Speechless for Smells

Why is it we have words for sounds and colors but not for smells?

I know what a banana smells like: it smells like the object it’s named for. It doesn’t smell yellow. And I can only further define the smell, based on the adjective of the name of the object, like unripe or ripe or overripe. Why isn’t there more of a science of smell?

On a piano, the key of A above middle C rings in at 440 Hertz and occupies a distinct notational space on the treble clef. The note “A” is often used as a tuning frequency. (Hear the violins in the orchestra warming up?) People with perfect pitch can hear someone singing or playing notes and name each one. For example, my piano teacher will tell me the last note she hears me play as she waits outside for me to let her in for my next hour of torture. She may say, “That was E-flat and your piano needs to be tuned.” Our Western music scale, all twelve notes zipping through an octave, say from C to C, stepping up and down from sharp to natural to flat, like a boot camp obstacle course, is called the chromatic scale.

Moving from ear sense to eye sense, there’s chromatics, the study of color. As with sounds, we have words for colors. Nothing beats opening a sixty-four box of crayons for the first time and experiencing the fabulous visual assault of cornflower blue duking it out with magenta, all those colors screaming Pick Me (and only one smell: crayon). We have names for particular bands of color, starting with Mr. Roy G. Biv (red orange yellow green blue indigo violet). We’ve studied the electromagnetic radiation of color such that we know wavelengths, frequencies, and energies all along the color spectrum. They have unique scientific notations (you can nail a particular shade of red down to its nanometer, Hertz, kiloJoule configuration)  that make it easy for us to define, name, communicate a particular color. And I’m sure some interior designer has named that particular frequency Tuscan Red, or something. (Red, incidently, occupies a frequency interval of 430-480 teraHertz. So Nathaniel Hawthorne was prescient, coming up with that scarlet letter A for his adultering little number, the unfortunate Hester Prynne, and the creepy village that tuned her up.)

Onto the nose. Awkward organ. Smell scientist Noam Sobel of the Weizman Institute of Science in Israel has been trying to find the cogs and wheels of our olfactory mayhem (as are plenty of other scientists around the world, as a quick PubMed search shows). Sobel has snatched some of the olfactory  molecules that latch onto olfactory receptors–we have a thousand of such smelly receptor types–attached to nerve endings in our nose, which, thus excited, ship electric signals to the brain which, in turn, produces a smell. Seems like it all happens in the nose, right? In any case, I believe the nostril’s the only place in our nervous system where nerves hit fresh air. Kind of like how our teeth are the only visible part of our skeletal system, hopefully.

Sobel is trying to sniff out a relationship between the structure of odor-producing molecules and their resulting smell. He has a database of 1,500 such molecules and a staggering catalog of 1,664 traits: their size, the strength of the chemical bonds between their atoms, and so on. (I thank Carl Zimmer, of Discover Magazine, May 2010, for this bit of nosiness.) So, for example, how tightly the atoms are packed determines the size of the molecule. These sizes are ranked on a continuum, and the farther apart molecules are from each other, the easier it is for folks to tell them apart by odor. Now I wish Carl articulated this concept better: Are the tiny, packed molecules the stinky ones? Odors grow more pleasant toward one end of the molecule-size continuum: Which end is it? How do I know which way to turn? I should probably read closer to the source but that would take me out of my current space-time continuum: http://www.jneurosci.org/content/27/37/10015.long .

Sobel’s whole endeavor shows us that we use another quality to define smell, besides the name and adjective of the overripe object, and that is whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant. We have the word (banana), the adjective (overripe), and the subjective emotion (yechh).

But still no word for the actual smell. Just circumstantial evidence.

Does anyone want to invent a lexicon for smell?  Have we a sniffsmith equivalent of the umamis of tastebud lore? A nasal lexicon, anybody, beyond ‘it stinks’? First we have to isolate the odoriferous molecule that occurs in both sheet-seasoned male sweat and bleu cheese, well, and maybe stale peanuts, and give that particular molecule ONE name, like swepeanche, and go from there. It’s going to be a lot of work. Because, really, we should have a word for everything.

Sobel is working on a digital transmission of smell. With a digital grid of sorts, perhaps we will eventually say “that smell is like a good ‘locus P-440’!” and someone will punch that in and know what we mean. His e-nose stuff is at http://tinyurl.com/6qkbuc3.

I have a couple friends who have to smell EVERYTHING; they are supersmellers, not unlike the supertasters, and their brain-olfactory maps should be digitized and perhaps connected to this digital grid I’m imagining Sobel’s cooking up, for the preverbal, electronic definition we’re headed for, first, for smells. Then our supersmellers can tell us if swepeanche is accurately coded before we go bleach the sheets. And for the record, it’s not fair to blame males for that sweat smell (I had six brothers, sorry). It’s an odor-producing molecule belched from a harmless bacteria, not to be confused with a fun-guy.

