Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Hark! The heretical angels sing (Part 4)

Since I spent that last heretical post railing against the Jesus people, it’s only fair to take some space on this one to talk about how much I admire some of them. I spent part of Christmas Eve at Dave’s church, helping to clean up after the lunch they serve for the homeless every Wednesday. It was a light day, only a hundred or so diners. They usually have twice that number. As the pastor pointed out, anyone who has an opportunity to be off the street for Christmas takes it. Only the ones who really have no alternative turn up at the church.

There’s a breakfast on Sunday mornings, too. Pretty much everyone involved in producing the meals is a volunteer. The whole operation is overseen by the church’s building superintendent, who seems to take a lot of satisfaction in doing all this work which was not part of his original job description. He runs a very tight ship in the kitchen. Most restaurants are probably not half as clean and orderly.

Anyone—even a pentacle-wearing witch—is welcome to come lend a hand, but most of the volunteers are church-going Christians, and there’s a fair amount of talk about blessings, etc. Somebody leads a prayer for the helpers before the meal. It’s taken for granted that feeding the needy is God’s work. There’s a chapel service beforehand, but they try not to make it seem like a hoop people have to jump through if they want to eat. In fact, the guys at the door manage the meal queue so that the early arrivals from the chapel don’t get to jump ahead of the people who skip the service. All things considered, the proselytizing is very restrained.

Being at the lunch was a little awkward for me. I don’t have any place in the church community, beyond being Dave’s wife. I don’t mind taking silent part in a prayer circle, but the invocation of the radical Jesus “who will turn our lives upside down” has only the most abstract meaning for me, however much I might admire the underlying sentiment. Standing there, holding hands with the believers, I felt like a spy or an impostor.

But the thing I found most difficult was just seeing the intense need of the diners. Watching genuinely hungry people go after food is troubling when the rest of us are so fat and comfortable. That’s why I wound up washing dishes instead of serving lunch. It’s easier to sling wet plates around than see other people’s suffering.

Unlike me, the best religious folk are very good at allowing themselves to be touched by suffering. Not that they’re the only ones who do it, but in my experience they are always overrepresented among the helpers of the world. Their desire to do good may be tangled up with an unfortunate impulse to evangelize, but the fact is that they are out there doing it, which is more than can be said of a lot of well-intentioned people who find it easier to write a check.

I’ve been sending money for years to a Catholic orphanage in rural Haiti. It houses, feeds and educates children who would otherwise get haphazard care from relatives, or no care at all. I’m not crazy about the fact that religious instruction is a feature of the place, and I have sometimes questioned the way the boys’ welfare seems to take priority over the girls’, but no one else is doing much for any of the children, so I’ve decided I’m happy to give the Christians my money. To date, I’ve never given them anything more.

Charity work is not the only area in which Christians carry their share of the load and more. Organized opposition to the death penalty is done largely through the churches. If you go to an execution vigil, you’ll find most of the people there seem to be motivated by religious faith. Ditto for anti-war demonstrations, at least in this part of the country. The annual protest at the School of the Americas is organized by Christians—inspired by the murder of radical Christians in El Salvador by SOA trainees. Environmental protests don’t have quite as heavy a Christian presence, but the Jesus lovers are never absent.

Antitheists who complain that religion does nothing but foster hatred and ignorance are as blinkered as the faithful who say there is no morality without God. Both camps, oddly, make the same mistake: They think of religion as an external force that shapes individual action, rather than as an entity individuals create. Religion doesn’t make people; people make religion. When they’re motivated by greed and bigotry, they’ll create religious institutions that reflect those values. When they value empathy and generosity, they’ll commit their combined energy to feeding the poor and opposing war.

As attached as I am to my solitary path, I’ll be the first to admit that institutional religion, when steered by enlightened ideals, can mobilize people to do things no individual could accomplish. The fact that the same institutional mechanism can inspire human beings to do enormous harm doesn’t change that. You can use a car to take a sick friend to a hospital, or you can use it to deliberately mow somebody down. It’s not the car that decides the mission.

*Mankind Beset by Devils, Hieronymus Bosch, 1500-04

Monday, December 29, 2008


The Author to her Book
by Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672)

Thou ill-form’d offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth did’st by my side remain,
Till snatcht from thence by friends, less wise then true,
Who thee abroad expos’d to publick view,
Made thee in raggs, halting to th’ press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judg).
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
Thy Visage was so irksome in my sight;
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could:
I wash’d thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot, still made a flaw.
I stretcht thy joynts to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run’st more hobling then is meet;
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save home-spun Cloth, i’ th’ house I find.
In this array, ’mongst Vulgars mayst thou roam,
In Criticks hands, beware thou dost not come;
And take thy way where yet thou art not known,
If for thy Father askt, say, thou hadst none:
And for thy Mother, she alas is poor,
Which caus’d her thus to send thee out of door.

Text via Poetry Foundation

The Reader Wreathed with Flowers (Virgil's Muse), Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, 1845. Image from Web Gallery of Art.

