From Derrida to Diderot: The Philosophe’s Dream, Essay 20 of #52essays2017

Thinking back to where The Spectator & the Blind Man all started–and by all I mean dissertation, stage production, literary endeavor–it was probably with Diderot. And I believe I discovered Diderot in the pages of Derrida:

Diderot by Louis-Michel vanLoo, 1767.“I write without seeing….. This is the first time I have ever written in the dark . . . not knowing whether I am indeed forming letters. Wherever there will be nothing, read that I love you.”

-Diderot, Letter to Sophie Volland, June 10, 1759

I first encountered this quote in a book called Memoirs of the Blind, a perhaps ironically beautifully visual book about blindness and the self-portrait by Jacques Derrida, written for an exhibition that he curated at the Louvre.

Denis Diderot, one of my all-time favorite dead white guy writers, would definitely be at my fantasy dinner table for witty repartee and bon vivantism. As I’ve now surely quoted a million times and cannot even remember where I originally read it, he died reaching for the cherry compote (the dessert), that is, he died wanting more of the good stuff.

Encyclopedie de D'Alembert et Diderot Premiere Page.Diderot is probably most famous as one of the editors and main contributors to the Encyclopédie (1751-66), a work that flouted notions of high and low disciplines by putting Christianity alongside Chemistry , Farm Laborer alongside Poet.

But even before that great endeavor of promoting equality, an endeavor that often seems to sing the early song of revolution, Diderot was a young man with man of letters stars in his eyes and he wrote a book inspired by the thoughts of the great Voltaire and other early luminaries of what would come to be known as the Siècle de Lumière. The Age of Enlightenment is much maligned in certain circles for its idealization of rationalism and all the woes of modernity, but Diderot (as our opening quote suggests) reveled in the dark and unfathomable parts of humankind.

Diderot’s Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See (1749) suggested, among other things the doubtfulness of God (Diderot dabbled in deism), and put his controversial notions into the mouth of a real life person, an English mathematician named Nicholas Saunderson, who inherited the Lucasian Chair from none other than Newton, but not his quirky but nonetheless strident beliefs. Saunderson was famously irreligious, but the deathbed conversation Diderot puts in his mouth–not to mention the glorious prophecy of Darwin’s theory of evolution–was indeed fabricated.

Here’s a little sample of the offensive dialogue:

”Consider, Mr. Holmes,” he added, “what a confidence I must have in your word and in Newton’s. Though I see nothing, I admit there is in everything an admirable design and order. I hope you will not demand more. I take your word for the present state of the universe, and in return keep the liberty of thinking as I please on its ancient and primitive state, with relation to which you are as blind as myself. Here you will have no witnesses to confront me with, and your eyes are quite useless. Think, if you choose, that the design which strikes you so powerfully has always subsisted, but allow me my own contrary opinion, and allow me to believe that if we went back to the origin of things and scenes and perceived matter in motion and the evolution from chaos, we should meet with a number of shapeless creatures, instead of a few creatures highly organized. I make no criticism on the present state of things, but I can ask you some questions as to the past. For instance, I may ask you and Leibniz and Clarke and Newton, who told you that in the first instances of the formation of animals some were not headless and others footless? I might affirm that such an one had no stomach, another no intestines, that some which seemed to deserve a long duration from their possession of a stomach, palate, and teeth came to an end owing to some defect in the heart or lungs; that monsters mutually destroyed one another; that all the defective combinations of matter disappeared, and that those only survived whose mechanism was not defective in any important particular and who were able to support and perpetuate themselves.

” Suppose the first man had his larynx closed, or had lacked suitable food, or had been defective in the organs of generation, or had failed to find a mate, or had propagated in another species, what then, Mr. Holmes, would have been the fate of the human race? It would have been still merged in the general depuration of the universe, and that proud being who calls himself man, dissolved and dispersed among the molecules of matter, would have remained perhaps forever hidden among the number of mere possibilities. If shapeless creatures had never existed, you would not fail to assert that none will ever appear, and that I am throwing myself headlong into chimerical fancies, but the order is not even now so perfect as to exclude the occasional appearance of monstrosities.” Then, turning towards the clergyman, he added, “Look at me, Mr. Holmes. I have no eyes. What have we done, you and I, to God, that one of us has this organ while the other has not?”

Lettre sur les Aveugles (Letter on the Blind).So this, along with his bawdy yet still philosophical tale The Indiscrete Jewels–about a prince who gets his hands on a ring which, when turned upon the nether regions of ladies, gets them to talk, indiscreetly about their escapades–published around the same time, landed Denis Diderot in the dungeon of Vincennes, which is where we find him in the following piece. My literary offering is the first in The Spectator & the Blind Man series.

