An Open Letter to the Chemists, the “Little Old Ladies”, and the Other Frauds Who Write To Me

If anyone was expecting my next post (i.e. this one) to be full of spiritual learning, you’ll probably be disappointed, and might as well write me off now and move on to the next blog.  Maybe next time. This one is really, really long (over 4500 words even!)  and very boring unless you are interested in more tales of incense espionage.

For now, I need to address a couple of individuals, and I might as well do it in public, since they see nothing wrong with sending harassing e-mails.  Might as well, get this all over with in one shot so to speak.  I am simply tired of putting up with internet bullies, and people who are constantly trying to take advantage of other people’s generosity, knowledge, and hard earned experience.    (If you think I’m “terrible” for this post, you should see some of the stuff over at Orthodox Monk’s blog.  He doesn’t pull any punches either and at the end of the day, I’m not holy enough to ignore such bullies and cyber spies.  They’re irritating, transparent, and unethical and there is no reason to let it go unaddressed..)

To the “sweet little old lady”, (whose IP address is nowhere near Wisconsin, where she claims to live) who wrote to me asking me to “make me  up some perfume oil”  basically along with the recipe as a special order, my answer is:  You’re sweet, and your e-mail was nice, and yes, it’s nice too that you”re “close” to “Greek Orthodox” since you’re Roman Catholic, but no dice.  You are in fact asking for secrets, in spite of your disclaimer on the first line of your e-mail.    Also, since you asked, yes, I do know where you can buy ready made stick incense :  my website.

Other than that, you might try the head shop in your town, since I don’t ship to Phuket (the origin of your IP address. )

To the Chemistry Teacher from Mary Baldwin College, in Staunton, Virginia otherwise known as HH:    You quickly became my favorite and just as quickly you became a nuisance.  Your story is so lengthy but I will summarise for our readers.

You placed an order in the beginning of October.  It was a little unusual in terms of quantities for a first order, but that’s all right.  I filled the order, and sent a note and you wrote back stating that you had received it, and you gave me a compliment and asked several unusual questions.  Here’s your e-mail, to refresh your memory.  I have bolded the unusual questions and other things that struck me as odd:

Dear Columbina,

The incense arrived safely.  Out of curiosity I have a few questions.  How did you arrive at the names for your incense?  I understand about Bob Marley.  How do you keep your incense from being sticky, since you add oils to the dry mixture?  How much oil do you add to a pound of dry mixture? Do you ever add a solvent?  What do you mean by curing some of the incense? You have a very interesting name.  Thanks for being prompt in sending my order.  I plan on making another order soon. I hope you will answer my questions in the near future.

In Christ,


These questions are the equivalent of asking:  What’s your recipe and how can I copy it? But I ‘m a nice person so I tried to answer as honestly as I could without giving away the store.  Here was my response:

Dear HH,
Thank you so much for your kind words and for your questions.  I am glad to answer them as best I can.  I am delighted to hear that you are enjoying the incense.

The names for the incense were simply how my nose “thinks”.  I have been a perfumer for a long time and so I live very much through my nose, in the same way that others are “visual” or “auditory”.  It’s rather hard to explain, but put simply:  I experience the world primarily through my sense of scent.  My blog has some entries about this:

Drying, curing, etc:  You asked about this and it’s not a single procedure, but rather a combination of things.  Firstly, the mixture is always sticky in the beginning of the process. But I cure my incense for a minimum of 60 days, and up to 6 months depending on the blend.  Betonite clay is invaluable but too much of it, and you end up with something that is entirely too dry, too soon and it can ruin the scent.  In short, it’s a combination of:  atmospheric conditions (I live in a dry climate – Reno, Nevada and this helps immensely) proper oil compounds and accurate measurements, as well as the old standard:  keep in a cool, dry place away from all light.
Light, especially sunlight and direct harsh lighting, affect the oils and can change their composition, mostly for the worse.  I keep all my oils in dark amber, glass bottles in my workshop and I do most of my blending with the door closed, and limited artificial light.

