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Galen

In ancient medicine of Greece and Rome, aging was viewed as a disease. As a disease, it was thought that it could be “cured” or perhaps even prevented.

The most prolific of ancient writers on the topic is Aelius Galenus (129 AD – c. 200/c. 216), usually Anglicized as Galen and better known as Galen of Pergamon. He was a Greek physician, surgeon and philosopher in the Roman Empire.

Galen influenced the development of various scientific disciplines, including anatomy, physiology, pathology, pharmacology, and neurology, as well as philosophy and logic.

Galen did not see aging as a disease. In his treatise Hygiene, we find the only surviving classical study of gerontology which Galen viewed as a natural process.

During the three centuries from Homer to Hippocrates, views of human aging and longevity evolved in a socio-cultural sense. The physicians of that time began to believe that the aging process could be influenced by natural factors, such as environmental influences and lifestyle.

It was radical to think that an individual has any choice in health and aging  when beliefs in the primacy of the supernatural, and that the gods could predestine one’s life. Could you defy the gods by changing your diet?

I don’t expect readers to dig into Galen’s Hygiene , but I found a number of articles about it online and about his views of aging. Some of those views still make sense today.

Galen’s understanding of medicine was influenced by the then-current theory of humorism. The Four Humors were black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm. That theory goes back to ancient Greek physicians such as Hippocrates.

A more modern term we might attach to Galen’s approach would be to say he thought of ageing holistically. His writing shows that he thought this lifelong process had a number of stages. Three of those stages were crucial to health and a longer life: the first seven years of life, maturity and old age proper.

He also believed that rather than a generalized approach, a person’s aging path is highly individual. There are many possible health outcomes at each stage.

He believed that those first seven years were the basis for a robust old age.

I dipped into a library copy of the biography The Prince of Medicine and learned that Galen’s theories dominated and influenced Western medical science for more than 1,300 years.

When he wrote Hygiene, he was at the peak of his career, as physician to the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.

He was not totally “modern” in his views. He did adhere to the concept of humours which was based on bodily fluids. He believed in the curative properties of “divinely-inspired” dreams. He developed treatments based on herbs and spices, which he tested on fellow physicians. Some of those would be viewed today as questionable, while some are probably still used.

In his time, there was a religious taboo on the dissection of corpses. Galen studied anatomy through skeletons exposed in flooded cemeteries, and while treating the wounds of gladiators. He was known for some rather gruesome anatomical demonstrations on animals, such as public vivisections of live Barbary macaques (monkeys) to demonstrate the function of nerves.

Galen is thought to have lived to age 80 – a long life in that time. What would be Galen’s “anti-aging” regime?

He advocated walking and moderate running.

He saw health benefits of a simple diet involving gruel (oat, wheat or rye flour, or rice, boiled in water or milk), raw honey, vegetables and fowl.

He suggests as suitable for the elderly, “yellow wines… always choose the thinnest in consistency.”

He was not a proponent of the strong purges and bloodletting of that time, but encouraged gentle massage for kidney and bladder problems.

He would have appreciated the modern approach to preventative

Hygiene became part of the Western medical curriculum by 500 AD. His output was prodigious. He may have produced more work than any author in antiquity, rivaling Augustine of Hippo. In fact, his surviving texts represent nearly half of all the extant literature from ancient Greece.

It was said that Galen employed twenty scribes to write down his approximately 500 treatises, amounting to some 10 million words. About 3 million words survive today.

 

When I was working and teaching at NJIT, I learned about reverse engineering, also called back engineering. It is the process by which a man-made object is deconstructed to reveal its designs, architecture, or to extract knowledge from the object.

I had also learned earlier in my teaching about backward design which is a method of designing educational curriculum by setting goals before choosing instructional methods and forms of assessment.  That seems very logical but in reality much curriculum is done is the “regular” order rather than reverse.

For example, a teacher knows there will be mid-term and final exams. You have a textbook that determines the course content and you always lecture on the fifteen chapters you plan to use.  Your goals? They may not even be clear or stated. If goals ever emerge, it will be a factor of the design, not part of the design.

I’m wondering if those two approaches can be used for non-academic and non-engineering events in our lives. Could you use this “in reverse” approach to do something like a job search?

When you are facing a deadline or you are starting out on something big, you probably approach it by planning from the beginning and then working your way forward. Step one, step two and so on.

Some colleges use backward planning with students to help students reach their goals. Though there are suggested ways to do this, the idea is simple: start with your end goal and then work your way backwards from there to develop a plan of action.

