Saturday, May 24, 2008

Anosmia, perfume snobs and olfactory ignorance

Anosmia is the inability to smell. It can be partial or full. I wonder if many people have partial anosmia and do not know it or if there is such a thing as smelling too much or too well. I know of one man who became so sensitive to smell that he went to live in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, for it was the only place where he wasn't miserable. But he had a distorted sense of smell. To him, everything except the smell of pine trees smelled like garbage.

I discovered, once again, a few nights ago, that I have a more acute sense of smell than most others. The setting for this re-discovery was quite unexpected. I was at a knitting shop with a group of women, doing what we were there to do, which was to knit (and tell the occasionally bawdy story).

The owner of the shop asked me if I'd tried the new lace needles she's been selling and I said I hadn't, so she gave me a set to try. I looked at them and thought "oooh" because they were noticeably more pointy than a regular knitting needle and so, they were indeed better for knitting lace.

While I was knitting with the new needles, I started to sense a smell that I did not like. It was really bothering me and the only thing it could be was the needles. I lifted my knitting to my nose and there it was: it smelled like dirty change, the kind with a lot of old pennies in it. This is not a smell I like at all.

I looked to the left and to the right and saw that three of my fellow knitters were using the new needles. Did they smell it, too? I asked the woman to the left of me, for she is a doctor and for some reason I thought she might be more sensitive to things like this (why, I don't know). No, she did not smell a thing. Nor did the other woman. Or the third. So, I said out loud to the woman who owns the store, "These needles are great but I can't use them because they smell like copper." My fingers reeked of the scent. She laughed (of course) and said that no one had mentioned a thing about this to her, ever.

This bothered me and so I leaned over to another woman and said, "Smell my knitting and my fingers." Yes, I know that's a weird invitation, but I just had to do it. She did comply, but her response was, "Your fingers smell like baby powder." Ah, it was the remains of Bulgari Black that she was smelling. She could not smell the copper. No one could except for me.

It figures. I want to use those lace knitting needles. But I just can't. The smell of copper makes me feel nearly ill. Dick made a bunch of interesting models out of copper and I must wash my hands well after handling (if I even deign to touch the dreaded things). He asked me last night if I could smell his aluminum models. No, I can't smell them. They are just fine. Can someone else smell aluminum? I don't know but I think it would be interesting if someone could (and please leave me a message if you do!)

There's a little spot on the sofa I'm sitting on that smells just awful. I have no idea what the smell is, to be honest, but it's loathsome. There's no telltale stain, no nothing.

So, the question is this: are these other people somewhat anosmic or am I overly sensitive to smell?

I had another olfactory experience this week which ties in to perfume snobbery, but I prefer to think of it as olfactory ignorance. Snobbery is when you like something just because it is perceived as better, but is not necessarily so. Snobbery, in terms of perfume, is when you value a scent because it's hard to find, terribly expensive or unheard of by the common rabble. True snobbery has nothing to do with whether a scent is actually better than another. True snobbery has everything to do with impressing others with an aim towards letting those poor ignorant smucks know exactly how ignorant they are.

I will say this, however, others may perceive you to be a snob if you know more, even if you don't lord it over others (and this is a terribly American problem, I think). Snobbery is akin to elitism, that currently horrible dirty word that has been attributed to Barack Obama. Is saying Shakespeare is better than daytime soap operas being a snob? No. But if one looks down on the soap opera watchers, I suppose it can be. But I digress (of course).

This week I was in a meeting with a few other women. One woman, who was dressed quite well, was wearing an absolutely wretched perfume. I do not know what it was, for I'm not very familiar with current department store fragrances (does that make me a snob?). I looked at her and thought that I'd be doing her a big favor by informing her that there were better perfumes out there. I did not judge her. I figured she was just ignorant, like a person who only reads books that one can get at the Rite Aid (where her perfume may have come from).

At one point, we were in the women's bathroom together and it was enormously tempting to say something to her. Oh, how I wanted to! But no, I thought better of it. One just doesn't tell a stranger, "Gee, your perfume is disgusting. Let me tell you about some better ones." But, really, wouldn't I have been doing her a favor?

As mentioned before, Dick is enjoying wearing scent now, and is still in love with the Hermes Jardin sur le Nil. He hasn't gone so far as to pull it out of the box himself yet, but when he sees me applying scent, he always asks. He said it was like discovering the world of wild birds. One day you are blind to something (or anosmic) and the next you are not.

There are worlds and worlds of different experience. The more we know about something, the better we can perceive it. And because everything is connected, the more we know about one thing, this informs the others and so on. Ha, I originally only meant to write about scent and snobbery, but instead am making a pitch for the old concept of the "liberal arts". Learn as much as possible about everything: art, poetry, science, scent, cooking, car mechanics, birds, computers, history. . .ah, yes: Everything is Interesting.

Painting note: Hasegawa Tohaku, 1539 - 1610 "Pine Trees"


Anonymous said...

You are right about those needles, they do smell like old pennies. I am able to overlook the smell, just as I was able to overlook the smell of Staten Island when I lived there. I don't live there anymore, thank goodness, and perhaps the needle smell pales by comparison to the scent of the largest landfill on the planet!

Julie H. Rose said...

I know one local knitter who used to live on Staten Island. You, perhaps?

I have only smelled Staten Island while passing through and, of course, the smell of the needles is nothing in comparison. Very little is!

However, I can not bring myself to use those needles, no matter how wonderful they may be. It's bad enough that most wool these days has had every last bit of lanolin scoured out of it. The smell of sheep is one that I like (correct that: I love it!). I worry, too, that the new scentless yarns may pick up the copper smell. I will not take that chance!

Lastly, I'm glad that someone else can smell it, though it's too bad for you, 'cause it affirms my reality.