Diet to Live - Diet to Die, Chapter One

Chapter One

If This is All That’s Left in Life

Once upon a time—and this is a true story—dawn fell on the earth, at least on the part where, eight hours earlier, I had fallen asleep.

“More rock, less talk,” a cheerful woman’s voice cracked out, ruining a perfect morning dream. The radio alarm had gone off and begun the hard work of waking me up. Over the years, I had discovered that this radio program was disturbing enough to get me out of bed with the least harmful effect on my brain, second only to a straightforward buzzing. News programs were the most damaging. Classical or jazz music stations never managed to stir me, but only made my dreams more enjoyable.

Aggravated by songs that were incessantly repeated every morning, I sat myself up and killed the alarm. Downstairs, my dog acknowledged my heroic effort by banging his mighty tail on the floor in anticipation of his morning walk. With elbows on my knees and head resting in hands, I drowsily listened to my body as it adjusted painfully to its semi-vertical position. With another surge of heroism, I stood up and walked myself to the bathroom. I knew that my actual awakening would happen in due course. For now, just pretending to be awake would do. I maintained sufficient control to pee into the white oval of the toilet with one eye half open.

My mornings had—and this covers quite a few years—become increasingly difficult to manage. I hadn’t felt refreshed, even after eight hours of sleep, for a very long time. Rising from bed had become torturous as I had developed pains in my joints and lower back. Worst of all, I felt frustrated with everything. I was not looking forward to the day ahead; I was just dragging myself through the motions. Something kept nagging at me: “Why bother waking up? Another day, another mess.”

I bent over the sink to brush my teeth and groaned from pain. My back muscles ached from the other night’s workout at the gym, making me think it might still be the day before. Slowly and lazily, the events of the previous day unwound in my memory until I was hit with an electric shock: I hadn’t finalized a presentation that I was to give that morning. The realization woke me up, and I rushed through my morning routine frantically.

An hour later, I had walked the dog, decorated the presentation slides in corporate templates, and was in my car heading to work. Idle thoughts traversed my mind without attracting much attention. I yawned for the tenth time and focused on my last thought: I feel tired and want to sleep.

The thought triggered an inner dialog that was unpleasant enough to make me take notice.

“You are dragging yourself to work when you really want to return to bed. Something is wrong here. Why do you feel so tired in the morning? Didn’t you sleep enough?” “I had my eight hours. But no, I didn’t sleep enough.” “Are you sick?” “No.” “What is the matter then?” “I don’t know! I feel apathetic, as if I don’t want to live anymore. Why don’t I have energy? Why am I not excited by a new day?” “Maybe this is what getting old means?” “What? I’m barely over forty… No, I don’t feel old; I still see myself as young and resilient.”

A few days earlier, while entertaining friends at dinner, I had told them about a trekking boot camp I went to during my youth. It was a growing experience in which I endured torture by picturing myself as a strong man. I remember those few weeks so well that I can still see the camp without closing my eyes, even though I was there more than thirty years ago.

In the heart of Central Asia, northeast of the city of Tashkent, between the towns of Gazalkent and Charvak, lies the Karankulsai Gorge. The entrance into the gorge is blocked by a huge mudslide. Crossing the surface of the dried mudslide felt like walking through a desert. The reward for the long hike up the dusty trail was a spectacular view. The gorge, with a brook nestled in the converging hillsides, retained the pristineness of a place rarely visited by humans.

Five miles up the brook, a trekking camp for youth had been built. The minimum age requirement to enroll in the camp was twelve—for a good reason, as I later learned. At ten years old, I was taller than most of the boys my age. That made it easy for my mother to get me admitted into the youngest group with phony documents.

During the first week, we were taught to pack a backpack, pitch a tent, start a fire, and cook a meal. In the second week, the instructors took us for day hikes. Teaching us how to walk in the mountains, they carefully monitored everyone’s endurance and behavior. One boy and a few girls did not pass the screening process for the ten-day trek that was the culmination of the camp’s program.

The time had finally come to prepare for the trek. The instructors brought out tents, supplies, cooking gear, and provisions. They piled up gear for us to pack alongside our personal items. Some piles were noticeably larger than others, assigned in proportion to the stature and performance of each kid assessed during the day hikes. I’d gotten one of the larger piles, along with five other strong boys in the group. By the time I had finished packing all the stuff, my backpack looked scarily large. Its appearance was not deceiving. It was unmanageable; I couldn’t lift it. A smidgen of doubt that I had signed up for the impossible crept into my mind.

I looked around, questioning, in despair, whether I should seek assistance to put on the backpack. Noticing similar looks in the girls’ eyes, I decided that asking for help was not an option. I lay on the backpack, pushed my arms under the shoulder straps, and tried to get up. No freaking way! I rolled back and forth to gain momentum but always ended up lying on my back. Then I saw an older, and obviously smarter, boy using a sloped surface to put on his pack. I dragged my pack to a sloping surface. Then I lay back on it, bent my knees, and pulled up with a force that almost threw me on my stomach.

I managed to balance on my feet and then walked victoriously to one of the instructors for a fine-tuning of the shoulder straps. Passing girls, I added a spring to my step to show I was proud of my strength. Had I known at the time that I was bravely dooming myself to torture that I’d remember for the rest of my life, I doubt I would have lifted the pack off the ground.

