20 December 2008


When he asked me if I could smell colors, I answered with a bored, eyelids-half-closed, "Yeah." Smelling colors can seem somewhat obvious -- rose can smell anywhere from blushing pink to blood red. Grassy notes smell bright green. Cinnamon, a reddish-brown. But I'd been putting these observations on the back burner ever since a perfumer got upset with my efforts to communicate in color. The top notes of her fragrance were very green and yellow, like apple juice made from Granny Smiths, and what the fragrance needed was a softer, more powdery effect, like laundy detergent in cornflower blue. I asked for what I needed using these color descriptions, but she didn't really understand what I meant. That was my last attempt to communicate using color. So when he asked me to paint the fragrances I smelled, I was a bit skeptical and frustrated over the "point of all this."

I clicked opened the box of watercolors and realized that it'd been so long since I'd done anything this overtly 'artistic' that I had to remind myself how to use the little cup of water. On the table in front of me were three unlabeled fine fragrances. Each one was completely different from the next. I had an unlimited amount of time to paint what I smelled. I dipped a blotter, inhaled deeply, and picked up the little paintbrush.

I don't know how long I painted, but when I finished, I felt amazingly calm and clear. I felt completely open and relaxed, like someone had massaged my brain. Painting perfumes seemed to give me all the benefits of meditation without the effort. It had been an active process that felt strangely...passive. It was like I'd skipped the whole process of interpretation, and the colors on the page simply WERE the perfumes. Each one looked completely different, but it all seemed so obvious and clear.

Later, he showed me watercolors done by perfumers using the same fragrances. In one I had missed a couple dashes of red, but otherwise, you could match my paintings to theirs. It was like discovering that I could speak a language I didn't even know existed.

I need to buy some paint supplies.

13 December 2008

Le plus c'est la meme chose...

While the economy is a different story and no one really knows what will happen tomorrow, in the meantime I am really enjoying my job. I love using my nose, I love my company, and I am impressed by the people around me (their diversity, intelligence, experience, and warmth). The daily grind can be very stressful and fast-paced (sometimes I take a few moments to deliberately calm a racing heart), but instead of approaching the challenges with monotonous dread, I enjoy trying to tackle them. The difficult days fly by and I love that most of them yield something tangible to account for what I did all day. And hopefully, that something smells good.

Maybe I'm just approaching "that age," but more so I think my current environment has led me to think a lot about marriage. Basically, I don't understand it anymore.

Growing up I thought I knew what a good marriage was, why people got engaged, and why they stayed together. From my point-of-view as a child and then teenager, my own parents' marriage seemed solid, purposeful, loving, happy...pretty damn good. To a kid, the main point of their marriage seemed to be a happy family, but before that, they really did love each other. What could be confusing about that?

So my parents were together, and most of my friends' parents were together, and divorce was the exception. I wasn't so naive as to think that everything was perfect, but I was too naive to understand what could be SO BAD that people would want to break up their families and homes and live life apart. One or two times I tried to imagine what it would feel like if my own parents divorced, and nothing made me feel more insecure. In high school I didn't even understand why couples my age fought. At that age, what the heck was there to fight about? What was ever that big of a deal? I always had a crush on someone, and senior year of high school I really fell in love with someone, but nothing ever seemed like it would be the end of the world. I was nowhere near ready to settle down, even with someone I loved, because the timing just wasn't right. But I always assumed that day would come, it would be simple and straight-forward, and I knew myself well enough to prevent any issues that would justify divorce. I assumed my life and my own marriage would look a lot like my parents'. How else could it be?

