WickedEye's Quotient

5/31/2010 at 21:56

Memorial: Dark Night of the Soul

My mother and I were talking about Eckhart Tolle and St. John of the Cross this morning, and now I'm thinking about Memorial Day.

No, it's not your normal breakfast chat. (Few of my mother's and my conversations can be considered "normal.") This one was spurred by a discussion of suffering and the duties of a healer, and thence to those who have written on suffering.

We both regard Tolle and his ilk as new-agey Johnny-come-latelys. It sounds odd to hear snobbery over spiritual literature by someone who's not a deist or theist (though my mother is). But to my mind the single human being in all of literature who has best described suffering and despair—the terrible vulnerability of the human mind as it endures physical agony and considers the ideas of mortality and eternity—was a Spanish monk who endured nine months of brutal torture at the hands of his superiors.

San Juan de la Cruz. St. John of the Cross, who wrote The Dark Night of the Soul.

I reread a little of it this morning—and then read of the torture that prompted it: Of his barely-body-sized cell, of his public lashings, of starvation, of a thirst so great he often considered drinking his own blood.

And it is he that made me consider today—Memorial Day—more carefully.

The phrasing of the official description has always bothered me a little: Remembrance and honoring of "soldiers who died while in military service." It's one of the major national holidays, and deservedly so; our country has paid a heavy price in blood for everything from its land to its economy, and the toll keeps mounting—will always mount—because of the way tribal societies function.

The official description bothers me because of its exclusivity; another phrase, more popularly used, and describing today as honoring "those who gave their lives in service to our country," highlights an ambiguity that's often ignored: "Those who gave their lives."

Well, now. Those who sacrificed who are now dead, or those who are still living?

There's more than one way to give your life for, or to a cause. One is to die—to feel your existence flicker out like a guttering candle—to give up every sunset, every drink of icy water on a hot day, every kiss or laugh or child's hug that you might ever have. Such a sacrifice is very great indeed.

But to me there are sacrifices that can be just as great. To live in uncertainty and dire fear, to hear screams in every dream and to wake never knowing whether or not your nightmares are the reality around you—to endure torment and terror and anguish and come home to a place full of people who cannot comprehend what you've endured. A place that expects you to take "we're so grateful to you—thank you for your service" and mediocre healthcare and sketchy-to-nonexistent guidance back to normalcy and weave them together with what you've suffered to fashion a happy, productive life for yourself.

Yes. A grave, grave sacrifice. A lifetime of suffering.

I've known happy, productive, normal ex-soldiers, it's true. But not many. And few of them were enlisted men. And a recent NIH study* documents that those soldiers now fighting in Afghanistan have a much higher exposure to trauma than soldiers in previous wars did.

I have several friends who were married to soldiers whose post-service trauma was so great it destroyed their marriages and their livelihoods. I was involved with a soldier who, though he knows he couldn't hear the screams of the people in the buildings he was shelling, still hears them anyway—in his dreams. I've seen the men and women at the VA—amputees, paraplegics, people with permanent and dreadful injuries. People wounded gravely in body, and treated for it—mostly. (Healthcare for veterans and soldiers is a disgrace, a far worse reprimand to our consciences—as the citizens being protected by these men and women—than anything other than our treatment of our children.) 

And, of course, people still struggling with what has happened to their minds—though able now, for the first time ever, to seek organized help for that as well.

Saying this, on Memorial Day, is probably far past unpopular. I'm supposed to be waving a flag, I know. Families of soldiers who've died are like to come and spray-paint obscenities on my house. I'm not sure that, were I they, I wouldn't do the same.

The outrage isn't going to improve when I say that I'm an antimilitarist in the formal sense. War between states is a terribly inefficient and unfair way to solve any dispute; the waste in human lives alone suggests it's, well, a really bad idea. But I also study realpolitik and evolutionary biology, and they tell me that militaries are necessary as deterrent. And that war, which originated as—and for the most part remains—a very highly organized form of theft, is not going anywhere as a tool of human intertribal relations.

Make no mistake: I honor soldiers, and soldiering. It is an ancient and honorable profession. One that, when its laws and traditions are followed, allows even the conquered noncombatant to feel that s/he is not in danger of death or pain. (For a crash course in the difference between soldiers and armed government thugs, read about the taking of Berlin—by both waves of Allies.)

I just think that we should pay more attention to the living soldiers. To the ones who continue to suffer, either in body or mind. That more attention is needed to craft something worthy of giving to these men and women. That we should think of those still giving, still sacrificing, as they walk amongst us. Armed Forces Day, or Veterans Day, just aren't enough, or widely enough observed. Certainly nowhere near as widely as Memorial Day.

Our honored dead are exactly that—honored, today and always. No-one questions that.