Using betonite or a similar clay helps but the only thing that really does it in the end is time.  Anything will dry out, in time…given enough time, it will be dry enough to burn and will have lost its sticky consistency.

You also asked if I use a solvent — no, not at all.  Many incense makers do, in order to create more subtle scents, to make their oils “stretch” further, etc.  I choose not to and I simply prefer stronger, more pungent scents.  I have found that most Americans and western Europeans seem to gravitate toward lighter, more artificial scents (pumpkin spice, whatever that means, for example) or scents that are more commercially marketed.  I have also written about this in my blog and it’s an interesting subject — our noses have become consumers of successful marketing campaigns.

About formulas and measurements:   I cannot really guide you in this except to say that it’s all about “what’s right for me as an artisan”.   One pound of dry resin is actually not a lot of resin.  I make small batches but when I formulate it is in the several pounds and depending on the blend I am making, it could be more or less oil.
I would say as a very broad example one could plan on using quite a bit of oil for a one pound batch but this would entirely depend on the scent one is trying to create and how long it would actually take to cure.

Curing is not simply about “drying time”…it’s also about how the scent evolves and changes over time, according the other factors (climate, lighting, etc.)  This art is something that requires a lot of trial and error unfortunately.  It’s often frustrating and not as straightforward as cooking for example.  In a cooking recipe for custard, we can count on these ingredients and these combinations to create a custard.  But perfume, and specifically incense, is not that exact until you perfect the formula you are trying to make.  I am not trying to be vague but that’s simply the nature of the beast.

I hope this helps in your understanding.  I’m grateful for your interest!  God bless you!

In Christ, blah blah.

Actually, I now admit it:  I was a bit uncomfortable with the audacity of your questions and YEAH !  I was trying to be vague!  It’s none of your business what my recipes are, or anyone else’s for that matter.  That’s why they are called Trade Secrets and just because I’m a Christian doesn’t mean I have to allow you or anyone else to walk all over me and steal my store.

I even sent another email explaining more about the use of solvents.  Then I received the letter from the “sweet little old lady from Wisconsin”.  Then I received another email from you.

Your letter:

Dear Columbina,  You are very professional in your quick responses.  You definitely have people skills.I cannot believe you have so much knowledge and that you can analyze other people’s incense.  I guess your nose is to you as Caruso’s larynx was to him.  It was said after his death, “Kings come and go, but there was only one Caruso.”  Your two e-mails and your blog contain so much information that I need some time to digest all the information.  Then I will pester you with more questions.  I hope you don’t mind.  Just as you are intellectual and determined I am very curious.  My first grade teacher remembered me as the boy with 25 questions.

The flattery was nice, and I guess I was prideful and fell for that.  (Did anyone really expect true humility from ME?  Silly you. I’m without a doubt one of the biggest sinners on the planet.)

Here was my response with a few things ommitted for length/irrelevance:

Dear HH,
I am humbled by your kind words and compliments.  I only know what my nose tells me and I have learned to trust it.  I hope that you will trust me with your questions.  I will always try to answer as honestly and concisely as I can.

This art of mine has ruled my life for 40 years.  Recently, I was asked by police to isolate a scent…(edited for time/space/irrelevant)
Our lives are filled with scent whether we knowit or not, and we are only children of God, trying to do the right thing.
God bless you – please don’t hesitate to send your questions.

And still I was giving you the benefit of the doubt.  Then came the Big Clue that Columbina missed at first (still blinded as she was by your praise of her — what  a dummy I am ) :

Dear Columbina,
> I hope things
> are going well with you and your work.    I have two very
> exciting incenses:  Rosa Mystica and
> Basilica.  I would very much appreciate your allowing
> me to send you some
> and your analyzing them for me, similarly the way you
> analyzed the Trappist
> Incense.  I know you have a good nose, and I am
> curious about what makes
> them so fragrant.  I will send
> enough for you to enjoy and to analyze.

At first I agreed.  I wasn’t thinking, and had quite forgotten about Prinknash Abbey, the makers of Basilica and Rosa Mystica.  I hadn’t seen their stuff for awhile and just simply answered you without thinking.

