Fake it Till You Make it

My review of Elizabeth Greenwood’s nonfiction book, Playing Dead: Journey Through the World of Death Fraud, ran in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer. My editor shortened it a bit, so for your reading pleasure I offer you the full-length version here:

 

We’ve all felt it, the desire to run away from the tedium of our own lives. Some days you can’t help but notice that the train you ride to work could just as easily take you someplace else. When I was a kid my dad would, on occasion, get a faraway look and claim he’d always intended to join the merchant marines.

As Playing Dead author Elizabeth Greenwood speculates, we may be even more inclined to dream of disappearing now, in the age of trackable smartphones and constant surveillance. “We are burdened with our search histories and purchase histories and data sets that constitute our profile, to then be lumped and farmed out and sold to the highest bidder,” she writes, and she has a point.

But what about leaving for real? Faking your own death – the closest thing to suicide without actually dying? It’s a funny thought, but who would try it?

Greenwood, that’s who. In her introduction, the young journalist explains the reason she first got fixated on the subject: She was drowning in some $100,000 worth of student loans. She had no hope of paying off her debt in this lifetime – so why not “die”? The idea came up in a jokey conversation with a similarly stretched-thin friend, who one imagines forgot the conversation moments later. Greenwood, who began researching death fraud that evening at home, did not.

She sets out to learn how she might fake her own death by seeing how others have done it. Or rather, how they’ve tried and failed, since as she points out, it’s impossible to prove a negative – anyone who has successfully faked their death is not available for an interview because, well, we think they’re dead.

She meets the folks who get paid to investigate insurance fraud, which remains one of the most popular reasons for pulling a fakey: simple greed. Steve Rambam is a no-nonsense, classically hard-boiled detective who maintains that simply disappearing is easier to do than faking your death, and vastly preferable. Pretending to die is not strictly illegal, but fraudulently claiming a life insurance policy certainly is, as is using a fake identity, which is the only way you could do anything after you “died.”

By the book’s end, Greenwood makes her way to the Philippines, where corrupt government agencies make faking your death easy and fairly commonplace, on a quest for her very own death certificate. For those familiar with gonzo journalist Jon Ronson, this is a Ronsonesque stunt, and though Greenwood is an entertaining writer she doesn’t quite have his genius for dry understatement. She knows how to tell a good story—and there are lots of them here—but when she writes about herself, her prose can be a bit overcooked. “In the crepuscular light of early winter, I was bemoaning my self-imposed financial plight…” she tells us.( Translation: Girl was broke.)

Still though, the stories. We meet John Darwin, the U.K. man and his wife who lied to everyone, including their grown sons, by pretending he had died in a boating accident when he was actually living in his own rental property next door, in disguise, for nearly six years. His motive was a mortgage insurance policy, and he eventually turned himself in. But the suffering he caused his family was, in Greenwood’s words, the “collateral damage” that he doesn’t ever quite own up to.

She also introduces us to the Believers, the utterly devoted contingent of people within the Michael Jackson fandom who believe that the King of Pop faked his death and is sending them messages from beyond the fake grave via lyrics in his posthumously-released songs. Greenwood doesn’t share their beliefs, but she doesn’t make fun of them either. That would be “…taking a cheap and dreadfully obvious shot. … It takes a lot more courage to believe doggedly in something so outlandish and weird. The believing itself is the point more than the outcome. It’s faith.”

In the end, it’s this largeness of imagination that makes Greenwood’s book a success. Whether these death fraudsters strike you as clever schemers or fascinating in a fringe-weirdo sort of way, Greenwood makes them human, which has a lovely way of showing us how expansive life is—even in death.

