Perfume and a Movie: Musc Ravageur and Stranger Than Fiction

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There were many times in the past when I thought about writing a review of Frederic Malle Musc Ravageur — an iconic fragrance among perfume lovers. The last time was at Christmas, when I roughed out my ideas for a post which I had planned to title “In Lieu of Eggnog.” Wearing Musc Ravageur was a delicious substitute to indulging in that sinfully good beverage; I think it probably saved me from packing on five pounds. However, Christmas came and went without me writing the post, and the reason had little to do with me being either holiday busy or holiday lazy. I like Musc Ravageur a lot, but it’s one of those musk-centric perfumes I feel hesitant about reviewing since I’m not certain I smell all of it — which is to say, the musk portion of it. On the manufacturer’s card that came with my sample, Musc Ravageur is described as “Sensual and sophisticated. Powerful yet perfectly controlled. Dramatic and mysterious.” A little further on, the adjective “lusty” is used. If this description were borne only on the wings of a marketing label, I might not question why my own experience of the fragrance doesn’t match up. Thing is, there are a number of credible reviews on perfume blogs, vlogs and scent forums describing Musc Ravageur in these same lusty terms, making it sound like the itty-bitty, perfect thing to wear if you want to be, well, ravished (in the purely hyperbolic sense of the word).

I suspect I’m anosmic to certain musks (not all, but some). I don’t “get” the sensual, powerful, dramatic and lusty elements of Musc Ravageur that other folks do. Sweet and sophisticated is how it comes across to me, and if I were writing the marketing blurb it would say something like, A vanillic bonbon for grown-ups. Yummy, cuddly and lightly boozy. There is more of a gourmand sensibility to Musc Ravageur than a carnal one, and more of a sense of softness than drama or mystery. To my nose, it’s the scent of confectionery with a side of fuzzy blankets. While not the kind of animalic musk I associate with sex, I would agree that it’s sexy in the way that it speaks of cozy intimacy and sweet indulgences. In regard to the latter, it occurs to me that candies, cookies and other treats are sometimes referred to as “naughties” (because we’re being bad when we eat these sensual, calorie-laden morsels). The act of eating naughties while under the covers with someone is very much the vibe Musc Ravageur gives off (to my nose, anyway), and though I intend no double entendre with that statement, in stating it I realize I’ve more or less made the olfactory leap to how others perceive this scent.

Still, I’ll keep this post where I originally intended it — on the PG-13 rated side. And along those lines, I have in mind a movie that is the perfect cinematic treat to pair with Musc Ravageur.

Hoffman and Ferrell in Stranger Than Fiction

Stranger Than Fiction is an offbeat, romantic film full of talent. Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Queen Latifah play key roles, but it’s the subdued performance of Will Ferrell that might surprise you, if all you’ve ever seen him in are the goofball comedies for which he is known. Here Ferrell plays the straightest of straight men: a by-the-book, IRS taxman named Harold Crick, whose lonely existence seems to hinge on the numbers he keeps in his head and which govern his daily practices. He brushes his teeth a precise number of strokes each morning; he ties his necktie in a single-knot Windsor, instead of a double, to save 42 seconds of time; and his math skills form the basis of most of the conversations he has with his office colleagues (they treat him like a human calculator and he really only has one friend at work). If he were a character in a novel, Harold Crick would be an easy character to kill off — which is exactly the plan novelist Karen ‘Kay’ Eiffel (Emma Thompson) has in mind. Harold, as it turns out, is the lead character of one of Kay’s novels — a fact of which he is unaware until one day he hears her voice in his apartment, narrating the mundane routine of his life. To say he is disconcerted is understatement. Especially when, at the bus stop one evening, while resetting the time on his wristwatch, he hears her crisp British voice intone: “Little did he know that this simple, seemingly innocuous act would lead to his imminent death.”

Not surprisingly, hearing a statement like that becomes a catalyst for change, which is where Dustin Hoffman’s character comes in. He plays a college professor, an expert on literature theory, who initially thinks that Harold is nuts yet agrees to help him identify the author. Hoffman’s character brings sly humor to the film: humor that is light and dry like champagne in comparison with the darker, quirkier humor of Thompson’s character Kay, who is nutty in the way that writers often are when the writing is not going well. No small-time author, she’s a literary star with a bad case of writer’s block, desperate to find a way of killing off Harold Crick for the ending of her unfinished book. Her publishing company has even sent an assistant (Queen Latifah) to help her finish, thus underscoring the fact that time is ticking away. Of course, no one is more aware of this ticking than Harold, who knows he must track down the author and make the case for his life before she literally writes “The End.”

