One Thousand Scents

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Final Intermission: Me Me Me Me Me

When I started doing my 1980s project on September 1st, I figured I could knock off one piece every two to three days and get the whole decade finished by the end of the month, and then move onto other things. I had not planned on two things: one, life has a way of intruding (an unexpected trip, for starters), and two, I was going to run up against 1987 and that was going to lead me into the hardest thing I had ever written. I have been trying to write this, or trying and failing to not write it, for two months, in my head and on the keyboard, and I have been resisting it every step of the way: I keep telling myself that it is too intimate--intrusive, even--and unnecessary, but I keep writing it. You don't have to read it, and it's probably best if you don't read it: it probably isn't that interesting to everyone who doesn't happen to occupy my brain. But I can't help feeling that what I usually write about doesn't make sense if you don't understand how my brain works, and so despite my misgivings, here is the result of two months' worth of fragmentary labour, willing or otherwise.


As I said last time around, 1987 was notable because I fell in love with someone who fell back in love with me. I don't know that I believe in love at first sight, exactly: I think it's more likely that your brain tells you this might be someone worth mating with, and then later it fills in the backstory to support that decision. But whatever the case, Jim and I met in late September of that year and the attraction was instantaneous, which is sort of miraculous because he is a very good-looking man whereas I am, generously, a six and a half on a scale of ten with the right lighting and a decent suit. (He says I wasn't like anybody else he'd ever met, which is undoubtedly the case, and that he thought I was smart and funny.) Our tastes in nearly everything--music, television, food, art, movies--run the gamut from "not quite the same" to "drastically, irreconcilably different" (we don't have a stereo or even a radio because we would never be able to agree on what to listen to), but we have exactly the same sense of humour, which putties in a lot of gaps, if you ask me. Twenty-three years later, I'm still mad about him, and I think it's fair to assume he feels the same way. But the real reason it seems so miraculous to me has nothing to do with looks, but with my assumption that, at the age of 24, I was not going to meet anyone who could really understand me. I don't know that Jim really does understand me, that anybody could, because I don't know if I even understand myself: but he loves me and puts up with my eccentricities, and that's enough.

I am not going to bore you with a discussion of Asperger's Syndrome, which you can Google for yourself (and how unfortunate that in English, "Asperger" is pronounced like "ass burger" unless you deliberately pronounce it in the German manner), but if you met me and got to know me, you would sooner or later--sooner, I bet--come to the conclusion that I am not quite like most people you have ever met, and that is certainly the case.

My brain is a constant tumult of information; mostly words and numbers, but also sounds and smells. (I'm not an especially visual person, as will become clear later.) There is never a single waking instant that I am not processing a flow of words or numbers; I'm writing in my head, or counting the number of steps from one location to another (376 steps from the gym to my front door this morning, and I counted these while also measuring out the 32-count rhythm of the song playing through my headphones), or recalling a few lines of Shakespeare that were triggered by something or other, or seeing a phone number on a billboard and trying to work out if it's prime. (I am really good with numbers: quick math in my head is no problem, which is useful when you're working retail and a customer asks you the cost of a $47.99 item that's 40% off.) There is almost without fail a song or aria or some other piece of music running in the background, too: sometimes an entire piece over and over again, sometimes just a refrain or a single line, and it can go on for hours before it switches to another one (kind of like a free iPod that doesn't have an Off switch: as I write this, the inner iPod has been playing "Jesusland" by Ben Folds for about three hours now and doesn't show any signs of stopping, except that having written those last few words triggered the Christmas song "Let It Snow!", which contains the lyric "It doesn't show signs of stopping" and which will likely play for a few minutes until Ben Folds reasserts himself, which he likely will after the song "Hurry On Down" from the Bette Midler album "Live At Last" stops playing, and I have no idea what triggered that, but there it is): sometimes two songs play at the same time, and this is not a problem, for some reason. All of this goes on simultaneously, and it does not stop, ever. I can't imagine how normal people can meditate, because I can't imagine what it would be like to not have this perpetual whirligig of data to deal with: meditation seems to require shutting off what Buddhists call the monkey mind to access some quiet inner space, but the monkey mind is all I have, and it craves data and information and stimulation. (It's probably the main reason I don't sleep very well: I lie in bed and I'm processing what I did at work today what I have to do tomorrow the book I'm halfway through the opera I'm going to next weekend the last song I listened to the movie I saw yesterday the next knitting commission that's due that perfume I'm blogging about soon, all of it words words words numbers experiences data, all of it nonstop and inexhaustible.)

