Stupid Tuesday questions, methyl salicylate edition

The bathrooms in my office remind me of my neurology professor from medical school.

I can explain.

Recently the cleaning service installed some sort of permanent air freshener on the inner rim of the commodes.  So now the loo smells strongly of wintergreen.  Given a choice of wintergreen vs some of the more cloying scents typically chosen for such purposes, I support the decision.

Which brings us to my neurology professor, a grande dame I will call Dr. Lilian Petrovich.  She was a little bit nutty. Much of what I know of various seizures and palsies is based on her acting them out at the front of the lecture hall.  During my neurology elective, she often tasked me with fetching the charts of patients seen by the other, much more junior neurologist, whom she thought something of a nitwit and whose notes she would occasionally contradict.  During brain dissections, when the pathologist would ask me to identify some structure or another, my reliably wrong guesses were met with an amusingly horrified expression from her, accompanied by a slow-motion headshake.

I adored her.  (For some reason, she also seemed to find my quirks and pretensions charming rather than annoying.)  I chose where to do my residency in some small part because she had done hers there, despite there being several intervening decades and it being a totally different department than pediatrics.

One of the things she (and any competent medical professional) would do as part of a neurological assessment was check the cranial nerves.  There are twelve of them, covering diverse functions such as your ability to open and close your eyes (different nerves for each!), stick out your tongue, etc.  However, hardly anyone checks all twelve.  They usually just check 2-12, and skip cranial nerve 1.  The first cranial nerve is the olfactory nerve, the one that lets you smell.  It’s mildly tedious to check, in that you have to have something handy for a patient to sniff.  You can’t use something like coffee, because there are visual cues that can tip off the patient what she’s smelling.  You can’t use something like rubbing alcohol, which has an irritant effect that travels to the brain using different nerves.  Since it’s not all that useful to document normal smell, most people don’t bother.  (If one were to write a fake medical report, it would be realistic for the examining provider to document only that cranial nerves 2-12 were normal.)

This drove Dr. Petrovich bananas.  She would often tersely remark that there were twelve cranial nerves, and that the same number should be checked.  Though lack of smell (or “anosmia,” in the biz) isn’t a profoundly useful clinical finding, it does offer clues to certain neurological conditions.  And Dr. Petrovich had no patience for people who ignored important clues.

So she carried a small vial of oil of wintergreen in the breast pocket of her lab coat.  The vial offered no clues to its content.  Most patients could identify it well enough (“chewing gum” or “root beer” being the usual guesses).  And voilà, cranial nerves 1 – 12 checked and documented.  As a token of affection that only a total nerd (like its recipient) would find sweetly moving, she gave me a little vial of my very own when I finished the elective.

Did I mention that I adored her?  And that I am delighted to see (via Google) that she is still practicing in the New York metro area despite being in her early 80s?

And so, the pleasant lingering scent in the bathrooms at work reminds me of one of my very favorite people from medical school.  And that’s this week’s Question: would anyone else care to share idiosyncratic sense associations?  Happy scents?  Troubling tastes?  Nostalgic textures?

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. Pine always makes me think of grad school and New York.

    It might be the one thing this Jew vaguely likes about Christmas*

    My grad school was in the far West Village. The closest stops were the 14th-8th Avenue stop and the 4th St stops. During Christmas time, one of the many tree farmers set up shop on my walk to and from grad school. There was something about getting hit by the scent of pine on the way home from grad school when it was dark and cold out that I found refreshing.

    I see people sell Christmas tress on the streets of San Francisco but it is not the same. Holiday time in San Francisco always feels odd to me. The decorations are always winter themed with snow and such but the weather is always a tepid low 60s. The low 60s are probably my least favorite temperatures, neither hot nor cold. Just blah.

    *My general stance on Jews and Christmas is “2-4-6-8 We Should Not Assimilate” Jews who put up “Hannukah Bushes” or describe themselves as Christmas-loving tend to get a sigh of disappointment from me because I see another generation that will not know their history and heritage as anything beyond a Seth Rogan joke about Jew-fros. I’ve gotten into many arguments with people who think Christmas should just be a universal winter gift giving holiday. It will always be Christ-Mass for me.