Emma Thompson in Stranger Than Fiction

Perhaps he also knows that his case would be better made if he lives some, first. As fortune would have it, around the same time he begins hearing the voice Harold is sent by the IRS to audit a bakery owned by a young woman named Ana Pascal (Maggie  Gyllenhaal). Feisty, intelligent and openly hostile towards Harold when he shows up (after all, she’d already written a detailed letter to the IRS stating why she would only pay 78 percent of her taxes), Ana makes Harold’s job as difficult as she can. Nevertheless, Harold finds himself physically attracted to her and quietly accepts the abuse she heaps on him, which includes digging his way through a mixed-up box of receipts she presents to him in an intentional state of disarray. Out of respect for the way he handles the situation — and proving she also has a soft side — at the end of the audit Ana presents him a plate of freshly-baked, chocolate-chip cookies. It’s a gesture he almost ruins (it goes against IRS policy to accept gifts, he tells her, thus insulting and getting her guard up again) but later rights. The old Harold — the person he was before he heard a voice determining he could be dead any day now — likely wouldn’t have bothered to recover from his error, despite the attraction. The new Harold — who is still very much himself, but a man willing to change his habits — finds a way to win over Ana Pascal. And watching that happen, even when you know it is about to happen, is the tender, chewy, delicious part of this film.

Maggie Gyllenhaal yelling at Will Ferrell

I won’t spoil the ending and tell you what kind of transaction occurs between Harold and the author who seemingly holds his life in her hands, who is known for her “beautiful tragedies.” Except to say that when he falls in love, his life becomes his own more than it is Kay’s, and it’s the small things — the cozy delectables of life — that trump death and taxes. Seeing Harold wrapped up in Ana’s arms in her fluffy bed, listening to their pillow talk, watching him at a later point eating her Bavarian sugar cookies: these are the kinds of things that many of us crave and find sexy. They are also good talking points for a perfume like Musc Ravageur. I know I don’t have to make the case for it — it already has many fans. But if I did, I would say that its commingled aromas of sugar cookies, warm blankets, rum-splashed eggnog, and musk (that may or may not smell dirty to you) conveys a feeling that is beyond intimate. Other musk perfumes should be so lucky!

Maggie Gyllenhaal in Stranger Than Fiction

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Will Ferrell in bed

Frederic Malle Musc Ravageur eau de parfum was composed by perfumer Maurice Roucel and has notes of bergamot, tangerine, cinnamon, vanilla, musk, and amber, according to the company website. (A number of other perfume sites, such as Basenotes.net, list the notes as being top notes of lavender and bergamot; heart notes of clove and cinnamon; and base notes of gaiac wood, cedar, sandalwood, vanilla, tonka, and musk.) It can be purchased from the Frederic Malle boutiques and website, as well as from fine department stores such as Nordstrom and Barneys. A 50-ml bottle is currently priced at $192 and a 100-ml bottle is $280.

My review is based on a spray sample I acquired at Barneys department store in San Francisco during a shopping trip with perfume blogger Undina three years ago. I can’t believe it took me this long to write about it!

Frederic Malle Musc Ravageur photo from Fragrantica

Images are film stills from Stranger Than Fiction, released in 2006 and directed by Marc Forster. The screenplay was written by Zach Helm. I love the film so much that I purchased a digital copy from Amazon.com (where it can also be rented through their video-on-demand program).

Bottle image of Frederic Malle Musc Ravageur is from Fragrantica.com.

Happy Easter!

Boxer on Easter 20171

It has been a lazy Easter at The Curious Rarebit. My husband and I slept in late and, after having coffee, thought we would entertain Boxer by creating an elaborate maze (including a series of jumps that we recently acquired) in our bedroom. But as it turned out, Boxer wanted to spend Easter relaxing as well and wouldn’t venture far from my husband’s hand. (While he loves to be petted by both of us, he practically goes into a trance under Mark’s touch. Must be all the massage training Mark did years ago.) Suffice it to say that we didn’t have a hoppy Easter, but we did have a very happy one. Hope yours has been happy, too! 🙂

Easy Comfort: My Recipe for Chicken Noodle Soup

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Spring is finally here and oh, does the warmer weather feel good! Yet I won’t be putting away my soup recipes too soon, as this is a bumpy season where bright-lit days easily give way to damp and chilly ones. It’s nice to come home on a chilly spring evening and get warmed up with a bowl of chicken noodle soup, and the kind I make is chunky enough to be filling, making it the perfect main course for a light, spring supper. (Toss a salad to go with it and you have a well-rounded meal.) It’s also super easy to make. Depending on how quickly you can dice an onion, a couple carrots, and a store-bought rotisserie chicken, you can have it done in 30 to 40 minutes.

Aside from oil and seasonings, let’s quickly eyeball the main ingredients you’ll need:

Chicken Noodle Soup Recipe

Main ingredients: a rotisserie chicken, kluski egg noodles, two carrots, a large onion, two 48-ounce boxes of chicken broth, one 11-ounce can of Green Giant Mexicorn (or any other whole-kernal corn), one 14.5-ounce can of diced tomatoes.

