Farts and flowers – that’s a good enough place to start.
You would think that being unable to smell either one would equal an inability to experience either one, but it’s not true.
There are all kinds of flowers, and when they are fresh and colorful, I’m really pretty good at picking them out. I run under the assumption that all flowers smell fantastic, even though I know that’s not true. There’s a gargantuan five foot flower at UC David which blooms about every fifteen years, and reeks like it’s been digesting a pig the whole time. An even bigger one in England takes sixty or seventy years to bloom, and it stinks even more.
But when I’m simply picking up flowers for the wife, I don’t need to worry about it. I just tell the florist lady or the florist dude, what’s Marilyn’s favorite color, and how much money would fall out of my pockets if you shook me upside down. Walk on out with some pretty sweet flowers.
And sure, not experiencing farts is a good thing, except I do get to experience them. But all I have to experience are the hilarious sounds, and then the pandemonium that erupts, if I ate four hard-boiled eggs and some dried herring earlier.
When you can’t smell, there’s not much funnier than letting fly in a moving car in the winter time, windows up. Like sitting on a mountain, watching society collapse. Super villain-style Excellent.
Still, you hang around me enough and you start to notice that I don’t respond to farts or flowers. Or bakeries or skunks or strong perfume or weak perfume or anything. And for some reason, when I finally tell you that I can’t smell anything, and that it’s called anosmia, and that as far as I know, I was born that way, you’ll be skeptical.
You’ll think, oh, he’s just pretending he can’t smell, to – I guess – gain all the social notoriety that comes along with it.
Often, you’re in mid-story, and there was an element of smell in it. Something direct, like you’ll say, “You know how a cooler of fish smells, when you leave it in your trunk for a month?”
Or one of our mutual pals says, “You know, Tom here can’t smell!” Like I’m a freaking vegan or something. And then they’ll wander off, thinking, ice broken, my work is done here.
Or you’ll hold out a jug of milk at me and say, “Smell this.” Even if you’re my mom.
If this is our first time going over the concept, you’ll be skeptical, and I have no idea why. You might even say something outrageous, like, “Well, you’d be able to smell THIS!”
Does anyone ever do that to a blind guy? You see him sitting there with his dog and his cane and his sunglasses, and you what? Run up and wave your hand in front of him? Make a terrified face, and point over his shoulder? Get out your laser pen? Kick his dog?
Sure, you’re deaf, but you can hear boat horns and the weird, plump, yodeling Irish lady from one of those shows, where they sing and then people insult them, right?
So we’ll spend a couple of minutes really hammering down the concept.
You might list some things you’ve experienced, things which really stink, and I’ll patiently or impatiently tell you that no, I can’t smell those either, because I can’t smell anything, and those are things.
Or you might try to trick me into revealing my secret sense of smell, maybe sit right next to me and unleash a silent one, watching my face for subtle twitches, cracks in my poker face. If you’re the last doctor I saw about it, you’ll have a sly little sponge full of something apparently super medically stinky, and you’ll suddenly, from behind me, stick it in my face on tongs, going “AH HA! But surely you can smell THIS!”
The good news about the doctor by the way, is that the stinky smell sponge is like an eye chart to him – experiment over, this guy can’t smell. So that’s four hundred dollars please, and no, we can’t fix you. Wash your clothes a lot, and have your kids smell the milk.
But even if you’re not a doctor, sooner or later, you’ll concede the point. Whether you really believe it or not, you’ll accept it with the grudging tone of a judge, considering a motion from a sleazy lawyer. Hmm, you say, I’m going to go ahead and allow it.
And then out loud, you’ll say, “Can you taste?”
Sometimes if you’re feeling more hostile and accusatory, you’ll say, “So. You can’t taste.” Looking at me like you just beat the shit out of me at checkers or something.
And I’ll say, “Yes, I can taste,” and you’ll throw your hands up in the air, because then the world doesn’t make sense anymore.
You might, at this point, think about throwing me a beating, just on general principle. More likely, you’ll tell me about how you feel when you have a cold, and how you can’t taste anything. And because I know that you have to go through the process, I’ll just sit there and let you tell me all about it. Exploring the concept of anosmia turns out to be pretty stressful for some folks. Talking about how you feel when you have a cold seems to help – I don’t like to rush it.
When you’re finished, I’ll tell you, listen. If I put a blindfold on you for two days, you won’t be able to see. But you’ll be able to remember seeing, so the experience is much different for you than any two average days in the life of a bona fide blind guy. The fact is, taste and smell are actually two different senses with different sets of nerves. When you eat, you normally smell and taste the food at the same time. So you associate certain odors with certain tastes.
When they’re gone, the taste seems pretty bland, like if the banjo player and the fiddle player stop, but the last guy keeps blowing on the jug.
You can still hear the guy playing the jug. You’re just thinking, man, I miss that fiddle and that banjo. Who can blame you?
But if you’ve been sitting around on your porch every night with no music at all other than Zeke and his jug, you develop a pretty serious appreciation for Zeke. You get a little offended, when people act like Zeke’s not even there. It’s pretty hard, in fact, to take people seriously, when they’re basically talking about invisible banjo and fiddle players, whose absence should be making my life empty and sad.
Usually, you’ll take one more stab at it. What about goat urine? Or that super cheese from French caves? Old-fashioned body temperature vomit?
No, I’ll remind you. Those are things. I can’t smell things.
And by now, most people reach the Acceptance stage – they agree to acknowledge my anosmia, and to also acknowledge my crappy but definitely still there sense of taste. And then they kind of look at my thick glasses, pretty blatantly adding up the number of senses on my face that actually work, and they give me the old, what-are-you-still-doing-in-the-gene-pool look.
The look I always give back is, tell me about it, I have no idea.
Still, your journey toward Belief In Tom’s Anosmia is not complete, because you’ll have a kernel of doubt in the back of your mind someplace. You will have been through it, rationally, so you won’t tell me about it. But I’ll notice that you’re squinting a little bit, that your nod is curt and insincere as you tell me, sure, I got it.
And if our relationship survives the tests of time, then the day will arrive when you and Future Tom are sitting around, and something unbelievably stinky happens. The guy from the city who scrapes up animal carcasses from the side of the road – he’ll crash his truck into the patio we’re sitting on. Or there will be a chemical spill. Or a crew of dudes wearing so much Axe Body Spray comes in that our eyes start watering, and Future Tom will mutter something about pollen counts and allergies.
Something will happen, and it’s a shame that it has to. But when it does you’ll see me there, sitting in front of the crazy stinky thing happening behind me, and I’ll be so completely and obviously unaware of it, you’ll raise your arms in the air, elated and fulfilled by your newfound faith in my freakish, no-way-to-get-cash-from-the-government-for-it disability.
You almost always say it out loud then, when your faith arrives. “Holy Christmas. You really CAN’T smell!”
From then on, you’ll be the one to feel free to break the ice by smacking me on the chest with the back of your hand, and telling everyone, “You know, this guy can’t smell a damn thing. Discuss.”
And what I’m going to do from now on when that happens is get out my phone, and just send the link. Future Tom’s been doing an all right job so far, and one thing he and I have in common, is this conversation right here. So I think he’ll appreciate it.