The Smell Test(s)
TAoN No. 100: Author Jude Stewart on keeping an olfactory journal — and improving your nose. Plus a new icebreaker, and more.
Smell is often an underrated sense — although at times we simply can’t miss or deny its power. Writer Jude Stewart recognized the potential in exploring how smell works and what it can mean, and made it the subject of her latest fun and illuminating book, Revelations in Air: A Guidebook to Smell. A tour of the olfactory, it’s part history, part science, and a “jubilant romp through the most undervalued of the senses” as one admirer put it.
I recently reached out to Stewart after reading her enjoyable interview in Mark Frauenfelder’s terrific The Magnet newsletter. (I should mention I’m also an admirer of Stewart’s super-fascinating and beautiful earlier book, Patternalia.) “Learning to smell is all about noticing — tuning into an often-neglected sense that surrounds us daily,” she noted in a subsequent exchange. And since Revelations in Air includes “a bunch of simple exercises to help you get started,” I asked her if she might pick one to share with TAoN readers.
She obliged with three cool ideas! First:
“One I liked was starting a smell journal — nothing fancy, just a text doc on your phone will suffice. My goal was to notice one smell daily and jot down some observations about that smell — pushing myself a bit to verbalize what I smelled, versus just identifying it.
“That journal delivered two levels of benefit, one expected and one quite unexpected. The expected benefit was what I was aiming for: It heightened my awareness of everyday smells. If you’re trying to notice just one smell every day, you will inevitably notice more than one — and then have the fun mental game of choosing between them, describing them both or whatever.
“Now for the unexpected benefit: noticing smells is a really emotionally evocative way to journal, period. Paging back through smell entries, you can’t help but remember other aspects of those days, the weather, the texture of the day, etc. I recall the day the lilacs finally bloomed here in Chicago (where spring is always reluctant to arrive) was also the day a long-awaited check arrived, and I had a fantastic mushroom bourguignon for dinner. Little stuff like that rushes back to you with surprising clarity and force — all thanks to smell.”
This is so great! (Even though I detest mushrooms — including their smell LOL.)
Here’s another idea that requires less commitment over time, but sounds really promising:
“This is a one-off you can try at home: Gather a lot of similar smells together and compare them. For instance, I like to cook and have several types of vinegar in my pantry. You grab all your vinegar bottles, pour a little of each into a small bowl, and then sniff the bowls in turn.
“At first, they all smell like vinegar. But right away you should notice some differences between the apple cider vinegar and the balsamic and the rice wine. Take a minute to study those differences, then maybe test your knowledge blind-folded with a friend. This exercise built my confidence that I could actually improve at smelling — and that I wasn’t half-bad at it to begin with.”
Stewart generously offered a third idea that I like a lot, too — but I’m running out of space, so I’m going to save that one as a bonus for subscribers this Thursday.
Or, of course, you can just get Revelations in Air for all of that and much, much more. You should!
Thank you so much, Jude!
Previously in TAoN:
The Art of Noticing is Rob Walker’s newsletter about creativity and staying human. Your support makes it possible.
As noted: In this coming Thursday’s issue for paid subscribers, a bonus prompt from Jude Stewart! Also: News of a planned Zoom chat open to paid subscribers, between designer/educator Tom Weis and me. And more.
The most recent Thursday post, inspired by Adam Kurtz’ Pick Me Up, was about noticing what’s around you, and why.
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Noticing is about other people, too. The Icebreaker series aims to help with that. There’s a central collection spot for all the icebreakers to date, here.
This week’s icebreaker comes from reader Jackie Bayer:
What’s the worst advice you’ve ever been given?
That’s a fun one! And I guess no further explanation required. Thanks so much, Jackie!
As usual, I’m still working through the disorganized backlog of icebreaker submissions. But as always, I want more:
Please send your favorite icebreaker (whether you made it up or found it elsewhere) to firstname.lastname@example.org
In Other News
Another good virtuous time-killer: The Wikipedia history game, “you’re presented with a succession of people, places, and things with associated dates that you have to correctly place in chronological order.”
Old Soviet movie posters never get old.
On letting “hot boredom” cool down.
“Rest should not be a luxury; our time belongs to us and is not inherently a commodity. Reclaiming our time is an act of sovereignty over our lives, deserved by everyone.”
I’ve set this video to start at around 39 minutes in, to catch the final act, Tufan Derince, a Kurdish “master of the elektro bağlama.” He and his band are great players and amazing to listen to, but what I really love is how into it they are. They just look so happy to be making music!
Okay that’s it!
As always, I value your feedback (suggestions, critiques, positive reinforcement, constructive insults, etc.), as well as your tips or stories or personal noticing rituals, things we need a word for, and of course your icebreakers: email@example.com. Or use the comments!
—> Or just click the heart symbol. That always makes my day.
And thanks for reading …
All this by Rob Walker PO Box 171, 748 Mehle St., Arabi LA 70032
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