Wednesday, October 15, 2014

FN Review: Mandy Aftel, Drunk with Scent



 Mandy Aftel has hit another one out of the park. After scoring with Essence and Alchemy, she drills one into the upper decks with Fragrant: The secret life of scent. Her new book is built around five raw materials of natural perfumery: cinnamon, mint, frankincense, ambergis, and jasmine. Chapter by chapter she shares her working knowledge of the individual materials and places each one in historical and cultural context. We learn how to use them (guided practical formulations are provided) but we also learn about Mandy: her approach to life, meaning, and creativity. We discover her amazingly vibrant aesthetic, and how it grew naturally (so to speak) from her Berkeley environs. It is artisanal and whimsical. It takes pleasure in the simple deeply observed. It focuses on the quality of raw materials and the authenticity with which they are experienced. Think Bernard Maybeck and Alice Waters.

In each chapter, Mandy effortlessly transitions from an emotional and intellectual immersion in scent to the practical means of buying, sampling, and blending essential oils. Her personal fragrance fantasy land is a Peaceable Kingdom—in one category of scent after another she steers away from the sharp and overpowering and favors materials with softer impressions that lend themselves to blending.

Mandy imbibes the cultural and historical emanations of scent as enthusiastically as she inhales the essential oils themselves. She seeks out exotic materials and rare perfumery books with the same thirst for experience. As a scent scientist and fellow bibliophile, I appreciate this and applaud it, even as my personal interest in the intellectual history of smell leans more to philosophical treatises and natural history than to the formula books and practical guides that Mandy favors. But this is a matter of taste.

The real difference between Mandy and me is one of temperament. For her, enthusiasm and passion drive creativity. For me, the search for pattern and motive compels description, quantification, and analysis. My joy comes from tracing a new regularity of behavior or revealing an unsuspected piece of natural history. Hers comes from arranging a beautiful experience for others to share.

Does the way of the scientist not involve creativity and inspiration? Of course it does. Does the way of the perfumer not involve measurement and precision? Of course. But where Mandy revels in mystery, historical echoes and parallels, I thrill to clarifying the underlying psychobiology of sensory experience.

Throughout human experience, the allure of ephemeral smells and flavors was potent enough to change the course of history. Mandy vividly describes how the discovery of scents and spices drove early Europeans to take great risks in exploration, trade, and warfare. Not that she would put it this way, but the history of spice and perfume is inseparable from the development of capitalism. To celebrate one is to celebrate the other. No wonder the social frivolity of scent and perfumery’s exploitation of natural resources have been favorite targets for leftists and greens. Mandy’s Berkeley-based aesthetic sits uneasily on this cultural fault-line.

Mandy is an exponent of “authentic luxury” which she defines as psychological engagement with the honest immediacy of sensory experience. In this, she aligns herself with locavorism and Alice Waters’ Slow Food movement. I, too, encourage people to expand their sensory horizons, to stop and savor the world around them. But mindful cultivation of one’s sensory experience is a stone’s throw from fatuity. Those who can afford it thrill to the localness of their salad greens and grilled lamb. Those in a lower tax bracket can be seen across the street from Chez Panisse, waiting in line for pizza at The Cheese Board Collective. For them, the forty-minute wait isn’t a hindrance (few people in Berkeley are deadline-driven); rather, it serves to authenticate the sensory superiority of their pizza experience. Here is the Cheese Board’s pizza offering for tomorrow (the day of Fragrant’s publication): Crimini mushrooms, onion, mozzarella and Campo de Montalban cheese, arugula (Heirloom Organic Garden of Hollister) in a lemon dressing. Mr. Dino, my local purveyor of finest quality pizza back in New Jersey, would consider a forty-minute wait a failure of customer service, as would his deadline driven customers. Heirloom organic arugula would elicit from Mr. Dino a blank stare.

Throughout Fragrant, Mandy celebrates the act of discrimination, the exercise of a knowledgeable palate upon selected raw materials of experience. Training one’s nose (and brain) to find the nuanced differences in a series of ambergris samples can be revelatory; learning how to blend ambergris with other materials can, as Mandy illustrates, be a creative project akin to learning how to paint in water colors. Yet I can’t help but wonder whether for every talented Mandy Aftel there are ten Randy Marshes finishing every dish “with a little crème fraîche.”

Mandy’s facility in reading character is the talent of the clinical psychologist, one she re-deploys with respect to scent: she listens to how an oil presents itself and how it reacts with others. In her fascination with the symbology of scent, the meanings of its folklore and myths, Mandy takes as her aesthetic scope the entire scented world and our experience of it—human involvement with fragrance from prehistory onward. Her aesthetic compromises, in Wallace Stevens’ phrase, “the whole of harmonium.” She is the world’s first Jungian Perfumer.

Monday, October 13, 2014

A Double Helping of ISDP



As we opened a new bag of Doritos and settled in to compile this month’s edition of I Smell Dead People, we noted to our dismay that we totally spaced out on the September round-up. Personally, we blame this mix-up on lower-level employees in the Cincinnati field office, if you know what we mean. But to make good we hereby offer our loyal fans a two-month double-helping of the most depressing and grotesque olfactory events imaginable.