Now I'm 25, and while I hear all the time, "Oh, you're still young," "Oh, you've got plenty of time," or just a "Pfft!" with a handwave to convey the same idea that my life is still but a speck on a timeline, I am not quite as naive as before. But I am confused. It could be that I grew up in the small-town south and now I live in rat-race-paced New Jersey. But a mere 10, 15 years later, divorce is not the exception. Staying together is. What is wrong with people? I understand that people make mistakes, and I'm not such an unforgiving perfectionist that I'm going to judge people who are divorced (not at all). But I just feel like the problem is larger, that as a society, nobody really knows what marriage is anymore. At work nearly everyone, everyone! is divorced, at best with sticky histories and at worst with horribly traumatic reasons for splitting up. But there are two women in their very late 20s who are engaged, and that's all anyone talks to them about. (Of course, they aren't talking about the marriage, they're gushing over wedding details). Does this make sense? Is marriage good, or not? Why can't this be black and white? As soon as a woman is engaged it's like she becomes a big walking wedding planner and everyone assumes she has no interest in talking about anything else other than hotel accomodations, white lace, and plates. It frightens me in a country where so many people get divorced that once you are engaged it's like nothing about you before that matters or is interesting to anyone else.

The media is no help, either. If you actually try to follow the rash of relationship advice breaking out all over the internet, bookstores, radio, and television, you can turn a perfectly fine relationship into a big mess. There's a "rule" now that if you're dating someone for a year, you're not supposed to talk about marriage AT ALL, then one night you sit your man down for an ultimatum, and if he's not ready to propose on the spot after you've kept the pressure off and never discussed marriage before, then you should dump him. Walk away and he should come crawling back to you with a ring. If he doesn't, then it wasn't a good relationship in the first place.

Never mind your actual feelings for each other, your bank accounts, your histories, your ages, your places in life. What kind of crap advice is that? Marriage is probably one of the most intimate, interpersonal, particular arrangements there is, but these "experts" dole out instructions like they're explaining how to butter toast. If you want your bread brown, keep it a secret and be happy with white for a year. Then suddenly, stick it in the toaster for 1 minute. If it doesn't pop up brown, then girl, you better head back to the grocery and find another brand. Does that strike anyone else as ridiculous? Who would throw out the bread before sticking it back in the toaster longer?

The other aspect of the media I find particularly frustrating is all the talk about cheating. On the morning drive to work, all people talk about is being cheated on, checking their significant others' cellphones for unfamiliar numbers, how more women than ever! are being unfaithful, how men who marry in their 20s are more likely to cheat, and cheat sooner, than men who marry in their 30s...it's so discouraging and hearing people talk about it all the time just makes it worse. It makes loyalty in a marriage seem like a fairy-tale. It's like cheating in a marriage is as standard as white cake in a wedding. I wonder how common it is to include cheating clauses in pre-nups. Vows basically don't mean a damn thing anymore, but if you can stick a lawyer and a lot of money behind it, maybe a promise will count for something. If you're a single girl and you actually pay attention to the media and the people around you, you don't understand why anyone actually gets married.

But then I think about how one day I'd like a family. First and foremost, I think I would like to raise children, and that's not something I'll ever aspire to do on my own, or even with "a partner." I want to do that with my family. I want to do that with my husband. And the other reason is that I love my boyfriend. We don't live together, but I like the idea of one day going home to him. I think he would be a good father. I like the idea of pooling our finances. I love his family. We like to eat the same kinds of foods (except for Indian, which I can have while I'm out with girl friends). I like the idea of security, of trusting someone, of needing someone who needs you. Of maybe buying a house together and staking out a tiny part of the world that is "mine" and "ours" and feeling at home after growing up and leaving North Carolina.

Despite everything around me, I still believe that I can create and maintain a 1990s southern marriage in 21-st century central New Jersey. Maybe everyone else does, too. Maybe that's why men keep buying rings and women keep saying yes, against all odds. Maybe I'm not as different from everyone else as I thought.

14 August 2008

Smell & Taste

I'm happy to report that I will be joining the ranks of mid-Atlantic commuters... by starting a new job! I'll be working in fragrance development / evaluation with a great company, and I'm really, REALLY excited about this opportunity. Planning to stock up on audiobooks to make the commute more entertaining.