Diderot, a lover of women, music, the theatre and all that Paris had to offer did not relish his time in prison and, in order to avoid a future return, did not publish his literary works, such as Jacques the Fatalist and d’Alembert’s Dream, for which he is mostly known today. In other words, Diderot may have helped to sow the seeds of the Revolution, but, after Vincennes, he mostly avoided angering the regime by keeping his potentially controversial works in private circulation. Diderot enjoyed a good long life and died just five years before the storming of the Bastille.

The following is my piece of flash fiction imagining Diderot’s explanation to a friend for why he would do his best to never piss the authorities off again. The reading is by George Ashiotis with musical composition by Alabaster Rhumb.

 

THE PHILOSOPHE’S DREAM

Dungeon of Vincennes, 1749

No. I am no Socrates, no martyr to truth. A fishmonger of truths more like. My mistake was in allowing the odors to reach royal nostrils. Henceforth, I peddle my stinking truths underground or, if they are compliant truths, I shall dress them in suitable costumes, sufficiently powdered and pinned to ingratiate themselves to this foolish and frivolous city of mine. Ah Paris! How I adore your decadence. Let me die reaching for the cherry compote!

I digress. I must tell you about last night’s dream that frightened me nearly to death, for, though you may still despise me, I wish you to understand why I scrape the dirt floor with my chin, why I will do or say or write anything they ask of me in order to be out of here. Why I will denounce, without regret, my little Letter on the Blind.

Last night I woke out of sleep into the body and mind of Saunderson. Yes, my blind mathematician whose deathbed non-confession has stirred so much ire. I awoke into his blindness and found myself confronting not only the fumbling clergyman Holmes, but also the governor who has seen fit to thrust me into this cell.

The blindness I experienced was like that of Milton’s darkness visible, a blindness not of eyes but of mind. Understand me. I felt sharp as a whip, as brilliant of intellect as Saunderson must have been to inherit the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics (a seat held by no less a luminary than Newton) but there were no longer any images, no colors, no pictures of beauty or ugliness to be found in this Diderot-head of mine. All memory of seeing had evaporated, and it was this blankness that frightened me almost to distraction. The deprivation terrified me even as I enacted the very dialogue that has landed me in prison.

Nicholas Saunderson.As Saunderson I said, “Ah, sir, don’t talk to me of this magnificent spectacle, which it has never been my lot to enjoy. I have been condemned to spend my life in darkness, and you cite wonders quite out of my understanding, and which are only evidence for you and for those who see as you do. If you want to make me believe in God you must make me touch Him.”

“Sir,” returned the clergyman, “touch yourself, and you will recognize the Deity in the admirable mechanism of your organs.”

I countered, “All that does not appear so admirable to me as to you. But even if the animal mechanism were as perfect as you maintain, what relation is there between such mechanism and a supremely intelligent Being? If it fills you with astonishment, that is perhaps because you are accustomed to treat as miraculous everything which strikes you as beyond your own powers. I have been myself so often an object of admiration to you, that I have not a very high idea of your conception of the miraculous. You think a certain phenomenon   beyond human power and cry out that it must be the handiwork of a god.”

Next came his most persuasive argument, “Men of the highest genius, even Newton, have been impressed by the wonders of nature and recognize an intelligent being as its creator.”

As determined by my folly, I answered, “Seeing nothing, I will acquiesce to you and Newton an admirable design and order. I hope you will not demand more. I take your word for the present state of the universe, and in return keep the liberty of thinking as I please on its primitive state, with relation to which you are as blind as myself.”

Finally, as I have written to my sorrow so I spoke in my dream, “If we went back to the origin of things and perceived the evolution from chaos, we should meet with any number of shapeless creatures. In the first instances of the formation of animals some were perhaps headless and others footless, some stomachless and others lacked intestines. Only those not defective in any important particular survived and perpetuated themselves.”

I stopped his protestations before they started, “Perhaps you will assert that deformed creatures never existed and that I am throwing myself headlong into chimerical fancies, but the order is not even now so perfect as to exclude the occasional appearance of monstrosities.”

I turned, my Saunderson, towards the clergyman and performed what is, in my Letter on the Blind, the coup de grâce. “Look at me, Mr. Holmes. I have no eyes. What have we done, you and I, to God, that one of us has this organ while the other has not?”

Suddenly my fanciful dialogue shifted to nightmare and, instead of the tears gushing from the eyes of the sympathetic clergyman, the menacing voice of the governor materialized from the void. “these are lovely sentiments my dear blind philosophe. They will nicely condemn you in the court of God and man. We will take your deformity into consideration by removing the mask that we offer unblind (if such things exist) heathens. It will do the people good to see your vacant eyes roll with your head. Such a treat to see a monster (as even you have named yourself) demolished.”

