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31 August, 2013

What Smell?

I have a friend who was looking for a place to live in the Portland-Vancouver sphere of influence, and found himself in the town of Camas, Washington. A massive pulp mill there pumps out stinky steam in vast volumes, at least on some days, and he wondered if this was the case all the time. So he asked a local, "Does it smell like this all the time?"

And the local said, "What smell?"

We get used to the local stinks and our auto-aromatic effluvia. Some people cannot stand it and move, or slather themselves in some masking odor, but often as not, the nose and mind conspire to erase the stench we cannot escape. It moves so far into the background that we cannot tell it smells; it dissipates so we can get on with life.

Recognizing the stank of someone else's town is easy, sensing the pee smell in an apartment where cats dwell challenges noone but the cat lady, and this adds to our perception that the townspeople may be brain-damaged by the smoke-stack blightning and that the cat lady is deranged. But she feels normal, and the people of Camas go about lives like most of us; they don't spend their days bemoaning a sub-standard life, as far as I can tell.

Which makes me wonder, what stinks in my life? What is it that people smell, or see, or hear about me that is odious or off-putting, but that I have no clue about? I can guess at a few: I sweat a lot and am no stranger to the aromatic aftermath, I speak caustic and radical ideas,...but there must be things about me that I am smell-blind or sight-deaf to, things that feel normal to me, but to others are offensive.

We all have our Camas smokestacks. Some people may pity us for them, while others hold their nose, and still others flee in disgust. Sometimes, we can and should shut down the mill, make changes to eliminate offal odors and improve ourselves. But our ability to say "What smell?" can be a positive adaptation, an ability to live in the moment and get done what needs doing, rather than engaging in what will end up being an endless and ultimately futile campaign of eliminating all odors, or banishing every quirk and imperfection. Places and people differ, and it would be boring if everyone and all places were universally acceptable.

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