Thursday, September 29, 2011

Little stories

  • My ex used to wear his t-shirts inside-out about half the time. Why? Because they'd get inverted when he took them off, and he couldn't be bothered to flip them outside-in again after washing them. I thought this made perfect sense: They were mostly cheapo logo shirts he'd gotten free one way or another, so it's not like they really looked better the right way. (His boss once said to him, all clandestine stage-whisper, "Your shirt's inside out!" and he was like, "Uh, I know, dude," and she backs up and goes, "Oh. It's a statement.") That was the explanation anyway. But one day, I caught him turning one of his shirts inside-out before he put it on.
  • I watched My Brilliant Career a few days ago, and was surprised (disappointed? dismayed?) to see it's basically the exact same story as Anne of Green Gables, a miniseries I have loved beyond reason since I was a little girl. The similarities are not superficial. They're both about a clever, plain, outspoken girl from a poor family who hates her life until she's swept away to a more idyllic and privileged world, but continues to battle social mores and gender stereotypes. Both characters want to be someone important (a writer or some kind of artist) but are continually pushed to focus on marrying well instead. They both fall in love with someone who is clearly perfect for them, but deny themselves the pleasure of a happy relationship, believing a woman must choose love or a career. They both work as teachers for unruly, disrespectful students. They both turn down proposals and eventually write a book. Though one takes place in Canada and the other in Australia, they depict the same time slice and the sets and costumes are strikingly similar. There are even scenes and lines that are almost identical. The whole while I was watching MBC, I assumed they had either the same director or writer. In fact they don't share any crew, and, especially puzzling, they are both based on books (by different authors). I'm forced to conclude that the miniseries is more "faithful" to My Brilliant Career, which came first and must have been influential, than it is to the Anne books (which I've never read). Oh well. I'm glad I saw the miniseries first, because, unconscious plagiarism or no unconscious plagiarism, I think it's a better film. (To be fair, both books probably reference Little Women.)
  • I have a new perfume column going up on Saturday, but I won't be here to link to it. I'm flying to Baltimore tomorrow for a wedding. I will throw up a link when I get back! (Metaphorically. I hope not to vomit any sausages.)
  • Micro-reviews of some things I have sniffed lately:
    • Bond No. 9 I <3 NY, pink version: Blueberry Pop-Tarts!
    • Bond No. 9 I <3 NY, black version: Brown sugar & cinnamon Pop-Tarts!
    • Angel EDT: Basically the same formula as La Rose Angel AFAICT
    • Elie Saab: Total cross between Narciso Rodriguez for Her and Alien
    • Prada Candy: Like all Prada scents, instant drydown, of the ethylmaltol + benzoin variety
  • New launches that might be good/interesting and require further sniffing: Cartier Baiser Vole, Bottega Veneta, Diane.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The smell multiverse

Just saw this interesting video, a talk by a woman (Nicola Twilley) who created a scratch-and-sniff map of New York. In it, she talks about the ways different demographics respond to scents. For example, Asians like the smell of rose and orange peel more than white people, who prefer eugenol. Everyone likes vanilla. Men like the smell of guaiacyl acetate, a woody-smoky smell, and women like cis-3-hexanol, the smell of cut grass. (So, she suggests, women should wear smoky scents and men should wear grassy ones, assuming they're heterosexual that is.) She also notes that almost everyone is anosmic to at least one thing, meaning they can't smell it all.

Nicola Twilley at Gel 2011 from Gel Conference on Vimeo.

So far so good, and Twilley admits she is not a scientist, but she goes too far in concluding that "we all live in a separate smell universe" -- she says that we all see the same colors and hear the same sounds, but we don't smell the same smells. I think this is sloppy. The research she's referring to doesn't suggest that we experience different smells, it just speaks to different preferences. You'd find preferences for different colors and tones among different demographics and cultures too. If we can assume that everyone experiences a certain wavelength the same way, leaving associations and baggage aside, we can assume the same for smellable molecules. (There are holes in everyone's visual and auditory capabilities too.)

