Monday, January 30, 2006


Bazaar in 3 Days! February 2!

The loss of my sense of smell-- now somewhere in its second week-- has forced me to reconsider a common question asked of students in English conversation classes everywhere: "If you had to sacrifice four of your five senses, which one would you want to keep, and why?"

The standard answer for most people is "sight." You can't drive if you can't see, after all; nor can you watch that woman's tight ass bounce by you like three-dimensional quarter notes on their way to a note-orgy. You can't watch movies or TV; you can't surf the Net the normal way. You can't take in a gorgeous panorama like the mountains around the Thunersee and the Brienzersee in Interlaken, Switzerland, or see the rainbow of flowers splashed across a meadow.

Perhaps your other senses can make up for your lack of sight, but there's no denying that sight is something that makes us pay attention to the world.

Two weeks ago, had I been asked that question about which sense to keep, I would have answered "sight" without hesitation, too. But now I'm no longer sure. Smell is essential; smell is primal. We need our sense of smell, and for many reasons.

I'm a smelly guy. Sweaty. Hairy. A guy. I rely on smell as an early warning system:






It's not just an early warning system, either. I rely on smell to tell me about the weather: Will it rain? Will it snow? Damn, that's a crisp wind! Smell those leaves-- it's finally autumn!

Smell also clues me in on certain things: Yes! The food is done, and not a hint of charcoal! Or: Holy shit, what the hell did I eat yesterday? Fuck!

Being unable to smell and taste the food I cooked for my students last week was a crushing blow. Perhaps I didn't let on just how depressing that was for me, but it was depressing. The olfactory dimension of experience can't be overstated: food is life. Without smell, food-- life-- hardly seems worth the trouble.

The conversation question is somewhat misleading: when you lose your sense of smell, you generally lose your sense of taste, too. This is why mothers pinch their kids' noses to make them down the caustic medicine: if they can't smell it, they're less likely to taste it. While I've heard people claim they can still taste things even after losing their sense of smell, I don't usually believe them. Smell and taste, the olfactory and the gustatory, go together. The claim that one can still taste foods is generally based on sensations unrelated to smell: for example, I can distinguish between fruit juice and wine because wine leaves something of a vapor trail. The moist tissues in my nasopharyngeal area can perceive the vapors without calling up either taste or smell. I'd have a harder time distinguishing between clear apple juice and water. So would you.

Having been without smell and taste this long, I've had to ponder whether it wouldn't be better to be blind. Blindness comes with all sorts of problems, as noted above, but I don't need to see lobster in butter sauce in order to appreciate it. The smell, the taste, the feel-- those are enough. Now, when I eat something, all I've got left is... texture. Taken by itself, texture isn't much. While I'm not absolutely convinced that losing my sight would be better than losing my sense of taste, this unasked-for truncation of my world has been harsh to deal with.

Here's the funny part: I still eat pretty normally. I gain no enjoyment from it, but the removal of smell and taste from my daily life has brought home how awesome the power of habit is. Very illogically, I find myself lumber-waddling to the nearest soda machine to buy a drink barely distinguishable from water. I'd like to think I'm doing this because I'm an optimist: maybe THIS time, my senses will come back and I'll be able to taste what I'm drinking! But in truth, my 500-won coins are being sacrificed to the Aztec drink machine gods because that's the neural pathway I've fortified with ever-thickening myelin sheaths in my brain.


Burned into my circuitry.

And that's not so different from the story of Mozart the cat. Our cat lost his eye in a fight at the tender age of one-and-a-half. When we took him to the cat hospital to get the swollen remains of his eye removed, the vet decided Mozart needed a bit of extra work, and removed his balls, too. "Done on both ends!" she announced cheerfully after the terrible deed had been performed. Mozart sulked, his head half-shaven and surrounded by a ridiculous, radar-shaped plastic collar to prevent him from pulling out his new stitches.

Ball-less though he was, however, Mozart had already formed certain prowling and mating habits. The vet warned us as much: the neutering hadn't been to calm Mozart down, but to prevent him from inseminating the neighborhood felines. Mozart, to this day, remains a horny cat, and that's all thanks to habit. Though I retain my balls, I understand Mozart better now. We belong to the same circle of bereavement. The difference is that I'll eventually recover my smell and taste. Mozart, alas, is a eunuch, a freak, a biological "it," forever.

'Tis a strange gift, to be deprived of two senses. On the assumption that every moment is a lesson, I'll continue to blunder through this desolate period of blunted percipience and report whatever insights I discover. But if the clouds suddenly break tomorrow and my senses return to normal, well fuck all that-- I'll be off to Outback Steakhouse to celebrate and we'll speak no more of this.


1 comment:

Lorianne said...

Thanks to allergies & nasal polyps (yes, I know: TMI), I have for years had no sense of smell about 99% of the time. I'd say "you get used to it," but that's only because you forget what you're missing.

When my sense of smell *does* occasionally (and completely inexplicably) come back, the sensory exhiliration is unbelievable. I'm blown away, again, at how food *really* tastes...and by the way you can actually *smell* the food in your mouth, the aroma rising from the back of your throat.

Once when my smell returned, I was walking behind a guy who was smoking a cigarette & carrying a cup of coffee...and although I neither smoke nor drink coffee, I had to stop myself from running up to the guy to inhale both smells.

Whenever folks ask about losing a sense, I point out that I'm already devoid of one: how many senses should one person have to sacrifice? But if I had to choose between sight & hearing, I'd choose hearing anyday. Sight is limited by range: you can't see behind you unless you turn your head. But hearing is all-dimensional, and it works in the dark.