Problems with One’s Nose: It Just Doesn’t Make Scents

I think we can all agree—that whether you’ve experienced it firsthand or not—having Covid is no fun.

I can’t think of any illness that would actually fit into the “fun” category, so perhaps the above statement is a bit of a no-brainer declaration.

Still … there is an aspect of this affliction that is forcing me to do something I do find to be pleasurable—research­­—as I (along with millions of other humans) are desperate to determine when, if ever, our sense of smell will return to our bodies.

The symptoms of SARS-CoV–2 are dizzying, to be sure—one of them including experiencing dizziness. That evidentiary concurrence aside, other symptoms include the typical sniffling, sneezing, coughing, aching, stuffy head, fever, so you can’t rest for lack of medicine annoyances. Some of these ailments arising to the level of not just vexing irritations but life-threatening pathologies.

The non-life-threatening, but definitely life-depressing disorder of anosmia—or smell blindness—is a fairly reliable indicator for the Average Joe lacking an at home Covid test to determine if they have been infected with this miserable and unrelenting virus. As an individual whose job relies upon her sense of smell, I long ago created a list of all maladies of the disease that I knew might reliably express themselves and highlighted in yellow and then orange and then pink the one that I absolutely, under no circumstances could tolerate. And then promptly began agonizing over its possible appearance until, I’m guessing, my brain finally took to heart all those self-help, yogi meditations I spent years fostering and “manifested” my thoughts into intentions.

Here you go. You think it, you become it.

The loss of smell for most people is dispiriting—especially if you’re a human who likes to eat.

The loss of smell for a person who is surrounded by hundreds of small alcoholic vials filled with aromatic compounds that are no longer aromatic is panic-inducing, terrorizing, and humbling in a collapse into a puddling heap on the floor type of way.

What now? Is the question of the day, although it really wasn’t a daily query as much as it became an hourly one.

So much of my life’s work is dedicated to identifying odorants—the good the bad and the ugly. They’re all incredibly fascinating to me and important to the labors I’ve been employed to pursue. I have never taken my ability to smell for granted—in fact, I’ve protected its presence and fostered my olfactory skills like a zealot chasing after the title of “Olympic medalist” in that category.

I walk into a room and the first things I notice are the odorants—the primary, the secondary, the tertiary. Has someone burnt toast? Has a dog passed gas? Is that woman wearing the same scarf from yesterday when she slipped outside into the alley to have a quick cigarette?

I walk into a patch of someone else’s presence and can oftentimes flesh out a rhinal history. The cologne they wear, the detergent they use, the curry they ate. It’s a Sherlockian mystery that unfolds itself one odorant at a time.

And now it’s gone. Poof.

Coincidentally, two weeks ago, I noticed a side-effect to a new medication I’m on which revealed that I may experience hyperosmia—an increased sensitivity to odorants. Hot diggity, I thought. A dream come true, right? Until I’d been stuck in a car with a person who, whenever speaking, gave off the exhalating perfume of someone who had perhaps dined on the soup made from the sewer on a hot August day. It wasn’t their fault. Their stomach was appropriately breaking down breakfast with the human chemicals assigned to that job—it’s just that it felt like I was in that organ with them.

Being on the opposite ends of the scent spectrum in such a short period of time provides—along with a bit of whiplash—an opportunity to experience the edges, to assess this bodily sense with the effect of a volume dial. Too much and you whirl with nausea, too little and life becomes monochrome—a dull gray, monotony that snatches away all color, absconds with your anticipation, and tosses you into a steeply descending pit of “why bother?” (Or, at least, for me it did.)

I have a phrase—a formula—I use to describe a concept when teaching on developing the skills of nosing and tasting: scent + taste = flavor.

Scent involves our olfactory epithelium—a small patch of tissue high in the nasal cavity that houses around 400 of our body’s olfactory receptors. When aroma molecules attach themselves to the receptors—either singularly or in combination with others—we can identify somewhere between 100 million to 1 trillion different odorants.

Taste is defining sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami compounds.