With the demonic intoning came the arms out of hell to lift me onto the block where my neck was stretched. The whoosh of the upswept blade penetrated my too-sensitive ears and the steel crashed down. Only then did I wake once more into this seeing body, screams strangling my throat with mingled horror and relief.

*This is essay 20 of #52essays2017. Read #19 Sometimes a Snake is Just a Snake*

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Yes, Blind People Can Appreciate (and Write About) Film and Television! #16 of #52essays2017

Princes LeiaAt a recent birthday party for my friend Sarah, I met a playwright who also writes TV screenplays. I mentioned to him that I was working on a second draft of my film screenplay, and that I had just that very day received an email from Final Draft to become a beta tester in order to work with them to make their software accessible with screenreaders.

The point of my bringing myself into the conversation was how awesome it was that the industry standard would soon be usable by blind and visually impaired people, but his next question was, “So…How do you appreciate movies?” Or maybe he asked, “What is your experience of films as a person without sight?” I’m sorry that I can’t remember his exact words, but it was something like that, and it made me launch into how I used to be able to see, and how there are so many movies from my years as a visually impaired person immediately accessible to my mind’s eye.

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is always the first to come to mind because I watched it so many times, and because people’s reaction to the title (happy recognition/no clue) tends to be a good indicator of the tastes of my interlocutor, and this time was no exception. “That is a weird one,” said my playwright, and I felt the need to mention other films less “weird,” like Apocalypse Now. I also felt the need to mention that I write for the New York film Academy, as if it legitimized my film appreciation abilities! And perhaps it does…

I’ve been ghostwriting for NYFA since the beginning of the year, and I seem to be the go-to gal for cinematography… Just kidding. But I did land the job with a holiday “trending item”: 6 Cinematic Tips for Capturing your New Year’s Kiss! I also wrote The Best Cinematography The 59th Annual Grammys has to Offer, which was a real learning experience since I haven’t paid attention to mainstream music in decades!

Werner Herzog

Another fun learning experience for a person who hasn’t had a television in years was my recent Pilot Season 2017. Although I probably won’t watch–sorry, check out–any of these shows, Netflix’s Disjointed, wherein Kathy Bates heads up a ragtag and mostly stoned bunch in the legal cannabis biz, will be tempting, it was gratifying to learn that more than one book inspired this crop, including By the Book and Passage–inspired by A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically and Justin Cronin’s The Passage trilogy respectively.

When I first started writing for NYFA, my editor sent me some acting topics since I have acting experience, for example 5 Tips for Creating Character Relationships and I wrote her to say that I’m happy to do the acting pieces, but that I’ve worked on many a crazy short film–done some of the writing and concept, and most of the sound–and can geek out on pretty much anything filmmaking.

One of my most successful articles from a student resources point of view was How to Get Big Production Value Out of a Little Budget. Another helpful one was To Film Fest or Not to Film Fest: Creative Approaches to Distribution in the Digital Age. And a popular piece that mixes fluff with real-world advice is 10 Great Pieces of Advice for Beginner Producers from Filmmaking Veterans, which includes one of the best pieces of advice ever for filmmakers and humans (from Werner Herzog): “Never wallow in your troubles; despair must be kept private and brief.”

Recently I wrote a pair of Star Wars articles–one trending topic What Every Die-Hard Star Wars Fan Needs to Know About Episode VIII, which provided great fodder for a recent dinner with Alabaster‘s parents, and the other more geeky: Technical Innovations in Star Wars Through the Ages, for which I was able to plagiarize myself from last December’s Audio Description and Sound Design in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

I really enjoyed researching and writing Celebrating Female Film Producers for Women’s History Month and 7 Amazing Filmmakers from Mexico for Cinco de Mayo.

Bigelow with Oscar

These two inspired me to pitch a Disability Pride piece celebrating real people with disabilities in film and television, which was approved, so look out for that in early July–just in time for NYC’s Third Annual Disability Pride Parade!

*This is Essay 16 of #52essays2017. For more, check out essay 15, Marzipan Memories*

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CERKL Gene: My Newly Identified Eye Disease Is Not an Eye Disease, Essay 10 of #52essays2017

Last week I visited my ophthalmologist and learned that my blindness is caused by a mutation to the CERKL (pronounced like circle) gene, which, it turns out, is oddly not specific to my damaged retinas. At Genecards.org I read, “CERKL (Ceramide Kinase Like) is a Protein Coding gene.” And on Wikipedia I learn that “ceramides are a family of waxy, lipid molecules,” and that kinase is an enzyme, but I’m still not sure what this all means. I’m the wrong kind of doctor!

