Monday, April 30, 2012


As I may have mentioned twelve or a hundred times, the sweet spot where smells & stories meet is where this website wants to live. So I thought I'd try to get in the habit of sharing striking smell moments from the books I read. You should always feel welcome to e-mail me snippets of scent description from whatever you're reading these days.

I recently read and adored It Chooses You by empathy superhero Miranda July, and it contained this passage:

The address was a giant old apartment building on Hollywood Boulevard, the kind of place where starlets lived in the '30s, but now it was the cheapest sort of flophouse. It's not that my world smells so good--my house, the houses of my friends, Target, my car, the post office--it's just that I know those smells. I tried to pretend this too was a familiar smell, the overly sweet note combined with something burning on a hotplate thirty years ago. I also tried to appreciate small blessings, like that when we pressed 3 on the elevator, it went up and opened on a floor with a corresponding number 3.

Now I'm reading Carol Anshaw's Carry the One and have already encountered some great smell moments, particularly when it comes to Alice, and her consuming desire for Maude: 

...Standing in the shadows between streetlights was a tall blonde who, as she looked up,  revealed herself to be Maude.

Alice got stuck for a moment, then went to buzz her in. This was a completely surprising event. Since the accident Alice had only seen her once, at the baptism of Carmen and Matt's baby, Gabriel. They gave each other a wide berth. Now here she was in some agitated state, in jeans and a sweatshirt turned inside out. Ten feet tall. Hair a tangle, expression feverish, smelling like lilac and biscuits. If Alice believed in a God she would have asked him: Please give me this.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Nosy Interview: Carrie Tebeau

 Carrie in (part of) The Eagle Nebula from Kitt Peak, © T.A. Rector & B.A. Wolpa

Carrie and I met at the University of Michigan, where she was earning an MFA in Poetry. Around the one-year anniversary of Nosy Girl, Carrie sent me a fascinating e-mail with the subject heading "cross-wired," and has graciously agreed to let me share her reflections here, as a Nosy Interview with a slightly different shape. Carrie recommends The Synesthesia Battery for those wanting to learn more about synesthesia and the book mentioned below.  

[What do you smell like? & What do you like to smell?]

Happy birthday, Nosy Girl. I've been reading with interest for the past year, because to me, smells (and tastes) are a strange thing. I have synesthesia, so experience smells as an amalgam of colors, shapes, and textures. As weird as this may seem, it's equally weird for me to read descriptions of smell that don't have a color/textural element. Now, obviously most people do not smell wine and get fuchsia, and I've learned to link up my sensory experiences with the ways other people label scents, so it's not like I don't know what cinnamon smells like, for instance (a thick line of sienna with curvy edges, which is apparently just cinnamon). If you asked me to smell cinnamon I'd tell you "oh, that's cinnamon," and spare you the extra details. I usually keep it to myself because it's generally sure to elicit raised eyebrows, slow nodding, that kind of thing. But perhaps you'd like to know?

I honestly had no idea I had synesthesia for most of my life. You don't really question the input of your senses; it is what it is. When a Sephora store opened up in the mall near my house when I was in high school, I, like every teenaged girl, couldn't wait to waltz in to that clean, orderly environment, and spritz those little white tags with perfume. But I'd pick up a scent whose description promised a powdery finish, and I'd smell pale blue-ish white cotton balls. I assumed I was deficient at smelling. I most certainly did NOT smell powder; I smelled blue. I assumed my assessment of the smell was plain wrong. This experience convinced me to avoid perfume; I didn't want to wear something that clashed (even this color-doubt was not a clue to me; I'd never heard of synesthesia). I thought I just couldn't smell properly, and I avoided revealing evidence of my inability.

