Outside My Window

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Our weather in central Pennsylvania has veered toward the gloomy in the last week of May, and under the canopy of the newly-leafed oak trees that tower over my yard and those of my neighbors, my house feels too cool and grey for my tastes. Everything inside feels too “close” to me, if that makes any sense. But outside my picture window, the blooms on my rhododendron have held me transfixed: for the second year in a row, the blooms are big and floaty in a way they never were before in the twenty-some years I’ve lived here. I attribute the change to a happy accident — an overzealous pruning I did back in August of 2015, when at the end of summer, everything in my yard struck me as too shaggy. I have no idea how to prune things properly — I find that when I’m in the mood to lop off excessive growth, I’m too impatient to research what rules one should follow. I just start hacking away. And that summer I knocked off numerous branches from pine trees before uprooting (or so I thought) every strand of bishop’s weed, hosta, and wild grapevine from the bed in front of my picture window before stopping short in front of the rhododendron. I had never felt any love for this gigantic bush: it wasn’t something I had planted — like every other plant in this unruly bed, it came with the house, and after so many years, it looked like it was intent on swallowing the house. I hated its shapeless, shaggy mass of leaves so I just started lopping and trimming the hell out of it, taking away most of its bottom branches, until it looked like a small tree. I liked the shape of it much better — it had a visible trunk (not like a normal tree has, but its two main branches twisted together to somewhat resemble a trunk) and a round, lollipop mound of leaves on top that looked quite attractive after they were liberated. I had no idea whether this rhododendron would ever bloom again, but at that point in time I didn’t care. The new silhouette was becoming and gave the bed a sense of definition.

By the following spring , I think every hosta, grapevine, and bishop’s weed came back double-fold to the bed I had so carefully razed and mulched and replanted in coral bells. But the rhododendron? For the first time in my life, this shrub that is so common to yards across the northeast United States became something new and beautiful to my eye. Its blooms were huge, buoyant, and, at the same time, graceful. Pruning them to the extreme that I did imparted airiness that allowed the blooms to look distinct rather than a wookie-like tangle of cotton-candy flowers and overgrown vegetation.  When this year’s flowers are finished blooming, I will prune it again (I didn’t touch it last year) as it is already starting to acquire a bushy amount of new growth.

As I mentioned before, this was a happy accident, and I don’t intend to sound like an expert, because I’m very obviously not.  However, I felt compelled to write about it as a reminder that it’s sometimes worthwhile to take a big risk in the garden. If this rhododendron had died, I would have been left with a big hole in that space that I would have had to replace, but the risk seemed worth taking since I had grown to resent this plant. And in this case, manicuring a shrub that most people (where I live) tend to leave in its wild state turned out to be a good move for me, giving me more control over my garden space and making me see the plant in a whole new light.

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Photos: my own.

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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.