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There aren’t enough words in English for smells and tastes

Wednesday, April 30th, 2008

For the past year or so, I’ve been going to the wine tasting that the local wine shop has every weekend.  [Schedule].  As a way of focusing my attention, I’ve started to write tasting notes for myself–partly so that I can remember what it was that I tasted, and partly to really pay attention to the wine.

Along the way, the guys at the shop have been very helpful with my efforts.  They usually have the descriptions of the wines that the vintners have produced.  Over the months, I’ve come to notice that all the words that “experts” use to describe wines are, in fact, similes–it tastes like black current, it smells like hay.  As I’ve been working on this, I’ve noticed that English really has remarkably few words for smells and tastes–at least appealing ones–that don’t have metaphor packaged inside.

By contrast, the vocabulary for the visual spectrum is quite large.  There is hardly a shade of color that doesn’t have it’s own word, and I don’t hear them as metaphors–what’s a mauve, or a teal [well, OK, there’s a duck, but they’re not this color], or an ecru.  I’ll admit that I’ve had my fair share of conversations along the line of “What would you call that green over there?”…[or blue]  Somehow the colors in that part of the spectrum elicit both the finest distinctions and the most argument about what the color actually is.  In your mind, how green is turquoise?

On the other hand, the words for smells and tastes don’t come to mind as readily.  Back a few months, I was tasting a pinot noir [Wild Hog, 2006, to be precise] and I perceived that there was some herbal note that I just couldn’t put a word to.  I was really struggling, and expressing my frustration, when one of the guys asked me if it was OK with me to suggest a word.  I said yes [and thanked him for asking, since I’m trying to develop a personal vocabulary for my perceptions] and then he said “dill”.  I said–effectively–eureka!–or I would have said whatever the Greek for “You’ve got it!” is.

Maybe what I’m really complaining about is that I’ve never taken the time to develop the ability to put smells and tastes into words, in the way that I can with sights or sounds.  On the other hand, if we all didn’t struggle with this vocabulary, I don’t think that there would be all these courses for people to help develop their wine-tasting skills.

A few years ago, Jeremy and I were in the Amador county [California] and we went wine-tasting at Renwood Winery.   The winery produces some very tasty zinfandel.  In order to help people perceive the various elements that are present in their wines, they had set up a “smelling bar” of wine glasses with various fragrant things that might be characteristic of a good zin…raspberries, cherry jam, chocolate, tobacco, pepper, and, from here, I think that I’m remembering something green…maybe mint?….  By going around this bar, I was able to get a noseful of the pure scent, so it was easier for me to catch a hint of it when I was smelling a glass of wine.  But this comes back precisely to my point…here, the metaphor is being made concrete.  The wine smells like chocolate literally.   First, I’m smelling the chocolate; next, I’m smelling the wine–the same scent is echoed in both. 

“Yes” means yes and “No” means no

Tuesday, April 29th, 2008

Many years ago now, I was taking a long car trip with a woman friend, and we were having one of those “car conversations”–those long discussions that one has on a long trip, at least in part because everyone understands that there is the time that it takes to talk about something complicated.  At the time I was single, and she asked me about my erotic life–she knew I’m gay, and she also knew that I was sexually active. 

So I explained that there are a whole variety of places where gay men can go to connect for sex.  I explained that, depending on the venue, it’s quite uncommon to know very much about one’s partner-of-the-moment.  She couldn’t believe that it would be possible to do this.  After a while trying to puzzle out what the confusion was for her, it became clear that the thing that makes these places work is that everyone understands that “yes” means yes and “no” means no.  So it’s possible to engage in some activity on the briefest of acquaintance without worrying too much about the activity becoming something that is unpleasant, or worse.  Usually, it’s enough to say “This isn’t working for me” to extricate myself from a situation.  And part of that freedom is that everyone knows that there are plenty of other guys around–so if this one didn’t turn out so great, I can try someone else.

On the other hand, I met some real friends and lovers at sex clubs.  When I was living in Massachusetts, I would occasionally go to the bathhouse.  Once, I met a guy, and we went back to his “room” for some great sex.  And that was that.  A month of so later, we crossed paths again at the bathhouse, and we wanted to connect again, but neither of us had a room yet.  So we sat around and started talking about who we are.  It quickly became clear that we had a lot in common.  After a while, he got a room, and we adjourned for some more sex.  He invited me to stay over at his place, so that I could drive home in the morning–it was a bit of a way.

The next morning, a Sunday, he asked me to drop him off at the Quaker meeting.  At that point, we started to understand just how few “degrees of separation” there were between us.  I asked if he knew my first boyfriend, who was active in the Friends for Gay and Lesbian concerns–and of course he did.  He found out the college where I was teaching, and he told me that his best friend from high school was one of my colleagues–in the same department.  Later I told her about meeting him, she said that she wondered if we would run across each other, because we were “the smartest and sleaziest people she knew”.  I took that as a compliment.

To return to the friend on the car trip, she explained that, in general, relations between men and women are not characterized by this kind of straightforward communication.  And it does seem that there are a lot of messages telling men to believe that when a woman says “No” it means maybe, and when she says “maybe” it means yes. 

I suppose that the best way to tie this up is to refer to “What part of No don’t you understand?

What’s a first opera for adults?

Monday, April 28th, 2008
I think that the standard answer to the question: What's a good choice for a first opera to see?--is usually either La Boheme or Madame Butterfly, both by Puccini.  They're both fine examples, full of gorgeous melody, and definitely evoke ... [Continue reading this entry]

Knitting as a Tool for Reflection

Sunday, April 27th, 2008
I learned how to knit from my mom, when I was a kid.  I got a fair number of comments along the lines of "Boys don't do that", but that's another story.  I ended up puttng my needles down for ... [Continue reading this entry]

More Mark Doty–Memoirist

Friday, April 25th, 2008
     I just finished Dog Years, and once again found myself in tears reading this author.  This memoir is largely focused on his life with two dogs: Arden, a black part-Labrador, part-Newfoundland, part-who-knows-what mutt, and Beau, a golden retriever.  And, given ... [Continue reading this entry]

What changes and what stays the same?

Friday, April 25th, 2008
   I've been pondering this question: What changes and what stays the same?   I don't know that I have any answers, but I saw an exhibit of photographs that seemed to address the issue profoundly.  The exhibit has been collected ... [Continue reading this entry]

Mark Doty–poet of the depths of surfaces

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2008

A Display of Mackerel

They lie in parallel rows, on ice, head to tail, each a foot of luminosity . barred with black bands, which divide the scales' radiant sections . like seams of lead in a Tiffany window. Iridescent, watery prismatics: think abalone, the wildly rainbowed mirror of a soapbubble sphere, think sun ... [Continue reading this entry]

‘Radishes Smile, and All Beings Rejoice’

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008
The title is a quotation from one section of Edward Espe Brown's book Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings.  I'll be talking about radishes in a bit, but first some words about the author and about the book in general.  Edward ... [Continue reading this entry]

Three performances–Sometimes it’s magic, and sometimes it isn’t

Sunday, April 20th, 2008

Over the past few days I've seen three live performances.  I want to use this post to ponder the complexities of how we react to live performance.  I want to say at the start that no one wants to give ... [Continue reading this entry]

Faggots & their Friends between Revolutions (2)–Women Wisdom

Friday, April 18th, 2008
   I think it's time for another bit from this book.  There are a number of pages labeled "Women Wisdom".  They represent various things that women have learned that they can and do teach the faggots.
 The strong women told the ... [Continue reading this entry]