About a year ago I had a first round of genetic testing that came back negative. They had looked for more common (though still             rare) degenerative diseases of the retina like retinitis pigmentosa (RP) and Stargardt disease, and had shown that in the world of rare eye diseases, I have a doozey. Then a few months ago Dr. Tsang, my ophthalmologist at Columbia Medical Center, urged me to test again as great leaps had been made in the swiftness of identifying rare gene mutations. What might have taken two years to find in the last test, could now give results in a few months. That is exactly what happened. In a few months, I learned that my recessive mutation takes place on the CERKL gene.

When I was a kid, I was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (RP), though, through the years of degeneration, my symptoms hardly presented like a typical case. The symptoms of RP are generally a loss of night vision and far peripheral vision that gradually constricts through the decades, leaving the sufferer with tunnel vision that grows ever narrower. This means that people with RP can often read normal print long after they have need for a mobility aid, like a cane or dog.

Back when I was in my twenties and still living in San Francisco, I went to an RP support group and heard a man tell how he’d been waiting for the train in a downtown BART station reading a newspaper with his guide dog, when someone came up and told him, “You don’t look blind.” To appease the stranger, the storyteller put on his dark glasses. We in the group laughed very hard. (In such groups, a good amount of time is spent talking about how silly sighted people are.)

However, that man’s experience was not mine, and I felt a little envious. I wished I could still read normal print and run around with a cute guide dog. Instead, my weird version of retinal degeneration went in another direction. I lost some peripheral vision, and experienced night blindness–both of which signify damage to the rods, which make up the majority of our peripheral vision and sense light and movement. However, I also had a tiny chink removed from my macula–which is preserved until late stages in typical RP. Specifically my fovea, the central point of vision that consists of densely packed cones, which are the retinal cells that detect color and detail, blew out early on, making it impossible for me to read normal print. I could still make out large print for a long time if I placed it slightly off-center focus. Hence, I began to look askew at things in order to see them.

For me, it was only a few years between when I could not read the writing on the black board from the back of the class to when I could no longer read normal print. And yet, in many practical ways, I still looked and functioned perfectly normally. I could walk around without aid no problem, and that created a lot of confusion and shame.

As a person with a degenerative eye disease, I have experienced pretty much every notch on the sight blindness continuum, from normally sighted to nearly totally blind. In fact the vast majority of the world’s sight-impaired population is visually impaired, not totally blind. According to the World Health Organization ” 285 million people are estimated to be visually impaired worldwide: 39 million are blind and 246 have low vision.” However, these statistics tell us very little about what the individuals in either category see.

Doctors don’t tend to ask what I see anymore. An assistant may ask if I can see their hand waving in front of my face, but I have to tell them that I can still see the ceiling light if I place it in my periphery just so. In addition, they certainly never ask what has come to replace my lack of vision. Do they know that my visionscape presents a blast of fireworks–probably the explosive last gasps of the photoreceptors in my destroyed retinas–or the constant hallucinations curtesy Charles Bonnet Syndrome? Or that, when I’m tired I see less, or when drunk I see more, but when hungover less. When I am in familiar environments, my brain fills in information and I see more–just like the blind spot is filled in normal vision, so that, especially when I had more vision, I saw dramatically less when I was in unfamiliar places. For more on how the brain fills in vision, read Richard Gregory‘s classic Eye and Brain: The Psychology of Seeing.

Through my twenties and thirties my eye disease progressed in a haphazard way, but I still told people that I had RP, until recently, when I thought it seemed better, though more clunky, to describe my disease as a cone rod dystrophy, which explains the severity of the central vision loss at an early age.

It is a strange aspect of my slow march towards blindness that in the many years I spent as a visually impaired person, people often finished a conversation about my eye disease with the punctuation, “Is there a cure?” or “I’m sure they’ll find a cure.” Now that I’m basically a blind person, no one says anything about curing me. Of course, this could also be because I’m older. In any case, the irony is that now that I am older and blinder, there actually are glimmers of cures on the horizon.

From gene therapy to nanotechnology the possibilities of cure or cyborg-like augmentation are numerous and the darlings of the media. If you don’t believe me, check out the September 2016 National Geographic’s cover story “The End of Blindness.”

For about ten years, I did not have anything to do with eye doctors. It seemed to me useless. They simply confirmed the problem, but could offer no solutions. Then I started to get the feeling that things might be changing. Stem cell approaches were beginning to be a reality, even in the US, where stem cell research had been squelched by Bush and will likely be squelched by this Hydra in the White House, if the prolife heads prevail.