    • almost all the new york jews i know either are ok with or genuinely like christmas as an excuse to do cookie-related things. i’ll let them know they’re race traitors. 🙂

      • Race Traitors might be going too far but it does bring up a sense of disappointment.

        Honestly, I am a bit cynical on intermarriage and whether kids from intermarriage can have true respect and love for their Judaism. I have a friend who is Catholic but married a very secular Jewish guy. She says she wants to raise their children with mutual knowledge and respect to both religions but I am doubtful that this will happen. She is just too excited about Santa, Christmas, and other Catholic things, and he does not seem to care.

        Interestingly, I know another non-Jewish woman who converted upon marriage and now teaches Hebrew school.

        From my observations, people who grow up in intermarriage households become “kitsch Jews”. They understand that they have a Jewish parent but it is nothing more to them than the ability to make cute jokes about being slightly nebbishy, more in a bro-dude Seth Rogan way than a full-on intense Woody Allen way. And this is how thousands of years of culture, history, philosophy, and suffering disappear.

        • The one think Norman Podhoretz ever wrote that I admire is this (from memory, so not exact):

          It’s like there’s an election between the Jewish party and the Christian party. To vote Jewish, you have to vote Jewish. Because if you vote Christian you vote Christian, and if you don’t vote you vote Christian, and if you vote for anyone else you vote Christian.

        • *nods* I read all the conservative claptrap about disappearing Jews, and how we ought to intramarry more, and all of that.
          I convinced my husband to convert to Judaism (wasn’t hard, but it might tell you something about him to understand that a lot of it was him reading Jewish jokes).

          • might want to add: this is an honest conversion, of honest belief (complete with: “why I can’t convert to orthodox judaism”), rather than “convert to marry”

        • I converted to Judaism to marry my husband. Interestingly, he and both his parents grew up with Christmas trees! Now our son is married and they keep kosher. Oy!
          (When our kids were very young we occasionally put up a tree mostly because we did not want our young kids to assume that they had been “bad” and so Santa had skipped our home. As they became older we put more emphasis on Hanukkah. )

      • I also grew up in a suburb of New York that was so Jewish that there were more houses without Christmas decorations than with.

          • I grew up on Long Island, not New Jersey. I think you are from New Jersey, am I right? Now I will guess you grew up in Teaneck

            There are many towns in the NYC-Metro area like mine.

    • My fiancee is Jewish by heritage, although she doesn’t really observe it.

      It does make it easy to decide which family to visit on which holidays, however. For Thanksgiving, we visit hers. For Christmas, we visit ours.

      • See above. I am far from being the most religious person in the world. I don’t keep Kosher and only go to shul a handful of times a year.

        However, I am adamantly opposed to what I call “kitsch Judaism”. This is when a Jewish background is used as nothing more than a source for amusing jokes. Judaism is thousands of years of culture, history, philosophy, and suffering. It should not die out from being source material for Judd Apatow-Seth Rogan movies and a generation that has no more connection to their Judaism than as a source of jokes about being somewhat to very neurotic.

        • but wouldn’t an observant jew lay the same charge about how thousands of years of culture are dying because you – and many like you – not devoted to their tradition?

          • Jew v. Jew is an incredibly difficult and confusing series of infights, yes. There are plenty of articles and books on the subject.

            I am not asking people to be religious. I just wish for more acknowledgement of Jewish history and culture as something more than a source of jokes to get the cute non-Jewish boy or girl. There is something very odd about using Judaism as a source of attraction but exclusively targeting at a non-Jewish person and claiming how unattracted you are to your fellow tribe-members. I am not saying that your friends do this but I have noticed this.

          • I am Jewish on my mother’s side, and consider myself Jewish ethnically. (I am mulling a post about all of this based on this conversation, but tend to be chary of venturing into the personal in some areas. We’ll see.)

            I mention this only because I happen to think Jewish guys are generally pretty damn cute.

