Self Pity and Other Works of Art

Being of Sound Mind and Body

My grandmother, who raised me, used to joke about the Will she’d leave behind. It would say: Being of sound mind and body I spent it all.

Nice People

My father died this summer. We were and weren’t close. We saw each other maybe once a year. With the invention of email, we eventually kept up a regular correspondence, but only talking politics. He was a beautiful writer but his clean and concise prose went into translating technical documents from German into English. He wrote with greater clarity and concision than I do, but he had no gift for creative writing. (To his dying day he was correcting my grammar.) If there’s such a thing as tone-deafness as regards poetry, he had it. Might as well sell a raincoat in the desert than give him a poem. He may have read a handful of novels. I don’t know. He loved the precision of Kafka’s prose for Kafka’s flawless German. He also had a copy of the 1001 Nights translated by Richard F. Burton. As far as I know he didn’t read a single story. He kept them because of Burton’s introduction. Burton skewered the moral pretensions of translators who delicately edited out the best parts of the 1001 Nights—understood to be the uninhibited erotic parts. Of which there are many. My father, and his parents who raised me, detested nice people. I was never sure what they meant but they probably meant the kind of nice people who Richard Burton dismantled. To be on the safe side, I decided to dislike everyone; which is to say, I’m an introvert. I deeply get Wednesday Addams (if you haven’t seen Tim Burton’s Netflix series). People are exhausting, especially nice people.


When my father died I finally realized that I probably would too. I looked at my possessions and thought to myself: What in the hell are you thinking? Why am I buying anything? I’ll probably be dead in another twenty to thirty years—maybe sooner. Who knows? The thought of death doesn’t disturb me at all. The thought of all my possessions? Deeply disturbing. What’s the point? But my most valued possessions are my stories; and I’m going to give those away as generously as I can. Those stores include some from my family. I’ve already snuck some of them into my novels and poems.

Don’t you want to say, Hello?

My grandmother grew up in a family of ten children equally divided between girls and boys. Two of the boys, my Uncles, were bomber pilots in World War II. There was a rule that if a pilot flew ten or twenty (I can’t remember) sorties, then they wouldn’t have to fly any more. There was also a rule that relatives couldn’t fly on the same plane. My Uncles George and Bill both had one more flight and decided, violating all the rules, that they would fly their last sortie together. They were shot down by the Germans and captured.

Being Pilots/Officers, they were, initially at least, valuable POWs.

The German interrogator brought them in, one by one. You’re both Kremers he would say. Good German names! Why are you fighting against your fatherland? But George and Bill would only answer with their names, ranks and serial numbers. This must have gone on for several days and the interrogator decided that maybe he could play each against the other. Bill had the character of Bob Hope, ready with a quip, gregarious and a lady’s man. George was the quiet, serious and stone-faced brother.

The interrogator brought them both in.

He sat behind his broad desk. Bill and George were marched out and each stood quietly facing the interrogator. They stared straight ahead, neither acknowledging the other. They knew better. Behind the interrogator was a blond bombshell, the kind of uniformed blond bombshell that’s the stuff of Hollywood movies. The interrogator said to George, who was standing next to Bill: Don’t you want to say, Hello? George answered giving his name, rank and serial number. The interrogator impatiently turned to Bill and asked: Don’t you want to say, hello?

Bill turned to the blonde bombshell and said: “I’m Bill. I didn’t catch your name.”

And as the family story has it, George sighed heavily exclaimed in exasperation: “He means me, Bill!”

Sticky Fingers

I decide to go for a walk and, wouldn’t you know, here comes the Devil the opposite way. That’s the Devil’s way, always to go the opposite way. He’s mumbling to himself and throwing up his left hand, now and again, as though shooing away whatever thoughts are nipping at his heels. For no good reason, he carries a cane behind his back.

“Up to no good?” I ask.

“You might expect as much,” he sighs.

“Best laid plans?” I ask.

“A mouse!” he shouts, then as though confiding: “There is not a single mouse in hell. Did you know? There are cats and dogs, but no mice. What does that tell you?” His expression changes to one of disappointment. “I nabbed another soul. A wretched soul. A selfish and petty soul. She loved no one and was a benefit to none.” He inhaled, held his breath, eyes closed, as though savoring a newly poured glass of chardonnay. “She detested children. Horrid little things. She lived alone, hoarded her wealth, hid it away where no one would find it. She was a mintage coined from my own heart.”

“You have one?”

“Does the nightshade have berries?”

“What about children?” I ask.

“Yes,” the Devil sniffs, “but only in hell to torment their parents.”

“Why so glum?”

