Melancholy High

By Angela Slezak

That no matter what you feel, my meditation teacher has explained, there is some benefit to the self. Even with negative feelings such as anxiety and depression, you’re getting something out of it.

This was a major lesson. Often feelings come as reaction so monitoring the benefits of any feeling in reaction to the situation reveals deep-seated beliefs.

What do we get out of depression?

Melancholy Humor

Until the 19th century, depression was generally known as melancholy, one of the four humors. If you’re not familiar with the four humors, historically the Western world has categorized personalities in four ways. You might laugh, but if you work in a corporate setting, you may have experienced some of the personality profiling that uses four quadrants.


Sanguine – Blood promotes a feeling of joy, mirth, optimism, enthusiasm, affection and wellbeing.

Phlegmatic – Phlegm induces passivity, lethargy, subjectivity, devotion, emotionalism, sensitivity and sentimentality.

Choleric – Yellow Bile provokes, excites and emboldens the passions. Being inflammatory, irritating and caustic, it provokes anger, irritability, boldness, ambition, envy, jealousy and courage.

Melancholic – Black Bile makes one pensive, melancholy and withdrawn. It encourages prudence, caution, realism, pragmatism and pessimism.

As with any personality profiling in quadrants, we are rarely one quadrant but a mixture of qualities normally with one or two quadrants being predominant.

Melancholy High

Melancholy may be different than depression, but it seems melancholy is part of depression. Folk wisdom purports that to be an artist you must have some imbalance in the humors. How much art and literature would be absent without an extra dose of melancholy?

Melancholy sees the futility behind much human endeavor so peers into the shadows and acknowledges what we would prefer to ignore.

The thing about pain,
Is it won’t last forever,
And it kills you right now,
But with time it gets better,
The thing about scars,
Is they all start to fade,
Until nothing is left,
Of the cuts that were made,
The thing about today,
Is there’s always tomorrow,
And if you can’t find your smile,
I have one you can borrow,
The thing about help,
Is beside you it stands,
But it won’t know its needed,
Unless you reach out your hand,
The thing about love,
Is you can’t feel its touch,
Until you let someone know,
That this world is too much.

– Ernest Hemingway

While the sanguine are enjoying the amusement park, melancholy sees the exploited workers. While the choleric are fighting for a cause, melancholy notices the pain that drives the fight. While the phlegmatic is trying to connect, melancholy observes the loss of self.

What does the feeling of melancholy offer us?

It offers poetry, philosophy and wistfulness that notice the smallness of a human existence in an infinitely large universe. It’s the longing for another world.

Lo! Death has reared himself a throne
In a strange city lying alone
Far down within the dim West,
Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best
Have gone to their eternal rest.
There shrines and palaces and towers
(Time-eaten towers that tremble not!)
Resemble nothing that is ours.
Around, by lifting winds forgot,
Resignedly beneath the sky
The melancholy waters lie.

from The City in the Sea by Edgar Allan Poe

Melancholy also offers a great deal of movie endings that contain the bittersweet combination of both happiness and sadness. Movies need to evoke feeling to be successful and melancholy is a powerful emotion.

A Sanguine Bias

Speaking of movie endings, Hollywood generally produces movie endings that end as expected – the main characters fall in love, the hero wins and bad people are redeemed. Melancholic movie endings generally are most often found in the “art film,” often from foreign countries, another link of melancholy and art.

Does my culture have a sanguine bias?

In an article America is obsessed with happiness — and it’s making us miserable, British author Ruth Whippman reflects on Americans focus on happiness:

Part of this is that Americans seem to have a deep cultural aversion to negativity. This can be a welcome change, but the pressure to remain positive at all times often results in some complicated mental gymnastics. My son’s report card at preschool divided his performance not into strengths and weaknesses but into strengths and emerging strengths.

“Complicated mental gymnastics” – interesting term for remaining sanguine when melancholic (or other humor) thoughts arise.

