Saturday, January 30, 2010

Hot Dogs and Forbidden Fruit

When the weather is as grey and muddy as it has been this January, my kids tend to get cabin fever, so as an antidote, I took the boys to eat lunch and play at the indoor playground in the mall. We sat at a table right outside the GNC store. The store windows were decorated with larger-than-life black-and-white posters of athletic bodies exposing lots of taut, shiny skin. The posters were surrounded by sober ads for supplements and weight loss drinks and weight gain drinks and “super-food” bars. I had to laugh. Next to those gods and goddesses of bodily health, we were enjoying (yes, enjoying) a delightful lunch of hot dogs and generic Cheetos.

The juxtaposition between those ultra-serious advertisements and our fun-filled little repast was downright comical. While my boys and I licked fake cheese off of our artificially orange fingers, I got quite a kick out of watching the women in tight jeans and the men in tight shirts parading into the nutrition store. In fact, the delight it gave me was almost excessive. Those black-and-white posters of hot bods dressed in Spandex were perfectly joyless when compared with the cheery, little ketchup-smeared faces in front of me. With us were all the smiles, all the color, all the joie de vivre. With them, only sexy pouts glaring into the middle distance and daring me to feel guilty for the greasy meal I’d set before my children.

But "guilty" is exactly what I refuse to feel. I don't plan on making Cheetos and hot dogs a daily staple of our diet, but neither am I living in fear of the "long term side effects" from an occasional dose of nitrates and food coloring. Worrying is bad for my health. Rock-hard abs and buns of steel are fine, if that's your cup o' tea. (Although displaying them in Spandex shorts at twice life size is another thing....) But pursuing the ultimate body or the perfect metabolism is not my only goal in life. It's not even a major goal.

Of course I want to be healthy. Of course it's better not to be out of breath just walking from the car to the couch. Of course I want my kids to live for a long time. Of course I'd rather not have my family suffer from disease. But there's so, so much more to good health—bodily and otherwise—than what I put into my mouth every day. However, from some of the conversations I've heard and articles I've read, you'd almost think that food was both the root cause and the ultimate solution to every kind of evil.

Given all the money and time and effort we put into our food, it's not surprising that we have strong opinions on the subject. And I think it’s good that we give some thought to what and how we eat. But something else seems to be going on here. Food has become a topic that is almost too hot to touch.

From Julie & Julia to Food, Inc., we're fascinated enough by food to pay exorbitant prices to watch movies about it. There's an entire television network devoted to it. A huge, adoring crowd showed up at WSU this month to hear Michael Pollan speak on the subject. We have chefs with celebrity status. We have major cities legislating whether we're allowed to buy a cookie made with shortening.  And then there are food books and food magazines and food discussion groups and food manifestos and food blogs. We are, in a word, obsessed.

Don't get me wrong. I love food—from homegrown tomatoes to Hostess Ding Dongs. But it's because I love food that I hate so much the way we've distorted it into something overbearing and monstrous. Instead of consuming food, we're letting it consume us. We're food fanatics. Cuisine cops. Nutrivangelists. The Gourmet Gestapo. Casually mention in mixed company (only as a hypothetical social experiment, of course) that you fed Twinkies to your children for breakfast, and wait for the sharp intake of breath and the stunned silence to follow.

Because we won't allow food to play its proper role as a source of strength, pleasure, and culinary imagination, food has become a real point of contention: You use margarine instead of butter? Your lettuce isn't organically grown? You cook in a non-stick skillet? Your peanut butter has corn syrup in it? You buy milk from the grocery store? Your bread comes in a plastic bag? Don't you know the myriad sins you've committed (you hard-hearted, environmentally insensitive, nutritionally ignorant food-heathen)?

The way people sometimes talk, you'd think that eating the forbidden fruit was only a minor mistake when compared with the unforgivable crime of eating genetically modified apples. White flour and homogenized milk are the new hellfire and brimstone, and the only "sins" that ever come up in conversation seem to be related to chocolate cake. Everyone seems to be laboring under a burden of guilt that has more to do with transfats than with transgressions.

