What's that Smell?
At the risk of oversharing, I have a little story to tell about the bathroom in our home. For about the past week, I have been bothered by a not-so-fresh smell in the bathroom and have been trying to track down its source. While nobody else in the family shared my olfactory concern, Carl did try to help by cleaning out the sink drain. I washed the bath mat and did some general cleaning, but I still noticed the funk, especially when I was near the sink. While it wasn't a huge deal, it did keep nagging at me, every time I experienced the odor.
Well, last night I finally solved the mystery. Underneath the soap dish was an ex-millipede. I immediately identified this as the source of the problem and told my older son about it. He came in and shared that, while this little critter's essence had been bothering me, he couldn't smell it. At all.
Strangely, this phenomenon has a wine connection in our family story. In February of 2012, Carl even wrote an entry about it in his winemaker's blog: a little article helpfully entitled "My Wife Is a Freak." In it, he comments on the fact that there is an aroma in some Chambourcin wines which I don't like because it reminds me of the off-smell emitted by some millipedes, especially when they meet their demise. I remember the odor from my childhood basement, where the arthropods would show up in the cracks of the cement floor. When I told Carl I didn't like this smell, he was baffled: "What smell?"
While we haven't been able to find out very much about this, some internet detective work has helped us confirm that the hydrogen cyanide component emitted by the critters cannot be smelled by everyone, and that "HCN has a faint bitter almond-like odor that some people are unable to detect owing to a recessive genetic trait" (from Wikipedia). So, while my brother and I agree that millipedes have an unpleasant smell, the other members of the family remain unbothered.
This kind of "smell blindness" reminds me of two of my friends who have at times experienced anosmia: the inability to smell anything at all. One friend regained her sense of smell during and after pregnancy. It also reminded me of the condition called presbycusis, or loss of hearing (particularly at high frequencies) as we age. Because of this phenomenon, storeowners who don't want teens hanging out by their storefronts have been known to emit high-pitched annoying sounds to keep the young people away.
I have vivid recall of a movie I watched called Perfect Sense, from 2011 (and starring Ewan McGregor). In it, a strange epidemic causes people to lose their sensory abilities, beginning with smell, and proceeding through taste, hearing, and sight. The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 seemed to bring the gut-wrenching science fiction scenario to life, as we became aware that loss of smell and taste (ageusia) are some of the most prevalent symptoms of the virus. It seems to bring new life to the idea that a person can "lose their senses."
During the many months of the pandemic shutdown, our family remained particularly vigilant about our risk to the virus, agreeing to let Carl be the one deciding what kinds of risk he would take on, while the rest of us tried our best to keep our risk as close to zero as possible. The main reason for our caution was out of concern for Carl, on whose health our business and employees all depend. Basically, we all protected each other and protected him not because he was at high risk or in poor health, but because his strengths are so vitally important.
I remember the day that I realized how devastating the loss of smell and taste would be to a winemaker. Once it dawned on me, I did some research and realized that within our industry many were sharing the same concerns, particularly because the loss of these vital senses can last even after a person has "recovered" from the coronavirus. A July 2020 article in Wine Spectator and a more recent article in Barron's provide some first-reflection on how wine lovers and professionals in the wine industry have suffered from their damaged senses.
We kept the virus at bay. So, while Carl still may not be able to smell squished millipedes, his palate is still well calibrated for Petit Verdot and Sauvignon Blanc. I'm gratified that we've made it through these pandemic months safely, and that the vaccines now enable our family and employees to finally breathe a bit more easily.
One sense which has definitely blossomed in recent weeks around here: gratitude.
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Hi! It's me, Kris.