But now, with my CERKL gene identified as the culprit, I learn that curing my eye disease may have greater possibilities than stem cell therapy. In a CUMC blog post about his research Dr. Tsang is quoted as saying,

“Although gene therapy has shown promise in RP, it is complicated by the fact that defects in 67 genes have been linked to the disorder, and each genetic defect would require a different therapy. … Our study shows that precision metabolic reprogramming can improve the survival and function of affected rods and cones in at least one type of RP. Since many, if not most, forms of the disorder have the same metabolic error; precision reprogramming could conceivably be applied to a wide range of RP patients.”

RP patients as well as those like me who have one of the 200 mutations associated with other retinal cell degeneration have reason to be optimistic in this approach, since the rarity of the underlying cause will be less of a factor. In terms of research funding and focus, this is very good news for people like me who have odd mutations.

Hence my eye disease is a symptom that may be treated with drug therapy that may relate to many other kinds of problems. Dr. Tsang told me in the office that it may be treated with drugs someday, rather than surgery. In the article on CUMC’s blog he noted , “‘Further studies are needed to explore the exciting possibility that precision metabolic reprogramming may be used to treat other forms of RP and retinal degeneration.'”

The article mentions that some potentially therapeutic drugs may already exist to treat other conditions such as “enzyme blockers called thiomyristoyl peptides, a common plant pigment known as quercetin, and vitexin, a substance derived from the English Hawthorn tree.”

I personally really like the idea that hawthorn, a tree sacred to fairies, might someday provide me a cure!

For now, Dr. Tsang is recommending daily exercise, which has shown to be effective in slowing down the rate of degeneration in mice with RP. As one of Dr. Tsang’s assistants put it to me in an email:

“The article about SIRT6 found that, in mice with a similar retinal degeneration, better sugar metabolism (in the form of lactate) for the retina cells helped delay the degeneration. This is still in the animal/research phase of research so there is no specific recommendation we can provide based on this study right now. At this time we do not have a way to deliver lactate directly to the retina. However, daily exercise increases lactate transiently and was shown to be helpful for mice with a retinal degeneration. Since daily exercise is beneficial for many things anyways, we recommend it to our patients as perhaps it may also help their retinas too!”

Since exercise might have some impact on my eye disease, I thought I’d ask about diet, and Dr. Tsang recommended three servings of fish. I clarified, “A week right? Not a day?” He and his assistant laughed. “Then you smell like fish,” he said, which begs the question, would I be willing to smell like fish for a chance to see again?

The thought that all my terrible living has actually exacerbated my disease is unsettling. My whole life I’ve felt a victim of genetics, and now it turns out I may have accelerated my blindness by feeding the mutation with booze and youthful drug adventures, indifferent eating habits and not enough exercise. On the one hand it is good to know that I may be able to have an impact on how I see for the rest of my life and on the other, I am saddened at the thought that too much has been already lost, and that suddenly I find myself to be an author of that loss.

*This is Essay 10 of #52essays2017. Read my previous essay “Laurel Wreaths: A Brief Hydrosol Encounter” here*

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Laurel Wreaths: A Brief Hydrosol Encounter, Essay 9 of #52essays2017

Two glossy green Laurel leavesThis brief and admittedly drunken hydrosol encounter with laurel (Laurus nobilis) was inspired by Cathy Skipper’s Hydrosols class at the School for Aromatic Studies.

Last week I ordered my little arsenal of sensory indulgences from Aromatics International because they were the only (recommended) online aromatherapy shop I could find that was not sold out of this delicious hydrosol. It was my first time ordering from them, but I’ll definitely order from them again.

I must confess that I’m a slut when it comes to buying essential oils and hydrosols. It is my firm belief that not all companies can provide all your needs, they must have specialties, and expertise, and so as with clothes, groceries, booze, and pretty much everything else, I have no interest in shopping one place exclusively. My impression is that in the world of aromatics, it is best to steer clear of those companies that tell you they can fulfill all your needs, i.e. beware the multi-level marketing when it comes to aromatics, and probably everything else too.

Ok, enough PSA for today. Here’s my hydrosol encounter with one of my all-time favorite trees, the laurel.

For people who like the Earth and are sending away for healthy/botanical friendly stuff, there can be some guilt. It’s the opposite of buying local, but in New York City, it’s oddly difficult to get a hold of very many of the rapidly growing assortment of hydrosols that exist, though there is a lovely little aromatherapy shop in the West Village, Enfleurage, that has a marvelous selection of essential oils, less in the way of hydrosols. The point being that I appreciate minimal packaging, and Aromatics International did a great job–no extra crap in the way of brochures and pamphlets, no unnecessary wrapping–just biodegradable popcorn, pet bottles and a bit of packing tape around the tightly screwed tops. Perfect.

