For two scents…

Okay, full disclosure: I’m a guy -uhmm, I suppose that has been apparent for years… But before I am relegated to just one of the many gender allocations now so readily available, I have to admit that when I was growing up, there were only two choices and actually they were assigned and not open for discussion. I have no issues with that; I am very comfortable in the clothes I have been expected to wear; and had I to start all over again, I would no doubt self-direct myself to the same side of the tracks.

And yet there is one thing… A very tiny thing perhaps –nothing comparable to the disrespect and outright inequity so often foisted upon other gender roles, of course, but nonetheless troublesome when you get right down to it. No, perhaps irritating describes it best… Actually, come to think about it, I’m going to go for disgusting. Sorry.

I’m referring, of course, to odour –male, exercise odour. Gym bag malfeasance. Male locker room fetor. Naturally I have been somewhat limited in my olfactory experiences given that I have never been sufficiently athletic to be selected for any team that might be expected to sweat excessively, and I’ve never been awarded female locker room privileges. But it has always seemed to me that males have been alone in their allotment to the spoor-bearing section. Hormones, I figured -testosterone, eh?

I can’t say it has been a burning issue all these years; it’s something you learn to put up with –something guys tell each other. I was warned never to leave a hockey equipment bag in the back seat if I was going out on a date. And always wear lots of aftershave even if you don’t –shave, I mean. At the very least it would make them think you were old enough. At the time, I never asked for what, but I have to assume it was about paying for the movie.

Body odour has always been a source of embarrassment to me, but being an only child I naturally believed that it was only a guy thing. Girls usually smelled of flowers and were probably not allowed to sweat. I don’t mean allowed, really –but obviously their hormones enabled them to control it somehow. Women are from Venus; Men are from locker rooms –anyway that made sense to my finally-deepening voice.

I was shocked when, in my later years, I came across a book by Katherine Ashenburg called ‘The Dirt on Clean’ and realized that our species had a rather chequered past with regards to both cleanliness, and odour. Bathing seemed to have gone in and out of favour as did techniques for disguising the stench that attended each person who happened along. But I guess if everybody smells, you don’t have to worry as much. And it wasn’t that grooming was on the endangered list or anything –fleas and lice were quite fashionable, so inspecting and picking at each other’s hair was probably what you did on first dates.

And hey, you didn’t actually have to wash –linen was believed to clean your skin without the danger of opening up the pores and letting bad stuff in. I’m not actually sure what linen is, but hopefully it came in nice colours.

But, naïveté aside, it did get me wondering if there was such a noticeable sexual difference in gym bag bouquet back then. Did they learn to stuff them with linen, or something? Of course, I suppose women weren’t picked for many of the hockey teams in those days, so we may never know. And I think only guys got to fight with swords and whatever… maybe that’s how the folklore about male body odour got started…

Finally, in my declining years, I have been given a clue of sorts –an explanation, maybe. It’s an acknowledgement by the BBC, previously undisclosed and carefully obscured: women have not escaped as unscathed as I was hitherto taught to believe. They also -well, dare I say it?- smell. It’s the bacteria, not the person though, okay?

But when you think about it, our perspective on the world is not only our measuring tape of others, but sadly, also of ourselves. Who would have thought that the Theory of Mind –i.e. our ability to realize that others may have different thoughts than our own- might apply equally to smell?

And yet, I have to admit that I am more than a little unprepared for this sudden equivalence. I mean, if men and women both smell the same after exercise –if we’re all subject to the same deodoral constraints- then what separates us? Apart from the more noticeable anatomical bulges, how are the sexes meaningfully different? On what grounds could we ever decide which would make the best or most efficient hunter? If Power smells the same in each, if hard work is olfactorially undifferentiable, what’s left to choose between us for anything? Why, exactly, did they put in a glass ceiling? Maybe they should simply mandate different coloured linen handles on gym bags.

But it’s just a thought though, eh?



Lilies that Fester

They’re cute alright; nobody can deny that they are cute -soft, fluffy, teddy bear cute. Everything about them shouts hug. But when I first saw it lallygagging up the driveway as if it was just out for an evening waddle, those were not my thoughts. Crepuscular activity has always seemed suspicious to me. I mean if something is not willing to cast a shadow, then maybe there are issues. And anyway, allure is contingent, don’t you think?

So, even if you brush its coat, straighten its stripes, and tie a ribbon around its neck, a skunk is still a skunk. In an olfactory world, beauty is as beauty does. I’d like to think I’m not being unduly speciesist when I observe that some attributes are simply not attractive, however utilitarian they may be to the animal in question. That it’s not their fault will not get them through the door.

But I digress. I think would find skunks more attractive if they didn’t sneak up so quietly, or better still if they snuck up going the other direction. But I recognize that this would be asking a lot of an animal intent upon getting back to the wife and kids after an evening prowl through the garbage. Alea iacta est, right? What’s a driveway for, if not a direct route to the garage? And home. Had I not trespassed on his route when I did, the cares of its day would have folded their tents like Arabs and as silently stolen away… Longfellow certainly understood skunks.

