Listy-Lists

Loves and hates (2010).

Here I present some fair and foul fragrances from my past. Reading through them, I'm thinking my loves would make one hell of a brief for any of my favorite perfumers. As for my hates, I deed them forthwith to Guy Laroche. I owe him that much for Drakkar Noir.

OLENSKA LOVES....

Scents from her mother's gardens:

  • Pollen from the tiger lilies that grew behind our apartment building in Chicago
  • Blueberry shrubs in the sun (even when there are no berries, the foliage has a rich fragrance)
  • Privet hedges in flower
  • Yew needles and yew berries
  • Fresh dill weed and umbels of dillseed
  • Artemisia (wormwood)
  • Fresh raw angelica stems
  • Four o'clocks (the ones my mother grew smelled like vanilla pudding)
  • Sweet pea blossoms
  • Tomato plants-- a sharp, green sappy smell exuded from the stems and leaves
  • German chamomile flowers
  • Strawberries fallen from the vine & fermenting on the ground
  • Yarrow flowers
  • Cornstalks and corn silk
  • Harvest days. My mother made use of every inch of our front and back yards with extensive vegetable gardens; our property was essentially a small working farm smack in the middle of a suburban neighborhood. We grew tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, potatoes, zucchini, summer squash, pumpkins, spinach, lettuce, green beans, peas, corn, blueberries, strawberries, basil, dill, lavender, and other fresh herbs. In addition, we had a huge crabapple tree and smaller peach and apple trees, all of which produced fruit. Come harvest time the kitchen was filled with the aroma of fresh-picked fruits and vegetables-- a delicious, dewy, verdant smell that made your mouth water in anticipation of feasts to come.
  • Iris rhizomes. My mother, who is a certified NJ Master Gardener, specialized in iris propagation. She did all her sorting and dividing work on a wide wooden table down in the basement. The raw rhizomes had an earthy, wet, delicate scent that evoked rich dark soil and cold water. From this, I gained an early appreciation for orris root in perfumery.