Hopefully, this at-a-glance photo makes it easy to know what you’ll need to pick up at the store. The small amount of oil and seasonings that go into the soup are items you probably have on hand, but if you want to check to be sure, the full ingredient list is below:

Suzanne’s Chicken Noodle Soup

  • 1 large onion
  • 2 Carrots
  • 2 Tablespoons Olive Oil (or other vegetable oil)
  • Two 48-oz containers of chicken broth (12 cups/96-oz in total). When I have it on hand, I use homemade broth, but this soup is still pretty darn good with store-bought broth.
  • 3 to 4 cups of Kluski-style egg noodles
  • One 11-oz can of Green Giant brand “mexicorn” (or any other whole-kernal corn)
  • One 14.5-oz can of diced tomatoes
  • 1 Rotisserie chicken (medium in size), deboned and diced into bite-size pieces
  • Seasonings of your preference. I use about a teaspoon each of dried sage, thyme, basil, oregano, and garlic powder. I also use a couple dashes of freshly ground black pepper.
  • 2 to 3 teaspoons of honey or sugar (to balance the acidity of the tomatoes in the soup)

Directions:

First, dice your onions and carrots. Don’t chop them too fine. The carrots should be in bite-size pieces that will fit nicely on a spoon.

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Next, heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a large soup pot. When oil is hot, add onions and carrots and stir for a minute or two as you dial back the heat to a setting of medium-low. At this lower temperature, I usually put a lid on the soup pot and let the vegetables cook for five to seven minutes. You want to “sweat” the vegetables but not let them caramelize.

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“Sweat” your onions and carrots before adding broth.

Now add the chicken broth to the pot — an amount of approximately 12 cups (96 oz). Return the burner to high and bring to a boil. While waiting, take your package of kluski noodles and measure out three to four cups. (Do not exceed this amount, as kluski are thick noodles that swell significantly when cooked. If you prefer to have your soup more on the brothy side, use only three cups).

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I used 4 cups of noodles for my soup, which makes for a thick soup. When I’m in the mood for a more brothy version, I use only 3 cups.

Once the soup is boiling, add the kluski noodles, give them a stir, and wait for soup to return to its boil after adding them. Then immediately lower heat to medium-high and cook noodles until tender — ten to fifteen minutes, depending on what brand you purchased.  During this time, it’s important to position a lid on your soup pot in such a way that it has space around it (see photo below) for steam to escape.  (If you try cooking noodles without a lid at a rolling boil, you’ll lose too much broth to evaporation. But by the same token, you don’t want to fully cover the pot because the starch of the noodles will cause it to boil over.)

 

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If you look closely, you can see steam escaping on the right side of the lid which has purposely been set ajar.

While noodles are cooking, tear the meat from the bones of the rotisserie chicken and cut into bite-sized pieces. Place the chopped chicken in a bowl and set aside, as it will be the last thing added to the soup.

Once the noodles are tender, add the cans of diced tomatoes and corn to the pot (being careful not to splash yourself with hot soup). 🙂 Remove lid from the pot and turn the heat up so that it returns to a boil. Allow to boil for one full minute, then take the pot off the stove.

Finally, add the chicken to the soup pot along with seasonings (garlic powder, black pepper, oregano, etc.). Finish by stirring in two to three teaspoons of honey to the finished soup. In a pot this large, you won’t taste the honey: it’s purpose is to take the acidic edge off of the tomatoes. If you’re leery, add a smaller amount and taste before adding more.

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Time to stir in the chicken, seasonings, and a wee bit of honey to balance the acidity of the canned tomatoes. NOTE: when using store-bought chicken broth (which is clear-colored) to make this soup, the broth turns ever-so-slightly pink from the tomatoes, whereas when I use homemade broth, which is richer in color, the broth tends to stay golden.

 

That’s it!  Serve and enjoy.

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The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

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Wilbur, left, and Orville Wright sit on the porch steps of their Dayton, Ohio, home in June 1909. Photo Credit: National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

In as strong a photograph as any taken of the brothers together, they sit side by side on the back porch steps of the Wright family home on a small side street on the west end of Dayton, Ohio. The year was 1909, the peak of their fame. Wilbur was forty-two, Orville thirty-eight. Wilbur, with a long poker face, looks off to one side, as though his mind were on other things, which most likely it was. He is lean, almost gaunt, long of nose and chin, clean-shaven, and bald. He wears a plain dark suit and high-laced shoes, much in the manner of their preacher father.

Orville gazes straight at the camera, one leg crossed nonchalantly over the other. He is a bit stouter and younger-looking than his brother and has a touch more hair, in addition to a well-trimmed mustache. He wears a lighter-toned, noticeably better-tailored suit, snappy argyle socks, and wingtips. The argyles were about as far in the direction of frippery as any of the Wright men would ever go. †

The above is an excerpt from the opening paragraphs of The Wright Brothers, a dazzling and absorbing biography by historian David McCullough. It’s rare for me to read a non-fiction book for pleasure, and yet this book gave me a greater sense of delight than most of the books I’ve read in recent years — mainly because it instilled such a deep sense of awe at what human beings can achieve when they focus their attention on doing just that: on achieving something not as a means of bolstering image or acquiring power, but because the endeavor itself is marked by wonder, poised in the direction of evolution, and accomplished by gaining a greater understanding of the universe we live in. Wilbur and Orville Wright were two small-town men from Ohio who had no advantages financially, socially, politically or educationally when they built the world’s first airplane and, in essence, gave the gift of flight to humankind. What they had instead was a close-knit family from which they inherited a few key things: a mechanical aptitude from their mother, a painfully shy woman who was a “regular genius” in the eyes of her family, known for making toys for her children that were better than the ones carried in stores; a love of learning from both parents — their minister father kept two libraries in their house, one of theological books and the other of varied subjects, and not only encouraged them to read widely but was a steadfast supporter of their endeavors; and the equally steadfast camaraderie of their sister Katherine, a school teacher who cared for the family home after their mother passed away and who attentively corresponded with the brothers during their many trips away from Dayton (she also spent seven weeks tending to Orville at a hospital in Virginia after he was seriously injured in a crash).

