This morning, I opted to make myself one of my more indulgent breakfast staples: a whole-wheat English muffin with a boiled egg white, a slice of low-fat cheddar cheese, and a [meatless] breakfast sausage patty. (Please note the percentage of those words that sounded really healthy; I’ve obviously got my life together, folks.)
The trickiest thing about making this particular breakfast is the timing: toasting the muffin just in time to have it pop up and have the just-finished egg white placed on the lower slice, and then to make the veggie patty thoroughly enough but also quickly enough that by the time I get it onto the sandwich, the rest of the sandwich is still warm enough that, together, they can melt the cheese.
I don’t make this breakfast often because it requires a significantly higher level of functioning that I am usually capable of in the morning.
This particular morning, for instance, did not go one hundred percent smoothly. I must have accidentally put the patty in for one full minute instead of the usual thirty seconds, because at some point, while I prepared the egg white, I noticed a sort of smoky smell coming from the microwave. As the clock on the appliance ticked slowly down, the smell clarified into the specific smell of smoke. I turned around and looked at the microwave in fear, and sure enough, when it beeped and I opened the door, smoke and steam and the smell of vegetable protein masquerading as charred animal wafted out of it, streaming immediately up to the ceiling in a reverse waterfall from Hell.
There was the usual dance of opening all the windows and pulling all the batteries out of the smoke alarms (I was the only one awake at this point) and in a few moments, the crisis had passed. I tried again with the breakfast patty, this time being sure to completely de-ice it under a stream of lukewarm water and only nuke it for thirty seconds. Much more successful.
The nose is an interesting example of the “one of these things is not like the other” game you can play with your face, or really your entire body. Due to symmetry, there are only a few things about humans that are placed along the meridian of the body such that they do not come in pairs. For instance, the spine, the mouth and a couple other unmentionable orifices. And then there is the nose.
Like the rest of the senses, smell protects us. It protected me from unwittingly committing arson with an overly dry breakfast patty. It protects me frequently from walking around with dog poop on the bottom of my shoe. It protects everyone around me from getting too close when I’ve forgotten to shower or when I’ve eaten an onion bagel.
But smell also has this strong attunement to emotions and to memories. This is likely a side-effect of the methods it uses to keep us from eating something rotten or forgetting to turn off the oven, but it has such a different effect on us. There was a smell that the air conditioning made in my dorm in college that signaled the onset of summer. When the warm, humid rain is about to fall, I am immediately transported back in time to a gray day in my parents’ back yard when I picked flowers and put them in the trees for the fairies I was sure were there. The spicy cinnamon smell of Altoids will cause me to look around for my mother before I realize she couldn’t be there.
I don’t often think about how my senses affect my outlook on my environment. But somehow, facing that microwave this morning made me realize how much I rely on a part of myself that I rarely think about and almost never question. My senses, unlike my conscious thoughts, give me immediate input on the world around me that I can’t help but trust is correct. My vision may be blurry sometimes, and sometimes I can’t understand the words people say, but my senses have never out right lied to me.
How helpless and terrified I would feel if one day these pieces of myself stopped acting predictably. My life’s worth of sensory inputs have helped construct who I am today: the smell of warm turkey combined with the smell of dried leaves triggers my otherwise-rather-dormant patriotism, Old Spice deodorant is the Man My Man Could Smell Like [the tickets are now diamonds], and Tombstone-brand pizza is the only pizza that, while baking, can make my mouth water. If I have, in my life, erroneously made any associations between a smell and a truth, not only may I never know, but I would probably never know how it adversely impacted my worldview, actions, or life.
Moments like this, this spiraling existential crisis brought upon me by a bit of charred soy, are things that I thought wouldn’t carry over into adulthood. Between this confusing rediscovery of something so fundamental as my nose and the constant presence of acne on my face well after high school graduation, I am getting the sense that adolescence never ends. I wonder whether that uncomfortable “high school” experience that almost everyone has will linger indefinitely, cropping up at unlikely times. Will those quintessential first-year-of-college moments, where we realized that our families were atypical, keep happening and re-happening well into my old age? Will the period of human cognitive and social development labeled by Erik Erikson as “identity vs. confusion” prove to be an undercurrent of my entire life?
Will breakfast ever just be breakfast again?