The comfort of sad songs

I used to be a very moody person. Tempered by age, a lot of hard work, the love and patience of my nearest and dearest, a major career change, and the pharmaceutical industry (hey, don’t knock it; Prozac changed my life), I am a fairly happy, easy to get along with person.

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We all have bad days, but I handle roadblocks much better than I used to, and little things don’t trip me up as much. I still have bouts of anxiety. I’ll always hate parties.

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My ideal party is me, cats, a hot beverage, and books, or a good cooking competition on television. And Bob. Bob can attend. And Einstein, the dog. He can come too.

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But I still love sad songs and melancholy singer-songwriters. Why? There’s something about singing along with a sad song and getting a little teary eyed; there’s no feeling like it that I can describe.

I was reminded of this at a party (by which I mean, eating dinner in front of television with Bob and the animals). We were watching season 3 episode 4 of the HBO series The Leftovers.

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This season (the final) has been mind blowing. The writing, acting, the crazy plot turns, the unpredictability, and the use of music all leave me feeling stunned at the end of each episode. The series is based on the book of the same name by Tom Perrotta, published in 2011, chronicling life for the surviors, or leftovers, after a rapture-like event takes some (referred to as The Departed) and leaves others behind.

 

The opening music is different each episode, and sets the tone for the show to come. Episode 4, entitled “G’day Melbourne”, has Kevin and Nora travelling to Australia. The song that plays over the opening credits is a sad song, “This Love is  Over” by Ray LaMontagne.

 

I got a bad feeling about where this was headed!

Here is Ray LaMontagne performing the song with the Pariah Dogs.

 

And I was right. The episode ends with Nora sitting alone in a burning hotel room while the fire sprinklers rain on her, to the seemingly odd strains of “Take On Me” by A-HA (there’s a story to the choice of music here too but I digress).

 

 

In my head, the Ray LaMontagne song took over, combined with the imagery of Nora with water dripping from her profile. The song obsessed me. A giant ear worm ate my brain. I have a thing with ear worms. They keep me awake at night and I start to think I am going crazy. Ray LaMontagne is now on an endless repeat loop on my iPhone music and in my head.

What is it about sad songs and heartbreak that consume me, an otherwise happy person? Richard Thompson, another notable sad song guy, said “It’s fun to sing sad songs. And it’s fun to listen to sad songs. Enjoyable. Satisfying. Something.”

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“Even when I’m in quite a happy state of mind, I like writing really sad songs. I think a lot of people do.” This is from Ellie Goulding, a singer I never heard of until I started working on this post. But she apparently is into sad songs.

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Natalie Imbruglia: “I like singer-songwriters, and I find sad songs comforting rather than depressing. It makes you realise you’re not alone in the world.

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So it’s not just me. And it’s not just songs. It’s books and movies, too. Happy endings are great, believe me. I’ve admitted my love of Hallmark Channel movies. But I love a good cry too. West Side Story. I’ve seen it so many times, the film and staged versions. I cry every time. I hope that the ending will be different every time. But it never is. Chino still shoots Tony and Tony still dies in Maria’s arms. And I watch it again. And cry.

 

 

All you have to do is mention the movie title All Mine to Give (1957) to my sister Ellen, and she will start to tear up. I think the only explanation needed is that the British title is The Day They Gave Babies Away.

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A book title that will do the same to me is Child of My Heart (2002), about 15-year old Theresa and her younger cousin Daisy, who is 8 and ill. It’s a lovely book. I rarely use the word poignant, but I will here for Child of My Heart.

 

Opera is always tragic. NPR, in their 2006 April Fools Day story, did a piece on making opera happy (One Man’s Sad Goal? Make Opera Happy). I still remember sitting in my car listening to an interview with a (fictional) Hamilton Banks, who wants to rewrite operas so that Madame Butterfly doesn’t kill herself, Mimi is cured of TB in La Bohème, Don Juan is born again and repents. It took me a minute or two to realize this was a joke story. But it just wouldn’t be the same, opera with happy endings, would it?