I don't know if it's a visual-data problem or some deeper processing issue--I think Asperger's Syndrome is a problem of data, the way the body picks it up and the brain processes it--but people all look more or less alike to me. I can tell that they're young or old, tall or short, male or female, I notice race and clothing and proportions: but these things do not matter. People are as alike and as different as the trees in a forest, but when I look at them I see the forest. If a particular person is especially arresting to look at--very attractive, very odd, extreme in some way or another--or if I encounter them more than a couple of times, I can usually form a memory of them that gets stronger with time, but otherwise when I see a face, I can't tell--honestly cannot tell at all--if I have met them before or not, can't tell them apart from anyone else. Face are data, but they're data that I'm not very good at handling.

Same thing with cars. More so with cars. Cars are all boxes on wheels. With a few exceptions--the dramatically beautiful or otherwise noteworthy--I absolutely cannot tell them apart. I call a friend's car the Greasemobile because her license number is GRE 549, and the three digits sort of look like S A Y, and if you transpose two of them you get GREASY. I couldn't name the colour (I think it might be black) or tell you what the make is if you put me on the rack: but I instantly memorized the license number and then mucked around with it to make a joke, which ought to tell you quite a lot about how my brain works. Also, the first half of that previous sentence is a quatrain, which my brain supplied to me unbidden, although I had tinker with a couple of the words to make it scan.

I suppose I could say that I don't speak the same language as everyone else, but that doesn't seem as close to the mark as I'd like, considering that I have some facility with English. I think a better analogy is that in the country in which we all live, I'm not spending the same currency as everyone else. I take their money in everyday transactions, but I don't quite know what to do with it, and when I make change or hand out my own currency, it's doesn't look quite like it ought to.

As a consequence of this, I misinterpret a lot of human interactions, because I don't get the nuances of expression that I think other people take for granted. I can read all the big emotions--happy, sad, angry--though unfortunately I tend to reflect them right back at their bearers; but I absolutely can't get the subtleties, and so I have an unfortunate and ineradicable way of missing the point, or steamrollering right over it. I sometimes come across as cold, or insensitive, or just odd, and I know this because I've been told: but I can't perceive it, and so I can't fix it. A side effect is that I have had people put the make on me while remaining completely oblivious to this fact until well afterwards, sometimes because I've been informed of it, sometimes because I figured it out later: "Gee, I wonder what he meant by that?" In fact, unless someone flat-out tells me so or grabs me in an unmistakeable way, I have pretty well always failed to understand that I was being approached. My entire life! Think what I've missed out on!

Not much, actually. Human touch is tricky for me because it's so unpredictable, and worse, I can't read the body language involved, so I always end up awkwardly wondering if I am holding a hug too loosely or not long enough or what. Touch is confusing. What I have always liked, since I was very young, is a sort of all-encompassing, controllable, even pressure: mummification, I guess. Temple Grandin, an engineer, made herself a machine that administers hugs, which sounds like a good idea, but since I am not an engineer, I resorted to clothing and bedding. As a child, I'd tuck the bedsheets around me as tightly as I could, rolling to one side and then the other while pulling the sheets underneath me: this provided a firm, uniform pressure that was comforting and pleasurable. I don't seem to need this as much as I get older, but I always wear a two-sizes-too-small T-shirt under my shirt in daily life, and that seems to do the trick, as long as I use a safety pin in the back of the collar to position the front neckline at the precise point that it must sit in order for me to be comfortable, and yes, I know how strange that sounds, but that's the way it has to be.

Possibly related to this in some way is that I am clumsy. It's a rare, possibly nonexistent, day that I don't have a bruise or a scratch or a contusion of some sort from banging into a doorframe, raking my hand against a cutting edge, or whacking my shin on the opened dishwasher door. I bump into protrusions, stumble on stairways, knock things over, drop silverware. If I focus, really concentrate, I have an excellent sense of balance, but it doesn't come naturally to me; my body is mostly just this big lumbering object that I don't have nearly as much control over as I'd like. Perversely, though, I have really good fine-motor control in things I have practiced: I'm a top-notch knitter (something I can do with my eyes closed or otherwise occupied--I always feel I'm just a hairsbreadth away from being able to do it in my sleep, because knitting is really just a series of data-flow problems combined with some fairly rudimentary physical skills), and I have excellent handwriting if I pay attention and slow down, which, unfortunately, I rarely do, because I'm always off to the next thing, in mind if not in body.

