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?



Besmirching the Multitudinous Seas

Now that I have some extra time to think about stuff, things that would ordinarily pass as mundane suddenly surface as curious, important… –as inexplicable anomalies in an otherwise knowable universe. And intricate webs of connection emerge unheralded from the gestalt making me wonder if anybody else can see them.

There is a question that has been bothering me ever since I retired. I don’t suppose it is of any existential significance, or anything, but it does seem to be fraught with imponderables and replete with horrific consequences if left unanswered. And yet for the longest time, I couldn’t convince anybody that this may be an important revelation, a significant contribution to the growing evidence about aging.

I refer, of course, to laundry, and why there is more of it after you retire. First, a definition, lest there be some confusion. The word comes from the Latin: lavare, meaning ‘to wash’ –although it’s not too specific about what that entails, exactly. The earliest description of the practice mentions nothing about how much detergent you have to add, or what kind of wash/rinse cycle to set; it doesn’t even hint at the need to separate the white towels from the red ones, but never mind.

Anyway, in modern times, laundry has come to mean what you have to do when you find too many clothes lying on the closet floor that are obviously so stained or otherwise besmirched you can’t get away with wearing them again –even if it’s just around the yard. As to whether doing laundry is actually the act of putting them into the washing machine, or, in fact, includes their transference to the dryer is never adequately spelled out in my usually reliable sources. It could be that they in turn are relying on older manuscripts and merely blindly transcribing them. For example, since laundry was undoubtedly different before the advent of electricity, they insist on describing how long to beat shirts against a rock. I don’t find this information very useful because all the rocks in my backyard are either too small to do that, or have evidence of dog.

But to get back to my original point. Why is it that I seem to be doing more laundry now than when I was working? Jon mentioned this one afternoon when he surfaced, mid-curse, in my laundry room. I don’t know how he gets into the house, but he always has some excuse or other. This time it was to borrow some plates –he’d apparently broken both of his with too vigorous use of his cutlery. Jon is a large man and I suspect he leans rather heavily on his forks.

“Why are you doing laundry on a sunny afternoon?” he said, after grabbing some plates and a couple of beers from my fridge.

I shrugged and stared at him as if he were the Sybaritical grasshopper in that Aesop fable with the busy ant. “It piles up,” I muttered, trying to be polite to a friend who was offering me unsolicited borrowed beer.

Evidently puzzled, he raised the bottle to his lips while he thought about it. “Couldn’t the pile wait?” he asked, and put the now-empty bottle on top of the drier.

“Wait for what?” I have to admit I said it rather more harshly than I intended, but it’s hard to be neighbourly when deciding if grey underpants qualify for the white or the coloured load. I decided it didn’t really matter in the end, and dumped them in with the white towels as a sort of experiment.

“Towels are going to turn grey,” he said when he noticed my decision, and then immediately raised the other bottle to his lips as if to toast the obvious point that he was the more experienced laundry man.

“Only if it’s their first-time wash,” I said in what I hoped was the disparaging and crushing tone of voice my mother often used.

“Not what my mother taught me…” His rejoinder was, in turn, both smug and uncharitable. Jon was retired like me, so any teaching at his mother’s ringer washing machine, must have been back in the days when they were still using vegetable dyes and cotton that shrank just walking along a warm beach.

“Well, I’ve been doing it this way for years, and I don’t think it matters…” Sometimes you have to lead with experience.

His eyes twinkled and his lips parted enough to show a rack of false teeth. “And what colour did that underwear used to be?”

I know he was teasing me, but that kind of remark is why I’ve always felt that laundry should be done in a room with a lockable door. “Maybe all underwear turns grey after a certain number of washes.” It seemed reasonable when I said it, anyway.

“No wonder then, eh? You’re always at the washing machine when I come over.” Actually I’m not –Jon seems to drop over without warning, so I’m just as likely to be in the shower as in the laundry room. “I’m worried that you’re doing too much laundry, in fact.” He stared at the pile of clothes on the floor that I hadn’t yet sorted. He looked concerned.

“Jon,” I said, rolling my eyes for effect, “When things are dirty you have to wash them…” I fixed him with what I hoped was a stern, yet instructive pedagogic stare.

He walked over to the laundry basket and picked up a towel. “This is dirty?” Sarcasm dripped from his lips like beer from his bottle.

I shrugged in response. It was all crumpled; how can you tell if a crumpled towel is clean or not?

“When you come out of a shower, you’re supposed to be clean, right?” It was a rhetorical question, so I didn’t respond. He continued to interrogate me with his eyes. “So how does drying an already cleaned body suddenly make the towel dirty?”

I stared at it again for a few seconds. “Well, maybe I could have used it one more time…”

He nodded his head and pointed to the basket again. “And how about those jeans?”

For some reason I’d actually folded them neatly when I’d put them in there to wash. I’d have messed them up a bit if I’d known Jon would see them, I think. In fact, they’d just been hanging over the railing where I’d put them yesterday after wearing them to the store. When I noticed them, I figured I might as well wash them too. Thank god he hadn’t noticed the sweatshirt I’d just thrown in on the same whim.

“You’re going to wear everything out prematurely and have to spend all your pension just on replacing clothes,” he said, but with a hint of concern in his voice this time, as the possibility that it might mean less beer in my fridge suddenly occurred to him.

He eyed the detergent sitting by the clothes basket. “And just think what all that soap does to the environment, he said as he watched me dumping an unmeasured heaping cup of it into the machine.

I blinked and turned my head to glare at him. He never used to be an ecophile; in fact, he never used to be anything as far as I could remember. “If you want really clean clothes, you need lots of detergent, Jon.” I was beginning to become annoyed.

“My point exactly,” he replied, sighing loudly.

I glanced at the laundry, and picked up some more clothes, although the washing machine was already full. But the thought occurred to me that Jon might think I was begging the machine to do me a favour and accept just one more thing. So I dropped them on the floor again.

“You’ve got too much time on your hands, you know,” he said, shaking his head at my embarrassing retreat. I suppose it was obvious.

And suddenly I realized he’d just offered me an epiphany: maybe it wasn’t dirty clothes I had in excess, but Time… Dirty or otherwise.

“Let me get you another beer, Jon,” I said and led him out of the room without even turning on the machine.