Despite the unseasonably warm temperatures that will soon need to be redefined as seasonal, owing to global warming, it was clearly no longer summer. Another year had passed again, faster than ever, although I imagine they will be faster than ever right up until the bittersweet end.
I had lost weight, even though I hadn't really adhered to my modified paleolithic diet while in Central and Eastern Europe. I was happy with the results: if I squinted while looking at myself in the mirror, and then sucked in my abdomen and tilted a bit to one side, you could almost see the hint of an Apollo's belt, although not really. Some friends who fetishize the hirsute and the hefty told me that I was already looking too thin when I attended a dance party for those who fetishize the hirsute and the hefty. Other noteworthy things about my trip to that dance party: the disc jockeys played a remix of the song Malo by the Extramaduran singer Bebe, and my friend Darius actually said, "Zionism is racism, you know?" to me. I was wearing a t-shirt that read "I'm laughing on the inside" in Hebrew.
Whether or not this diet would make me healthier was unknown. I still had dreams about eating big, buttery bowls of spaghetti, or whole pizzas covered with arugula and bresaola, or toasted bagels with cream cheese, or quesadillas, or just crackers. And I wasn't even following a draconian version of this diet: I allowed myself chickpeas and some other beans, as well as dairy products. And I cheated with cane-sugar sweetened organic limeade, honey, the occasional Coca-Cola (I can't drink diet sodas without feeling physically ill; part of me agrees with my friend and former co-worker Andrea that Coca-Cola is one of the crowning achievements of our civilization), and the daily consumption of an extremely expensive hypoallergenic "medical food" made from rice and flavored with turmeric recommended to me by (and purchased from) my crazy holistic doctor.
And felt guilty about the diet itself. I felt like it was worse for the global environment to eat mostly meat and vegetables. The entire planet couldn't adopt this diet without mass starvation, although one has to wonder and then wander through the moral minefield of the overpopulation issue when one starts thinking about how grains and the agricultural revolution (along with modern medicine) have allowed the planet to grow to seven billion human inhabitants.
For years, I opted out of the employer-provided lunch at my job on Fridays, and would go get a sandwich and a cup of soup or a burrito at one of two affiliated local businesses. Some corn-syrup-sweetened drink would accompany my meal. The trash resulting from this was minimal: some paper, foil, and a theoretically recyclable (and basically inert) glass bottle or actually recyclable aluminum can. Now my meals of tuna salad and avocado on mixed greens with cups of brewed unsweetened iced tea produced a huge amount of styrofoam and plastic waste that I had no choice but to chuck in the bin.
I was also spending a lot more money on food. Walking through the Time Warner Center past the irritating and ugly Salvador Dalí sculptures that had displaced the Fernando Botero Adam and Eve (I remembered what Faruq had said upon seeing the sign for a Botero exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest: "Who wants to look at a bunch of fat Latinos?") to the basement libertarian grocery store, I knew I couldn't get out of there without spending at least $80 on organic, free-range eggs, (supposedly) sustainable salmon, berries, pineapple, bananas, tomatoes, spinach, cashews, almond milk, and some dark chocolate as a nightly nighttime snack.
Isn't compulsively worrying about one's health and nutrition a form of selfish and childish narcissism and egotism? I wondered. At least there's some humility and modesty in being obsessed with one's looks.
I had read an article by the British right-wing atheist (I generally like my atheists right-wing and my theists left-wing) and former prison physician Anthony Daniels, about the decline of religiosity in the West:
Individuals still think of themselves as being of unique importance, but without the countervailing humility of considering themselves as having duty toward the author of their being, a being inconceivably larger than themselves. Far from inducing a more modest conception of man, the loss of religious belief has inflamed his self-importance enormously. For the person with no transcendent religious belief, this life is all he has. He must therefore preserve and prolong it at all costs and live it to the full.
I thought that this was at least true with me, with all of my health and mortality compulsions.
I met my learned law philosopher friend for dinner. We talked about sexual ethics and morality. Despite the common assertion nowadays (by atheists, and generally by the subset who aren't very thoughtful) that what is right and what is wrong is clearly obvious to any moron, and that if only we were liberated from religion everyone would agree on everything and there would be no conflict, I had and have not found that to be very likely. So my learned friend and I still had things to discuss.
