Monday, January 20, 2014

Think as a Roman Thought, Part 3: “While you’re alive and able”

This morning the top headline of my local newspaper was “Is today really the most depressing day of the year?” The article’s conclusion: maybe. “New Year’s resolutions have gone south, and you’ve gone pear-shaped,” it offered as a source of depression, along with holiday bills and crummy weather. (The windchill is -37° F where I am now, so that part seems plausible!)

Anyone exposed to even a moderate amount of media has probably seen a handful of stories recently about how to stick to New Year’s resolutions and other goals, including exercise-related ones. Today I offer the perspective of Marcus Aurelius, that frequent ponderer of human mortality. His Meditations often circles back to the brevity of human life and its implications. While these passages aren’t as fun and easy to implement as some of the resolution tips I’ve seen, they are helpful in their own way. Some examples: 

Book 2, No. 4: “Remember how long you’ve been putting this off, how many extensions the gods gave you, and you didn’t use them. At some point you have to recognize what world it is that you belong to; what power rules it and from what source you spring; that there is a limit to the time assigned you, and if you don’t use it to free yourself it will be gone and will never return.” 1

Book 4, No. 17: “Not to live as if you had endless years ahead of you. Death overshadows you. While you’re alive and able—be good.”2

Book 4, No. 48: “Don’t let yourself forget how many doctors have died, after furrowing their brows over how many deathbeds. How many astrologers, after pompous forecasts about others’ ends. How many philosophers, after endless disquisitions on death and immortality. . . And all the ones you know yourself, one after another. . .

In short, know this: Human lives are brief and trivial. Yesterday a blob of semen; tomorrow embalming fluid, ash. To pass through this brief life as nature demands. To give it up without complaint. Like an olive that ripens and falls. Praising its mother, thanking the tree it grew on.”3

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Marcus Aurelius wasn’t the first to comment on this subject, and he certainly wasn’t the last. These three passages remind me of the Jeopardy tool from the psychology book The Tools (see my review here), which urges people to visualize themselves on their deathbed in order to galvanize themselves into action. And the Tools authors quote Samuel Johnson: “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Johnson’s remark is almost cheerfully blunt; sometimes Marcus’s words are dismally so. “Yesterday a blob of semen; tomorrow embalming fluid, ash.” Marcus’s more optimistic phrases don’t undercut that reality, but they are worth remembering when we falter in our fitness resolutions. “While you’re alive and able—be good.” “Like an olive . . . thanking the tree it grew on.” 

We will die. Soon. But we’re not dead yet. Let’s seize the chances we have now to exercise. Like other Romans said, carpe diem.  

1. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, trans. Gregory Hays (New York: Modern Library, 2004), 16.
2. Ibid, 36.
3. Ibid, 42-43. 

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Philip Farkas on Endurance

Recently I have been going through my old copy of Philip Farkas’ The Art of French Horn Playing when I practice.1 His chapter on endurance has some ideas that are spot-on for exercise as well as playing the horn. For example,

Endurance is not acquired quickly or easily. It is a process of developing muscles which nature never intended to do more than “bare the fangs” in more primitive days. Yet these light, delicate muscles must be strengthened to the point of withstanding for several hours a day the various types of punishment put upon them by brass playing.2

Most people don’t focus on strengthening relatively small, weak muscles like facial muscles when they exercise, but Farkas’ point that endurance is not acquired quickly or easily is true for any muscle. And while I can’t confidently assert that humans have lost much of the endurance we possessed in “more primitive days” because we now have faucets and cars and combines, some scholars have argued this.3 At any rate, I know I would have to exercise a lot more to withstand the whole-body equivalent of an elite brass player’s regimen.

Farkas again:

A cross-country runner does not gain [her]4 endurance by strolling around the block, and the musician will not get [hers] by practicing for a half-hour daily. [She] must endure until endurance is achieved. The point at which one finally becomes tired during [her] practice day is a very valuable moment and should not be wasted. When else can one practice the ability to endure? Certainly not when the lip is fresh. Therefore, in my own case, it is almost a point of honor to go on for another five minutes just when I think I cannot possibly continue. In doing this, I am very careful to use good judgment. The very high notes are avoided, as is fortissimo; but a few minutes of mezzoforte middle-register notes will not be harmful, and they will give the strength, will power, and confidence to know that I can go on.5

Excellent points here, Mr. Farkas, and an inspiring example you have set. (Though occasionally, when I want to throw my horn out the window in frustration and fatigue, your example seems a bit too good to be true.) Push yourself to achieve results—an extra lap, three more repetitions, five more minutes, once more through the etude—but not rashly. It reminds me of things Jillian Michaels says on her workout DVDs. Farkas and Jillian: they’re not exactly twins, but they’re singing the same tune.

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1. Philip Farkas, The Art of French Horn Playing (Miami: Summy-Birchard Inc., 1956).
2. Ibid, 62.
4. Farkas uses male pronouns throughout the book, so I will do the opposite.
5. Farkas, Art of French Horn Playing, 63.