I had begun to notice a distinct… bouquet in the garage over the previous week that had none of the characteristics of car, or woodpile. It did not smell faintly bicycley, or wet-booty, nor when I checked –just to be sure- armpitty. I had to be certain, you understand. Despite the ecological footprint, the house is heated by oil, and the tank is in the garage –I would have installed wind turbines had I been asked, but the real estate agent was new at her job I think. At any rate, depending on the prevailing wind strength, the overwhelming impression when you enter the garage is that I have an oil refinery in the back yard. An indiscreet date once asked me whether I should have my septic tank inspected… I don’t do much entertaining.

Skunks probably don’t either. Wherever they go, telltale effluvial fewmets follow. I can appreciate what dogs go through in their odour-driven world. I think only a skunk could live with a skunk. Good thing they don’t believe in miscegenation –they’d have a hard time selling their profiles even online. Interestingly, though, like a strong enough deodorant, the skunk fragrance almost camouflages the petrochemical aroma for which I have become famous. And for what it’s worth, I’ve noticed the disguise is particularly effective under the oil tank, although I haven’t actually poked a stick in there. It is still terra incognita to me.

I mentioned this to Brien when I next visited his porch. As usual, he was sitting, heavily wrapped in blankets, on a lawn chair whose aluminum frame bowed and creaked with the effort. It fairly screamed abuse, but Brien was deaf to pity. He’d continue to use it, he’d say, until they came for him. Typically, he did not elaborate.

In many ways, Brien is perceptive although I don’t think one could make a very good case for sensitive. As I worked my way up the broken fragments of his sidewalk, he inspected me with a pair of concerned eyes. He looked as if he wanted to say something and then decided to have another taste of his beer instead. He is nothing else if not a creature with poor impulse control.

“I suppose you’re gonna tell me another horror story of your rats, eh?” Like I say, he’s perceptive. Not subtle. But at least he’d intuited distress on my face. “Thought you’d got rid of the buggers with your peanut butter traps.”

“I have,” I said, unprepared to have to defend my rat strategy. “Well, at least they know enough not to wave when I go for wood…”

He nodded his head compassionately, but when I actually reached the porch he seemed to sniff the air like a huge prairie dog. “Skunks, eh?”

My eyes opened in wonder at his intuition. Did I look that skunk-laden, or were my eyes truly windows to my thoughts?

“Get sprayed?” he asked, pointing to chair for me several feet away.

Now I felt embarrassed. I’d just come from Starbucks and had wondered about the smiles. Normally people just ignore me. “No, but I think there’s one living in the garage,” was all I could think to reply.

“Near the fuel tank?”

Again I was amazed at his perspicacity. “How did you know?” I gushed.

He shrugged. “Oil stain on your pant leg,” he said, pointing rather rudely I thought.

This was positively Sherlock Holmesian. Brien was certainly more than just a big man, I realized.

“By the way,” he said after thinking about it while he emptied the contents of a bottle into his mouth, “If you’ve got one, then you’ve got more than one.”

My god, I thought, gazing at him with increasing admiration, this is sort of like hearing a Buddhist koan. I almost expected him to attempt to explain the sound of one hand clapping next.

“Probably got a common law and some illegits under there,” he added to diffuse what he thought was my puzzled expression while he searched blindly under his chair for another beer with his hand.

My heart sank. I’d never persuade a date to get out of the car –assuming I could even get one when word got around…

“Moth balls,” he said when his hand finally connected with a full bottle.

“Pardon me?” We’d gone from Zen koan to nineteenth century clothing pesticide. I couldn’t keep up with him.

“Roll a few of them under the tank,” he said and pointed to a beer on the far railing.

I stared at him curiously as I walked over to get the bottle, but he just smiled. “I keep a box of ‘em in the shed with the lawnmower.” He opened his bottle with a flourish worthy of a television commercial. “Never had skunks in there.”

I smiled at his wisdom. I don’t think Brien even has a shed, let alone lawnmower, but I didn’t feel I should point that out when he was trying to be so helpful. And anyway, maybe he keeps stuff under a tarp somewhere. We all have a suburban myth to live up to.

I stopped off at a hardware store on the way home to buy mothballs and the only thing the clerk said to me was “Be careful what you wish for, mister.” I thought it was kind of rude. He probably didn’t have a skunk family living under his tank.

At any rate it was with a certain flare that I emptied the whole box and kicked them, one by one, under the tank -crepuscularly, so I would not find them at home having supper.

It worked I think –I haven’t seen the skunk or his missus in days- but I’ve taken to parking the car in the driveway and using the front door to the house because a lady in Starbucks asked me if I’d just taken my clothes out of storage. I didn’t think she was my type though, so I didn’t sit at the table next to her. I have enough trouble getting dates without having to defend my clothes as well…