tablets, but there is a nice quality as well...a realism that is more grounded in fact and less reliant on p.r. This is this and there really isn't any particular need to make it into something else -- some 'that' that tries to make things stand still in the midst of a chestful of defining medals.

A little at a time, the places and events that were credibly defined by medals and definitions slip away. Accomplishments so surely alluded to no longer hold sway. Accomplishments are things that are completed -- they are "done." But is anything ever truly "done?" The done flows into the undone and the undone into the done ... it's really quite a pleasant surprise. And it's a bit of surprise that I didn't recognize and get on board with it sooner.

I am a surprise.

You are a surprise.

Is it any surprise?


  1. Ever since I read Dogen on Being Time I have had trouble differentiating between the fizz and the tablets. Maybe I just need to sit a little more.

  2. I was just thinking today, we came with nothing, and we will leave just the same way. No need to get so attached to material things.

    Ich auch kann nicht spreche Deutsch

    (case in point)

    Cheerio, hope you're warm

  3. Don't know if I forgot or I never knew it in the first place.January 22, 2011 at 1:33 PM

    Taking the practical point of view, instead of the "my 'true self' vs. my attributes and abilities" old saw. How different would this reflection would be IF you were motivated to use German or French as some spiritual "skillful means"!

    Me? If had had some of that language mastery, I'd wonder how much effort it would take to get me back up to speed n either language. May be get one of the those Rosetta Stone program they keep adverting on cable TV day after day. But I probably would have to have some kind of motivation like that aforementioned need for "skillful means."

    A relatively recently made friend of mine is in his late eighties. A while back he told me that one of the things he did to make money was to free lance articles for encyclopedias and edit other's encyclopedia articles. He said that at one point in this life he felt could access what seemed to be a vast amount of information during conversation, but now well into his eighties he feels like he forgot more than he remembers. His sense of loss seems gracious enough, however.

    Is forgetting just a matter of use it or loose it? Or does it come back like knowing how riding a bike? I tend to think is the latter.

  4. An now-dead army buddy of mine once assured me what if I went back to Germany and got drunk three times, the linguistic ability would all come back. I never did have the opportunity to test his thesis.