Only the dead have seen the end of war: Like so much else Santayana said, it's true. As long as there are human beings, there will be wars. We can moderate only their frequency and their objectives.

But there's no reason that a soldier should have to continue to dwell inside war once s/he's managed to live through it.

We need to pay tribute—care, attention, honor—to the living, too. To the ones who walk within a dark night now.


To send care packages and letters to soldiers on active service, people who don't get mail. Started by two ex-soldiers whose son was in the military, and now serving all five branches of the U.S. military. This is a great idea.

Provides comfort items for troops recuperating in military hospitals and rehabilitation centers from wounds and injuries. Immediate help with beginning the transition back into civilian life.

Donate clothes to wounded soldiers returning stateside, or donate to long-term rehabilitation programs for wounded veterans. This organization also distributes clothes to Iraqi schoolchildren. An incredible program.

(*Sareen, January 2010 issue of Psychiatric Services.)

5/30/2010 at 19:19


As some of you may know, I recently decided to acknowledge the fact I've a body again. This has involved refitting, body work, and some engine rebuilding. Basketball was always going to be a part of that.

It's the only team sport I've ever enjoyed (even though I only started playing because my mother made me)
and the only one I've ever been good at. I also grew up with it. My brother was a serious player, as were my mom's friends in med schoolsome of them even played college ball. Watching them play, occasionally playing with them, was incrediblea living testimony to what a human body can do. (And very occasionally, exhilarating as hell. Making a shot past a 6'4" guy who played forward for LSU? It's happened only once in my entire life, but I will remember it forever.)

That was the hoop in our driveway, though. We've lived in East Nashville pretty much since I was 13 years old, but my mom lives in the swanky "historic" section now
moved in quite a while ago, thank you, before the yuppies discovered itand there're no driveways here. (A carriagewayliterallyevery once in a while, but otherwise no.) So when I asked Sunil to come play basketball with me while I was at home, I expected we'd go down to East Parkless than 2 blocks from our houseand play there. Or, for old times' sake, go down and play at the Community Center in Shelby Park. Simple.

Only one thing I hadn't considered: the "swanky" part of the Edgefield address.

So when Sunil told me this morning, after I asked about playing ball with him, that there were no more outdoor hoops in East Nashville, my response was a bewildered, "What the
huh?" (Granted, I hadn't yet had any coffee.)

And then I parsed it. Outdoor hoops mean kids can play ball. Any kids, from anywhere
there's no way to control who uses a hoop on public property. And that means that the kids down the waythe kids from the 'hood six blocks overcould come over and play.

Apparently, this prospect is unacceptable.

I'm not a race conspiracy theorist
meaning, racism doesn't occur to me as the first explanation for most things that make me lift my brows. I do, however, have a very good understanding of the concept of hegemonythe dynamic which makes institutionalized "cultural dominance" (read: "racism") practically a political inevitability (though it can, in most democratic systems, be combated to some degree). I also, as an accompaniment to my studies in international humanitarian law, study psychologyboth cognitive and evolutionary.

There's also the part where I pay attention to the people around me.

And the part where I grew up in the South.

I could dismiss the decision as merely aesthetic
hoops take upkeepif there weren't, now, elaborate playground equipment in East Park that takes a lot more. If there weren't hoops inside the state-of-the-art and and rather snazzy-looking East Community Center just off the park. And if that community center didn't charge a buck a pop for each and every kid walking through its doors.

That doesn't sound like a lot to you. Even I, notoriously broke student that I am, could spend a buck a day to play ball and never miss it.

But for a kid? Especially a kid from a low-income family? A buck a day for a month pays for a pro ball, and all the free ball she can play with it at the neighborhood hoops for at least a year and a half.

But not in the place that taught me about basketball. Not here.

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5/23/2010 at 17:40

Flanges, Sieges, & Bellowings

Any serious-minded persons are notified forthwith: Get thee hence. Your kind and your logic are not wanted here.

This is not an essay. It is not political, ethical, or artistic commentary. It is not prose poetry.

It is a list, subdivided into categories, of my favorite animal group names.

Ye be warned.


From the Oxford Dictionaries site. Group names listed are those not classified as 'fanciful' or 'invented'.

The Unutterably Perfect Nominatives category.

In order of 'Superlative' to 'Consummately Sublime'.

A rabble of gnats

A pride of peacocks

A plague of locusts

A scourge of mosquitoes

A tower of giraffes

A bloat of hippopotamuses

A crash of rhinoceroses

The Great Book Titles Category.

In order of 'I Would Buy It' to 'I Would Write It'.

A siege of bitterns

A charm of finches

A parliament of owls

A watch of nightingales

An exaltation of larks

A murder of crows

A murmuration of starlings

An unkindness of ravens

The When In Doubt, Call Them What They Do category.