We don’t need a melancholic world anymore than we need a world entirely comprised of sanguine, phlegmatic or choleric. But when we isolate or reject one humor, the rest go out of balance.

Whippman describes the daily life of the emotions brilliantly where you can find each of the four humors:

Before moving to America, I didn’t really give a whole lot of dedicated thought to whether I was happy. Like most people, in any given day I will experience emotions and sensations including (but not limited to) hilarity, joy, irritation, ambivalence, excitement, embarrassment, paralyzing self-doubt, boredom, anxiety, guilt, heart-stopping love, resentment, pride, exhaustion, and the shrill, insistent buzz of uneaten chocolate somewhere in the house.

Whippman’s insightful article makes me think that melancholy is also an escape from the excess of sanguine. Possibly a balance of sanguine will provide a balance of melancholy. We can still get our melancholy high, but prevent it from becoming an addiction.

It’s so nice
to wake up in the morning
all alone
and not have to tell somebody
you love them
when you don’t love them
any more.Richard Brautigan

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The American Dream Has Gone to the Dogs

By Angela Slezak

While out with a dogfriend yesterday and his owner, many a person and dog stopped by for a pet and a chat. During the many encounters, I learned that in America dogs have playdates and go to parks to play all day while their owners are at work.

Dogs in America, I realized during the afternoon, have a better life than I do.

I’m currently in a job that demands a lot of hours. As my constitution demands more rest than some of my peers, I find my life quickly degenerates into a work-sleep-take-care-of-felines routine when overworked.

As we learned in the movie The Shining, all work and no play makes for a dull boy, or a least a dull life.

But the dogs are still having fun. How did the dogs manage to obtain fun and fulfilling lives while their owners race toward dull?

Americans Work the Longest Hours

This Money article claims Americans work longer hours when compared to peers. Forty percent of workers spend 50+ hours at work. The average is 47 hours per week, almost a six-day week.

While the dogs play.

The article also points out that while productivity has increased 250% since 1948, income levels peaked decades ago. This is the wage stagnation often mentioned in the news. It also means that Americans are getting duller without financial reward.

While the dogs play.

If you dare read more about how much Americans are over-worked compared to other developed nations, you’ll also find that in peer countries workers have more health benefits and more paid time off. As a traveler, I discovered this on overseas travel and have since stopped chatting with Germans because I’m too envious of their six-week journeys across continents while I struggle to get 10 days off and usually work the weekend before and after to keep up.

While the dogs play.

The American Dream

So what exactly is the American dream?

According to How Stuff Works, the American dream concept was popularized by historian James Truslow Adams but was conceptually alive in the 17th century.

Historian James Truslow Adams often receives credit for first popularizing the idea of the American dream. In his 1931 book “The Epic of America,” Adams described “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” [source: Adams].

But the concept of the American dream, as Adams defined it, actually existed long before him. In 1630, John Winthrop gave his “city upon a hill” sermon to his fellow Puritan colonists as they sailed to Massachusetts in 1630. Although Winthrop never used the word “dream,” he eloquently detailed his vision of a society in which everyone would have a chance to prosper, as long as they all worked together and followed Biblical teachings [source: Winthrop]. Gradually, that dream of opportunity evolved in colonists’ minds into a God-given right. In the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Thomas Jefferson asserted that everyone in America — at least, those who weren’t enslaved by the colonists — was entitled to “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” [source: Jefferson].

The American dream contains many concepts, including prosperity. The United States is prosperous and our work life suggests that the difficult part is now maintaining that prosperity.

Paul Kingsnorth in one of his essays in Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, mentions the ideas of economic Leopold Kohr. According to Kingsnorth, Kohr knew that growth is supposed to help us live better. But as growth makes us too big, we then live to grow. That accurately describes the productivity growth with wage stagnation we see in the United States.

If you’ve worked for an American public company, you know there is pressure to have year-over-year annual growth at all costs. Our economic model demands it.

While the dogs play.