Even before they began building their first plane, the Wright brothers were engaged in pursuits that represented a marriage between mechanics and freedom. The first was a print shop started by Orville when he was in high school, which began publishing a newspaper for their hometown of Dayton, as well as a weekly newspaper for the black community proposed by Orville’s friend. Next was their bicycle shop, an enterprise that began as a dealership of sorts, with the two of them selling and repairing bikes, and progressed to them  building their own models, the most famous of which was the Van Cleeve bicycle, named in honor of their great-great-grandmother on their father’s side. Both businesses turned a profit, especially the cycle shop, which kept expanding and moving into larger establishments, providing a steady income and the finances for their explorations into aviation.  Not surprisingly, when automobiles arrived on the scene in Dayton, Orville suggested to Wilbur that they try building one of their own; however, Wilbur had no interest, his attention having become riveted on the notion of flying. It was a notion stirred from his reading about the German glider Otto Lilienthal, who believed that man could learn how to fly if he concentrated on studying the flights of birds, so Wilbur began reading and observing everything he could about birds. He then wrote a letter to the Smithsonian Institution which fully set his plans in action—a letter requesting scholarly papers and a list of books he could read on the subject of human flight. The letter was written in May 1899, and the Wright Brothers would make history a mere four years later, when they recorded their first flight on the beach of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903.

Think about it: a mere four years in which these two men would accomplish more than most people do in their lifetime, often under extremely trying conditions. Not only were the brothers fully engaged in the intellectual and mechanical work of designing and building the flyers they took to Kitty Hawk, they labored like dogs to establish a working camp in that forlorn outpost which, at the time, was one of the most desolate spots on North Carolina’s outer banks. During their first sojourn there they stayed in a tent, which the fierce winds would pull from its stakes as they were trying to sleep at night. Thus, on their next expedition they had a supply of wood shipped into Kitty Hawk and the two men built a long, solid shed which served as hangar, workshop and camp. Their satisfaction in completing it was one of the few highlights of that trip. Not long after they finished they encountered an event that happens in the Outer Banks once every ten to twelve years: a cloud of mosquitoes descended upon their shore, so thick it practically blackened the sky. Mosquito netting over their cots did nothing: at night, they would dive under their covers to escape getting bit and then would be drenched in sweat from the July heat. While their expeditions in the fall and winter months were easier outings comparatively, sleeping would remain a fitful enterprise, as their blankets did little to ward off the intense ocean-wind and cold.

Wilbur Wright flying his and Orville Wright’s 1902 glider at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, with the brothers’ camp and shed visible in the distance, 1903

Wilbur Wright flying his and Orville Wright’s 1902 glider at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, with the brothers’ camp and shed visible in the distance, 1903

At Kitty Hawk the brothers proved why the world’s greatest inventors are often called pioneers. In addition to building their hangar, they had to dig a well for fresh water, haul in their supplies, cook their meals using limited foodstuffs, develop relationships with the few islanders who could help them in their experiments, and correspond home regularly to keep their bicycle business going and let their father and sister know they were all right. More astoundingly, though, they had to do the very thing that few people who are the “brains” or engineers of a grand and daring project ever do: they had to mount their flying machines and learn how to ride them, which, judging by the photos alone, required no small amount of bravery. And because it was natural for their flyers to crash during their trial runs, they had to spend considerable hours repairing them and making refinements.

One of the few men who witnessed that first flight of the Wright brothers, who came along to help that day, called them the two “workingest boys” he ever knew. That assessment is underscored throughout The Wright Brothers — at every turn of their story, McCullough shows us their affinity for rolling up their shirtsleeves, yet his account of the brothers is much fuller than that. Reading his book is akin to watching a film like Seabiscuit or witnessing the Chicago Cubs win the 2016 World Series: it makes the reader a front-row spectator to history being made in heroic, almost sporting fashion. He accomplishes this by depicting not only the brothers themselves but the world-stage upon which their accomplishments unfolded, and by allowing his biography to be as glittering as the act of flight itself. His deft portrayals of the audiences on both sides of the Atlantic that waited with bated breath to behold the brothers on their flying machines are coupled to McCullough’s arresting descriptions of the flights. Naturally, there were plenty of naysayers and detractors who didn’t believe human flight was possible, and the author mentions them, but whereas other biographers might pepper the story with more of these types of quotes for impact, McCullough emphasizes the sense of expectation that was met by the Wright brothers almost everywhere they went, once word from Kitty Hawk got out. What happened at Kitty Hawk was just the beginning, and McCullough allows the story to steadily build towards a climax by recounting the brothers’ untiring efforts to master the art of flying: of learning how to maneuver their mechanical birds higher, faster, farther, and over more challenging terrain and boundaries than the Outer Banks offered them.