According to Paul Thagard in Psychology Today

On reflection, I realized that the emotional impact of music does not come from imparting particular emotions, but rather from being emotionally engaging in general. Sometimes sad songs do you make you feel bad if they revive memories of your own tragic times, but more often they engage your interest because they describe or convey important events in the lives of others. Such emotional engagement is also important in other forms of art, including tragic drama such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet, stirring paintings such as Picasso’s Guernica, and thrilling movies…

All of these songs combine original music, appropriate lyrics, and superb performances to evoke intense emotions. So it does not matter whether a song is happy or sad, only whether it has an emotional impact on the listeners. People are happy to like sad songs, just not boring ones.

Then there is the theory of downward social comparison (you know, that thought that as bad as things are, there’s someone out there worse off than you). This is from David Nield of Science Alert:

In terms of social psychology, one way of thinking about this is that we feel better about ourselves if we focus on someone who’s doing even worse, a well-known process known as downward social comparison. Everything’s going to be okay, because Thom Yorke is having an even worse day than you are.

I don’t know who Thom Yorke is, but I feel bad for him! Thagard goes on to describe the neuroscience theory as well:

Some scientists think melancholy music is linked to the hormone prolactin, a chemical which helps to curb grief. The body is essentially preparing itself to adapt to a traumatic event, and when that event doesn’t happen, the body is left with a pleasurable mix of opiates with nowhere else to go.

Thanks to brain scans, we know that listening to music releases dopamine – a neurotransmitter associated with food, sex, and drugs – at certain emotional peaks, and it’s also possible that this is where we get the pleasure from listening to sad tunes.

My favorite resource for these things, The Greater Good Science Center, also published an article on this phenomenon, and they connect it to both empathy and brain chemistry.

Tear-jerkers such as Adele’s Someone Like You frequently top the charts these days, while gloomy classical compositions like Mozart’s Requiem have moved people for centuries. Both portray and bring about a strong sense of loss and sadness. But our enjoyment of sad music is paradoxical—we go out of our way to avoid sadness in our daily lives. So why is it that, in the arts, themes such as loss can be safely experienced, profoundly enjoyed, and even celebrated?

The research adds to a body of work suggesting that music appreciation involves social cognition. People sensitive and willing to empathize with the misfortune of another person—in this case represented by the sad music—are somehow rewarded by the process. There are a number of theories about why that is.

The reward could be purely biochemical. We have all experienced the feeling of relief and serenity after a good cry. This is due to a cocktail of chemicals triggered by crying. A recent theory proposes that even a fictional sadness is enough to fool our body to trigger such an endocrine response, intended to soften the mental pain involved in real loss. This response is driven by hormones such as oxytocin and prolactin, which actually induce the feelings of comfort, warmth and mild pleasure in us. This mix of hormones is probably particularly potent when you take the actual loss and sadness out of the equation—which you can often do in music-induced sadness.

It is also possible that the effect is mainly psychological, where those who allow themselves to be emotionally immersed in the sad music are simply exercising their full emotional repertoire in a way that is inherently rewarding. The capacity to understand the emotions of others is crucial for navigating the social world we live in, and therefore exercising such an ability is likely to be rewarding—due to its evolutionary significance.

They used the phrase that so often comes to mind in this regard–a good cry. There is a Yiddish proberb “A good cry lightens the heart.”

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There are lots of articles on why crying is good for you, emotionally and physically.

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Check out Aging Care on why it’s good for you to cry:

  1. It Relieves Stress
    Because unalleviated stress can increase our risk for heart attack and damage certain areas of our brain, humans’ ability to cry has survival value, Frey says.
  2. Crying Lowers Blood Pressure
    Crying has been found to lower blood pressure and pulse rate immediately following therapy sessions during which patients cried and raged.
  3. Tears Remove Toxins
    In addition, Frey says tears actually remove toxins from the body. Tears help humans remove chemicals that build up during emotional stress.
  4. It Reduces Manganese
    The simple act of crying also reduces the body’s manganese level, a mineral which affects mood and is found in up to 30 times greater concentration in tears than in blood serum.
  5. Emotional Crying Means You’re Human
    While the eyes of all mammals are moistened and soothed by tears, only human beings shed tears in response to emotional stress. Emotional expression acknowledges the feelings you’re having. Emotions motivate us to empathize, coordinate and work as a unit to best survive.