(Answer was: Sure, no problem!  Send it on…because I’m still naive and thinking you are just “curious”  Ordinarily, the only people who do this are close friends, confidants and colleagues, but why not?  Send it on….To think what could have happened.).

After I sent my agreement, it hit me as I walked through the library of my apartment and I saw a mortar and pestle on a table–Basilica and Rosa Mystica???  Who is this guy who is flattering me, trying to get formulas from me???  Who is this that wants me to analyze a TOP SECRET RECIPE from Benedictine MONKS???

You had written back and your email said:

Dear Columbina,

Thank you for your quick reply and willingness to accommodate me.  I am not
surprised as I sensed earlier that you are very professional and eager to

You should receive the material soon -blah, blah.

I’ve never been ‘eager to please” in my entire life.  I was polite, I was helpful and I was very trusting and hoped you trusted me to give you good answers.  But if my priest heard someone describe me as “eager to please” he would spew his tea, and ask if you met an imposter.    But now I ran a google search.  I wrote to you and asked you to level with me and asked you point blank…well, here’s the e-mail I sent you just so we are all on the same page:

Dear HH,
Before you send on your samples, why don’t you just level up and tell me what you’re after?
I mean no insult to you, but I must confess that I am highly suspicious of anyone who suddenly wants to correspond about incense, incense properties, techniques, scents and their origins, etc.  Especially if it is from someone I have never heard of in the industry.
If I am being used to betray the blending secrets of myself or others then I would have serious objections to that.

As always, in Christ, but by no means a pushover,

My google search revealed that you are a chemistry instructor at Mary Baldwin College, that you and your wife are “experts” in perfume, and notably in this case, incense and frankincense and other resins.  Additionally, you had done research in ancient resins , etc.

An important detail, don’t you think?

You sent an outraged letter, protesting your innocence and purity of heart and intention.  You stated…well, let’s look at the letter:

Dear Columbina,

I was very shocked by your last e-mail.  How does one learn about a subject?  From someone who knows enough to teach.  I thought you would be that person.

Of course you have not heard about me.  I am not in the industry.  Why did I ask you to analyze some samples?  Because someone sent you a sample, and you analyzed it and published the analysis on the internet.    That gave me the idea that you would do it for me.  Notice carefully I asked you for permission to send you two samples.  I did not just do so without your permission.  It should be obvious I did not take you for granted.  Isn’t that leveling?

You asked me to trust you.  I did so and did not say you need to furnish some evidence of your trust.  Furthermore, I did not consider you a pushover.  I merely tried to praise you by saying I appreciated and trusted you by saying I was not surprised by your willingness to help me.   Did you want me to say I was so surprised to think you are a nice person?  What on earth has caused you in such a short time to change your opinion of me?

I got interested in incense as an altar boy.  I became so intrigued with incense that as an adult I made some incense and sold it to two church goods stores.  It turned out to be too much work, and I realized that I would be very happy to make incense for two nearby churches as a free gift to them.  After learning about you on the internet, I thought you could give me some help in making better incense.  Then the gifts I would give would really be great.

(This was the first I had heard of this — and only then, after I confronted you.  In the beginning, you simply said, “out of curiosity”.)

I am sorry that for some unknown reason I have upset your conscience.  Now I don’t have to worry that you helped me and later had problems with your conscience.

I told you right on that I had an intellectual curiosity and hoped you would not consider me a pest.  I haven’t the foggiest idea of what you mean by “to level with you.”

How much leveling do you want?

I will not bother you again about receiving help on incense craftsmanship, since you have doubts about helping me.  A woman has the prerogative to change her mind.  However, I am glad you expressed yourself now rather than make me later feel guilty about your help.

We are all human and I learned a long time ago not to be angry or judge.  We all make mistakes and want to start over.  Moreover,   I still feel that you are an exceptionally nice person.  For some reason you have doubts, and doubts don’t ruin a person.  It shows we are human.

Best wishes and success in your work.