Her two big examples don't help her argument much: She says that some people in the perfume industry describe eugenol as sweet and carnation-like, while others describe it as spicy, like clove. "How can this be?" she wonders. Here's how: eugenol smells both sweet and spicy, as cloves do -- and carnations smell like cloves. They are not different descriptions, they're just both incomplete. Most people need training/experience to both recognize and accurately describe smells out of context. She also says that she has a selective anosmia to Galaxolide, a synthetic musk. In truth most people are anosmic to some types of musk because they're very large molecules (the effective equivalent, I suppose, of very high-pitched tones, which not everyone can hear). But it would be wrong to assume everyone's selective anosmias are totally different, like your neighbor on one side can't smell bacon and the one on the other can't smell garbage. Evidence suggests that most of the smells people are anosmic (or hypersensitive) to were created by humans.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Recent readings, vulgarity & excess edition

Trouble in Mind by Lucie Brock-Broido, who may be the queen of garish, costumey excess. No one can tell me she isn't trying to be funny, a little bit: Check out the first two lines of "Basic Poem in a Basic Tongue":
Here is the maudlin petty bourgeoisie of ruin. 
A sullen pity-craft before the fallows of Allhallowmas.
Ha, right? Also Felt by Alice Fulton. This is from "Close" (on Joan Mitchell's White Territory):
I saw she used a bit of knife
and left some gesso showing through,
a home for lessness that--
think of anorexia--
is a form of excess. 
While painting, she could get no farther away
than arm's length.
While seeing parts of the whole,
she let the indigenous breathe
and leave a note.
She dismantled ground and figure
till the fathoms were ambiguous--
a sentence left unfinished
because everyone knows what's meant,
which only happens between friends.
The lack of that empathy embitters,
let me tell you.
Also The Public Gardens by Linda Norton, a lovely woman we met at a performance on Friday. Refreshingly, she did not read from the book but gave a talk and showed us some photo collages. It contains both poems and prose, or poems and "history" as the subtitle claims, history in the form of journals. I love reading journals, it feels illicit even when it isn't. From "Brooklyn Journals":
August 23, 1987 
Since Joey died--an inability to believe I have a future--a feeling that it is vulgar to go on--to think that I could have time--when that was denied him. My mother says, "Linda, you are smart, but Joey--he was brilliant." While he was alive she found his intelligence and his homosexuality so--queer. Now his intelligence is invoked to put me in my place. He grows larger and larger in death while I disappear.
Listening to Ellington's "Sacred Mass" and remembering the nurse on the graveyard shift at Lenox Hill last year--coming in to keep me company as I sat next to the bed and looked at him and listened to the respirator breathing him--that's what it seemed like. He was brain dead, but the respirator was alive. 
There were other men dying of AIDS on that ward, many of them alone, and none as handsome and young as my brother. 
The nurse took her mask off and sighed, and pushed my brother's hair off his forehead, and told me that this was the bed where Duke Ellington had died.  
My brother would have loved to know that. 
No, he would have hated to know that, as he hated everything the last year of his life, spitting at people, even biting my father to try to infect him (he went home, to blame or beg, and my father threw him out; as my parents threw us all out, one after another). He was trying to leave his goofy older boyfriend, but there was nowhere else to go--he'd lost his job after he threw one of his tantrums at work--the job he loved, editing guides to the national parks. [...] 
"Never for less than one day in my life have I been less than completely happy." 
You would not understand what Joseph had meant if you had met him the last year of his life. 
But I know what he meant.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The New Confessional: Post-Confession/Conceptual Confession

Two poets I like have interesting things to say about a new kind of confessional poetry. In both cases, they happened to be talking about my poetry, so yeah, it's kind of interesting by default to me, but I like to think these ideas are compelling in a general sense. I cut my teeth (god, I hate expressions) on confessional poetry (Anne Sexton, John Berryman) so I do see myself as being influenced by, or an extension of, this school.

Here's Leigh Stein (I think she wrote this in a comment somewhere; this was quite a while ago but I copied and saved it for future reference):

"To me, 'confessional' writing suggests a vulnerability. It isn’t just telling the truth, reporting the facts. Like watching a striptease vs. going to a nude beach. I haven’t read enough contemporary memoirs by female authors to comment on that vein, but I know in poetry I go for what I would call a post-confessional slant…the truth, but disguised by lots of false threads and humor and smoke and mirrors. I think Ellen Kennedy, Elisa Gabbert, and Dorothea Lasky do this well."