He gave me a book by the prominent (left-wing, atheist) philosopher Thomas Nagel, in which various moral questions were addressed. The first chapter, appropriately, was about death. He handily debunked an assertion by Lucretius that I had tried, and failed, to use to reassure myself: the idea that no one finds it upsetting to contemplate the eternity before one is born, and that therefore it is equally irrational to fear the eternity after death. He also attacked the arguments of those who claim that it doesn't make sense to fear death because it is inevitable; of course it makes sense to fear something awful, regardless of its inevitability. If everyone died in extreme physical pain, would that make it somehow nothing to fear? Nagel made many compelling arguments for why the fear of death is perfectly rational, ending the chapter with these words: If there is no limit to the amount of life that it would be good to have, then it may be that a bad end is in store for us all. I was reassured that my fears had been reinforced.
I thought that the common contemporary view was to see the death of young persons as a terrible tragedy that must be prevented at all costs (hence the secularization of the Christian prohibition against suicide), while seeing older persons as no longer of any value so that their deaths were actually positive from the perspective of those with faith in infinite human progress.
It seemed like there was some cognitive dissonance in the way Americans worshipped youth yet were so repressed about death, since young people could only prevent aging by dying. I thought of the story of Trophonius (Τροφώνιος) and his brother Agamedes (Ἀγαμήδης), from which comes the saying "those whom the gods love die young", as the brothers were granted their wish for death after building the temple for Apollo (Ἀπόλλων) at Delphi (Δελφοί). The Greeks and Romans clearly worshipped youth (maybe more than contemporary Americans do), but they didn't seem to be in so much denial.
I had been sent an article about Oscar Wilde's years as a classics scholar, and his remarkable fluency in Ancient Greek and Latin. The article noted that a key characteristic of Ancient Greek literature was its lack of sentimentality. I thought about how many (including the right-wing atheist writer Anthony Daniels) feared that our culture had become nothing but sentimentality. I wondered if it was bad that I sometimes cried when seeing certain television commercials. I did hate being manipulated by soundtracks.
I continued my Ancient Greek classes, although it was a sisyphean and largely pointless endeavor, since I did not have the time or the energy to commit to the study of the most difficult language I had ever encountered.
I thought of a scene in the largely forgettable film Lady Jane that I nevertheless seemed to reference all of the time. The Roman Catholic priest Dr. Feckinham sees Jane, reading, and is surprised. "Plato, in Greek! Not easy," he says. Young Helena Bonham-Carter, in a fake and Protestant manner, looks up and says: "Don't you think so?"
Later in this movie, Jane and her young husband continually repeat this line: The soul takes flight to the world that is eternal... invisible. But there arriving she is sure of bliss, and forever dwells in paradise.
This reassures them as they face execution for refusing to believe in transubstantiation (μετουσίωσις).
I did some research and learned that this line came from the Dialogues of Plato: containing The apology of Socrates, Crito, Phaedo, and Protagoras, and that it was more accurately translated like this:
That soul, I say, herself invisible, departs to the invisible world—to the divine and immortal and rational: thither arriving, she lives in bliss and is released from the error and folly of men, their fears and wild passions and all other human ills, and forever dwells, as they say of the initiated, in company with the gods.
After a theological argument, the Roman Catholic priest says to Jane: "It is a privilege to talk to anyone whose love of learning shines like yours."
Jane replies: "It is my only pleasure, Dr. Feckinham."
Ancient Greek wasn't quite my only pleasure, although I had very few. I did enjoy it quite a lot. Especially the in of the sentence Ancient Greek structure I liked.
I took off some remaining vacation days and tried to devote eight hours before each class to studying. I went to the New York Public Library.
It seemed like an appropriate environment.
I headed to the quiet reading room, where not even earphones were allowed. I sat at one of the six tables in the quiet room where laptop computers were also forbidden. The signage regarding this rule was not very good, so it was somewhat entertaining to watch people sit down, pull out their computers, and then get reprimanded by a guard.
Had I done nothing but study for Ancient Greek class -- no job, no television, no gym, no rinsing my gym clothes, no picking up all of the tubs of hummus left around the apartment -- I would still have felt overwhelmed by this language. When doing the homework, I had to look up nearly every word in every exercise. Once I spent 30 minutes on the word παύσασθαι before figuring out that it was an aorist middle infinitive (a concept that itself took a long time to understand -- παύσασθαι basically means "to educate for oneself"). I was terrified that the teacher would decide to do an exercise in class that we hadn't already prepared -- I wouldn't be able to answer a single question.