I then felt that I should at least respond and give you the courtesy of an explanation of my request for honesty:


In your initial inquiry, you failed to disclose the following:

You are an instructor of chemistry at Mary Baldwin College.  Your wife is a professor of Chemistry at the same college.  In addition, you are both known as experts on frankincense and other resins and on incense in general. Both of you have written and lectured extensively on the subject.  Since you do not need me to identify actual ingredients (you are easily capable of this in the lab) I can only surmise that you are trying to determine formulas and more creative aspects, either to create your own incense line, or for a competitor.

For the record, Basilica Incense is world famous and it’s formulation is a closely guarded secret and for good reason.  Although I can identify all nine components, I will not do so.  The Benedictines who created that formula make their living from it’s secrets.  The same applies to Rosa Mystica.  You are perfectly capable of doing this in your lab anyway.
I also note that your recent research on the nose as spectrometer may have something to do with your inquiry.  I refer you then to Chandler’s Burr’s excellent work, “The Emperor of Scent”.

At first, I failed to make the connection.  Now that I have, it is disingenuous at best, for you to remain offended by my request for honesty.

Your interest, rather than being “intellectual” is more along the lines of industrial.  Omission of the truth and pertinent facts can be construed as a lie and does not lend itself to trust between people.

And you’re right – I’m still a nice person.  I gave you the benefit of the doubt, and every opportunity to make this right.


That was on October 31, and for my trouble, I received :

Dear Suzanne,

I appreciate your concern.  However, you did not ask for my life’s history.
I did not ask for yours.  Furthermore, I told you that I sold some incense
for a short time on a limited scale.  It was so limited I did not need a
license. I made a very small profit which I indicated in the Miscellaneous
Section of the Income Tax.  A real profit would have required a license.  I
checked this out before I started with a Tax consultant, as I had no
intention in doing a real business.  This was a small hobby.

Let me emphasize that I am not at all interested in going into the incense
business.  I give as gifts incense to two of my favorite churches.

You are the one who sells incense, and you know the ingredients in the two
incenses that I mentioned.  Is that okay for you?  Since you sell incense,
you could be tempted to use the formulas of the monks.  However, because of
my trust in you, I know you will not.  Do you have any reason to mistrust
me?  I have no desire at all to use their formulas or put them out of
business.  There are other honest people besides you.

However, I notice that some of your incense selections can be used for
church services.  Where did you get your ideas about how to make Church
incense?  What influenced you or did the information come from osmosis?

My work at MBC as you can easily see has been strictly intellectual.  There
is no indication of making formulas.

I am fully retired from teaching and I do not need a job.  I spend my time
on studying incense literature, Church history, Church liturgy, going to
plays, seminars, and concerts.  Retiring is very tiring.  I do not have the
energy to go through the work that is required in selling incense.  I told
you that earlier.

I explained that I wanted your help in improving the gifts I give through
your perspective on commercial makers from your knowledge of how other
commercial creators, like the monks, make their incense.

No, I do not now have access to a laboratory and therefore have no way of
doing any analytical work on any commercial incenses, since I am retired.
Nor do I have a nose as you do to help me.  You are like highly fortunate
people who tell the less gifted to be satisfied with what they have.  If
they try to improve their situation some might feel they were dishonest.

I know I have wasted my time in explaining, since you are completely
prejudiced towards me, as the only things you agree with me are those that I
notice that are positive about you.

I well know about my work experience at MBC being on the internet.  If you
were interested you could have asked me about what my civilian capacities
have been.   Do you think I would be stupid enough to lie to you when I know
you could check it out?  I am surprised in your detective work you
overlooked the fact that I published a book on the history of a church.  Did
you leave that out as what you found added to my history work would make me
too literary and not formulary?

I hope you and your family had a fun Halloween and I wish you the best.
Maybe in the future you can finally find one good thing to say about me and
maybe in the long distant future that I have not lied to you about anything.
Or on the other hand maybe you never had any desire to help others with your
knowledge.  What a tragedy if everyone felt that way.  We would be living in
the Dark Ages and fighting diseases we now cure.

