The Root Hog Conundrum

When I asked Bruce via email what he’d been doing since we were last plotting to overthrow the Nixon administration in 1970, he said, “Oh, basically root-hogging.”

“Doing what?”

“Oh,” he said, almost as an afterthought, “ran a small construction company.”

When Bruce said ‘root-hogging,’ I envisioned a ball-carrying rugby player approaching a clutch of tacklers. I saw – and have been one of — two exhausted wrestlers fumbling toward each other in the last fifteen seconds, score tied, almost falling down. Fill in the blank. We know what Bruce is talking about. We all root-hog to a certain degree.

But how often do we really have to root-hog? I mean: forgetting about everything else but the one activity that we must focus on – damn everything else, at least for the moment. I can remember only two crucial moments: one while hiking the Chihuahuan Desert having found the springs on the map crawling with rattlesnakes. Thereby denying me water. Much later I was caught in a rainstorm in the Romanian mountains. Temperatures fell. I began to shiver uncontrollably, on the inside – a terrible feeling. It was the onset of hypothermia. In both instances, I felt a switch click. I had to force-march. Sitting-down-waiting was not an option.

Do I want to pretend that lifting that five-pound dumbbell for the fortieth repetition is a matter of Chihuahuan-Romanian life and death? Do I want to feel like an Iraqi battle survivor once I attain my small, personal far-mountain peak of the afternoon? If so, why? To build my mind and will? So I can get ahead?

Egypt is an economic backwater. Back in 1995, a frazzled American friend who was moving back to the states said, summing up his tragic vision of the country: “If you’re Egyptian, you can’t hope to move up.”

Then there’s Nancy, a member of my one and only book club experience. She was raised in Oregon to a well-to-do family of transplanted Egyptians. Her last name is Arabic, but I’m not giving it away. At thirty-five – college-degreed and well employed — she uprooted herself (note the recurrence of ‘root’) and came back to live in a country she’d only visited. Was her extended family that important? Did she especially cherish her grandmother?

“No, it wasn’t any of that,” she said. “I just realized after my last visit that Egyptians are happier than Americans. I wanted to live in a happier country. I knew I wouldn’t earn as much.”

Her answer made me curious. “Do Egyptians know they’re happy?”

She raised her chin and thought about it. “They don’t talk that way.”

After living 14 of the last 20 years in Cairo – The Impossible City — I too think Egyptians are happier than Americans. But as well, notoriously so from the viewpoint of friends who employ Egyptians, they do not distinguish themselves as root-hoggers. “Everything takes longer here. It’s like moving through molasses,” said one young boss at an oilfield in the Western Desert. He was counting the days until his ‘time’ was served.

Many Westerners working in Egypt feel imprisoned. They are unhappy to be living among the happy. Some are enraged by Egyptians’ acceptance of their lot.

You have to love such paradoxes. Questions ping in every direction. The ground is set for radical (root) arguments. What is happiness? What is progress? Why are some people more backward than others? Hold it, what’s your definition of ‘backward?’

When the small thorn of a man who was the last Prime Minister of Iran said that the West had more to learn from Iran than vice versa, the standard American riposte was ‘yeah, right!’ But maybe he was talking about subjects Americans find worthless. Might root-hogging find a place in this discourse?

Last night I was exhausted from work. What wore me out so thoroughly? Sitting for five solid hours, except for five minutes of standing and moving. That’s the equivalent of flying from Cairo to Paris and going to the restroom twice. That flight is longer, I believe, than any one-way flight in America. With two and half more hours and a good tailwind, I could have flown from Washington to Paris. But after supper, after a yoga session of twists (25 minutes), I made myself root-hog 30 pushups. Thirty is my new limit. Don’t laugh. I could hardly do ten pushups when I started this exercise regime. I got to 29 when my muscles failed. I managed to get off the floor all right, but I felt defeated. Only 29.

Bruce, I’ve been with you all these years and hadn’t known it. I didn’t realize I was a fellow root-hogger.

My question is: as an older fellow who longs for holistic health, what do I now do with this knowledge? To root-hog or not to root-hog. I hope my body and mind determine an answer soon. Nobody wants to waste time. Nobody wants to adopt a spirit that’s guarantees the searcher that the goal will not be reached.