Damn you, Stephen Fry

Stephen-Fry

He uses up all the good words!

People who know me may wonder why I am so determinedly frivolous in my writing style these days. To understand that, you have to understand what writing a thesis does to someone who loves words.

The way to write a good thesis (although my advisors might well ask how I know this) is to take a really good, interesting piece of writing and pass it through a mangle, thereby squeezing out every single thing that could be described as making it easy or pleasant to read. Through repeated applications of the mangle, you obtain a kind of roughage that you might think twice before feeding to your worms. Or at least I would, because I am quite fond of the worms in my worm bin (there is such a pro-vertebrate bias in society, you would not believe. It’s all Hello-Kitty-this and Pat-the-Puppy-that but does anyone come round and ask to visit with the worms, I ask you? No, they don’t. But I digress).

The finished thesis product has much in common with institutional toilet paper; it performs an essential function and performs it well but, in terms of texture, it leaves the consumer feeling a wee bit unloved.

Today, I happily wasted my afternoon writing a little program to count all the words in my thesis (not including dumb words like this, the and it) and I think it is clear that in the process of my academic career, I used up my entire lifetime supply of  serious words like evidence, grammar, identical, control and consonant. The backlog of unused non-serious words then got shunted through eddies in the space-time continuum directly to Stephen Fry so that he would be able to say this:

“Until that time I think it was safe to say that I had never really been aware of my own timeless brand of loveliness. But his words smote me, because of course you see, I am lovely in a fluffy moist kind of way and who would have it otherwise? I walk, and let’s be splendid about this, in a highly accented cloud of gorgeousness that isn’t far short of being, quite simply terrific. The secret of smooth almost shiny loveliness, of the order of which we are discussing, in this simple, frank, creamy sort of way, doesn’t reside in oils, unguents, balms, ointments, creams, astringents, milks, moisturizers, liniments, lubricants, embrocations or balsams, to be rather divine for just one noble moment, it resides, and I mean this in a pink slightly special way, in ones attitude of mind.”

My evidence for the transferral to Stephen Fry of all the words I didn’t use is that (again, ignoring the grammaticky boring words), not a single word used by Fry in that monologue occurs even once in my thesis. I rest my case.

So, as I said, I am all out of serious words regimented in well-constructed sentences and today, if I had to write my thesis, this would be the abstract:

Words are made up of funny sounds, especially French which has many squishy words and (objectively) perfectly lunatic spelling. Some languages that are spoken in other places (quite possibly Ethiopia) where the food is also quite good, seem to have some other rules that are quite unlike French but ever-so-slightly like English. We all agreed that these rules would be less incommodious if we could make a computer do at least part of the work, so we force fed a dictionary to the computer and it got to work on some nifty computing. Once it was done totting up various sorts of numbers (big ones divided by little ones, mostly), it tried to guess whether an invented word would fit alongside real words in the dictionary. Sometimes the computer did a jolly good job of guessing whether an invented word would fit and sometimes it didn’t. That’s okay though, because if we could make the computer do a consistently decent job of understanding language, we would all be out of work and that would be too, too ghastly. Phew. 

Today’s illustration is shamelessly filched from the interwebs. Stephen Fry is my hero and any time he wants to stop by for a spot of tiffin, he can be sure of a warm, if slightly awed, welcome.

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Do not try this at home

shalimar

My precious new baby

1. Do not think, “Well,  I love Chloe  (the Lagerfeld stuff) but it is a bit strong to wear out much so I’ll have a nice big spritz before bed and have a lovely fragrant night without bothering anyone but my husband (but he likes Chloe, so not really a problem)”.

If you do this, you will spend the entire night waking up at intervals in a big cloud of sticky tuberose and then suffer from the mother of all hangovers in the morning.

2. Do not, on a Saturday morning before breakfast, decide to do a side-by-side comparison of vintage Emeraude by Coty (parfum de toilette) and vintage Shalimar (parfum).

As I had tried both of them separately and noted that were both quite strong and had similar notes, this seemed like a good idea. It wasn’t. Next to Shalimar parfum, everything fades into insignificance (so it was a waste of the Emeraude) and the effect of Shalimar at daybreak is deeply reminiscent of my husband’s fried salmon breakfast patty. In a theoretical way, you are aware that, later in the day, it might smell quite tasty but right now, it stinks to high heaven and you want to kill him.