If the goal is to get a new job, what would be the previous step? The interview? Maybe, but thinking backwards, perhaps it is the job offer. Do you have in mind what salary, benefits and work conditions you would accept?

Some of the research on reverse planning has shown enhanced student motivation and perception, and also changed the actual outcome by improving student grades.

In the end, if you look at backwards and forwards plans tend to look pretty similar, but the process in each is what differs.

When you focus on the end goal, you use your imagination to think of future events as if they already happened. This can help you visualize the steps you need to take. Researchers refer to this as “future retrospection” and it can increase our anticipation of pleasure from achieving our goal.

So…
Start with the end goal
Outline clear steps
Focus on the process
Visualize a positive outcome

That last step is probably the oddest one. When you visualize a positive outcome, like getting that job offer, you can feel closer to that goal than if you focus on all the steps to come and all the problems that might occur.

It sounds so simple. The first time I thought about visualizing a positive outcome to a goal, it felt a bit like believing in magic. It made me think of guided imagery, a technique that I tried unsuccessfully many years ago. It is not the same thing, but they do share the optimistic and positive approach of starting with the notion that you will reach your goal.

People want the quick fix. That’s why short-term diets and five-minute self-help plans are always popular. I would say that in almost all these cases, quick fixes are not great fixes.  But I read this week about recent research on people who deal with anxiety may experience psychological and physiological benefits from a single introductory mindfulness meditation session.

It is a small study, but after participating in an hour-long guided intro session to mindfulness meditation, the participants with high levels of anxiety experienced lower resting heart rates and other cardiovascular risk markers. They self-reported feeling less anxious than at the start of the study.

Maybe more importantly, a week later, the participants still reported anxiety levels that were lower than the levels pre-meditation.

All that from a single mindfulness meditation session. Imagine what a regular practice might accomplish.

Mindfulness means being aware of where you are, what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it, withholding judgment, and paying specific attention to breath.

The study I read about had participants meditate for 20 minutes before being led through a 30-minute “body scan” (similar to progressive muscle relaxation). They concluded with 10 minutes of self-guided meditation.

Lately, I’m reading more about “revised meditation.” There are methods that don’t involve sitting motionless on a pillow for hours. In one approach, you just find moments of gratitude and awareness in your day.

Though I may still be somewhat doubtful of a quick fix, I would agree that if you can get in a few minutes every day of mediation in some form, you will benefit.

If meditation just doesn’t work for you, you can do some everyday tasks more mindfully It may sound silly, but you can meditate while you eat. Mindful eating means slowing down, paying attention to your food, and listening to your body.

As a seeker, I have gone down many roads. One thing I’ve decided traveling all those roads is that it is you are primarily responsible for what you get in life.

I have found that certain mottoes or mantras or whatever you want to call them talk about this idea. I have found this in religions and self-help books. It’s a wide range.

I don’t advocate the  idea that you can  visualize what you want from life, though that certainly will be an appealing way to attract followers. I’m also don’t buy into the law of attraction.

So many of these approaches involve thinking positively, and having a positive attitude is certainly better than having a negative one. The more scientific (or psychological) version of this is something I encountered when I was “in therapy.” That is cognitive restructuring. Right off, let me say that this helped me, but it was not enough on its own. It was a tool in the toolbox.

I have also seen this called cognitive reframing. I don’t have the degrees to explain all this properly but this technique is part of cognitive therapy. My doctor wanted me to identify and then change thought patterns and beliefs that were causing stress and/or depression.

When I was depressed, I found everything meaningless. I had a very difficult time naming any things – food, places, activities – that I enjoyed or that I felt were really were important. At the time, that did not seem odd. Now, it seems very odd – and sad.

The doctor wanted me to keep a journal, which is easy for me because I have been doing it most of life. I agree that writing our thoughts down is one way to take control of them. I do it currently with food as part of a diet I am following.

From my journal entries, the doctor observed that a lot of my anxiety seemed to come out of my imagined scenarios of situations that were really quite unlikely to happen. This observation made sense to me, but controlling or training my mind to think constructively and positively was difficult. It wasn’t working and I just could not believe that I could change things in my life by thinking differently about them.

I looked back at my journal from that period and found an entry that had the line “Reframe Your Negative Thoughts and Beliefs” written at the top.