And here's Heather June Gibbons, in a personal email (I hope she won't mind):

"I appreciate the poem's willingness to make potentially unflattering, difficult observations. A kind of new bent on confessionalism, perhaps? But conceptually-driven as opposed to ego-driven, a sort of conceptual confession."

I like these theories. If asked to describe my own work, and its relationship to the self and the truth, I would have cooked up something similar (I'm in there, my ideas, my feelings, my memories, but I only include any element insofar as I find it interesting, so true things that aren't interesting get left out, while interesting things that aren't true take their place), but I wouldn't have thought to characterize this mode as a variation on confessional poetry. Thanks to Leigh and Heather for the catchy branding!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Charles on Fire

I have always liked this James Merrill  poem (in truth, the only one I ever remember he wrote). I remember it for the name, and for the story, but upon rereading always find I like the lines as well.

Charles on Fire 

Another evening we sprawled about discussing
Appearances. And it was the consensus
That while uncommon physical good looks
Continued to launch one, as before, in life
(Among its vaporous eddies and false claims),
Still, as one of us said into his beard,
"Without your intellectual and spiritual
Values, man, you are sunk." No one but squared
The shoulders of their own unloveliness.
Long-suffering Charles, having cooked and served the meal,
Now brought out little tumblers finely etched
He filled with amber liquor and then passed.
"Say," said the same young man, "in Paris, France,
They do it this way"--bounding to his feet
And touching a lit match to our host's full glass.
A blue flame, gentle, beautiful, came, went
Above the surface. In a hush that fell
We heard the vessel crack. The contents drained
As who should step down from a crystal coach.
Steward of spirits, Charles's glistening hand
All at once gloved itself in eeriness.
The moment passed. He made two quick sweeps and
Was flesh again. "It couldn't matter less,"
He said, but with a shocked, unconscious glance
Into the mirror. Finding nothing changed,
He filled a fresh glass and sank down among us.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Why do people apologize?

I'm sort of known for not being big on apologies. It's not that I don't like to admit/vocalize it when I've done something wrong, it's that most of the time, I'm not really convinced that I've done something wrong, so it feels hollow, and I hate empty gestures. Also, even when I think that I've been wronged, I'm not super impressed with apologies. If it's a small transgression, I'd rather the person just acknowledge that it bothered me and try not to do it again. (Doesn't it seem like effusive apologizers are often the worst repeat offenders?) If it's a big transgression, apologies are beside the point: You fucked up bad, game over, etc.

It's not that I never feel sorry, it's just that my moral compass doesn't shift around all that much. I mean, I think about what I'm going to do or say before I do or say it (or, you know, have the illusion that I do; let's not turn this into an argument about free will), and apply said moral compass before the fact. Most of the time, if something reads WRONG, I don't do it in the first place. That way, I minimize both guilt and regret (feelings I despise). Obviously, other people in my life may disagree with the settings; they may feel I've done wrong by their lights and demand apologies, but saying "I'm sorry" when I don't believe I've done anything wrong by my own lights has never sat well with me. Also obviously, sometimes I recognize that something is wrong and do it anyway, or I don't apply much forethought at all (in moments of high emotion or compromised sobriety, say).

But most, less robotic people say "I'm sorry" now and again. And my thinking is that, in order to feel genuine regret for your actions, one or the other of these has to be true:

  1. Your own system of "right" and "wrong" varies from moment to moment or day to day. Yesterday, what you did didn't feel wrong, but today it does.
  2. Your system of right and wrong doesn't vary much, but you semi-frequently ignore your own morals; in other words, you knew what you did yesterday was wrong when you did it, but you did it anyway.

So what I'm wondering is, which is more true for most people? If you, reader, are given to occasional apologies, which feels more true for you?

Take my monkey, please

Some of you may know that John has an addiction to books. His literary acquisitiveness puts even my perfume buying habits to shame. However, the hassle and cost of packing, moving and unpacking our enormous library managed to quell his appetites for a couple of weeks.

The first book he brought home since we arrived in CO was His Monkey Wife by John Collier. I assumed this was a goof, since "Monkey" (and variations thereof) is one of his many pet names for me. But apparently this 1930 novel is considered something of a classic; it's introduced by Paul Theroux and blurbed by Anthony Burgess as "a wayward masterpiece."