**All things must pass, and so it is with the book page at the Nashville Scene. We got word today that the corporate weasels have decreed its death. Not surprising, but still kinda sad.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Retrospective 2008: An unclever post

When I was invited to contribute to Retrospective 2008**, I thought I might try to say something smart about our current economic predicament and its possible effect on the world of perfumery. I looked into whether there seemed to be any correlation between boom and bust years for fragrance (aesthetically speaking) and the ups and downs of the economy. This is actually a fun little exercise, and easy to do using Basenotes’ directory. Just plug in a range of dates for the “year launched” and see what pops up. The boom years of the 1920s, as it turns out, were an extraordinary period for perfume, giving us many of the legendary Chanels, Carons and Lanvins. But the Great Depression, if not quite a golden age for fragrance freaks, still saw the birth of a lot of fine scents, including classics from Dana, Patou and Elizabeth Arden.

In fact, the more I looked at perfume birth dates, the more it became clear that every era has produced a few immortals and plenty of losers. The lovely Must de Cartier, as well as YSL’s pretty Paris, made their debuts during the depths of the Reagan recession in the early 80s. So did Giorgio, which may be a work of genius or the worst fragrance of all time—in either case, a truly memorable ‘fume. The 90s, in spite of being a time when the rich got much richer, produced an ocean of forgettable swill with comparatively few standouts, such as Angel and the early Serge Lutens scents.

So, my highly unscientific conclusion is that a tanking economy does not predict a dearth of good perfumes, nor does financial recovery promise happy days for scent addicts. In short, it’s a crapshoot.

So much for smart.

Since I can’t be clever, I’ll be self-absorbed, and just tell you what I am especially happy to have sniffed this year:

Thanks to curiosity inspired by posts at Perfume Shrine and OlfactaRama, I discovered two more great—and surely doomed—classic chypres that I’d missed ‘til now: Y from Yves Saint Laurent, and Jean-Louis Scherrer’s eponymous scent. Y is an exquisite, delicate floral chypre born in 1964. I suspect the new bottle I acquired is somewhat pallid compared to older formulations, but it’s still beautiful, and still a true chypre, unlike those weird replicants currently marketed as such.

Scherrer, introduced in 1979, is a chypre that opens with moxie, full-bodied and very green. It is Paloma Picasso without the honey, and without the critter skank. Within an hour or two, it becomes a soft, dry moss, comforting and gentle without being the least bit sweet. I can’t believe I’ve lived without it all these years.

As you know if you’ve been paying attention to my scent of the day over there in the margin, I have been slightly ga-ga for Madini oils this year. Chipre, Nile, Azahar, Henna, Papillon, Fez—I love ‘em all, and one of these days when I get the energy I’m going to post some reviews and some favorite layering combos.

Another happy find among scented oils has been the White Lotus Attar from Tigerflag Perfumery—perfect for those times when I want a rich but simple scent.

What else? On the vintage front, I am thrilled to have finally met Je Reviens in her full glory, thanks to that bottle Dave found in New Orleans. Among the new offerings, I’ve been especially delighted with Neil Morris’ Midnight Flower, and Yosh's Ginger Ciao.

The best thing about perfume in 2008, as in every year, has been the cleverness and generosity of my fellow obsessives. My warmest thanks to all of you, for sharing your knowledge, your perfume and your delightful company with me. Happy New Year!

An Allegory with Venus and Time, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1754-58.

**The rest of the Retrospective circle:

Ars Aromatica

A Rose Beyond the Thames

Grain de Musc

I smell therefore I am (Brian)

Savvy Thinker

The Non Blonde


The Perfume Shrine


Notes from the Ledge


1000 Fragrances

Hark! The heretical angels sing (Part 3)*

The other day I got stuck in traffic behind a car adorned with a bumper sticker that never fails to annoy me: "KNOW JESUS, KNOW PEACE."

I admit, there are plenty of bumper stickers floating around U.S. highways that are a hell of a lot more offensive than that one--e.g., "U.S. MARINES: TRAVEL AGENTS FOR ALLAH," which makes me sick every time I see it--but the Jesus-as-Paxil thing arouses an anger in me out of all proportion to the provocation. I feel an irrational desire to roll down my window and holler Fuck you! at my fellow driver.

Why so hostile? I think it’s because the phrase (cribbed, of course, from the great protest chant, "NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE") contains the very essence of Christian arrogance and the religion’s bent toward tyranny. It’s a threat, a command and a false promise rolled into 4 seemingly gentle words. It’s a playground predator of a slogan, laying a sweet lure for the vulnerable, all the while pursuing an agenda of conquest.

