Notes toward a taxonomy of sadness

A postcard from 1906, written on but never sent

There are as many kinds of sadness as there are things that prompt it, each as exquisitely adapted as a species of ichneumon wasp to its smooth or bristly host. There’s the sadness of 100-year-old postcards that were written on but never sent, the sadness of an alarm clock that was turned off three minutes before it was due to throb, the sadness of countries too small or crowded to accommodate wilderness, the sadness of a pump organ whose church music has long been silenced by mice chewing holes in the bellows, the sadness of open USB ports, the sadness of cities with utterly predictable weather, the sadness of a faded Sears Wishbook catalog kept in lieu of toilet paper in a seldom-used outhouse, the sadness of milk served in the last chipped member of a favorite set of drinking glasses, the sadness of time travel, the sadness of fireflies broadcasting their positions every few seconds in total silence, the sadness of an overcooked vegetable that tastes like rain, the sadness of dust mites whose entire civilization depends on a giant stranger’s poor housekeeping, the sadness of airports that afford no views of the runway, the sadness of pasture roses forced to weather the loving ministrations of those that chew the cud, the sadness of lights designed to illuminate billboards, and the sadness of pulp science fiction magazines from the 1950s that could predict flying cars but not oil spills, let alone this flea market, the world-wide web.

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38 Comments


    1. Thanks, Susan! Glad you thought it worked. I put the first draft in the bottom bottom drawer for a long time — five days. :)

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  1. Trust me. There are no sad dust mites in this old house.

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    1. Meaning that you’re such a good housekeeper that there are no mites at all, or such an indifferent one that they thrive and have no reason to be sad?

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  2. in addition to the concept — a division/classification of the pieces of sadness — “no views of the runway” is what really sticks with me.

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  3. My favorite: the sadness of an overcooked vegetable that tastes like rain.

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    1. Thanks. I agree, that might be the most inspired moment in the piece.

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  4. It’s the millipedes. They live in the bathroom which is used by just me & 2 cats. They are so small, a dot shaped like an oval & they have all these long, skinny legs, skinnier than a Daddy-long-legs spider & they keep tripping over themselves & it’s so hard for them to get any place. They come out at night, when the cats are asleep & gather in the corner behind the door & at first I thought I was seeing spots before my eyes, but they are real & they are sad because they can’t even climb all the way to the top of the wall where some cousins live on the ceiling. I am very careful not to step on them, but I’m not so sure about the cats.

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    1. I have bathroom millipedes too, a larger species than yours by the sound of it, but they do provoke a pang of sorrow everytime I see one making its lonely, aimless way across the tiles. Yours sound especially pitiable!

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      1. What is it with the bathroom millipedes? We have a variety at our cottage. Glossy and a rich amber/burnt caramel. I find them every time we arrive for a weekend, coiled like ammonites in the bath. I don’t know whether they arrive via the bath waste pipe or drop in from above and then can’t negotiate the enamel. I liberate them, the dead and the living… you can never be sure whether an apparently dead millipede is just playing possum… into the garden, which I’m not sure is a kindness or a trial to them. They may prefer the bathroom! It’s a conundrum.

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        1. I think it’s fitting that we have these living reminders of the soil in our bathrooms, though. When I’m sitting on the pot and a millipede flows by in front of my feet, it’s kind of an existential experience, you know?

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  5. Worked for me too, Dave. Very good post. (I really like old postcards too.)

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    1. Thanks, Beth. I scanned another postcard from 1906 as well, but it’s in black and white and just doesn’t provoke the same sort of nostalgia as a colorized postcard. Also, there’s a special pathos to photos of parties and picnics when you know every one of the participants is long dead.

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  6. Every time I had a favorite, it had to give up its place.

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    1. Glad you liked it. I wasn’t sure whether to put it in the Poems category or not — maybe i should.

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  7. Hey Dave – you were on Verse Daily two days ago. Why didn’t you tell us?!

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    1. I tend to reserve Facebook and Identica/Twitter for stuff like that. There’s no new content — it’s just a reprint of a poem here.

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  8. Without all these kinds of sadness, all we would have is unending happiness. And that is the saddest thought of them all. :-)

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    1. True! Nothing more depressing than unremitting cheerfulness.

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  9. And then there is the sadness, haunting as it is, which is evoked in a reader upon reading this wonderful piece.

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    1. Glad you liked. Actually, all lists provoke a kind of melancholy in me.

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  10. I like this. Every sentence made me stop and think. I especially like the lack of predictions about the web. When I rewatched Star Wars a few years ago, I couldn’t get over the fact that they had to plug R2D2 into the Death Star. Wireless was too far out there, I guess.

    (And, thanks for including my poem in the Smorgasblog.)

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    1. Thanks, James. Did any sci-fi writers or movie-makers predict anything like the internet? I seem to recall reading that at least one did, but I can’t remember who.

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  11. Poems category, please. And if this isn’t a poem you’ll have to add another sadness to the list.

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  12. OMG, I’ve been making my alarm clock sad all these years, turning it off just before it can perform its piece! Thanks for making me wake up to my cruelty, Dave. I promise to be kind to my clock henceforth, as well as to all the other sad things you have so compassionately listed.

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    1. I wasn’t talking about the sadness possessed by alarm clocks themselves, which are non-sentient last I checked, but the sadness they provoke in others — and ditto for the rest of the items in the list.

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  13. Are you careful not to step on the millipedes?
    Their lives are so sad, we can at least be kind.

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  14. Dave, I knew you weren’t really attributing sentience to alarm clocks or the other things on your list. But it felt good to imagine it, momentarily, and I didn’t turn off my clock before it rang this morning. Thanks for your always intriguing take on things, animate, non-animate and possibly animate.

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    1. Well, thanks for reading. I was surprised by how many people responded to this piece. Makes one feel a lot less lonely to realize that some of one’s strangest thoughts have occurred to other people, too.

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  15. The sadness of policemen or other functionaries doing something which they know isn’t right…

    Wonderful piece, Dave!

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    1. Thanks, Larry! Yes, I guess that’s a sadness you have (sadly) come to know.

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