The prose is surprisingly artful and ornate; here are a few example sentences from the first ten pages:
The tall trees on the edge of the clearing have here and there, it seems, lifted their skirts of scrub, giving us the same sickening drop from our expectations as shop-window ladies do, when their dresses are opened at back or placket, and we see only wire and emptiness.
Sitting on the wide verandah, however, almost alone, his personality expands naively, and something quite poetic appears in the twilight of that hour and of his nature, like the sweet but inconsiderable bloom on a ragged nocturnal weed.
And, in reference to Emily, the "monkey wife" in question, Mr. Fatigay's devoted chimp:
What seeds lay latent in her of qualities with such a claim, sprouted only under the sunshine of Mr. Fatigay's smiles, and the gentle warm monotonous rain of the evening monologues, in which, when work was done, he expressed his hopes, dreams, ambitions to the friendly dumbness by his side.
Methinks "the friendly dumbness" is a good alternative to "my other half."

We were especially delighted by the following passage:
She was, after all, a schoolmaster's pet, and on the frequent occasions on which she had accompanied him to the schoolroom, she had seen enough pictures of cats with the letters C A T printed beside them. Is it so hard to understand how she came to a comprehension of the function of books, and even, perhaps, of the abstracter functions of language? Our scientists may think so, who have chosen to measure the intelligence of the chimpanzee solely by its reaction to a banana. They suspend the delicacy from the ceiling of a cage, and assess the subject's mentality in terms of the number of boxes he or she will pile one upon another in order to secure it, failing to see that nothing is revealed except the value which that particular chimp chooses to set upon the fruit. And, beyond a certain low limit, this surely is in inverse ratio to intelligence. What boy of ten would not pile up a dozen boxes in an attempt to climb within reach of it? How many would Einstein clamber upon? And how many less would Shakespeare? Emily, though a fruitarian by instinct, would have disdained an eagerness capable of more than two and a jump.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Don't squeeze me in!

That's what my beautiful friend Rebecca said to a cute guy in the library from her vantage in the expandable stacks.

You could say that everything is getting cheaper except for almost everything you need. We need places to live, energy to move, education to move up, and insurance to stay healthy. The productivity revolution isn't doing much to make those things more affordable.

Even after decades of building up and building out, homes and apartments are still prohibitively expensive in our most productive cities. Adjusted for inflation, home energy costs doubled between 1967 and 2003, and continued to rise in the last ten years. The cost of medical insurance is growing faster than wages. Tuition and higher education fees are growing even faster....

The reason why toasters are cheap and health insurance is not is that the productivity gains that made toasters -- not to mention computers, media*, durable goods, food, and clothes -- more affordable are not spilling over into health care. The next chart from McKinsey tells the story: More than half of total productivity growth comes from computers and information technology. Practically zero comes from health care and education. In fact, one reason why heath and education are adding the most jobs today is that employers can't meet new demand with technology or offshoring. They have to keep hiring people.

Health care isn't cost-effective because .... well, there are so many reasons. But perhaps the most important reason is that there are not clear incentives to make it more cost-effective....

From 1970 to 2010, real GDP doubled while real earnings fell by 28 percent. Two labor trends helped to offset this reversal. First, and very happily, women stormed into the workforce and supported their families with income. Second, and less joyously, everybody worked much harder. The typical two-parent family worked 26 percent more hours in 2010 than in 1975 but the middle class still feels incredibly squeezed.
Remember when we talked about the tropes of '80s commercials? Because John is writing a novel that's set in the '80s, he's been picking up old magazines here and there as a form of research. The ads in these magazines are fascinating. You'll see things like a full-page or even full-spread ad for a "slim-line" telephone (with a number pad right on the receiver!) or other shitty electronics, clearly marketed to a middle-aged middle class. They're weird for (at least) two reasons:
  1. There is so much damn text in these ads. You're basically expected to read a short story to get the gist.
  2. Electronics are generally marketed to a much younger demographic now. It seems like adults copy their kids when deciding what kind of phone, etc. to buy.
Other weird things:
  • As previously noted, there was more of a blue-collar (but white) presence in advertisements in the '80s. Perhaps now it is assumed that blue-collar whites have no buying power and are not worth targeting? (Additionally, perhaps, it's assumed that blue-collar whites don't read magazines?)
  • It feels like half the ad space in, say, an old LIFE magazine are devoted to booze and cigarette ads. These ads are hilarious: They all deliver a "You deserve it!" message. The cigarette ads depict stuff like a sweaty dancer having a smoke in the studio after ballet class. You've earned it! The booze ads show middle-aged, middle-class white people in sweaters sitting around in groups laughing while they drink brandy and obscure liqueurs on the rocks. Stuff like Midori and Galliano. You deserve it! Again, booze ads these days are mostly targeted at college students and 20-somethings it seems: what to drink when you're hitting da clubz (probably vodka).
Check this one out (click to enlarge):