Get on yer soapbox

Two weeks ago, my colleague Mary Tasillo and I had a lovely experience at The Soapbox Community Print Shop & Zine Library, where we ran a workshop for a class of writing students at a local university. They’ve spent the semester creating collections of their own prose and poetry, and with Mary’s assistance they each arranged them into pages for a book they’ll self-publish. Together, she and I helped them design and print book covers on a letterpress machine, then taught them to bind the books by hand using binder’s thread and a needle. At the binding station I set up, I first showed them how to use a bone folding tool to crease their pages in half, and to my surprise the mere act of folding the pages made their faces light up with pleasure, as the size and shape of the finished product became suddenly apparent. It’s a book! 

Mary Tasillo and Charlene Kwon started The Soapbox in a Philadelphia row house five years ago because they wanted to create a place where people from diverse backgrounds could enjoy their large collection of zines, chapbooks, and artists’ books for free, and have inexpensive access to printing equipment and materials that you ordinarily need to be in art school to use. The founders’ belief in the power of sharing and community is part and parcel of zine publishing. In fact, we like to say that zines are an inherently democratic medium, because they’re so inexpensive and easy to make: Anyone can publish one, whether that person thinks of themselves as a writer or an artist or not. Everyone has a story, after all. Everyone has a right to tell it.

Independent publishing is democratic in another sense, too: It’s a time-honored and ideal method for disseminating information, whether it’s political or personal in nature (or both). It doesn’t matter who you are—how young or inexperienced, how old or ignored, how marginalized or unimportant you’ve been made to feel. Zines are there for you, alongside blogs, Twitter, YouTube, and all the other new digital media. They’re all ways to become your own publisher and create your own audience, which is incredibly gratifying and empowering—really, it’s power-giving—for someone with something to say.

Our workshop took place on election day, in the afternoon. I’d voted that morning, and Mary went to the local polling place to vote after the workshop ended. I don’t know if all the students we worked with that day were old enough to vote, but while we were working together they looked at Facebook and Instagram on their phones and were excited to see pictures of their friends wearing “I voted” badges. There was a buzz in the studio that day, with this huge thing pending and the powerfully positive energy of creation in the air. It happened that all of the students, as well as their professor, and Mary and I too—everyone working together in that room, talking and sharing and wondering how things would turn out—were women. You can make of that fact what you will, but it feels worth mentioning.

In the days since the election results came in, things in this country have felt a lot different than they did that afternoon in our studio. Tensions are high, and many Americans are scared, hurt, and discouraged—though not, seemingly, those who have felt emboldened to act on their bias and hatred with intimidation and abuse. It feels impossible to know what will happen next, and what we’ll be called upon to do about it. But I do know that I’ll be using my first amendment right to express myself and to stand up to hateful words and actions, and I strongly encourage others to do the same. So go ahead and get on your soapbox. The time to speak up is now.

Let it Burn

A very truncated version of my review of Jesse Ball’s brilliant novel How to Set a Fire and Why appeared on Philly.com on Sunday, November 6th, alongside its publication in the Philadelphia Inquirer’s print edition. If you’d like to read the full version, here ’tis:

fire

HOW TO SET A FIRE AND WHY
by Jesse Ball (Pantheon)

Teenage Lucia lives in an apartment over a garage with her old and very broke aunt, who takes her to the park for hot dogs and reads Faust in German. They have cribbage championships, too, and the only house rule is: “Don’t do things you aren’t proud of.” If this sounds like a perfect life to you (and why wouldn’t it?) it isn’t, quite: We know from the beginning that Lucia’s recent past has been very bad. She was thrown out of her last school for stabbing a mean kid with a pencil; her father was killed in some terrible accident and her mother is in a loony bin. We don’t get too many more details than that, but we don’t need them. We can see for ourselves that Lucia is an unusual person in a number of ways.

For one thing, she is very smart. For another, she’s what you might call anti-social, though she insists she’s very nice to people, which might also be true. We spend time with her as she negotiates her new school, hangs out with her aunt in their little garden, and reads books about the Russian peasantry. She’s intensely likable, going around in the same old hoodie every day and eating licorice she stole from the fancy supermarket. She rides the bus and enjoys it. I defy you to not fall in love with her.