Scents from the kitchen:
  • Cumin and chilis from the enchiladas my night-shift-working father used to eat for "dinner". I helped him eat it, even though it was technically my breakfast time-- even as a two-year-old, I had an insatiable passion for hot and spicy foods.
  • My mother's spice alcove, built by my father especially to hold her vast collection of bottled culinary herbs, spices, and extracts. As each store-bought bottle emptied, she refilled it with herbs she grew and dried herself. As a child, I would stand in front of this alcove as if it was the votive candle bank at church, opening each bottle and worshipfully sniffing. (My favorites: nutmeg, black pepper, orange peel, dill, cumin, caraway, nigella, aniseed, fennel seed, coriander seed, tarragon, pickling spices, mace, achiote, turmeric, bay leaves, thyme, rosemary, cinnamon sugar, garam masala, Hungarian hot paprika, cardamom, whole cloves, Bell's Turkey Seasoning, Old Bay Seasoning, rum extract.)
  • Baking bread. My mother made all of our bread for everyday eating-- white, rye, oat, sourdough, zucchini, carrot, cinnamon-raisin, asiago cheese, foccacio, pretzels.
  • Yogurt and kefir. My mother and I processed a gallon of whole milk into homemade yogurt and kefir every week. First the milk must be heated just until it scalds, which is one of the most heavenly smells I can think of (and which provoked my love of Olivia Giacobetti's Safran Troublant and Idole). Then it is mixed with yogurt culture, bottled, set in pans of hot water, swaddled in towels, and left to thicken. The smell of freshly made yogurt is sour but delicate and appetizing. It can be mixed with honey, rosewater, and cardamom to make lassi, or with cucumber juice and salt and served ice cold on a broiling hot August day.
  • Canning day: homemade apple butter, blueberry-crabapple compote, pickled green beans and green tomatoes, tomato sauce, sweet tomato-and-mace relish.
  • Eggplant harvest. In one day, my entire family would mobilize into a sort of production line-- peeling, slicing, flouring, egg-battering, breading, and frying roundel after roundel of eggplant until we had enough to fill the floor freezer for a winter's worth of eggplant parmigiana. Whatever eggplant was left over got turned into a gigantic pot of savory, garlicky ratatouille, which we ate compulsively night and day, hot or ice-cold from the refrigerator. Something about the bitter smell of eggplant peel and the intense green smell of fresh eggplant meat just before it hits the hot oil just sends me.
  • Holiday scents: candied fruit peel, spiced or sugared pecans roasted in the oven, chestnuts, hussarn (cream cheese thumbprint cookies filled with apricot, redcurrant, blackberry, or strawberry jam), roast beef and Yorkshire pudding....
  • Other random kitchen smells: blackstrap molasses, fresh-ground coffee, kasha varnishkes (buckwheat groats and bowtie pasta sauteed in butter), sauteed chicken livers and caramelized onions, browned butter, ghee, crisp bacon or bacon fat, balsamic vinegar, sesame seed halvah, tahini and lemon juice dressing, coconut cream, basmati or wehani rice, raw millet, fresh carrot or cucumber juice, raw green pepper, bitter chocolate, Irish lamb stew, fresh cilantro, raw peanuts in the shell, raw turnips or beets, Earl Grey tea, celery greens, Indian curry spices, anisette, Grand Marnier, orangeflower water or rosewater, chai or milk tea, Italian ribbon candy, licorice.
Wilderness scents:
  • Cedar foliage
  • Juniper berries
  • Pine needles and pine cones
  • Ferns in the sunlight
  • Birch twigs in spring
  • Air coming in from off the salt marshes near my home
  • Honeysuckle vines in full bloom
  • Leaf mold in late autumn
  • Sassafras leaves: when you fold them, a scent like root beer is released.
  • Sheep sorrel leaves, which look like shamrocks and smell and taste like lemon juice when bruised. Although oxalic acid is poisonous and not really meant to be eaten, we used to eat sorrel all the time. What can I tell you? It was lemony fresh.
  • Bonfires in fall, woodsmoke in winter
Other random scents:
  • Frankincense burning in the priest's censer as he walked up the center aisle at church.
  • Cedar blocks kept in the wardrobe to repel moths; every so often you'd take them out and rasp them on a square of sandpaper to keep their aroma fresh.
  • Sachets of lavender and rue in the closet
  • Mothballs. Really. To me, the smell of camphor indicated the change of seasons at which boxes of summer (or winter) clothes would be fetched from the basement and opened like giant, battered presents. Every year, I'd inherit clothing from my older sister and pass clothing on to my younger sister, so it was kind of a twice-yearly Christmas for everyone.
  • Fresh sawdust
  • Anisette in a glass set out to feed the spirits
  • Bay rum or Florida water
  • My father's aftershaves: Jovan Musk, Old Spice, English Leather
  • My mother's perfumes: Jean Nate, Chanel No. 5, Arpege
  • Egyptian henna mixed with eucalyptus oil, ready to be applied to wet hair
  • Clove oil applied neat for toothaches: my father's younger sister swore by it.
  • Gold Bond powder
  • Tiger Balm liniment
  • Violet water that my mother used as a facial astringent
  • Incense for burning on charcoal: frankincense, breuzinho, benzoin, dragon's blood, copal, demarara sugar (the last creates a heavy caramel smoke that might be too much for some people, but I love it)
  • Nag champa
  • Murphy's Oil Soap
  • Lemon furniture oil
  • Mink oil for boots and shoes
  • Sage wands for smudging to spiritually clear one's living space
  • Line-dried laundry
  • FRESH cigarette smoke-- the first puff is magic, provided it's a good quality tobacco like American Spirit or Nat Sherman's
  • Pipe tobacco or really good cigars
  • Raw beeswax. A few years ago I bought several pounds of it in cake form from an apiary. Nothing smells so much like concentrated honey and herbs as this.
  • Freshly mown grass or hay
  • Wet stones or bricks
  • Petrichor: the scent that rises from the ground within the first few minutes of rainfall after a dry spell. It is created by the essential oils of naturally-growing ground vegetation which sinks into the ground and coats each particle of soil. When rain falls, it releases and stirs up the petrichor. Breathing it in is extremely healthful. A naturally occuring form of aromatherapeutic mist.
  • Saltwater
  • Old books


