Go to amazon.com, call up a scratch-and-sniff book titled The Sweet Smell of Christmas and you'll find 55 out of 56 customer reviewers give it a five-star rating.
Not bad for a book that's short on plot but long on snootfuls of chemically contrived hot cocoa and candy canes. "There are certain things in childhood that change the way you view the world as an adult," gushes reviewer Allegra M. Meis. "The Sweet Smell of Christmas is one of those things."
To which I say ... Bah! Humsmell!
Several million Americans probably share that sentiment. Several million people like me who have no sense of smell. Several million noses that are no more functional than the hood ornament on an old DeSoto.
The medical term for the condition is "anosmia." Those afflicted are anosmiacs, though, no surprise, some of us prefer to be known simply as Nozzies.
We're a breed apart from the mass of humanity that's been blessed with properly wired, sugar-plum-shaped olfactory lobes; from the "Olfies" of the world.
Olfies rule. They enjoy a symphony of several thousand odors. They invented roll-on antiperspirant. They created the no-smoking section in restaurants. Oh, how they love to smell the ocean and new-mowed lawns.
For eleven months of the year Nozzies live at relative peace with their scent-deprived selves. Then Thanksgiving comes. Then Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year's hit town.
Fresh-baked cookies. Cinnamon sticks. Mistletoe. Bayberry candles. Wool mittens warming by the radiator. Just-cut Christmas trees that trigger a tumble of childhood memories.
The holiday season is one big scent fest -- and Nozzies don't have admission tickets. It's enough to make an anosmiac want to scour the city in search of something, anything, that can kick an underachieving nose into gear, if only for a nanosecond.
Just once, Santa, please come early and bring a special gift -- a single, solitary Smell of Christmas.
Some Olfie friends insist that Lexington Market is a must-smell. I pay a courtesy call, nosing around Auntie Anne's Pretzels, Harbor City Bake Shoppe, Polack John's Famous Polish Sausage and Berger's Bakery.
I breathe deep. Again and again.
I might as well be hyperventilating in the plumbing-supplies aisle at Home Depot.
Being a reasonable person, I'm willing to lower the sweet-smell bar. What's swamp gas to you, could be French perfume to me.
I make a beeline for the Baltimore Zoo.
Animal Programs Manager Amy Eveleth suggests a close encounter with the zoo's foulest inhabitant: Marty the prehensile-tail porcupine.
Marty's a mensch. He has a gentle disposition, a circus-clown pink nose and a coat of long, black-and-white quills that make him look like a cheerleader's pompom.
Prehensile-tail porcupines live in the rainforests of South America, where they spend their time mostly lounging in tall trees. They rarely come in contact with water, let alone bathe. Stench is one of Marty's defense mechanisms.
"I can smell him now," says Eveleth as she unlocks his walk-in cage. "You don't even have to be downwind."
She describes the bouquet as musky, but "in a bad way." Zoo spokesman Ben Gross likens it to spoiled meat with a hint of fraternity-house rankness.
I stick my face close enough to kiss Marty's clown nose.
Nothing. I could eat raw prehensile-tail porcupine for lunch without so much as popping a breath mint.
I notice a piece of cardboard dangling from the top of the cage. Turns out it's a makeshift air freshener, reminiscent of those teeny, pine-scented trees that Olfies like to hang in their cars. But pine doesn't do it for Marty. He prefers having his cardboard slathered with Right Guard deodorant.
"His sense of smell is actually his best sense," says Eveleth.
Can you taste? That's the first question posed to people who can't smell by people who can.
Nozzies who lose their sense of smell as a result of illness or head trauma frequently lose the ability to taste or, almost as wrenching, suddenly find all foods have the phantom flavor of, say, burnt toast.
Congenital anosmiacs such as myself generally fare better. Years ago I underwent a battery of tests at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. A nutritionist began by asking if I ever craved "nonfood items such as corn starch, plaster, dirt, clay or ice."
(Hmm. Tempting as it may be to start the day with a nice, piping-hot bowl of plaster, it's really not worth the hassle: You've got to eat so fast to keep your breakfast from hardening. )
At Monell I sniffed dozens of squeeze bottles filled with exotic odors. I drained paper cups brimming with sweet, sour and salty liquids. In the end a doctor pronounced my sense of taste relatively intact. However, he said my nose checked out "a couple of hundred times" less sensitive than normal -- which is like having ears that can only hear blood-curdling screams.
Alas, my nose apparently was shortchanged on olfactory receptor cells. There's no history of that in my family. I can't recall when I first realized something was awry, that I was the only one who didn't mind cleaning the cat box.
As handicaps go, anosmia's certainly benign. Still, every Nozzie feels constant shivers of paranoia. I've left a chicken pot pie cooking in the oven all night long: 14 hours at 450 degrees. What if there's ever a gas leak in the house? I have no idea if my clothes are crying out to be dry-cleaned. Are co-workers laughing because I'm especially witty today -- or because I reek like a prehensile-tail porcupine?
