Sometimes when I’m in one of those Big Box stores I find myself in the company of what in polite circles are called Old People. (This happens frequently in stores with lots of mirrors.) I pause in front of a pharaoh’s tomb of something, 5000 boxes of dog food supplement for example, and ask myself what accountancy lunacy is behind this burial hoard. Who decides to make the dog food supplement pyramid so many cubits high? Since I don’t know anything about marketing or business or revenue streams, I just figure they must know what they’re doing. Sometimes an Old Person pauses beside me and attempts to establish eye contact. “Mighty big stack of boxes of dog food they got here!” I usually get out of these non-situations by pretending I’m Canadian, or a deaf mute, and sidestep away.
What I’ve noticed over the last six or seven decades is that many of the people who go to Big Box stores at three in the afternoon are old. They talk old, wink old, their jokes are old. And some of them look like they’ve sung a lot of sea shanties in cellars full of drunks. Bent, crooked, twisted, grinning and bobbing, leathery and lean and solid, some of them have had hard lives. I’m always intimidated when one of these guys makes a subtle grave bow in my direction – does he think I was with him on Guam? Although my instinct to flee allows me to pretend I’m still an awkward adolescent with poor social skills, another part of me recognizes that I just feel inadequate. Inadequate because for every old person I see I invariably invent a history of tremendous Striving and Fortitude and Sacrifice. By comparison my life seems soft and pliant. A thin reed. I’ve never been in a knife fight, much less a world war. I never shot a man to watch him die, although I did live near Reno for a few weeks.
Today however I realized what I would answer were some geezer to ask me, “Hey sonny, what’s the hardest thing you ever done?”
It would be the eighteen months I put in trying to learn Ancient Greek.
I offer no explanation why I would want to learn Ancient Greek, just as I cannot explain why I should deliberately crash a Pontiac station wagon or spend a year’s wages on a spear gun I was too puny to cock. By the time I came to Dr. Morgan’s Ancient Greek course I had tried to learn – and utterly failed to learn – half a dozen other languages. I spent seventeen years in Arabic-speaking countries and I know maybe three words in Arabic. Two of them are slang. I have idled away three years on French, two years in Spanish, a year in Latin, whole months on Italian, two years on Modern Greek, five hours on German. I know nothing, I learned nothing. When the tide goes out the beaches are always swept clean and empty. I have at last outgrown this weird determination to learn a foreign language when I clearly have no aptitude for languages.
How hard is Ancient Greek? Here is a passage from Goodwin’s Greek Grammar (the “new” edition of 1894):
The following forms accent the penult: the first aorist active infinitive, the second aorist middle infinitive of most verbs, the perfect middle and passive infinitive and participle, and all infinitives in…
At various moments in my life I have known, always in isolation, what one or another of those words means.
What I have today is not the slightest understanding of Ancient Greek but a marvelous sense of accomplishment. Even fulfillment. This doesn’t make a lot of sense, even to me. It was hard work, impossibly hard work for me, but I point to those 18 months as perhaps the most rewarding and rigorous months of my life.
That’s why the following anecdote makes me smile. I quote it exactly as it appears, a footnote on page 12 of Homeric Moments: Clues to Delight in Reading The Odyssey, by Eva Brann.
My father, a physician who was educated in a German classical gymnasium, cherished the following story: His Greek professor, bidding goodbye to a student being withdrawn by his father for a business apprenticeship, was heard to say sorrowfully: “What a pity he couldn’t stay for the irregular verbs! One more month and he’d have had something to sustain him in life.”