The American dream has gone to the dogs

In 2018, Americans are expected to spend over $72 billion on pet care with dogs being the most common pet (60 million household have a dog followed by 47 million households with a cat).

Americans work more, get paid the same and spend more on their dogs. While Americans can still enjoy the parts of the American dream regarding life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, there is less and less time to do so.

The American Dream appears to have transferred from human hosts to canine hosts. The dogs are now enjoying the fruits of human labor with better food, better education, better health care and more friends and leisure time.

The American Dream has clearly gone to the dogs.

Related: Paul Kingsnorth on the Crisis of Bigness

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Does Anyone Really Like Pancakes?

By Angela Slezak

While working at a children’s magazine, I learned that if you want to make young boys happy, you should serve pancakes. Observing the world from my counter seat at Bob Evans, I don’t question this statement.

What I do question, however, is whether we actually like pancakes. How often do you see people eating pancakes without, at minimum, a smear of butter? More likely, though, you will see the pancakes covered in some type of syrup.

Do young boys really like pancakes? Or do they like syrup? Or, more accurately, when you offer pancakes, are you really just offering sugar?

Sugar Culture

Most articles you find online suggest Americans eat way too much added sugar. Sugar is in almost every processed product that we eat. The only way to avoid excess sugar in an American diet is to home cook all food.

As sugar addict myself, I know the many ways one can have a sugar boost without having to call it dessert. Pancakes with syrup are just one way. Oatmeal and waffles are also usually served with sugar. Breakfast cereals have improved over time but in my youth were openly sugar products (and often with a prize inside)! After Coke, I consider breakfast “cereals” that are boxed sugar to be pure marketing genius.

Peanut butter and jelly was once prepared for me by my mother as lunch. Out of nostalgia and respect for my mother, I continue to consider it a regular meal. Interestingly, my stay-at-home mother was a fantastic cook making homemade meals daily. It surprises me now that she prepared peanut butter and jelly for lunch except that it was convenient and it’s what others did (which was of some importance to her).

Ice Cream

What’s also of fascination to me is the emotional excitement that occurs with ice cream, which from my experience is much different than what occurs with other sugary desserts.

When you reject a brownie, as I do more often now, it is acceptable. Reject ice cream and you are seen as some sort of freak (not suggesting, of course, that I’m not a freak but not because I don’t eat much ice cream). Milk, which is the basis of ice cream, has a strong emotional thread to our infancy and then to an American childhood. When I was young, it was unacceptable to dislike milk as it was considered so healthy, the stuff of like, that you would die without it.

Allergies to the rescue

Today, allergies are so prevalent that it might be okay to dislike milk as we can now accept that individuals require particular diets that suit their constitutions. Maybe allergies are teaching us that we can’t all eat the same diet.

Maybe, too, allergies are telling us something about the environment. Like many, I’m stunned by how so many children are now allergic to so many food items, and some of those allergies are deadly.

The concept that individuals have particular constitutions with slightly varying dietary needs is well understood in the Eastern medical traditions. This is one of those instances where our Western scientific method takes us back to what was understood in Eastern medicine thousands of years ago.

Potentially, too, our food processing and modification is causing some issues, such as the allergies many now have to wheat.

Everyone likes sugar

Science has demonstrated that we all like sugar.

“Sugar is a deep, deep ancient craving,” said Daniel Lieberman, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University and author of “The Story the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease.”

When we eat sugar we feel good. When we give pancakes to our children, they feel good. Feeling good is, you know, good.

I wonder, too, how much we provide sugar to others so they feel good about us.

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Are We at the End of Talking?

By Angela Slezak

As is usual at the movie theater before the movie is shown, there are previews and then the message for the audience to turn off their cell phones. Some of the messages ask, too, that the audience refrain from texting.

I suddenly realized, while at the theater recently, how much had changed in the last 15 years. Fifteen years ago I saw a lot of movies as my friends at the time loved to go to the movie theater. Back then, in what now feels like eons ago, the pre-movie messages asked the audience not to talk during the movie. And no matter how many “don’t talk” messages were presented, there was always talking.