Good news for women, and bad for men: on average, women cry 47 times per year and men only 7. Hey guys, instead of that action flick, try watching Steel Magnolias. It’ll be good for you!

 

And now I am wondering about the whole “tears of joy” thing; why do we cry when we are happy? But I don’t have time for that now. I have a party to go to, with Child of My Heart, Ray LaMontagne on my playlist, a cat, a cup of tea, and a box of tissues.

Have a good cry!

P.S. If you haven’t seen The Leftovers season 3 episode 5, “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World”, OMG! There’s the whole Frasier the Lion thing that is based on a real story. I am still reeling over the episode (a lion eats a man claiming to be God; I mean, this is serious stuff). And there is a song, lyrics by Johnny Mercer and sung by Sarah Vaughan, to go with it. In the words of Bob’s mother, “It’s a weirdy!”

 

And that reminds me of another sad song, Tears for Fears’ 1982 “Mad World”, as covered  by Gary Jules for the film Donnie Darko (2001). Sigh, I am in a never-ending loop here and I only have so many tissues. G’bye!

 

The swollen ego of the introvert and the romantic notion of (university) life

“The swollen ego of the introvert”–that’s not my line, although I wish I could say it was. Credit goes to Thomas Wolfe. When I read the words, they stuck with me all through my work day, and have brought me to reflect on being on an introvert and someone who lives a little too much in my own head. Thomas Wolfe will do that to you.

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In Part 3, Chapter 28 of Look Homeward, Angel (yes, I am still reading and writing about this book; it’s long!), Eugene Gant starts at university when he is not quite yet 16 years old. I was not quite 18 when I went to college the first time; the description of Eugene sounds a lot like how I remember myself. (Plus the fact that we both left alcoholic households with little money to spare.) Really, it sounds like me when I started at university most recently, just 1-1/2 years ago and in my 50s.

“He was a child when he went away: he was a child who had looked much on pain and evil, and he remained a fantasist of the Ideal. Walled up in his great city of visions, his tongue had learned to mock, his lips to sneer, but the harsh rasp of the world had worn no grooving in the secret life. Again and again he had been bogged down in the gray slough of factuality. His cruel eyes had missed the meaning of no gesture, his packed and bitter heart had sweltered in him like a hot ingot, but all his hard wisdom melted at the glow of his imagination. He was not a child when he reflected, but when he dreamt he was; and it was the child and the dreamer that governed his belief. He belonged, perhaps, to an older and simpler race of men: he belonged with the Mythmakers. For him, the sun was a lordly lamp to light him on his grand adventuring. He believed in brave heroic lives. He believed in the fine flowers of tenderness and gentleness he had little known. He believed in beauty and in order, and that he would wreak out their mighty forms upon the distressful chaos of life. He believed in love…”

Eugene has a rought start at university life. I can empathize! He enters with a romantic notion of the university and student life, much like I did. My dream had been to go to an East Coast university with ivy-covered brick buildings. My ultimate college-of-choice at the time was Mount Holyoke. I’d never been to Massachusetts, and I don’t really know why I thought a women’s college would be good for me. Maybe because boys had always ignored me as a quiet and scholarly high-schooler, so I figured who needs ’em? But needless to say, I didn’t go.

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“Eugene’s first year at the university was filled for him with loneliness, pain, and failure…”

“…His conception of university life was a romantic blur, evoked from his reading and tempered with memories of Stover at Yale, Young Fred Fearnot, and jolly youths with affectionate linked arms, bawling out a cheer-song…”

“He was alone, he was desperately lonely.”

(Young Fred Fearnot was a character of dime novels of the early 20th century. Stover at Yale is a novel by Owen Johnson that F. Scott Fitzgerald called the textbook of his generation.)

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The description of “the unbalanced vision, the swollen egotism of the introvert” invokes,  to me, the constant feeling of self-sonsciousness and the fear of looking stupid. I feel that way so much of the time.