          • “I am not asking people to be religious. I just wish for more acknowledgement of Jewish history and culture as something more than a source of jokes to get the cute non-Jewish boy or girl. There is something very odd about using Judaism as a source of attraction but exclusively targeting at a non-Jewish person and claiming how unattracted you are to your fellow tribe-members. I am not saying that your friends do this but I have noticed this.”

            to be honest, at this point i don’t have any idea what you’re referring to. how’d we get from christmas cookies to dating non-jews? there’s a whole universe of popular culture doing this sort of anti-j-date thing?

            i bring up the more observant than thou thing because it seems like a very tricky line to play – biology and culture as destiny, but not too much destiny.

        • I trust you’re not opposed to the jokes, you just want the wry and charming humor to come in a package along with a sincere and sober appreciation for thousands of years of the rich cultural and religious experience. I can dig it. Still, it seems to me that culture is a dynamic which involves simultaneously honoring the past and participating in the present. The present reality is that the economy is geared heavily towards purchasing and exchanging gifts late in the year, originally derived from a Christian holiday but now, as a reality, has become entirely secularized and heavily commercialized. All cultures from all times in history have had occasions in which gifts are exchanged and in which significant economic resources have been invested. This happens to be ours. To preserve and honor tradition is not incompatible with joining in the happiness and festivity which your neighbors would surely be delighted to share with you.

          • I am indeed as you say not opposed to Jewish jokes, I love Jewish jokes. I do want it come as part of a package because I also have a sincere and sober appreciation for my Jewish background.

            I respectfully do not fully agree with your assessment on Christmas though. Yes it is largely a secularized gift-giving holiday but many of my largely secular(ish) Christian friends who like presents and food also find time to make some effort to assert their Christian background during this time and Easter. There is also the right-wing campaign that comes out everytime at this year to reassert how they see America as a Christian nation. Or plenty of my left-wing friends go against the commercialization of the time as well but largely for anti-Consumerist/Materialist reasons.

            Differences are good and make us stronger and better. The world would be boring if everyone celebrated the same holidays, believed in the same things, or wanted the same careers. I would not want to live in a society where everyone wanted to be an artist or everyone wanted to be a banker. I do enjoy living in a world with multiple desires and cultures. In the end, I think it is better for there to be multiple-Winter gift giving than one.

            Christmas just makes me somewhat grumpy. Largely at having to explain to people why I don’t celebrate and having them look like I ran over their house with a tank. There are people who want to warmly celebrate but they also tend to respect my Judaism and see my points about maintaining separate traditions. There are others who see my non-participation as some kind of severe threat for one reason or another.

          • I am not going to be a complete grinch about Christmas. I will gladly and happily attend a Christmas party or even a meal on Christmas Eve or Day.

            However, I think it should be perfectly understandable that I don’t want to decorate my apartment with a tree and decked out in red and green. Nor do I want to sing Little Drummer Boy or All Hail the New Crowned King. And when or if I have kids, I don’t want them to be taken to see Santa. Watching Rudolph might be acceptable. There is a strong debate in Judaism about which Christmas specials are Jewish acceptable or not. Dhalia Lithwick wrote an article about this for Slate. She seemed shocked that her husband was allowed to watch Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer as a kid.

          • Yes, actually, it is. One of the traditions of Judaism is to stand apart, to not even deign to eat food at your neighbor’s house (among plenty of other shitty traditions).

          • Does Krampus Count?
            In case Christians needed any more reason to think of Christmas as pagan!

          • New Dealer,

            I imagine I might feel very similarly about Jewish holidays to the way you do about Christmas, et al., if I had been raised “culturally Christian” in a predominantly Jewish society (bracketing the obvious baggage that comes with the real oppression Jewish people have undergone).

            One thing I’ve noticed with some of my prospective in-laws is that a couple of them seem very quick to criticize anything “Christian” simply because it’s “Christian.” My fiancee once mentioned her “vocation” and was admonished for using a “Christian” word. And I often hear a couple of throwaway comments about people who don’t believe in global warming “because Jeebus tells them not to.” (People who’ve seen me comment on this blog might have noticed that I sometimes get very acerbic when people make offhand statements about evangelicals. I think my tendency to acerbicity (real word?) is personal failing in me–it’s a chip I carry on my shoulder–so it’s hard to keep my mouth shut.)