As you might expect, and finally to the point, I like to smell just about everything. Food is good, the outdoors often wonderful: a brick wall on a rainy day is a lovely thing to smell. Even unpleasant odours can have their own kind of fascination. I was at the Kensington Market one August with Jim and our friend Liz, who lived in Toronto at the time, and they were gagging at the predictable rotting-vegetation aromas that permeated the air, but it didn't bother me at all: I thought it was interesting. I will sometimes, when doing the laundry, bury my face in an armload of unwashed clothing and take a big sniff of the fabric-ness of it, the bodily scents, stray traces of fragrances I might have been wearing, the olfactory detritus of two people in their daily lives, and it is wonderful.

The reason I love perfumery so much, I think, is that it's a wearable art form with a complex personality: it is the smell of the natural world made great through the intervention of human intelligence. It's data, but much more determined than anything you'd find in nature. And not just perfumery: most anything that bears an odour and has been through human hands is worth analyzing (with the definite exception of the stalenesses of cigarette smoke and sweat, which are just flat-out disgusting). I'm sure a wheat field smells very nice, but I can't imagine it could compare to the smell of a freshly baked loaf of bread. I love the fact that we take things that smell good, or at least interesting--oudh and oakmoss don't really smell good by any ordinary measure--and combine them into something great, something that can be analyzed but that in the end really defies analysis--that goes straight into the limbic system and works its magic.


So that's me and my baffling brain. I sort of hope you didn't actually get this far, but at least it's off my chest, and now I can get back to what I had set out to do, map and catalogue the eighties as I smelled them. Coming up: 1988! Mesmerizing florals, run-of-the-mill fougeres, and one hypnotic chypre that pretty much changed my life!


  • This is absolutely wonderful, and fascinating to read. As I writer, I've found that the most powerful and interesting work results when the author is able to be completely honest and just "go for it," though naturally it takes courage to do that. Congratulations on writing a very powerful piece, and I look forward to reading the rest of your autobiographical series (which is, in my opinion, your best work so far).

    By Blogger Nina Zolotow, at 6:45 PM  

  • Best thing I've read on a blog all year. I'm a big fan.

    By Blogger Brian, at 10:35 AM  

  • I love how unique and diverse the people in the perfume world are! Thanks, Pyramus, for letting us in on your very personal story. I read both your blogs regularly and am also a BIG fan :)

    By Blogger Cymbaline, at 10:40 AM  

  • Thanks so much for sharing your personal history; it's fascinating to read. Definitely more interesting than most blog posts! Do you mind if I ask how you came to be diagnosed? I ask because it sounds a lot like my son, whom we wonder might have ASD, or maybe he's just quirky and smart. I don't know if labelling it even matters, unless we can do something to help him.
    It's great to see that you are happy and successful, which is the most important thing, and I wish that more people would write about the successes they've found in spite of/because of Asperger's and other disorders (I'm thinking of ADHD), rather than complaining about how difficult life is as a result. Inspiring!!

    By Blogger elizabeth, at 12:41 AM  

  • Yeah, I'm with Brian. Big old fan. Keep writing:)

    By Blogger Amelia, at 11:35 AM  

  • I have enjoyed coming here for a while now, even if I haven't always paused to let you know so.

    This post is a league of its own.

    Part of what I have thought about perfume was that it was a way to wrap my head around something...that while sometimes it was about the perfume, more often it was either about how the perfume related to something else/other, or how something else/other connected with perfume.

    One of the reasons for going ahead and doing that was because I had exhorted some students to do that, because life was about metaphor and understandings.

    Sometimes, though, you can go straight to the truth. And so you have.

    I wish I had had this piece of writing to share with those students--at least two of whom were "officially" "on the spectrum," and were young, and still trying to come to terms with the way their minds worked in the way thoughtful adolescents do, with the added wrinkle that knowing something about how your brain works is not aligning with many of the brains surrounding you do.

    Which, in the end, is yet another expression of adolescent alienation, in a way.

    One way to give it a title is to group it with the '80's, but I think it is also one of those wonderful confluences of specificity and universality.

    Thank you.

    By Blogger ScentScelf, at 6:17 PM  

  • brilliant, and thank you for sharing.

    By Blogger stellaglo, at 11:18 AM  

  • This is the best blog post I've read in a while. Thanks for sharing about yourself!

    By Blogger Isabelle, at 10:00 AM  

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