One afternoon, I accidentally got off the wrong floor of my East Village apartment. Each floor in the building looked exactly the same, and yet, for some reason, I felt that something was amiss. Wait, it smells different, I thought.
Smell, the most underestimated and underappreciated of our senses, is everywhere. In Chandler Burr’s The Emperor of Scent, he tells the story of a woman to whom everything smelled vile. The condition, cacosmia, kept her indoors for years, until a doctor diagnosed her to have a form of epilepsy that was interfering with her olfactory bulb. Once given the proper medication, the woman could recall the specific moment when her sense of smell started to become normal. The room she was in started to change in perspective, as though it were moving. It seems that smell affects our sense of space.
Curiously, things that we may not immediately attribute smells actually give off odors. Here are some examples:
You know when you (or animals) can “smell” that rain might come? Well, it turns out that you’re not imagining it. Rain does give off a smell; three of them, in fact. These are ozone, petrichor, and damp earth, according to Daisy Yuhas of Scientific American.
Perhaps “ordinary” isn’t the word I would use for space, but it’s quite fascinating that something that primarily awes us visually can also smell otherworldly. Megan Garber of The Atlantic reports that astronauts describe the smell of space in various ways, such as “seared steak,” “hot metal,” and “welding fumes.”
Dogs, whose sense of smell is 100,000 times more sensitive than that of humans. Last year, German researchers reported that dogs can detect the smell of cancer, specifically lung cancer. When cells start to mutate because of the disease, they give off volatile odors that dogs can detect.
Hacking into olfaction
Scientists are increasingly finding ways to elucidate the complex process of olfaction. In 2010, Harvard scientists engineered mice that were capable of “smelling light.” The same year, German scientists also engineered flies that were capable of perceiving light for unpleasant smells.
I realize that through many years of living elsewhere, I’ve noticed things…more. As the years passed, my mind automatically latches on to what at first seems inconsequential, but eventually holds something of reflective importance.
Poetry is the bastard child of wanderlust. When one has many versions of what is “familiar,” one can generate a different perspective of the most mundane of things. Two weeks ago, I glanced up on my way out of my apartment, and noticed a bunch of balloons trapped among the branches of a tree. This isn’t the first halted balloon flight I’ve seen, yet by the nth time I see it, I now view them as a symbol of a dream whose flight got killed in midair—a tragedy, a loss. I begin to imagine the story behind it: the child to whom these balloons probably belonged, if he was sobbing, if he had his mother to cry to, if this was a significant character-building experience. I begin to imagine the story after it: what if pigeons untangled the balloons and let them fly, what if someone shoots at them with arrows, what if birds turn them into a nest, what if they get untangled eventually yet fall limp to the ground and someone refills them with helium so they can fly again. And so on and so forth.
Same way out the door on a different morning, and I see a flock of pigeons grouped together, lying in wait in a line. I recall Pablo Neruda’s poem, Bird, which begins:
“It was passed from one bird to another,
the whole gift of the day.”
I notice a lot of humor, too, in the sometimes punishing streets of New York City. Ironically, or perhaps intentionally, a beauty salon was just around the corner. The chalk marks read, “The cruel hand of fate could use a manicure. —Elbowtoe.”
Walking home from taekwondo one night, a friend pointed out a birdhouse hanging from a tree branch. A few days later, I came back on an afternoon and took a photograph:
I took another photo, this time showing it across the Hotel Chelsea. Because of its controversial history, I’ve always associated it with death and the macabre, and so having a brightly painted birdhouse, which recalls life and hope among other things, seems an evocative contrast to see, here in the city of many contradictions.
I love strangers, and catching them in states of wonderment.
For the second year in a row, I’ve watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade from the (warm) apartment of two friends who have adopted me during the holidays. I love balloons, and I love watching people watch balloons.
Last year, my favorite shot was of Spiderman and Grandma (left) and this year, it’s a photo I caught of Doughboy and Little Girl. I love these because it captures that state of awe you can still get from ordinary objects. I’m sure they, as well as the thousand of parade-goers every year, have seen balloons before. In fact, I noticed that a lot of the balloons this year were repeated from last year, Spiderman and Doughboy included. But still they press their hands on the windows and gape.
If there is one thing I am grateful for this Thanksgiving, it’s this ability to wonder.
To wonder is to marvel; to stare at the world with astonishment. It’s when you can look at a malformed mass of plastic and, despite your knowledge of it being blown for capitalistic ends and annually recycled, still gasp. It’s when you’ve think you’ve seen it all, yet you still do a double-take. It is these little moments that catch you off-guard, and shake down the protective walls of cynicism you have built around you. To wonder is to be curious, and it is this powerful spark that makes us do big, sometimes unexplainable, things. Wonderment costs nothing, won’t come to you unless you let it, and can be found throughout the spectrum of humanity.
Happy Thanksgiving, all! From one who used to think you could never have pumpkin for dessert. (Yum.)