            But as I said in the first paragraph of this comment, I have to realize I enjoy a certain amount of “Christian privilege” (despite my agnosticism/apothatism), and it would be at least a couple varieties of cruel to insist that their comments are “just the same” as an antisemitic comment would be.

            In other words, I think I see where you are coming from, at least inasmuch as someone with my background and present circumstances can see it. All I will add is that at every single Jewish celebration I have been invited to attend–and I’ve been to quite a few since I started dating my now fiancee–I have always been personally welcomed and without judgment.

          • at every single Jewish celebration I have been invited to attend–and I’ve been to quite a few since I started dating my now fiancee–I have always been personally welcomed and without judgment.

            And no one tried to convert you.

          • Pierre,

            Thanks for your kind and well-thought out comment.

            I would never criticize someone using the word vocation because it is a “Christian” word. Your fiancee’s parents seem a bit strident to me for this.

            I also think that most people who make the snide comments on Jeebus tend to be atheist and in my experience often grew up in Evangelical households. The most passion and sarcastic atheists I know tend to have grown up and then rejected (for a variety of reasons) a conservative Evangelical heritage.

          • And no one tried to convert you.

            And frankly, that hurts a little bit. What, I’m cute enough for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Scientologists, and that guy at the gay bar that one time, but not the Jews?!?

          • New Dealer,

            I think you’re right about who tends to make the “Jebus” comments. Although I could swear I heard it from my future brother in law (that is, the husband of my future sister in law….I get confused on the terminology), perhaps I’m mistaken. Certainly he said something with the same sentiment. On the other hand, perhaps I’m so overly sensitive that I “heard” it even though he might not have said it.

            Actually, both examples (the “Jeebus” comment and the “vocation” comment) came from my fiancee’s sibling and her husband and not my fiancee’s parents. I will say that her sister and husband have considered me a part of the family from day one, even before (ahem) the issue hadn’t been decided 🙂

          • Pierre —

            There are so very many wonderful things about Jewishness. Among them is Yiddish, easily my favorite language in the world. Avail yourself of the term “mishpucha,” into which you can happily lump the husband of your future sister-in-law.

  2. There are several scents most people find unpleasant that I find comforting.

    The simplest to explain is ammonia — I have pleasant associations with the smell of ordinary white household ammonia much like those that my grandfather had with Pine-Sol: it’s the smell of cleaning surfaces and windows, to me, because my mom had chemical sensitivities and we ‘made our own’ cleaning solutions for the most part. Our glass cleaner was ammonia, water, and a smidge of dish soap; for some other things we used vinegar-based solutions, and when we had to we broke out the bleach. I’ve come a crupper with this more than once trying to do a quick spray-and-wipe-down-the-dining-table-before-dinner with people over and having them PFAUGH at the scent.

    One that’s harder to explain is camphor. Starting at about the age of nine, I started having regular, severe hamstring cramps; something to do with my growth process. After seeing a doctor and being told there was nothing much to do but relieve the symptoms, I became an extremely heavy user of Tiger Balm, slathering the entire backs of both my legs with it once or twice a week, often every week. I love that smell now. It smells like cuddles and warmth and comfort.

  3. I was fortunate enough to take my undergraduate studies at UC Santa Barbara. The blend of salt air and eucalyptus in bloom which prevails in that part of the world continues to trigger both nostalgia and an alpha-state of relaxation for me. It is the opposite of stress.

    • Since I think you’re about my age, and Santa Barbara had a certain reputation, I’m guessing the sea air was often mixed with another, somewhat pungent odor.

      • Indeed quite a number of, shall we say, “biological” or even more specifically “gastric,” scents were mixed with the more pleasant environmental aroma.

        Rather less nostalgic.

          • Indeed, something that doesn’t grow nearly as tall as eucalyptus.

          • Understood. There was less of that than you might have thought. Might have been the crowds I was hanging around with.

            But I’d rather think about the eucalyptus now anyway.

    • I heard that UC-Santa Barbara is now one of the harder UCs to attend because of the location near the beach.

  4. There is a particular cologne that an old boyfriend wore frequently. Now when I meet a man wearing it, I instantly get a rush of hormones. I’m not reminded of the boyfriend, just the lust I had for him. This can be difficult when I’m in an elevator with a stranger.