No doubt the people who sport the saying on their vehicles and T-shirts would be shocked at my reaction. They’re not hateful fanatics, not the kind of people who phone bomb threats to Planned Parenthood clinics, or who show up at soldiers’ funerals to shout that American deaths in Iraq are God’s judgment for our tolerance of homosexuals. (Yes, non-U.S. readers, there really is a “church” that does that.) The KJKP folks are just decent people who believe they have an obligation to share something precious and important. They're sure they are doing the rest of us a favor by telling us the good news. The fact that many of us find their efforts offensive, insulting or just plain annoying is completely lost on them.

Pushy evangelicals aren't the only ones who are blinkered by their own good intentions this way. One of the most insulting exchanges I ever had about religion was with a very liberal Christian woman, the kind who prides herself on her commitment to tolerance and inclusion. She asked me whether I attended the same church as Dave, and I said that no, I was a witch. I don’t usually go out of my way to volunteer that information, but if people ask--and hereabouts, they do routinely ask--I never dodge the question. She quizzed me about Wicca, and when I explained that I was a solitary, she sort of pulled herself up with a smug look on her face, and delivered a brief lecture about how she thought “community” was essential to a meaningful religious life.

I suppose she would have said the same thing to a Christian who expressed a preference for private devotion over Sundays in the pew. That would have been obnoxious of her, but at least in that case she would have been debating an issue of religious practice with a fellow Christian. With me, she was presuming to pass judgment on a spiritual path of which she knew absolutely nothing. It never occurred to her that her particular theological measuring stick couldn't be applied to every faith. I was momentarily stunned by her rudeness, but it was obvious to me that she wasn't trying to offend, so I quickly changed the subject. I’m sure if she recalls the conversation at all, she just thinks she had a nice chat with an interesting Wiccan person.

Her assumption that she possessed a superior enlightenment arose from the quiet, unconscious arrogance of Christians, just like that stupid bumper sticker. In this culture, where they are such a firm majority, Christians simply can’t see the rest of us—or if they do, they can’t quite bring themselves to regard us as equals. When that narrow attitude is hitched up with the Great Commission, then it’s a very short journey to outright religious bigotry, hate mongering, and the political agenda of the Palin brigade.

The Preaching of St. John the Baptist, Giovanni Battista Gaulli (Il Baciccio), c.1690.

*[Yes, I know Christmas is over, but I figure I can take until Epiphany to get this out of my system.]

Friday, December 26, 2008


The human noises that intrude on my woodland walks are usually something I resent. Traffic sounds, the rumble of trains, the growl of distant machinery--and above all, the sinister whine of chainsaws--make me grit my teeth. ...(more)

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Look what we got for Christmas

With his usual sweet thoughtfulness and great taste, Dave got us this beautiful collage by a local artist, Billy Renkl. Click on the image to see a larger version. I wish the online picture gave a better sense of the delicacy of the piece. Billy uses found materials, which add a layer of conceptual interest to the scenes he creates. That's an actual page from an old document providing the surface for the collage. There's something vaguely taboo and exciting about seeing a real text commandeered for this purely abstract visual service. You can see more of Billy's work and read about him here.

(For the perfume people: I'm curious--does this image call a scent to mind? It does for me.)

After the Fall, #13, Billy Renkl, 2008.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Off-blog reading

I've got a review in the Scene this week of Tig Hague's Tomorrow You Go Home, a memoir of his stint in a Russian prison. I know you're thinking Oh, yeah, nothing says Christmas like 300 pages on life in the gulag, but really, it's a pretty fascinating book. If nothing else, the relentless details of cold, starvation and mistreatment will make the holidays with your family seem more pleasant. The review is here.

There are several other interesting reviews up at the Scene right now, including a terrific one by Michael Sims of the new Tom Tomorrow book, The Future's So Bright I Can't Bear to Look. See 'em all here.

Finally, our resident musician, art lover and dog entertainment specialist--aka Dave--has some good posts up at his blog, Perambulating the Bounds. He shares some Flaubert-inspired thoughts on modern-day echoes of the 19th century, and he recounts his long evening with Wagner at the Met. In spite of my past hectoring, Dave seems to have some philosophical objection to permalinks, so I can't send you directly to the posts. Just click on the blog title above, and you should find Wagner and Flaubert on the front page.

Who Can Think of It?, Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, 1814-23. Image from Web Gallery of Art

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Random rave: Eden, Cacharel

Eden is a classic love-it-or-hate-it scent, as you can see from the wildly varied reviews at Basenotes. This is a random rave post, so clearly I'm in the love camp, even though I ought to be a hater. Any perfume that touts itself as a mixture of fruits and patchouli is trying very hard to rouse my bitter feelings. I doubt I would ever have even sampled the stuff if not for the lure of the lotus and water lily notes. No matter how many times I'm disappointed with the candied, sour or plastic treatment the lotus flower usually receives in commercial perfumes, I can never resist its promise. Where there is sniffing there is hope, and when the hope is occasionally realized--well, you forget about all the losers.