This really is not a criticism of you but an attempt to answer your
objections to me.  You have enough information on me to write my biography.
I know very little about you.  I will not defend myself anymore.  If you
have no intentions of helping me just say so.  You are not obligated to help
me learn more about incense.


I did not respond since YOU ARE CORRECT:  I am not obligated to you or to anyone else no matter how many flattering things they say about me, and how they try to hide behind some sort of higher moral ground.  (Wherever it is I don’t see it.)

Then, thinking I had heard the last, I got this gem:

Dear Susanne,

This is just a short PS.

If I can analyze the material discussed, why would I ask for your help?

I play the piano.  If Vladimir Horowitz were judging me along with other students in a recital, I am certain he would not ask me for lessons.

I clearly explained to you why I wanted your help in improving my incense—to make my two free gifts of better quality.  You just don’t get it.  (You’re right, I don’t understand why you didn’t just say this in the beginning, rather than lead me to believe it was only an intellectual curiosity.  Additionally, you only explained this later, after I confronted you about it.)

I stated that I will give no more responses to fresh interrogations.  Therefore, I would appreciate it if you would give me your final decision about helping me no later than Thursday, November 5. 2009.    No response in this time period indicates a “No.”  After that date I will never ask for your help.  Furthermore, this subject will not be opened at a further date, as this debate is going nowhere.  In Christ,  HH

Well, that was a relief!  I thought, “Great – I won’t respond and he’ll go find someone else to correspond with and get the answers he wants, but it won’t be me who gives away the store that belongs to Benedictine monks, for crying out loud.”

It was not to be.  In spite of not responding to you, I received this lovely missive this evening.  At least you are no longer hiding behind pretty language, flattery and disingenous outrage.  I loved the insults though—they are very becoming for a mature Roman Catholic who prides himself on his love of church.  I am going to answer this here, line by line:

Dear Columbina,

I have some very good news for you that will make you extremely happy.   Before presenting the news I want to go over the thought processes that led to the good news.You claimed you were very happy to answer for me all questions about incense—–Yet you quickly changed your mind.

(That’s correct HH – as soon as I figured out your game, I had every right to change my mind.)

You claimed I could trust you———trust you about what???????    (Giving you good answers, which I did.)

You said I omitted pertinent information about myself————When did you ask me anything about my background????????  (I didn’t realize I had to ask you to fill out a questionaire.  It’s common courtesy to disclose one’s credentials at the outset of any learning opportunity especially if you are presenting yourself as a novice, when in fact, you have a certain expertise.)

You said I lied——————————What did you ask me about that I was untruthful?———-Absolutely nothing—a figment of your artistic imagination

(Actually, this is not what I said.  I said, that “omission of the truth can be construed as a lie.”  Don’t misquote me, HH and don’t put words in my mouth. I don’t like it.  I’m not one of your students who needs your approval and grovels to get it.)

You said I was interested in going industrial or helping a competitor.——-You have no evidence to support that statement—another figment  (I did not say that.  I said “.Your interest, rather than being “intellectual” is more along the lines of industrial.”  But now I am saying it, because it occurs to me that ‘Thou doth protest too much.’ )

When you started raising objections, I foolishly thought you would be genuine enough to reconsider—–Then I realized that you could change your mind quickly again.  (You’re right — what makes you think I’m obligated to answer any emails at all.  You were lucky to get what you got, which  wasn’t very much and frankly, it’s of no consequence.)

What benefit of the doubt did you give me?——Every explanation I gave was followed by new objections—Is this what you call giving me every chance to clear things  (I have not responded to any of your explanations except the one noted above.  What “new objections” are you talking about?)