There are no more messages about talking, only messages about cell phones.

Did we stop talking?

Phones end talking

The irony is that phones are meant for talking and now that we have them on us 24 hours a day, we talk less. Someone had the clever idea of attaching your computer to your phone and the computer won our attention.

Smart phones with constant streams of images and information are clearly distracting. In the theater, they now distract us from talking.

Or was talking just a different distraction?

When I tell people about attending silent meditation retreats, many are amazed that people can sit, walk and eat in a group for days and not talk. But it’s clear we all do it now. See, it’s not that difficult. We’ve all seen groups of people in public who are together but all looking at their phones.

Will cell phones end talking? Have we entered a communication black hole that will throw us into a different, silent universe at the other end of the galaxy?

One meaning of the tai chi symbol is that energy in extreme becomes its opposite. Our extreme communication seems to have led to less communication, at least by talking.

While talking may have decreased, visual imagery has increased exponentially. If talking ends, will we communicate by emoji? Or will I just look at you with deep emotion in my eyes that communicates without intermediary?

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Books are People Too!

By Angela Slezak

At a party recently, I happened upon a guest who was being admonished for the T-shirt she was wearing. A bunny sat reading a book with the caption, “Books are like people, except interesting.”

As a “people” I can see why the other guest was, if not offended, at least guiding the book-loving guest toward social norms. Announcing at a party that people are boring isn’t the best way to “make friends and influence people,” as Dale Carnegie teaches.

As a book lover, I also have a certain understanding of the message. For me, the T-shirt simply said, “I love to read.” That’s trigger for my interest and this guest and I had a nice, long discussion on the types of books we read. I found her interesting. Did she find me interesting? I can’t say.

But I do know that going to a party and talking about books and some of my other favorites subjects like history and politics make me “serious” and, I have accepted by extension, boring. Once while expounding on a favorite subject at two in the morning at Bob Evans after the bars closed, I looked up and saw a pleading look on my companion’s face – “shut up” it said. I did.

So we book readers sometimes find light conversation boring and in return they find our book and study interests boring. We don’t all share the same interests, of course. But those who continually read generally have some topic that they want to process in conversation.

One person’s boring is another person’s interesting.

Books are people too

What’s interesting to analyze here is the statement that books are more interesting than people when it’s people that write books.

This subject has come to mind to me in our “FaceyTweet” (term stolen from a recent birthday card) world. Much of our communication today is brief and disconnected from a larger topic or conversation. People still read books which are, in contrast, extended stories, extended conversations.

Recently I discovered a new author and environmentalist and am reading a book of his essays. I’m on page 284 and feel a strong connection with the author and am highly inspired both by his ideas and writing style. I might find this same connection in the people around me, but it can take awhile to engage others in a way to get to this type of conversation.

Yet occasionally I engage new faces in long conversations, especially when there’s an interest in common or that person can educate me on his/her interests. Those around generally find it odd and I have the socially unacceptable feeling of hogging a person’s time.

Book readers, I propose, don’t dislike people. They just prefer people who can engage in extended, cogent conversations on a shared area of interest. As with all people, book lovers are looking for connection even though it may seem otherwise when they are ignoring you behind a book or a T-shirt that suggests they’d rather be reading a book.

Secret reading

When young, my interests drove me to read material way past my education level but I slogged through them because of my need to understand. Authoritarian states and cults were of great interest to me both then and now. In 1983, my 16-year old lunch companions couldn’t understand why I was reading a book titled 1984. So I hid a lot of what I read. In a way, I still do.

Possibly my secret reading and interest in cults have a connection – the social environment, at least in this country, responds quite negatively to introversion and independent study, regardless of the number of degrees we confer upon the populace.

In college, I had a friend who said I was her “intellectual friend.” Wouldn’t everyone in college be an intellectual friend?