Just take a look at the way women's magazines are emblazoned with with "guilt-free" recipe headlines—right alongside "sinfully decadent" desserts.  And the absolution for all of our corn-syrupy trespasses? More food, of course.

I found this description on a cup of yogurt that I bought not long ago: "Spoon. Savor. Stretch. Sigh. Trust calming notes of lavender to satisfy the senses and soothe the soul."

Soothe the soul? Right. So if I'm crushed with Chicken McNugget guilt; if I'm sorrowing over pesticide sins; if I'm living in biotech fear, the solution to my guilt, sin and fear is...yogurt? Pardon me while I search for the nearest complimentary air sickness bag. The yogurt was tasty, but the quasi-religious marketing pitch makes me rather sick.

And yet… This food-based salvation message does appear to be just near enough to the truth to make it particularly persuasive to our spiritually vapid culture. I know that organic brown rice will not save my soul from damnation in the lake of fiery fryer grease, but at the same time, food and drink are very near the true Salvation message: Body broken (bread broken); Blood shed (wine poured). True Gospel is all tied up with a meal.

We are all hungry, I think, for the True Bread. But the problem is that we think we can find it at the Co-Op bakery. And so the Co-Op bakery suddenly takes on an importance far beyond providing a nice bagel to go with our morning coffee.

The True Bread unites us.  But we have we allowed Wonder Bread to divide us. We're too busy cat-fighting about the Nutrition Facts printed on the side of the package (Package? What package?) to rejoice in what we have so bountifully received. We let ourselves complain about our spouses, lie on our taxes, ignore our kids, and gossip about our neighbors. But God forbid that we should allow any government subsidized corn product to cross our lips.

In other words, our priorities are all in a big tangle.

We've stepped beyond dietary prudence into the realm of dietary paranoia. My most recent issue of Martha Stewart Living has a whole article devoted to identifying "dangerous" produce and encouraging me to check 5-digit barcodes for the demonic number 8. I talked to one mother who won't serve cake at her kids' birthday parties because of all the empty calories and refined whatnots it contains. We're all so worried about staying alive that we're forgetting how to live.

I may, possibly, be two percent more likely to have thyroid problems if I eat a Twinkie than if I abstain. But I know for a fact that I'm thousands of times more likely to be hit by a bus if I leave the house than if I were to stay in bed all day. But does that keep me from stepping out the door? Hardly. I have a life to live.

Ah, there's the rub. That's the thing about living: It'll kill you. But who of you by worrying can add a single day to your life?

Instead of worrying and feeling guilty over eating hot dogs rather than hummus, I should be thanking God for the joy and unity that comes from sharing food of all sorts around a table. To paraphrase Proverbs, better is a dinner of hot dogs and Cheetos where love is than a bowl of sustainably grown quinoa with hatred. I am not going to hyperventilate over what I eat. My salvation does not depend upon it. So after breathing into a brown paper bag for a few minutes, lets fill that brown paper bag with lunch, shall we?

God's bounty is vast enough to include Cheetos and chèvre, hot dogs and hummus. There's a whole world of flavors and textures—of edible joy—left to be discovered, and I'm never going to sample more than the minutest fraction of it before I die. (This is one of the many reasons to look forward to the resurrection of the body and not just the immortality of the soul; my taste buds will live into eternity. Glory.) Food, in its rightful role, is a blessing and a delight.

Therefore, under the disapproving gaze of the black-and-white GNC gods, I can laugh with ketchuppy lips and lick salty orange fingers with my children. Contrary to popular belief, I am allowed to eat my Cheetos with joy and drink my Diet Coke with a merry heart. A merry heart, after all, doeth good like a medicine.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Digital Muse

While we're on the subject... As I was writing the last post about digital communication it crossed my mind that the great stories of history and literature—and of our own lives—might have been drastically altered by 21st century communications technology. For example:

Remember that fateful letter from Friar Lawrence to Romeo, telling him that Juliet was only mostly dead? The one that arrived too late? If Shakespeare had instead given each of those two men a Motorola Razr, timely communication would have been established and tragedy turned into comedy. ...Except that the Capulets and Montagues would have continued biting their thumbs at one another until the world's end.