Recently I learned some interesting facts about smell and taste from Audiodigest's Family Practice CDs:

  • "Taste information does not go through the medial temporal nerve and hypothalamus [unlike smell, so] the emotional aspect of taste is not as strong as that of smell." Even though rocky road ice cream may transport you to childhood, it won't do so as effectively as your mother's old perfume. It's interesting to learn that it's all because of the way our brains are wired and which nerves go where.
  • Possible / potential causes of smell disorders: vitamin B12 deficiency, zinc deficiency, low thyroid function, cigarette smoking and yes, even alcohol consumption. Alcohol was shown "to produce smell impairment in 50%" of cases because of toxicity to the temporal lobe and other structures involved in smell and taste. Cut back on cough medicine to smell the roses!
  • And, it's now generally accepted that there are 5 senses of taste: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami, which refers to MSG and savory broth flavors often found in Asian cooking.
  • As we age, sweet and salty flavors are the first to go.
  • Most interesting is the fifth cranial nerve which allows us to detect texture, temperature, and "spice sensations."

I wonder if people who like spicy foods have less active or less sensitive fifth cranial nerves. I love the flavors of salsas and other hot mixtures, but often find them too spicy to enjoy. Perhaps alcohol impaires the fifth cranial nerve. That could explain why spicy Mexican food goes well with good tequila! And also why Mexican food is such a delight: a Margarita offers cold, sweet, and sour. Chicken mole offers spice and possibly umami. Cold but spicy salsa sends the cranial nerve for a loop, and it's all topped off with smooth, cold, sweet, creamy flan. Nothing like a good meal to get your brain in high gear.

17 May 2008


First, it was Bonne Bell lip gloss. In high school my best friend and I would amass our collections and revel in the flavor choices, like old misers running our knubby fingers through golden coins. Dr. Pepper, Strawberry Banana, Cotton Candy, Vanilla, Raspberry...we were shamelessly addicted to these candy-colored plastic tubes of lip flavors. We counted them, traded them, shared them, and laughed at our infantile obsession with little-kid "make-up." We gave ourselves up completely to the temptation and bought new tubes without a second glance. We were obsessed with Bonne Bell lip glosses, but our juvenile indulgence was acceptable because...we understood each other. These days I'm still impressed by the flavor offerings (and licenses with candy brands such as Skittles and Hershey), but as I walk down the Target aisles, I simply make a mental note and walk away. My temptations of late have moved to other departments.

It was never cigarettes or drugs, but instead, vices that were less obvious to the public. Smoking is hard to hide. But very, very few people know what your underwear looks like. In college I turned from lip gloss to lingerie. Before Victoria's Secret turned neon green and trashy, back when it was pink and white and feminine, that was my temptation. Lip gloss was tossed in favor of colorful bra-and-panty sets. I realize now that all of my indulgences--lip gloss, lingerie, perfume, chocolate--I can chalk up not to being vices, but simply to being feminine. I wasn't falling for anything, I was simply being a woman. Hah.

It all got worse when I went to France, the lingerie capital of the world. (Come to think of it, all of my obsessions intensified while I was in Paris). Lingerie boutiques line the streets like bakeries, and walking into one gave me the same feeling that walking into sugar-free candy stores in Madrid would give me many years later. Look at all those colorful choices. Indulgence is always sexy, with or without the calories.

And of course, laced throughout the years and the changing obsessions was the one that would always remain: perfume. Working in the perfume industry, with entire closets filled with every fine fragrance and body wash imaginable, my interest in perfume has not lessened in the least. But part of my job is also monitoring the cosmetics market. I am forever on the internet, in Sephora, in The Body Shop, looking for new fragrances but only after sweeping through the cosmetics aisles. It's another type of candy shop altogether. It's hard not to confuse eye shadow with cupcakes, lipsticks with candy sticks, cheek stains with fruit juices. Makeup is a delicious and, if not kept in check, quite expensive habit. When a coworker and I discovered our mutual obsession with lip products, it was like high school all over again. We trade information, we compare results, we drop brand names, we share new loot. (She started off with Bonne Bell lip glosses as well, a good 15 years ahead of me, but she progressed to Chanel long before I did. She was wearing Chanel in high school while I didn't buy such a serious lipstick until 2 years after college). But no matter. Now we're on to warming, stinging, plumping lip glosses and blusher compacts with zig-zagging summer shades and crisp magnetic closures.