3. Do not drop a 4oz, full, pressurized, bottle of vintage Cabochard eau de toilette on the bedroom floor.

I had a small spritz of my new acquisition right before leaving the house in the morning, just to test it, and it was so beautiful, I rushed home to refresh it as soon as I could. As I took the plastic cap off the bottle, it slipped out of my hot little hand and hit the carpet right on the sprayer nozzle (I hear that can be quite painful). I am sure that you get the drift of where this is going. The nozzle got stuck in the spray position. I grabbed it and got sprayed and the carpet got sprayed and so did the open closet.  I ran for the bathroom, perfume running over my hands, to put the bottle in the sink and run water over it while simultaneously yanking on the nozzle, pressing on the nozzle, and begging the nozzle to please, please, please, stop wasting my precious fragrance. It did stop spraying, eventually, when the bottle was completely empty. It is a measure of how wonderful this fragrance is (was) that the house smelled ravishing for several weeks, but the memory is a painful one.  I do not recommend the experience.

The illustration today is a crappy picture I just took of my newly acquired Shalimar parfum. It was El Cheapo because the label is damaged but I care not a fig. And the rumour that I love this fragrance more than my firstborn is absolutely unfounded.

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Of sugar and spice and all things nice… but skanky is okay too

 tom jones

The problem with current perfume trends, at least in the brands that I can afford, is that they celebrate a version of femininity that I find it hard to relate to. To cut a long and boring story short, sometime in the nineties, Thierry Mugler created a perfume with fruity and candy notes called Angel.  Victoria, over at Bois de Jasmin, Luca Turin, of Perfume, the Guide fame, in fact everyone other than my sister She-who-must-not-be-named, agree that Angel is nothing short of monument; a giant of a fragrance that defines the gourmand genre that has dominated the mass market ever since.

“A gourmand perfume”  says Wikipedia, “is a perfume which consists primarily of synthetic edible (gourmand) notes such as honey, chocolate, vanilla or candy. These top and middle notes may be blended with non-edible basenotes such as patchouli or musk. They have been described as olfactory desserts. They are also called foodie fragrances”

All this is well and good. I have no fundamental gripe with gourmand fragrances as long as they smell good. I love dessert. On the other hand, sometimes I don’t want to smell sweet and fruity, I want to smell exotic (and I don’t mean lychee) and sinful (and I don’t mean something evocative of empty calories). I want to smell mysterious, seductive and womanly. Yeah.

It’s a sparse world for bad girl smells these days. Or even girls that do not particularly care about being good. In their honor, I am going to take a retrospective look at a good old sexist expression from the bad old days. An expression that I run across from time to time in old novels, this is one of my favorites because it is really non-specific in a nice nod nod wink wink euphemistic kind of way (characteristic of the mealy-mouthed middle class. Just call her a tart, for heaven’s sake).

“She’s no better than she should be”

Consulting the oracles,  The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson (1977) notes, “An early-18th-century translation by Peter Motteux of ‘Don Quixote’ is the first to record this classic understatement, meaning ‘an immoral woman.’ Whether it was coined at this time no one knows.”   My own further experience  is that it occurs in only British English. Americans tend to just look bewildered. They have their own ways of putting women down, most likely.

bad_women

Usage from 1700 to 2000

As you can see from the graph generated with the Google Ngram Viewer (do play with it. It is totally awesome), after an initial burst of popularity, the expression continued to be used for a while before dropping out of vogue in the 20th century. Let’s look at some examples:

Thoman Gordon (The Humourist, 1720) points out that the expression is to be avoided because it reflects poorly on a woman’s unwitting family :

“Instead of saying that Lady Such a one  is no better than they she should be, let them say that her Ladyship is a Slattern, and knows nothing of Dress. For though this dreadful Charge may be to her worse than the former, and far more unpardonable, yet here husband and children may live in good Credit, notwithstanding one Side of her Ladyship’s Gown hangs deeper than t’other.”