The link between odor and memory is firmly established. We also know the accoutrements of romance -- food, wine, flowers, perfume -- are heavily fragrance-based. Nonetheless it was big news to me when a girlfriend mentioned lovers have a scent as distinctive as their fingerprints. That concept's awfully hard to grasp when your nose can't even get turned on by ammonia.
No wonder Nozzies grasp at therapeutic straws.
"People try all kinds of nasal douches and acupuncture and herbal medications," says Richard Doty, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Smell and Taste Center.
I once went to see a Washington neurobiologist who specializes in lost-cause senses of smell. He believes the drug theophylline, widely used to treat asthma, can grow nasal receptor cells.
I had a $900 CAT scan. I dished out $1,500 for office visits. I popped pills for six months.
And thanks to Dr. Franken-nose I did briefly catch wind of something: the faint odor of money burning.
McCormick & Co. in Hunt Valley is best-known for making spices. Yet the bulk of its business involves jazzing up products ranging from perfume to barbecue sauce for other manufacturers.
McCormick has an on-site flavor lab that's the perfect playground for an anosmiac. Marianne Gillette, director of product development, and Steve Ruocco, manager of flavor creation, take me under wing.
"You don't smell anything in here?" asks Gillette. "It's particularly aromatic today."
A half-dozen glass vials are waiting on a tabletop. Each contains a highly concentrated food additive. I quickly sniff my way down the line to no avail -- so Ruocco starts wheeling out the heavy artillery. First up, super-strength onion oil.
He and Gillette expect my knees to buckle, but I stand firm.
Next, a compound called furfuryl mercaptan: The Coffee Smell From Another Planet.
"It makes the blood rush to your head," says Ruocco.
Not to mine.
Finally, Ruocco reaches for a vial of isovaleric acid. Imagine the distilled essence of a thousand high school gym lockers.
"If it gets on your skin, it will stay with you for weeks," Ruocco warns.
I suck in a lung-full of isovaleric acid -- and live to tell the tale.
It's as if the Elephant Man has stopped by the flavor lab. "You're a first for me," says Ruocco, shaking his head.
As much as half the population between ages 65 and 80 has significant smell problems.
"The [olfactory] system peters out as you get old," explains Barry Davis, director of the Taste and Smell Program at the National Institutes of Health. Given our graying baby-boomer population, Davis thinks smell loss may soon become a high-profile health issue.
Major research strides have been made in the past decade or so. For example, genes have been identified that carry the coding instructions for receptor cells inside the nose.
But the most intriguing question remains unanswered: Do people secrete the same invisible, scent-based chemical messengers, or pheromones, that dictate almost every behavior in animals and insects?
Scientists at the University of Maryland School of Medicine are on the case. I stop by their laboratory on West Baltimore Street. Lab director Frank Zufall wants to tell me about experiments he's doing on the power of pheromones.
Through genetic engineering, Zufall has defused some of the pheromone-deciphering nasal receptors in a test group of mice. His so-called "knockout mice" are normal in every respect but their ability to smell.
"It's almost like your anosmia," says Zufall.
He plays a video for me. The clip opens with a pheromone-impaired mouse alone in a small cage. A second male mouse is placed inside. Normally a code-red pheromone alert would be sounded: Guys being guys, the first mouse would attack the intruder who's invading his turf.
But that's not how Zufall's mutant-nose mouse responds. Instead of fighting his intruder, he tries to mount him.
"That was completely unexpected," Zufall admits. He goes on to say he believes pheromones play some kind of role in human behavior.
The odds may be slim, but suppose we discover that the natural world is an organic radio tower, continually broadcasting pheromonic signals that affect the entire animal kingdom, top to bottom. That would mean anosmiacs have perpetually broken antennae, that would mean I'll forever hear static instead of the background music of life.
Every Christmas story needs a happy ending. I find mine on the Internet.
There are two anosmia forums, and stumbling upon them reminds me of that scene in Field of Dreams in which those old-time ballplayers emerge, one by one, from a thicket of cornstalks.
I have never met a fellow anosmiac, but it's nice having proof they're out there. Burning dinner. Fretting over what to wear. Their forum messages read like letters from the front.
"Wow! Finally I find that I am not alone. ... Can anyone tell me why I apologize when I can't smell something that's shoved under my otherwise beautiful English nose?" Jennifer North, 33, writes from California.
Joe Balfantz, who works for an oil company in Louisiana, recalls that he was two weeks away from entering the Naval Academy when "I received a letter saying that I would not be accepted to the Academy based on my anosmia. ... I'm glad to find other people actually exist with this condition."
Makes no difference where you gather to feel the warmth of companionship or to bask in the glow given off by kindred spirits. Home is nice. Cyberspace will do. What counts is connections made with hearts that beat in time, the satisfaction of knowing you're not some lonesome porcupine sitting in a tree.
Any Nozzie will tell you the sense that matters most at Christmas, and every other time of year, isn't smell.