OLENSKA HATES....
  • Raw onions that have been sitting for longer than ten minutes so that the sulphur starts to emerge
  • White vinegar
  • Bleach
  • Ammonia
  • Mildew
  • Bleu cheese or any other mold-laden food
  • Old rosewater
  • Cooked spinach: smells like the worst aspects of a barnyard
  • Smelly shoes or socks
  • Wet dog fur
  • Old, fermented urine (strangely, fresh urine smells perfectly fine to me)
  • Chemical fertilizers (as opposed to compost or manure, which smells natural)
  • Black top or tar (OH GOD. I hate this smell probably more than anything.)
  • Propane exhaust (such as is emitted from the tail end of a small forklift driven by an obsessive foreman in a small, unventilated warehouse where you are working in the heat of August at age 19. But sit tight.... they're about to dig up the septic tank out front!)
  • Cold hardboiled eggs
  • Old grapefruit peels
  • Cold, used coffee grounds
  • Yellow papaya (the high concentration of papain in Hawai'ian papayas produces a pukey smell that evokes visions of that pink sawdust crap the school janitor used to deploy when someone got sick)
  • Fish, shellfish, or seafood of any kind, fresh or unfresh, raw or cooked. Disgusting.
  • Old frying oil or rancid chicken fat
  • Artificial lilac, rose, or hyacinth room sprays
  • Nail polish remover
  • Old cigarette smoke or ashes
  • Rotting mushrooms (another fishy smell; oh so awful)
  • Bad patchouli from cheap headshops
  • Artificial strawberry flavoring. Loathsome.
  • Cassis in all its forms.
  • Drakkar Noir. The perfume the devil would wear if he had no taste and only $15 to spend.
  • Listerine Original Flavor
  • Tuberoses
  • Any cosmetics with strong artificial fruit smells-- i.e., everything in Bath & Body Works.
  • Calone: a ubiquitous chemical in today's perfumeland. This aquatic-saltwater-melon scent is a common signature of modern masculine "fresh" scents; it makes everything smell bright and hyper and lit with thousands of klieg lights. Something about it makes me feel panicky. Breathing it in feels like being spiked in the head with an underripe melon.



Loves and hates, updated (2013).


It's been over three years since I posted my 'Loves and Hates' list.. While looking over it, I began to ponder the passage of time. What utterly unfamiliar smells have I encountered in the last twelve-hundred-odd days? Have I added to, subtracted from, or amended any of the items on my scent-imbued roster of preferences?

Certainly none of my original loves have moved into the hates category, though at least one has wavered on the brink. In the wake of the hurricane, the scents of saltwater has taken on a new, slightly menacing significance. And while I still revere boardwalk scents such as cotton candy, caramel corn, and suntan lotion, I find them much less innocent than before. When crisis turns an object of affection (in this case, the Atlantic Ocean) into a potential peril, it's hard not to feel confused. I'm only learning now what shore dwellers throughout the centuries have known: beloved as she is, the sea is a fickle mistress.

I still adore all of the scents of nature (both domestic and wild) I first enumerated. I can now add magnolia blossoms to the list, thanks to the gorgeous flowering tree which grows in front of our house. Every spring, as a wealth of pink-and-white blossoms weighs down its branches, both our eyes and our noses receive a glorious gift.

My list of favorite kitchen smells has also suffered only minor alterations, mostly for the good. After 25 years as a vegetarian I've turned carnivorous again, so roast chicken, bacon, Italian sausages, and chorizo are back on the scent menu. (Savoring their rich umami aromas makes me wonder if my longtime love for smoky perfumery notes (vetiver, cade, and mesquite) indicated a suppressed longing for meat!) While I included raw onions on my hates list, I didn't adequately counterbalance it with how much I love the scent of cooked onions-- particularly the pure white Mexican variety, chopped fine and sautéed until translucent in olive oil or butter. I've also grown fond of leeks (which have a very delicate scent in comparison to their bulbous cousins) and have recently discovered the strange, almost nectary sweetness of jicama root.

Working in a public library is a smellier business than you might ever imagine. Every morning as I enter the building, I am immediately greeted by the cumulative stink of years' worth of human armpit odor and sweaty feet. (Seriously, it's like a high school gym locker room some mornings-- especially if the air conditioning is on the fritz.) Thanks to the incontinence of our senior population, I am stopped in my tracks by the overpowering smell of fresh human feces a minimum of once per week-- and since our upholstered chairs have been peed in more times than I can count, there's also the stench of stale urine to contend with. Sections of the library roof are leak-prone, so whiffs of mold and mildew dog us throughout the day, plaguing the more allergic among us with incessant sniffles and sneezes. Finally, the Dunkin Donuts franchise located within our building does land-office business with breakfast sandwiches, so on top of all these sundry pongs, add the sulphurous scent of cooked egg. Delightful!

I cited floral room sprays as one of my least favorite scents. This remains true, but in the last fifteen years, science has presented us with a truly wondrous invention: Febreze. Febreze utilizes a human- and pet-safe chemical called hydroxypropyl beta-cyclodextrin (HPβCD), whose scent-neutral molecules bind with and effectively cancel out those produced by malodorous sources. Those commercials are no lie: you can park yourself comfortably right on top of a landfill so long as you've Febrezed it first. I particularly like the Mediterranean Lavender variant, which contains an unexpected dose of labdanum. It's such a 'finished' fragrance, I could almost imagine wearing it like a real perfume.