Mr Town (The Connoisseur, 1755) describes the behavior of a jealous young lady and gives us insight the relative sinfulness of being no better than one should be:

“Such an one, she is sure from her flaunting airs, is a kept madam; another is no better than she should be; and she saw another tip me the wink, or give me the nod, as a mark of some private assignation between us.”

So, no better than she should be is better than being a kept woman but worse than giving a man the eye. In Tom Jones (Fielding, 1809), Lady Bellaston is admirably organized in the undertaking of being no better than she should be:

“O, Mr Jones, there are too many of them in the world: I believe we are got into the house of one; for my Lady Bellaston, I dare to say, is no better than she should be. “— “Hush, hush”  cries Jones; “every word is overheard in the next room.”– “I don’t care a farthing” cries Honour;  “I speaks no scandal of any one; but to be sure, the servants make no scruple of saying as how her ladyship meets men at another place, where the house goes under the name of a poor gentlewoman; but her ladyship pays the rent and many’s the good things besides, they say, that she hath of her.”

A woman after my own heart, indeed.  A woman who is no better than she should be does not hesitate to fool around with other women’s husbands:

”[] She’d be a bit surprised when I told her that her fancy man was married already, and that I was his wife. But perhaps she knows already — perhaps she’s no better than she should be —” (Better than Live, 1891).

Interestingly, the common denominator here is that a woman who is no better than she should be is a voluntarily  sexual creature. She choses her man (or men, in the case of Lady Ballaston). Perish the thought.

And now for the bit where we screw with Google and future researchers.

When a woman is no better than she should be, she is an incredible creature. She is all strength and laughter. She wears her sexuality as other women wear Chanel № 5.  She walks in beauty.

The illustration for this page is Lady Bellaston and Tom Jones after their return from the masquerade from the British Museum collection. Attributed to William Ward, it is described as “A couple engaged in sexual intercourse; the curtains at the end of the bed twined around the posts; two masks and a cloak on the bedside table on the left.” I thought you should know.

 

 

 

 

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A blind smelling

A couple of months ago, one of my sisters (I have a veritable kyrielle of sisters) came to visit and brought French fragrance for my sons (who do not deserve such nice gifts. They do not listen their old mum like what good boys should). She had picked Chanel Allure Homme Sport and Dior Pour Homme Sport as suitable fragrances for young men and her taste in such things is quite impeccable. My sons both live in the Bay Area and last night was our first meal together in some months so I decided to do a Blind Smelling of men’s fragrances before handing over their gifts.

I picked eight fragrances, Chanel Allure Homme Sport, Dior Pour Homme Sport, Guerlain Vetiver, Dior Eau Sauvage (both current and vintage formulations), Grey Flannel (Geoffrey Beene), Chanel Egoiste and Dior Pour Homme. I would like to say that the four men involved were happy to participate but it might be more accurate to say that they tolerated the experiment, possibly in the (historically justified) belief that it was the quickest way of making me shut up and go away. But they were good sports, overall.

Each male got a fragrance on the inside of each elbow. The fragrances were randomly distributed except for the two Eau Sauvage that were both sprayed on the same person because I wanted them to be immediately comparable. Every one, including the women, got into it with a lot more gusto than I expected. Armed with information about the top notes and the relevant reviews from Perfumes, The Guide, we got sniffing.

IMG_20140621_211932

It’s hard to sniff your own arm…

It’s not easy to sniff the inside of your own elbow. Some people used their pretend-to-be-an-elephant-skills to great effect. Of course, sniffing someone else’s elbow is easier but weirder.

...or someone else's

…and weird to sniff someone else’s

Before we continue, I should mention, in my defense, that this is the first time I have organized a blind smelling and I wasn’t quite as prepared as I should have been. I forgot to take notes about what people said and I didn’t think to ask the participants to rank the fragrances so, from a scientific point of view, these are not reliable data points. This generally lackadaisical (I’ve been waiting a while to be able to use that one) attitude on the part of your truly might possibly be related to an afternoon trip to the Green Flash tasting room (conveniently situated between my house and the gym; perfect for post-workout restorative drinkies. Because this). They were serving Bourbon Barrel Trippel, a beer that I had not previously encountered and, in a spirit (pun intended) of scientific enquiry knocked back half pint. Pretty darn yummy.