Flash forward a decade, and I'd met Tim, whose family is in the wine business. Dinner at his mom's house involves burying your nose deep in a glass of burgundy and calling out scents. I felt panicked, inexperienced, disabled. Both Tim and I thought this was because I'd never learned to appreciate wine; we started wine school at home, and every time we had wine with dinner, he'd ask "what do you smell?" Fuchsia, I'd say (a deep cloud of it, with wispy edges). Try again, he'd urge. Well, if I got deeper into the smell, the fuchsia cloud rose first, and there was a quieter range of line-drawing peaks, like a mountain range sketched by a kid. Beyond that, I could find chocolate brown dots. Tim would correct me: but do you smell cherries? a bit of acetone? A note of tobacco? I learned to smell wine as an act of translation--notes of cherry are always fuchsia, acetone peaks, tobacco brown dots. But I STILL didn't know this was called synesthesia; my color-smell was a family joke.

It took reading a book (recently!) called Wednesday is Indigo Blue for me to really realize what was going on, and moreover, to understand that most other people don't experience smells like I do. I'm kind of excited to go back to Sephora now that I know to trust the colors and shapes. I know what I smell like (pale misty-morning-in-June blue) and would pick colors to complement that (NEVER powdery scents; their blue clashes with mine. This is why I've always hated what people call "powdery" scents, and why their label for the smell finally makes sense to me). I need to wear yellow, coral, other bright opposites of blue, and never scents that are "low" or brown, or blues that clash with mine (musk can sometimes be a rainy gray-blue, though sometimes it has brown undertones too). It turns out that the perfume notes I've always been drawn to (what other people would call fruity smells, maybe even some light florals) are the ones that WOULD match my smell, so I probably could have effectively chosen perfumes all along.

I like clear smells especially; Tim is the most delightful amber, like actual amber that you could hold up to the light and look through. I once dated a guy in college who was a milky green; the opacity of his sweat nauseated me and doomed our relationship from the start. Forests, sunbaked after rain, are like glasses a prescription too sharp, and the dizzying clarity is exquisite. Cedar and pine are undulating ribbons of green; rivers silvery and serpentine.

Anyway, thanks for what to me is a very interesting window into smelling; reading [Nosy Girl] has been an aid to my own necessary translation efforts.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

hot guy's colon

[image via Laughing Squid]

Somebody noticed that a bunch of folks on Twitter are misspelling cologne to the the delight of malapropism lovers and poop-joke fans alike. Happy weekend!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

nosy recommends: soapwalla deodorant cream

[photo via]

If we're friends, I've probably tried to push this deodorant on you at some point. Emily mentions it in her Nosy Interview (as well as in her great gift guide, while wondering whether deodorant makes a weird gift. I have given deodorant paired with a copy of No More Dirty Looks as a gift--nice but probably also paranoia-inducing. Sorry & you're welcome!). This deodorant is long overdue for a post of its own not so much for its smell (which is pleasant, if a bit lavender-heavy for my tastes), but for its incredible ability to be an all-natural deodorant that actually works! As anyone who has been on a quest for a suitable natural deodorant will tell you, most of them do not work, or work for just a few weeks, or "work" by morphing your own stinkies into some new, maybe even more powerful, stank. Some people are turned off by the application; as you can see, it comes in a pot rather than a stick, so you use your fingers to put it on. But, as Soapwalla creator Rachel Winard herself assures us in a recent, delightful Hairpin interview, "there's nothing weird about touching one's armpits." Maybe you'll even come to enjoy it, along with legions of finger-scooping Soapwalla deodorant cream lovers, all of us smelling really great. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

three for thursday

This photograph! Discovered via @Baratunde and delighting me to no end. Some additional digging reveals that the woman is a performance artist, but she still chopped that onion on that train.

The science behind that beloved old book smell, as explained by a Richard from AbeBooks who pronounces "deterioration" in a pleasing way:

I am fully obsessed with Harmless Harvest's Coconut Water. Be warned: once you try it, you will find it difficult to enjoy other brands of bottled coconut water. This stuff smells (and tastes) so fresh and nutty and yummy; after I've finished drinking, I save the bottles until the smell is gone (always wearing eau de weirdo around here).