The instructor tightened my straps and concluded, “Well done! You can put it down for now. We are taking off in an hour.”

The trek was long. For the first four days, we dragged ourselves through the trails to Chimgan Valley in the spurs of Chatkal Ridge in the Western Tien-Shan Mountains. Everyone felt tired from day one.

Passing saddle points at 8,000 feet, and gaining and losing up to 4,000 feet in elevation a day was wearing. Our group of fifteen trekkers and four guides stretched for hundreds of feet along the trail, since some girls had to stop frequently. My lungs couldn’t get enough air on the way up. My knees screamed with pain on the way down. I was counting the steps and minutes to the next water break.

Every day, one of the girls refused to go on after a water break, and our instructor distributed her load among the stronger group members.

Something was added to my pack every time a girl relinquished hers. Lifting up the heavier backpack, I felt proud of myself.

I had discovered that it didn’t matter how terrible I felt, there was always someone in worse condition. Miraculously, the moment someone admitted weakness, my backpack would get lighter. I enjoyed those moments of getting strength from seemingly nowhere without musing how it was possible until an incident made me think about it.

Two boys in our group were gymnasts. They were not as tall as I was, but boy, what muscular bodies they had! Back at the base camp, they were heroes. They could do a high back flip without any preparation. They bullied everyone, and even the older boys wouldn’t mess with them.

The fourth day of our trek was exceptionally tough. We were struggling on a particularly long hike up to Sandy Pass, which was at an elevation of 8,000 feet. At two o’clock in the afternoon, we were not even halfway up. I constantly feared that my next step would be my last and I’d collapse in exhaustion and humiliation.

Unexpectedly, one of the gymnasts sat down on the trail and started crying. His friend was still standing though he didn’t look much better. Instead of condemning the crying gymnast, everyone was thankful to him; it gave us a short break from the torture of the steep trail. A minute later, I noticed with horror that our lead guide was unloading the crying boy’s backpack. Every guide was already carrying two extra bags’ worth of belongings from those who had given up in the first three days. All the older and stronger boys were already loaded to the limit. The instructor walked toward me and offered me a bag of canned food. I was not in a hurry to take the bag. I was not sure I could walk any longer as it was. That extra weight certainly would finish me, and I had been avoiding the disgrace of failure for so long.

I glanced around in hope of finding a way out. Everyone’s eyes were pleading that I not refuse the load. I secured the bag on top of my pack and stood up. My legs were shaking. I knew I couldn’t walk under that weight so I began planning on how to fall without looking too pathetic. I examined the situation and saw that the boys had turned their heads away while the girls were watching me with admiration. All the girls had given their loads away days ago and seeing me take on extra weight was astonishing for them. For a moment, I saw myself through their eyes as a powerful man, a hero they could count on in difficult times.

An instant later, something unbelievable happened. A surge of energy filled my body, the weight on my shoulders diminished, and I felt able to jump. Pacing myself, not to show the joy, I walked up the trail, imagining myself as a hero. I felt like running while only a minute before, my mind had been convinced that I couldn’t take another step.

How was it possible? The last six days of trekking I spent pondering the way the body and mind communicate. I dreamed of becoming a superman with access to unlimited resources; I needed to learn how to tap into this power at will. I almost cried from the excitement of the discovery. I was amazed by the limitless of my strength and was shocked that my mind hadn’t known about it.

The years went by and the excitement of the discovery waned. By the time I was thirty, my certainty in the power’s availability had completely faded. By the time I got a stable job, I was living in a lethargic state, excited only by thinking about retirement plans. Even my desire to be admired by the opposite sex had dwindled.

Driving to work, absorbed in memories from my youth, I wondered what had happened to me.

I live in the richest country in the world. I have a wife, two grown sons, a dog, a big house, and a well-paying job. I have everything I ever dreamed of but, somehow, I don’t feel content. I have enough money to take a long break from work and travel, but I still go to work every day, being concerned about growing old and not having money to travel. Things that I used to like doing, I do now with indifference, out of inertia. It seems as if time is flowing differently now and life is passing me by while I’m watching it from a window. New Year’s come and go more often, with nothing much to remember in between. In the mornings, I feel a heavy tiredness. In the evenings, I need a hefty meal and TV to calm myself into sleep. If this is all that’s left in life, I better lie down and die now. Why continue this mechanistic functioning, pretending to care about anything? Why am I feeling this way, and when did it start? Probably a few years ago, when I became what is comfortingly called “moderately overweight”. That’s when extra pounds don’t show through oversized clothes. That’s it, being overweight is my problem. The apathy began when I gained weight. Clearly, I’m not eating right, since I’m getting fatter. That must be it, eating wrong is causing my dark mood.

I came to this realization as I arrived at the company’s parking lot.

I was a few minutes late for my meeting. Walking into the conference room, I searched for a reasonable excuse. Recalling a joke, I told it to the group that was waiting for my presentation rather than offering a greeting:

“A blonde was asked by her boss, ‘Why are you late?’
‘I left home late, that’s why,’ she replied.
‘Couldn’t you have left your home earlier?’
‘It was too late to leave earlier!’ the blonde enlightened her irrational boss.”

The room exploded with laughter. (I hoped at the blonde, not at me.) The drowsy faces cheered up, and I interpreted it as a sign of forgiveness. The work demanded all my attention, and I soon forgot my bitter morning thoughts.

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