Putting the two together is how we experience flavor. Strip one away and the pow and wow factor of food is crippled. Hamstring both and you’re left with … what??

If I allow my freaked out, blubbering inner doomsayer to answer that question, it would be search for a cliff tall enough to leap from. If I am to respond more appropriately, more hopefully, more like an individual who gravitates toward solid science than pointless hysteria, I would say, a not unsubstantial amount.

I am forced to hunt for the other. To seek out what else contributes to the sensory experience of flavor, as there are a few more things than one might expect to include.

  1. Viscosity – a measure of thickness, glossiness, syrupiness, adhesion.
  2. Chemesthesis – this occurs when the receptors on the skin react with a chemical placed upon them—where your mouth and nose are concerned, we have the examples of:
    • Menthol (a cooling sensation—your toothpaste, gum, or minty herbs)
    • Capsaicin (a thermal impression—your hot sauce, spicy peppers, or chili powders)
    • Carbonation (a tingling of the receptors—think soda, sparkling water, fizzy champagne)
    • Alcohol (a prickling phenomenon—might as well go for the gold and make it high proof)
  3. Sounds – the oral and sonic experience that comes from the crunch of your sugar snap peas, the squeak of your cheese curds, the crackle of your potato chips, the smacking stickiness of your peanut butter, the effervescence of those Pop Rocks.
  4. Temperature – No need to explain, you know the scale.
  5. Mindfulness—It has been studied and believed that “expectation” contributes to flavor as well, as scent and taste stimulate the limbic system and ultimately stir up memories.

I cling to the fact that the nuances of what contributes to flavor is fairly rich with examples. And paying particular attention to the extra sensory “we’ve always been here, but you’ve just ignored us” elements highlights their contribution to an experience rich with stimuli.

Is it the same?

Nope. Not even close. For me, anyway.

Will it suffice?

It will have to. At least until biology rights itself, a stem cell transplant program is offered up by my GP, or Mark Zuckerberg finds a way to “meta” my olfactory receptors back into reality. But for now, I will sniff, sip, slurp, and swirl everything I find—to invite back into my brain, to welcome back into my realm, to appreciate with renewed vigor the one thing my mental health hinges upon.

Until all returns, I will remain annoyingly and worrisomely … scent-o-mental.

~Shelley

For the time being, the blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

The Din of December

There is something magical about the word December.

And I think it’s more than the tingles I get from simply saying the word—a word that envelops me with a warmth containing decades of memories, all twinkling and glittered. I think it’s the hearing of all things December related.

December has a sound all its own.

For me, and where I live on this patch of earth, it is the sound of swirling snowflakes, cotton soft and cushioning. It’s a muffling of the natural world, a bright white quilt under a blue-white moon.

It’s the sound of wind chimes chinkling, nudged by invisible fingers of a frost-laden wind.

It’s the whistle of winter’s breath as it races down the chimney shafts and rushes through the empty halls, a purring, fluid melody, so measured and hypnotic. Suddenly, it inhales and pulls all open doorways shut with slaps of sound that startle, breaking soothing silence.

I hear the somber trees, brooding and contemplative. Rhythmic and slow, their drinking of the earth and drawing in the air allow them time for mindful reflection, and their meticulous planning of a spring that slowly creeps closer day by day.

And I listen for the pop of seasoned wood, ensconced in flames and smoke. The tiny hiss from flickering tongues is the language of heat, a faint articulation of a promise against the bleak and bitter chill.

I warm at the thrum of mellifluous song, the trilling of carols, the honeyed blend of bright, buoyant voices. Whether it be the refrains of jubilant noise thrust toward the heavens of a brilliant starry night, or one single, hallowed melody, hummed quietly and kept in check, music seeps out into the air, whimsical, innocent and heady.

This month is filled with the sounds of gratitude: the contented sighs slipping from souls who witness December’s darkness replaced with tiny, twinkling lights, the bright-eyed, gleeful shrieks from innocent mouths who point at storied characters come to implausible and colorful life, and the cheerful hail of reception that fills front halls, front porches, and the faces of those behind front desks.