He makes it clear that while they did almost everything together Orville and Wilbur weren’t co-pilots. Each brother flew separately and, in terms of skill, one did not lag behind the other. Both men became skilled jockeys and consistently worked at bettering their achievements. Whereas their first successful flight in Kitty Hawk could be measured in feet and spanned less than half the size of a football field, by 1909, Orville (who a year earlier had survived a horrendous crash in Washington DC that killed his passenger) made news at a demonstration in Potsdam, Germany, by flying to an altitude of 984 feet, “higher than anyone had yet flown in an airplane.” On or about the same day, Wilbur was making headlines in New York City, where he’d signed on for his first-ever paid public flight in the United States as part of an anniversary celebration commemorating Henry Hudson’s ascent of the Hudson River. On one of his practice runs,

Wireless signals went out, signal flags went up, and off he went. Instead of heading toward the mouth of the Hudson, as expected, he swung to the west into the wind and, flying over two ferryboats, headed straight for the Statue of Liberty on Bedloe’s Island, circled the statue, and sailed over over the Lusitania, which was then heading down the harbor, outward bound to Liverpool. Thousands of people were watching. Battery Park at the tip of Manhattan was thick with spectators, and passengers on deck on the Lusitania frantically waved hats, scarfs, handkerchiefs as Wilbur passed over their heads.

He maneuvered his plane with perfect control through a whole series of dips and turns. But it was the spectacle of Wilbur Wright and his flying machine circling the Statue of Liberty that made the most powerful impression, which would be talked about, written about, and remembered more than anything… †

McCullough’s description of such flights is worth the price of the book alone. They are the literary version of watching one’s favorite thoroughbred maneuver to the finish line of a Triple Crown race course. That said, perhaps the most delightfully surprising facet of reading The Wright Brothers is in discovering their “rightness” — the innate goodness and sense of decency of these two men. So often the people we admire as revolutionary inventors, leaders, or heroes turn out to be people who have burning hot temperaments to match their burning passions — some of them with a few skeletons in their closet. The Wright brothers, by all accounts in this book, were the kind of genuinely good men we want to believe in and cheer for. And they were admirable from a young age: the book’s opening chapter recounts how Wilbur, at eighteen, was seriously injured at a hockey game by a kid who viciously smashed him in the face with his stick. (This same kid later ended up murdering his own family.) Though he suffered excruciating pain, had to be fitted with false teeth, and had digestive complications and recurrent bouts with depression that left him a recluse for three years, he rarely spoke of the event afterwards and spent much of this time caring for his ailing mother.

Even after they became famous, the brothers put family first. Acknowledging the role their sister Katharine played in their success (she gave their lives a sense of foundation and kept things up and running when they were away), they took her to Paris with them on a celebratory trip  — a significant gesture that McCullough devoted an entire chapter to in the book.

Wilbur Wright at Le Mans France

Wilbur Wright, Le Mans, France, August 8, 1908.

One might wonder, after reading The Wright Brothers, whether he portrays the brothers in terms that are too good to be true. It is a reasonable question, yet there is example after example to back up such a portrait. As is noted by the book on its jacket cover, McCullough drew his story from “the immense riches of the Wright Papers, including personal diaries, notebooks, and more than a thousand letters from private family correspondence.” That assurance might not be enough for some, but it is enough for this reader, who wants to believe there truly are honest, decent men and women with the “(W)right stuff” to not only succeed, but to soar beyond our wildest dreams.

David McCullough book The Wright Brothers

The Wright Brothers, copyright © 2015 by David McCullough (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2015, pp. 5 & 243)

Do You Love the Place Where You Live?

S7305184Do you love the place where you live? Its backyards and alleys, its houses and people?

Collages6Do you love its weather (physical, political, and otherwise)? Is it a place where spirits soar?

State College walk around March 23 2017-001Can you identify its colors, its faults, its charms?

State College walk around March 23 20171Does it accommodate art and embrace differences? Does it know where the wild things are and save a space for them too?

Collages4  Is there an evident pattern of pride that gives you a boost . . .

State College walk around March 23 20173s7305126.jpg. . . . rather than making you feel buttoned down?

State College walk around March 23 20172Do you love the place where you live?

State College walk around March 23 20174 Is it a place that is welcoming to strangers, yet where you can imagine your chickens coming home to roost?

 

These pictures were snapped a couple days ago, when I was walking around one of the neighborhoods of my hometown — the town of State College, Pennsylvania. My husband and I live about a ten minute drive away on its rural outskirts, but this neighborhood is quite special to us. When first dating, back in the ’90s, we walked these sidewalks for hours every night, talking and getting to know one another. I’ve lived here most of my life, with the exception of six years after college, so perhaps it’s natural that there came a time when I wanted to move away from this area and make my home in a sunnier part of the United States (the desert southwest was calling to me).