Speaking of perfume... what about perfume notes? Having added them to my tagging system, it's easy to see which notes appear in commercial fragrances most often: amber, bergamot, cedar, oakmoss, iris, jasmine, rose, frankincense, labdanum, musk, patchouli, sandalwood, vanilla, vetiver. Of these, I like the woody, mossy, and resinous notes best, particularly when paired with hard spices like cardamom, clove, nutmeg or any variety of peppercorn. I suppose I'll never make a good floral fan, though I adore Oriental-style peppery blossoms -- carnation, geranium, certain roses -- and I seem to have developed a real jones for jasmine. (Not so tuberose -- I still dislike it the most out of all the white florals, and will probably continue to do so for as long as I live. Some dislikes are acquired; others are hard-wired.) Any flower (except for peony!) smells better backed with a nice mossy chypre; less so with plain old patchouli, which never fails to smell like ripe hippie. As for fruits, cassis is no longer on my hates list; I've come to terms with that bright, piercing, juicy note with its strangely urinous undertones, and now it's become a decided favorite. I am still on the fence about grapefruit, though-- it's my citrus-least-likely-to-be-loved, and still produces uncomfortable reminders of crash diets past.

My feelings about Drakkar Noir hold firm. It is the Devil. Ditto the scent of calone, which I described as "bright and hyper and lit with thousands of klieg lights... like being spiked in the head with an underripe melon." I mean every syllable. Sadly, a distinctive subset of male fragrance bloggers and forum-trolls still worship both calone and Drakkar. Oddly enough, their personalities always seem to be distinguished by a certain hostile, pugnacious quality that is as recognizable (and repulsive) as the forceful "fresh masculine" accords they champion. This leads me to the question: does Drakkar use cause hostility, or does it merely exacerbate a pre-existing condition? Do men seek out Drakkar because they're assholes, or does Drakkar turn them into assholes? This chicken-or-the-egg question will haunt me to the end of my days.



The sensory questionnaire.

Michelle Krell Kydd of Glass Petal Smoke has devised an olfactory version of the Proust Questionnaire. JoanElaine at Redolent of Spices and Krista at Scent of the Day have already posted their answers.  Though mine are already scattered throughout the archives of this blog, I respect the power of the meme, and so:

1. What does your sense of smell mean to you?

In Brian Friel's play Lovers, a young woman named Mag cheerfully declares, "I think I’d rather be a widow than a widower; but I’d rather be a bachelor than a spinster. And I’d rather be deaf than dumb; but I’d rather be dumb than blind. And if I had to choose between lung cancer, a coronary, and multiple sclerosis, I’d take the coronary." I believe I would choose all of the above rather than lose my sense of smell. So many other senses and perceptions are tied to smell that if it disappeared, life would be missing multiple dimensions.

2. What are some of your strongest scent memories?

Brown sugar, bayberry candles, and books: all these claim the oldest tenancy in my memory's scent-storage areas. The first ruled the kitchens of my childhood, while the second inhabited all the deepest recesses of the house-- closets, basements, and crawlspaces where boxes of Christmas decorations were kept. The third-- well, books old and new were everywhere in our house. I've read that when paper breaks down, it releases a peculiar scent similar in molecular structure to vanilla. I love this smell, as it has surrounded me all my life.

3. What are some of your favorite smells?

All are listed above. Looking over them, I can see that most of them involve either the outdoors (my mother's and others' gardens, the pine forests, salt marshes, and beaches of my home territory) or the kitchen, always two favorite places of mine. If I had to choose the one that is most hard-wired into my neurons, it would have to be the ozonic, salty scent of ocean air. Having lived in various locales, I can tell you that I was most miserable where the air was devoid of this scent. Wherever I am, I don't have to see the ocean... I just have to be able to smell it.

4. Do you have any favorite smells that are considered strange?

It's not unusual to like the smell of fresh paint, gasoline, or nail polish remover. It might be more unusual to enjoy the smell of a goat farm. My aunt raised Nubian and Alpine goats on her farm in the northwestern part of state. I loved the powerful animalic odor of the goat's soft hides, the gamey smell of their milk, the scent of fresh ordure and urine mixed with hay, pine needles, spring rain, and rich black soil.

