what ho, my dears! in about fifty hours, the missus and i will wing our way from NYC to iceland; i've been devouring guidebooks, practicing my wintery rolled Rs, freshening up my loudest clothing, and working like mad to finish war and peace, for there's no way i'm bringing that mother across the atlantic. i've also finally gotten serious about tattoo-in-reykjavik planning; i made my appointment a month ago, but i'd stalled on paging through snow crystals and deciding which of w.a. bentley's little darlings is to be inked. i finally made the second round of cuts last night, and it was rough: choosing the loveliest snowflake of all sounds like the finest job ever, but there were two thousand of them. i'm now down to eight.

{background: wilson bentley was a farmer and self-taught photomicrography pioneer who figured out how to photograph single snowflakes by mashing up a microscope and a bellows camera; he took the first of these photographs in 1885. a bentley snowflake is just symmetrical enough, a fitting reminder of my eight years of wanting this trip, and most of all, a product of outsider enthusiasm. what up, my hobbyist.}

{more background: the snowflake tattoo will be about 3" in diameter, inked in black, and just above this 4" cross. know that if you follow that link you will see a back.}


so. which beautiful and unique snowflake should i, you know, reproduce?



SURVIVOR: anna karenina (leo tolstoy)
CHALLENGER: just kids (patti smith)

below the chelsea

though i'm inordinately fond of several russian writers (and any number of nonlethal soviet-era oddities) and took a few grueling quarters of first-year russian in college,* count leo and i didn't cross paths until i saw the last station (the '09 movie about tolstoy's life at yasnaya polyana with his wife and followers; it's excellent) in the run-up to last year's academy awards. truth be told, i didn't really understand the scope of his cultural significance; i knew he was a heavyweight, sure, but the idea that he was ben franklin plus jonathan franzen plus oprah plus, like, elmo to nineteenth-century russians...was new.

reader, i grok that now. one disappears with a shoomp, coke-bottle-into-the-burren-like, into tolstoy's personalities and relationships: as i marveled to paul when i first finished the book (long ago, when cthulhu was young enough for justin bieber), he separates his characters' interactions and reactions into their component urges, like, teaspoon by teaspoon. moscow, st. petersburg, and the russian countryside are plush settings, as satisfying in tolstoy's hands as england ever was in jane austen's - but his characters come to life in a way that's shockingly modern. here are anna and her husband, just after her admission that she loves vronsky:
'Perhaps I am mistaken,' said he. 'In that case I beg your pardon.'
'No, you were not mistaken,' she said slowly, looking despairingly into his cold face. 'You were not mistaken. I was, and cannot help being, in despair. I listen to you but I am thinking of him. I love him, I am his mistress, I cannot endure you, I am afraid of you, and I hate you....Do what you like to me.'
i'd have overturned my samovar and started a fight if i read that sort of thing in 1875;** it's devastating, and it more than compensates for tolstoy's lengthy meditations on collective farming (which he supported quite energetically in his life beyond the page). it should be noted that the noodly agricultural solos had their fans; in an 1875 letter, turgenev wrote that
I don't like Anna Karenina, although one finds some truly magnificent pages (the race, the mowing, the hunt), but it is all sour; it smells of Moscow, of incense, of old maidishness, of Slavophilism, aristocratism, and so on.
more for me, turgenev; more for me. i've even arrived at a sort of peace about resenting anna at the end of the book because she reminds me of the overcooked heroine i imagined myself to be in my late teens and early twenties; meeting real people in one's reading, even and perhaps especially the sort of people who make one realize one was a shit, is the best sort of reading i know. the only thing keeping me from being unequivocally team anna karenina is the absence of an equally detailed account of anna's first days with vronsky; while we hear all about their affair's middle age and death throes, we're denied the delirious early scenes we get with charming foils like kitty and levin. where's the beef [tea], count leo?

speaking of delirious early scenes, here's what it was like to be miniature patti smith in chicago in the '50s, according to just kids, her national-book-award-winning account of being young in new york with robert mapplethorpe.
Not contented with my child's prayer, I soon petitioned my mother to let me make my own. I was relieved when I no longer had to repeat the words If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take and could say instead what was in my heart. Thus freed, I would lie in my bed by the coal stove vigorously mouthing long letters to God. I was not much of a sleeper and I must have vexed him with my endless vows, visions, and schemes. But as time passed I came to experience a different kind of prayer, a silent one, requiring more listening than speaking.
i found patti smith's easter in the bargain cassette bin at the ratty old tower records on bay and columbus in san francisco, the same tower records to which i sprinted one night when joe and i had a huge fight and i needed a copy of let it bleed to play over and over while i chain-smoked inside and made all of our stuff stink (see the aforementioned anna karenina phase). the stones CD is still with me, but god knows where easter ended up; i listened to it straight through on a road trip which became by virtue of its awful patti smith soundtrack the mathematical opposite of a road trip in a volkswagen commercial (even the one with nick drake's "pink moon," which...do your research, madison avenue), and i put as much distance between it and my person as i could.