Lately, though,  I’m having a “second-honeymoon” feeling about the place where I live. State College has small-town charm and, at the same time, a population that is culturally diverse, thanks to the local university and, in particular, its graduate-student program, which draws many international students into our fold. For almost its entire existence, State College has revolved around welcoming newcomers — because of Penn State University, that is its business — and this welcoming nature makes for a town that is lively and friendly. To wit: while taking my stroll on Thursday, I looked up and saw a young man flying in graceful, arcing circles above the yard of his house. He was doing arabesques and changing positions as he went round and round, many feet off the ground. “Can I take your photo?” I called to him over the wrought iron fence of his yard. “Sure, come in,” he said, and in the space of ten minutes I learned a little of his history. (His name is Dimitry, he studied circus arts and, for a while, lived and performed in New York City before moving back to State College, which is where he grew up too. The long-poled contraption that suspended him as he flew in elegant circles above his yard was a gift he recently bought himself for his 26th birthday.)

“Are you happy to be back here?” I asked him as I was leaving, silently wondering if someone who has lived in the Big Apple would find State College to be more than a little too small. “I am!” he said without hesitation. “I love it here.”

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Forget-Me-Not, from “100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names”

March came in like a lion this year, and the weather here is quite wicked at the moment, but I’m thinking of gardening and, particularly, of flowers. One of the most fascinating and charming books ever written on the subject of flora is Diana Wells’s 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names.  I have a hunch that most people who enjoy gardening also enjoy history, and Wells’s little book is a gathering of historical facts on each of these flowers, most of them quite entertaining, as she writes with a lovely sense of humor as well as intelligence. It’s the type of book you can randomly open to any page and find delightful reading for a minute or two, for most of the flowers are described in only two pages, but the writing is so good I read it from cover-to-cover when I first bought it, many years ago. Whenever I pluck it from my shelf, I think to myself that it would have been the perfect gift for my grandmother, who was the most bookish gardener I ever knew (which is saying something, as gardeners are a bookish lot!) and who would have delighted in reading the histories and myths attached to her favorite flowers.

Below I’ve excerpted the author’s enchanting entry on one of the early flowers of spring, the forget-me-not. A friend of mine has these tender blue flowers growing so profusely in her garden, they look like a blue mist spiraling around her pathways in the months of April and May.

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gray-quotation-marks-clip-art-at-clker-com-vector-clip-art-online-lGEOeM-clipartFORGET-ME-NOT

BOTANICAL NAME: Myosotis.  FAMILY: Boraginaceae.

Its botanical name comes from the Greek mus (mouse) and otis (ear). This is from the rather touching perception that the leaves are shaped like a mouse’s ears. John Gerard called it “scorpion grass” and believed that it cured scorpion bites, though there are no scorpions in England—but maybe it was best to be prepared.

The name “forget-me-not” comes from the Old French ne m’ oubliez mye, which in turn was a translation of the German vergiss mein nicht. The best known legend about the flower is of a German knight picking a posy of forget-me-nots for his beloved as they strolled together on a riverbank. He slipped and fell in, but before drowning he threw her the flowers, crying, “Vergiss mein nicht.” This excruciating story could really only have merit were it to be sung onstage with a suitably distraught and bosomy soprano and some excellent trap-door mechanisms. Botanically it doesn’t hold much water.

Blue is a celestial color and it almost always clothes the Virgin Mary in medieval paintings. Flies reputedly will avoid blue rooms, which is why dairies were often painted blue. Gardeners treasure blue flowers, which are rarer than any other color in our borders. Blue and yellow are also the colors that most attract insect pollinators, which is what interested Christian Sprengel in forget-me-nots. Sprengel, rector of Spandau in Germany, was investigating the role that colors of flowers play in the process of insect pollination. He so neglected his pastoral duties to pursue botany that he was dismissed from his post. In 1793 he published The Newly Revealed Mystery of Nature in the Structure and Fertilization of Flowers, which demonstrated his belief that all nature had a connected purpose. It was, however, unenthusiastically received by his contemporaries, leaving him too depressed to publish anything more. It was not until 1841 that Charles Darwin read the book and recognized the truths in it, which he incorporated into his own research.

“Forget-me-not” is one of the few flower names that almost everyone knows and remember, and the flowers commonly decorate Valentine cards and the like. They grow in damp places and are, indeed, bluer that the Virgin’s robe. The most memorable place they grew, however, was in Lady Chatterley’s pubic hair, where her gamekeeper lover planted them, saying, “There’s forget-me-nots in the right place.” When she looked down at the “odd little flowers among the brown maiden-hair,” she said, “Doesn’t it look pretty!” The gamekeeper’s reply is unforgettable: “Pretty as life,” he said. †

— Diana Wells, from her book 100 Flowers
and How They Got Their Names

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100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names, copyright © 1997 by Diana Wells (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1997, pp. 72-73)

 

A Little Art History: Picasso’s Family of Saltimbanques

I’ve been thinking a lot about art lately. Back in December, I wrote a post about being an avid art lover in the first half of my life, and how that passion had basically faded to the degree that I’m no longer keen on going to museums — my tastes having narrowed to the point where I know exactly what kind of art I like, and I’m more inclined to indulge my particular whims than go in search of art elsewhere. For the most part that feeling still holds, but lately I’ve been doing some excavation into my life, digging up works I’ve kept over the years, and I realize that art appreciation on one level or another has been at the core of almost everything I’ve ever done, writing-wise. For example, there’s a coffee table book I wrote and published in 2002 about artists and other creative types of people who live in my hometown; an unfinished novel in which my protagonist is a young woman from the South, in the 1930s, who falls in love with a travelling artist, follows him to New York, and in the course of her journeys becomes an artist herself; and works I kept from my college days pertaining to art history that I can’t seem to throw away. Thinking about the latter, I thought I’d create an ongoing (though random) series on my blog under the tagline “A Little Art History,” in which I’ll examine works that particularly speak to me. And on that note, here is my first entry:

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Pablo Picasso’s Family of Saltimbanques

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Family of Saltimbanques by Pablo Picasso, completed in Paris in 1905. Oil on canvas. (From the Chester Dale Collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.)