Things are a little hazy after that point but my muscles were pleasantly relaxed so it seems that the Trippel did its restorative thing. I was still pleasantly relaxed by dinner when I had a split of Champagne and a glass of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Given that my tolerance for alcohol is puny, please keep your voice down. I have a headache from all the perfume.

No one realized that the two versions of Eau Sauvage were related entities (and indeed, they aren’t. A curse on Dior), some people did not like the thought of wearing girly-smelling fragrances (Egoiste, vintage Eau Sauvage) and only our French woman (she has taste) recognized vintage Eau Sauvage as truly outstanding. Everyone thought that Grey Flannel smelled strange but good. The rest were judged to all be mostly citrussy and clean-smelling and not embarrassing to be seen out with.

Next time, I would write out the top notes and see if people could match the fragrances to their descriptors. And it would be fun to rank them and compare our preferences to other people’s.  Ideally, I would really like to do another one of these events for women but I fear the whole “I have allergies”, “I only use essential oils” and “is it gluten-free?” zeitgeist. We shall see, but in the meantime, a big thank you to my sister for providing us with the basis for a really fun evening!

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Ebay: the good, the bad and the smelly

lubin

Occasionally, my inner ranter breaks free and has a Grand Day Out. Luckily for you, however aggravating the Starbucks lingo and their abominable habit of making you beg for a small cup, they do attempt to be good citizens (health care, help with college tuition and what-have-you) so I am giving them a pass. Which brings me to Ebay and type I vendors.

Without Ebay and Amazon, my world would have to include going-to-the-store. I do go-to-the-store on occasion, but (given that my husband does the grocery shopping), only for essential things like the therapeutic purchasing of frivolous underwear. Indeed, neither my doctoral thesis, nor that of my friend Lisa, would have ever been finished without the participation of Nordstrom’s lingerie department. After major setbacks and meaningful successes, we would head on over there with the professed goal of paying as large a sum of buckeroos for as small an area of satin and lace as we could possibly manage. This wasn’t as bad as it sounds. Our Nordstrom’s is a bit down-market and doesn’t even stock La Perla, let alone Agent Provocateur.

Where was I going with this? Oh right.

So, Ebay and Amazon protect me from the arduous task of actually getting off my patootie and going out. As you know, I am not allowed to play on Ebay (well, I am allowed but only once a month and my budget is $10, including shipping) but I am permitted to watch and I have learned some important thingamies. Things.

So, I have identified three types of vendors on Ebay and, although my experience of this is limited to the categories of fragrance and shoes, I would wager (if only I were allowed) that vendors are very similar all over Ebay.

TYPE I (the annoying ones): May or may not have something of value. His (for some reason, I am pretty sure these are predominantly guys) knowledge of his product is limited to what he looked at on ebay in the ten minutes before he posted . The main symptoms are a header that says “L@@K” or “WOW!!!!”.  They tend to also say “VERY RARE VINTAGE”, “VERY HARD TO FIND” and “ONLY ONE ON EBAY.” This is equivalent to posting “I HAVE NO FRICKING IDEA WHAT THIS IS WORTH BUT I’M A PRETTY SHARP SALESMAN, SAVVY?” The pictures are often a bit fuzzy or taken at angles that, let us be charitable here, do not give clear idea of the contents of the bottle.  It’s possible to get a decent deal with a type I vendor. They sometimes post at ridiculously high prices but after a few weeks of trying to push an ugly 1970s display bottle (ie, does not contain usable fragrance), they eventually get the point and put the prices down.

Type I vendors are mostly foolish and unsure whether what they own is actually worth anything. They just want to extract the maximum amount for the item without doing any real work. I reserve real venom for a subset of type I vendors that I like to call Reserve Artists. In a normal bidding situation, a vendor sets a minimum price for his goods (and setting the correct starting price is probably quite tricky) and off you go. Reserve Artists set a tiny starting price, say $0.99 for something that pretty clearly has value (a nice flacon of vintage Guerlain perfume, for example), but sets a reserve price. So, bids do not actually count until the reserve, the minimum price a vendor is actually willing to accept, is met.