Or how about Robinson Crusoe? If he'd made a satellite phone call from the sinking ship, he might have been rescued about 28 years sooner. And nobody would ever have cared much about his survival story. Oh, and Friday would never have been rescued from murderous cannibals.

Then there's the whole Midnight-Ride-of-Paul-Revere thing. One if by land, two if by sea? Totally unnecessary. "Through the night went his cry of alarm, to every Middlesex village and farm"? A waste of breath. Just text it, Paul, and all those colonial farmers will be ready with their muskets and their night-vision goggles.

And if Odysseus had bought matching iPhones for Penelope and himself before heading off to battle the Trojans, the trip home would have taken on an entirely different tone:
P: Honey, where are you? I left you like ten voice mails yesterday. 
O: Long story, Penny. After a rough day on the wine-dark sea, we took a pit stop on some island. I had already checked Google Maps, and I told the guys that there was a nice, authentic Greek gyro joint on the next island, but did they listen? They were so hungry for a steak, they just couldn't wait. They came across this herd of grass-fed, free-range cattle and just went nuts with their battle axes—had a big ol' Texas barbecue.
P: Typical men.
O: Yeah, well, it gets worse. It turned out that those cows belonged to Helios the Sun god. Seriously bad news. Let's just say I'll be home a bit later than we'd planned. I'll tell you all about it in dactylic hexameter when I get there.

Poetic, no?

It seems pretty clear to me that our modern hyper-connectedness would have drained a lot of the color from many of history's best stories. And even from my own life's stories.

When I was 13, my family lived in Kenya for 6 months. Without a cell phone. Or a home phone connection, for that matter. My dad did have a phone at his office, but the line would mysteriously go dead whenever he mentioned anything negative about events taking place in the country at the time. E-mail was in its infancy, and few people ever thought of communicating via computer. (This is making me feel old.) Our contact with home was minimal and normally involved letters that might take weeks to arrive.

While we lived there, a day came when my brother and I could not get home from school because of a riot taking place in the city through which we needed to travel. Cars and trucks—so loaded with people that the bumpers nearly touched the road—were streaming out of the town, and ours was the only car going toward it. Our driver stopped to ask what was happening, but we could only get hints and rumors. A few people said that they had fled because everybody else was doing it. So we waited. Meanwhile, news of tear gas and gunshots spread through the surrounding area, and my parents had no way of finding out where we were—or whether we were alive. For a few nervous hours they felt the way that many Haitian parents must be feeling now: fearful and wondering where their children might be. With today's technology, a quick text message could have told my parents that we were safe, and spared them those hours of distress. But then we wouldn't have had much of a story to tell afterward. Every good story involves some kind of conflict or tension waiting to be resolved. Who wants to hear about the day that started happy, went along happily, and ended with smiles all around? I want to live that day. But I don't want to hear about it. Without those hours spent in fear, this story wouldn't be worth telling. And a cell phone, I'm quite sure, would have removed the uncertainty that made the afternoon memorable.

Another event that my sons love for me to recount is the day in 1998 when I was driving alone through the barren wasteland of Central Washington and slid off the highway into a field. My car came to a stop directly on top of an ancient, rusty plough that was half-buried in the dirt. After trying everything I could to free myself from the grip of that antique piece of machinery (4-wheel-drive, reverse, digging, pushing), I only managed to spin my tires deeper into the dust. I was stranded and clearly needed help. With a cell phone, I would have let my fingers do the walking. Without one, my feet had to do it.

The nearest sign of civilization was a dilapidated farm house about 40 yards away. I waded shakily through the dry grass, climbed up the steps onto the collapsing porch and knocked insistently on the ripped screen door. A couple of hung-over teenage boys dragged themselves off of their bare living room mattresses to answer my persistent pounding. "The party ended like three hours ago," they informed me. When I explained my situation  and asked for a phone, they said that theirs had been disconnected for months. In an act of selfless heroism, they pulled on some shoes and walked back with me to my car. After helping me try unsuccessfully to push it off the plough, they shrugged and walked back to the house to sleep off the last night's beer binge. But before they did, they sent me to search for a man who was wandering the property seeking antique farm machinery to weld into fences. I found him behind an old silo. He turned out to be a fifty-year-old, three-hundred-pound Mexican immigrant with a great dane. And red pickup. After laughing a bit at my predicament, he drove his truck to the scene of the accident and used it to push my car free of the plough.