I worried about the implication of our language being so much simpler than that of the ancients, and getting simpler all of the time.
I doubted that I would retain much once the class was over, other than a bit of interesting etymological knowledge (asqueroso was a pleasant surprise). I was greatly comforted by finally learning (from) whence came the -s ending for plurals in English, but this had nothing to do with Greek. Since I knew that -s pluralizing was borrowed from French, and that French shared this feature with Spanish, Portuguese, and Catalan -- but not Italian -- and since my teacher was also a Latin scholar, I figured that she would be able to give me the answer to this mystery that had vexed me for years. She had never thought about it, but she was able to quickly figure out that it came from the accusative plural which became dominant in Vulgar Latin. I could never describe the relief I felt.
In the same article by the right-wing atheist in which he described the effects of the decline of religiosity in the West, he wrote:
For most people, living to the full means consuming as much as possible, having as many experiences as possible, and not only many experiences, the most extreme experiences possible [...] Sports become more extreme in their competitive urgency, holidays more exotic, films more violent, broadcasting more vulgar, the expression of emotion more crude and obvious.
In keeping with this, Asaph and I, at the urging of our trainer, has signed up for an extreme 12-mile obstacle course competition. I didn't think much about it when I agreed, and I only went to the website to register and pay the exorbitant registration fee. I didn't look at the list of obstacles.
We started going to our trainer twice a week, at a significant cost. Our somewhat paleolithioid sessions were more or less the same -- the likelihood of suddenly dying while carrying a sandbag up and down stairs didn't seem to increase.
A few weeks before the event, our trainer assembled our team, although there would be no obligation for us to stay together during the course. There were two other personal trainers on our team, one of whom was gigantically muscle-bound. There was a square-jawed, all-American guy who would be running with two of his equally square-jawed brothers and their square-jawed brother-in-law. There was one other non-heterosexual, but he didn't show up to the meeting. I started to get scared upon seeing these guys and hearing them talk about their preparation for the event.
"Try to take a daily shower in freezing cold water," advised our trainer. Several of the obstacles involved jumping into and swimming in freezing cold water.
Asaph had read that teams at these events often dressed in crazy costumes. He had taken the initiative to decide that we would dress as guidos, and he had a graphic designed to be printed on form-fitting, moisture-wicking shirts. He suggested that we wear some plastic jewelry and trucker hats, so that we looked like Italian-American thugs with an overtly macho attitude, or like the many non-heterosexuals and others who liked to emulate those types of persons.
The others didn't seem too excited about wearing costumes. We had all just met (our trainer was the only one who knew everyone), and we didn't really have much team spirit.
After this meeting, I was worried, so I took a freezing shower, soaked my shirt in cold water, and then went for an eight-mile run in the park with Asaph. We stopped at each mile to do 20 push-ups. But I had forgotten to take measures against chafing, so I experienced nipple bleeding at mile two, owing to the wetness of the shirt. I had to run shirtless despite temperatures below 10°C/50°F, attracting a lot of comments from other runners and walkers, since it was the day before the New York City Marathon (Μαραθών). To each person who asked, "aren't you cold?", I replied, "my nipples started bleeding." There were no additional questions after that.
The week before the event I ran 12 miles in Central Park. It was tedious and painful. I thought of how the New York City Marathon (Μαραθών) had just started out as four laps in the park, and how much more difficult, psychologically, that must have been than the way it is now, with a route throughout all parts of the city, and people and corporations cheering you on, and live television coverage.
The obstacle-course competition was being held on both a Saturday and a Sunday, at a race track and motorsports park in central New Jersey. We were to participate on Sunday, so I was able to spend Saturday reviewing photos of the event on a social-networking website and worrying. I saw that they had even thrown in a surprise obstacle involving electric shocks. I figured that I could easily skip that obstacle if I wanted, but I was more nervous about plunging into the water that we were told was below 8°C/45°F. That was an integral part of the event, and skipping it would be a sign of complete defeat and unmanly delicacy. Part of me had thought that we would never really do this course, and that we would just use the threat of it looming on the horizon to motivate us to work out harder. But the day had arrived, and I was unprepared. There was weeping and gnashing of teeth.
