Greeting from Berlin
NO BULLETIN – JUST A GREETING FROM BERLIN
by Victor Grossman
I can no longer put off my year’s end message to friends, relatives and readers of Berlin Bulletins. For those with good memories: Don’t tattle that I’m using a few quotations I have used before. I find them still fitting. And, lacking gags of my own, I am adding many of my favorites by that great athlete and humorist (a very good “joker”), who died five years ago, Yogi Berra, and that great earlier humorist, Mark Twain. I start right off with words of Yogi which may help in defying all the bad news of 2019: “Take it with a grin of salt.”
This advice is good if you read the mass media, also the most “respectable”. We can still sadly nod at the wisdom of Twain, who wrote , 150 years ago:
"The liberty of the Press is called the Palladium of Freedom, which means, in these days, the liberty of being deceived, swindled, and humbugged by the Press and paying hugely for the deception."
Twain took this into account when he helped start up a new newspaper, but with reservations:
“I shall not often meddle with politics because we have a political editor who is actually excellent and only needs to serve a term or two in the penitentiary to be perfect”.
I went on a ten-week book tour last spring, visiting New England, DC, California, a bit of the Midwest and my home town, the Big Apple.
Did my impressions agree with those of an aging, bitter Mark Twain?
“…it is a civilization which has destroyed the simplicity and repose of life; replaced its contentment, its poetry, its soft romantic dreams and visions with the money-fever, sordid ideals, vulgar ambitions, and the sleep which does not refresh; it has invented a thousand useless luxuries, and turned them into necessities, and satisfied none of them; it has dethroned God and set up a shekel in his place.”
Yes, some certainly applied, most painfully in the contrast I found between huge edifices with elegant modernist curves and lighting while, far below, I saw dozens posing in stupid, unworthy costumes for tourist photos or selling cheap sidewalk goods just to somehow get by, while elderly women, failing even that, pushed their few belongings in pitiful shopping carts and others filled acres of LA and San Francisco with their ragged tents and cardboard covering.
There were good things too. I thrilled at remaining wonders like the southern Pacific coastline, the arid but wonderful New Mexico mountain desert, even the simple but handsome wooden houses on Midwest streets or the multi-national friendliness in a Manhattan neighborhood called Hell’s Kitchen. Also New York’s Central Park and its High Line park on a former Elevated rail line.
But then there was the politics. I recalled Twain’s words, way back then: “...if a man be rich, he is greatly honored, and can become a legislator, a governor, a general, a senator, no matter how ignorant an ass he is.” How relevant and true!
Also what he said about our first president: “George Washington, as a boy, was ignorant of the commonest accomplishments of youth. He could not even lie.” Maybe the first president couldn’t!
Yes, much has changed since then! I was worried by some of the widespread dismay about Trump; as in the current impeachment drama, it attacks him less for terrible things he has been doing within the USA or at its borders, supporting the Yemen war and illegal settlements while increasing a monstrous, ferocious war budget, bigger than that of the next ten nations combined.
And this was actually supported by most Democrats! Instead of such cardinal crimes they charge him with the no doubt corrupt but only brief hold-up of military aid to a hitherto fascist-infected government in Kiev which should never have been given one dime or one bullet in the first place! Many impeachment statements reek of plans for ever more aggressive, ever more dangerous confrontation with a foreign power – which can lead, with just one tiny error, to the immediate destruction of our entire world.
But on the good side, aside from remaining natural beauties and charming housing which some may dismiss as old-fashioned, I was enthused by new thinking among many Americans, especially younger ones, bravely searching for solutions to the problems in what they see as a sickening social system. I met militant groups, new and old, and heard of courageous representatives like those in the “Squad,” and of the tireless fight of an amazingly vital, hard-hitting Bernie. I hope to vote for him!
When I returned at last to my Berlin apartment with its vista of downtown East Berlin, I found a milieu far quieter than Manhattan, but also involved in turbulent times, some hopeful, others which recalled Yogi’s famous words: “It’s like déjà vu all over again” but with a menacing German undertone! When looking back over 2019 in Germany, the USA, or elsewhere, I can only hope the old GDR gag does not apply: “The year was middling in nature – rather worse than that preceding it but likely better than the year to come.”
On a happier note, some of you may get to visit my second home-town, Berlin. Although I am still not really reconciled with events of past years, and therefore agree with Yogi’s wise comment: “The future ain’t what it used to be,” I would still recommend a visit. And although he may never have been here, I turn again to Yogi for some wise words, which I find none the worse for wear.
First, if you come around this time of year, note Yogi’s warning: “It gets late early out here.” (It’s true, and always a surprise for Americans; sunset today was at 3.53 PM!)
Not all hotels are equally advantageous. In one, Yogi found, “The towels were so thick there I could hardly close my suitcase.”
Nor is every bar or restaurant to be recommended. About one, he warned: “No one goes there nowadays, it’s too crowded.”
But I don’t advise listening to his advice in the pizza shop: “You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I’m not hungry enough to eat six.”
On buying Christmas presents for the family, Yogi makes clear: “I’m not going to buy my kids an encyclopedia. Let them walk to school like I did.”
Which recalls a T-shirt gag I just saw (more up-to-date than Yogi). “What do I need Google for? My wife knows everything!”
If you don’t know Berlin I would advise a map or a GPS for, as Yogi warned, “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there.”
But in case of uncertainty in the route he offered his famous piece of advice: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” Seems to apply to many a political party around here, even the LINKE (Left) which, after its election losses, should listen to Yogi and say defiantly to the winners: “You wouldn’t have won if we’d beaten you”. But it’s also wiser sometimes to listen to his very different self-criticism: ”We made too many wrong mistakes.”
His most famous advice might perhaps provide a bit of hope: “It ain’t over till it’s over”.
I’ll end my Yogi adulation with his wonderful warning to all would-be big shots around the globe (you choose your own favorite): “Even Napoleon had his Watergate”.
In conclusion I return to that greatest of past masters, who died just about 110 years ago. Twain’s advice, very valid for me, was: “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter.”
Valid for all my readers: “Don't part with your illusions. When they are gone you may still exist, but you have ceased to live.”
And valid for lots and lots of people in ten days’ time (also by Mark Twain): “New Year's is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls, and humbug resolutions, and we wish you to enjoy it with a looseness suited to the greatness of the occasion.”
A great holiday gift, if I may say so, might be my newish book, “A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee”. Controversial on hot issues of the day, judging the rise and fall of a socialist state and its aftermath as I lived through it, with anecdotes and jokes helping to make it very readable, it has won great praise. If you read and liked it, maybe you can pass that on to those on your address list!
All the best, Salud!