5. Describe one or more of your favorite cooking smells.

The nutmeg-laced scent of milk scalded in preparation for a batch of béchamel; sourdough starter in a ceramic jar; browning butter; raw fennel and turnip roots, and angelica stalks. These are only a few from a very long list.

6. What smells do you most dislike?

I hate the smell of any kind of onion so much that I often opt not to cook with onions even though I love their flavor in any dish. I abhor the smell of laundry bleach with a passion, and ammonia even more so, but perhaps worst of all is mildew, a scent which I consider synonymous with neglect.

7. What smell did you first dislike, but learned to love?

The smell of Manhattan. One can be easily overwhelmed when faced with this amalgam of carbon monoxide, soot, garbage, and piss... but little by little it begins to grow on you until at last you associate it with a certain gritty brand of adventure. Mix in the smoky, charred smell of street-vended pretzels, and hell becomes heaven.

8. What mundane smells inspire you?

Right now, I love the smell of Dr. Bronner's Tea Tree Oil soap-- cleanliness incarnate.

9. What scent never fails to take you back in time and why?

Petrichor: the scent of the soil newly moistened by rainfall. There are so many moments throughout my life that I smelled this scent and felt connected to all the times I smelled it in the past, as if each instance was an individual bead strung on a long, long string, and taken as a whole they made a sort of rosary.

10. What scents do you associate with memories of loved ones?

When reviewing the olfactory memories of my past, it startled me to realize that people simply weren't on the list. By this, I mean that I deputized particular scents to serve as symbolic markers for the people in my life (my mother's lipstick and everpresent cigarette smoke; the vehicle exhaust that permeated my father's postal uniform at the end of each work day), but I did not attach emotional significance or meaning to the scents of the people themselves -- their skin, hair, breath, sweat. This omission seemed strange, even disturbing to me.  Aren't the intimate body scents of one's parents the building blocks of every infant's sense of trust and identification?

After long pondering, I had to admit that I was never comforted by these.  Because my large family lived crowded together in a small house, we marked personal boundaries using strife and verbal argument, and defended them by disdaining physical affection.  As a result, my feelings for my family (and their smells) are largely ambivalent.  When I fell in love with my husband, three factors influenced me:  his calm nature, the ease with which he demonstrated physical affection, and his good, natural, musky body smell.  I could relax with him and finally experience a childlike sense of safety.  It took me until age 27 to know this feeling, and I believe that my adult love of fragrance stems from a desire to catch up developmentally through my sense of smell.

11. What fragrance(s) remind you of growing up?

Mothballs. When not in use, our summer and winter wardrobes were kept packed in boxes with plenty of these little camphor pellets that so resembled miniature marshmallows. This made spring and fall exciting times, as we pulled the boxes out, tried clothes on, handed down what no longer fit to younger siblings, and assessed what new items we would need to start the season.

12. What fragrance(s) remind you of the places you visited on vacation?

We took few vacations when I was a child, but one place we could count on going every summer was my cousins' house in Staten Island. Their house, being old, had (and still has) a certain smell-- like antique wood, dust, and moss -- that I loved. Their property also boasted slate walkways, huge azalea bushes, chestnuts and mulberry trees. Combine all this with the musty scent of Staten Island clay soil and the industrial fumes of the nearby fuel refineries and Fresh Kills landfill, and it made for quite a distinctive bouquet.

13. Describe a piece of sensory literature that is very magical for you.

In Finnish author Johanna Sinisalo's homoerotic fantasy novel Troll, Angel -- a young fashion photographer living in modern-day Helsinki --  rescues the titular creature from an urban alleyway and adopts it as a pet.  Pessi (as Angel names his "stray") bears no resemblance to the ugly hulking monsters of Scandinavian folklore; rather, he's a sleek, ebony-furred sprite who (as he grows) begins to emanate an odd pheromonal scent described by Sinisalo as "the whiff of lust itself"-- a wild, aphrodisiacal accord of animal musk, juniper berries, and spruce needles which drives Angel to make some terribly rash decisions.  Throughout the book, characters read, dominate, betray, and discover one another through the primitive sign-markers of scent.



As you like it.

Lately I've been pondering my own blog-reading preferences-- the qualities that draw me toward any blog, whether 'fume-related or no. I have come to the conclusion that the idea of judging "good/bad" or "right/wrong" in blogging is damn near impossible. Taste is such an idiosyncratic thing, and online morals or ethics are, well... highly subject to personal interpretation. The following, then, should be taken solely for what they are: the loose criteria of a lone discerning reader. Insofar as preferring a thing gives rise to the inclination to emulate it, my preferences also reflect the goals towards which I strive as a writer. We all seek to create the world we wish for... so interpret these as my deepest desires for Parfümieren.