I ordered four products: three hydrosols to help me out with a couple recipes for my upcoming HONEYPOT article, and an impulse purchase of a new-to-me oil, Marula (Sclerocarya birrea), which is apparently great for the skin.

I opened the box without my boyfriend Alabaster being home, to find four identical (to the touch) 4-ounce bottles, but was unconcerned, because (blindness be damned) the ears and nose were all that was required in identifying these aromatic liquids.

First I shook the bottles and determined the oil from the waters by the sound. I could tell from the lower and slower sound flow, which was the marula, and smelled to confirm. Marula () is a nut oil, that is a carrier oil with little smell, but it is apparently very good for wrinkles… I’ll let you know…

Pink Pelargonium capitatum flowersThen I smelled the first of the hydrosols. The citrus note told me at once that this was the citrus geranium (Pelargonium capitatum), one of the rose geraniums used in perfumery, but distinctly more lemony than the Pelargonium graveolens, which I also purchased for comparison in martinis and on my face.

Last came the laurel (Laurus nobilis), and my nose did a little dance. How I love this noble leaf!

“Upon smelling,” I wrote in my first impression notes, “the top note is so surprisingly floral or fruity,–a fruit that is almost tropical, a fruit that I can almost name but cannot–that, with the distinctive bay leaf underpinnings, the sensation is almost orgasmic. Upon tasting, the fruity disappears and the whole pungent, spicy leaf smashes intensely on the tongue.”

Anyway, I added a bit of water, and then, without too much ado, some vodka… and then some ice, and well, the taste was pretty amazing. Granted I started out with a whole tablespoon of hydrosol, which is a lot, quite a bit more than a normal person or cocktail will desire. What can I say? This is a debauched hydrosol encounter.

“Ok, just added a touch more vodka to my now iced laurel and find that this is unbelievable; the peppery notes of the laurel sparkle. I want Alabaster to experience this taste with me, but he is cooking and filling the room with other smells. While I wait for him to try, and try not to drink the whole damn thing, I will remind myself of the mythical, poetical laurel…”

Apollo seated with lyre wearing laurel wreath.Apollo, Greek god of music, poetry and light, prophecy and excellence of all kinds, crowned his head, and the heads of winners, with laurel wreaths. To this very day we have poet laureates, and Nobel laureates and may we ourselves be crowned with laurels, but may we never rest on them.

I can, at this very moment, testify to the intoxicating effects of Laurus nobilis, but I will not claim knowledge of the Pythian priestess. Whether she delivered her prophecies in well-wrought verse or unintelligible gibberish I cannot say, but if I, dear reader, were able to deliver words of wisdom beyond the obvious “Know thyself,” I would say, “drink of the noble laurel, and your eyes will be opened.”

 

*This is a drunken essay 9 of #52essays2017, written with all four senses and remembered sight. Read my previous essay “Mapping & Mixing the Senses at the Mall of America” here*

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Adulterated Rose or, The Smell of Regrettable Youth, Essay 7 of #52essays2017

The guy with the hard metal name was beautiful in my degenerate eye. Beautiful with a girlfriend. And a Volkswagen bus. This was around the time of the earthquake of ’89, when the influences of flower power still loomed large in San Francisco. I’d been pining for so long and then he said they’d broken up. We climbed into his bus and he put rose oil (adulterated, I recognize in my mind’s now more refined nostrils) under my nose and kissed me. When I give myself a little credit, I remember thinking it a cheap trick. I was young, but I knew enough to recognize that when it was over the smell under my nose was gone.

Red and white vintage VW bus model.
Sheet Metal Car Camper Vw Bus Volkswagen Model Car

The guy with a name that reminds one of welders, returned to his girlfriend and told her what we’d done, which made her hate me. That hurt too. I then glimpsed adulthood, where quotidian comfort trumps experimental romance.

Then I moved from my mom’s place in the Richmond District to 1462 Haight Street. Out the front door to the right was Ashbury and below a diner. Lazing on Haight Street, breakfast eggs and potatoes stick in the craw. It is this stuckness of regrettable youth that stinks like All You Knead. To live above a mediocre diner, to smell its unclean smells, and still to eat there is a kind of willful anosmia.

Haight and Ashbury street signs.

Similarly, being 19, mostly ignorant and a masochist, I adopted the scent of fake roses, bought for 10 bucks down the street in a crystal shop or some damn woowoo place, as my own. Not sure if I made the connection, but I still loved the smell after the encounter with the guy named for a metal that was the material of which the VW bus that had so briefly cocooned us was made.

Recently, long since those days of low self-esteem and unrefined judgement, I’ve had the pleasure of smelling real rose oil, bought in a precious one milliliter vile, Rosa damascena, and it is sweet and innocent–pink flowered and pure. It is warming to the heart, not meant to bump you upside the head with a reification of sex.