Your incense is not entirely original—use of the Athonite style——What is wrong in your helping me get ideas from other styles?  (Insulting my work isn’t very productive is it?   It’s common technique in lower debate classes however:  insult the other person and hope they cave in to your “superior” intelligence.   Use of the Athonite style does not make my work “unoriginal”.  It simply is a style, in the same way that a “impressionism” is a style of art.   I suppose I could use start scenting moon rocks, but they are hard to obtain and I suspect they wouldn’t burn very well.  That’s like saying making perfume isn’t original because it’s oil.  Or that a painting isn’t really original since it has people in it and da Vinci’s paintings have people too.  As for what’s wrong with it, here it is:  don’t claim to be a Christian, and then use flattery and avoid disclosure,  to obtain the secret ingredients to, and copy someone else’s art.  Last I checked, this is still considered immoral and unethical.)

As you can see and really know deep down, your objections are ludicrous.  (I only made one and actually, I don’t “know deep down” anything of the kind.  But I suspect a guilty conscience from the extreme nature of your reaction.)    However,   I will never again ask you to help me to craft incense purely out of consideration and respect for your wishes.  (Glad to hear it; pouting does not become a man of your stature and these continuous, outraged emails from you are exactly that.)

I am happy that I really have no immediate need and possibly no need ever for special teachings, since my interest is strictly in the category of a hobby.  (Keep telling yourself that.) If an opportunity does arise for special teaching, I did learn one VERY IMPORTANT LESSON from you:  Check in advance if the instructor requires an FBI check before an applicant is accepted.  This is the LAST PAGE. (thank the Lord for  His mercy!) We will now close the book. (Terrific!) Best wishes and thank you. (You’re welcome) Most sincerely,  HH

And I learned something very valuable from you HH.  Namely:

B.S. simply means just that:  bull snot. ( 😉 )

MS means More of the Same.  and a Ph.d. no doubt means Piled Higher and Deeper.

A master’s degree is not a sign of respectability, nor courtesy.  Being a Roman Catholic is not a guarantee of Christian values either.  Additionally, I have determined never to take your advice precisely because it was designed to flatter me into pride:  I will NEVER write a book on incense, or perfume, for that matter.  Because I learned its secrets from Christians who trusted me.  I would never betray that trust and those secrets, although not unique to me, many nuns and monks are aware of them, yet, they go to the grave with me.

“Most sincerely” to you too,


PS:  As a result of this experience, I will no longer be answering questions on technique, blending, formulations, etc.  I have in the past, helped out when sincere people were simply asking for personal advice on project they had already disclosed, but no longer.  Alas, my days as a naive idiot who falls for flattery are over.  From now  on, I will remind myself that :

I am of no consequence.  I have made no spiritual progress, and my opinion is worthless to anyone.  If I keep saying it, maybe I’ll be able to avoid these situations in the future.



One Response to “An Open Letter to the Chemists, the “Little Old Ladies”, and the Other Frauds Who Write To Me”

  1. I only want to add for anyone that actually bothers to read all this:

    I am sorry if this has disturbed your spirit. But this is an ongoing problem and I ahve to draw the line somewhere. Just so you know : here is where I draw that line:

    When someone misrepresents their intentions. It’s called “lying” and “sins of omission”.

    When someone then uses those same lies or sins of omission to steal from someone else, the secrets o ftheir art.

    If people would just roll up their own sleeves, dig their hands in and actually do some work, mixing and experimenting, they would have their own works of art, actual “trade secrets” of their own to protect, in no time.

    But I guess theft and dishonesty are “easier”.

    “…thou shalt not steal…thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor….You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” –Exodus

    “”…Jonah did the Almighty’s bidding. And what was that, Shipmates? TO PREACH THE TRUTH IN THE FACE OF FALSEHOOD. Now Shipmates, woe to him who seeks to pour oil on the troubled waters when God has brewed them into a gale. Yea, woe to him who, as the Pilot Paul has it, while preaching to others is himself a castaway. But delight is to him who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth stands forth his own inexorable self, who destroys all sin, though he pluck it out from the robes of senators and judges! And Eternal Delight shall be his, who coming to lay him down can say:

    – O Father, mortal or immortal, here I die.
    I have driven to be thine,
    more than to be this world’s or mine own,
    yet this is nothing
    I leave eternity to Thee.

    For what is man that he should live out the lifetime of his God?” —Fr. Mapple, Moby Dick

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