 

During the end of 1904 and the first half of 1905, the artist Pablo Picasso produced a group of works treating a circus theme. These paintings illustrate a transition from his Blue Period to the Rose Period, possessing a warmer palette, a more relaxed use of line, and a change in mood to suggest a more subtle feeling of melancholy. Family of Saltimbanques, 1905, his most famous painting from the Rose Period, provides an intimate glimpse into the life of a circus family. Like most of his works on this theme, Picasso chooses to show the performers behind the scenes, in their personal relationships, rather than in their masquerades before an audience. In doing so, he seems to emphasize the loneliness of any artist, whether trapeze or painter, whose work tends to isolate him from the rest of society. In the Harlequin, a favorite motif, Picasso unmasks a serious, often sorrowful, and very human person who is in direct contrast to our image of the laughing clown.

Picasso made numerous studies for this work. In fact, several of his earlier works of 1905 can be called studies for this painting because these same characters he painted in the beginning of the year found their way into the Family of Saltimbanques. The most important study belongs to the Shchukin collection in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow. In this preparatory sketch, the acrobats are positioned against a background which includes a horse race, a crowd, and houses. By omitting these details in favor of a desert background, Picasso places more emphasis on the figures themselves. Their sense of community forms the only barrier from a world of emptiness.

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Family of Acrobats sketch by Pablo Picasso (from the Shchukin Collection of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow).

Although his palette is warmer than the monochromatic blues of the previous period, Picasso uses a delicate touch in applying the color. In some places it seems almost transparent—particularly in the seated figure of the woman, whose skirt seems to fade into the neutral setting—as if to suggest the ephemeral nature of life itself. This quality inspired the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who lived with the painting for fifteen years, to write in the fifth of his Duino Elegies: “But tell me, who are they, these acrobats, even a little more fleeting than we ourselves—so urgently, ever since childhood wrung by an (oh, for the sake of whom?) never-contented will?”

 

One of My Favorite Films: Fading Gigolo

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There are certain books I re-read from year to year, always finding something new in them, and there are a handful of films that fall into that category too. One of them is writer, director and actor John Turturro’s 2014 elegiac gem, Fading Gigolo. It’s a film that surprised me: When I saw Woody Allen’s face next to Turturro’s on the movie poster, I assumed it was his film and would thus be marked by his neurotic and slightly acerbic wit. And indeed, some of Allen’s trademark humor finds its way to Fading Gigolo, and one could say there’s a lot of Allen in this film, period, because Turturro quite obviously paid homage to him. The beauty of New York City (here caught in the dappled shade and golden glow of autumn, which seems to triple its beauty); the sweetly soft and melancholic jazz score; the story itself, which acknowledges the bittersweetness of life’s relationships (its inevitable losses, deeply felt yet lightened by the possibility of new beginnings); and yes, the humor, the sense of absurd comedy that plays out in the daily lives of humans: all of these Woody-esque elements are in Fading Gigolo, though under Turturro’s vision and lens they are softened, achieving a subtlety that has the effect of making the viewer feel he is watching a Woody Allen film through a veil. Whereas the humor in a Woody Allen film can sometimes feel jarring or tangential to the point that it almost seems to occupy its own separate room in the story, here it is toned down in a way that recalls Allen’s more sublime films like Midnight in Paris or Hannah and Her Sisters. Though understated, Turturro very capably evokes the famous director’s offbeat brand of storytelling: at its heart, Fading Gigolo is a story about human connection, arrived at by observing the various ways a person can feel lonely and through a flow of events that are, by turns, comic, tender, sad, and romantically sweet.

Woody Allen’s character Murray is the instigator of the story. Murray is the aging owner of a rare-books bookstore in Manhattan, started by his grandfather, that is no longer doing enough business to keep it afloat, and is lamenting this fact to long-time employee and friend Fioravante (John Turturro) in the film’s opening scene, as the two men empty shelves in preparation for its closing. Murray then tells Fioravante about a conversation he had with his dermatologist earlier in the day. While visiting her office for a procedure, the dermatologist confided to him that she and a girlfriend planned to pursue something they’d never done before—a ménage a trois—and she wondered if he might know someone willing to help them out with that fantasy, a man they could trust. Murray said he did know someone who would do it—for a thousand dollars. The person he had in mind is Fioravante, he tells his friend. Fioravante looks at him in surprise but Murray is serious and brings up the fact that Fioravante is living hand-to-mouth with his part-time jobs at a flower shop and the now-closed bookstore. While admitting this to be true, Fioravante isn’t interested. “You need a young, slick, leading-man type,” he tells Murray a day later at the florist shop, where he’s carefully potting an orchid when Murray shows up to resume the discussion, spurred by the fact that the dermatologist, Dr. Parker (Sharon Stone), has already phoned him again. “I’m not a beautiful man,” Fioravante protests, but Murray is relentless in trying to convince him that he’s perfect for the job.