Had I been born male, I think I wouldn’t have had to read secretly. Young girls reading about cults and thought control in Mao’s China is quite odd, at least where and when I was raised. As a boy it might have been considered odd too, but I seem to recall boys reading a lot about war history and these topics might have been considered extensions of that interest.

Talking to book people

Talking to book people can be tricky because you don’t know in what area topics of interest lie. However, book people in my experience (which is definitely biased), have lots of interests as one book leads to another.

Book people, in talking about books, are generally talking about ideas. Idea conversations seem far removed from the here and now which is why some don’t like this type of conversation. You’re talking about something that’s not “real.”

Books are written by people so book lovers do find people interesting. A better T-shirt might be “What are you reading?” Then book lovers and party goers with something in common can share interesting conversation.

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Business Language, Business Culture

By Angela Slezak

In 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected president and promised a “revolution,” my pre-teen brain was already cynical. Sure, a revolution, I thought. Every politician is going to change all that’s bad into all that’s good. Revolution was the usual campaign fodder.

In 2008 as the economy collapsed, I realized that Reagan was true to his word. He did seed a revolution both politically and economically that has become the fabric of our culture.

What was the revolution?

The revolution, I believe, was to sanctify greed under the cover of business. As was broadcast during the recent US election, since 1980 the incomes of the top one percent has grown much more substantially than the other 90 percent.

Greed is a word that seems to have been retired, like the 8-track tape. Bigger is better so there is no sense of overextension, except in the area of food. The 1980s also brought bigger portions with lots of corn syrup and most Americans today struggle to maintain healthy weight. We struggle with high-caloric food abundance but never translate this into other areas of our lives.

Children as Assets

This topic rises to the top of my mind again after hearing an NPR interview after the recent Florida school shooting. Interviewed was GOP Senator Mike Rounds of South Dakota. Upon being asked, “What if anything should Congress be doing about mass shootings?” he replied:

You know, I think number one, you have to recognize that our most valuable assets are our kids.

Valuable assets?

Why must we preface protecting children from assassination by first stating they are “valuable assets?”
Is it not enough to want to protect children because, simply, they are children?

Business language is now the lingua franca in the US and it even extends to the lives of children. This week my cynical mind had relief as I heard another politician refer to children as precious.

Yes, precious, not assets. Why couldn’t Senator Rounds simply say that children were precious?

Paul Kingsnorth

While I was stewing over the comment “children as assets,” the universe placed another cynicism-relieving voice my way. While in the bookstore soothing my overworked soul with impulse book buying, I came across Confessions of a Reformed Environmentalist.

While I haven’t finished all the essays, it’s nice to hear a strong voice who can argue convincingly that the environment should be saved simply because it’s the environment. In his essays, Kingsnorth explains how the environmental movement shifted from protecting the environment to protecting humans, meaning protecting our current human way of life. In that way, the environment is viewed as an asset to be protected and “sustainability” means assuring the ability to live in the future as we do now.

What’s refreshing about Kingsnorth is both his intelligence and courage in saying that his connection to the environment is enough to want to save it. He’s resisting the language of business culture which must justify saving trees under a, what I will call, return on investment model.

Feelings are suspect in a business culture and Kingsnorth addresses that head on by not only busting the myth that humans are rational, but also by explaining that feeling is what makes life “life.” In other essays, he shares his love and awe of the environment.

Off the ledge

While I know that most of those around me love life, their families and the environment, somehow business culture still dominates so we are coerced into justifying basic life premises with business return on investment models.

Our business model is based on a paradigm of continual, positive growth. Personally I don’t believe this is sustainable and corporate America becomes unduly stressed. Everyone today seems to have irritable bowel syndrome which I like to call “American Food Syndrome.” Possibly I should label it “American Stress Syndrome.”

Kingsnorth in his essays quotes late economist Leopold Kohr who reflected on bigness saying, “instead of growth serving life, life must now preserve growth, perverting the very purpose of existence.” We are there.

