I am not sure who I had this conversation with, or whether it was just in my head one day, but at some point in the past I answered the question: if I had to lose a sense, and I was given the choice, which sense would I lose? In my mind, I have vague memories of talking about this with specific people – Sunny when we were driving to Amish country, Natalie in the Scripps dining hall, Bianca on her porch in Bloomington – and I can remember what they said, and why we were talking about senses, and then I think that it probably didn’t actually happen, that these are all false memories, and I doubt myself again. It is tricky to get older and seem to remember so many things. It is a special form of pride.

Regardless, in these imagined, detailed conversations, I always choose to give up taste. Touch, hearing, and sight are all distinct, independent senses; taste depends a lot on smell. I reasoned that if I can smell, I can at least get some of the sensation of taste, even if my tongue is not working; if I can’t see, it is not like hearing can do much to compensate, and if I can’t feel any sensations, smell won’t help me.

Then, this month, I got a cold from Daniel, who probably got it from his nursery. I haven’t been this ill in years. For five days, I left the house once, to walk to the grocery store and back, a total trip of twenty minutes; otherwise, I shuffled between my room, the kitchen, and the bathroom, my Apple Watch silently judging me. One morning, maybe on day two, I noticed a muffled aspect to every sound, the way that winter in Cleveland dulls all noise at the first snow, when everything is covered with soft powder and not hard ice and there is molasses in the air and a cotton wool over car tires that doesn’t exist anytime else. I started to have to ask Daniel and Alice to repeat themselves, and to really focus on what they were saying, staring at their lips as if it might help. So all of a sudden, one of my senses was going, and it was not one I would have chosen.

Then, on the third day of the cold, I noticed that the kimchi that is fermenting on our counter didn’t have any smell. Normally, opening the lid just a crack, for a second, releases a smell that is so overpowering I try to only do it when Alice is not home. But something was wrong: suddenly, the kimchi didn’t smell at all. Had it gone bad? No – I have had kimchi go bad, and it smells like vomit. Maybe it just stopped fermenting and the smell disappeared? No – I could tell from the bubbles that gas had built up in the jar, so it was still active. The more I thought about it, I couldn’t remember the last thing I actually could smell, or taste. Hot sauce? No. Toothpaste? No. Daniel’s completely full diapers? Nope. I had actually just assumed that his shit just didn’t stink, and it was a reflection of his inner beauty.

So, at a stroke, my hearing, smell, and taste were leaving me or were gone completely.

Then, on top of that, I got conjunctivitis from him…in both eyes. So I suddenly couldn’t wear contact lenses; I was reduced to my glasses, glasses I got filled 14 years ago and hadn’t updated because I hate glasses and never wear them. The lenses, which could be freshmen in high school, have built up scratches over the years so that everything looks a bit hazy, a bit fuzzy.

Four out of five. But at least I could still feel touch, right? Then

Kidding. Nothing happened to my sense of touch.

But as for the other four senses, the four out of five senses that were suddenly diminished or gone completely, the one that messed me up the most was the sense of smell. I never realized how much I depended on smell for life. I could, of course, appreciate the smell of Alice’s perfume before, or Daniel’s blueberry shampoo, or Nick’s beautiful baby breath, or freshly-ground coffee, or the menthol in the steam room at the gym, but all of that was suddenly ripped away from me without warning, as was the smoke from a passing cigarette, and the old-beer-urine smell of British alleyways, and the fake floral scent that shops pump out at the mall, and suddenly I missed even the bad smells, just like I sometimes miss the open sewers and burning garbage of Southeast Asia. I was suddenly very vulnerable – I can’t smell rotten eggs or milk, and if meat has gone bad, I am at a loss. Daniel or Nick can have rancid shit eating through their diapers and I will never notice, unless it leaks and I see or feel it. I dyed a belt, which uses a very potent and flammable dye that smells like permanent markers, and I didn’t notice at all that the bottle was open; I was completely oblivious to the fumes, and to whether they were making me high or not. There could be a fire, or a gas leak, and I would just keep typing, or reading, or doing anything other than being safe.

I didn’t have COVID, thankfully; the loss of smell from colds and flus is apparantly common enough that the NHS has a page dedicated to it. It is likely temporary, too, so it should come back soon. Until then, though, I am trying to take advantage of my anosmia (by learning new words, for example). I try to pay attention to how the sense of taste actually takes priority over, or interferes with, other experiences of consuming food or drink. I didn’t pay much attention to textures before, or the way that food moves around my mouth, because taste is always the most important thing. Now, though, the only pleasure I get from food is the physical act; the first bite of an apple, for example, and the way that the waxy skin is so radically different than the flesh, like a layer of candle wax over wet, condensed styrofoam, and how all you have to do to experience both is flip it over with your tongue. A burger has so many layers! So many constituent parts piled between the bun, and when I focused just on the taste, I focused on only one very shallow part of the whole. We went to a vegan restaurant for lunch, and I could tell the burger I had was excellent solely based on the way that every ingredient – the bun, the patty, the tomato, the lettuce, and the burger sauce – felt excellent. And I swim my tongue through my morning coffee now and feel the way it resists pressure so much more than water does, and I still make mint tea, even though, logically, hot water would do the same thing – but it wouldn’t, because the tea itself adds itself to the liquid, a complexity that is noticeably lacking in just plain hot water. And my toothpaste – how did I never notice it was chalky? That the menthol in my shaving soap made my skin cool, even if the soap is hot?