In order of 'Not Even Close' to 'Yawningly Obvious'.

A bellowing of bullfinches

A chattering of choughs

A clamour of rooks
A bask of crocodiles

A leap of leopards

A glaring of cats

A tittering of magpies

The Huh? category.

In order of 'Jim Morrison' to 'Timothy Leary'.

A business of ferrets

A grind of blackfish

A grist of flies

A sounder of boars (twelve or more)

A hive of oysters

A sute of bloodhounds

A kindle of kittens

A husk of hares

A lute of wildfowl

The Irresistible Mental Picture category.

In order of 'Whichever Occurred to Me First' to 'Whichever Occurred to Me Last'.

A smack of jellyfish (Some unfortunate soul being pelted with the things.)

A mess of iguanas (Four words: Mess hall. Uniformed iguanas.)

A labour of moles (Moles with little shovels & spades and workman's caps.)

A tribe of sparrows (Sparrows with spears under their wings, faces painted for battle.)

A huddle of walruses (Walruses in jerseys and helmets, heads together.)

A parcel of penguins (Wrapped in brown paper & string & addressed, with heads and feet sticking out.)

A posse of turkeys (male only) (We don't need no stinkin' badges.)

A sleuth of bears (Bears in deerstalkers, clutching meerschaums and magnifying glasses.)

A rack of colts (Two words: Bike rack.)

A bouquet of pheasants (Hapless pheasants with bodies wedged into a wide vase.)

A nursery of raccoons (Raccoons in bonnets and footie pajamas wreaking havoc on a hospital nursery.)

The Someone In the Military Had Too Much Time On His Hands category.

In order of 'Isn't That Cute' to “Run For It'.

An array of hedgehogs

An army of frogs

A company of archer fish

A mustering of storks

A flange of baboons

A cohort of zebras

A rout of wolves

A battery of barracuda

The Almost Certainly Invented by Hunters and Fishermen category.

In order of 'Errr...' to 'In-Joke'.

A flick of rabbits

A whoop of gorillas

A plump of moorhen

A hover of trout

A wisp of snipe

A richness of martens

A glean of herring

The Now That's Just Mean category.

In order of 'Cold' to 'Daaaamn'.

A pace of asses

A sore of ducks

A rasp of coots

A destruction of wildcats

A dessert of lapwings

A bury of conies

A barren of mules

A mutation of thrushes

A walk of snails

The I Wish My Puns Could Be In the Oxford English Dictionary category (also known as the Jealous I Didn't Think of It First category).

In order of 'Humorous' to 'I'd Thought Monty Python Made That One Up'.

A mute of hounds

A host of angelfish

A puddling of mallards

A gulp of swallows

5/21/2010 at 11:31

Undrawing Mohammed

Here's why I don't think drawing Mohammed is a great idea. (Sorry, Cal.)

I am not, it should be said at the outset, a deist, theist, anarchist, objectivist, absolutist, constructivist, daoist, or almost any other thing that ends in “ist” (with the possible exception of 'idealist' and 'absurdist,' but we'll leave those aside for now). Formal political and religious philosophies leave me cold, and so do their often-irrational demands: Don't draw Mohammed. Don't fund social programs (even to accomplish my stated goals). Don't drink alcohol. Keep your meat and milk in separate refrigerators.

However, for the most part even highly religious people keep their demands to themselves—glaring disapprovingly at me as I discuss alcohol doesn't impinge on my life if I don't give a damn what you think. (Growing up in Nashville gives you lots of practice in developing this mindset and its corollaries.) And when your beliefs impinge on my right to do—well, anything otherwise lawful—I'll exercise the privilege of doing what I damn well please while you and your overly-developed, irrational sensibilities (and I mean this in the kindest, gentlest way possible) sod off.

But that isn't the same as doing something one wouldn't otherwise do—something calculated to offend another's sensibilities—solely and only for that purpose. Because as much as I disagree with the political and religious idiocy that gets thrown about more freely every single day (and gets closer and closer to being religiopolitical idiocy every single day—must I keep reminding you people that the U.S. is not a theocracy?), I don't think that offending the people who profess a given creed in a way that's respectful of others right alongside those believers who are frothing-at-the-mouth crazy serves any useful purpose.

Specifically: Speaking as someone who has stood alone beside the exquisite screen surrounding Mumtaz' grave in the center of the Taj Mahal, I can say that the most conservative Islamic sentiments on drawing human forms (or rather, not drawing), which led directly to the juridical pronouncements (fatwa) on representations of Mohammed, have produced some of the world's greatest art. I defy anyone—South Park fan or no—to claim otherwise. While those sensibilities don't match Christian (or indeed most other) artistic sensibilities, there is no reason they should be purposefully trampled by those who wouldn't otherwise do so.

