J. is an intellectual but she knows how to laugh. We were having breakfast the other morning up at St. Ambroeus on Madison Avenue with Alessandra and Sylvain, the New York-based correspondents for Corriere della sera and Le Monde. The discussion turned to the madman Qaddafi and how the various European countries were responding to the revolt in Libya. After some cracks about the London School of Economics having to be renamed the "Libyan School of Economics" and the undocumented but widely suspected business partnership between Qaddafi and Berlusconi, Alessandra said, "He's a psychopath."
Sylvain asked, "You know what is the difference between a neurotic and a psychotic?" We looked at him. He continued, "Some French comedian put it this way. He said, a neurotic is someone who thinks two plus two equals four and it drives him crazy. A psychotic is someone who believes two plus two equals five and is perfectly okay with it." At this J. let out a gleeful howl. "He's so right. Bravo!"
We ordered four more Americanos and let the talk drift to John Galliano and his anti-semitic tirade, the one that got him fired from Dior. Alessandra was from Hungary and Sylvain is French, and they're both Jews. She asked him if he wasn't outraged by Galliano's "I love Hitler" outburst. "No one cares, do they?," he responded. J. added, "Perhaps we should do a book called In Defense of Anti-Semitism. Written by a Jew, of course." Part of this was pure impishness, part was serious. "We need Jews to become critical thinkers again." But Alessandra couldn't quite allow her indignation to subside. "If nothing else it gives me something to rage against. I admit it feels good." Since I was the only non-Jew at the table, I figured I'd let this bit of conversation roll on without me. Either that, or tell a Catholic joke. Too bad I didn't know any good ones.
An older woman sitting at an adjacent table glared at us, frowning with typical Upper East Side hauteur. I stuck my tongue out then grinned at her and she quickly looked away. Alessandra had just written a little piece on her blog about Joshua Foer's book Moonwalking With Einstein. It seemed as though we were going to get into a debate about the value of memorization. "They don't teach by rote anymore, do they?" "But there's no reason to. I call my children all the time but I have no idea what their phone numbers are. Not with this." Sylvain took his cell phone out of his pocket and placed it on the table. He pointed at it and said, "This is my memory now."
They began complaining about their younger colleagues' ignorance. "They don't know anything of the world. No art. No history. No culture at all. They seem to be smart and they work hard but they are empty." I thought to myself, so much is changing, we're in our late fifties, early sixties, the world of the young is not our world. Not worse, not better, just different. Alessandra turned to J. and asked her if she knew the Yiddish expression "alter cocker." J. said that she did not. "Well I don't want to sound like one, but I can't help it. An old fart. Complaining about everything." J. laughed again. "Not you, not ever." She was laughing at herself too, at all of us, retreating into a kind of benign nostalgia. How easy it is to talk about one's childhood -- it gets easier as you age -- and claim that there is no desire to return to that particular Eden, the one before television, computers, space walks, and nuclear warheads. We may have been here before, but no two mornings have ever been the same, no matter how poorly we remember them.