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Naturally, Murray is right. When Fioravante finally agrees to show up at Dr. Parker’s wealthy address for a one-on-one tryst (because she wants to see what she thinks of him first), he does so with impeccable grooming, smooth styling, and something else that’s hinted at in a gift he brings her. The gift is a small detail in the film but, coupled with what we already know about him, bears witness to the fact that a job is never just a job to Fioravante; it hints at the soulful sensitivity he will bring to this new vocation. And a vocation is exactly what it becomes after he leaves Dr. Parker’s with an envelope in which she has not only placed the agreed-upon cash but a five-hundred dollar tip. After taking his cut (he made the arrangements, after all), an excited Murray starts lining up more clients for Fioravante, effectively becoming his pimp. Murray proves to be an ace at his new job, too; on his daily jaunts through the city, even while visiting Central Park, he has an eye for scouting out women who might appreciate Fioravante’s services, and judging by the blissful looks on their faces after their various rendezvous with him, they clearly do. Dr. Parker declares him “top shelf” and is now somewhat reluctant about sharing him with her sexy friend Selima (Sofía Vergara) as they make plans for their threesome.

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Then one day Murray brings a very different woman to Fioravante’s apartment. Avigal (played by French actress Vanessa Paradis) is a young widow from one of the Hassidic Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn – a mother of six children whose husband, a rabbi, has been dead for two years. Murray knows her because he purchased her husband’s collection of books after he died, and on an unrelated visit to her home, he senses her deep loneliness. A devout woman living under the rules and the watchful neighborhood eyes of her religious sect, Avigal carefully considers Murray’s suggestion that she venture outside her sheltered environs to visit someone who might help her. When he comes back with a car to escort her to Manhattan, she assumes he is taking her to a healer of some sort, and when they arrive at Fioravante’s place that expectation is still on her face as she gazes hesitantly at the massage table he has set up.

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The rest of the film is theirs—Fioravante’s and Avigal’s—though other characters in its ensemble cast continue to play important roles. It is theirs by virtue of the acting: Paradis has little dialogue yet speaks oceans with her eyes; Turturro plays the quietly soulful type with everyday-man casualness. And it is theirs by virtue of the story itself: these two meet where the probability of such an encounter seems unlikely, and when that is the case—when two people have to reach beyond what is the norm—any romance that ensues really is on a different level from most romances. It’s a higher kind of love, often a quieter kind of love, and transformational, even if only in a stepping-stone kind of way, as it is for Avigal. Her connection with Fioravante (whose name, she discovers, means “Flower”) allows her to bloom, to reawaken, and perhaps, in a certain sense, to start over.

Of course, while this is happening lots of other stuff is happening in the story, too: some of it sweetly comic, some of it more darkly comic, allowing the film to make a serious observation or two about life, love, and religion while treading a path that is mostly lighthearted. That’s not an easy balance to pull off in any form of storytelling, though Turturro makes it look easy here. Fading Gigolo is an autumnal slice of cinema tinged by melancholy, peppered with characters well-past the summers of their youth, and at the same time, it is a film of airy, elegant understatement. Like the sunlight of autumn that is briefer yet more piercing than summer’s long light, it is one of those deceptively small films that touches the heart more fully than one would imagine.

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Images are film stills from the 2014 film Fading Gigolo, written and directed by John Turturro (who also plays the lead character, Fioravante), which I found at various places on the Internet. The film can be rented or purchased as an instant video on Amazon.com.( No affiliation; I just love the film!)

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Spontaneous Homage N0. 3

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The purity of ingredients; the fine, laser-like focus of flavors; the dense, high-butterfat creaminess;  the supreme elegance of an all-natural composition that eschews fillers and stabilizers; the wisdom in producing a pistachio ice cream that is chock-full of pistachios (necessary in an ice-cream where the nut itself is the main flavorant) and a sesame brittle ice cream that takes a reined-in approach with the candy;  the consistency of quality, decade after decade, and the consistency in maintaining an impeccable style (this brand has resisted the gotta-lotta-candied-junk-in-the-trunk approach that seems to be the norm in almost anything anymore; for decades, it has produced ice-cream that is refined in the sense that it focuses on a very small list of ingredients, yet while keeping this signature approach, it is a brand that has a boutique-like hipness about it, achieved by being innovative in smart ways – most recently, through the addition of its “destination series” of ice creams which feature flavors inspired by the decidedly global and cosmopolitan times we are living in). So yeah! For all of that, and for keeping old-fashioned flavors like rum-raisin, strawberry, and butter pecan going strong all these years while making way for new flavors like mango, I’m raising my silver spoon to you, Haagen-Dazs.

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All images are from the Haagen-Dazs website. (I’m not affiliated with the company, btw, just a very happy consumer.) 🙂