Unfortunately, once he did, the radiator began to empty its green contents into the dirt. He raised his eyebrows and whistled through his teeth. "There's no way you're gonna make it to town like that," he told me. We climbed into the cab of his pickup, and he drove me to the next farm with a phone, called a tow truck for me, and drove back to my car to wait with me. For the next hour, we sat  on his tail gate and learned each other's names. I told him I was an art student. He told me he'd sent his daughter to the Art Institute of Seattle with money he'd made from welding fences out of farm junk—the kind of farm junk my car was stuck on. He offered me a cold Pepsi. I showed him the design projects I had in my car.

Thanks to my lack of a cell phone, I ended up spending a ridiculous and fascinating hour on the back of this man's pickup, exchanging stories and sharing soda under the baking sun, next to a dog the size of a pony.

It's true that the story could have turned out differently—so differently that I'd never want to repeat it. A cell phone offers a sense of safety, and I wouldn't want to find myself in a similar situation again without one. But it's also true that if I'd had my little flip phone at my disposal, I would never have made human contact with the people at that farmhouse, and I would have one less memory to laugh about with my kids. In retrospect, I'm thankful that I (and Romeo and Crusoe and Paul Revere and Odysseus) didn't have a phone that day. But I think I prefer the way things are now. Mostly.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Byte That's Hard to Swallow

She doesn't own a cell phone. She has no e-mail account. She knows "tweeting" to simply mean bird song, and she would never think of writing on somebody's wall. This old friend of mine went out for coffee with me on Friday, and it was refreshing to share face-to-face conversation without the usual interruptions that motherhood brings—and without the digital distance that has slipped between me and friends both old and new.

This dear friend of mine, my 90-year-old grandmother, never witnesses the non-stop exchange of digital small talk, never sees the volley of information that shoots across my computer screen, never finds text messages popping up on her LCD. She's missing out on an unprecedented level of human interaction. But then I have to wonder: When it comes to human interaction, which of us is missing out more? She never meets the Niagra Falls of data that pours over the rest of us. What she meets are people.

At times, I wish she did have an e-mail address; I could just "shoot her a quick e-mail" to share the latest news and consider my granddaughterly duty done. I could upload a cute photo of the kids and call it "keeping in touch." Instead, what I'm forced to do is come into real, messy, inefficient human contact with her, and it's not always so easy. I can't limit her conversation to 140 characters so that I can get back to the dishes. I have to cover my mouth when I sneeze. I can't answer her replies in my own good time. I cannot multitask while sharing a mocha. Communication with my grandmother takes genuine effort.

So much the better.

Perhaps the greatest downside to all the tech-driven interaction is how little it cost us. There's not much emotional investment in a status update. Not much time commitment in a tweet. Small sacrifice in a text message. And a friendship that doesn't cost much can eventually seem to not be worth much either. Small investments pay small dividends.
But that's not to say that they pay no dividends whatsoever.

I must say, I'm thankful for the way electronic communication and internet "communities" can help maintain friendships through years and across miles. Saying goodbye to those I love has been too common an occurrence, and facebook does help—or at least gives the illusion of helping—to bring us closer again.  Just this week, my brother was offered a job in California, and when he and his family move, the separation will be a bit more bearable knowing that, no matter how far away they are, we can Skype.

Small consolation, I know. But it really does seem better than nothing, and maybe my grandmother will think so too, when moving day actually arrives.

Then again, maybe not. All that virtual interaction may seem like merely slapping a Band-Aid on the bleeding wound of physical separation. I don't think any of us who are being honest could say that digital contact can replace a face-to-face meeting. Still, I'd rather have a Band-Aid than sit here and bleed to death.

It's when our connections with those far from us prevent a connection with those nearest to us, that I think these high-tech blessings become a real evil. If I'm walking through life plugged into a Bluetooth earpiece, I feel exempted from acknowledging the people I pass on the sidewalk. When I'm too busy blogging to an unseen audience to find out what the kids are all arguing about right here in the same house, I've lost the real point of communication. When a stranger cannot ask me for directions because he is afraid to burst the earbud-bubble I inhabit, I've sealed myself off from the flesh-and-blood neighbors I am supposed to love.