These days I often look to aromatherapy books when I’m feeling grumpy . Keville and Green tell me that it was the poetess Sappho who dubbed rose the “queen of flowers”:

“The fragrance of rose inspired poets and lovers throughout the ages, and it has been used to ‘open’ the heart and ease grief, heartache, loss, and sadness. … Employed for relationship conflicts, envy, anger, and intolerance, it is comforting, supportive through crisis, and an aphrodisiac. It also helps alleviate depression, anxiety, fear, insomnia, and lack of confidence.”
Vial of rose oil on white background.I need to save my pennies for another tiny vial!

And yet, sometimes I feel guilty for my greedy nose, and wonder if it is, even now, worthy of the holocaust of hundreds of flowers. In Aromatherapy I read that it takes up to 60 rose blossoms to produce just one drop of essential oil.

Roses are difficult to raise organically, must be handpicked, and do not have many essential oil glands, so it is often adulterated.

In the essential oil of rose, or rose otto (usually distilled from Rosa damascena) there are hundreds of distinct chemical constituents. At the risk of boring you, but in the interest of proving my point, I will include a few here (from Essential Oil Safety): Citronellol (16.0-35.9%), Geraniol (15.7-25.7%), Alkenes & alkanes (19.0-24.5%), Nerol (3.7-8.7%), Methyleugenol (0.5-3.3%), and so on…

Many more exist in trace amounts, which gives rose its complexity, roundness and depth. Unfortunately, chemists working in the flavor and fragrance industry tend to ignore this fact. They isolate major constituents and reconstruct simple versions of a complicated fragrance. The distinctly rosy constituent geraniol, for example, can be added to rose oil to extend it, but in the process, flattens out the scent.

Isolating a single constituent of rose is like isolating a personality trait, and claiming to know something about the whole person. I doubt any of us would like that very much! Nobody wants to be thought of as only gregarious, only proud, only smart, only funny, only a pain in the ass, only pretty. A flowers unique essence is made up of many things, just as we are, and to pin a couple of trope constituents on a formula created in a lab and slap the term rose on it, is as unconscionable (and comes from the same sad impulse) as bigotry and the creation of stereotypes.

Artificial aromas and flavors are so one-dimensional. And we’ve grown used to it. Eat a cherry flavored candy and you may name it as such, but what resemblance does the cherry flavor candy have to the real thing? Almost nothing. And unfortunately so many of us are weaned on such artificial flavors that we must be reeducated. Even “natural” flavors ought to be suspect in our noses as what is meant by “natural flavors” are organic compounds isolated and reconstituted to create a one-dimensional and highly duplicable taste. Cherries taste all kinds of ways in nature but only one way in a Skittle.

Before I remove my teeth from this subject, allow me to worry the bastards over at Febreze.

I don’t know if you’ve witnessed their ad campaign centered around the tawdry word “noseblind,” but let me just say that as a blind person (extremely tolerant of the liberal use of blindness as a metaphor), I find this term infuriating. I am blind. It is not a great thing to be, but it works its magic in its own particular and mysterious ways. Don’t take it away from me because you are lazy, because you know no actual blind people, or because you fancy them so far away that they would not even be watching, sorry listening to, television.

Why not nosedeaf, thank you very much. Certainly viewers would sniff at the thought of it!

You, Febreze, peddlers of terrible synthetic smells, coiners of mean and unnecessary words, create that which you profess to mitigate. I’ve walked into stores scented with your fruity monstrosities and fell to my knees, praying for anosmia. Anosmia is by the way the word you are wanting, and I suspect a willful ignorance, and kowtowing to the lowest common denominator, who may be put off by a word they do not know, keeps you from using it.

AAAH! Sometimes I truly hate this world with so much contriving that the very truth one professes, is in fact its opposite. And people eat it up. With their thought deafness and their mind blindness, and, above all, their tastelessness.

Quit being satisfied with the fakes, people. Demand the real. It may cost more, but as I mentioned in Sandalwood Love, there is nothing wrong with embracing the scarcity and complexity of precious things. I think it is not going so far to say that if you can’t appreciate these things in a flower, how can you recognize them in a person?

Rosa damascena postcard by resolute

*This is essay #7 of #52essays2017, written with all four senses and remembered sight. Read my previous essay “1984: Late to the Party Again” here*

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The Voice of the Turtle, essay 3 of #52essays2017

Ganymede the turtle close up2:10 My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.

2:11 For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;

2:12 The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;

2:13 The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.

 

I.