I found an interesting article by Melissa Dahl in nymag.com about the self-preoccupation of introverts and the idea that maybe some of us who call ourselves introverts are really “undercover narcissists”. Introverts do like to read and talk about introversion! Psychologist Jonathan Cheek designed a scale for what he calls “hypersensitive narcissism”. I scored a 37/50; a score of 35 is considered high.

Dr. Cheek also has a scale for shyness. I scored 37 on that one too.

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Painting of Narcissus by Caravaggio, circa 1597.

Maybe my obsession with getting a good selfie is like Narcissus staring at his reflection in the water?

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Unlike in the above word cloud, I don’t think of myself as controlling, overconfident, inconsiderate, cocky, smug, cruel, or a jerk. At least I really hope I am none of those!  Please let me know if I am; I’ll work on fixing it. I prefer the introvert word cloud below.

 

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I am challenged on a daily basis by my job working with adopters at an animal shelter. For many years I worked in museums in art collection managment because, as I would joke but really meant, I would rather work with things than with people.

But it turns out I really like to work with animals, and in animal sheltering and adoptions, that means also working with people.

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Or cat. Or fish. Or whatever you’ve got. Human children rather than human adults will also work.

 

And it’s been good. I’ve met a few difficult types that I would prefer to hand off to another staff person (but I don’t; I grit my teeth and keep smiling and hoping for the best.)

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And I’ve met some amazing, warm, and wonderful people as well. Just last week I met a 10-year old girl who is either the daughter I was meant to have, me at age 10 if I hadn’t scored 37/50 on the shyness scale, or a messenger from the gods that the next generation might be able to make the changes the world needs. We sat cross-legged on the floor visiting the cat she (well, her dad signed the paperwork) ended up adopting. As she put it, she wasn’t adopting the cat so much as reuniting with her familiar. She was wearing a cat fabric dress. She took off her shoes so the cat would be more comfortable in her lap.We talked about books and dreams and music and animals. She hoped the cat would help her with her math homework. Meeting her was the highlight of my week and an auspicious beginning to a new year.

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This isn’t my young friend, but it is a cat helping with math!

Eventually, Eugene Gant becomes more active on campus and develops a reputation as a humorous eccentric. But under this outward image he is still the lonely, emotional, and sensitive man that maybe he will always be. (The novel takes him up to age 19.) I can do humorous eccentric too. Usually with strangers. That’s much easier than with people I know. And it serves me well in my job.

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For now, I’ll keep on smiling and enjoying what I do, going to school with unromantic notions of student life, and reading more Thomas Wolfe. As soon as I finish Look Homeward, Angel I have From Death to Morning, a book of 14 stories, in the queue.

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Until then, you can find me trying to get one of the cats to work out a budget for me. Math, meh.

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On Desolation Row (or, just shoot me before I have to go to another staff meeting)

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You’ve been to that meeting. You know. THAT meeting. The one where someone is standing at the front of the too hot/too cold/overcrowded/uncomfortable room reading a PowerPoint to the audience of zombies.

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You’ve made your shopping list. You’ve doodled so much you are out of ink or an empty millimeter of blank paper. You might have drifted off and checked that you’re not drooling. You wish you’d paid attention to that guy who told you how to sleep with your eyes open. You drank the Kool-Aid, I mean coffee, from the brown box of Peet’s coffee. (Note to leaders: The Coffee won’t make us love you or the meeting but please keep having it brought to the meetings anyway.) You’ve collected all of the words on your Buzzword Bingo card.

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And some almond milk would be awesome, thanks.

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Even though you are a peaceful and compassionate person, you’ve devised some horrific endings for the person up front droning on at that PowerPoint. Or for yourself.

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If this were an episode of The Office, it would be funny.

 

But this is real life, and you have better things to do with your precious time on this planet. As you are finally released and stumble into the hallway, you and your colleagues all whisper to each other about what a waste of time that was as NOTHING EVER CHANGES anyway.