The goal of this maneuver is to whip up a bidding frenzy and these bottom-feeders deserve, minimally, to be blacklisted, and possibly (but I haven’t had my second coffee yet so I may be a little hasty in this judgment), death. There is nothing quite like studying a perfume, determining that it is worth your interest, working out a reasonable budget, bidding, and then being told that your bid was useless because the reserve has not been met and yet you have no idea what the reserve price might be. Don’t get me started.

TYPE II vendors have a solid product and they know it. They know at least a little about what drives the market and will tell you if the fragrance still smells good or if you should just be bidding on the bottle (and vintage fragrance bottles can be very, very valuable). They post a set of pictures of which at least one shows the bottle next to something that enables you to judge the size (an AA battery, for example), and another shows a very clear image of the amount in the bottle and anything that might add or detract from the value (chips in the glass, discolored sticker… ). The crème de la crème vendors will even include pictures of batch codes and general information about why they think this particular bottle might be of interest.

TYPE III vendors are just dudes or dudettes who got a few bottles from a relative who passed away and are trying to make an honest buck. They sell at reasonable prices but they make no distinction between a 2013 bottle of Coty Vanilla Fields, a 1990 bottle of Red Door (Elizabeth Arden) and a 1975 bottle of Jovan Musk oil (ridiculously valuable. Don’t take my word for it. Go ahead: Google “Jovan Musk Oil Vintage”. I’ll wait. With type III vendors, the onus is on you to do the research.

And the research is the really fun bit. I am interested in fragrance rather than fragrance bottles but given the choice, of course, I would like a nice bottle rather than an ugly one. Some fragrances are known to survive the ravages of time and others do not (vintage Diorissimo, for example, fades tragically). Many have been reformulated multiple times and some reformulations are better than others. Luckily for me, people are incredibly generous with their knowledge and scrolling through message boards and blogs, and there are some wonderful ones out there, will generally give you some idea of the date and contents of the bottle.

Perhaps the most entertaining way to date your bottle of pongy stuff is to find an ad with an actual picture of it and this gives you a ballpark idea of the date the perfume was being produced in that particular bottle.

I love, love, love the research. I have done a fair amount of academic research and I use the same skills to investigate my fragrances, in particular the skill of not giving up (a skill that makes the crucial difference between finished doctoral theses and unfinished doctoral theses. Not that there aren’t some good reasons for not finishing a thesis. There is, after all, a big difference between giving up and walking away).

The picture I chose to illustrate this page is a small bottle of vintage Lubin perfume from The Perfumed Court (a lovely website where those less greedy and less patient than I can purchase small decants of otherwise prohibitively expensive fragrance). As I have a number of larg-ish bottles of fragrance, we had been looking for small, cheap bottles that I could put in my purse. We purchased a little bottle like the one in the picture (with a little velvet pouch rather than a leather case) for about $6 including shipping, intending to just dump the perfume.

When it arrived, I rather liked the smelly stuff. My husband kept telling me to pour it out and wash the bottle but I couldn’t quite bring myself to do so. Eventually, I decided to do a little research and discovered that what I had was Nuit de Longchamp by Lubin worth, conservatively, $90 or so. The joy, of course, is that I would never, ever have bought such an expensive article and it just fell out of the sky.

Such things do happen but generally, purchasing on Ebay requires a cool head (not mine, of course) and patience and then there are respectable deals to be had. When push comes to shove, even if you don’t work hard at it, you should still be paying less than you would for something on Amazon… and, if it is a vintage fragrance, the likelihood is that you are purchasing a true work of art, the like of which will never exist again.

 

 

 

 

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Compare and contrast ‘The Desolation of Smaug’ and ‘Dean Spanley’ with attention to material covered in class

DSsmaug

There are many similarities between the movies Dean Spanley and The Desolation of Smaug.  Firstly, they are both fictional stories based on the synchronicity of independently unlikely events. There are also people in both stories and also animals. In DOS, it’s all dragons and wargs and wolves and in DS, there are dogs (well, just one dog really and certainly no more than seven*).

Both films are alternately funny (everyone waiting to see what will happen when Dean Spanley gets tipsy; Orlando Bloom’s acting) and tragic (the unrequited grief of an elderly man for his childhood companion, Bilbo and the dwarves surviving situations that would, in a kindlier world, have killed them).