Eden is not the ultimate lotus scent. I wouldn't even say lotus is a particularly prominent note in its strange melange of earth and water. Still, it has something of the spirit of the lotus about it, with its curious marriage of murk and clarity. The lotus blossom is an exquisite beauty that lives in the muck, and its scent somehow conveys that contradiction. So it is with Eden. A lot of the insults hurled at Eden--"dank," "musty," "weird," "sorrowful"--are absolutely on target, and are among the things I love about it. At the same time, it is floral, exuberant, sensual, even "clean." And yes, the haters are right when they say it doesn't smell like a garden or a forest. In fact, it doesn't smell like anything but itself. It is sui generis, a unique dream of a scent that tempts me with a whisper of something unknown.

Notes per Basenotes: Water lily, Lotus flower, Melon, Pineapple, Violet, Mimosa, Patchouli leaf, Sandalwood

The Garden of Earthly Delights (left panel), Hieronymus Bosch, c.1500

Monday, December 22, 2008


Maybe you're wondering why this guy is making an appearance in the dead of winter. Well, it's not because I saw one of his kind in the woods recently. It was 9 degrees Fahrenheit here this morning, so all our snakes are snuggled deep in hibernation--and I realized yesterday, as I walked toward the Solstice sunrise, I'm in hibernation, too. ...(more)

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Happy Yule!

"O Sun that kills with life,
And brings to breath all silent things—O Dawn,
Waken me with old earth, keep me awake!"

*From "Winter Dawn" by Kenneth Slessor. Read the complete poem here.

Photo of a burning sun cross by Thomas W. Fiege from Wikimedia Commons. (FYI, yes, I know, some distasteful groups have adopted the sun cross, but it is an ancient and honorable symbol, and the hatemongers do not own it. I'm reclaiming it for the forces of good.)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Hark! The heretical angels sing (Part 2)

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold;
“Peace on the earth, good will to men,
From Heaven’s all gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.

So, are you mentally humming the tune to "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear?" I’m sure you all know it, regardless of your religious persuasion. It’s one the Top 20 Absolutely Unavoidable Christmas Carols. I played it at a violin recital last Saturday. I suspect theological issues were not on Harry Connick, Jr.’s mind when he said he sometimes finds Christmas music “nauseating” (see Margaret’s comment at Part 1 of this series), but phrases like “Heaven’s all-gracious King” certainly leave me feeling a little queasy. They always have, even when I was a little girl, hamming it up in the Church of the Nazarene Christmas pageant. I just never liked the references to God-as-royalty that pop up in the Judeo-Christian tradition. My anti-authoritarian tendencies are bred in the bone.

Still, even though I find the celebratory lyrics a little repulsive, I was happy to take part in the recital, which not only included religious music, but was actually held in a chapel--albeit a hippy-dippy, ecumenical one. My teacher had been a little tentative about asking me to participate. She knows I am a Wiccan, and someone else with Pagan/New Age sympathies had refused the invitation to play, on the grounds that to do so would violate her beliefs.

I couldn’t help smiling when I heard that. Everyone is free to follow the dictates of conscience, of course, but shying away from Christmas carols because they don’t express your theology just seems silly. If you feel duty-bound to drop-kick “Silent Night,” what’s next? No listening to Bach? Or reading Hopkins? You pretty much have to say buh-bye to most of Western culture if you’re really going to avoid sullying yourself with Jesus cooties.

This fear of religious contamination afflicts all sides in the culture wars. Plenty of conservative Christians wouldn’t dream of participating in even the tamest Wiccan rituals, such as making corn dollies at harvest time. What’s interesting to me is that we tend to see the Christ lover’s response as superstitious and primitive, the product of a medieval mentality inclined to see the devil in a handful of straw. On the other hand, the unbeliever's avoidance of Christian ritual is seen as an act of principle, a way of taking a stand for the embattled non-Christian minority.

The distinction is pure bias, if you ask me. If Christianity is truly just a myth to you, what harm can come from enjoying its little pantomimes? If you don’t worship the god of Abraham, if Jesus is not your savior, exactly what is the difference between “Away in a Manger” and “Here Comes Santa Claus?”

I’ll go a step further and say that I think banishing Christian imagery from public spaces is asinine. When I was a child, there was an elaborate crèche put up in a Nashville city park every Christmas. It was quite an attraction. My family used to drive from our little town, nearly 75 miles away, just to see it. It fell into disrepair and was sold off to a mall somewhere in the 70s, when people began to get so dogmatic about church-state separation. If a similar display went up in Nashville tomorrow, the huge Christian majority in town would be thrilled, but all the other fanatics would have a major snit. I’m sure the controversy would mirror the ones in Illinois and Washington this year.

And yet, the county courthouse in Nashville has a Christmas tree out front that rivals Rockefeller Center’s, and nobody bats an eye about it. I guess the Freedom From Religion contingent hasn’t heard that there are scads of dancing, chanting, Goddess-invoking Pagans who think trees are (shh!) sacred. The antitheists might also want to go poke around the park where the nativity scene used to be, where they will find a giant idol of a Greek goddess drawing a steady stream of admirers.