Lucia also visits her mother at the mental hospital, but the woman doesn’t recognize her and can no longer communicate. She just makes sounds with her mouth. Lucia takes a typically philosophical attitude toward this very sad and distressing situation: “I thought about how easy it was to think it meant something—the gurgling—but it was actually just like leaves or gravel or layers of skin. I mean to say—it isn’t meaningful, it isn’t meaningless. Things just don’t really apply to us in particular, even though we want them to.”

But her sophisticated philosophies and emotional reserve are hiding something passionate and enraged. And it is around this time that she overhears some kids at school talking about the Sonar Club.

“Sonar” is a rearrangement of the word arson; these kids like to set fires. Or at least they aspire to: There is a secret society in the school and beyond comprised of people who want to dismantle social injustice by burning down buildings owned by the ruling class. This makes good sense to Lucia, who begins trying to join the club at the same time that a teacher who has taken an interest in her writing encourages her to apply to a prestigious alternative school. Author Ball lays this all out in front of us, but it’s never entirely clear which would be the better option.

The great pleasure of his book is in keeping up with Lucia’s challenging and amusing trains of thought, and in measuring the distance between her intelligence and your own. There’s a frisson of excited discomfort you’ll feel when you realize you haven’t even heard of some of the books she’s expecting you to have read. She is, of course, not as smart as she thinks she is—she’s 17 years old, after all. Much of the book is arranged into her “predictions” followed by a description of “what happened,” and needless to say, she cannot always predict the future. This serves as a nice reminder that life is nothing if not exciting. (But it might also be nothing.)

Though it takes place now, the novel has a weird sort of timelessness that all the best fiction has. Lucia’s knowledge of Russian peasants and her interest in arson and anarchy blend with her descriptions of her classmates playing with their cell phones in a heady, past-present-future sort of way. The injustice of the world has no beginning and no end.

This whole thing—the circumstances of Lucia’s life, her mordant insights, her startling political awakening—is a meditation on the idea of nothingness. The girl may be a nihilist, but you can’t say she’s unhappy about the pointlessness of it all. If anything, she burns extra bright.

Paint this!

A few days ago I looked lovingly at my big round cat where she was sitting sort of hunched over on the floor, and I thought, She looks like one of those striped cartoon cats from the 70s. What were those?

 

You can still buy this one as a card from Pomegranate
You can still buy this one as a card, from Pomegranate. Click the image to link through.

Turns out the cat I was thinking of was drawn by a cartoonist named Bernard Kliban, whose book Cat was such a hit in 1975 that it launched a zillion mugs and t-shirts (which explains my old and murky memories of it from the 80s, when I was still small). A bit of awkward Google research told me this much (“fat striped cartoon cat 70s” … no, not Garfield … ), and I poked around a bit longer and found some of his other cartoons too. Most of them are single-panel gags, many of which have titles that function as the punchline. And they are funny as hell.

From the book Two Guys Fooling Around With the Moon, and Other Drawings (Workman, 1982). 

The cat merchandise is still around, but I found precious little information on the man or his work. He died in 1990, before the internet as we know it; the few scans I found online were enough to whet my appetite, but most of his books are out of print. I could have bought one secondhand, of course, but opted instead for the appropriately dark absurdity of trying to do much of anything in Philadelphia, by taking one of the few functioning trains in our currently striking transit system to our beautiful but down-at-heel library downtown, and borrowing them. (I feel disloyal even typing this because I love our library and they really do have wonderful programming, an excellent collection, and truly wild holdings in their rare books archive, but please believe me that the state of things in this city can sometimes be disheartening. Also, after the library, I went to the DMV. Hahahahaha!)

The library’s main branch owns four of Kliban’s books but only two circulate—Two Guys Fooling Around With the Moon, and Other Drawings and Luminous Animals and Other Drawings—I guess because the others are out of print and hard to replace. When I found the books I’d traveled there for, I flipped Luminous Animals open and immediately found this panel, which made me almost cry with laughter. Right there in the library, standing by myself. Look at the waiter’s FACE.

