Perfumed Letters

Reading the scent trail of fragrance and words

Tam Dao and the Peterman Game


There was a time when I hosted weekly dinners in a tiny apartment for a close-knit group of friends. A few of us had recently earned PhDs. Others saw the end in sight. At least one of us was still taking courses. We were all experiencing a phase of frustrating economic lows, made easier by our shared love of banter and word play. The food was simple, the wine was cheap, the conversation skipped and roared.
        The Peterman Catalogue, which seemed to have sprung up from nowhere, was widely distributed via snail mail in those days. In a radical departure from the familiar no-nonsense clothing catalogue format, the editors at Peterman printed anecdotes and vignettes that often seemed unrelated to the clothing until the reveal: “This is that blouse!” The final, obligatory mention of sizes and pricing read like a yawn of compliance.
     What started as dramatic readings of the catalogue’s product descriptions, soon evolved to The Peterman Game. Someone in the group would select an accessory or article of clothing that one of us or someone we knew often wore. The more benign, worn out, abject or unattractive, the better: a checked blouse too reminiscent of red-sauce café tablecloths; scruffy, generic desert boots; a tragically whimsical pair of earrings. The challenge: write the best Peterman entry for that garment. I believe there was a time limit. Silence, chortles, refills, straight-faced recitation for the judges, howls of laughter.
      Years later, Seinfeld’s Elaine would land a job for the company, and I would realize that my dinner gang was not alone in marveling at the humor and audacity of using purple prose vignettes to market duster jackets and French farmer shirts. But by the time Seinfeld put Peterman high on the national radar, my little group had dispersed across the country. 
      In retrospect, I see the therapeutic value of the Peterman Game. Due to the timing of our graduate school years, our minds were nurtured on a strict diet of particularly impenetrable scholarly writing: labyrinth walls of frosty, bone-dry prose, mortared in jargon, neologism and abstraction. My reverence for those intellectual models, along with a huge dose of insecurity and graduate student angst, had sucked the joy out of my own writing, leaving it to stop and start in plodding fear and hesitation. The Peterman Game provided an outlet for my bottled–up adjectives, train-wreck metaphors, and repressed urge to break the academic rules. Years passed. Times changed. I know that academic writing does not have to be tentative and stodgy, but I still struggle to let my sentences breathe.
         At some point I began to post blurbs about perfumes in the “reviews” sections of a few fragrance-lovers’ sites. I would write, trance-like, in a cloud of epiphany and wrist sillage. Sometimes I described the notes, the way they played off one another and unfolded over time. But I’m no expert, so I gravitated toward documenting my highly subjective reaction to fragrances. The results shocked me. Where did this stuff come from? Anecdotes and vignettes in purple prose, with a dash of earnestness and self-conscious irony. Oh, no. I was playing the Peterman Game! And I haven’t stopped yet.
Here’s one of those blurbs for the record.
Tam Dao by Diptyque
I am 19 or so, feeling older and wiser than my years. At a café called “The Good Karma,” sitting cross-legged on the creaky wooden floor, I sip herbal tea with my friends. In a few moments the music will start. Who was playing? Something acoustic. I can’t remember. But here’s the guy in Earth Shoes and a waist-long ponytail, about to make some announcements. I’m wearing sandalwood and musk from a head shop. My scent mingles with the spice of various teas, and the dry, herbal and resin odors brought in on denim skirts and jeans, cotton halter tops, and flannel shirts. Pony-tail Man leaves the stage. We applaud, stirring up a roomful of sillage that has no name. Let’s call it Tam Dao.
(May 2009)

Image source:  where it showed up in this post about the Peterman Catalogue (Thank you!)


4 thoughts on “Tam Dao and the Peterman Game

  1. I love it. 🙂 You should do a weekly Peterman review here!

  2. Dear Natalie,
    I think pretty much anything I write about a given perfume will qualify! Maybe I should go for a Peterman challenge for readers: see who can write the best Peterman review of a fragrance!

  3. That would be well worth reading!

    I received your package today, and I'm sooooo happy! Thank you, thank you! I applied Stephanie, Anne Pliska, and Kiss Me Tender. I like all of them so far, which is pretty unusual.

  4. Excellent! I'm glad they arrived safely. Happy sampling!

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