The scene: a house on Squankum Road, in Lakewood, New Jersey.
Police were called by a property manager after a nearby business complained about an odor coming from the residence on Thursday. Police found a dead male inside a bedroom.
Wait. Just “an odor”? Not “a foul odor”? What gives?

The Asbury Park Press has a fuller account, published under the odd headline “Lakewood body identified as Brick man.” [Like Wicker Man?—Ed.] The deceased was a 45-year-old male from nearby Brick Township, across the Garden State Parkway from Lakewood. Both municipalities on are the Metedeconk River. Got it? Good.

In Houston, Texas, neighbors reported a “foul odor” and Harris County deputies made the find: two bodies and a “bloody scene” were discovered inside a garage.

In Brownsville, Texas, “Foul odor leads to discovery of dead woman, child.” Staff writer Christina R. Garza of the Brownsville Herald sets the scene:
Police cars and crime-scene tape marked off an area of Frankfurt Street in Brownsville Friday evening where the bodies of a woman and child were discovered. A foul odor hung in the night breeze as shocked neighbors surrounded the area. One woman said she’d smelled the odor since a day before but had believed it was remnants from the Thursday’s garbage collection in that neighborhood. The bodies were found inside a modest red brick home with a white picket fence. It is unknown how long they had been inside the house.
A man has been detained as a suspect in the case; he is said to be the estranged husband of the dead woman and father of the dead child. A coroner’s report found that the woman was killed by three gunshot wounds to the head.

A couple walking their dog in Dunbar, West Virginia noticed a foul odor coming from a two-story building. They called police who found a badly decomposed body inside. The body appears to have been there for several weeks.

The remains of a woman were found beneath a trailer home in Apache Junction, Arizona, after neighbors complained to police that a foul smell had been coming from it for several days. The body may be that of the mobile home’s resident, a woman who had been missing for several days. A 45-year-old man has been arrested in case. According to ABC-TV Channel 15, he has “a criminal background including several drug charges along with assault and domestic violence charges from earlier this year.”

A dismembered body wrapped in plastic was found in a garage in Hegewisch, Illinois, south of Chicago.
Investigators arrived at the scene Sunday after neighbors smelled a foul odor coming from the garage and alley.
The body may be that of a man whose ex-wife died a week earlier, and whose mother-in-law has been missing since. [So complicated.—Ed.] [That’s Chicago for you.]

If at first you don’t succeed, sniff, sniff, sniff again.

Sixty-six year old Richard Whipple was found dead of multiple stab wounds in his apartment in the Browne’s Addition section of Spokane, Washington. His remains were discovered after a foul odor was noted coming from his apartment—but it took a while.
managers entered Whipple’s apartment and saw an abundance of trash “strewn about the apartment.” They believed that was the source of the odor, so a janitor removed several bags of garbage and took them to the dumpster. But, the odor did not dissipate, so management went back into the apartment. That’s when they found Whipple dead in a recliner under several laundry items and a pillow.
Another Norman Bates Award™ Nominee

Ila Solomon of Lafayette, Indiana is alleged to have lived for about ten months in a house with the body of her dead husband, while collecting his Social Security and VA payments. She has been charged with “welfare fraud, theft, failure to report a dead body, unlawful disposition of a dead human body and failure to file a certificate of death.” A man who did some work on the house told police about a foul odor he smelled there, but his report triggered no action.

Norman Bates Award nominee, Overseas Division
Meerut: A 57-year-old man died allegedly due to starvation and his body was found only after one month from his home here.

Harendra Badhai, a former government doctor, was staying with his younger brother Harish Badhai (55) at their Shastri Nagar residence, police said, adding, the brothers were suffering from mental ailments.

The neighbours informed the police about a foul smell emanating from the house, following which police found Harendra’s rotten body on Saturday, they said.

The younger brother who was also present in the house said that Harendra is sleeping and asked the police not to take the body, police said, adding, he (Harish) was holed up inside his residence with the body for nearly one month.

The younger brother was an Air Force officer and the elder one was a doctor at CHC, Sardhana, both of whom left their jobs after mental problems, police added.
Chef kills and cooks girlfriend, kills self

We don’t normally track ISDP events outside the U.S., but this one warrants special mention:
An Australian chef has killed his girlfriend, dismembered her and boiled parts of her body before taking his own life, police say.

Marcus Volke, 28, was fleeing officers who had come to his Brisbane apartment after reports of a foul smell when he slashed his own throat in a bin.