Curious, isn’t it—that Christian kitsch inspires so much resentment, and everybody else’s kitsch doesn’t? I know you’re thinking Well, that’s because the Christians are trying to take over the government and run our lives like the fucking Taliban—and I’d agree, up to a point. I actually do support, passionately, the idea of secular government, and the separation of church and state. I don’t want to see the Ten Commandments displayed in courthouses, and I don’t want the Catholic Church deciding what my reproductive rights are going to be. The state should never, ever barge into our lives carrying a cross—or an athame, for that matter.

But there’s a world of difference between Christian theocratic ambitions, which are fundamentally repressive and intolerant, and cultural expressions of Christianity, which are unquestionably part of our collective mythos, shared by Westerners of every faith or no faith—and that brings me back to the issue of fear. I think the reason some of us non-Christians feel so threatened by the Jesus fetish is that we can’t quite throw off the supernatural power of the myth. It’s been my observation that people who are firmly grounded in other religions, or who have been godless from childhood, are not the ones freaking out about the Virgin and Child in the public square. It’s people like me, who have fled the embrace of the Lord, who don’t want to be reminded that lots of folks prefer to remain cuddled up with Him. There’s a tiny fear that if we changed our minds once, we might do it again.

There’s an interesting quote from a Southern Baptist in that article I linked to above:

“If, as the English proverb says, familiarity breeds contempt, it is logical that Christmas symbols floating in the marketplace unattached to their religious meaning will themselves become meaningless. Can it be that when Christians advocate for symbols of faith in public venues that we contribute to the emasculation of their meaning?”

I think he’s got something there, except that I think it’s not a question of “emasculation” of meaning, but of expanded meaning. Christians are free go on regarding the Holy Family as just that, but there’s no reason that non-Christians can’t claim Jesus, Mary and Joseph for their own cultural purposes, including ones that no church would approve. Christmas is for everybody. God is optional.

Angels' Mass, Albrecht Dürer, c.1500

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Beim Schlafengehen

I recommended this video of Renee Fleming singing the 3rd of Strauss' "Four Last Songs" in a comment today over at Everything is Interesting. The music so perfectly matches my mood and our dreary weather here, I decided to make it my blog post. The Hesse poem on which the song is based, with English translation, can be found at the Wikipedia page here.

Originally uploaded at Youtube by Gabba02

Monday, December 15, 2008

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Hark! The heretical angels sing (Part 1)

Friday afternoon found me on the phone, trying to fend off a guy from my bank who was determined to get me to apply for a home equity loan or a line of credit. One of the odd ripple effects of the financial meltdown is that if you actually have a good credit score, some desperate lenders are all over you. Dave and I are both self-employed with no guaranteed income, and hence very conservative about debt; so we look--deceptively--like the last cupcake on the tray. I actually find the whole thing entertaining in a grim way, but the bank guy was beginning to try my patience when somebody knocked on my front door--“Oops, gotta go, sorry.”

I opened the door and saw a pretty little girl, maybe 6 years old, in a brown velvet dress that made her look like one of those creepy Victorian porcelain dolls. Before I could ask “Lost dog, or school fundraiser?” a smarmy-looking guy stepped into my line of sight with—you guessed it—a Bible and a copy of The Watchtower in his hand.

“Good afternoon, ma’am. How are you?”

“I’m just fine, and we’re Wiccans, so you probably don’t want to talk to us.”

I spoke in a pleasant tone, and smiled. He had that little moment of startled hesitation they always have when I say that; then he smiled and said, “Well, thank you very much. Have a nice day,” and fled.

They don’t usually retreat quite so readily unless they have a child in tow, in which case the mere mention of Wicca seems to inspire something close to panic. I am never happy about having religious fanatics on my front porch, but I was slightly grateful to them for rescuing me from banker guy. I almost felt bad about scaring them off.

Of course, I was stretching the truth a little bit, as those of you who are pals and/or longtime readers know. “We” are not Wiccans. Dave is a rock-solid mainline Presbyterian, thank you. I use the word Wiccan to describe myself to the world, but it would be more accurate to say I’m a solitary eclectic witch. Sometimes I just think of myself as a freethinking, freewheeling neo-pagan.

My Oxford Concise dictionary defines atheism as, “the theory or belief that God does not exist.” If “God” means the god of Abraham, the Jehovah my visitors were witnessing for, the deity my husband’s church regards as the Supreme Being—well, then I am an atheist as well as a witch. In fact, I don’t believe in any god, when that loaded 3-letter word refers to a divine entity with a discrete existence.

I do sometimes speak of the Goddess, but for me that is just poetic shorthand, a multi-purpose metaphor to convey a state of mind and a set of values. I don’t believe in a literal Great Mother any more than I believe in our heavenly father. What I do believe in is the experience of god, where “god” means the immediate, intuitive perception of the inseparability of all things. When I stand under a sky full of stars and have no sense of myself standing there—that is god.