I saw a grownup

Grownups always seemed so weird to me. Fluffy or thin hair, paunches, cigarette-and-coffee breath. They had all the power. They intrigued and perplexed me all too early. I questioned and observed them, when I was still supposed to respect them unquestioningly .

If they weren’t so flawed, I wouldn’t have noted their existence, at such an early age. I would have simply evolved into one, maybe even tried to be like one. But I couldn’t just do that. I’d gotten frozen into wondering what one was and remained the perpetual observer.

I just realized, the other day, that I am probably older, now, than half of the world’s population. The other half of the population is probably younger than I. What a scary concept! That now I have to entrust the young with my future, i must depend on them for my world. (Can they handle global warming?) What’s worse?

One thing I noticed, when I was little, is that some grownups were fakers. They really didn’t know. They really weren’t wise, I could tell.

We’re all born into this gig and many of us don’t know how to perform once it’s time for us to perform. It was so obvious, to me, the performances.

My mother fed, clothed (reasonably), and sheltered us. She didn’t help with life. I sensed she was just as confused. But she wasn’t a charlatan; she was a human caught in the crossfire of life (single mother of 8 whose husband left, long before the divorce) and doing her damnest by us.

So what makes a grownup?

I think I saw one. I’d met him in his early 20s. Still a Stanford undergraduate when I met him then, so I knew him 20 years ago. All the sudden, I saw him two decades later. We met with a group of friends for dinner.

So when you don’t see someone for two decades, you notice some things. things that have changed. What I remembered is that he had darting eyes. Questing eyes. Lights shooting out of his eyes. curious eyes. Nothing was sure. he had so much to prove, but only after exploration, and he’d get back to you on that, because he was confident, sure, but truly he didn’t know.

When I met him, two decades later, I couldn’t stop looking at his eyes.

The light was steady, calm. Calm. He wasn’t seeking anymore, and he didn’t need anyone to acknowledge or confirm his quest for existence, his quest, at least, for competence. He had arrived at some place in life.

But as the conversation grew, and facts–long, old dried-out facts, but with modern implications arose, i swear I saw a sparkle. An old interest. A raison d etre if only for the dinner conversation. Because that is the old useless spark that strikes, unawares, when you least need it but enlivens your soul. A dim light when all is given up, grown up. But when I peered into his eyes, engaged, I noted only a steady, proving calm: an insistence that ‘I am grown up.’

Did he know that? was that his aim, too?

Ovary Puree

Red ripe garden tomatoes. Yes, we know they’re fruit. In fact, they’re ovaries. Yes, fruit are the ovaries in the plant world, sorry to break it to you.

Plucking each tomato’s genetic lineage right off the vine, yesterday, hoping to end it in a lasagna, I filled my basket.  (Sure, I could harvest the pesky little seeds and start over next year, but I hate tomatoes. I planted them for a friend coming to visit from Switzerland this summer and now I have hoards of them.)

When I was little, just the smell of a fresh tomato triggered my gag reflex. I could pick chunks out of salad, but if a slimy seed stowed away under a lettuce leaf and managed to breach my mouth, I had the sensation and flavor of a corpulent garbage truck trailing that stinky trashy piss-water down a dusty alley that joined with mouldering leaf run-off to trickle a confluence of inexplicable expletives into my mouth.

In other words, probably allergic, but only to the raw acid. How could nature be so mean, masking something so foul-tasting in such a festive color.

Tomatoes and deadly nightshade are cousins, and that says it all: Lurking among their shared genes from the family Solanaceae is the gene for foul and deadly taste.

Cooked is just peachy. I love pasta, pizza, bouillabaisse all the way down to the humble tomato soup, anything red! red! red! No chunks, tho, please.

How was I ever to process these little beasts? My first attempt, I threw them in boiling water, then mooshed them hotly through a sieve, grinding their shiny backs with a marble pestle, tossing the seedy detritus. Soup tasted like battery acid.

For the second attempt, I decided to drain all the acidic juice. In fact, I could save and make fresh tomato juice, if I wanted to pull a Hamlet on the last scene. (“No, no, the drink, the drink,–O my dear Hamlet,–The drink, the drink! I am poison’d.” -Queen Gertrude, taking the first quaff)

This time, I turned off the boiling water, let the monsters bob for a couple minutes, then plunged them into an ice bath (to preserve my flesh this time), and then coolly skinned them alive, noting the lurid magenta flesh beneath the otherwise tomato-red skin. Initially, I had lopped the tomatoes in half and scooped the seed from all the tiny labial cavities, reserving the flesh for the food processor blade. What a waste of time!