Remember that commandment? To love my neighbor? It didn't come with a digital caveat. I cannot plug in and opt out. If he'd been grooving to his own personal soundtrack while texting the friends he'd seen ten minutes ago at the mall, the Good Samaritan might never have noticed the guy bleeding to death in a ditch. What's the good of iPhone contact if it makes me forget how to make eye contact?

Too often my virtual relationships interfere with the living, breathing, sneezing, laughing relationships made through meeting in physical space. ("Oh, sorry to interrupt you, but this is an important call...") I cannot maintain a healthy marriage simply by writing on my husband's "wall" three times a day. Or thirty times a day. You and I can both eat a bowl of Cheerios while we video-conference, but we have not had breakfast together. I can sit on my couch with a cracker and a glass of cabernet while I watch a live broadcast church service. But I can't trick myself into believing that I've just participated in Communion. I haven't. Not even if my TV is a high-definition flat screen. I cannot be there in spirit only. My spirit is stuck inside my body. It's supposed to be.

We're Americans. We're all obsessed with bodies—especially around New Year's Day, when ads for weight-loss products and workout DVDs fill the airwaves, and the word "sexy" flies through the air like the swine flu. But this body obsession seems particularly odd—or, perhaps, particularly obvious—when I notice how disembodied our relationships have become. Ever since AT&T redefined what it means to "reach out and touch someone," we've been losing our ability to do it literally.

Of course, I could have talked to my grandmother on the phone, and I do. But a voice heard from across a small table is far warmer than heard through a telephone receiver. This is why it was so refreshing to go out for coffee with her, my old, old friend—to share face-to-face laughter, to knock knees under the same table, to breathe the same air, to brush doughnut crumbs onto the same paper napkin. To step outside my digitized world into hers—into the unmediated, flesh-and-blood realm of true friendship—was delightful.

Sharing a Verizon connection cannot compare with the connection made through breaking bread (or glazed doughnuts) together—sharing a bite instead of a byte. It's something I should do more often.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Cabbages and kings

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—
Of cabbages—and kings—
—Lewis Carroll

My kids were playing quietly after their naps yesterday, I'd finished folding another load of laundry, and I'd gotten some small projects done. It had been a reasonably good day, but in the middle of another grimy-gray January afternoon, I was feeling a bit gray myself, and the second latté of the day wasn't infusing much energy into my veins. I always appreciate a good cuppa, especially now that I can smell again, but on this particular Monday, the java wasn't quite potent enough to cure the winter blahs. Caffeine can only do so much. I meandered into the kitchen in search of ideas for dinner and, after rummaging through the refrigerator for a while, resolved to whip up some coleslaw. Not much excitement there, but I had the ingredients on hand.

Then I sliced into this, and found the little splash of color I was looking for:

Ta-da! I bet you didn't know that cabbage is a natural mood enhancer.

Okay. Strictly speaking, it's not. At least not in the way you might think. But slicing into a red cabbage and looking at all that spiraling graphic artistry gave me reason enough to pause, kitchen knife in hand, and marvel—reason enough to call three-year-old Paul into the kitchen to share the marvel with me. "It looks like beautiful paint," he said.

Annie Dillard describes beauty as "a grace wholly gratuitous." "Gratuitous grace" may be redundant, but in that cross-section of cabbage, I could see again what she meant—the surprising discovery of beauty in the most unaccountable places—on my cutting board, next to a Wüsthof knife streaked with purple. Gratuitous grace it certainly was.

Beauty didn't need to be there. Truly, it didn't. I think we would eat cabbage even if it did not look like "beautiful paint." Some scientists hypothesize that we perceive beauty merely out of biological necessity; it's all about preservation of the species, they say. That kind of straight-faced silliness makes me want to laugh and taunt them with a cut cabbage. Clearly these scientists never made cole slaw. Clearly, they know nothing of grace. Grace was right there, lying in wet halves before my eyes on the kitchen counter. And if I can find this gratuitous grace there, I can, it seems, find it almost anywhere, provided I open my eyes widely enough to see it.