Why am I telling you all this? The visit from the Jehovah’s Witnesses was just one of many recent reminders of the omnipresence of religion in my life, which in turn have reminded me of how frustrated I am by much of the public discourse about faith and its fallout. So, in honor of this chock-full-o’-Jesus season, and because I’m (temporarily) bored with blogging about poetry and perfume, I’m going to do a series of posts about religion. I just wanted to start off by making sure everybody is aware of my spiritual sympathies. If you want to get a better idea of what might lie ahead, you can read some old posts of mine here, here and here. (For my favorite bit of wisdom from John Donne on the subject, try this.)

Death of the Heretic on the Bonfire, Sassetta, 1423.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Thursday, December 11, 2008

One Sentence Perfume Review: 31 rue Cambon, Chanel

31 rue Cambon is a Shirley Temple chypre--pretty, precocious and mildly annoying.

Notes per Bois de Jasmin (and me): bergamot, jasmine, black pepper, patchouli, cistus labdanum, iris

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Tycoon's War

Tycoon's War tells the story of William Walker. I was working on my review of the book as the details of the Mumbai terror attack were first being reported, and I was struck by the way the Mumbai shooters' arrival on the beach echoed Walker's landing in Nicaragua with his army of mercenaries. Walker, too, had an ideology that justified his violence, an ideology that was not so different from the one George Bush used to invade Iraq. You can label a pirate any way you like: Filibuster, terrorist, liberator. He's still a pirate.

Tycoon's War actually features two pirates, Walker and Cornelius Vanderbilt (the tycoon of the title.) If the idea of reading military history gives you the vapors, then Tycoon's War is probably not the book for you, but it's deftly written, and the story is pretty fascinating. Like The Wordy Shipmates, it reveals the roots of American imperialism. My review in the Scene is here.

Tycoon's War at

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

What more could you ask for?

Tonight I drove home from Nashville in a steady rain, brooding over my frustrating day, thinking about how tired I was, dreading the hassle of dealing with my wet, muddy dogs--in other words, feeling sorry for myself. It's a bad habit I find tough to break.

The last thing I wanted was to get stuck in traffic, so I stayed off the interstate and took the unlighted rural highway. I was about halfway home when the rain stopped. The fog began to rise, making a gauzy curtain that softened the Christmas lights of the houses along the road. It was like driving along in a dream. And then "Purple Haze" came on the radio, just to make it perfect.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Enough about perfume, let's talk about war

Make-believe war, anyway. Black Watch was our main reason for going to New York City over Thanksgiving, and I’ve been mulling over what I want to say about it ever since we got back. The play has been the subject of tremendous buzz since it opened in Scotland last year, but if you haven’t heard about it, here’s a blurb, lifted from the play’s page at the National Theatre of Scotland website:

“Hurtling from a pool room in Fife to an armoured wagon in Iraq, Black Watch is based on interviews conducted by Gregory Burke with former soldiers who served in Iraq.

Viewed through the eyes of those on the ground, Black Watch reveals what it means to be part of the legendary Scottish regiment, what it means to be part of the war on terror and what it means to make the journey home again.”

Promo-speak notwithstanding, that’s a pretty good description. The action alternates between conversations with the vets in the pool hall, and their memories of action in Iraq. There’s a writer character in the Fife scenes (played by Michael Nardone—more about him later), and very brief turns by politicians and journalists, but otherwise the play focuses entirely on the Black Watch soldiers.

I have certain doubts about the play, but I have to admit that it’s probably the best piece of theater I’ve ever seen. It’s a very physical play—lots of wrestling, jumping, dancing, etc.—and the actors and audience were just inches away from each other. You could see the sweat and spit fly. I was reminded of being at the ballet, sitting close enough to hear the skitter and tap of the toe shoes; in this case, it was the stomp of combat boots.

The intimate staging is combined, in the Iraq scenes, with jarring light effects and very loud noises. After the first blast you start to steel yourself for the ones that follow—which, of course, is the point. The idea is to re-create the experience of being in a war zone. The effect requires perfect timing between the action onstage and off, which is what we got at our performance. It was very intense.

The power of the play relies to a great extent on the chemistry between the cast members, and they all did a great job of portraying the love/hate relationship soldiers have with each other. The close proximity to the audience magnifies clumsy or false moments, and there were very few.

That up-close-and-personal staging has another consequence that I’m not sure the play’s creators intended: If you admire male flesh, this play is incredibly sexy. Watching all that muscle hurtle by for two hours inevitably leads to thoughts of touching it. All the guys are attractive, but Michael Nardone, who plays dual roles as the writer in Fife and the squad’s sergeant in Iraq, had my full attention. He’s a fine actor, he’s handsome, and he’s even age-appropriate for me, more or less. Who could resist that, even in the midst of mock war? Of course, I’d spent most of the day huffing perfume, and I was sitting in the theater cradling a few hundred dollars worth of juice between my knees, so I was pretty well primed for sensual thoughts; but still, I can’t believe I’m the only person who was distracted by flashes of lust.