For both movies, destiny plays quite a large role in the unfolding of events. The quest of Thorin Oakenshield is in some way related to the Growing Power of the Necromancer (I’m a bit unclear about the actual mechanics of this. In the book it barely gets a mention and I watched the movie in a cloud of astonished boredom). In DS, several seemingly random meetings that converge on the resolution of a mystery clearly indicate that Fate has Taken a Hand.

There are a lot of other similarities between Dean Spanley and the Desolation of Smaug. People go to places (the lair of the dragon Smaug on the Lonely mountain; the home of a shady merchant who procures whatever it is you need), imbibe lots of alcoholic beverages (ale and Imperial Tokaj) and learn about brotherhood (the relationship between Bilbo and the dwarves; the friendship between Wag the dog and a disreputable stray). One might even make the case that both movies are incredibly boring. In DS, the boringness is because nothing actually happens but in DOS, it’s because there are no events that anyone with half a brain could possibly care about.

These are both guy movies (about. for. by?). In DOS, there is some dopey elf-maiden love interest, clearly a misguided afterthought intended to prevent the female section of the audience (?) from stalking out of the theatre in disgust, but DS does not even make that much of an effort.  There may be a housekeeper or two but this is essentially a movie about how to not share your problems and not talk things out. A sort of Catcher in the Rye for aging Victorian gentlemen.

There is, however,  a crucial difference between the two movies that will prevent you from confusing them. In DOS, smells are always portrayed negatively; the dwarves get covered in smelly fish and The Bad Guys (orcs and wargs and even the dragon) sniff the air to track down the depressingly long-lived Good Guys. In DS, the bouquet of the aforementioned Imperial Tokaj  is so intense that, for a short time, a man transcends his current existence. As for Wag, the sense of smell is intrinsic to his experience of life. Smells are his language; he understands people and his environment through olfactory signs and it is pretty darn fun. I am not a dog person myself (nor cat person for that matter. And the jury is still out on the subject of small children), but my sister, who insists on being called She-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, says that the dogs in DS are interpreted with utter faithfulness by someone who understands them. She-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named cried buckets while watching DS even though it has a happy ending. Dog people are just weird.

I would like to recommend both movies to you but I cannot because DOS is an incredibly lack-luster piece of crap that attempts to compensate for the absence of a cohesive story by playing dramatic music  for every artificially dramatized event. When Bilbo considers using the magic ring, you know (because it happens more that once) that you are in for five minutes of scrabbling around and contextually-opaque soul-searching. Should someone drop their sword during a fight, back comes the dramatic music and the dreadful, elongated suspense. I was burned out of dramatic moments well before I got to meet the dragon by which time I truly could not give a monkey’s chunky.

Dean Spanley is a deliberately prosaic story where small things become important specifically because there is no dramatic music to underscore them and no one declaims their histrionic intent. There is grief and joy and resolution and a fairly simple observation on the art of happiness. Or not. But either way, research shows that eight out of ten dogs prefer it to any movie about hobbits.

 

* There are only seven truly great dogs on earth at any given time.

 

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A flight of perfumes, a spritz of students

Gauguin-sunflowers-VG-Germany1

I am just giving the last final for the university course that I am teaching this quarter. I accept teaching assignments from time to time, usually with some reluctance. It’s not that I don’t like teaching, but rather that I fear I would stop enjoying it if I did it too often.  And teaching always makes me a little sad.

The language classes that I teach are very small, generally only twelve or thirteen students. The goal of the class is to acquire conversational skills at the introductory level. Inevitably, it is an intimate class and by the end of the session, we all know a lot about each other. We know who has a boyfriend, who is homesick, who hates to do the dishes and that everyone, no matter what chore they hate the most, would rather do it for a month than clean the bathroom (at a guess, the bathrooms in undergraduate homes are not salubrious).  My students know the layout of my bedroom, who does the dishes in my house (me) and that my very favorite activity in France is to sit on a café terrasse drinking panaché and watching the world go by. They may also have induced, through subtle cues, that I am rather keen on fragrance.