One of the delights of having small children is their high-pitched excitement at what, to the rest of us, seems like nothing much. I remember taking our oldest son, Jonah, to the Fort Worth Zoo when he was not yet two years old. We held him on our shoulders to give him a better view and pointed, telling him—with exaggerated zeal—to "look at the colorful birds!" At the "great-big elephants!" At the "tall giraffes!"  I was disheartened to see that, even after our enthusiastic drumroll, my little boy took a brief look at the wildlife and then gave his attention wholly to the industrial fans blowing above our heads.

After seeing countless National Geographic specials, it was all too easy for me to miss the fun in watching a herd of awkwardly galloping giraffes. But what excuse did my wide-eyed toddler have for failing to squeal with glee? I think the answer is simply that he could not have recognized that a giraffe was any less common in Texas than a cockroach. And, let's face it, cockroaches can move a lot quicker. For a person so new to the world, everything is fresh, and everything is astonishing, so the common things hold as much fascination as the exceptional, and a fan can be as captivating as the Grand Canyon. But at the time it bothered me that our son was missing the point of the zoo "experience." To be distracted by the bright tropical plants or the contrived animal "habitats" I could maybe understand. But c'mon, kid. A fan? We can see those at home. For free.

But that's exactly what I did not understand. My emphasis was all wrong. Why would I want my children to be bored with what they can see everyday? I can see a fan at home! For free! Why should I not be thrilled at the very idea? All four of my babies have been held transfixed by the sight of a slowly rotating ceiling fan. And why did that always strike me as funny? We sophisticated people know how to have contempt for the unexceptional. To be bored has almost become a mark of refinement, and  any American high schooler knows that it's not cool to be easily impressed. But why? That day at the zoo, Jonah was experiencing what we all could use a little more of: wonder in the ordinary.

I know that this idea is nothing new. This has all been said before by folks more eloquent than me. But if the idea is right, and I think it is, we must not despise it simply because we've "heard that before."  I could use a reminder almost daily to look—really look—at the jaw-dropping spectacle that surrounds me every waking moment.

Look at the way the sunlight refracts rainbows across the shiny side of a CD. Give your attention to the iridescent shimmer on the multiplied eyes and the microscopic veins tracing through the wings of an ordinary housefly. Watch the way the steam swirls and churns the air as it rises from your morning shower and turns to dew on the bathroom mirror. Make coleslaw, and call the whole family in to watch as you reveal the "beautiful paint" inside a cabbage. Open your eyes wide enough to see the gratuitous grace in everyday life. Because life, as someone once said, is beautiful.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Overwhelmed by Olfactory Hues

I have a disability. There. Now you know. But, as far as I can tell, this disability doesn't get much press coverage, and it certainly is not mentioned in the Americans With Disabilities Act. My disability is minor, but I confess that it leaves me feeling a bit—a very little bit—helpless.

Imagine your life without color or without music, and you will doubtless imagine your life deprived of some of its greatest joys. Imagine yourself with no sense of touch—that sandpaper and silk are both alike against your fingertips. Imagine that your sense of taste dissolved, making salt and sugar indistinguishable on your tongue. And now imagine yourself unable to smell; the scents of garlic and cinnamon, dumpsters and roses are nothing but empty air. Every breath, whether fair or foul, is the same.

This is the pitifully odorless world I currently inhabit. I can't smell a thing. (Don't laugh. It's rude to laugh at people with disabilities.)

Help, I am glad to know, is available in this country for people with many forms of disability. For those unable to walk, we have designated parking places and motorized wheelchairs. For those who cannot hear we have specialized classes and closed-captioned sitcoms. For those without their sense of sight we have beeping pedestrian signals and braille textbooks. All these forms of assistance are terrific, and I'm encouraged that new efforts are constantly being made to allow every American to live as well as possible. Even I, who can both see and hear, have made use of the closed captioning on more than a few occasions when the dishwasher was running and kids were hollering; and I've been brought back to attention (after staring absently out the airport windows) by that soothing female voice informing me in three languages that I am "approaching the end of the moving sidewalk." Gratitude is due to the folks who make these services available. I do mean that. But what about people like me? What federal funding has been provided for those who suffer from bouts of smell-lessness caused by differently abled noses?