Black Watch’s vague similarity to a Chippendales performance, however, is not the source of my doubts about it—or maybe I should say, my doubts about the praise that has been universally heaped on it. (Ben Brantley's review in the New York Times is typical.) It’s a great couple of hours in the theater, sure, but that’s just the trouble. This is a play about the lure of war for young men; it’s about our mythology of war, and how human beings are shattered—physically and emotionally—when the myth meets brutal reality. Should people really like it quite so much?

An honest, fully realized drama about our war culture would to leave some portion of the audience angry or uncomfortable enough to hate it. It would hit a nerve, it would challenge all our sentimental attachment to tribal traditions, and remind us of our collective responsibility for their ugly consequences. Black Watch skirts the edge of doing that, but never quite plunges in.

I’m not saying I’d think more highly of Black Watch if it were more anti-war. Although it eschews any broad political statements, it basically is anti-war, which is why all the folks who hate the Iraq war are scrambling to get in and see it. The play’s politicians are craven liars, the Americans are bomb-crazy bullies, the journalists are dimwits regurgitating the drivel they’re fed and the soldiers are deeply traumatized--nothing for a good peacenik to argue with there. Looking around me at St. Ann’s Warehouse, I didn’t see one soul who looked like a McCain voter, and I suspect we all walked out of the theater feeling pretty smug about being on the “right” side about Bush's war. We felt sad, too, of course, in a pleasurable "isn’t-this-war-a-shame-thank-god-I’m-not-an-evil-neocon" sort of way. We believed exactly what we believed when we walked in, only more so. There was something almost comforting about the whole experience. I suppose I was hoping for a little more pain.

Battle of Anghiari, Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-1505. Image from Web Gallery of Art.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

One Sentence Perfume Review: Montaigne, Caron (original)

How could anyone resist this soft-skinned dominatrix who ties you up so gently in her bonds of gold silk?

Notes per Parfums Caron (and me): Jasmine, Mandarin, Mimosa, Narcissus, Sandalwood, Vanilla

Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Three Graces, Jacques-Louis David, 1824. Image from Web Gallery of Art

Friday, December 5, 2008

"Truly I can do no sin..."

"I rejoice that each day to increase my fire you cunningly devise some fresh incitement, such as that which encircled your glowing brow today. If you do such things because, feeling some little warmth yourself, you wish to see another burn, I shall not deny that for each spark of yours untold Etnas are raging in my breast. And if you do so because it is natural for you to relish another's suffering, who in all justice could blame me if he but knew the reasons for my ardour? Truly I can do no sin if I put my faith in such a gospel and in so many miracles. Let Love wreak just revenge for me, if upon your brow you are not the same as in your heart."

Pietro Bembo, July 1503, from The Prettiest Love Letters in the World: Letters between Lucrezia Borgia and Pietro Bembo 1503 to 1519, trans. by Hugh Shankland, David R. Godine, Pub., 1987.

Portrait of a Woman (possibly Lucrezia Borgia), Bartolomeo Veneziano (1470-1531). Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Two flocks

Except for our few days in New York, I've done my usual tromp through the woods every morning. I haven't been doing Turn Outward posts primarily because nature has been so damned peaceful. Winter is a still season here. It gets chilly enough that a lot the wildlife semi-hibernate, or at least wait for the warmth of the day to get out and about; yet we rarely have any dramatic winter storms or brutal cold to report. Our winter, for the most part, is just a lull between the brisk, busy fall and the budding of spring. ...(more)

Greetings from Dave

Dave is back on the redwood coast this week, hard at work, but he found time to go for a stroll at Patrick's Point, where he took this pic. He's got several other nice photos up on his Facebook page. You can take a virtual stroll on the beach with him by clicking here.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Holiday in NYC, Part 3

"A new scent--unrecognizable but exquisite. In its wake came Lita Wyant, half-dancing, half-drifting, fastening a necklace, humming a tune, her little round head, with the goldfish-colored hair, the mother-of-pearl complexion and screwed-up auburn eyes, turning sideways like a bird's on her long throat."

That passage from Edith Wharton's Jazz Age novel, Twilight Sleep, popped into my head as we entered Aedes de Venustas, perhaps because the shop's gloomy interior made me think of the black decor of Lita's boudoir, considered mildly shocking by her proper in-laws. Lita, who was lured by all things fashionable, would certainly be an Aedes regular if she were magically transported to 21st century New York. I could almost see her sniffing delicately at the MPG line.

Dave and I worked our way down to Christopher Street after having spent the morning in Caron and Takashimaya, so I was just about sniffed out--at least, I thought I was. I seem to have unlimited olfactory stamina when conditions are right, and they were right in Aedes. We were the only customers, and Robin (hope I'm spelling that correctly) was the perfect unobtrusive helper as I made my way around the store.