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Nosy Interview: Larry Benesh

Larry grills meat in A Fox Fur, a Unicorn, and a Christmas Tree, © Rolf Geissinger

Larry and I met through his lovely wife Rebecca. If you are lucky enough to have dinner at their home, you will be treated to a riot of scrumptious smells, possibly including a whiff of some of Larry's fragrant homemade bitters. While you await your invite, you can learn about Larry's latest concoctions on his blog, Loudtalknliquor.

What do you smell like?
Probably I’m a combination of my surrounding environment and what I put into or on my body. In my case, that is some athletic gear like my various soccer cleats or my surprisingly orange rock climbing chalk bag that looks like I’m a major hippie. While it isn’t officially a piece of my clothing, I do seem to always be wearing a sweater of my orange cat so I better count that in the mix. When not running or playing soccer or climbing, I’m often lazing around on my leather couch playing video games or watching soccer so I’m guessing that has worn off on me. I like to consume all things with crust so maybe I have a scent of croissant. Depending on the time of day, you might detect coffee or Côtes du Rhône. Or a cask of rye. As for products that I wear with scent – there is my Old Spice High Endurance (Sport!) antiperspirant. About once a week or so I use some terrible shampoo that is supposed to help with my rather dry head. Hopefully you don’t catch me on those days since it's rather wet dog like – the rest of the time I indulge in whatever shampoo I’ve picked up from my travels to hotels. I particularly like the W’s Bliss Lemon+Sage or the Westin’s White Tea Aloe. I’ve even sought out and bought a big bottle of the Lemon+Sage when my supply of small travel bottles ran out.

What do you like to smell?
The holy trinity of biscuits, bacon and coffee. I do particularly love summer time smells like Orcas Island, Puget Sound, and a smoky BBQ. Cardamom and cinnamon both have strong lures for me. The pleather seats in my early 80’s Porsche named Little P. And of course, my wife Rebecca. She’s a poet and occasionally wears a perfume called Poême that she bought soon after we graduated from college. But I like the way she smells without that, too.

boom bloom

[Photo by Anna Schuleit, via Colossal, by way of Charlotte]  

What an incredible installation. Wouldn't you have liked to wander through? And what might these rooms have smelled like? 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Nosy Interview: Jessica Langlois

 Jessica blows bubbles in the M81 Galaxy Group Through the Integrated Flux Nebula, © Nicolás Villegas

Jessica Langlois marks the first Nosy Nomination! Jessica was nominated by our mutual friend Elizabeth, who described her friend Jessica as "a terrific and thoughtful writer." Though I haven't met Jessica, I've grown fond of her through her blog, A Supposedly Fun Thing, where my favorite recent post is the sensory-superrich Walnuts, Artichoke, Nettles, Maroni. Follow her on Twitter @langloislane

What do you smell like? 
There was a while, in 2007, when I always smelled like maple syrup. I’d be tented into downward dog in yoga class, then turn my head to the left, dipping my face into my armpit, and breathe in deeply (pranayama!), thinking of pancakes. My friend Steffy Sue had shown me that eating sprouted fenugreek seeds had this effect—nature’s deodorant! Or, alter-odorant. So for most of 2007 I had a little covered box growing fenugreek sprouts in my pantry, rinsed twice daily.

Eventually, this got to be too much of a hassle, so I went back to smelling like cookies. At least, this is what my boyfriend, Aruna, tells me I smell like. Snickerdoodles,he says, sugar cookies with a sprinkle of cinnamon, like the freckles on my cheeks and shoulders. It is very sweet and flattering to be told you smell likecookies, but I’m guessing these pheromones are programmed only for Aruna. To the rest of the world, I believe I smell kind of like most people—tart and sour after three days without bathing (uttanasana!); I do live in Berkeley, after all.

What do you like to smell?
1. Coffee and Charlie perfume. It’s what my mom smelled like when I was a kid. Cross-legged on the floor of her bedroom, I’d watch her get ready for her secretarial jobs, all Snow White with her shoulder-length hair in large, mahogany curls and her lips bright red. I breathed the bitter coffee and sweet perfume; it was the smell of glamour.

