The year in review

Happy New Year, everyone! This might be my favorite time of the year to be alive, this week right here. True, being cold (and getting colds) is kind of a drag, but I like taking stock and I like making plans, and I feel that the week between Christmas and New Year’s is the right time to do both. I’ve spent the last few days working on my year-end review, and yesterday, by happenstance, I discovered the writer Ksenia Anske and her beautiful website. I was inspired by her year-in-review blog post—and its accompanying photo grid!—to share my own, so here goes: a list of things I did and learned in 2016.

  • I wrote and completed edits on my book Cats I’ve Known, to be published in 2017. Completing this work was my biggest accomplishment of the year—that and surviving the appendicitis that tried to strike me down just a few weeks after I finished the first draft. Nice try, body! I’m still winning, for now.
  • I completed Magical Thinking, the zine my pal Mardou and I made by emailing back and forth with each other on topics including gemstones, herbal healing, and dreams. We then published our dialogue, accompanied by the illustrations Mardou drew. (She is a talented comics artist whose work I really enjoy.) I brought the zine with me to the NYC Feminist Zine Fest at Barnard College, an annual event that I tabled at for the first time. It was a long, hectic day, but I had a few interesting and memorable conversations with visitors to my table, which is the measure I use to judge all zine fests. Frequency and quality of chats.
  • I also tabled with my zines at the Scranton Zine Fest, the Philly Zine Fest, and a Winter Market at the Germantown Kitchen Garden, and all three events were fun and very rewarding.
  • I continued to benefit from keeping this blog. Having a place where I can explore my thoughts about the things I’m reading has been good for me. I like writing about books, but I don’t always like books-writing jobs, if ya feel me. In this space, I can write what I want, at whatever length suits me. So thank you for taking an interest in my blog, gang; it means a lot to me.
  • I finally visited Haegele’s Bakery in the Mayfair section of Philadelphia. As far as I know these folks are not my relations, but they have operated a German bakery in the same city that I’m from for nearly 90 years—and I never got around to visiting it until last month. Whatta jerk! Joe and I went there with friends on the damp, chilly Saturday after Thanksgiving, and it made me so happy to see how pretty and old-fashioned the shop is, sitting right there on the corner of a residential street just a few blocks away from the one where my mother lived when she was a teenager. I ate a Stollen AND a Bienenstich, and they were both gorgeous. Planning on getting myself a Grosse Neujahrsbrezel on New Year’s Eve, too.
  • I got two new jobs this year, contract gigs doing editing work, which is just a mundane thing that I needed to do to make more money and wouldn’t ordinarily mention. But my job slog has had an unexpected and happy result (besides the more—but still not enough!—money): I discovered that I love editing other people’s writing. What’s more, I’m not bad at it. There is something deeply satisfying about taking a piece of writing and making it tighter, cleaner, smoother, and better all around, while preserving its original spirit and without imposing my own voice or attitude onto it. It’s like being a tailor, an invisible mender: I leave things looking better than I found them, and if I do my work really well, you won’t be able to tell I  was ever there.
  • I redesigned my website. Go take a look!
  • I raised a black swallowtail butterfly, which was an incredibly beautiful experience that happened half by accident. In September I attended a meeting of the garden club I used to belong to, and a friend there gave me a bunch of cuttings from her herb garden. I put them in a vase on the kitchen table and enjoyed them for a week or two before Joe noticed two minuscule caterpillars on their leaves. We watched them both get bigger fairly rapidly, then put them inside a small aquarium to keep them safe. Over the next week one of the caterpillars kept escaping, so we released it into the wilds of our backyard and wished it well. The other we kept, feeding it carrot greens from our garden because we read that’s what they like to eat. This guy went to TOWN eating them and got bigger and fatter by the day, until he made his chrysalis. Then that gnarly looking thing lived in our kitchen for 2 more weeks before it burst open, behind us on the kitchen counter while we sat at the table one morning, talking and drinking coffee. We were lucky to see the creature’s black wings when they were still all wet and soft and crumpled; the whole event happened so fast, if we’d been in another room for even an hour we would have missed it. We brought the new butterfly outside, and Joe went into work late that day so that we could sit in our yard and watch it spread and flap and dry out its wings in the sun and fresh air, carefully but quickly, before it flew away.
  • My good friend Nadine Schneider and I made a zine together, and I’ve been selling it at the Wooden Shoe. She wrote about making and using herbal body care products, and I wrote about how you can clean your house without nasty neurotoxins. We called it Kytchyn Witche and spelled it that way because that’s the way it’s spelled in an account we read about the good luck “poppet” that English people kept in their homes during the Tudor period. And because it looks cool.