Inspecting where I never dared peered before, though, I could plainly see that the seeds nested in oblong mucous pods just inside the periphery of my particular tomato variety, especially if I peeled down the outside layer. All I had to do was grip the skinned red ovary in two hands and squish! The subcutaneous seedy mucous came squirting violently out the bottom and top, nearly putting out my eye (“out vile jelly, where is thy luster now” –Lear) but leaving only a few loiterers to scrape from within.

I rototilled the meaty flesh, simmered the puree, then thew in sauteed shallots, garlic, ground turkey and beef, jalapeno, shredded eggplant, carrot, zucchini, and basil; layered it up with spinach, real, expensive mozarella, aged cheddar, jack, and freshly grated parmesan, sea salt, peppercorns, and a bit of thyme and oregano hopefully not harboring minibugs from my organic garden. And the teeniest smidge of cinnamon, a trick I learned from my daughters’ Top Chef summer camp, ostensibly disgusting, but does indeed add just a bit of complexity.

My husband and I were on a lycopene high. Had to have a couple glasses of a big red to bring us back down.

I could dig the seeds out of the compost, plant them, and squeeze more ovaries next year. But tomatoes, I am sure, are vicious viners, whether I retrieve them from the compost bucket or no. As soon as we mulch our fruit trees with our cooked compost, we will probably go out and find some volunteer Jill in the Tomato stock climbing our peaches, strangling them to get back at me.

Omelet Units

I’ve finally turned the corner, after two weeks of either viral meningitis (can’t test for that, tho the spinal tap showed inflammation) or a bad reaction to not resting after oral surgery.

Just a simple tooth extraction and bone graft. My inner world can be so chaotic that I ground myself by grinding my teeth in my sleep. A firmly clenched jaw apparently keeps me tethered under the troposphere but also can fracture a molar clear down to the mantle.

  • Tip 1: A Doctor’s Nightguard ($30 at retail pharmacies) is cheaper than extraction and implant ($3500).
  • Tip 2: An implant costs as much as a family cruise to the Mayan Riviera.
  • Tip 3: The Mayan Riveria is a hotter, trendier destination than an oral surgeon’s chair with tools.
  • Tip 4: If you are a grinder and haven’t broken a molar yet, buy the mouthguard and treat yourself to a cruise, complete with gourmet lobster dinners and complementary champagne. You deserve it. The only headache you’ll get is a hangover, which actually responds to pain killers and leaves you alone a lot faster.

My dentist says grinders make him very rich.

On the third day waking and barely able to speak, move my head, blink without pain, I went to the ER and enjoyed cruising Curious-George style down corridors for my CT-scan. I wanted to cry out “wheee” and wreak havoc, but I wasn’t up to it.

Could you just decapitate me to relieve the pressure? I asked Mark, the ER doc, who was slightly nervous with Charlie lingering nearby (voted San Diego’s best doc for three years, with the bennie that I get to call all medical personnel by their first names). Mark said that’d bring up other issues.

Trepanation? I countered. No, Mark said, that has side effects, too.

Well, it worked for ancient Mesoamericans. Or maybe not. In the Museum of Man I saw lots of ancient skulls with triangles and squares carved out with the surgical equivalent of Stone Age hand axes; whoever goes through that kind of pressure relief without anesthesia (OK, maybe there was some loco herb involved) must have had a whopper of a headache. Either way, they were gonna die.

I’ve been able to cut back on pain killers these past two days; the splitting disabling headache has turned into vague twinges and mush. I am embarrassingly not sharp. (I can hear my brothers jumping on that one.)

But—yay—I went outside into the garden on Thursday, my first foray out of bed. I propped some weighty steroidal tomato vines, then shuffled right back to that other bed. After two weeks of forced bed rest I have NO core strength left! Wah! It hurts my back to stand or move about for more than 10 or 15 minutes.

I cooked an omelet yesterday and discovered my strength/endurance time can be measured in omelet units. That’s all I’m good for. Back to horizontal!

Poor poor Charlie still has to do ALL the cleanup. Yin-yang: always a silver lining (not to be confused with mercury filling; isn’t it comforting that “mercurial,” after the Roman god Mercury, refers to the erratic, volatile, unstable? My grinding probably trips the Richter).

No silver lining for Chas, working 10- to 12-hour days outside the home. He’ll ask for the next headache.

Yoga? Oh my god. I can only make the last pose. Corpse pose.

I’ll try to show my face at this Saturday’s class, tho I’m not sure my brain can take any pressure. Usually I’m happiest upside-down.

I figure doing lots of omelet-unit reps in household/gardening tasks this week should bring some strength and Charlie back. Can’t wait to go outside and hang.