That doesn't include South Park, of course. Matt Stone and Trey Parker's raison d'être is the purposeful trampling of every sensibility in existence. They have made an art of it, and it is valuable and thought-provoking, and they should be left in peace to trample, while those whose sensibilities are currently being macerated come over and stand with the vast crowd of humanity who've suffered the same treatment at their hands.

Radical Islamists who threaten bloody, excruciating death to everyone and everything for so much as uttering the name of “The Prophet” in a louder-than-can-possibly-be-respectful whisper deserve inconsideration, disrespect, and a boot to the back of the head. These are the jackasses who took out a contract on Rushdie, after all (you'll pardon me if I hold that a greater crime, in artistic terms, than threatening Stone and Parker). But most of the people who share their faith don't.

Rational people don't break into tabernacles to grab communion wafers and stomp on them in response to the deranged pro-life morons who bomb abortion clinics. Not because the majority of humanity shares the belief that the consecrated wafers are the “Body of Christ”—but because 1) breaking into buildings is a crime, and 2) even if the church is sitting open, there are a lot of other people who'd be deeply offended—people who had nothing to do with the objectionable behavior.

Jackasses are always with us. I don't like being judged by idiotic behavior on the part of those who share what few beliefs I do cherish (especially since they're cherished partly because they don't lead to that sort of behavior). I very seriously doubt people acting to offend such idiots, knowing all the while that I had nothing to do with their behavior and that said actions would offend me as well, would win any sympathy or support from me.

So instead of “Draw Mohammed”, how about “Boycott Comedy Central for a day for being such gutless bastards”?

Or, if caution in the face of bomb threats doesn't seem bastardly to you (it does to me, since they could easily afford extra security, especially with all the ad revenue the extra hype would bring in), how about “Donate $1.00 to Matt Stone & Trey Parker to fund a one-time copyright buyout from Comedy Central, to broadcast a South Park site webisode on what utter wankers radical Islamists are”? It'd probably be the most-downloaded, most-shared, most-watched South Park episode in the world. In history, even. Given free rein, one can only imagine what those guys could produce. It'd be awesome.

It'd be even better if they mention Zachary Adam Chesser, better known as Abu Talhah al-Amrikee (http://www.adl.org/main_Terrorism/abu_talhah.htm)—despicable piece of cretinous, homicidal filth that he is. He's the guy who started the whole brouhaha in the first place, and who gleefully discusses slitting Parker and Stone's throats. Come to think of it, why not just crash his blog and his beloved “Revolution Muslim” site with huge amounts of well-timed “fan” mail? It is, after all, the kind of behavior these verminous imbeciles understand.

And best of all, not a single reasonable follower of Islam (I realize there are those out there drawing Mohammed who'd argue the phrase, but we all know what I'm talking about) would feel personally offended.

5/20/2010 at 20:02

Deep flowers, with lustre and darkness fraught

I awoke and spent two hours at the gym after only five hours' sleep. My body aches, and it is thirsty for something more than the water I drink can give it. Parched for a sensation that is not pain.

So after my shower I put on perfume—a soliflore, dedicated to tuberose. (My tastes in perfume have expanded, but tuberose was my first love—and they linger, in perfume as in romance.) The scent is called Beyond Love.

It very nearly is. It is certainly as overwhelming as that first, stomach-clenching fall. Sumptuous. Drenching. Lush on a scale that leaves me heavy-lidded.

In fact, narcotic.

Or better. Opiates have nothing on the luscious, ambrosial somnolence of this sensation. Breathing in, being surrounded by, this scent is as overwhelming as lying on summer grass at sunset, watching the sky as a storm rolls toward you—while sprawled between sheets made of cream-white silk.

Actually, I am sprawled on white sheets—sheets of damasked cotton-sateen. The sensory contrast—between the slight give that could pass as roughness in the fine-spun cotton, and the hedonistically sleek, impenetrably textured scent of the tuberose—is hypnotic, bewitching...

...far better than opium.

Everything registers—the three-noted chirp of the lone bird outside my open window; the rippling grey velvet of the clouds; the heavy swirl of the damp air around me as it is stirred by the coming rain; the nearly fur-soft feel of the hair at the base of my neck as my fingers lace in it. Nothing is lost, nothing struck aside by slumberous senses: Every impression plays across the sensorium, soft and heated and clear, not a single edge blurred by the scent which curls around all of them.

I want music now—something subtle and silken and drowning-deep. Something dangerous in large doses.

Something that sounds like the scent drifting from my skin.

But if there is a music that lulls with a heavy stroke—music that is slumberous, but so potent that you cannot bear to let it go to slide down into sleep—

music that drowns you in the air you breathe, because your blood binds its pleasures more tightly than oxygen—

music like the scent of tuberose and jasmine and amber and coconut and musk—

I've never heard it.