I barely slept the night before. I had a dream that I was standing in a long line inside an office building (like the interior in the video for Kelly Osbourne's One Word) waiting to jump into the cold water.
After three or so hours of sleep, it was time to get up. It was like waking up to take an early flight, or for surgery, or for execution -- all things I dislike.
Asaph had rented a car to drive us, and the other non-heterosexual teammate (whom we still hadn't met in person), as well as a guy who had been looking for a ride on the social-networking page for the event and whom Asaph had thought looked attractive, so he offered to bring him. The day before I had seen that a gorgeous Belorussian fitness model who had belonged to our gym was inquiring about the event on the social-networking page. I thought to offer him a ride as well, since I knew we had space and I knew that it would make Asaph happy, but this gorgeous Belorussian fitness model had adjusted his settings on the website to make it impossible for strange men to send him messages. So I placed the offer of a ride in a comment below his inquiry. Of course I never heard from him, and I felt embarrassed, ashamed, and foolish that I had attempted to communicate with a demigod (ἡμίθεος) like that.
While Asaph went to get the car, I wondered what I could do to make the plunge into the cold water easier. I thought that maybe covering my body with petroleum jelly would make me warmer. We only had a mentholated version though, and after applying some to my shoulders, I started shaking with chills, just standing there in the bathroom. It all seemed like a bad idea. I wished I could run while wearing a wetsuit.
I went downstairs and Asaph arrived in the car with our teammate and the stranger, who was a non-homosexual with a part-time modeling career. I sat in the front.
"What's that menthol smell?" asked Asaph.
The part-time model said that he had been taking ice baths in preparation for the event. There was lots of jovial conversation among the others as we made our way towards our icy graves. I just sat in stony silence. There was an unexpected detour after we exited the Lincoln Tunnel, so I hoped we would never make it to our final destination.
But we did. We went to get our numbered bibs as well as our wristbands allowing us one free beer (after completing the event) from the Mexican company to whose seventy-something spokesmodel I was compared in appearance by a coworker. Women appeared to have been dramatically overrepresented in the photos on the social-networking website. Almost everyone was a guy under age 25. I was shocked by the extremely high level of attractiveness. The smell of testosterone was in the air, but it wasn't the scary machismo one sees outside of nightclubs, or the exaggerated pretend posturing popular among a certain kind of non-heterosexual male who goes to the Eagle. Many of these young men were apparently planning to run the course shirtless and in shorts. There was a lot of smiling and laughing and youth and virility. I was shivering, fully clothed, as I stared with dread at the platform from which we would be required to jump into the water. I felt ancient and epicene.
A member of the armed forces wrote our bib numbers on our foreheads and arms in permanent marker, presumably to facilitate the identification of our dead bodies. We were to begin at 10:30, but, as we walked back to the car to drop off all of our stuff and change into our running outfits (the part-time model was going to run as a Native American from the Plains), we could see the 10:00 wave screaming and hollering with much manly bravado and robust gusto as the starting horn sounded.
We took too long at the car, so we had to run to meet our team at the starting line. The square-jawed brothers and their brother-in-law were all running shirtless, while Asaph and I were dressed like women representing a Muslim country at the Olympics (τὰ Ὀλύμπια). We handed out some of the shirts we had made to our non-shirtless teammates, but they still weren't really interested in the costume idea.
Finally, it began. There were professional photographers stationed throughout the course, snapping up photos that could be purchased later for a hefty price. (Lower resolution photographs of the young and handsome -- who were the overwhelming majority -- were placed on the social-networking website for free.)
The square-jawed brothers sped shirtlessly ahead, and we never saw them again. The two other trainers were a bit slower, and they fell behind us. Asaph, our trainer (who, thankfully, had a knee injury so he couldn't move too quickly), the other non-heterosexual and I ran together, but I was having a panic attack, which made running a challenge, as I had already been hyperventilating.
We headed to the first water obstacle. We had to cross a small portion of the water to get to it, and I, deciding that I needed to face my fear head-on, walked through the deepest section of water that I could. My breath was almost completely taken away, but I was reassured that I hadn't died.
