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The Secret Language of Scent

By Edited Jun 20, 2015 0 0

Helen Keller knew about the importance of smells. Perhaps because of her lack of sight and sound her sense of smell was heightened. She claimed she could tell when people had been in a room, or what they did for a living, based on the smell. We can shut our eyes to things we wish to avoid, and even clap our hands over our ears to block noise, yet smells are always with us. Lurking in the background, entering our subconscious odors are constantly available. For that reason, scents evoke memories with more precision than de ja vue, or photographs or sounds. My mother wore, as her signature scent Chanel No. 5. I remember being in the shower years after her death and suddenly, inexplicitly, the smell of her perfume wafting into the room. The transportation was intense and instantaneous. I felt her presence. The funny thing is, I lived alone. I didn't own any Chanel No. 5. I had no idea where that scent came from. It dissipated as quickly as it had entered. I went to the local mall soon after that incident to buy myself some Chanel, just for nostalgia's sake, just so I could evoke her memory at will. I was about 20 years old. I told the handsome sales man what I was looking for, I guess he meant to flirt. He blurted out, "You don't want that! That's an old lady perfume!" I went away without buying anything. The smell of a loved one is entrancing. I remember soon after my son was born nuzzling the top of his head. IT smelled so good and sweet I could never get enough of it. "All you do is kiss that baby!" my friend Martina complained. I could hardly help myself. After a season his head didn't smell the same. Maybe it was the thick growth of real hair replacing the initial soft down of baby fluff. Maybe it was his sweat glands kicking in. Maybe it was my own hormone balance returning to pre-pregnancy levels. I never knew. For several years afterwards I would surreptitiously sniff the heads of newborns hoping to catch enough whiff of that intoxicating smell. Other people's children didn't smell the same. The smell of a lover is an interesting thing. Studies show that once a woman is on the pill for her birth control, taking it regularly, the scent of male she's attracted to, changes. I wonder why this is so. Do we need a different sort of male after we are pregnant? For the pill mimics the hormonal balance of a pregnant woman. What type of man would that be? A better provider perhaps, than the selfish gene wishing to get replicated that attracts a woman when she's NOT on the pill. . . . What we eat effects what we smell like. I remember my fourth grade teacher telling us about how when Irish and Italian immigrants first arrived in America they were subject to a vivid racism. As a child I found her statement difficult to believe. Irish Americans represented America to me, they were "white people" what manner of person would be prejudiced against them I wondered. Now that I look back I realize the white Anglo Saxons of WASP descent would be the ones to denounce later immigrants as unsavory. Surely the amount of garlic found in the normal Italian diet would have some bearing on that assessment that such people are "different." Being half Japanese, I had heard my own relatives talk about the way other races "smell." I wasn't particularly aware of other people smelling badly although I did notice Americans had a preoccupation with covering themselves, literally layering faux odors over their natural scent. First came perfumed soap, then underarm deodorant, then aftershave or perfume and possibly scented lip balms or power make up. It seemed like all American advertising centered on the idea that smelling like anything else, even a chemical warehouse, was better than smelling like a human. Why all the fuss I wondered. Until sweat is hours old and bacteria has started to grow, it doesn't smell bad. The same with breath. Unless you have rotting teeth, or an infection, or just ate something malodorous, regular normal breath doesn't stink. Frankly I enjoy the scent of real things: of rosemary still on the bush, or wind blowing through pines, of rain. Realtors know, having the scent of bread baking, or fresh cookies makes a house more attractive to buyers. When I was in high school a famous model single handedly made vanilla scented perfume popular. Once upon a time women did try to match the layers of their scents, using the same perfume in their bath soap to hand lotion. The subtle scent of one would fade as the next kicked in. People used to spend more on perfume. The advent of cheap perfume is an assault on the nose. When backed into a small elevator with a woman too heavily laden in cheap stuff the effect is gagging. Certain cheap air fresheners even spark migraine headaches. It isn't natural to have plug ins in every socket seeping scent in to your room. Those chemicals are often carcinogenic. At any rate, they aren't natural. Keep a clean house or use charcoal to absorb stinky odors rather than attempting to mask smells with votive candles and air fresheners. The smell of incense was made popular in the 60's by dope smoking hippies. Today incense is main stream. You can find it at the mall or any street fair. Incense no longer has to be patchouli or the scent from far Eastern temples. Incense is scented to match cheap perfumes, or fruits like cherry and grape. I'm rather fond of one scent that reminds me of ancient Shinto rituals, it evokes everything proper and old about Japan. Much as I like it, I think it chases off insects as well. Now that Westerns have covered every angle on the body, with everything from scented tampons to breath mints, it appears that our animals are going to get fresh scented as well. Dog shampoo now comes in special flavors, as well as wipes you can use in a pinch to get the canine smell off of your pet. One wonders when it will end. Will the final result be perfumes created to smell like humans? No wait, those were already invented, we call them pheromones.

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