And so I lie in silence, in the falling dark of a Spring evening, bathing in the the scent of rajnigandha, “the flower of the night”. Bathing in the scent of Summer.

Of such a Summer as has never existed but in the dark, fragrant heart of a white-petalled night bloom.

5/16/2010 at 18:46

Sweeter Than Midnight; More Secret Than the Rose

Sweeter than midnight
More secret than the rose

- Michael Hornyansky, "The Queen of Sheba"

The intensity of my memorial and emotional response to scent holds me captive to the whim of random air currents. The scents of diesel and asphalt take me back to Bangalore; coconut milk and burning wood, to Tangasserri; blooming honeysuckle, back home to Nashville; Earl Grey tea, to West Lafayette... Some of the best and worst times of my life come back to me, strong and immediate, on drifts of wind.

So it's unsurprising that I love perfume; it captivates me utterly. After all, unpopular as the notion is nowadays, I am a sensualist, and no sybarite worth her salt would forbear to revel in the exquisite pleasure perfumery can bring. Its intricate components fascinate and delight me, and they always have. (My perfume of choice at age 16 was Dior's “Poison”—thanks, Mom.)

But med school tells you not to wear perfume. So this past year I've attempted to restrain myself whilst my gorgeous perfumes sat waiting, and I pined for them in silence. After a year of this sullen (mostly) scentlessness, it finally occurred to me to discuss perfume with other physicians. The ones with whom I spoke told me to wear perfume and (perfumista/physician tip) take an alcohol pad to my arms and throat before I went into clinic.

Bloody brilliant! Problem solved. My wonderful scents and I were back in business.

So now I'm reveling in the world of perfumery once again. That world is near-labyrinthine in its complexity—I've been learning about scent notes, accords, blending, and so forth for at least a decade, and I'll continue for the rest of my life. Over the course of that learning I've picked up information and developed tastes which have led to the formation of several general rules, which in my consummate generosity I am of course going to share with you.

My tastes in perfume (and other sensate experiences) are underpinned by five desires:

1. I want complexity. Once in a while I'll crave a simple, one-note scent and pull out jasmine or vanilla or sandalwood essential oil. But most of the time, I want to wear evidence of a perfumer's virtuosity—chamber orchestras of notes blended and conducted so masterfully that simply smelling them creates a symphonic burst of memory, emotion, and sensation.

2. I want truth. I like scent notes which are true to origin—identifiably natural. I like to be able to tell what the base notes in my perfumes are. I like scents which hold their base character perfectly—scents with high substantivity. That means that, with few exceptions (aldehydes being one—you'll pry my No5 out of my cold dead hands), I find scents with dominant synthetics disappointing.

3. I want flowers...& a little sweetness. Though the scents I wear include notes from amber to patchouli to cassis to sandalwood to ginger, their middle or base notes are always anchored by one of the big four flowers in perfumery—jasmine, rose, violet, or tuberose—sumptuous, heady scents. I also want a slight touch of sweetness. Dry, astringent, grassy, or overtly minerally or woody perfumes might smell great on the guy I'm with—but not on me.

4. I want endurance. I love the experience of discovering a scent over time—experiencing layer upon layer of note and nuance and expertly-wrought sensation. I love wearing a perfume whose mood and pacing shifts as the day—or night—goes on.

5. I want exotica. Given my looks and body chemistry, I can pull off sultry, smoky, mysterious scents—and lush, luscious, glamorous ones—and light, sweet, pretty ones...well, you get the picture. I always have more than one perfume of each type. But all of my perfumes contain spice or incense notes, and 75% of the time it's the exotic and/or complex scents which suit my mindset and my mood.

Disclaimer: My tastes—and the opinions resulting from them—are my own. People like and enjoy perfumes across a huge price range, and their olfactory tastes run as far or further over the map than their gustatory ones. If you like perfumes I don't (I can guarantee that you do), if your sensualist principles differ from mine (ditto), or if you have the kind of magical skin chemistry that makes $12 drugstore perfume smell like Calice Becker's finest (don't smirk; I've smelled it)—in other words, if you like pure vanilla while all I can stand is dark chocolate—then by all means ignore whatever you don't like here, and use whatever you can.

A brief description of what I mean by certain terms, and then a description of the substance under discussion here, before I tell you my rules of thumb.

I'm going to discuss my rules for finding, keeping, and wearing Good Perfume. As you now know, for me that means scents which are complex, well designed, and made with medium-to-good quality (mostly) natural ingredients. For reference, here's a partial list of makers of perfumes I've owned/worn repeatedly: Annick Goutal, Boucheron, Bulgari, Chanel, Dior, Givenchy, Gucci, Guerlain, Fendi, Montblanc, Nina Ricci. Their perfumes, and perfumes like them, are what I consider to be Good Perfumes. They go for anywhere from $40-$200, but with dedicated shopping and patience you can get most of them at the lower end.