And if you find on this list things you do that I do not, or things you like that I do not... believe me, I still respect and dig you. À chacun son goût.)

I enjoy reading blogs in which....
  • the author's personality is clearly distinguishable in their words; they speak in a VOICE, not in a "writing style".
  • a definite viewpoint or opinion is expressed in honest, frank language sans sugarcoating.
  • anecdotes and details reveal something of the author's history or day-to-day life and invite us to get to know them better.
  • the author is a good sport. This I define as having not only a sense of humor about one's subject but an ego strong enough to withstand pratfalls and mistakes. I find good-natured confessions of personal flaws or foibles really endearing.
  • the author values the 'personal' over the 'professional' and consistently deviates from dry journalism (the old "who-what-where-when") to offer something quirky, heartfelt, or emotional.
  • self-censorship is anathema. When the author feels really passionate about something, they'll go off-road to pursue it, no matter how bumpy the ride. The resulting tangents and tantrums are honest (if at times irascible) and introduce a jolt of energy into daily reading.
  • comparisons are creatively drawn between unalike objects in order to enrich the subject. In other words, I'd rather see a perfume likened to a movie, a book, a song, a historical personality, a weather phenomenon, an ancient philosophy, a dance step, or a physical sensation than merely have it compared to another perfume.
  • creative, experimental, and unconventional perfume reviews in the form of stories, poems, or even photo essays can be found. I love the unexpected!

I am turned off by...
  • 'insider status' reporting, in which the blogger seems driven to drop famous names and claim exclusive privileges with wearying frequency. Look, if you personally know a perfumer or have received a nice pre-launch sample, it's perfectly okay to say so... but remember that being 'well-connected' is by no means the same as connecting well.
  • cults of personality. When a blog author practices aggressive self-branding (i.e. constantly referring to themselves in the third person, with or without "trademark-copyright-registered-patent-pending" symbols trailing behind) I just want to say, Ease up there, tiger.
  • blatant PR campaigning. Obvious over-reliance on official-press-packet-speak makes all my alarm bells go off. And when I see simultaneous glowing reviews and raffles popping up everywhere, I glimpse the gears of a vast well-oiled machine at work... and I shudder.*
  • feuding 'fumeheads. There are only a few really prominent Hatfield-McCoy dialogues going on out there, but even as an uninvolved spectator I find them exhausting. The few times I've ever felt stirred against a fellow blogger's stance, I felt horribly uncomfortable about it; I can't imagine keeping that sort of animosity going for the long term. Seriously, do we not all have enough spammers, scrapers, and trolls to fend off without turning on each other?
So what are your pleasures and/or peeves as a reader? What about your reading list can't you live with or without?

*Last year I received an email from a marketing consultant on behalf of her perfumer client. She leaned on me for a "partnership" which would "entrail" (her word, not mine!) brainstorming, ad-sharing, social media blitzing, "email news inclusion" and other promotional responsibilities-- all to be undertaken by me while still proclaiming to be objective, independent, and unaffiliated. Bwuh?



In the eyes of the beholder.

Ever feel the inexplicable need to interview yourself? Find a meme and get to it. Defined as an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture, memes are funny creatures in a perpetual state of mutation-- shedding old characteristics and sprouting new ones as merrily they roll along. The term "meme" derives from the Greek μιμητής (mimētḗs, "imitator") but could just as easily be pronounced ME! ME! for all the self-reference in which they permit us to happily indulge.

Recently, Lavanya of PurplePaperPlanes has been challenging various perfumistas to answer Seven Questions on Beauty... and although I am out of Lavanya's loop, I find her general questionnaire thought-provoking enough to want to answer it all on my own. (Of course I tweaked it slightly -- would it be a meme if I didn't?)

Ready? ("Me! Me!" ) Okay, let's go!

1) What do you mean when you call something beautiful? Do you have different definitions when you talk of different things like faces, art, landscape? Or is everything you find beautiful characterized by something similar?

The Yu'pik have a different word for every conceivable type of snow depending on its location and consistency. Conversely, I use a single word to inadequately describe multiple manifestations of a quality I can scarcely define. Yet without that one inadequate word to hide behind, I would routinely embarrass myself attempting to describe how I feel. That indeed is the clue, the common denominator. When I call something beautiful, I mean that it affects my emotions powerfully. I behold its face and am shattered and rebuilt in an instant.