The scary part came very quickly -- not even two miles in. I told my three remaining teammates that I wanted to go first. I climbed up the rope to the platform, waited for some space to clear, and then jumped.
It felt like knives cutting all over. But, I came to the surface and began, breathlessly, to swim forward. I looked back to see that Asaph had jumped. "I am still alive," I kept saying to myself.
Before exiting the water, we had to pass under three sets of barrels. As I went under each one, I could hear myself whimpering involuntarily under the water. I tried not to make this sad sound while going under the third barrel, but it was impossible.
Other people looked like this upon leaving the water.
I looked like this: a middle-aged zombie in guido hijab.
I kept repeating the vulgar expletive "fuck" over and over. I couldn't stop saying it. I was in shock.
We regrouped and then had to go through another small area of water. As it was shallower, it felt comparatively balmy.
Others looked like this.
Because I had been so terrified of the cold water part, it was as if an immense weight had been lifted from me after conquering that obstacle, and I suddenly felt a burst of energy and euphoria. The environment, which had seemed discouraging and sinister, suddenly appeared inspiring.
We waded through more mud. Others looked like this.
Or like this.
Asaph had purchased a $100 waterproof digital camera, and he was snapping photographs throughout. After going through an obstacle called "kiss of mud", he lost it. I went through the obstacle a second time to try to find it, but I was unsuccessful.
I was grateful for our trainer, our fearless team leader.
There was a very difficult obstacle where we had to run up a steep hill of mud. Asaph made it on one try, but our trainer took several, as did the other non-heterosexual. I finally made it far enough to grasp my trainer's hand.
This obstacle took teamwork and cooperation. The organizers of the event liked to distinguish theirs from a marathon, which is purely individualistic. There wasn't even any keeping of race times here.
I ran pretty much continuously, but I often looked up and saw Asaph ahead of me, standing still. I would run some more and then look up again and he was still standing, but also still ahead of me. It took me a while to figure out that he was sprinting to the top of each little hill and then stopping to look around, kind of like a dog.
Others looked like this.
Asaph stopped to help a woman who had fallen down from exhaustion. Asaph likes to recall his days as a medic in the IDF (צה"ל). Also, he likes to help people, and dogs.
Our trainer and I had to stop him from helping everyone.
Some who didn't require help looked like this.
I was happy that I was able to manage most of the obstacles, with a little help from my teammates. The cold water had removed any external genitalia, making obstacles easier than they might have been.
Yet others looked like this.
There was kind of a silly part where one had to run through burning straw.
Asaph enjoyed it.
It was hard to breathe and see.
The course flew by, just like my youth. Saudade stirred in my stomach, hüzün hit my heart, and melancholia (μελαγχολία) muddled my mind. I had never been around guys like this much in my life, and it seemed, retroactively, a pity. They seemed like the kinds of guys Asaph refers to as the "salt of the earth" (מלח הארץ), although I'm sure that many of them must have been jerks. Still, I felt some envy and regret.
There was one impossible obstacle -- slippery monkey bars over water. Everyone over 125 pounds/56 kilograms fell in.
We approached the finish line. Others looked like this.
We looked like this. Our trainer, oddly, had wanted us to hold hands.
We didn't feel that additional calisthenics were necessary, unlike some.
We posed for a photo, to be purchased later for US$30.
There was a creepy (that is, my age) fireman hosing people off.
I got well-hosed myself.
There was a bonfire with accompanying music, beer, and food afterwards. It wasn't too crowded. I assumed that most of the participants had to go back to their barracks or to go build temples or something.
I had not anticipated feeling proud of myself. But, in addition to the complicated painful longing triggered by the presence of all the tough guys who hadn't even begun biological aging and who I had never been like and certainly never would be, I felt pretty damn good.
I had a bit of swagger in my step the next day. I poured honey on my morning goat yogurt without apology -- take that, paleoliths! I bought two iced teas at lunchtime, throwing away two different plastic cups -- so there, environmentalists! After work I bought a small container of organic raspberries for $5.99 -- too bad, financial advisers! -- and some blueberries from Argentina -- screw you, locavores!
Later that week, in a session with our trainer, I threw out my back attempting to deadlift 315 pounds. I had to stay home from work the next day, and I missed my Ancient Greek class.