"When you're feeling a bit bored by your usual -- try it on the rocks. If you're more bored than usual -- try it in a snifter. Of course, when you raise your glass, you'll also raise a few eyebrows. But surely you've done that before." Really? Did this ad convince anyone tequila is a classy alternative to scotch? In another ad there's a guy with the exact same haircut and smug expression saying, "Bourbon? No thanks. I've switched to Gold Rum and soda. It's smooth, it's light."

More weird crap from 1980s print alcohol ads:
  • "A Harvey Wallbanger is more than just a gold-plated screwdriver. It's the party drink of the decade."
  • "When I play, I strive for the highest quality in my performance. I look for the same standards in my vodka." (Attributed to Pinchas Zukerman in a Smirnoff ad.)
  • "First there was light. Followed soon thereafter by man and woman, a.k.a Adam and Eve. Then came the business with the apple, and before you could say, 'You snake in the grass,' five zillion years went by. But all wasn't for naught, because that fateful faux pas not only altered the history of haberdashery but also inspired the creation of DeKuyper Original Apple Barrel Schnapps."
  • "When you go south with Avocados [sic] and Jose Cuervo almost anything can happen. And usually does."
Unrelated: Here's an unexpectedly dire caption below a cuddly animal photo in the September 1984 issue of LIFE (featuring Michael Jackson on the cover): "At dawn a lioness nuzzles a cub whose mother, along with the rest of the pride, is gnawing on a wildebeest carcass nearby." "Gnawing on a wildebeest carcass nearby" is my new away message.

Bonus sexist caption on a New Yorker-style cartoon in a 1984 issue of Playboy (showing a woman holding a newspaper next to a man in an armchair with his head in his hands): "Sam, you must read this article! A study has shown that some people suffer from depression as a reaction to other people's telling them what to do." (Speaking of captions, I enjoyed this article about the hordes of celebrities trying to crack the New Yorker's weekly caption contest.)

Sunday, September 11, 2011


What I've been ...

Reading: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. I believe someone recommended this back when I was looking for non-YA novels with smart young characters. I do like the Mick character very much; she's a tomboy with a passion for music. I also started The Unconsoled a while back, but I'm not good at reading multiple novels at once. On Friday I got myself a Denver Public Library card and checked out some Alice Fulton books, one poetry and one nonfiction.

Eating: Colorado peaches. New Mexico green chiles (and salsa made thereof). Boiled kale as an all-purpose vegetable (on pizza, in fried rice and scrambled eggs, etc.). Flax seed oil (trying to be one of those people). Salami (one of those meat products that tastes how I remember it tasting, rather than a gamier version of itself).

Drinking: On Friday, after an opening at the MCA (a weird minimalist installation involving yarn; we thought it would have been improved by the addition of live kittens), I ordered a wine flight of California reds at this place. It was the same price as a single glass of wine, but they basically brought me three full glasses of wine. They were delicious, especially the Michael David Petite Petit, so I finished them, and ended up fairly wasted. Damn elevation! Also, Campari and soda. And I just bought a big bottle of Polish potato vodka at the awesome local liquor store, Argonaut. (I keep vodka in the freezer, natch.)

Doing: Hiking a bit: we went to Lost Lake outside Nederland, CO, yesterday, which was a delight. (Yes, there was snow on them thar hills.) Shopping too much (post-move, I've lifted the self-inflicted moratorium on buying things I don't need). Today I bought a dress that looks like TV static. Playing Rock Band at Kevin & Katie's in Lafayette. Limited song choice, but I had much fun on "Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before" and "Love Is a Battlefield."

Vanity Update: My hair and skin look way better out there. Hair is sort of a who cares, but I can't get over the difference in my skin. I look three years younger! Hallelujah. I hope it lasts.