It is abundant with the thanks for a warm cup of tea, a filling cup of soup, a coat, some shoes, a toy, a bed.

It is filled with a million wishes on the same bright stars, overflowing with countless dreams whispered deep beneath the covers, scratched in a letter to Santa, chanted in prayer over candlelight.

I hear the sound of sharp blades on ice, waxed sleds on snow, snowballs on parkas.

There is the noise of muffled feet on carpeted risers, the hum of a pitch pipe, a sharp intake of breath, and the strains of melody and harmony and dissonance braided throughout the next many minutes that make the hair across your arms quiver above goose flesh even though you are in an overheated room, squished into an undersized chair.

Throughout the month there is the crunch of dry leaves, the cracking of gunshots and the grunt of effort when dragging home that which will fill the freezer. I hear the soothsaying of snow, the delightful patter of euphoric feet, and the collective groan from a city full of scraping shovels.

The sounds of December are those of rustling coats and the stomping of boots, the rubbing of hands against the numbing, wintery sting. They are the hushed prayers of voices in holy vigil, the retelling of sacred stories to fresh ears and hungry souls.

The sounds I hear are those of glasses, clinking all in toasts. They are the wishes of warmth and the hope of fellowship, the thirst for triumph and the promise of change.

But most of all, I hear the plaintive yearning of my heart, voicing the wish that December won’t end, that January won’t come, and that time will stand still.

December is a month of sounds that sounds so good to me.

~Shelley

Lastly, I leave you with a small gift from me to you. I sing Norah Jones’ song ‘December.’ A tune I feel is my holiday hug to the world.

(And a huge hug of thanks to my wonderfully gifted son for mixing and production.)

Why We Need to Acquire a Taste for Flavor

As a writer, there is nothing I love more than putting on my Alice in Wonderland frock and purposefully tumbling down the rabbit hole of research.

With the exception of getting published, of course.

And seeing my hound gaze sincerely into my eyes over breakfast to convey that I’ve never looked more well-rested and attractive, and would I mind passing him three strips of bacon?

But the research part of necessary investigative sleuth work is wholly engrossing and powerfully magnetic.

It also turns me into an insufferable enthusiast—a gasbag of chatter with the sole purpose of spreading knowledge that may be of no interest to any other human.

I tend to forget this bit in between my research projects where I launch headlong into overzealous lectures about poisonous plants that can make you puke, or the new studies supporting the worthiness of fecal transplants to support flailing microbiomes, or the debate as to whether cereal is actually soup.

Currently, I am reviewing countless books, scientific journals, and ongoing analysis all relating to the topic of flavor. And thus far, I have been tentatively directing all conversations I have with breathing humans toward this subject.

Good morning, this is Betty from Allstate insurance. How may I direct your call?

“Hiya, Betty! I’ve got a quick question about my homeowner’s policy, but first, can I ask you how it is that you’d define the vague and rudimentary term we call ‘flavor?’”

Or …

Ma’am? This fish in your grocery cart might not be as fresh as we’d want to sell you. How about I get a stock boy to switch it out for you?

“You betcha. And it appears your orthonasal olfaction skills are exceptional, whereas I probably wouldn’t have caught anything off until I was neck deep in the whole retronasal olfaction process—one occurring during sniffing and the other only when eating and drinking.”

Or …

“Hello, Chloe, this is your mom calling. I know you’re busy, but I was just wondering if you happen to know how many different odor compounds there are in the world?”

I don’t care.

Clearly, I could use an audience who chooses to be there with me, or maybe just a therapist who listens because I pay him.

Either way, it is impossible to simply let such riveting information go unshared. Who wouldn’t want to know that circumstances affect our flavor perceptions—such as the discovery that fans attending hockey games and involved in a study, determined that ice cream tasted sweeter after their team won and more sour after they lost?

Or why hold back that researchers are collecting impressive data that shows babies have an affinity for foods if their mothers eat it while they are pregnant with said baby. Hoping your tiny tyke will be asking for seconds on that bowlful of mustard greens? Start gestationally shoveling it in, Popeye.

