Not long ago, I enjoyed tea and pastry at my favorite bakery. A woman with dizzying perfume swept into a seat behind me. Her sharp, expensive fragrance slid over my table, invading each sip and bite I took. Irritation engulfed me. I snatched up my notebooks and stomped across the room to pen a few ill-tempered paragraphs. When my tea tasted good again, I stole a glance at the perpetrator. Slim and sixtyish, she stiffened under my scrutiny.
I expected someone offensive and unlikable–a diabolical, slathering fiend, perfume bottle in hand, ready to shoot pungent fluids at my face. Instead, a frail and self-conscious senior citizen nibbled a croissant. Her red-and-black plaid pantsuit radiated as fiercely as her fragrance. She was the kind of woman who applies lipstick with a tiny brush and styles her improbable chestnut hair with precision. In a deserted bakery, she purposely chose the seat closest to twitchy, tappy me.
As an autistic woman, I cursed both my sensory sensitivity and social reticence. I wanted to explain my huff, but I had neither the words nor the poise. Perhaps the perfume she wore was her stim, her comfort, her way of making the outside world tolerable. Sitting close to me was an act of camaraderie, not hostility.
No matter how righteous my beliefs, I should not scorn the woman across the bakery.
After all, how many recoiled from me in hallways and lunchrooms because they found my excitability unnerving?
It is easy, instinctive even, to divide the world into smaller and smaller pieces to protect yourself. Cutting away people who smell too strongly, talk too loudly, or twitch too often can evolve into intolerance on a grander scale. Assail ideas, not individuals.
I timed my departure to match the flower woman’s, so I could hold the door open for her. Conciliatory words jammed my throat, but my eyes leapt to hers. I gave her my warmest, kindest smile. She held my gaze and smiled, “Thank you.”
Oh dry shampoo, why must you smell of pineapple or tropical blooms? Are you not made of cornstarch and propellant? Must I trail the mists of Hawaii behind me when I cannot bear wet hair?
Hand lotion! Spare me your false vanilla, green tea, and orchid! Make your fragrance-free products affordable and prolific!
Palmolive dish soap, you lie! Your unscented soap reeks of weedy melons!
Alas, the preponderance of fragrance!
Before Unilever shot rockets of underarm deodorant over the iron curtain, I lived in Moscow. Masses of summertime people pressed against me on public transport. Subway after subway, bus after bus, the aroma of tangy onions and tinned meat clung to humanity.
The uniform and predictable odor of the people became familiar, comfortable, even. Humans really don’t smell so bad, rather we have been conditioned (brainwashed?) to be revolted by personal odors.
So, if the purpose of hygiene products is to prevent offense, should I be less offended by the lady standing next to me, shoveling bucketfuls of lilacs into my nose?
I don’t mind if our culture is compelled to smell like flowers or fruits or trees, provided they do so with temperance. One can look away from an unwelcome sight or muffle excessive noise, but an unsolicited smell is inescapable.
Olfactory political correctness should be de rigueur. Let personal odors have a context, an intimacy. Let personal odors be a whiff, a breath of molecules as you draw near, not a drenching monsoon of semi-insecticidal body spray that fills each visited room.
Be kind to unknown strangers who may have autism, asthma, allergies, or other sensitivities. Keep perfumes private, within your walls or arms reach. Many will appreciate your olfactory discretion.
Axe to Grind: I rate this popular men’s fragrance!
People ask, “Where are the autistics of ages past?”
I can name one: World War I hero, Purple Heart recipient, and mental hospital veteran—my grandfather, W. B. Mueller.
Grandpa served on the infamous Western Front. He told few horror stories, except to say rain fell interminably, dysentery was widespread, and rats ate the dead and the living with equal zest. He also recalled that the murky trench water emitted a stench so profound it permeated his provisions. Grandpa swore every meal tasted like corpses.
As he crouched in the trenches, shells exploded above him with furious violence, shredding soldiers in the line of fire. One such shell barrage pinned down Grandpa’s squad outside Château-Thierry. Five marines perished beside him. A pinkie-sized shell fragment tore through Grandpa’s leg, lodging at an irretrievable depth.
Grandpa would have recuperated quickly and returned to battle in modern times, but without antibiotics, he became gravely ill. Months of infection dragged into years of chronic pain. A decade later, his leg was amputated. The ill-performed surgery left Grandpa with an often painful sometimes itchy phantom limb.
After the war, an intractable terror of roiling, murky water dogged Grandpa. He traversed bridges shaking and white-fisted. My Dad recalls dark flourishes of sweat spreading across Grandpa’s suit as he drove over the nearby Fort Loudon Dam for annual family gatherings.
Following one such trip, Grandpa incinerated his war memorabilia along with piles of neatly raked autumn leaves. No one connected the horror of trench warfare to Grandpa’s phobia of turbid, churning water.