2) Is there something that you find beautiful that is an exception to the above definition or which lacks the above characteristic/s?

Really, no. The love -- that unmistakable sense of connection and recognition -- is key for me. I acknowledge the aspect of beauty known as symmetry, which abides by fixed mathematical formulae and can be measured, compared, and judged. But this is form, not content; there must be a soul inhabiting all that perfection. A building can be heralded as an architectural ideal yet echo with emptiness... but a shack can become a sacred temple when it's filled with spirit.

3) Do you make a distinction between aesthetically pleasing (or appealing to the senses) and beautiful? Can you call something one without it being the other? Is something that is aesthetically pleasing to you also defined by the characteristics described above?

I can think of many people, places, and things which are aesthetically pleasing but have not yet flowered into beauty for me. I remain unmoved by them, yet I can easily understand that they move other people and may someday move me if the proper conditions occur. I can also think of many people, places, and things which have ceased to be beautiful to me because my feelings about them have changed. Something has occurred to close that channel and extinguish the spark. But I can't think of anything I believe to be beautiful that isn't aesthetically pleasing to me. Love makes the loved one shine.

As a side note, I personally don't believe that a thing is beautiful because a majority finds it so. I cannot bring myself to view true beauty as a cult phenomenon-- a sort of sweeping virus of the senses, something subject to a popular vote or capable of being spread by proselytization. When a crowd of people all worship the same object, I assume that they are either being deceived or are deceiving themselves and others. How can they possibly all feel the same way? Their given reasons stir my curiosity, but also my distrust. This is probably why I don't talk much to other people about what I love, or why I love it. I feel the need to protect my affinity from being pried open and co-opted.

4) Do you have physical reactions to beauty? (e.g. eyes opening wide, tears etc)

Good god, yes. The experience of beauty, like love, can have a devastating impact. Upon encountering it, I have cried, blushed scarlet, stopped breathing, begun trembling, gone numb, turned mute, experienced weak knees, chest pains, sexual arousal, and spiritual quickening. To quote George Dillon:

I shall not be again
So jarred in every joint,
So mute, amazed and taut,
And winded of my breath--
Beauty being at my throat
More savagely than death.


5) List examples of things you find beautiful under the following categories:
People

My husband, naturally-- handsome, compassionate, steady, sensitive, and one of the funniest people I know. When we first met, I mistook his natural reserve for snooty standoffishness, yet I could not deny my attraction to him. This led to quite a lot of sullen, steamy glares across crowded rooms. Ironically, it was the crowd itself that brought us together: I suffered a claustrophobic panic attack in the midst of a overpopulated social event, and his instinctive chivalry opened the path, first to friendship, then to love. I wake up every morning and go to sleep every night blessed to behold his face.

Who else?... Ed Vedder, a brothercrush in all particulars, whose brain, heart, voice, and countenance have warmed me from afar for over two decades. I truly love to see him get older, because I'm getting older too; we're becoming grey-haired eccentric old curmudgeons on separate but parallel tracks. His music has directly helped me to survive some of the harshest shit I've ever had to face. He's my bro-who-don't-even-know-he's-so.

Places

South Jersey's beaches, Barrens, and backways. Reverend Howard Finster's Paradise Gardens in Northern Georgia. Etowah, Echota, and the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. What I remember of Chicago over the decades and between the tall buildings-- sun-glitter interspersed with deep shade. Times Square before the gentrification, when it was all whores and addicts and sad ruination, like Allen Ginsberg's HOWL come to life. The Meadowlands at dawn. The island of Maui, but not the Potemkin's Village portion reserved for haoles; the strange, haunted, kama'aina places-- a crumbling old sugar refinery taken over by banyan trees, an abandoned high school teeming with unseen energies, a hidden cliffside cave whose walls were chiseled with strange pictographs, the suburban athletic field where a ghost once took my hand.

Art/Design

Oh, man... street art. The way it springs up overnight, unsanctioned by the powers-that-be. The incredible risks taken by its creators, who actually break the law to deliver beauty to their urban environment. They do it and give it away for free-- what could be more beautiful than that?

In any number of her exquisite self-portraits, Frida Kahlo's gaze -- direct, unflinching, feverish, defiant -- is that of all womankind. We are trained to look up appealingly through our lashes, or else keep our eyes demurely downturned. Staring into her mirror, Frida challenged herself not merely to act the coquette or the helpless girlchild -- as would probably have been easiest and most approved -- but to seize her autonomy and brandish it like an angel's flaming sword. Her eyes challenge me to do the same. They don't let up, and they won't permit me to quit.