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There is hope! Meetings can be seriously fun and productive. Just ask the people who practice Liberating Structures. I went to a 2-day workshop, the Bay Area Liberating Structures Immersion Workshop, held in Reidenbach Hall at the First Congregational Church of Oakland.

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Dr. Reidenbach, seventh pastor of the First Congregational Church of Oakland.

It was my first exposure to Liberating Structures (LS), but I had heard of one of the structures, Open Space Technology, and liked the sound of it so I thought, why not?

Plus I am at the end of another semester in my doctoral program, taking an awesome class in Humanistic Foundations of Organizational Development (see Life is Our Classroom). This seemed to fit right in, empowering groups to determine their purpose and direction.

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Your intrepid reporter, Day 1.

LS co-developers Keith McCandless and Henri Lipmanowicz were there, joined by Fisher Qua. They don’t call themselves facilitators, so I will just call them Keith, Henri, and Fisher. Everyone was using the American pronunciation Henry but I prefer the French:

 

 

So as not to be the person reading the PowerPoint, I am not going to go through the 2 days structure by structure as we learned about and practiced them. If you are really interested, check out Keith and Henri’s book, The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures: Simple Rules to Unleash a Culture of Innovation.

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Instead, I’ll highlight a few of my favorites. My absolute favorite was the Mad Tea Party, which isn’t on the LS matchmaker menu yet, but is a “structure in development”.

Our Mad Tea was subtitled A Nod to Bob Dylan; our open sentences we completed in rapid fire succession in our revolving circles of tea party pairs were based on the lyrics to Bob Dylan songs.

Well, thanks to a certain ex-husband, I know a lot more about Bob Dylan and lyrics to Bob Dylan songs than you might think. So that made it even more fun. I felt like I was in on a joke, which doesn’t happen very often. I kept waiting for the open sentence to be something like:

“Little red wagon, little red bike, I ain’t no monkey but I know____”. (From Buckets of Rain, Blood on the Tracks album, 1975).

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Some of the ones we were given included:

“All I really want to do is___”

“I’m all tangled up in___”

“If I gotta serve somebody, I’m gonna serve___”

“Beyond the horizon I see___”

It was all very rapid moving, which got my energy up. I am seriously an introvert. Most of those in the room who identified as introverts said they did not enjoy this activity. As a true introvert, I didn’t speak up about my experience, but I had a blast! I think the reason I liked it was I didn’t have to spend more than about 60 seconds with any one person; no small talk, just finish the sentence, move on down the circle. Maybe if I ever end up single again I’ll try speed dating!

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I did love Open Space Technology. The key is having enough people in the group who are willing to put their topics up in the Marketplace. We did 4 rounds, ranging from 30 to 60 minutes. For each round, I had about 6 sessions to choose from.

 

The four I picked were:

-Bringing Art and Movement in LIberating Structures

-Liberating Structures in the Classroom

-Surfing Sideways (meaning when things don’t go the way you think they will)

-LS at Your Worst, or LS with Yourself (for personal and family challenges)

You can tell it’s a seriously fun time when everyone leaves their notebooks, coffee, and sometimes even their phones at their chairs to jump in hands on, brain fully engaged.

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Me being me, a bonus of this expedition was exploring the old church during lunch and breaks. I don’t go to church, but there’s something cool about church buildings, especially old, musty ones.

I managed to sneak into the church kitchen (not hard, the door was wide open just off Reidenbach Hall). I want to cook there! (Vegan spaghetti dinner for 100, no problem!)

I also got to reconnect with Saybrook University colleague Jim Best, a local host for the Bay Area LIberating Structures group. He ran a Shift and Share session on using LS in virtual sessions, a reality of life.

There were times I felt a bit out of my element, but all of the other participants were warm and welcoming and eager to share and listen. The big question now for me: how do the people who need to be immersed in LS, the Michael Scotts and the PowerPoint readers, get there?

On a serious note, I’d like to end by pointing out that the church is collecting donations of items for the surviving victims and families of the Ghost Ship fire. Please find a way to help. Look for a reputable disaster relief fund or group and do what you can.

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Peace and hugs.