  • I street-protested the Trump presidency and the appointment of Stephen Bannon as Trump’s chief strategist, and I plan to keep on doing so because these people are really bad news, and protesting is democracy in action.
  • I saw a fuckton of bands play. I celebrated a significant birthday this year and while I don’t really want to tell you my age, I will tell you that in honor of it, I set a goal to see 40 live shows this year. I achieved the goal and had a lot of fun doing it. Highlights include: discovering the industrial/punk band Uniform when they opened for somebody else, then seeing them again later in the year (are you familiar with the phrase WALL OF SOUND); seeing another act on the Sacred Bones label, Blanck Mass, who turned the tiny space at Johnny Brenda’s into a cathedral with his majestic noise; enjoying the heck out of ourselves at RuPaul’s Drag Race Battle of the Seasons, which had about 100 clever acts packed into one show (plus Sharon Needles and Jinkx Monsoon LIVE AND IN PERSON!); watching Philly band Remote Control (pictured above) channel Peter Murphy; being transfixed by the sight of weirdo genius Jenny Hval bopping around the room; and Shopping. We got right up in front of the stage and danced at them, and they danced back. Such a good-natured, high-energy band, and those post-punk melodies do something really nice to my brain chemistry. If they don’t get big I’ll be a little surprised.
  • Joe and I hosted three shows at the East Falls Zine Reading Room this year, which wasn’t as many as last year. They were good shows though, featuring the chiptune musician Sloopygoop, folk singers Potential Gospel, video artist Cory Kram, postpunk band Rabbits to Riches, loony tunesters Yoga Dad, and memoirist Ashton Yount.
  • Joe and I also toured twice, up north during the summer and down south in the fall. In New England we did readings at the Papercut Zine Library in Boston, a bookstore in Providence, Rhode Island, and one in Woodstock, New York. On our Southern tour, I was pleased and frankly really proud to perform with our friends Kishibashi, his wife Mocha, and their daughter Sola (all three of them on violin) at a wonderful bookstore called Avid in Athens, Georgia. The artist and adorable human Missy Kulik read from her comics at that show, too. We also performed with the one-man band who is Tall Tall Trees, at a fine bookstore in Asheville, North Carolina called Downtown Books & News. Then we went to Savannah and did a show at Starlandia, a charming creative reuse shop, with the inimitable Dame Darcy, a comics artist whose work I have admired for a long time. (She read from her books and, accompanied by her friend Skippy on guitar, she played sea shanties on the banjo. It was a special night.)
  • I participated in Fun-a-Day last January, and even though I was lazy about it I managed to write a little something almost every day that month, which was an undertaking I took to treating like a diary. At the end of the project I made a handmade book collecting the month’s meditations and exhibited it in the group show. I plan to participate again this year—just one more day till it starts!—and I’ve got my idea ready and my pencils sharpened. They are metaphorical pencils.
  • I hosted a Pop-Up Zine Reading Room at Amalgam Comics in the Kensington neighborhood Philadelphia, which means that I took a bunch of zines and books from the collection at The Soapbox and sat at the bookstore with a sign inviting people to join me and read them. It was sweet. I also ran a zine workshop for the high school students in the after-school program at the Lutheran Settlement House, also in Kenzo, and in November I cohosted a letterpress printing and book-binding workshop for some undergraduate writing students. Those events were sweet, too.
  • I started a zine about Christmas, which I have historically hated, with my friend, the talented artist Nicholas Beckett. His witty, warm, and sweetly grouchy drawings helped me hate Christmas just a little bit less.
  • I started a new writing collaboration with Eliza, a lovely new friend I met at the Philly Zine Fest. I look forward to seeing where this project takes us in the new year.

On the 1st Day of Christmas

Happy happy, everybody! My dear friend, the artist Nicholas Beckett, and I have been working on a zine about Christmas. It’s a bunch of my terrible recollections about the holiday, accompanied by his incredibly charming drawings. Here’s one for you now. Consider it a gift. I’ll let you know when the zine is available. Until then, best wishes for getting through whatever you have to get through today—and maybe even enjoying it.

1stday_xmas

I find that there’s a lot of controversy surrounding the right time to take down one’s Christmas tree, including the idea that there is a right time. I see people’s frizzled trees lying on the curb as late as February, which gives me the willies. I have inherited my mother’s fussy, snobbish belief that the only acceptable time to take down the tree is on the Epiphany, the 12th day of Christmas. I can’t believe I care about this, but I do.

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.