2. Cigarette smoke smells like kissing (high school), and Acqua Di Gio and CK One cologne smell like sex (college). All first times, first feelings. I actually don’t like the smell of cigarettes or strong cologne at all. At the tutoring lab where I work, I sometimes want to hang a sign at my station saying “Scent free zone!” like a new-agey jerk. But Acqua Di Gio and CK One still make my mouth rush with water, like walking to the club in the West Village at 1am with a fake ID and low-rise jeans, and summertime dates in minivans to multiplexes. I feel foolish and embarrassed when I step into an elevator with one of those colognes—at once, eighteen again, my face burning red and heat between my legs.

3. Then there’s night blooming Jasmine and woodsmoke. Berkeley smells that sidle up to you—suddenly there and then gone—as you’re walking the quiet, fog-rubbed streets. And clean laundry. That smell belongs to Vienna, to my mother’s best friend’s apartment. Small rooms, white curtains billowing out onto the hot summer cobblestones. Of course, there’s the garage smell—gas dryer, car exhaust, rubber beach balls—which is my grandparents’ old house. Afterschool and summers at their neighborhood pool, plucking strawberries from the cracks in the sidewalk… always passing through that garage. (Do I only smell things in summer?)

4. My Grandmother. I found her smell recently. On a set of towels she no longer needed and gave to me. The towels’ smell, like Grandma, is crisp—no florals, no perfumes, no frills—but has a musty softness, like warm sun on aged wood. It’s probably just the brand of soap Grandma uses, or laundry detergent, that I’m smelling, something (like her Gordon’s gin for her four o’clock martinis on the rocks) that she hasn’t changed in thirty years. Except, I remember the same smell in the cream carpet of their old house, in the polished wood of the Seventies’ bookshelves with snap drawers, in the tweed TV room couch. It could be a trick of my mind, the memory of this smell, a longing for a tether to those artifacts of my childhood. Or the smell in the towels could truly just be… Grandma. Crisp at first, then soft.

Monday, April 2, 2012

green mountain air

A couple of weeks ago, my main squeeze and I took a road trip through Vermont and it smelled great. The nosy highlight was definitely Plummer's Sugar House, a maple syrup operation we visited just outside of Grafton.  Two kind, bearded Vermonters showed us how the syrup makes its way down from the trees and let us stand there with them while the small outbuilding filled with the syrupiest, warmest steam. Everything icy outside was melting, but the warmth of that cement-floored room somehow made me more aware of the cold smells outside; the snow, the dirt, the gravel. I could have stood there all day. I asked the owner if he noticed the smell anymore and he said not at all, never, not even on his clothes when he leaves.

LemonUp next to "Gee, Your Hair Smells Terrific" at the Vermont Country Store
The Vermont Country Store, ur-general store, also yielded loads of nosy delights, including LemonUp Shampoo and Conditioner (pictured above) which smelled so exactly like a sucked-on Lemon Drop candy that it was difficult to resist the urge to pour the product directly down my throat. Isn't the bottle fantastic? Why can't I get my fussy all-natural stuff in bottles like these (made from corn-plastic, please)?

Sugar, milk, milk, cream, & cream at Ben & Jerry's

We also managed to visit both a deliciously fragrant chocolate factory and Ben & Jerry's headquarters, where there wasn't much to smell, to be honest. I'd previously read that it's actually due in part to Ben Cohen's anosmia that Ben & Jerry's ice creams rely so much on texture provided by all those chunks and swirls, but I forgot to ask about this during the tour as I was too enchanted watching pints of Jimmy Fallon's Late Night Snack come off the line, get their lids, and do a little flip before disappearing out of sight. Also, the tour was loaded with puns, and I have a soft spot for puns (I hold myself back so hard around here!) so I was pretty focused on enjoying those and imagining which flavor we'd get to sample at the end of the tour (Milk & Cookies, totally scrumptious). It was warm enough to sit outside with our ice cream cones, and I was struck by how the sky looked just as it does on Ben & Jerry's packaging, perfect cartoon blue. The bright sun melted the last of the snow but not our ice cream cones, and spring smells bloomed green all around us.