      • Does they even still make Drakkar Noir?

        It was just as cheesy as Silk Stalkings!

          • It’s odd to think about a douche using cologne.

            But they sell plenty of Axe.

    • I am swamped with affection in a very similar cologne-old-boyfriend situation. Being swamped with affection for random strangers is equally awkward.

  5. Interesting that you wrote about this. I’ve been actively trying to cultivate a distinguishing sense of smell over the last year and a half or so – coinciding with my studies of both wine and organic chemistry – and I’ve found my daily experiences to be richer because of it.

    Even when it comes to senses like vision and hearing – senses that are much stronger in humans – many of us often drift through our daily lives only passively experiencing. I find that deliberately paying attention to and mentally cataloguing the smell of a place and recognizing that smell upon one’s return had added a sublime richness to my quotidian life.

    This day and age we’re bombarded by strong odors: the city, air fresheners of all sorts, burning fossil fuels, the unchecked global suite of spices and flavorings, artificial food additives, ubiquitous cleaning products, etc.

    An author I’m reading right now (Rowan Jacobsen) has suggested abstaining from sugar for a month. I might. I’ve always had an affinity for the thought of the stoics – that depriving ourselves of some thing or experience will cause us to know and appreciate that thing or experience.

    • you seem to think that carcinogenic woodsmoke wasn’t allpervasive! Or body odor, for that matter.
      Go take a 20 mile hike out into the woods, and bunk down there. 😉

    • In one of her cookbooks, Marcella Hazen says she can smell if food is properly salted. She instructs the reader to make a tomato sauce — sofrito of onions and garlic in olive oil, tomatoes, basil or oregano, but no salt, no sugar.

      And smell it. It will smell flat.

      Then add salt and smell it again. A bit of sugar, and smell it again. Neither the salt nor the sugar have an aroma, but you can smell them in the sauce.

      I was skeptical, so I tried. And it’s true. I often find myself teaching others how to cook; and it’s among the first things I teach them — cook with your nose, you can tell when things a properly seasoned not just by tasting, but also by aroma.

  6. Diesel and diesel engine exhaust (in trace amounts, no huffing or dying here thanks much).
    I was raised on East Ironbound Island in Nova Scotia, the grandson of a fisherman. The boat ran on diesel, the make&break haul up engine ran on diesel, the school bus ran on diesel, the car ran on diesel, the working men smelled of diesel and on top of that there were all kinds of old diesel drums here and there in places where a youngster was prone to be poking about.
    Fresh salt air wasn’t a smell, it was reality, it was everything. You don’t notice everything. Diesel is the smell of my youth.

    • I actually have a similarly strange nostalgia for the smells of certain exhaust. For some reason it reminds me of airports and trips to England to visit relatives with my family when I was a small child.

    • I like the smell of gasoline in small doses – related, the smell of residual gas/oil when summer rains first hit hot pavement.

  7. I love the smell of baby ointments based on pine resin. I’ve loved them since I was very young, and I went for a period of many years knowing that there was this thing that I had been used to smelling often, of which I was reminded by BBQ smoke, but the memory of which was totally lost to me. It was aggravating, because I tried asking relatives about this smell I remembered, but no one else could recall it.

  8. Sight and hearing are actually my least relevant senses. Touch is my primary; and scent/taste are the most evocative of both emotion and memory (although I am allergic to way too many things one smells or tastes … but that is its own form of intensity.)

    So the answer is yes, I could write a whole book of answers to this question, if I had the Proustian skill to make such a thing interesting to other people.

    For today – trees. Anything that smells of trees or feels of trees or tastes of trees, I will love. (Except those low evergreen bushes that smell like cat pee, even though they SHOULD SMELL LIKE TREES. I would wipe out that whole SPECIES of shrub, if I could.)

    • I also support the total eradication of the Cat Pee Shrub.

      What’s weird is I have met ppl who either don’t smell it at all, or think it smells like something less offensive, like cannabis.

      No. It smells like freaking CAT PEE.