And by no means could I refuse to relay the critical science utilized by the food and healthcare industries where phantom aromas are helping to control high blood pressure. Has your doctor diagnosed you with hypertension and mandated you to a low sodium diet? Food industry scientists are your new superheroes, having discovered that by adding phantom aromas of ham into certain foods, your brain will believe it’s still indulging in that five-pound salt lick your tongue so badly craves.

Super interesting info, right?

You’re welcome.

One of the reasons I’m so engaged in this particular research currently is that we, as human beings, have a frustratingly underdeveloped ability to articulate concepts related to flavor. As flavor is an umbrella term that houses both taste and aroma—taste having far more descriptive language than smell—it repeatedly highlights how we struggle with a narrative for our experiences.

How do you profile the unique difference between cheddar cheese and aged Gouda? One’s cheesier than the other? What words describe these cheeses?

What is the flavor of red snapper? It’s not fishy. And stating it is of firm texture does not illustrate flavor.

Flavor is more than a sensory experience as well, as it turns on the light in our brain’s limbic system and rummages around to immediately connect that taste and smell to an emotion and memory.

Why is that when a plate of beautifully sautéed halibut is placed beneath your nose, you’re immediately flooded with the desperate optimism of a marriage proposal?

I’ll tell you why. Because you, like me, used to come home after school and whip up a batch of Gorton’s Fish Sticks and watch an episode of Gilligan’s Island where your only wish was for the professor to finally ask Mary Ann to marry him so they could make perky, adorable, and intelligent babies to populate the island they’d be stuck on forever.

No? Was it just me? Well, still it proves my point. And as an aside, I learned more about GDP, the spectrum of human usefulness, and estate planning from this sitcom than I did from Econ 101.

The scents and tastes we experience are intricately interconnected to a vast array of our bodies’ systems, and we’re too intelligent a species to answer the question – how does it taste? – with an answer like: pretty good or it doesn’t suck.

So come on, people, let’s ban together and lend a helping hand to further science. Take a swig of some Drink Me potion and start fishing around for some helpful language.

Articulation is key.

I’ve told my dog that a thousand times and refuse to pass the bacon until he can “use his words.”

~Shelley

For the time being, the blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

Hatching Happiness through Husbandry

When I was a kid, the word stress had a few specific meanings:

  • “Please stress the notes in your right hand, as there you’ll find the melody.” (I played the piano.)
  • “Hey! Get off the tire swing, dummy. Dad said it can’t hold two people cuz it’ll stress the branch and make it snap!” (I played with my brother.)
  • “I cannot stress enough how you must never eat any mushroom on the forest floor that looks like it is cherry flavored.” (I played being a Pioneer Princess when going for woodland walks with an elderly neighbor.)

As an adult, the word stress emits a different tone. It effectively and uncomfortably punctuates the feelings of anxiety, burden, anguish, and fatigue.

The CDC stresses the importance of social distancing and face masks for the safety of you and your neighbor.

The long-ignored stresses of systemic racism are experiencing a resurgence of interest and commitment from more than just those who experience it.

The constraints of quarantine have placed an abundance of stress upon the economy where many manufacturers may never find recovery. The toilet paper industry, however, is finding their lack of stress is primarily experienced by grocery shore shelves meant to hold their product.

The fact remains, we are inundated with strain and tension, and must find new ways to counteract the effects of them.

It reminds me of a story I once heard when attending a synagogue service long ago. The rabbi—an elderly man who missed his calling on the stage—delivered his sermon with this dramatic narrative.

 

Once upon a time, there lived a Jewish man—miserable in his existence and driven to alter it. He traveled to his village rabbi, and once seated face to face, began to unload the cause of his unhappiness.

“You wouldn’t believe the tumult, Rabbi. My wife, she heckles me all day long. My daughters bicker between themselves. I cannot find a moment’s peace. I need your advice. What should I do?”

The rabbi nodded sagely, and looking him straight in the eye, said, “Do you have a cow?”

“Yes,” said the miserable man.

“Then go home. Bring that cow into your house and come back to see me in the morning.”