This time next month, I will probably have forgotten what a crisis this was for me. But for now, it still feels like it could be a tragedy. At least, perhaps, I can simply focus on healthy food, since I can’t taste the glory of unhealthiness? Except I can feel it – the soft crumb of an apple cake, the sin of cinnamon buttercream frosting, the heaviness of apple streusel with vanilla ice cream. I can feel them, and it hurts.

This is how my 2023 started.

When I lived in San Diego after college, I got my haircut for a few months by a guy named James, who worked in a barber shop a block from my work. I went to him first because he was accessible and cheap; within a day of getting my hair cut, though, something strange happened. I was walking down the street, and a very pretty young woman stopped me and…”propositioned” me. I had no idea what to do – I muttered something, most likely about really needing to get a sandwich, and kept walking. A month later, I went back to James over lunch, and that night, I went out with my manager, Darnell. We were drinking, and a girl walked over awkwardly and said that she lived about an hour away, but was in town to have a good time, and had a hotel room – did I want to come up to see it with her? Again, an awkward pause while I told her I was happy just talking with my boss. She walked away, and Darnell just looked at me over his thick black-rimmed glasses and judged me. A month later, the same thing – a Swedish girl in a bar, while I was out with friends, and all I could think about was going to sleep. I realized quickly, though, that it always happened within 24 hours of getting my hair cut by James.

Then James suddenly quit the salon and didn’t leave his contact information with the owner, and I never found someone who even approached his level of skill. I told a hair stylist once about it, and she suggested that it wasn’t James and his haircuts, but the confidence that James gave me, that led to this string of strange occurrences, but I doubt it.

Anyway, last year, I made it a year cutting my own hair. It was both easy – I just used YouTube videos and clippers – and hard; I never truly trusted myself to do it well, or thought that it was perfect, and subconsciously, every time I went on a Zoom call or walked outside, I was aware that my hair was potentially ugly, and I might not know it. So when January came around, and my old barber opened again, I went down to get my first professional cut in a year. It was a £12 haircut, nothing fancy; an old man who works alone and mutters fringe political theories and complaints about the world in a thick Spanish accent to everyone, punctuating his sentences with, “Buhthazit, in’tit?” But when I walked out, I was reminded of James. It wasn’t that I had an amazing haircut, but that whatever Juan, or any other barber, could do to my hair would look far, far better than what I could do myself, and that I had spent a year feeling self-conscious, and suddenly I didn’t need to be.

And I strutted home.

Actually, Darnell was so amazing that I chose to hang out with him instead of go to my law school graduation, so I hope she didn’t feel too bad.

I didn’t finish a single book in January; instead, I got immersed deeply in Lyndon Johnson’s Senate years, and learned about Cuba. And I couldn’t be happier.

And reading about Cuba keeps making me think about 2010, when I went to Barcelona to see friends. I arrived after something like 18 hours of flights through Newark and Hamburg and Geneva, and Josep met me at a bar; we watched a Barcelona game, and ate and drank, and then his cousin, Sonia, and her boyfriend met us. Josep had to go work – he was bartending – and Sonia and Martin took me to a rockabilly club for a show. At maybe 2 a.m., we got the metro back, and met Josep at his bar, where we continued drinking. Around 6 a.m., Josep finished up, and we got on his scooter and went back to his house. I was finally able to sit on a sofa and take my shoes off.

“Andreu,” he said, looking down covetously, “those are very nice socks.”

“Yes,” I said, looking down at my Gold Toe socks. “They are very good socks.”

He paused. “In Spain, those socks are very expensive.”

“Well, in America, these socks are very cheap.”

“Andreu,” he said seriously, looking at me very seriously, “can I have your socks?”

I was tired. “Josep, I have a week left here,” I said. “At the end of the week, you can have my socks.”

He was very happy.

After an hour more of catching up, he asked if there was anything I wanted to do in Barcelona. Yes, actually – I wanted to get some Cuban cigars.

“Ah!” he said, and walked to a table, opening a drawer and taking out a small box of Cohibas. “My friend, his mother is work a Cohiba. It only women work in this factory. He go home and he bring these for me. They very – they are very – expensive, 25 euros each. We smoke these.”


