Don’t mention the war

I couldn’t talk to my grandfather much. Around the time I was born, he had an operation that left him permanently faint and hoarse. Even if I could have, I probably wouldn’t have brought up the time he spent serving in the Second World War. 

Our relationship wasn’t like that.

Lately, though, Lee Sandlin’s article “Losing the War” and Paul Fussell’s book Wartime have given me a taste of what I might have heard if both of us were entirely different people.

They try to break through the historical narrative of World War 2 to explore the human experiences that underlie it. At the same time, they lament the inability of those who were there to communicate “the real war” to the rest of us, the total inaccessibility of the past.

Having served in the war, Fussell writes from personal experience as well as extensive research. Having been a child during the early post-war years, Sandlin records the war’s impact on his childhood as well as the wider culture.

What stood out for me? The messiness and the uncertainty of it all, and the fear. From Sandlin:

[E]verything about the war was ad hoc and provisional. The British set up secret installations in country estates; Stalin had his supreme military headquarters in a commandeered Moscow subway station. Nobody cared about making the system logical, because everything only needed to happen once. Every battle was unrepeatable, every campaign was a special case. The people who were actually making the decisions in the war – for the most part, senior staff officers and civil service workers who hid behind anonymous doors and unsigned briefing papers – lurched from one improvisation to the next, with no sense of how much the limitless powers they were mustering were remaking the world.

And from Fussell:

You would expect front-line soldiers to be struck and hurt by bullets and shell fragments, but such is the popular insulation from the facts that you would not expect them to be hurt, sometimes killed, by being struck by parts of their friends’ bodies suddenly detached. If you asked a wounded soldier or marine what hit him, you’d hardly be ready for the answer, “my buddy’s head,” or his sergeant’s heel or his hand, or a Japanese leg, complete with shoe and puttees, or the West Point ring on his captain’s severed hand.

Can I find my grandfather in any of it? If he was ever afraid or overwhelmed – ever outmatched by anything at all – he never said. Gone less than two years, he’s as far away now as the world of seventy years ago, and further. And always has been.



Packing my snow boots


Work called me back for a few days so once again, I’ll be visiting Ottawa.

It’s a funny thing.

When I first moved to Ottawa in 2007, I couldn’t wait to get out and get back to the West coast. Other than morbid fascination, I saw no reason to stay in such an inhospitable place.

Even when I resigned myself to staying a while, I didn’t have much love for it. Next to the glass and metal of Vancouver, Ottawa streetscapes looked old, worn and broken down.

Living in one shabby shared apartment after another, I whiled away the wintry days, wishing I was back home. Walking up and down the streets, to the public library and the grocery store, I couldn’t imagine I’d climb out of the hole the move had put me in.

But over the course of years, new friends, work and heartbreak brought me out of my icy cave. Then, I met someone who wouldn’t break my heart and we finally skipped town.

Today, I live in Vancouver while my phone and keyboard connect me to Ottawa nearly every day. Still, returning physically always brings back memories.

Zipping up and down bilingual elevators, waiting at a snowy bus stop in crowds of the bitter and resigned, walking home along snowy streets between tall brick houses.

The people I met, well dressed and amused or grimly ambitious.

But I came across a quote by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche today:

Self-deception means trying to recreate a past experience again and again, instead of actually having the experience in the present moment. Self-deception needs the idea of evaluation and a very long memory. Thinking back, we feel nostalgic, getting a kick from our memories, but we do not know where we are at this very moment.”

It’s something to think about. Vancouver was my Ottawa once and I suppose it will be again down the line.

My first amber


What is amber in perfume? Perhaps surprisingly, it isn’t a single ingredient. Rather, as Elena of Perfume Shrine explains, it’s an “olfactory convention of the late 19th century” centred on the combination of vanilla and labdanum.

Amber can be mysterious and stealthy, hiding at the base of perfumes without really coming to the fore. However, it can also be highly appealing in its own right, given its warm, sweet and glowing character.

Drawn in by amber’s scent as well as its Victorian associations, I went looking for a “single note” amber to experiment with. Searching Alkemia’s Etsy shop, I noticed Ambre Extrait, a natural amber perfume at a slightly higher (though still affordable) price point than other Alkemia scents.

The notes

Alkemia describes the scent and its notes this way:

“Our 100% natural aged amber accord is an exquisitely sultry blend of some of the most precious and spiritually redolent resins in our Alkemia collection including: North African Rock Rose, Cambodian Agarwood, Prussian Amber Resin, Madagascar Vanilla, Nepalese Spikenard, Somalian Opoponax, Tunisian Liquidambar, Himalayan Cedar, and Honduran Styrax.

“Together these natural unguents and essences swirl into a richly resinous golden single note Amber. In its bouquet, a true amber-lover will be able to detect notes of wild honey, red earth, pale wood, temple incense, smoke, beeswax, sap, bark, saffron, velvet, skin musk, crushed citrus flowers, butter, and suede.”

In the bottle

With the bottle uncapped, Ambre Extrait smells golden and sweet, with a smooth and rounded quality, like a piece of polished amber stone.

It doesn’t have a clean or fresh quality, though – there’s something at its centre that feels almost unwholesome (perhaps the “skin musk” of the description).