why, then, did i shell out for her memoir? because one of my favorite blog-ladies loves patti to pieces. because just kids won the national book award. because i wanted to qualify for super saver shipping. one finishes tolstoy and, satisfied, needs to feel...cheated?
We did not have enough money to pay our bill. At first light I woke Robert, helped him dress, and walked him down the fire escape. I left him there on the sidewalk so I could climb back up and get our portfolios. All we had in the world.
When I looked up I saw some of the woebegone residents waving handkerchiefs. They leaned out of windows calling "goodbye, goodbye" to the children who were escaping the purgatory of their existence.
I hailed a cab. Robert slid in, followed by the portfolios. Before ducking into the taxi, I tood a last look at the sad splendor of the scene, the waving hands, the Allerton's foreboding neon sign, and the morphine angel singing from the fire escape.
Robert rested his head on my shoulder. I could feel some of the stress leave his body. "It's going to be all right," I said, "I'll get my job back and you'll get better."
"We're going to make it, Patti," he said.
We promised we'd never leave one another again, until we both knew we were ready to stand on our own. And this vow, though everything we were yet to go through, we kept.
"Chelsea Hotel," I told the driver, fumbling through my pockets for change, not completely certain I could pay him.
in a recent review of a new modigliani biography, peter schjeldahl notes that
No starving-artist myth ever propogated lacks a case in point involving Modigliani. [His biographer] notes, "Occasionally he curled up in the street, as his friends discovered one morning. He had found a cozy corner underneath a table on the terrace of the Lapin Agile and was dead to the world." Getting thrown out of a restaurant for causing a scene (as by stripping naked, on more than one occasion) beat having to pay the check. He ran up boundless tabs, or paid with then-worthless drawings, at establishments that valued his charm.


A spoiled mother's boy, Modigliani was a magnet for parental impulses. Such dependency was readily dissembled, in the imagination of the day, as an artist's superior claim on the world's solicitude. Nietzschean Supermen don't do dishes.
just kids reeks of that entitlement, the sort of entitlement that makes me hate penniless artists and then hate myself for hating penniless artists. i would like to be the sort of person who could thrill to the tale of how twentysomething patti nursed hustlin' robert through a crippling bout of fever, gonorrhea, and trench mouth (seriously?), but i twisted up with disdain: if you called your dad, as jarvis cocker put it, he could stop it all. i can respect the fact that leaning on her conservative parents would have compromised patti's integrity - very well, starve for your art - but i can't imagine it was especially fun to be, say, a cab driver in new york in the seventies, and getting stiffed by artistic types like patti and robert must have made it even better. what made their needs more important than their creditors'?

then there's the dress-up, and the weird lifestyle plagiarism. i respect borrowing from your heroes - lord knows the night i swanned around as david bowie was one of the highlights of my life in new york to date - but smith's rote mimicry of brian jones, rimbaud, and others reads like bad fashion blogging, and i think her pilgrimages to charlesville (rimbaud's birthplace) and paris's pere-lachaise*** (where jim morrison is buried) actually shrank my soul. on that pere-lachaise scene, where she meets an old woman cleaning the graves:
[The woman] shook her head, muttering. I was amazed at her disregard for the torrential rain. Suddenly she turned and gruffly cried in English: "American! Why do you not honor your poets?"
I was very tired. I was twenty-six years old. All around me the messages written in chalk were dissolving like tears in the rain. Streams formed beneath the charms, cigarettes, guitar picks. Petals of flowers left on the plot of earth above Jim Morrison floated like bits of Ophelia's bouquet.
"Ehh!" she cried again. "Answer me, Américaine! Why do you young people not honor your poets?"
"Je ne sais pas, madame," I answered, bowing my head.
"I do not know."
the violence of my snort as i read that scene in bed frightened both of the cats and roused joe from sleep. "whuh?" "patti smith. jim fucking morrison."

VICTOR: anna could take patti with one plump white arm tied behind her back. i think kitty scherbatsky could take patti, to be honest.

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 if you've read anna karenina, does it rank among your favorite books?

02 do you think cthulhu would appreciate justin bieber?

03 why doesn't tolstoy tell us more about how anna and vronsky fall in love?

04 in his new yorker review of the pevear/volokhonsky AK, james wood contends that "Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Madame Bovary, and Anna Karenina, while carrying the germs of male blame, produce their own antibodies, so that their doomed heroines are finally sympathized with rather than judged, written into rather than written off." do you agree? (as i recall, i pitied tess.)

05 would you drink beef tea?

06 do you own any patti smith albums? do you play them?

07 were patti and robert justified in skipping out on their bills?

08 if you've read just kids, did you find the prose purple?

09 have you ever been to jim morrison's grave?

*i've mostly stopped pretending to speak russian, though i can still read cyrillic and occasionally have dreams about meat salad.