Officers discovered body parts of Volke’s girlfriend in a pot on the stove, while other parts of the Indonesian woman’s mutilated body were found in garbage bins outside the apartment, according to local media.
The Mirror gets the headline prize for “‘He was boiling her feet when I walked in’: Electrician describes moment he saw killer cooking his wife.” The Mirror’s account is the only one to note that Volke’s wife was transgender. This reminds us, in a sort of reversed image way, of the case of Frederick Hengel, of Oceanside, California. The 69-year-old was known in the neighborhood for wearing women’s cloths. He was convicted of murdering and dismembering his 74-year-old wife, and boiling her remains on the stove.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Schlubs of New York



There are rare nights when Manhattan has a manic, magical charm. Then there are nights like tonight, when Tenth Avenue reeks of discarded ice outside the fish market and the air is shattered by car horns as drivers blast their way into the Lincoln Tunnel. (To be fair, these aren’t New Yorkers—they’re assholes from New Jersey in a big fucking rush to get back to their blighted home turf.)

On such a routine, uncharming evening people in New York look like hell—vacant, tired, badly dressed; a parade of the lame and the halt, the obese and the homeless. Chelsea becomes a badly lit Fellini set.

Hordes of people pour across town, flooding the sidewalks. I fight my way down Tenth through the selfie-taking mob, past a couple of bloody zombies. I start thinking about airport temperature screening for Ebola and what a joke that is. It’s not until I pass another ghoul that the signal rises above the noise and I realize these are not the usual schlubs of Manhattan. These are out of town schlubs dressed up as zombies (and anime princesses and super heroes). I am surrounded by morons exiting Comicon at the Javits Center.

At 28th Street I reach my goal: an opening at the Fred Torres Gallery, billed as an “experiential showcase” that “blends diverse visual and olfactory mediums to explore a full spectrum of the moments and states that cannot fully be defined.” Thus the show’s title, “Liminality: betwixt and between.”

A small group of people mill about on the sidewalk in front of the gallery’s plate glass window. They’re watching perfumer Christopher Brosius on a step ladder hang some laundry on a metal frame. At least that’s what it looks like at first glance. On second glance (and first sniff) he’s hanging a silken sheet printed with a phrase and ever so lightly scented. The 15 knot breeze coming off the Hudson makes it hard to build much olfactory ambience. A silver-haired gentleman is observing the scene while a Asian woman gesticulates and lectures him energetically in German.

CB himself, of course, is wearing boots and a black kilt. His parti-colored hair is braided to his scalp in tight cornrows. He peers myopically through wire-framed aviator frames set with thick lenses. It’s quite a look. [You should talk, Mr. Minus Six Diopters.—Ed.] [Yeah, but I gave up aviators frames in the Eighties—right after kilts.]

Inside the miniscule gallery I gratefully accept a glass of champagne from an attractive young woman with ample and generously displayed cleavage. Reluctantly, I turn away to the art. There are three visual artists, each with his own wall. One is a collection of dark B&W photos of random people in random scenes; the images are untitled and uninterpretable, but all are definitely bleak. On the next wall hang three quasi-representational paintings that are quasi-engaging. On the third wall is a series of color photographs. Some were taken in a semi-finished attic with a female subject who looks lost and ill at ease. Others feature bare male asses. This is the artist examining “the tension between sexuality and intimacy.” Or something.

In the center of the room, on a pedestal draped in white fabric, stands a clear glass Florence flask. No one is paying it any attention. I lean in and sniff—I get notes of dry wood and fresh green leaves. This is CB’s contribution to the show.

The show was organized by an outfit that bills itself as “a full-service curation and experience-design agency specializing in immersive events production.”

Really? I got fully immersed in the champagne and that was about it. I guess if you want to “cultivate an inclusive influencer network augmenting cultural cachet,” then this is the agency for you.

Or you could set up an odorized booth at Comicon.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The FirstNerve Library


I have updated the Amazon widget on this page with personal comments on each of the books that I recommend. The selection reflects my preferred blend of science, history, memoir, and stories. I will add to the list from time to time. Click through to purchase them on Amazon: there is no extra cost to you and a few coins will drop into the FirstNerve beer fund.

Monday, September 29, 2014

FN Review: Led by the Nose



English journalist and author Robert Chalmers is an interesting fellow, as I learned while being interviewed by him recently. He’s a man of refined aesthetic judgment and wide-ranging cultural curiosity who sounds, on the telephone, like one of those portly, slightly bibulous character actors from black and white British films of the 1930s. (I have no idea how well this impression corresponds with reality—he does not google easily.) Chalmers is on good terms with Elvis Costello, jets off to the Cote d’Azur to interview famous actresses, and since adolescence has been a devotee of fragrances by Creed.

Chalmers has now published a greatly expanded—and more leisurely and nuanced—version of his European Newsweek story as an ebook. In Led by the nose: The future of smell in a virtual world, he tracks down the inventors of the latest digital smell technologies (Scentee’s Adrian Cheok and the oPhone Duo’s David Edwards) and tries to envision the changes they may bring to society. He sets this narrative against a lively and humorous depiction of perfume culture.

Along the way he manages to heap praise upon What the Nose Knows. Consequently, I can’t pretend this is an impartial review. But I can say that Led by the Nose is an amusing and inexpensive read for anyone who likes perfume and/or is intrigued by the future of scent technology.