The miserable man was confused, but did not resist, and carried out the rabbi’s advice. The next morning, the miserable man returned to the rabbi, looking woeful and confused.

“Rabbi, I think there must be some mistake. I took your advice, brought the cow into the house, and had the worst night ever. My wife still heckled, my daughters still bickered, and now as well, the cow has made a mess all over the floor and the whole house stinks. I’m very unhappy. What do I do?”

The rabbi nodded sagely, looked him straight in the eye, and said, “It’s as I thought. Do you have chickens?”

“‘Yes,” said the miserable man.

“Then go home. Bring those chickens into your house with the cow and come back to see me in the morning.”

The miserable man, again confused, carried out the rabbi’s advice. The next morning, he returned to the rabbi, dismal and depressed.

“Rabbi, again, I feel there must be an error, as I took your advice with the chickens, and last night was even worse than I could have imagined. My wife with her heckling, my daughters—such bickering, the cow and her mess, and the chickens—well, the chickens clucked and crowed all night. There are feathers everywhere, and I have been pecked more times than I’ve had hot dinners. I’m terribly unhappy. What do I do?”

The rabbi placed his hand upon the miserable man’s clasped grip. “Do you have any sheep?”

The man nodded, hope filling his face.

“Bring the sheep in with the cow and the chickens and see me in the morning.”

The following morning, the man returned, beleaguered, exhausted, and bleak. “Rabbi, the heckling, bickering, cow’s mess, and chicken clucking had the added awfulness of a night filled with unending bleating. No one can sleep, there is no room, and the place is in shambles!”

The rabbi walked the miserable man to the door, his arm around his shoulder. “There is one last thing you must do. Have you any pigs?”

The miserable man reeled back, his faith in the rabbi’s wisdom beginning to wane on his face. But he did as was advised and returned again the next day.

The man slumped into a chair across from the rabbi, put his head on the table, and announced his defeat. “It was worse than worse. More horrid than anyone could imagine, Rabbi. The heckling, bickering, cow’s mess, clucking, and bleating was joined by a ruckus so unbelievable. The pigs ran amuck of everything—toppling furniture, eating our food, bringing in flies. I cannot stand it anymore. I give up.”

The rabbi put his hands on the miserable man’s shoulders and said, “Go home. Remove all the animals from your house and give it a good cleaning. Come to me tomorrow.”

The following morning, the miserable man appeared at the rabbi’s door looking … happy.

“I don’t know what you did, Rabbi, but I feel wonderful! My wife is so pleased with our house free of animals. My daughters smiled gayly at breakfast. And I slept peacefully, at last. I cannot thank you enough.”

The rabbi walked the contented man to the door and smiled broadly as he said, “There is nothing so simple as to live through misfortune to illuminate one’s blessings. The real point is to not lose sight of them from the beginning.”

 

And I think it’s easy to state unequivocally, that life at the moment feels like we’re living within chaos. But, as has been asserted by the greatest of philosophers, from within crises we experience fog, upheaval, turmoil, and finally clarity.

The stresses we put on systems are often purposeful and meant to reveal where we should place our greatest attention and energy.

I think with dedication, sacrifice, and perseverance, we will increase that which is right at our fingertips and has been the entire time … peace.

~Shelley

For the time being, the blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

On the Cutting Edge of Shear Madness

There is a venerable phrase many of us have heard countless times in our lives:

Doveryai, no proveryai.

Or if your Russian is a little bit rusty, Trust, but verify.

It’s an old proverb American writer Suzanne Massie passed on to Ronald Reagan before he began traveling to Russia to discuss U.S. and Soviet relations during his presidency.

It became for him somewhat of a trademark phrase.

It became a lodestar for many of us, a crutch for a few, but sage advice for all.

A week ago, my hound, Haggis, had none of the typical skepticism that normally washes across his face unless spotting a jar of peanut butter, his leash, or the hind leg of a freshly shot deer in my hands. But this was because he could no longer spot anything.

Literally. His hair had grown to a length where it could serve as an emergency ladder should he be close to a second story window and we had a fire.