I reacquainted myself with Chergui, SL's great amber-tobacco elixir. It's one of the few Lutens scents I find easy to love. I had one of those familiar bad perfumista/good perfumista inner dialogues:

"It's so beautiful, you know you want a bottle. What else smells like this? You're on a roll here, and Dave's buying. Go for it."

"Please, don't be stupid. Sure, it's tempting, but how often would you actually wear it? Tennessee has about 9 months of summer, and you couldn't bear it in the heat. Don't cave, you'll regret it tomorrow."

Fortunately--or unfortunately, depending on which perfumista you heed--the Chergui was out of stock. The hurdle of having to wait for an order was enough to dim its appeal.

I huffed a few Annick Goutals--Encens Flamboyant, Myrrhe Ardente, etc. Perfectly attractive, but no chemistry there. I actually would have liked to douse Dave in Myrrhe Ardente, but I had already subjected him to Yatagan and Santos. (Did I mention our Sephora stop?) I figured I'd better give him a little breathing room, literally.

I moved on to the Creeds, hoping against hope that they might have some Aubepine Acacia, or at least be able to acquire it in something other than the bloated 250 ml bottle. But no, alas. That was my first heartbreak in Aedes. I have been wanting a bottle of AA for a long time, but I just cannot bring myself to buy a small vat of the stuff. Ounce for ounce, of course, it's actually cheaper than the smaller Creed bottles, but something about the excess of that presentation offends me. The hedonist in me occasionally gives way to the puritan. I did nab a little bottle of Tubereuse Indiana, but I regard that as a practical investment, like buying clothes for work. TI is one of those all-purpose scents I know won't go to waste.

The second heartbreak was meeting Amouage Jubilation. Oh my god--so exquisite, so classic, so perfect for me...and so fucking expensive. It's actually just a smidgen more than the Creeds and SLs, but we had been on such a spree, it was time to put the brakes on. Plus, I had already fallen into bed with a scent I just met, i.e., Ginger Ciao. How many times can you do that in one day? Even when it's your 47th birthday and you feel death approaching, you shouldn't just abandon all sanity, should you?

Robin kindly made me a little sample of the Jubilation. I'm hoping I'll hate it on next sniff, but the odds are against it. I'm not as fickle as Lita.

Photo from Aedes de Venustas

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Holiday in NYC, Part 2

Takashimaya is not a huge store, but for some reason I felt a little overwhelmed by all the fragrance lines on display. I decided to save SMN and a few others for another trip, and concentrate on a handful I’ve really been interested in sniffing. Of course I tried all the Neil Morris scents that were out. Afire was definitely my favorite—more sweet than hot, but not at all heavy or sticky. It’s going on the wish list along with Quest and Intimate Lily. The private label fragrance he created for Takashimaya is not something I would wear myself, but it’s a scent I’d love to live with, whether it was perfuming the bodies of the people around me or just wafting through the air in my house. It’s basically a hesperidic/woody fragrance that is both uplifting and meditative, like a very sheer, light-hearted version of Temple from Anya’s Garden.

I was eager to try Parfums DelRae after reading a few reviews. They’re beautifully done, not a tacky loser in the bunch, but they left me completely unmoved. I saw the Miller Harris, Noix de Tubereuse, that I fell for so hard during my Chicago trip. I waved it under Dave’s nose, and got the shrug of dismissal. “It’s just kind of a basic tuberose, isn’t it?” he said. Well, yes, it is. I still love it, but I have to admit that it’s not all that interesting.

The Yosh scents, on the other hand, were very interesting. I had read the Yosh story—“destiny,” and all that—which is the sort of marketing that makes me narrow my eyes a little. I didn’t expect much from the Yosh line, so I was pleasantly surprised when a tentative whiff of White Flowers awakened stirrings of scent lust. Then I tried Ginger Ciao and actually fell in love.

I enjoy coconut scents (Hove’s Plage d’Ete is my favorite) but somehow they never quite seem like real perfume. Ginger Ciao does not have that problem. It’s a real perfume, in spades. It has a frankly weird herbaceous opening—the source of all the nasty “It smells like dill pickles” reviews at LuckyScent—but it slowly blossoms into a gently spicy/sweet mélange of coconut and ginger, with a hint of white flowers. The basil note hangs on, though, to save it from becoming yet another insipid, vanilla-soaked gourmand. It has something of the head shop about it, like the best possible coconut incense, without the smoke. Dave’s usual response to coconut fragrances is “Smells like dessert,” which is not a positive assessment. He loved Ginger Ciao in all its phases. I left Takashimaya with a bottle.

Next stop: Aedes de Venustas, where I had a lovely time, and two minor heartbreaks.

Photo of Yosh Ginger Ciao from Luckyscent

Monday, December 1, 2008

Weariness prevents me...

from rattling on about New York and its delights. Tomorrow, when I'm fully conscious, I'll have a few things to tell you about Yosh Ginger Ciao, and my crush on this guy.

But now, sleep. Good night.

Turning Out the Light, John Sloan, 1905