    • From Time Bandits:

      Randall: We made trees and shrubs. We helped make all this.
      Kevin: Whew! That’s not bad.
      Randall: Yeah. But did we get a thimble full of credit for it? No! All we got was the sack. Just for creating the Pink Bunkadoo.
      Kevin: Pink Bunkadoo?
      Randall: Yeah. Beautiful trees that was. Og designed it. 600 feet high, bright red, and smelled terrible.

        • Oh it’s great. Eminently quotable. I’ve seen it many times. Beautifully done.

  9. Oh, also pipe or cigar tobacco…. my favorite grandfather, the dad in my “second family,” my favorite band teacher, a lover in college, even Jay for a while… one of the happiest smells in the world.

    And I wrote an entire essay once about the smell of wild roses…

    *stops daydreaming, goes downstairs to eat lunch*

  10. When I was a kid, my dad made a Styrofoam cutter. It had a vertical wire thing that would get super hot, and you could run a slab of Styrofoam slowly through it to make shapes. Sometimes when I was walking home from school, I’d see that the garage door was open, and I could already smell the burning Styrofoam from way out in the street. I’d run like mad to the garage and be greeted by a smiling, busy dad and a stack of my favorite animals . . . bunnies, unicorns, elephants.

    I can’t fathom that’s good for the environment. But now, decades later, anytime somebody leaves a Styrofoam cup of coffee in the microwave too long and that burned smell fills the air, I am just about knocked over from the heartwarmingness of it all.

  11. The smell of mangoes transports me back to my childhood like nothing else. We had mango trees everywhere on the property. Guava, too, my mother making up all the guavas into jelly: they all come ripe at once, there’s no saving them unless you go the jelly route.

    • Oh man, we used to have guava/guava jelly as a kid. I haven’t had any in years.

      My buddy has a mango tree over his home office. Every time one hits the roof I jump like a grenade just went off.

  12. I am proud of my Jewish heritage; I also believe Jesus is the Messiah. *ducks*
    Speaking of intermarriage, I’m thankful that God led me to my wonderful gentile husband of 40 years.

  13. peat. at first when you visit somewhere that burns that stuff you’re like “ewwww” but after a while you say “oh i get it now…in addition to the extreme poverty thing, i mean.”

    and then you drink.

  14. I was just noticing this this weekend. I rarely drink scotch anymore, but the second I opened it up I was sitting at dinner with my dad in college. I also get very nostaligic for the hardwood forests I grew up around when I smell that wet decomposing leaf funk.

    However, stale Guinness or rancid fats can send me into fits of panic over a few old jobs.

  15. Diesel exhaust on cold mornings puts me in mind of my time in Europe while I was in the Air Force (whatever you do, don’t mention the war!). I don’t know why…cold and diesel exhaust are everywhere.

  16. Methyl Salicylate…isn’t that in some of those OTC pain patch things ? Vaguely recall seeing that name on a pack a couple times (I’m on my feet all day at work, so sometimes a knee gives me crap when I get home).

  17. Also, thanks to a period of my life involving something Colorado recently legalized & a smell removing tactic, I now associate the scent of hand sanitizer with what Colorado recently legalized.

    • Different substance and smell; but Jolly Ranchers do the same for me.

  18. I have both a smell and a sound, although they’re not at all the same thing.

    Each year as a kid I went to church camp, where we stayed in wooden cabins with wooden-frame screen doors. Over 3 decades later, the sound of a wooden screen door slamming shut instantly transports me back there. I’m planning to build a screen house in my back yard next summer, so we can sit outside without being mosquito-bit. A wooden-framed screen door is part of my intended design.

    The smell is the smell of Swiss Steak cooking. Not restaurant-style Swiss Steak, which is some weird meatloafy thing, but the Swiss Steak of my Swiss grandmother and mother. It cooks for about 3 hours, and to get the proper olfactory response you have to leave the house for a while. We would have it on Sundays, and mom would pop it in the over before we left for church. Come back a couple hours later, and walk into a house permeated with the mouth-watering and comforting smell of Swiss Steak. I don’t make it often enough for my kids, but it’s one of their favorite dishes, and I always try to get us out of the house for a little while as it cooks.

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