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.


Anonymous said...

This is so interesting.. Wow. This makes me want to learn more about synesthesia myself. Thank you, Carrie.

ggslancaster said...

Very interesting post! I am new to Nosy Blog, and can't wait to read more.

I learned about synesthesia from the YA novel "A Mango Shaped Space" by Wendy Mass, which is a coming of age story about a girl who has difficulty in school due to her perceptions of numbers and words as colors, and like Carrie, she doesn't realize for a long time that others don't have the same sensory perceptions she does. It was published in 2005. --Gail

nosy girl said...

Thanks for stopping by, Gail! I hope you'll enjoy some other Nosy Interviews as well.

Thanks also for the book recommendation--always welcome around these parts!

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