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De File - Reconditioned Air: Smell and Memory, Part I
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Reconditioned Air: Smell and Memory, Part I
I'm probably the last person who should be writing about the link between memory and our sense of smell. As anyone who knows me well will attest, my allergies and the medications I take for them have rendered me insensitive to a vast array of odors. Someone will walk into a room and declare, "That smells terrible! How can you just sit there?" But despite having been right near the source of the offense, I will be baffled by the query.

Having said that, my sense of smell has improved a good deal in recent years. Ever since I finally consented to steroid treatments for my asthma and allergies -- treatments which, it must be noted, I do take protracted breaks from whenever possible -- I have been experiencing moments of olfactory clarity now and then. Suddenly, the keen perception of an odor will distract me from whatever I'm doing and compel me to a deeper mindfulness. Even when the smell is unpleasant, this heightened awareness is a welcome change from my how I used to experience the world,

I'm starting to wonder, though, whether my past was really as aroma-deprived as I believed. Not only am I noticing smells a lot more than before, I'm finding that memories of my pre-steroid days have a way of flooding into consciousness to accompany those smells. Recently, for example, I had an intense, smell-triggered recollection that inspired me to pursue this topic further. I was cleaning up in the front bathroom of my parents' apartment after helping my mom off the toilet and wheeling her into the dining room when I was suddenly transported back to my teenage years in the Washington D.C. area.

The strange part is that even though the combination of lingering smells in the bathroom was not particularly pleasant, it made me recall one from a place with which I have highly positive associations: the Smithsonian Institution. More specifically, as I soon realized, it reminded me of being inside the Museum of Natural History. Not the National Gallery, the Air and Space Museum or any of the other buildings on the Mall. Those smell differently. Indeed, the more I thought about it, the more it become clear that many of them have a unique aroma that I identify with them or, to be more accurate, an aroma which I have used to identify them.

Because I spent my those years living in a suburban Maryland house without air conditioning, where the midnight temperature was regularly in the 90s with a relative humidity that often seemed to be approaching that figure as well, I spent as much of the summer as possible in the District. I'd get up early, despite my night owl proclivities, to accompany my father on his drive to work. I would then sit with him for a while in his office while he read the newspaper as he waited for the workday to begin, reading the articles he would periodically pass my way. Then, when public buildings started to open, I would head out on my peripatetic adventures, all of which were planned to provide extended sojourns in buildings with excellent air conditioning.

Since this was the era of the personal computer's ascendancy, I would frequently stop by the showrooms near my father's building at 16th and M Street NW. For a time, I would spend long hours laboriously entering programs into the Texas Instruments machine with a novel color graphics display at ComputerLand so that I could show off its brilliance and, I hoped, my own. Then, when Apple introduced the Macintosh to great fanfare, I shifted my allegiance to the store that would let me have extended sessions exploring its exciting features. I do remember being troubled by the way the latter were idiot-proofed and inaccessible to the sort of coding I was capable of. But the graphical user interface was too compelling to pass up.

These and other computer emporia were characterized by the same bland neutrality that characterized the consulting firms, non-profits and financial institutions in that part of Washington D.C., the "K Street Corridor" that was attracting so much attention in the Reagan Era, when lobbyists were practically celebrities. And yet for all of their deliberate blandness, these places had a smell that I can now recall quite distinctly, one defined by the conflict between hot electrical technology and air conditioning turned way down, a kind of olfactory storm front that made the air prickle, for an aspiring tech-head like possible, with the air of possibility.

When I was really in need of cool-down, though, I made my way to the Smithsonian. Something about the need to ward off decay and the high ceilings of those museums made them monuments to the potential of artificial temperature control. The Air and Space Museum was the best of all. Sometimes I would walk inside and just sit on a bench to breathe in the absence of heat and humidity. But all the buildings on the Mall were attractive to me for their air conditioning. At the National Gallery's West Wing, the marble reinforced the sense of cool. And at the Natural History Museum, the groups of school-age children and rather dated displays conspired to soften the air, making it feel warm without actually being warm.

In retrospect, I suppose the Natural History Museum, being older than the rest of the main Smithsonian exhibition areas, retained the aroma of preservation methods that left stronger, less pleasant smells than the ones deployed in recent decades. And the older ductwork no doubt contributed to this effect, which was never overpowering. My guess is that what I was smelling in the bathroom was similar enough to those traces that it conjured the memory of going there on hot days. I also suspect that the incongruity of the involuntary association, that conjoining of a present to be endured with a past fondly recalled, made the sensation particularly strong and, yes, memorable.

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Comments
alsoname From: alsoname Date: September 4th, 2012 07:37 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I realize we're only 37 minutes into the day, but in any case, "olfactory clarity" is my favorite phrase of the day so far.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: September 4th, 2012 03:51 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I'm glad! Today, alas, I am lacking in said clarity. My allergies have kicked up majorly in the last two weeks, though I can't figure out why.
cordelia_sue From: cordelia_sue Date: September 5th, 2012 03:23 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I love this post. You have a wonderful way with words. Thank you for sharing.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: September 5th, 2012 03:26 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Thank you for reading! I am trying to get out of a very long period of not feeling comfortable writing anything too confessional -- and, by association, here -- so it's nice to have feedback and especially nice to have such kind feedback.

I've been reading other LJs, though, in lurker-ish fashion, and have been glad to see that you've had some good things come your way in the past year.
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Charlie Bertsch
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Name: Charlie Bertsch
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ABOUT DE FILE
You're looking at content from my Live Journal, which I have been keeping since 2003. I consider it a personal blog, though it lacks stream-of-consciousness revelations that typify that genre.

That said, if you manage to discern the confessional mode within entries that are superficially tight-lipped, I will reward you handsomely. Or at least pretend to do so.

In addition to reflections, however mediated, on my daily activities, De File features periodic excavations of material from my "files," a revelation sure to disturb anyone who has seen my garage. It's an experiment in integrating past and present, perhaps with a little redemption along the way.

Politics is always on my mind, but rarely explicit here. I’m working on a theory about what personal writing like this does to literary identification and why some people resist its pull so powerfully. But my goal is to make that theory dissolve in my practice, a density in liquid.

You'll note that I have links to blogs not on LiveJournal directly above, as well as assorted websites of note. The blogs I read regularly on LiveJournal itself fall under "FRIENDS" at the top, for those of you unfamiliar with LJ’s workings.

You can write me. I'm "cbertsch" before the circle-a and "comcast.net" after it.
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