If I talk about Very Good Perfumes (which I won't, very much), I'll be referencing makers like Montale, Amouage, By Kilian, Parfums MDCI, Creed, and their ilk. Their perfumes are close to the pinnacle of the perfumer's art, and are fairly well exempt from most of the caveats I mention here. They also retail for an average of $250 an ounce, no discounts—I've worn them, but I don't own them.

Here are some websites to check out should you want more information:
OzMoz (www.ozmoz.com), an incredibly comprehensive encyclopaedia of scents which gives origin and top, middle and base notes for thousands of designer perfumes;
Gogoperfumes (http://www.gogoperfume.com/Perfume_Glossary.aspx), which has a large glossary of terms used in both perfumer and perfumista circles; and
Luckyscent (www.luckyscent.com) a boutique-perfume retailer with a huge database of boutique-perfume reviews from dedicated perfumistas—most of which are far more informative than those on any other perfume site.

Now, a description of the substance under discussion.

Perfume as it's discussed here is a bottled mix of several different plant, animal, and mineral essences and absolutes and tinctures, alcohols, aldehydes, colorants and water in precise proportions, designed by a perfumer and sold by a specific brand. There are other scented substances worth knowing about—essential oils and blended body oils, to name two—but for the most part those aren't discussed here.

The blend of substances used in perfume, when it mixes with the specific chemistry of an individual's skin and hair, produces an effect unique to every person who puts it on. No perfume will smell the same on two different people; nor will it ever smell the same on skin as it does on a piece of paper or a sample card. The unique scent of a given perfume on your skin (and around you—the latter is termed the “sillage” of the scent) is a result of this reactivity, and of the inherent aromatic properties of the substances used in perfumery.

In any perfume, the secondary and tertiary properties of those substances are their intensity—how concentrated their scent is—and their substantivity—how long the note remains true to its original scent (their primary property is, of course, their original scent). The perfume ingredients with the highest intensity and substantivity are generally the purest ones, and therefore (unsurprisingly) the ones which cost the most.

Which leads me to rule number one.

1. In perfume, as in jewelry, there's a price basement past which no good perfume can sink.
Perfume-quality oils and absolutes are expensive, and even good replacements cost money. Cheaper perfumes are cheaper because they use lower-quality ingredients, and fewer of them. That has profound effects on the smell left on your skin, especially over time.

Which leads me to rule number two.

2. Buy good perfume.

This rule merits numbers two through five, but in the interests of space I'll confine it to one item. The rule has several corollaries, but the reasoning is simple: Good perfume smells good. Mediocre perfume can wind up smelling very, very bad indeed, especially if it's chosen carelessly. How you smell determines a very great deal of how people respond to you, whether consciously or unconsciously.

This does have a price basement, as I said, but there are two or three ways to circumvent it. One is to buy testers—they're full-sized, original bottles, but they're sold without special caps or fancy boxes or any of the other froufrou which makes them pretty. For decent perfumes, you'll still set down some money, but it'll be one-half to one-third of what you'd pay for the full version. There are also several websites where you can buy samples (Luckyscent is one) for $3-$10 each, and one or two which sell decants—smaller, unlabeled vials which contain the original fragrance.

3. Buy the eau de parfum of your favorite scents.

Below are the various grades/dilutions of aromatics typically offered at a perfume counter:
Perfume extract (parfum extrait)/parfum solid: 15-40% (usually 20%) aromatic compounds
Eau de parfum (Edp)/Parfum de toilette (Pdt): 10-20% (usually 15%) aromatic compounds (Sometimes marked Millésime, French for “vintage/year of”, used most often of wine and monuments.)
Eau de toilette (Edt): 5-15% (usually 10%) aromatic compounds

The more aromatics in the scent you put on your skin, the longer and more intensely that scent will last. When you know you love a certain perfume, wear the eau de parfum; you'll need less to achieve the same intensity, and the scent will last anywhere from 2 to 4 hours longer than the same perfume's eau de toilette. (Parfum itself is of course the best choice for wear, but it's often prohibitively expensive.)

4. Unless/until you're an expert in what smells good on you, try on every scent.

This one seems obvious, but I'm amazed at how many people violate it—though mostly not for themselves. This is perhaps better phrased as “perfume isn't a good gift”. I've violated this rule myself several times, fancying that such a perfumista as myself is exempt (ha!). For the most part, I've been lucky, but I've been burned enough to reinforce the lesson.

The scent of any given perfume on your skin is, not to belabor the point,
unique to you. It doesn't matter what it smells like in the bottle, in the air, on a scent card, or on anyone else.