From the book Luminous Animals and Other Drawings (Penguin, 1983).

There is a lot to enjoy in both of the books I found. I was especially excited by a few cartoons that explicitly address what it’s like to be an ottist in a culture that does not give a shit about ott—like the one of a dog watching a handyman screw a lightbulb into a ceiling and thinking “I could do that!”, and another one of a cow peddling a newspaper called the Cow News to a bunch of indifferent walruses and penguins. Kliban was a successful working cartoonist in his lifetime, but he isn’t much remembered or talked about now. It seems he was original enough to have inspired a number of artists, some of whom went on to become better known. As I read through these books I was strongly reminded of Gary Larson’s The Far Side, one of my teenage favorites for its black yet ridiculous humor. I did run across this piece Rob Clough wrote for The Comics Journal, in which he looked at Cat 35 years after its publication. He talks about the influence Kliban had on other cartoonists, including Larson, and points out that even “the landscape, paperback format of the book would be aped by hundreds of cartoon collections for years to come,” which naturally put me to mind of the Garfield books I so loved as a kid.

The cats that made Kliban famous have an essential sweetness to them, mainly because they’re so apt, catness-wise; I take it the more mordant and bizarre ones didn’t get put onto mugs. Because of this, I have had the pleasure of surprise at how much of his other work is rude, dark, and righteously pissed-off. There is a healthy number of boobs and dicks in these books, for one thing. (Kliban made cartoons for Playboy for many years.) At the same time, as Clough wrote in his essay, a lot of his work is both droll and strange enough to have fit in with the sensibility of The New Yorker, though they only ever published one drawing of his, in 1963an observation I totally agree with as I vaguely thought that’s where I remembered having seen the cats when I began this little quest of mine. They are also sometimes political, in my favorite way for things to be political: nihilistic and adolescent and correct; angry and broad, accusatory of everybody but reserving the realest contempt for those who would be in charge of the rest of us. Let me just share one more with you, since it really RESONATES—to use a word everyone seems to love nowadays—in this moment before the 2016 presidential election. It’s as true as an arrow through the heart, and of all the Kliban cartoons I’ve read recently, it’s the only one that made me feel sadder than anything else.

Fer-fucking-real

 

 

Sunday

I am not a very sociable person. I mean, I’m interested in people, I love to have good conversations, and I’ll dance in public pretty much anytime – I’m really not what you’d call shy. But somehow, the particular combination of skills you need for keeping up with social plans every night of the week, going to parties where you have to make noncommittal, chitty-chatty small talk with strangers for hours without accidentally saying something that makes one of them feel weird (oops), absorbing the huge amount of emotional information that goes pinging around a room full of people – whatever those skills are, I don’t have ’em. The effort exhausts me, and if I’ve had to “go out” too often in too short a period of time, it drains my life force and makes me pissy and mean, depressed and restless and resentful toward the poor other people involved, who are most likely just doing their best to get along and are probably suffering to varying degrees along with me. I mean, they might be suffering. I guess it’s possible some of them are actually enjoying the party.:-/

Anyway, after a couple weeks of too much of this kind of socializing, today was magnificently quiet. I finally got a decent night’s sleep last night, and I woke up feeling worn-out and battered in that gorgeous way, when you’re so rested your body almost aches from it. I went for a long, long walk through residential city neighborhoods, which is my favorite way to spend time with myself, and then I read some of an old issue of Parabola magazine that I found at a thrift store for 29 cents on my birthday last week (thrift store shopping being my favorite way to celebrate my birthday). Parabola is smart and gentle and nuanced, like a person you’d feel lucky to know. In this issue (Spring 2005), I found a poem by a Greek poet named C.P. Cavafy (1863-1933) called “As Much As You Can.” I think it’s okay to post it here because it’s also available to read on this official website of the Cavafy Archive. The website has a few different translations of it (Cavafy mostly wrote in his native Greek), but here’s the one that was published in the magazine, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard:

As Much As You Can

Even if you can’t shape your life the way you want,
at least try as much as you can
not to degrade it
by too much contact with the world,
by too much activity and talk.