On skin

Applied to skin, it smells much the same, with the additional emergence of a honey-like quality. It remains smooth, sweet, musky, and seemingly freighted with the mysterious weight of the past.  

Ambre Extrait gets milder as it sits on the skin, the sweetness joined by a resinous and woody quality that heightens the “golden” feel of the perfume.

Overall impression

Being very mild and soft, Ambre Extrait is not a public fragrance. But for the wearer, it’s a soothing, fascinating scent. Recommended for “true amber-lovers” as well as mere mortals like me.

Good advice?

I remember being a little skeptical when a friend of mine suggested a group of us attend a show by Basia Bulat at the Black Sheep Inn in early 2009. At that stage of my life I was wary of folk – was this really worth the trip from Ottawa to Wakefield?

Little did I know.

Over the next few years I saw her in concert on no fewer than five other occasions. Her songs were also fixtures in my mp3 playlist during those years, seeing me through some difficult times.

Given my attachment to Bulat’s music, when I realized she had just released the new album Good Advice I was both excited and a little hesitant. I worried that it wouldn’t live up to past efforts – or my rather unreasonable expectations.

On first listen, my doubts seemed justified. The first song didn’t grab me right away. It was a pop song, different from old favourites like The Pilgriming Vine, The Shore, and Sparrow. 

As is my policy, though, I kept listening, then when the album finished I put it on again. And again. Then it was all I listened to for days.

The songs suggest a theme of heartbreak, and a quick read of Bulat’s website confirms that this is a breakup album. As Starlee Kine put it on This American Life, “there’s nothing restrained or subtle about being crushed by the person you care most about in the world. It’s big and gaudy. And so it only makes sense that songs about it are too.”

Accordingly, most of the songs on Good Advice soar and glitter – Long Goodbye, Living in the Name Of, and Infamous in particular. Only the final two, The Garden and Someday Soon, seem to turn away from anguish and struggle toward resignation, with peace maybe somewhere visible in the distance.

Basia’s music has always had an emotional intensity to it, but Good Advice goes further. About Basia’s age, I’ve grown up alongside her music. At 25, I might have written off Good Advice, much like the real “good advice” I received back then. Things are different now.

If you’re a Basia Bulat fan, Good Advice is worth a listen or ten. If La La Lie doesn’t appeal to you, skip ahead to Infamous or The Garden. There’s something here for almost any broken heart.

A curious vanilla


Ayala Moriel is a Vancouver perfumer who uses only natural materials in her work. I’d been perusing her site with interest for a while when I finally decided to make a blind purchase of three scents: Espionage, White Potion and Zangvil (all in the oil format).

I plan to review all three, but I’ll start with Espionage since it caught my attention first. But it also gave me pause. Why?

The notes

Ayala Moriel’s website lists the notes as follows:

Ambrette (Musk) Seed, Bergamot, Virginia Cedarwood, Orris Root, Rose Otto (Turkey), Tabac Blond, Tonka Bean, Vanilla Absolute, Vetiver, Guiacwood, Jasmine Grandiflorum, Leather Notes.

There’s a lot there that I love – ambrette, cedar, and jasmine to name a few. But the leather gave me pause. I don’t really wear leather (the material) and its scent has never had much appeal for me. Still, I decided to take a chance.

In the bottle

I opened the bottle and immediately wondered if I’d made a mistake. The leather is strong, and there’s a sharpness to the scent that was unfamiliar to me.

I hate to say it, but Espionage was almost reminiscent of bug spray on first sniff. On the other hand, I actually like the smell of bug spray…

On skin

When first applied, Espionage sends up a potent, almost overwhelming cloud of leather and smoke. These notes seemed overlaid with a veneer of sweetness, like a leather jacket with syrup trickled over it.

After a minute or two, the distinction between the leather note and the sweetness disappeared. The notes merged into a single smooth scent with its edges softened and blurred by the musky ambrette.

As time continued to pass, Espionage got sweeter and a dark, creamy vanilla became its most prominent aspect. The leather still tempered it though, setting it apart from simpler and “younger” vanilla perfumes.

The florals are present, but (to my nose at least) impossible to pick out individually. Rather, they’re part of a very well-blended whole.

Overall impression

Espionage is soft and subtle – others are unlikely to notice you’re wearing it unless very close to you. For me, this is a major selling point. However, be warned if you don’t feel the same (it’s also possible that the eau de parfum version projects farther).

I highly recommend Espionage, even for those ambivalent about leather and especially for those looking for a soft vanilla scent that’s different from the usual.

Just reserve judgment for a few minutes after applying; for this scent at least, first impressions are deceiving.

Welcome to the end of the end

Things can get discouraging sometimes – the world has so many problems. Think about climate change – will Earth even be habitable in a couple of decades? Is there anything we can do to alter our course?

Is there hope?

Scientists, engineers, and others greater than myself are springing into action, saying “yes” and developing the technologies that just might save the human race.

And me?

I look back, down, to the side, anywhere but forward, trying to absorb what I can of this world in my own small way.

This blog is a record of these meagre efforts: impressions, memories, books, music and (why not?) perfume.

Things seem to move too fast, especially when it looks like it could all be over far too soon. Why not stop for a while and join me in my hopeless quest to make the ephemeral last forever?