The fact is that the best way to know how a perfume smells on your skin is to put it on your skin—and leave it there. You should never make a decision about a perfume until it's been on your skin at least an hour; the top note—consisting of the most volatile ingredients, the ones that give the initial impression of the perfume—should've had time to develop and give way to the middle and base notes by that time.

If you want to know how a good perfume will smell on you, wear it all day. The base notes, which are usually the “deeper”, more woody, leathery, musky, or incense-like components—though for perfumes containing rose or jasmine absolutes, or vanilla, they can be flowery or spicy as well—take a long time to develop fully, and last the longest. This is the “finish” of the perfume (in perfumery, the "drydown"), the lasting scent impression you and others will carry with you, and it's worth knowing what that is before you commit to it.

One exception to this (there're always exceptions) is that knowing what notes smell best on your skin may enable you to choose certain perfumes sight unseen. For example, ten years ago I realized that every one of my favorite perfumes had a tuberose medium or base note (though that's no longer true). That enabled me to determine that Boucheron's signature fragrance was one I should try—and I adore it. I've lucked out on buying other perfumes without testing, too, but it's always a gamble—don't do it unless you're prepared to toss the bottle you buy.

5. Take care of your perfumes: Keep them away from airflow and out of the light.

The thing which allows perfume to smell so good is that its most aromatic substances are volatile: they release odorants in response to the heat of your skin (and sometimes in response to its acidity). This means that they're inherently unstable: heat, and light of any kind (but especially sunlight, because of its UV content), cause the aromatic components to degrade.

Furthermore, because most perfumes are sold as blended oils and absolutes in a base of alcohol and water of varying concentrations, airflow of any kind around the perfume bottle will cause the alcohol to evaporate—thus altering the concentrations of the blend and throwing off the scent. The combination of these facts means that the time-honored tradition of keeping your perfumes on a toilette tray on the dresser is the best possible way to ensure them a very short life.

Keep your perfumes tightly covered and in the dark—in a drawer, if possible. The satisfaction of being able to use a good scent for an extremely long time—the standard shelf life of a well-cared-for perfume can be anywhere from two to five years, and some can last much longer—will more than make up for the lack of decorative bottles littering your dresser. If you decide to go the tester/sample/decants route, place the bottles/vials in zipper-seal bags before putting them in that drawer.

6. Buy perfume from couture and jewelry houses, not cosmetics houses.

(This is the point at which outraged Estee Lauder and Clinique and Shiseido and Your-Cosmetics-Counter-Here fans will hit the back button, skip down to leave a scathing comment, or come looking for my house.) You've seen the five things I want from perfume. Keep them in mind when I tell you that every fragrance I've tried from a cosmetics house has been of lower quality than those from couture or jewelers' houses.

There are perfumistas who swear by some cosmetics' houses' scents—but I don't know any personally. For my friends, family, and acquaintances as well as for myself, cosmetics-house perfume is a worse value than any other kind of perfume (including drugstore perfume). Though their prices are often the same, the cosmetics-house perfumes' substantivity, their intensity—even their complexity and originality of accord—pale when compared to couture and jewelers' perfumes.

This comes down to ingredients, not design. M
any of the top perfume designers design for couture, perfume-only, jewelers', and cosmetics houses. The difference is in the range, cost and quality of the aromatics they're allowed to include in their scents.

This isn't me playing favorites; the higher quality of ingredients is generally true of couture perfumes—even of those I don't like. Balmain, for instance, has never produced a perfume I like; neither have Gaultier, Armani, or Versace, or a half-dozen others I could name. Their perfumes are, however, made with middle-to-high-quality ingredients, as well as being well-designed.

I've recently begun trying perfumes from perfume-only houses again (including the Very Good ones listed above). The results have been generally outstanding—not surprising, really, considering the houses I chose. Still, I haven't tried a wide range yet, and given some I've tried in the past, I judge most houses on a scent-by-scent basis. After all, one of the first fragrances I ever tried and loved, perfume-only giant Guerlain's classic
Shalimar, has almost no staying power and a nasty of habit of turning on the skin when the bottle is more than a year old—but their very simple Aqua Allegoria line contains several fragrances I love.

7. Wear the perfume as it's meant to be worn.

This should probably be number three, under "buy good perfume", because how you wear a perfume can turn a decent perfume into a good one—or vice versa.

Perfume should be worn so that you (and others) can smell it. The aromatics are released by body heat; the more skin you cover, the more intense the scent will be and the longer it will last. That means that touching a dab to your wrists and behind your ears is a great way to waste a good perfume.

There is, however, a skill to wearing enough perfume to be able to bask in the scent without assaulting the noses of your coworkers or companions. The balance between the sillage (the amount of “waft” of the scent around you) and the intensity of the perfume you choose has to be carefully managed—I don't recommend Parisian-style wear (which involves atomizing the perfume and then walking into a cloud of it naked, in order to let it settle evenly on your skin).