No one I know would consider their children to be assets. Yet, we are still caught in the continual growth cycle which allows us wonderful tools and assets, but precious little time to enjoy them.

My own observation has been we are destroying the environment to create the optimal indoor experience from homes to cars and all of the distractions that keep us in them. I find that odd.

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Donald Trump is a Kitten

By Angela Slezak

As soon as I put my gym bag on the floor, my new seven-month old kitten was sitting on it, playing with the straps. I could scold him, but for some reason he thinks it’s just more fun, me chasing him with a spray bottle or piece of paper. Playing with the bag is fun, being chased for doing it is even more fun.

When I kick the spiral toy out of my way in the kitchen, we’re playing soccer. All objects on the kitchen table are fun to push onto the floor. Napkins and toilet paper are the best fun around as you can unravel them then roll around in them on the floor.

Furniture, that’s a launching pad for attack on the other members of the household, two older females, one feline one not. Stalking is also easier with furniture barricades.

How do I explain to this good-natured, playful kitten that walking on the table is very, very bad and I’m very, very serious when I say don’t do it?

The flawless flow of the household has been aggressively disrupted by this ten-pound ball of fur. Doesn’t this kitten understand it took years to develop that perfect set of habits that assures optimal use of time and resources? His “playful” actions are upsetting the entire routine.

As Napoleon Dynamite would say, “Kitten, you’re ruining my life!”

This Sounds Familiar

Thinking of the disruption of my life by the energy of a new feline brings to mind our president, Donald Trump. Like my kitten, he’s a disruptor.

Metaphorically speaking, Trump has knocked things off the table, ruined the furniture and rolled in the toilet paper all the while acting like it’s the best fun he’s ever had. Like my kitten, he doesn’t understand that for those disrupted, this is serious business; this is real. You may not need toilet paper, but I do.

“Trump, you’re ruining my life!”

In response to Trump, there has been great polarization. The positive side of polarization is that is activates dormant issues that truly need to be resolved.

The negative side, clearly, is the waste of energy by people who choose to bait but have no true desire to find common ground. When this occurs, it’s a stealing of energy by what I call “psychic vampires.”

The Solution

Possibly for those disliking the Trump disruption, strategies I use for the kitten may be of use. The kitten’s playfulness is both his greatest asset and his greatest liability.

  1. Doors – In order to keep the kitten from disrupting activities that might truly cause harm (like getting stuck behind the washing machine), doors are useful. I simply close the door and the disruption ceases. While shutting someone out seems an avoidance of issues, don’t underestimate the power to cut the disruptor off at the pass. Possibly the wall Trump has promised can be built a few thousand miles north of its original location.
  2. Distraction – Playfulness as a liability means that I simply need to toss a squeaky or jingly toy to an area away from the center of activity and off the kitten goes. He’s a smart kitten but this is his kryptonite. He can’t resist. This clearly works for Trump as well although he seems to use it in reverse, to keep his detractors away from the center of activity.
  3. Sleep time – While a kitten doesn’t sleep much, it’s still a great time to do things that don’t create a lot of kitten-stimulating noise. I’m not sure how much Trump sleeps, but possibly late-night sessions with whispering can help those that want to progress in a somewhat straight line achieve some forward motion.

Laser Focus

Those with cats may know that they enjoy playing “laser.” You point a laser pointer at the wall and floor and they run after it. At first I felt a bit guilty about this as there’s no way to catch the laser so it seems kind of cruel. The cats seem to know in some way they will never catch the laser but never tire of the chase which removed my guilt. They like it and it helps them burn off some of their hunter energy.

In a way, we all are chasing after laser points, ephemeral and non-existent images projected before us so that we go running. Like cats, we never seem to tire of the chase no matter that we never catch the dot.

Trump the disruptor seems to have created a world of laser pointers projecting red dots over all the walls and floors. Trump is both the kitten chasing dots and the owner projecting them. He seems to chase his own dots.

Trump is a kitten – a kitten who got a hold of the laser.

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