Today, as I drove through the rain (And it is rain rather than snow.), I listened to Annie Dillard's descriptions of people who, following cataract surgery, had been given the gift of sight for the first time. Their reactions are varied: some are disturbed by the relentless barrage of light and color and shade, and keep their eyes shut against it. Many are bewildered by the sudden awareness of things and people beyond arm's reach—of the enormous space and size and depth they experience on every side. Others are struck dumb, enchanted by the spectacle of white and blue and green light dancing, too beautiful to be expressed in words, among the leaves of the trees overhead. But in every case, these newly sighted people were overwhelmed by the mere fact of sight. And it made me wonder what I would experience if, after a lifetime without smell, I were suddenly given that sense as an adult. Would I be repelled like the girl with her eyes shut? Or would I, like the child staring at the trees, be enthralled, inhaling breath after breath of violet-tinted air until I hyperventilated from the sheer glory of the smell?

The first time I lost my sense of smell was while I was living in our Dallas apartment. I realized one morning that I could not smell my shampoo. And then, while making breakfast, the cinnamon rolls might just as well have been water for all the aroma they conveyed to my brain. I started to panic. Thinking nerve damage must have occurred in the night, I raced through the rooms trying to smell the most pungent items I could find. Onion? Nothing. Bleach? Nada. Vinegar? Zilch. The baby's trash can? A breath of fresh air. My ability to smell was more important than I had ever realized or appreciated. And now it was gone.

Smell is surely the unsung sense. We revel in our sense of sight. Hearing is a delight that requires little explanation. A sense of touch is the livelihood of massage therapists everywhere. Taste is the subject of many a cookbook and magazine. But smell? Who really cares?

Well, I, for one, do care. The old adage, "You don't know what you've got until it's gone," is quite true. And what your high school biology teacher told you about taste being largely experienced via smell? That is true as well. When cinnamon coffee cake is merely crumbly and vaguely sweet in your mouth, you know you've been deprived of something marvelous. When salsa is reduced to a chunky, salty-sour concoction, you know that something great is gone. The scented candle burning in the kitchen yields nothing but flame. The pizza sauce simmering on the stove is only so much wet red stuff. The world is a paler place without the olfactory hues it once had. That coffee breath does not offend me, and that bottom-shelf wine now tastes the same as the good stuff is small consolation.

The sense of smell, you see, is more than merely aesthetic; it has practical value as well. When my three-year-old has to inform me that the toddler on my lap needs a diaper change, I know I've lost something useful. If the bacon is burning, I smell no smoke. To discern if the milk's gone bad, I look for chunks. My house could have a natural gas leak right this minute, and I, unable to detect it, might carelessly light a match and blow us sky high. Kaboom. My fellow Americans, is this not a true—and potentially life-threatening—disability?

I don't ask for pity (although I am thinking of starting a fund for the silently suffering smell-less population.) That I have differently abled sinuses is nothing cry about, and I'm thankful to report that my condition has, so far, been temporary. But this lamentable situation does confront me (on average) three times year. Sometimes it lasts a day. Sometimes, as now, it lasts for two or three days. Or more. Always it happens at the end of a head cold; following a week or so of sinus congestion I can breathe freely again, but I can still smell nothing. And nothing, my friends, is a terrible thing to smell.

After a day or two, I expect I'll be stopping to smell the roses once again. But in case I'm not, I suppose I'll be visiting our family doctor for his professional opinion. (And if you're reading this, dear family doctor, when you see my name on your appointment schedule, you'll now know why it's there.)

The bright side of all this is that, as a consequence of these episodes, I've come to genuinely love this underappreciated sense. Smell, like the other four senses, is a wonderful gift, worth giving thanks for daily. I can stand in the kitchen where bread is baking and find joy in simply breathing. The woodsy scent of Christmas tree needles wooshing into my vacuum cleaner gives me chills. Nutmeg makes me giddy. Even the foul odors are a blessing to me now, because the truth is, after days of smelling nothing, nothing stinks.

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