Train like a Roman

Currently, the average American can expect to spend 20 years in retirement. That’s long enough to make significant contributions to art.

Apple Blossom Time, 9×12, oil on canvasboard, $696 unframed.

To become a Roman legionary, one needed to be male, between the ages of 17 and 45, and a citizen. One also needed to be extremely fit. Legionaries marched at grueling speeds while maintaining perfect alignment with their fellows. Ordinary pace was twenty Roman miles in five hours, and fast pace was 24 Roman miles in the same time. They did this while wearing 70-lb packs on their backs.

A legionary signed up for a 25-year tour of duty, which meant the youngest they could hypothetically retire was at age 42.

Men signed up because the Roman Legions were one of the few paths of upward mobility in the Roman world. The army was an honorable profession with steady pay and great retirement benefits. Make it to the end of your 25 years, and you’d get a land grant equal in value to twelve years’ wages.

Roman historians were not concerned with the lifestyles of the poor and irrelevant, but Roman skeletons in Britain offer tantalizing glimpses. Of the Roman skeletons unearthed at Cirencester, about half were arthritic.

Spring Greens, 8X10, oil on canvasboard, $522 unframed.

Old Romans—like us—suffered from a panoply of illnesses including nerve damage, injuries that failed to heal properly, and intractable diseases like cancer. Their doctors were savvy about pain management. Ice packs and frigid water decreased swelling. Hot baths decreased muscle spasms. Doctors recommended exercise and weight loss. They prescribed good food, including protein, dairy, fruits, vegetables and grains. When things got bad, they had herbal remedies, up to and including opium.

But opium was for the end-stage sufferer. How did the typical legionary deal with the aches and pains of encroaching old age? Willow bark (aspirin’s precursor) and turmeric helped, but mostly they just worked through it.

I remember reading, long ago, about a legionary cure for joint stiffness: go out for a run. Exercise warms up the muscles, which in turn takes the stress of the joints. That sounds a lot like what one does at the beginning of a modern physical therapy session. In fact, Galen’s emphasis on diet, fitness, hygiene and preventive medicine sounds a lot like modern alternative medicine. (The bloodletting and vivisection, not so much.)

Spring Break, 10X10, oil on canvasboard, $645 unframed.

An old (2010) study showed that Americans averaged about 5100 steps a day, or just 2.5 miles of walking. That probably overstates our movement, since wearing pedometers tends to motivate us. We’re a nation of couch-potatoes, and we’re also a nation that pops pills. 55% of us take prescription medications, and we average four prescriptions apiece.

What does this have to do with painting? In our culture, painting has become the province of retirees. With the exception of undergraduate art programs, painting ateliers are populated by grey-hairs.

Friendship spring day, 9×12, oil on canvasboard, $696 unframed.

The good news is, we tend to live a lot longer. The bad news is, many of us live those last years badly.

For the Roman legionary, retirement didn’t mean a rest; it meant finally being able to take up farming. Roman soldiers worked their bodies hard into extreme old age.

Currently, the average American can expect to spend 20 years in retirement. That’s long enough to master painting, to make significant contributions to art. But to do that, you need to maintain your fitness. I’m not suggesting that you strap a 70-lb pack on your back, but keep moving, for art’s sake.Watch Me Paint is moving. It will be hosted by my website. No, I haven’t figured out how to automate anything, but I’m working on it. If you’re one of the thousands of subscribers who’ve been getting my blog through Feedburner, I’m trying to port your email address to a new service. It’s the end of Feedburner that has forced me to make this change.

A question of identity

Self-portrait having surgical stitches removed. I asked to remove one myself, just to see how it was done.

Self-portrait having surgical stitches removed. I asked to remove one myself, just to see how it was done.
I have survived two different cancers. The first one showed up in my 40th year, but a gastroenterologist dismissed the bleeding as running-related hemorrhoids. (Yes, I once was really that active.) In his mind, I was too young and too vegetarian for it to be colon cancer. By the time it was properly diagnosed, the tumor had breached the bowel wall. What could have been a quick snip ended up being a year of intensive treatment.
My second cancer was much less dramatic. Again it started with internal bleeding, this time from a uterine tumor. Those parts had all been pretty well microwaved during my first treatment, so they just took them all out.

The oddity wasn’t just having two cancers; it was having them younger than the age recommended by the NIH. I was tested for Lynch Syndrome, or hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer, as it used to be called. Unsurprisingly, it came up positive.
I’m pretty larky, so when people asked me if I was journaling about my experiences, I told them I was writing a book called One Hundred Best Things about Having Cancer. (Number one, of course, was getting out of leading Youth Group.) Yeah, I was likely to die of cancer, but we’re all going to die of something. In practical terms, nothing really changed. I was already being screened aggressively, and it didn’t change that.
But deep down it affected my thinking. I’m a carrier of cancer, I told myself. I may have given this to my children. I don’t have an infinite amount of time left. I have to hurry to finish what I’ve set out to do.
This year I decided I was sick of defining myself as a cancer survivor. I know too many people who are entering old age in prisons of health problems to want to build one for myself. It’s not like I can just pretend it never happened, because all that treatment radically changed my body. But I wouldn’t talk or think about it anymore. I no longer needed to see my life through a lens of cancer.
Pastor Alvin Parris of Joy Community Church in Rochester, NY. He's a talented musician and preacher, and he aims to finish the race strong.

Pastor Alvin Parris of Joy Community Church in Rochester, NY. He’s a talented musician and preacher, and he aims to finish the race strong.
Then, late this summer, I got another letter from my geneticist. It said they’d had another look-see at my profile and decided that my gene mutation wasn’t really Lynch Syndrome after all. Never mind.
Practically speaking, that changes little. I still go regularly to Rochester to be poked and prodded. But it does raise the question asked in Isaiah 53:1: “Who has believed our report? And to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?”
Pastor Alvin Parris in Rochester, NY has been on dialysis since I met him. He is physically frail, but his inner power just glows. Last week his son commented, “Every time I hear my dad preach, I think about how the doctor told him that by the time he was 50, preaching was one of the many things he would no longer be able to do. He’s 65 now.”
That’s a role model for our generation.