Film

The cumulative efforts of four filmmakers -- Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, and Wes Anderson -- springs immediately to mind. They share an obsessive precision and attention to small details, choreographing even the most minor sequence so that it becomes something grand, operatic, lovely. Their characters are pure-hearted oddballs who will stop at nothing to redeem and be redeemed. Watching their antics, one finds oneself echoing Royal Tenenbaum: "I'm having a ball-- scrapping and yelling and mixing it up, loving every minute with this damn crew!"

Literature/Graphic Narrative

I doubt I would have liked either Edith Wharton or Edna St. Vincent Millay in person; their egocentricity and cynicism would surely have repelled me. But Wharton's novels and Millay's poetry always leave me feeling wounded with a million delicate cuts, as from shards of glass. Each delivers the satisfaction of words that strike like well-aimed darts, always hitting their target-- and providing, as if by accident, a window into the inner pain each author carefully concealed behind her bright, harsh social carapace.

The short story "Miniature Elephants are Popular" by Joe Meno kills me. KILLS ME. So do the novels Reindeer Moon by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead, Independent People by Halldór Laxness, "Lulu" and "Babette's Feast" by Isak Dinesen, Watership Down and Shardik by Richard Adams, The Man Who Fell In Love With the Moon by Tom Spanbauer, and Chéri by Colette. All speak of loss and redemption, but in utterly unique ways. Ditto the graphic novel work of Chris Ware. The simple, whimsical forms, muted palette, and restrained storytelling with which he expresses his thoughts about mortality leaves me deeply shaken. For some reason, when he speaks through an animal protagonist (such as Quimby Mouse or Branford the Best Bee in the World), these devastating messages have triple the impact on me. Something about these creatures' vulnerability and insignificance in the "big world" brings home to me my own. They look for love and friendship and fear the prospect of dying alone, just as I do.

Music

Pearl Jam, always and forever. Their sound -- ferocious, sure-footed, full of joyful vigor -- is music for mammals. One could almost imagine that a pride of mountain lions would make sounds like this, if they could only get their paws on the instruments. And yet Vedder's voice -- from tenderest shivering plea to uninhibited full-throated war cry -- is undeniably homo sapiens, fully as beautiful when inarticulate as when shaping thoughts and emotions into language. To quote Walt Whitman: Not words, not music or rhyme I want-- not custom or lecture, not even the best; / Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice... the sound I love, the sound of the human voice.

I find Philip Glass' compositional style very intricate, precise, clinical, and cold. On its own, it does not appeal to me at all. But pair it with Godfrey Reggio's visuals of societal breakdown (Koyaanisqatsi) or Martin Scorsese's tender portrayal of the Dalai Lama (Kundun), and the same sounds resonate with emotion and meaning so profound it causes me to weep. My reaction is personal, private, even painful to feel. I want to feel that pain-- but I cannot easily explain why. This, it seems to me, is beauty-- the untranslatable.

Texture

My husband's smooth cheeks and stubbly chin; my cat Newman's soft-but-often-dreadlock-prone fur; very old and well-worn cotton; chamois suede.

Scent

Many of these are already covered in my "Favorites" list above. As for designed perfumes, in the whole of my perfumista history, it's the fragrances I loved earliest whose beauty I find most enduring. L'Air du Desert Marocain, Arabie, Flora Bella, Cabochard, Youth Dew, Private Collection, Halston, Opium, Tabu, Tunisian Frankincense. Others come and go; these remain, as monumental as the Himalayas.

6) Is there something that you find particularly beautiful even though you are in the clear minority in that opinion? If so, could you discuss it and explain why it appeals to you?

Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon has a face that looks like a truck backed over it... twice. Similarly, in voice and visage, Amanda Plummer is as needle-sharp as a hornet's stinger. Yet they both attract me like a pair of supermagnets. To paraphrase John Updike in The Witches of Eastwick, appeal shines from these two imperfect beings "as light from a twisted filament".

7) Is there something that is renowned to be beautiful that either doesn’t appeal to you or that you don’t find beautiful? Could you explain why?

Mount Rushmore. To some, a national monument devised to stir patriotic pride; to me and many others, the desecration of a holy mountain. I feel ill looking at it, but the prospect of the Crazy Horse Memorial leaves me similarly nauseated. Just leave the sacred earth alone, people. You sprang from the land, not the land from you, so stop trying to permanently make it over in your puny, fleeting image.