Makeup is such a sensual indulgence. It's not just about trying to look "pretty." It's about pleasure, just like a good meal and a glass of wine. Color palettes flirt with your eyes, rosy perfumes tickle your nose, magnets and brushes and powders and liquids beg for your touch, occasional flavors talk to your tastebuds. It's a miracle I can separate Sephora from La Perla from Godiva, because when I use makeup, I may as well be smearing chocolate on myself.

Last week I broke down and bought an eye shadow compact. It was expensive, but it's covered in cushy fabric and closes with a delightful 'click.' (With more expensive brands, no detail is left to chance. Some designer on the other side installed hidden magnets to create a closure with a "luxury feel." I've been obsessed with makeup containers and closures my entire life. When I was little, my mom would ask me not to open and close her lipstick tubes so frequently, because if I continued I would wear down the bumps and the caps would no longer stay attached. But I love feeling the clicks. I love the smell of blue minerals ground into particle dust. I love the soft brushes on my eyelids. I love that it feels like I'm painting my face).

I knocked on my coworker's door to share the the latest find. She stopped her work, smiled with understanding and approval, and said, "Good for you, my dear. It's fantastic. Enjoy."

Silly, maybe. But it's marketing at its finest. Nobody needs more eyeshadow, but nobody needs any kind of temptation. I'm just sharing mine.

"Perfume School"

For everyone interested in studying perfumery, I'm happy to share with you what I know. The program I completed at ISIPCA (www.isipca.fr), called The Fragrance Academy, very sadly no longer exists. (It was a one-year program for non-French students in perfumery and evaluation). If you are not French but would still like to study fragrance, there is a 2-year program available to those with a degree in chemistry or pharmacology, called EFCM (European Fragrance & Cosmetics Masters). The first year is spent studying cosmetics and fragrance in Versailles, the second year studying business in Italy. I believe you can find application details at the above-listed website.

The only other perfumery schools I'm aware of are within fragrance companies themselves. I think your best bet is to try to get your foot in the door at a fragrance company, be it as a fragrance compounder, sales coordinator, etc. Work hard, express your interest in fragrance development, make a real effort to get along with everyone...and hopefully through this route, you will find a way to move up.

10 February 2008

Culture Shock

The US really is a jigsaw of various cultures. The landscape, the people, the food, the language, everything can change from place to place within the good ol' US of A. For me this is always easier to discuss than to experience. If you move to Japan, you expect major cultural differences. If you move to France, you expect more cigarette smoke (until very recently), slower movies, richer food. But when you move from North Carolina to New Jersey, you don't expect the differences to be that big of a deal.

When you transplant yourself you get a whole new life: new apartment. new job. new people. new license plates. new ridiculous ways of making left turns. new love life. new expectations for your future.

All of this can bring great joy and great anxiety at the same time. You start to wonder why you're experiencing culture shock in your own darn country. How can Japan seem like a better fit than the Northeast? Except for taxes that shoot through the roof, I think the most easily quantifiable difference for me in New Jersey is the language.

People around me curse all the time. This hardly ever happened in Japan, and in France, only young people still clinging to their teenage years did it on a regular to sound cool. I've been here for four months but hearing f*ck all the time still trips me up. Also, there are a few expressions I simply never heard before I moved to New Jersey, and some of them don't even sound grammatically correct:

food shopping
food store
going forward

and others that have escaped me at the moment.

Going forward, I should be able to surmount a language barrier, because it's still English. In the meantime, my work is piling up on the credenza, and I still haven't done my food shopping for the week. F*ck.