Using proper scent-ences

“It smells … mayonnaise-y in here,” I told Tyra Sanchez the other night when I got home. “Like warm egg salad. What did you have for dinner?”

“I made a steak,” he said.

“Did you put egg salad on it?” I said, hopefully. Because otherwise, I was in for a sensory search, the quest to discover what had triggered such an olfactory offense.

In her book “A Natural History of the Senses,” Diane Ackerman calls smell the most direct of all our senses:

[W]hen the olfactory bulb detects something … it signals the cerebral cortex and sends a message straight into the limbic system, a mysterious, ancient, and intensely emotional section of our brain in which we feel, lust, and invent. Unlike other senses, smell needs no interpreter. The effect is immediate and undiluted by language, thought, or translation.

I’m particularly tuned in to smells; I can walk right past the dishes stacked in the sink for days — hey, I didn’t use them! — but the instant that stack emits a whiff of ripeness, I cave and start running sinks full of hot, soapy water. (We currently have original scent Gain dishwashing liquid, but my favorite scent is Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day geranium.)

Barring sink-related drama, our house always smells good — I’ve got candles, incense, cleaners and air fresheners in complementary scents working throughout the building. I used to go to the Saturday farmers market just to get incense from that guy with the dreads; we’d use it to fumigate the house after one of Tyra’s boy benders. (Me to Mr. Brooks: “It just smells like smelly, sweaty boy—and not in a good way.”) More recently, I blew $24 plus shipping on Wallflowers refills — although in my defense, they’ll last six months, so that’s like the price of one beer a month to keep our shared bathroom from turning into something evil.

And yesterday, flush with payday and freelance checks, I accompanied my friends and co-workers Maggie and Heidi to an Aveda store, where I splurged on a bottle of Personal Blends “hydrating formula” (you and I might refer to it as “body lotion”) that I could personalize with whichever scent I liked. The website says there are only 12 options but I find this odd because my choice is usually #20, which I think smells wintergreenish.

(Tangents: Am I drawn to what Aveda categorizes as a “nurturing blend” because I’m socially chilly? And why is something with a “Fire Nature” nurturing?)

It turns out the sales associate who helped me hates #20 — what reminds me of bracing wintergreen brings to her mind Pepto Bismol and upset stomach. Me, secretly, inside my head: “How can anyone in their right mind not love this scent?” Not because of that, but I picked a different option this time — hello, my new friend, “Energizing” #9! I had the sales associate make it extra strong — “More, please. I want to shout, not waft” — so anyone who’s not a fan of Aveda-style scents might want to stand upwind for me for awhile.

Because the product is pricey, relatively speaking, it makes sense to use it only on arms and shoulders, to maximize the “scent rising!” effect, and stick to plain old Eucerin for everywhere else. It’s the product equivalent of the “good dishes”!

And maybe it’ll help mask those mystery scents as I wander through the house? Nah, not likely: I’ll still have to hunt and destroy anything sour or rank … like the Chinese food that Mr. Brooks left in the trash, which was the culprit behind the fetid hot-mayo smell up top. But in the meantime, my victims will smell me coming — and the scent of their imminent destruction will have notes of patchouli and cinnamon.

Which smells make you happy — or make you shudder?

WHAT SAM WORE: 4-23-11
The shirt: Short-sleeved lightweight cotton button-down from Uniqlo, New York.
The shorts: Camouflage-print shorts by Mossimo, from Target.
The shoes: Converse All-Star slip-ons that Funny Michael made on converse.com as part of Project (Red). They say “Sammit” on the back!
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