“Sadness and Food are Incompatible”

Polish Sugar Bowl

I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness. I always think of food.

So imagine my surprise when I learned that it was Mikhail Bakhtin, Russian philosopher, literary critic, semiotician, and personal hurdle to leap in graduate school who once said that “sadness and food are incompatible.”

I completely agree with autobiographer Charles Simic who writes, “One could compose an autobiography mentioning every memorable meal in one’s life and it would probably make better reading than what one ordinarily gets. Honestly, what would you rather have, the description of a first kiss or of stuffed cabbage done to perfection?” I for one can bypass stuffed cabbage but wax philosophical about a good peasant soup.

I’ve mentioned Daniel Gilbert before and the scientific study of happiness, how we tend to imagine our happiness as something deferred, about to happen to us, a future goal. I think these ideas are linked.

What makes food incompatible with happiness?  After all, Bakhtin, who is writing about French author Francois Rabelais, immediately adds the parentheses “(while death and food are completely compatible)” to his claim about sadness. He is writing about the banquet scenes in Rabelais’s fiction while Simic is writing about his own life.

Maybe it comes down to the moment, the one that is not deferred. Perhaps, when we think of meals as opposed to food, we’re close to recognizing the incompatibility of the moment we break bread, particularly with other people, with enduring sadness.

Just yesterday, when we sat down to waffles turned moist by sour cream and made decadent by pure maple syrup, that moment was enshrined in happiness. Was it the texture of the dough, formed by a thoughtful combination of ingredients?  How flour and egg whites with some sugar and dairy was transformed?

Perhaps it was the satisfaction of sitting across a sun-drenched table meeting laughing, coffee eyes while my heart and love was nourished by my meal? Would the happiness of the moment have been the same if we subtracted the distant shimmering lake or molten-drenched mountains?

I was fairly certain I never thought I would hear myself say that Bakhtin is right, perhaps with a small modification to acknowledge Simic: sadness and meals are incompatible.

Seattle Dog

Baby Seattle Toy

Today you were there, just a glimpse.
The humanness in Matilda’s eyes,
The pause in Drover’s step at my command,
Reminded me. And I missed you.


Your little six-month paws at
Double-time to keep up for our slow jog.
Your tilted head when I left.
Your 9-month-year-old joy at my return.

Baby Seattle Dog crop

You were my relentless alarm clock of love.
My focus and my feeling.
You flew in the cargo hold to new lands.
Scaled castles near Incirlik Air Base, Turkey.

Seattle Castles

You jogged with me
In Korea and Colorado,
In Turkey and on Turkey Trots
In Washington State and Washington D.C.

Seattle Gila Wilderness

You were there in my first year of the military
And in my fifteenth.
You watched me leave on each deployment.
You were the best part about coming home.

Seattle Dog

When the vet said “cancer,”
And the x-ray was dotted like pox.
You slept at my feet as I wrote my last dissertation chapter.
I guess I could only cry so much.

Hol Seattle and Me

You missed the conclusion.
Yours was at our dining room table.
The needle slipped in. Your feet
Paddled furiously, then infinite stillness.

Every morning a habitual side-step
To miss your sleeping form
Until we moved to a new house.
You, ashes in a wooden box.

Seattle Snow

Nearly a decade now, and there are two more
Kur-aaaay-zee blue heelers.
I know you would set them straight.
Remind them of the rules.

Matilda and Snowman

I wish you could meet Matilda,
She shares your intensity.
I wish you could meet Drover,
He tries his hardest to be a good dog too.

Drover and his monkey.jpg

I wish you could swim these mountain lakes,
Run the forested trails,
Bark at elk and deer and chipmunks,
Sleep pressed against me.

Seattle Regal

Noisy Neighbors


The piercing whistle snaps me awake. Full-moon ice glow floods the bedroom sapping color and setting the mood for ghosts and unsettled spirits. I hold my breath, listening.

In the space before breathing, on the razor-sharp edge between horror and peace, the air around me vibrates with potential. For just a moment Trump hasn’t refused Japanese food in favor of a well-done American burger, or defended white supremacy, or grabbed another woman’s genitalia, or lied. Fracking pauses. All of Congress dreams of doing right by people. Ski lift tickets are free. The boxes surrounding me and scattered through the house lurk in shadows—less tasks facing me than sentries guarding me from gorgons. I don’t have papers to grade. I’m not behind in my writing.

I hover.

The whistle again, and this time it’s a bugle. Breathe. I don’t understand this term to describe an elk’s call except, perhaps someone listened to someone else trying to blow through a bugle and failing in squeaky eruptions. Yet there it is, just outside my window. And, beside me, my very heart stirs in his sleep.

I stand by the unfamiliar windows and look down into another realm. Alternately dark and light, the cold-gray invites winter faeries and goat-footed fauns from their hiding places. Flat, yet alight as if the moon rises from within, the smooth snow emits its own energy. I can reach my hand through the glass and brush against this alternate universe. I feel the silky frozen air between my fingers looking down on the scene.

The elk steps directly below these windows. Below my form. Below my reaching fingers.  Regal movements lifting his knees above the snow, he is both natural perfection and Claymation or computer-generated imagery.

With one last bugle, he stalks towards the other forms, tantalizing females seductively pawing through the ice. They drift into the pines mere ghosts—spirit smoke.

In moving, you never know if you’ll have noisy neighbors.

The Shape of Things


The world softened that morning.
Words such as powder, blanket, wonderland,
Cliched through my senses while I abandoned myself
To snow.

Behind me the news blared about a gunman
Alone, in the Lonestar State,
Killing children, women, men, in a church,
Bullets rendering flesh to pulp.

I can’t see the rocks out front anymore.
Grotesque gargoyles now muted to
Turtles, bunnies, and puffs,
Crouched under dazzling purity.

The elk bugles, but only
Long after the wolf’s howl.
We pick our way past the rounded lumps,
Put on paths by the shape of things.