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.