It’s tough to walk into a classroom for the first time. It’s extra tough when you are going to speak in French for the next fifty minutes, knowing that your audience can barely say a word. In spite of the challenge, I am not complaining. The organization of the course is stellar. I begin by saying hello, introducing myself and exclaiming “Bravo” ecstatically when the students introduce themselves back to me and, by end of the course, we are having a real conversation.

And, not unnaturally of course, this makes me think of perfume.

A few months ago, I bought a bunch of fragrances on Craigslist. This was right after I had first realized that my bottle of Joy  (Jean Patou, eau de parfum) from Amazon was not quite what I was expecting. The Craigslist lot included a tiny black bottle of Joy and six or seven other fragrances, some of which I could remember disliking as a child when my mother wore them.

The lot of fragrances from Craigslist turned out to be the best deal ever. The Joy was everything and more that I had hoped for. Unlike the Eau de Joy that I had once owned, the pure parfum had a skanky animalic note that, I have since learned, is the common denominator of truly great perfumes, and smelled predominantly not of jasmin, but of roses. Applied in the mornimg, Joy parfum is a source of almost edible, satiating pleasure throughout the day.

I know you are wondering where I am going with this, but there is a point, I promise you.

In the lot, there was a bottle of Cabochard parfum. I’ll admit, I had my doubts about this one. I can remember standing in my mother’s bedroom as she put it on and it was very pongy. It smelt like adult fragrance, nothing that a young nose would recognize. Given this previous experience, I prudently applied just a little and left the house for the day, promising myself that I would give it a chance. It was quite unprepossessing, not sweet and flowery at all and at that time, I was pretty sure that the most appealing fragrances smell recognizably of flowers (give me some credit, my opinion has changed).

By the time I got home, I had gone from tolerating the stuff to wondering at its depth, hardly able to wait to refresh it (the reason that never happened is a long story of remarkable pathos that will have to wait for a day when I am feeling strong). It was flowery but it had taken a little while for that magic to happen. It was flowery but the flowers weren’t sweet, they were intense and they just bloomed and bloomed. By the time I realized what I had, I also knew that I would likely never be able to afford more.

My Craigslist box of goodies also included a purse spray of Zibeline by Weil. It took me longer to fall in love with Zibeline, but one morning, I realized that all that spice and incense was finally making sense to my nose and that I knew (or at least thought I knew) what it was trying to say.

One by one, I learned that each of the perfumes in that lot were amazing. Some were immediately friendly while others took a little getting to know. Perhaps the harder-to-know ones, the ones who seemed to advertise their boredom and contempt, were the most fun in the end because I wasn’t expecting to really like them. Oh sure, I would say “This is a well-composed and interesting fragrance, it’s just not one that I relate to personally” but I was just being respectful. As time went on, I realized that in the same way that I do not usually like a new song the first time I hear it, after three or four tries a fragrance  becomes familiar and enjoyable.

After writing this, it’s hard to not imagine each student as a fragrance. There’s Egoiste by Chanel. Loud and so in-you-face  that you can’t see beyond the rather tiresome braggadocio but after a few days you realize that it is just as sweet and friendly as a mince pie at Christmas and a lot more of a traditionalist than you first thought. Or Helena Rubinstein’s Heaven Sent. I’ll be honest, this perfume seemed fluffy and a bit shallow but it turns out that it’s that really nice girl next door, sweet and kind but very mischievous. There was Coco Mademoiselle (very stylish) and Guerlain’s Pamplelune (the funnest, most foolish of fragrances on the surface,  but a masterpiece of solid rationality underneath it all).

I don’t want to sound as though I am diminishing my students, of whom I am much, much fonder than I would like to be, by comparing them to perfumes. Such a comparison is ridiculously reductionist. Obviously, I never have to put on a stern adult face for a fragrance nor say “I DON’T CARE WHAT THE PROBLEM IS WITH YOUR PRINTER. GET THE PAPER IN ON TIME OR ELSE.”

In that Craigslist lot, the perfumes were all vintage and, to a man, either no longer exist or exist in an unrecognizable form. And there is the crux of the problem. Fragrances are truly ephemeral. You have to enjoy them while you have them and know that the world is a more beautiful place because they exist, strong and happy and foolishly beautiful, full of hope and continually having problems due to the ink in the printer running out on the very morning the paper is due.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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