Do not degrade it by dragging it along,
taking it around and exposing it so often
to the daily silliness
of social relations and parties,
until it comes to seem a boring hanger-on.

Reading this poem, I felt a rush of comfort come over me. I saw and was seen. It was like getting an extra week of days like today, all the time I needed to heal and rest and become whole again.

Here's a picture I took on my birthday last week, on a walk in the woods before the thrift store.
Here’s a picture I took on my birthday, on a walk in the woods. These trees did not want to make conversation with me and I really appreciated it.
Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset
Photo by Scott Wiley, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

In 2015, a forester from Germany wrote a book about trees.

Peter Wohlleben’s small, quirky science book was published in his native country, where (to the publisher’s surprise, one can’t help but think) it stayed at or near the top of nonfiction bestseller lists for months. Since that time, The Hidden Life of Trees has been optioned for translation in several languages – including, this fall, in English, from Greystone Books in Canada.

Reading the book now, in a translation by master gardener and writer Jane Billinghurst, it seems that the secret to its popularity lies in its unusual approach. Using simple verbiage, succinct chapters, and a sensitive narrative style, Wohlleben takes a tender view of the trees he understands so well, sweetly anthropomorphizing them and the forests they comprise. He discusses the ways trees communicate with and protect each other by using the language of friendship, family, and community. He describes photosynthesis as a constant source of food for a tree, “like a baker who always has enough bread.” He makes frequent reference to the pain trees experience when they get injured or die a slow death, and compares their roots to our human brains. The chapter on tree reproduction is called, simply, “Love.”

Though his turn of phrase is sometimes fanciful, Wohlleben’s ideas were formed after decades of studying tree growth and behavior and are backed up by both cutting-edge and time-tested studies. The forester-turned-ecologist is an interesting study himself. He worked for the German forestry commission for twenty years, assessing trees for their value in the lumber trade according to accepted industry practice. Gradually, though, he developed a deep appreciation for the trees’ true nature, and came to understand that they behave very differently in undisturbed forests than they do in manipulated environments. For example, while gardeners and commercial foresters take care not to plant trees “too close” together out of fear that one will overshadow and kill the others, Wohlleben tells us that left to their own devices, trees of the same species prefer to huddle together. This way, they can share nutrients and water, balancing out any differences between them at root-level so that they can photosynthesize at the same rate and be equally successful. They prefer to work together.

Wohlleben’s book is filled with these kinds of surprises, bits of science fact that amateur naturalists will thrill to. For instance, we learn that a beech tree, if it lives to be 400 years old, will fruit at least 60 times and produce around 1.8 million beechnuts. Of those nuts only one will become a full-grown tree, which in forest terms is considered a high rate of success, like “winning the lottery.”

There’s something so stirring about the sheer size and longevity of trees, something almost magical. Wohlleben’s love for these magnificent beings and the lessons they can teach us is evident – and he’s as excited by the questions as he is by the answers. As he writes when discussing different ideas about how trees store and transport water to their leaves: “Perhaps we are poorer for having lost a possible explanation or richer for having gained a mystery. But aren’t both possibilities equally intriguing?”

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, Greystone (288 pp.)

City of the dead

I switched off the radio. In Belfast the news was an accompaniment like music but I didn’t want to hear this stuff. Coffee-jar bomb. Yeah, that was another big craze. I got the idea that people were impressed by this new thing, this wheeze, this caper. Me, I wasn’t impressed. It was easy to do that ugly stuff.

Suddenly I longed to leave Belfast. Because of an inadvertently heard news story, the city felt like a necropolis.

—from the novel Eureka Street, by Robert McLiam Wilson

The book I’m reading is about Belfast, clearly, but that necropolis joke hits home. I am so awfully weary of turning on the news just to hear the latest tragedy from one of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. Sometimes I can’t listen at all.