“Layering” a single scent with perfumed lotion and bath gel can help it last longer, so layer when it's possible. A good perfume with moderate sillage should be applied immediately after you shower, and at least 30 minutes before you go out. Stroke it along the insides of both forearms and at the base of your neck, front and back (cleavage can be included or not, depending on occasion, intensity—and on what you're wearing; perfume oil stains permanently). If you want more scent—and more complexity—spray perfume into your hair.

But be careful with this. All of the times I've screwed up and suffocated people with my perfume have been because I did this without thinking about how long my hair is and how much scent clings to it—and how much more slowly it fades when applied to hair, since the heat level is so much lower. Done carefully, wearing perfume in your hair will make even a wimpy fragrance last quite a while, and for a Very Good perfume it can be a great way of “staging” your scent—drawing out the top notes so that they float over the medium and base notes instead of fading immediately.

Which brings me to the next rule.

8. Be careful about reapplying your perfume.

In fact, I have a firm stance on “touching up” perfume: Don't.

Seriously. Unless it's a Very Good perfume or a soliflore (or other one-note-focused) fragrance, you risk dissonance between its top and base notes. The former are designed to be completely gone by the time the latter begin to emerge; perfectly-harmonized top, middle, and base notes are one of the things which set Very Good perfumes apart from the rest.

Layering a Very Good perfume on hair and skin, or reapplying it midway through an evening, can give you an intriguing and delicious mix of notes—a tunefully fragrant jazz of scent.

Layering or reapplying anything else risks colliding, discordant scents—Stravinsky perfume, if you will. Which I won't.

Again, there are a variety of views on this topic; those who like scents which fade quickly really have no choice but to touch up. But from my point of view, if you're wearing good perfume, you shouldn't need to reapply it during an evening out—even on a heavy date. A good perfume's Edp should last 7 to 10 hours on your skin; a Very Good perfume's Edp will last anywhere from 9 to 14 hours without losing its substance (though of course the intensity fades gradually over time).

If you're in love with a perfume that fades quickly (or are one of the unfortunates who has skin that "drinks" the scent you love), test the scent during staging by wearing it at home one evening, and reapplying two hours in. You'll avoid any nasty surprises while out on that heavy date. (Well...nasty surprises from your

9. Dress (up) to match.

This is a wee bit hypocritical on my part, because there've certainly been a few times when I've wound up wearing an exotic, complex scent with jeans, a geeky t-shirt and Doc Martens. (Mostly in law school. Sorry, guys.)

However, I do try to abide by it in general. Believe me when I tell you that it is confounding to the senses of the people you're around to see you in your Chuck Taylors, favorite purple denim dungarees, and Misfits t-shirt while smelling the luxe, classic glamour of
Chanel No5 all over you. Do it if you want to screw with people's heads (hey, that can be fun once in a while), but don't do it consistently, or you'll confuse people's senses, and sense of propriety, enough that it makes them subconsciously irritated with you. (I've seen this happen to more than one person, more than once. And yes, I was one of them.)

I say “dress (up)” because this rule doesn't always hold in both directions. It's possible to wear a very simple scent with very dressy clothes. (As with everything concerning fashion, you can do almost anything you want—
if you know how to pull it off.) For most of us, however, whether simple or not, whether for day or evening, clothes should match the “feel” of the fragrance you wear. This means that you're going to look gauche wearing something fresh and grassy like Sisley's Eau de Campagne with that red velvet evening gown.

But if gauche is what you want, then hey, go to it. If matching clothing to scent steps all over your artistic license or anarchist ethos or whatever other flavor your amour-propre comes in, then wear whatever placates your sensibilities. Just don't get offended if those around you aren't equally placated.

There are many more things I could say about how I choose and wear perfume. I could talk about how it's made. I could lecture about olfactory groups and manufacturing techniques and maitres perfumiers. I could hit highlights in perfume's 6,000-year history. I could tell you that the world's first recorded chemist was a perfumer—and a woman. (And I just did.) I could, in short, go on at you about perfume for weeks.

But instead, I'll end this little jaunt into the arcane world of perfumery by saying that the delicate and precise blending of different substances to produce a specific olfactory “flavor” is, in the case of the very best perfumes, a work of art equal to anything that hangs in the world's major museums.

That it can be even better, in some cases, because of the intensity of the sensual experience a truly sublime scent can render.

That smell touches some of the oldest and most primitive parts of ourselves. That it connects us more intimately to our bodies and our pasts.

That being able to indulge one's senses in this fashion is a very, very great gift—one of the glorious sensate privileges that comes with living in a human body.

And that this is one of the parts of being human that should not be missed.

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