There is a burbling box in the bedroom of our friends’ house in which lives a red-eared slider named Ganymede. I cannot see this turtle and have never touched it, but I hear it jump into its water when I enter the room and swim excitedly. I hear its tank’s pumps work ferociously and spout fountain-like when the water evaporates and I fill the tank until the pump returns to a soothing swooshy hum. And I hear it chirp in the night.

I like to say I turtle-sit, but truthfully, most of Gany’s needs are fulfilled by Alabaster, who feeds it and cleans its tank by fishing for detritus. For me, this turtle named Ganymede is but a collection of sounds and a glowing box. There was a time when I not only saw red-eared sliders, but also handled them regularly, with little pleasure on either side.

II.

I believe I would not feel so much for Ganymede if I had not the visual and even more, the tactile memory of the red-eared slider. When I was a kid I volunteered for several years on the Nature Trail in the San Francisco Zoo, handling the animals brought out from the Animal House to be touched by other kids and sometimes their parents.

Before we took our first animals for the day out to the trail, we cleaned cages and performed feedings–some more unpleasant than others. One of my least favorite morning chores was feeding live crickets to the red-eared sliders. This was done by pulling toilet paper and paper towel cardboard tubes from the cricket bin and shaking them out into their turtle doom.

When assigned to turtle station in the first round of the Nature Trail, we’d put the turtles, snapping and scratching, into their carrying case and lug them out to turtle pond, which sat atop a blustery little hill. It was generally a cold and thankless station to man.

We’d open the door and watch the advance guard scramble out, scrabbling over one another in their hurry to be free. Necks stretched, red stripes flashing, they’d hurl themselves into the pond. Others hung back with noses poking out tentatively, pulling back when we reached for them. Still others were resolutely still as stones, until we picked them up and tossed them into the pond. Then all four limbs and head would pop out and start swimming.

Ah, Turtle Hill! It was a miserable station most days, especially for the morning and late afternoon shifts, when the fog was thick and penetrating, wrestling turtles who insisted on rushing steadfastly away from their happy pond towards unknown lands. Stubborn turtles! Our hands were wet and cold for two hours, hours that creeped by far more slowly than the turtles, who were in fact pretty quick on land though their grace shows in their true element of water.

III.

We’d have to let the kids touch them; then of course, they’d all be in the bottom of the little dark pond, and we’d have to reach in with our already numbed hands and grab a reluctant turtle with sharp nails and furious thrashing head, who would like nothing better than to snap at our momentary pupils and us.

But I liked the chatting and the feeling of power that came with knowledge and the answering of questions.

“What do we have here?” the parents would say as the child reached for it. Then I launched into my Nature Trail patter:

“This is a red-eared slider, a semiaquatic turtle native to the Southern United States, but now common in all parts of the world. The carapace, or upper shell, of this species can reach more than 16 inches in length, but the average length ranges from 6 to 8 inches….”

We had been given binders with colored pages: blue for birds, green for amphibians, orange for reptiles and pink for mammals. I was very excited to be a volunteer at the San Francisco Zoo. I studied hard and learned everything there was to learn so that I would be the most well informed kid with the most entertaining docent patter. I did not know that during my three years at the Nature Trail I would begin losing my vision to a degenerative retinal eye disease.

IV.

As I volunteered from age ten to thirteen, my eyes grew subtly worse. The first thing I remember was how hard it was for me to walk into the Animal House from the bright outdoors. I would be temporarily blinded and would stop short, blinking, until I could make out the silver line of small mammal cages on the right, and judge my direction accordingly.

One of my earliest and most vivid moments of self-awareness came when I was at the turtle station, looking for a turtle to pick up and offer to a visitor, and reached for a rock instead. I blushed, ashamed.

It was a strange aspect of my eye disease in the visually impaired years that when I touched something, it revealed itself to me in full, as the object it was in reality, not what I thought it was. Once seen, the rock could never again (at least that day) reappear as a turtle. But without movement or touch verification, I grew less confident in my ability to find and name things.

V.

I made the mistake of Googling “voice of the turtle” and find that the turtle of the Solomon text has been hotly debated for centuries. At Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange I learn that the voice of the turtle probably does not refer to a turtle, nor even a turtledove, but rather the generic creature that “‘creepeth upon the earth’ (Leviticus 11:29).” And that a possible candidate, the frog, may be heard to sing in the spring–“a perfect fit with the Solomonic context.”

The biblical scholars have not heard the turtle chirp, and do not believe in its voice. But, in the deep silence of the night, I have heard the voice of the turtle, the chirping of Ganymede, like the peeping of a solitary chick, and, even if others, even my lover, do not hear it, I am comforted by the tiny sound.

 

*This is essay #3 of #52essays2017, written with all four senses and remembered sight. Read essay #2 “What I See/Saw” here*

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