Therapists like to turn your comments into questions. It is some kind of reflection technique. I was unhappy with my work life at that time.
“Why are you unhappy with your job,” he asked.
Well, for one thing, I’m making less money than my previous job.
“Do you equate happiness with financial status?”
No, but it would be nice to be paid what I think I am worth, and it would be great to get things I want and not worry about bills.

Then we would talk about what I might do to get a raise in salary or a promotion or even apply for other jobs that could give me what I was seeking. Of course, it was really about not just the money but feeling like my work was not valued in non-monetary ways too.

I had read back then that we have somewhere 10 and 20,000 thoughts per hour. This statistic freaked me out. Too too much thinking. In my insomniac nights (of which there were many in that period), I just could not turn off thoughts. Despite years of meditation training and practice, nothing worked.

This was a time before smartphones and early in the Internet days, but the therapist wanted me to tune out the news on TV and radio. (Probably more important today to do some tuning out, especially if you are anxious or depressed.) He suggested that I return to some print novels that I had loved earlier in life. But since most of us are online a lot (and you are online now reading this), and not everyone can afford or is willing to go into therapy, you can find websites with names like TheEmotionMachine.com and VeryWellMind.com that might get you started.

I can’t say that it did not help me, but I can’t say it was the action that pulled me out of that negative state. There were drugs, which I was opposed to at first, but seemed to help too. There were other changes in my life – some made by me, some made to my life by others.

Have you had any experience with this approach to making your life better?  Comments welcome.

Adults have been telling children to be mindful for generations, in the sense of them being more conscious or aware of something. Mindfulness, that mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, is at another level of awareness.

You can find a variety of definitions of mindfulness, but it is more associated with meditation and other practices and involves acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. It is used to combat stress, improve attention, and often used as a therapeutic technique as well as a spiritual and religious practice.

But is it something we can, or should, teach kids?

benefits: it increases optimism and happiness in classrooms, decreases bullying and aggression, increases compassion and empathy for others and helps students resolve conflicts.

Forbes magazine, an unlikely source, had an article on the benefits of meditation for children, which I don’t think is exactly the same thing as mindfulness.

Research on mindfulness for children is not as extensive as research on adults brains, but what I have seen is positive.

There certainly is no lack of articles online or books for parents and teachers on how-to mindfulness. If you read some of the popular books, such as I Am Peace: A Book of Mindfulness and Sitting Still Like a Frog: Mindfulness Exercises for Kids (and Their Parents)  or the more serious Mindfulness for Children, you will find suggestions and exercises that sound pretty similar.

One caveat: to teach mindfulness to a child (yours or others), you should practice it yourself.

For example, there are listening exercises where you focus on a single sound, such as a bell. It doesn’t have to be a special Zen bell or “singing bowl” but you want a long sustained tone that kids will listen to and signal when the sound disappears. Then you focus on all the other sounds surrounding you. As in meditation, it is hard for beginners to turn off all the “noise” of thoughts in their mind and clear it to focus on one single thing. This exercise does that with a literal thing first.

Another activity is to use your sense of smell as the focus. You give the child something fragrant. Not perfume or anything artificial – orange peel, a sprig of mint, a flower. Close your eyes, breathe in and focus only on the smell. Not quite aromatherapy, but a powerful thing to focus on.

Other activities to teach kids mindfulness focus on the other senses and, of course, on breathing. Following your breath is standard in mindfulness practices. With kids, you might have the child put a small object on their belly as they lie on the floor. They breathe in silence for a minute and watch how the object moves up and down. They observe their breath. One article suggests that you tell them that if any other thoughts come to them to turn the thoughts into bubbles and float them away.

I can imagine some parents or teachers saying ” How do i get them to sit or lie still and be silent?” Will mindfulness eliminate tantrums and make a hyperactive child calm? They may become calmer, but that was never an objective of mindfulness or meditation, though it may be a “side effect.”

On the leftbrainbuddha.com site, there are more activities there are some that I learned in adult classes. With kids, you might call this the “squish & relax” exercise. I learned it as a way to relax and it has helped me fall asleep. Lying down with eyes closed, you tense (squish) each muscle in your body starting with your toes and feet and moving up. You hold the muscle tight for a few seconds paying attention to how that feels, and then release. It relaxes the body and is a very real way to understand and be “in the present moment.”

, tighten the muscles in their legs all the way up to their hips, suck in their bellies, squeeze their hands into fists and raise their shoulders up to their heads. Have them hold themselves in their squished up positions for a few seconds, and then fully release and relax. This is a great, fun activity for “loosening up” the body and mind, and is a totally accessible way to get the kids to understand the art of “being present.”