“God!” shouts the Devil with a disgusted flourish of his hand, then calmly adds: “He of unbounded love and beneficence. Couldn’t leave well enough alone. What should happen to the old shrew’s house but God, in his bounty, makes a gift of it (of course the selfish old bat didn’t have an heir). A couple with their newly adopted child bought the house at auction—for a song and a dance. God’s reward for their good deeds. But that’s not enough. God elaborates. He sends them a stray puppy. A puppy! Nauseating. But it was the nice thing to do. And to celebrate their gratitude to God, they bake him a cake and light him a candle. The instant their backs are turned, the wretched little puppy eats the cake and knocks over the candle. God’s little gift burns down the house. Burns it to the ground.”

“One misery after another!” I say.

“The Devil’s work!—they say. The flames! The flames! The Devil’s work from beginning to end!”

“And you weren’t delighted by all that misery?”

“No,” the Devil sniffs. “The wretched little cheapskate. She hid all her money in the walls of the house. How was I to know? When the house burned down, there it all was. Piles upon piles. Silver coins. Gold coins. Bars of silver. Bars of gold. They built themselves a splendid new house. They gave to one insufferable charity after another. All my handiwork? They took it all. And what did they say? God works in mysterious ways! Praise be to God! To God alone the thanks!”

“Why don’t you like children?”

“Sticky fingers.”

~ For my father, Gordon Gillespie, who detested nice people and who, when asked why he detested children, answered “sticky fingers”.

Visiting the Mall

I dropped off my daughter at UVM and took a short stroll through the Burlington mall where all kinds of memories returned—being with my childhood friends. Something about the beige tile floors, the shades-of-beige walls and the nostalgically manic Christmas decorations. I know that if I’d bumped into my friends, even thirty years later, we would comfortably pick up where we left off. There’s something about childhood friendships, making us more like brothers or sisters, that can only happen among children. We weren’t mall rats. We lived too far away. When only visited to shop on holidays or to see a movie. We always burned our allowances playing video games. All this is to say that going to the mall meant being with friends; and every mall, in those days, was a kind of world’s fair. There was no internet. Going there meant seeing everything that was the newest technology—and girls. I miss the mystery of girls. I miss wondering when a beautiful girl would want to sit next to me—that girl, you know, who would make me forget all about my friends.


There was something about those years—grade school and high school. That’s not to say that I have good memories of ‘school’. I’m sure that I “suffer”—quote unquote—from ADHD Daydreaming. Even now adults sound like they’re in Peanuts cartoons. I can’t listen to anyone talk more than 1 or 2 minutes. Forget poetry readings. Any shiny object—word or association—sends me off like a witless crow. I feel bad about that because, after all, I’m a poet. If I’m reading I will daydream words that aren’t there, and while writing too. They’re very often striking mistakes that I turn into poetry. Squeezing a thumbtack keeps me focused. I’m not joking. In school, I was the kid drawing and/or staring out the window—watching the weather go by and getting Cs and D minuses for grades. I was always picked last. For good reason. I was the loopy kid in left field staring at the clouds. I was recommended to the school psychologist because I never wanted to play with classmates in the playground. I wanted to be off by myself. I didn’t start talking until I was four years old. I did all my talking in my head. That also landed me at a therapist’s office. The amazing thing about ADHD Daydreaming, if that’s what it is, is that I dream up story ideas faster than I can write them—and everybody wanted me to be the Dungeon Master. But there was something about those school years—when I wasn’t in school.

The Putting Away of Childish Things

I remember reading this sentiment time and again when I was growing up. There was childhood and there was manhood. And it is an impoverished man who cherishes childish things. I believed it. And even as a child was saddened by that. Now, with a half century behind me, I can firmly say that all those manly writers who spouted this advice were blowhards—complete blowhards. They can take their grown-man’s wisdom along with a swift kick in the ass. I have not put away my childish things and couldn’t write poetry without them. I couldn’t write my fanciful fables, fairy tales, short stories and novels without all those childish things. If you’re still a kid—think twice before you give away your favorite toy. I still have my Space 1999 Eagle Dinky Toy.

If I Had it to do Again

I wish I could relive almost every part of my life. I used to think that the car didn’t move but that the Earth rolled under it. The gas pedal and steering wheel dictated how fast the Earth moved and in which direction. Later I wondered if time was like that. Maybe we don’t move through time, but time moves through us. I don’t know what the difference is, but that got me thinking about doing it all over again. In my latest novel, North of Autumn, the Librarian of All Things, met by the main character Zoē, offers Zoē an altogether different understanding of time. She asks Zoē to imagine that time isn’t like a stream at all. Time doesn’t have a direction. The past can be changed as decidedly as the future. She says, imagine that time is like the surface of a pond and that every mote of consciousness is like a stone thrown onto its surface. What we perceive as time are the countless ripples of consciousness, among all beings, flowing outward from each and in all directions. When I was eleven, I had Near Death Experience. I remember being shown everything that had happened and everything that was going to happen. It was all so simple, obvious and beautiful. I wondered how I’d ever forgotten.