So, when he finally heard the hair-raising snippets of my hair-cutting scissors, that skepticism shifted straight into suspicion and finally parked itself at defiance.

I had never cut his locks before, and he believed it was best if we left it that way.

Today, we find a great swath of our population experiencing a crisis of trust.

And why is that? The reasons are many. Understanding them is paramount and will likely shift the way we think, plan, behave, and move forward.

Together, this globe is redefining what life upon this planet is like. We are forced to assess our work, our relationships, our lifestyles, and the unforeseen shape they will morph into down the road.

Over the next several days I employ great determination during my time of internationally urged self-isolation to convince myself and my great hairy hound that I can accomplish the Herculean task of carving through his shrubby mane in the same way most of my fellow humans try to muddle their way through the maze of subterfuge, pretext, and great gobs of misinformation clouding our sight of the truth.

Daily, I place him in an unnatural position and beg him to be still as I scissor away for the space of an hour. I listen to the news: the practitioners, pundits, the press, and the president—each one with a decreasing sense of belief.

I feel Haggis tremble beneath the sound of sharp shears, and I put the scissors down and soothe him with all the ridiculous cooing tones meant to bring forth some ease. But I echo his same tiny twitch of skin when I’ve nipped him with the tip, or when they broadcast some new tally.

Every day certain numbers shoot up, and others slide down. We are warned by some and encouraged by others. Who do we trust? Who should we trust?

With boastful reassurance, I tell Haggis that he’s going to look fine—don’t gaze in the mirror, don’t question my actions, don’t think about it too hard. Trust me.

Each afternoon I hear about people who have heeded and those who’ve just balked. About those who have saved lives and those who have risked them. I wonder if, when this is all over, and I’m face to face with strangers, will I look at them with a fresh question: can I trust you?

And each afternoon I stand from my work, look at the dog, take a deep breath, and exhale with despair.

Good lord, what a mess. I’ve never done this before. And clearly it shows.

I fill him with flattery and maudlin praise, hoping he can’t see through my bluster and swash. But he feels my inexperience. And he knows that whatever my actions, I’ll not feel them as keenly as he does. He discovers at some point—day four or day five—that I’m frustrated with this routine, I’m wishing it over, and I’m unhappy with the results.

But he also knows that there’s no turning back, and this is where his lack of trust in my skills begins to crystallize into disregard.

I am somewhat offended as each day he pulls away from me, refusing to hand me a hoof or his chin.

You’re going to slow.

You’ve made a right mess.

Look here, now I bleed.

I hear him.

I should have left this up to the professionals. Although this is not a choice. We work with what we have, and a large team of experts does not appear at my door.

Each day I scooch the hound outside, toward the mile-long stretch of road between us and the mailbox. I keep my fingers crossed, hoping no one sees as we walk along. Haggis is only mid-way through this pruning, sporting a thick Mohawk down the length of his back, a mop-head, and four legs that are shaved only three-quarters down, making it appear that he is a belligerent teen prancing about in dog-friendly Uggs.

A neighbor stops his truck and rolls his window down slowly. He eyes the two of us with suspicion.

Has he got the virus?

No, I answer. He’s in the middle of a haircut.

Looks like he’s got the virus.

It does my ego and my confidence no favors to receive yet more criticism, and I mope the rest of the way home.

But tomorrow comes, and after convincing Haggis to climb atop the coffee table/barber’s chair once more, I ask myself a critical self-esteem building question:

What would Vidal Sassoon do?

It’s true—it’s not particularly hashtag worthy, but it seemed relatively uplifting for the moment.

And when one is on one’s own, navigating uncharted waters and expecting choppy results, one will search for signs of inspiration, direction, and security wherever one may find it.

(I’m lookin’ at you Dr. Fauci …)

We muddle through and trudge along. We rise to the occasion and make a small difference.

We find places to put our faith: in facts, in evidence, in one another.

And until we emerge on the other side, knackered, shaggy, and injured, we offer kindness if not confidence.

A spoonful of peanut butter can go a long, long way.

Surely the Russians knew that.

~Shelley

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For the time being, the blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.