Of course, you would hope these tools would be useful for a child who has trouble sleeping, concentrating on an activity or relaxing, but sharing these activities with your children or your students together is also a way to connect on a different level.

 

While in New York City last weekend and staying near The Battery end of Manhattan, I went out for my walk and decided to follow some of the path that Herman Melville would have traveled in his days there.

With an online walking tour as a guide, I set out. The place I wanted to really see was the Custom House where he worked as a customs inspector. I like to imagine him sneaking in some literary time between working on boring forms about tariffs.

Even with a guide, it can be confusing as there are several “Customs Houses” in the city.  One is the Federal Hall at 26 Wall Street that had been the U.S. capital until 1790 when that honor moved to Philadelphia and the building went back to housing the government of New York City. The building was razed with the opening of the current New York City Hall in 1812. You can see part of the original railing and balcony floor where Washington was inaugurated in the memorial there. The current classical building was built as the first purpose-built U.S. Custom House for the Port of New York and opened in 1842. A nice place to visit, but no connection to Melville.

In 1862, Customs moved to 55 Wall Street which is where Melville spent his time.  Now known as The First National City Bank Building, it rests upon the foundation and lower portion of The Merchants’ Exchange, built in 1842.

Melville’s wife’s family used their influence to obtain a position for him as customs inspector for the City of New York in 1866. This was a humble position, but with a decent salary. He held the post for 19 years. He had a reputation of being the only honest employee in a notoriously corrupt institution.

Though he never knew it, his position and income “were protected throughout the periodic turmoil of political reappointments by a customs official who never spoke to Melville but admired his writings: future US president Chester A. Arthur” (Olsen-Smith).

The basement vaults below Melville held millions of dollars of gold and silver as this was one of six United States Sub-Treasury locations at that time. .

The Merchants’ Exchange replaced the previous exchange which burned down in the Great Fire of New York in 1835

“…it’s worth pointing out that [Herman Melville] worked in [the New York Custom House] as a deputy customs inspector between 1866 and 1885. Nineteen years, and he never got a raise – four dollars a day, six days a week. He was by then a washed-up writer, forgotten and poor. I used to find this subject heartbreaking, a waste: the greatest living American author was forced to spend his days writing tariff reports instead of novels. But now, knowing what I know about the sleaze of the New York Custom House, and the honorable if bitter decency with which Melville did his job, I have come to regard literature’s loss as the republic’s gain. Great writers are a dime a dozen in New York. But an honest customs inspector in the Gilded Age? Unheard of.”
― Sarah Vowell, Assassination Vacation

Just prior to his Custom House days, his writing career was not very successful. His greatest sales had come from his earliest books of adventure and travel. His first book was Typee (1846), a highly romanticized account of his life among Polynesians. That best-seller allowed him to write a “sequel” Omoo (1847). These books gave him enough money to marry Elizabeth Shaw, daughter of a prominent Boston family,

Next, he got to write a novel not based on his own travel experiences. That novel was Mardi (1849), also a sea narrative but a very philosophical one. It didn’t sell at all. It wasn’t what readers expected (or wanted) from Melville. He went back to something closer to the earlier books with Redburn (1849). This story about life on a merchant ship was better received by reviewers. So was the next book about the hard life aboard a man-of-war, White-Jacket (1850). But the books did not bring enough money to sustain the family.

In the summer of 1850, Melville moved his growing family to Arrowhead farm in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. There he befriended fellow novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne. Melville dedicated Moby-Dick to Hawthorne. Melville started the novel in New York in 1850, but finished it in Pittsfield the following summer. But this great American novel was a commercial failure, and the reviews were mixed.

Just to give a sense of those literary times, along with Moby Dick was the publication of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and in 1855 Thoreau’s Walden and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

Melville was no longer a popular or well-known author and Pierre (1852) was at least partially a satire on the literary culture of the time – and not a best-seller. Either was his Revolutionary War novel Israel Potter (1855) which was first serialized in Putnam’s magazine but not well received by critics or readers as a book.

Melville published some excellent short fiction in magazines during this slow period: “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853), “The Encantadas” (1854), and “Benito Cereno” (1855) which were collected in 1856 as The Piazza Tales.

He wasn’t totally broke and in 1857 he traveled to England and did some lecture tours to earn money. He was reunited briefly with Hawthorne in England. He was also able to tour the Near East.

The last prose he would publish was the quite different and interesting novel, The Confidence-Man (1857).