The Devil Wants to Know

I love the Devil, not the devil of Christian mythology (the devil that the middle ages and Milton turned into a run-of-the-mill feudal Lord) but the far more fun and clever devil of folk and fable—the trickster and troublemaker. In North of Autumn and Tiny House, Big Mountain I tell stories about God and the Devil. God always means well, but whenever God tries to do something nice for all of us, it ends in disaster. The Devil, on the other hand, is the trickster who has no faith in humanity and loves to trip us up, but whenever the Devil tries to meddle in the affairs of human beings, it all ends splendidly and happily. This brings about no end of frustration for both God and the Devil. One of my favorite stories is a Taoist fable in which every bit of fortune ends in disaster and every disaster leads to good fortune. How do you know that’s a good thing? How do you know that’s a bad thing? In the Yin-Yang symbol, a white dot appears in the midst of the black and black appears in the midst of the white.

Poetry Kills

I’ve been reading Shakespeare, sort of as a break before starting my next novel, and reading Jane Austen (research) for my next novel—called Writer, Writer. I came across a passage from each that I have to pass on. First, from Pride and Prejudice:

~ “Perhaps he thought her too young. However, he wrote some verses on her, and very pretty verses they were.”
“And so ended his affection,” said Elizabeth impatiently. “There was many a one, I fancy, overcome in the same way. I wonder who first discovered the efficacy of poetry in driving away love?” p. 36-37

And here I thought it was me. In my experience, nothing drove off love like a poem. The better the poem, the more effective at nipping love in the bud. My reasoning is this: Any girl to whom I gave a poem probably assumed that the effort needed to write the poem bordered on a marriage proposal—especially if it was only an acrostic Shakespearean Sonnet which spelled out the girl’s name. Yes, I really did this. It took half an afternoon to write the sonnet and five minutes to end the relationship. Moral: If you want girls, forget poetry. Learn to play the guitar. Then I ran across this while reading Shakespeare’s As You Like It:

I was never so berhymed since Pythagoras’ time that I was an Irish rat, which I can hardly remember.” III.ii.163

Foot note: Alluding to Pythagoras’s transmigration of souls and to the popular belief in England that Irish bards were capable of rhyming cats to death.

I had no idea that a rhyming Irish bard could kill cats. Having a thoroughly Irish name and fancying myself a bard, I sat at one end of the kitchen table and my unimpressed cat at the other end. I recited my rhymes and my cat’s tail twitched. After an hour or so, and after the one hundred and thirty-second canto of Spencer’s Faerie Queene, my cat trolled me by licking her posterior. I gave up. Clearly, having an Irish name and being of Irish descent is not the same as being Irish. Also, it’s possible that Spencer isn’t Irish enough.

The Devil’s Proposal

I met the Devil at the mall. I always recognize the Devil because there’s always something off. In this case he was wearing a solid wool scarf. No Vermonter would do that when there’s plaid flannel to be had. I sat next to him and we both watched shoppers come and go. He was no doubt up to some mischief. “You’d like to do it over again,” he said.

“Tragic that we only get one life,” I answered.

“May you do, maybe you don’t,” said he. “Maybe there’s no me, no God, no afterlife. You die and your heirs—” The devil inhaled with pleasure. “If you love the Devil, don’t write a Will. I beg you. Don’t write a Will. Leave it to your kin and probate. But as I was saying: Maybe you drop dead and go to Heaven or Hell? If you’re looking for malls by the way, they’re all in hell now; but maybe you don’t believe in heaven and hell. What about reincarnation? That one is tricky. Consider all the nauseating whining about not remembering past lives. ‘If we’re reincarnated, why can’t we remember anything?‘ The whining is insufferable. But what if you could? What if you could remember everything? Wouldn’t every life be another episode in the same miserable sitcom?”

“Surely you didn’t come here just to vent,” said I.

“Do you see that woman just now exiting the chocolaterie. God rewarded her. She won a tidy sum playing the lottery. God’s bounty is infinite. She buys chocolate—good chocolate. Expensive chocolate. Little does she know that her little Pomeranian, her dearest and faithful companion, will be dead because of it, having run off with her Fair Trade, Oganic, 100% Chocolate chocolate bar—pure poison if you’re a Pomeranian. She’ll spend the sum of her winnings trying to save the little beast and I will get the blame for it.” The Devil sniffed. “It might have survived the chocolate but it won’t survive being run over. Meanwhile, do you see that horrid man berating his wife and children? Hurry, he scolds! Hurry! He shall go drinking tonight and I shall reward him for it, baleful scourge that I am. He shall total his Tesla, newly acquired, and he shall be fired by his investment banking firm. But, lo and behold, while at the hospital a tumor will be discovered! It would have killed him within the month. The tumor shall be removed. This horrid man, so shaken by his brush with death, will give up the bottle, his life of high finance and devote himself to his family. God’s bounty is infinite!—they will say. God works in mysterious ways!” The Devil sniffed again. “All because the fool swerved to avoid a horrid little Pomeranian with a chocolate bar in its mouth.”