Tonight I found dog shit. In two of the most unpleasant ways I could ask for. The elderly Wheaton Terrier I am dogsitting for a friend decided that going outside was simply too much trouble on a cold, rainy New England evening. While I don’t necessarily disagree with her, I did find the area in which she chose to poop to be most difficult. While peacefully watching television, my nose was hit with a vile, vulgar putrid smell of fresh dog feces. I literally jumped to my feet and shouted, “What the *&^>?” While I understood that if couldn’t be far from where I was seated, and probably in the vicinity of the door, I simply couldn’t see it. My vision loss has progressed rapidly due to an unsuccessful surgery 6 weeks ago and the challenging earth-toned (also poop colored) Oriental rug proved impossible to discern poop from pattern.
Grabbing a paper towel I swore like a sailor as I attempted to ‘find’ the feces with my hands, fishing around aimlessly on the carpet, following my nose, and waiting to touch something squishy. After supposedly getting it all, I turned to take it outside, where I then proceeded to step in the hidden pile. Crap. Literally. While taking my shoe off to rinse if off in the sink, I then stepped in another pile in my bare feet. Dammit. I had a literal meltdown in the living room, enraged with the frustration of my newly lost vision and my lack of ability to adapt as quickly as I would obviously like to.
But truly, how HAVE I adapted? Well, honestly, pretty darn well if you ask me, and also my friends and family. Although I still stubbornly walk extremely fast, even when I don’t have my trusted guide dog at my side, or my cane to show me the way, I do pretty well considering I’m down to my last 1% of usable vision, which is fading fast. I’ve color-coded my closets, arranged my medicine cabinet, brailed my lock at the YMCA (which I now realize was a stupid thing to do, as now EVERYONE knows my combination!), and finally learned to use the voice technology for my phone. I have a guide dog, I use guides to run and do triathlons, and I’ve mastered public transportation. I’m ready to be a blind person. Or am I?
Honestly my greatest asset is also my Achilles’ heel. My nose, this wonderful, tiny glorious gift from God that I have smack in the middle of my face. It is the solitary reason for my successful career as a sommelier, enabling me to pick out wines completely ‘blind’ (unknowing of the vintage, grape or region of origin) without batting an eyelash. This nose has made me tens of thousands of dollars over an 18 year career, and millions for my employers. As a young aspiring pharmacy student at the University of Connecticut, I was diagnosed with this rare degenerative eye disease that would eventually render me totally blind. I was able to change a job waiting tables into a pathway to become certified as a sommelier and get me and my palate, and this lovely nose, an education.
To this day there are wines I have tasted but ONCE in 18 years, and I remember every single nuance and tone of that gorgeous, intriguing bouquet. I have a ‘scent wheel’ and ‘flavor wheel’ of tens of thousands of wines I’ve tasted in my life. Like the Oliver Hill Grenache I tasted in 1999 that instantly was a dead-ringer for grape-flavored Tootsie Roll Pops. Or the Pfalz Riesling that smelled just like my childhood Barbie Doll’s plastic feet, or the sweet unctuous nectar of a 1997 Chateau D’Yquem. Each is a stain forever burned into my palate, and a molecule left deep inside my sinuses, never to be forgotten.
As my sight deteriorates, the flavors and aromas have become increasingly more pronounced. Wines that were at one time subtle to me, are now volatile and forceful, screaming their flavors at alarming speed and intensity. The layers of flavors that were once hidden to me only 5 years ago now come sharply to the forefront, displaying their angles and nuances like a flamboyant peacock spreading its wings. Flaws in wine scream at me, disallowing me to look past even the most forgivable mistakes in winemaking and poor vineyard management.
Last night, after a particularly tough workout, I used a product called Tri Pain Relief, a topical analgesic for sore muscles, with arnica in it. With one twist of the jar, I was taken back to early mornings in Florida, where I used to train and exercise showjumping horses, to the pungent liniment we would use to rub down our horses’ bodies after a tough training session. I could still picture the steam rising off their backs as we rinsed the sweat off their bodies in the early morning hours while the sun slowly rose in the distance. The smell was intoxicating, and my friends and I at the barn always joked that we’d marry the man that wore it as cologne. As a woman in a food and wine based business, I often get asked what my favorite food is. Honestly I haven’t had my favorite meal in nearly 30 years, but I will never ever forget the smell of it in my mother’s General Electric oven. Soy chicken wings. Sounds simple? Oh no! It’s NOT, I promise! The salty, savory aromas of soy sauce and hints of apricot jam make my mouth water. She swears she’s forgotten how to make the, but I’m determined to tackle this culinary feat. If I never have it again though, I will never forget that smell. My mouth is watering right now!
Suffering from migraines chronically has made my nose a detriment however. The sweet, musky perfumes of the ladies at the gym send me running from the room. The smoker on the train platform has me desperately searching for air. The smog of a diesel engine causes me to hold my breathe until I nearly burst. Everything comes at me turned ‘up’ to eleven. The subtlety is gone. The joy can be sucked out of a walk down the street. a trip to a store, or a workout at the gym. The searing pain begins sharply in the depths of my sinuses, triggering an almost instant flash of white light then a stillness as the migraine sets in. I become disoriented, my speech is slurred, and I dive for a dark, quiet, nasally neutral space. When all else fails, I grab an orange and rip it open or find a coffee shop to clear the offending scent from my passages and pray for relief.
But even with the dial turned up to eleven, I still find joy in scents of each and every day. The sweet smell of sawdust as I leave my apartment complex where construction continues, taking me back to helping my grandfather build the barn to house our horses, or the last fragrant roses that have hung on long past their season as I walk to the train. That decadent odor of freshly roasted French Roast coffee, that honestly smells like a heady mix of marijuana and cocoa powder as I walk past the local artisinal coffee shop. The fresh linen scent of my fabric softener hits me as I walk faster towards my train. Even the scent of my own sweat as I finish a particularly difficult run or bike makes me feel great to be alive. I’m grateful for the chemical smell of the pool that lets me know I’ll be clean and stay safe from bacteria in my post surgical eye, and finally the smell of Elvis’ paw pads on the bed next to me, just like Frito’s Corn Chips as his gentle breathing lulls me to sleep.
Losing my sight has gained me so much. I have an entire world of scents, aromas, and flavors to catalogue and store in my mind’s Rolodex. The filing cabinet never gets full, and I get excited each and every time I can comb through the mental archives and remember a wine or a food that I enjoyed with great company in an amazing place. My nose is so closely tied to my memory that the two are now inseparable, and for that I am so incredibly ecstatic. I will never grow tired of being able to smell a flawed wine from across a room, or uncorking that hedonistic, heady aroma of a truly special vintage yet to be explored. Adding to the Rolodex is a daily job that I look forward to with great enthusiasm. Even the bad aromas and terrible wines stay with you. Without the bad, there could be no great.
So as I sit here and comb through my Rolodex, I guarantee that as I lose my remaining eyesight, you too have been committed to my ‘scent wheel’ in the Rolodex. Like a thumbprint, there you are, along with each food, place, animal, hair product and pine tree I’ve ever come across. Losing my vision has been one great adventure of a different sort, and I so look forward to years of exploring wine, food, new places and more. Just stand close enough so Elvis and I can get a whiff………