Post-discharge, the American Textile Woolen Company hired Grandpa as a fabric designer and supervisor. Promotions and decades of prosperity followed. He proudly purchased a home and a procession of automobiles which he used to impress my much younger Grandmother.
He also flattered Grandmother with frighteningly sappy poems and letters, a delight to her twenty- year-old heart. Grandpa continued to write odd verses and jingles throughout their marriage. He entered his creations in five and ten dollar contests. The prizes were a boon during the Depression and allowed my Grandmother to buy a wild assortment of hats and dresses. Grandpa hit the jackpot a several times, winning grand prizes ($50!) and publishing poetry in regional magazines.
Grandfather, a valued artist and designer, was given a remarkable chance: a paid relocation to a newer, larger factory in Missouri.
However, this did not motivate Grandpa.
He refused to leave his house or hometown and rebuffed my grandmother’s pleas to accept the offer. She wrote in her journals that she suspected “his scorn for change” and “river jitters” underlay his refusals. In an ill-fated move, he turned his backroom hobby—gun repair—into a profession.
No one realized that the textile plant provided Grandpa with much more than an income. It supplied him stability and structure—a place to be, a job to do, and none of the social schmoozing a small business requires.
The expanse of self-employed free time dazzled and distracted him. Repairing guns and rifles in a timely and consistent fashion proved to be an unattainable challenge. The Athens Gun Club failed. Grandpa spent the one year anniversary of his venture at the Central State Hospital for the Insane.
Unlike my schizophrenic Uncle Leo, who was floridly delusional or my bipolar Uncle Will, who absconded with a school bus to sell pretzels along the East coast, Grandpa did not exhibit psychosis. Nor did he drink, take narcotics, or skip out on debts. He simply succumbed to episodes of “hysterical anxiety” and vanished, reemerging in a mental ward within a few days.
Perplexed doctors had no word for grandpa’s condition other than “mental illness” and his complaints of an aching phantom limb contributed to this assessment. Rest and rejected pain medications were their only recourse. Within a week, Grandpa stabilized and returned home.
“Nervous spells” and hospitalizations followed Grandpa for the remainder of his days. Likewise, stigma shadowed him, causing Doctors to manage him with a disheartening skepticism and restraint.
Death found Grandpa’s several months after a freak accident. A falling brick glanced off his head, causing a concussion and trigeminal neuralgia. Also known as “the suicide disease” for the agony it elicits, trigeminal neuralgia produced such intense and prolonged facial pain that he insisted on radical experimental surgery for relief. Grandpa died on the operating table as surgeons severed the affected nerves. It was his 68th birthday.
When we speak of advocacy, we look forward, toward our progeny. Let us also look backward, to our ancestors, who bore grief and heartache without understanding why.
Recognition is a fine memorial wreath.
My moral compass leans more toward how I treat others than personal beliefs. I do not feel I have the right to tell others how to worship, whom to love, or what to spend their money on. Yet this same compass also impels me to insist on the fair and ethical treatment of others. Equality, empathy and dignity should center the civilized soul and direct future generations.
To pursue social justice, I volunteered years of service to non-profit organizations. Alas, I discovered not all charities are benevolent organizations. Some are self-serving profit machines, more concerned with lavish salaries than philanthropy. I deemed Autism Speaks to be such an organization a few years ago.
Organizational greed becomes infinitely foul when it stigmatizes the people it serves to earn pity dollars through sensational claims. In November of last year, the co-founder of Autism Speaks, Susan Wright published “Autism Speaks to Washington — A Call for Action.”
She describes autism as a thief, a dire illness that steals millions of children. Further, she implicates autistic children as the source of broken families, bankruptcies, and endless adversity. This inflammatory missive contradicts my views absolutely, yet the insinuation that autistic people are unworthy offends the most.
Protesting Autism Speaks is protesting their negative portrayal of autistic individuals for cash. The following quote captures the need people have to protest, boycott, and campaign against this organization:
I urge you to take action by sending a loud message to Autism Speaks. Boycott their corporate sponsors. Do not let Autism Speaks profit from their false and offensive campaign.
I urge you to take action by promoting Autism Positivity. Spread articles that humanize and depict the experiences of actual autistics. Do not let any person be misrepresented or stigmatized.
We can create an inclusive and accepting future. Follow your moral compass.
Links below redirect to articles by my blog roll authors. Please comment to include other articles or if I missed someone.
This post is participating in the T-21 Blog Hop. Here is a bit of information about the intent and focus:
“This month will be about social justice. It will be for calling out, for demanding, for saying “we are *not* going to be silent”. Call it solidarity for the angry. We’ll call it “architects of change”.
Acceptance, fairness, equality: these things are not to be taken lightly. We are not all on the same journey. Some of us have taken different roads; it is at our common intersections that we will now meet.
For three days, add your posts, both old and new. Let’s set the tone for a year of change.” Jen
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