“Where does any novelist pick up any character? For the most part, in town, to be sure. Every great town is a kind of man-show, where the novelist goes for his stock, just as the agriculturist goes to the cattle-show for his.
The Confidence Man

With money running out, they left the farm and returned to New York so he could take a position as Customs Inspector. They moved to Allan Melville’s house at 104 East 26th Street, for which they traded their Pittsfield farm.

Melville turned to poetry. That first year at the Customs House he published Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War which contains his poems on moral questions about the American Civil War.

Probably he had given up on the novels due to the poor sales and reviews. Publishers probably weren’t interested either. But I think the trips abroad had an influence on his thinking and I can see him sneaking in some poetry at lunch and breaks from Customs House work at his desk as he walked and maybe stopped coffee houses around Wall Street.

“… the New York guidebooks are now vaunting of the magnitude of a town, whose future inhabitants, multitudinous as the pebbles on the beach, and girdled in with high walls and towers, flanking endless avenues of opulence and taste, will regard all our Broadways and Bowerys as but the paltry nucleus to their Nineveh. From far up the Hudson, beyond Harlem River where the young saplings are now growing, that will overarch their lordly mansions with broad boughs, centuries old; they may send forth explorers to penetrate into the then obscure and smoky alleys of the Fifth Avenue and Fourteenth Street; and going still farther south, may exhume the present Doric Custom-house, and quote it as a proof that their high and mighty metropolis enjoyed a Hellenic antiquity.”
― Herman Melville, Redburn: His First Voyage

I made a stop at 54 Pearl Street, which would have been Fraunces Tavern in Melville’s time. It’s not here anymore, so I had to imagine him at what was described as “a slightly rundown tavern and meeting place.” At numbers 58 and 62, you get a glimpse of what he would describe as “grimlooking warehouses.”

Along Pearl Street was Coenties Slip, a man-made inlet, now filled in and making up parts of Water, Front and South Street. Melville knew the area as a boy, and wrote in Redburn:  “…somewhere near ranges of grim-looking warehouses, with rusty iron doors and shutters, and tiled roofs; and old anchors and chain-cables piled on the walk. Old-fashioned coffee-houses, also, much abound in that neighborhood, with sun-burnt sea-captains going in and out, smoking cigars, and talking about Havana, London, and Calcutta.”

This could not have been a happy time for Melville and his family. In 1867, his oldest child Malcolm died at home from a self-inflicted gunshot, which may have been an accident or may have been suicide.

He publishes Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land in 1876, a long and difficult metaphysical piece. In 1886, his son Stanwix died. That year Melville would retire.

Melville

Last known portrait of Herman Melville, 1885

Melville died from cardiovascular disease in 1891, but he had continued to write in his retirement years. Two more volumes of poetry were privately published and one was left unpublished. He was working on another sea novel but the unfinished Billy Budd was not published until 1924.

The 1919 centennial of his birth seems to have started a “Melville Revival”and critics and scholars explored his life, novels, stories and poetry. Certainly, Moby Dick makes every list of the great American works of fiction.

On my walk, I visited (as we know Melville did) Trinity Church to climb up into the belfry. I’m not sure how religious Melville was, but I know that we seem to share similar spiritual concerns, so  a prayer for him seemed appropriate.

I walked by what would have been the Post Office a block away from the church on Nassau Street between Liberty and Cedar Streets. It was demolished in 1882.  I thought about Melville possibly mailing off his writing to publishers there in the hopes of reviving his career.

If he got to go out for lunch during a work day, he would have seen clerks heading up and down the this busy street. Maybe he dropped in on his brother, Allan, whose law office was at No. 10 on the second floor. It certainly figures into his wonderful short story “Bartleby the Scrivener” with “the numerous stalls nigh the Custom House and Post Office.”

This section from Nassau to Broadway is sometimes called “Bartleby’s Wall Street.” I found no one selling ginger cakes or any apple sellers that would allow me “to moisten [their] mouths very often with Spitzenbergs.”

If Herman’s daily work was boring, being a scrivener like Allan, (they were the all-male secretarial pool of that day) and copying legal documents in “quadruplicates of a week’s testimony” sounds even more boring.

I didn’t get to the intersection of Park Avenue south and 26th Street which was dedicated in 1985 as  Herman Melville Square. This is where Melville lived from 1863 to 1891.

A giant species of sperm whale was named in honor of Melville. Livyatan melvillei was discovered by paleontologists who were fans of Moby-Dick. I suppose it is a kind of sad irony that this species is extinct.

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