**AK was published in russky vesnik, a monthly, between 1875 and 1877.

***full disclosure: i insisted on visiting jim morrison's grave when i went to paris. i was sixteen.

03.10.11: the dirty dozen {on my desk}

01 highland park 18 year old whisky
02 750 ml bottle of sparkling concord grape juice
03 navel orange
04 brown sugar vanilla body cream
05 coco chanel (justine picardie)
06 glue stick
08 $1.90 in canadian coins
07 war and peace (leo tolstoy, louise and aylmer maude trans.)
08 14" green hula hoop
09 fuck the economy mug
10 DIY karl lagerfeld votive candle
11 storyteller: the authorized biography of roald dahl (donald sturrock)
12 righteous indignation

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 biographies: do the authorized ones interest you?
02 have you ever trained a pet to jump through a hoop? any pointers?
03 what does your mug say?
04 how is it where you are? i miss the life in which i wasn't at the office until midnight, internets. i miss that creepy laugh of yours.


for a handful of years in the mid-nineties, my family's summer vacation was a week at stanford sierra camp, an eccentric affair up near lake tahoe where alumni and their relatives weave pine-needle baskets, roast marshmallows, and hear lectures on global warming and judicial history. our week's featured speaker one year was sandra day o'connor, and the cabins were atwitter before she arrived: would she discuss contemporary cases? would there be room for everyone at the talk? would she stick around for square dancing? one of my friends was fishing up at witch's pond one evening, as one does, when with nary a rustle or snapped twig, sandra day o'connor materialized from the undergrowth. "justice is served," said she [i paraphrase], and he greeted her in the only way one can when confronted with a supreme court justice on a fine summer's eve: "this is my fish," he said, holding up his tin minnow bucket.

i'm married lady of the day over at east side bride; i haven't a tin minnow bucket, but these are my green pants.


they were $15 at a barneys warehouse sale a few years ago, and they make people exclaim things happily. it's entirely possible that "i love green pants!" is shorthand for "i love [that you are the one wearing] green pants [and i am safe over here];" i'm okay with that as well.

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 if you were a supreme court justice, how would you announce yourself?

02 what's your most popular article of clothing?

03 would you wear green pants?

03.02.11: ask kidchamp, round IV {quiffs, magazines, beach reads}

What do you know about gelatin & hair?!?

A: i know that gelatin's the go-to stuff for relatively weatherproof mohawks,* and that it's the styling product of choice for synchronized swimmers (it'll reliquefy with moisture and warmth but stands up to cool water quite well). it's better for your hair than spray (which is often alcohol-based) or glue (which is, you know, glue), as it's related to keratin; it's related to keratin because it's made of bone and connective tissue, unfortunately, which is why vegan punks won't use it and why i can't eat most haribo products.

saw the devil wears prada for the first time last night. is that really what it's like?

A: my first magazine job bore an unfortunate resemblance; i spent a miserable summer afternoon sprinting around the city in search of a particular kind of vitamin water, and i was frequently frostbitten for missing references to peripheral media properties in the dozen newspapers i had to skim before leaving for the office each morning (or for forwarding those references a minute or two late). i was tempted to expense my cigarettes that year, and i still feel queasy panic when i read certain new york papers. my current job is almost nothing like lauren weisberger's at vogue: my coworkers occasionally wear flats, are frequently pregnant, and are almost always considerate. that said, there is a fairly constant stream of weird free stuff, i quarter cupcakes without irony, and i've lost count of the number of times i've shared an elevator with someone who suddenly whipped off their pants.

can you recommend some beach reading? i'd like something fun to read that isn't trashy.

A: well, i continue to think raymond chandler turned out some of the tastiest prose in town. though his novels are detective stories, i don't think you have to worry about putting him down and losing your place as you vacation; he's a stickler for continuity, and his eye for detail is so bleary-perfect that you can return to his settings in a blink. try the big sleep, and maybe have farewell, my lovely on hand for emergencies. if you want to stretch a bit more, several of the essays in DFW's a supposedly fun thing i'll never do again are great fun; try the title piece (re: a caribbean cruise), or "getting away from already being pretty much away from it all," on the illinois state fair (pdf here). i also conferred with some bookish locals on your behalf: our lovely entertainment editor recommends the paris wife (a fictionalization of hemingway's relationship with hadley richardson), a novelist friend says that she "kind of liked/hated" j courtney sullivan's commencement (about four women who meet as undergrads at smith) and notes that freedom moves along at a good clip; maddie dawson's the stuff that never happened is a big favorite with my lady the book editor, and said editor's upcoming thriller (cara hoffman's so much pretty) is "amazing." i also think you should make a grab for my itinerant copy of a discovery of witches, which has, i believe, recently returned from thailand.

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 how big was/is your biggest hair?

02 would you be more likely to need gelatin for a mohawk or for synchronized swimming?

03 worst job you ever had?

04 should i bring a book to iceland? one could need a beach read for the blue lagoon, no?

*a friend of mine dated this kid called ender who'd slather his hair with gelatin and iron out his foot-tall mohawk on a board. that's neither here nor there, i just thought you should know.