On the last night, I was packing when he walked in.

“Andreu,” he said, standing in the doorway. “Your socks.”

“Josep,” I said, “I have been wearing three pairs of these over and over again for a week.”

“Is okay, I wash them.”

So I handed him the socks. I could always get more at CostCo.

But then I remembered; “oh, is there anywhere we can get cigars?”

Josep ran to the table and brought the box back, and gave them to me. “You take.”

“Josep, these are really nice! You don’t you want to smoke these?”

“I don like cigars,” he said.

So often, when I think of Cuba, I think of Josep, and trading three pairs of used Gold Toe socks – which, admittedly, are really good socks – for three €25 cigars, and how beautiful it was to be young.

And every day in January, something happened that made me feel like Daniel has started going through an Oedipal phase. His preference for Alice is strong, for everything from bathtime to food to reading; the opportunities I have to spend time with him when he is happy seem few and far between sometimes.

But there are the tender moments. He suddenly realizes that sometimes he wants physical comfort, and if I am there, he says, “I want to cuddle,” and he sits on my lap or leans against me on the couch and I hold him. He loves reading while he eats; for a month, maybe, I resisted, but then I thought: how many kids want books read to them at meals, and how many parents say no because they don’t think mealtime is for reading, but instead give the kid a phone to play with or a television to watch to keep them quiet? Why would we set these arbitrary rules when reading is something I dearly want to encourage? Aren’t books almost as important to me as food, and, too often, more important to me than sleep? So now, at meals, I sit next to him and we read books and he eats, happily, and we share time together that we both enjoy.

And at nursery one day, he was building sand castles near the girl with the motor neuron disease, who was in her wheelchair. Suddenly her foot flew out and knocked one of the sand castles over. The staff member on duty saw it, and later told Alice that she got worried – Daniel hates when other kids mess with his toys or interfere with his constructions, and she didn’t know how she might calm him down. But instead, Daniel said, “That’s okay, Eileidh! Don’t worry, you can knock them over.” And he started building sand castles near her feet so that she could kick them if she wanted, and she did, and then I started openly weeping.

And he is learning how jokes work – like, what do you call a sleeping dinosaur? A dinosnore! He loves that one, and will tell it over and over again and laugh, and then say, “I’m cracking!” because in one of his books the character says “I’m cracking up,” and Daniel doesn’t realize it is a full phrase that goes together. I want to get him a book of toddler jokes to help him along, to develop this sense. I am suddenly starkly aware that I have not put a lot of thought into how we might encourage him to develop his basic abilities – we just assume that he will learn things, What if we put concentrated effort into giving him the tools to have a sense of humor, for example? Or what if we taught him about how money works, or (Sunny, this one is for you) what oh he learned about compound interest? What about how to give a good compliment? What would that mean for him in a year, in five, in ten, to have a experience giving adults compliments and getting fawning approval in return?

So this bears further thought; input from anyone with an opinion would be encouraged and appreciated.

Nick is too young for that – he is in a SUPER cute phase. He is chubby – his thighs are almost as thick as they are long – and he can get fawning approval by looking people in the eye and grinning with his six teeth all showing. He pats his hands on everything he can when he is happy, and kicks, and when music plays, he will hang in the sling off of my chest and flail. What makes him giggle is a mystery, but when he starts, it is very easy to keep him going, and his baby giggles are worth everything. He started crawling in earnest; if we put him down, he just starts moving, beelining for whatever he can, and if we pick him up and redirect him, he will just charge in a new direction, his little butt swaying, his limbs pumping, his head down.

In late 2020, maybe early 2021, I got out an old map and put a dot in the middle. Then, I put a bunch of dots around the periphery, and drew lines from the dot in the middle out to the dots on the edges. The middle was my starting point, where I was at the beginning, and I wrote a personal goal next to each edge dot. Along the lines connecting the present point to each goal, I wrote down waypoints that would let me know I was on my way to achieving that particular goal or not. For a while, I kept it out, visible, so that when I was planning my days and weeks and months I would be able to remember what I was actually striving for and how I planned on getting there. Then, at some point, the map was swept up in a pile of papers and forgotten – unintentionally, but forgotten nonetheless.

In moving back into our apartment last month, I sorted through my possessions, including that pile of papers; when I pulled the map out, I smiled and opened it, having forgotten what I once dreamed of. I don’t go in for vision boards and things like that, but when I looked around at the dots on the periphery, I saw that the goals I had set for myself just a couple years ago, goals that seemed out of reach and borderline delusional, are all part of my daily life right now. I am living a life that, two years ago, was literally a dream.

So I folded the map up and put it away. Then I got out a new map, put a dot in the middle, and put more, and more ambitious, goals around the outside. It now sits on my desk, next to a photo of my dad and a couple of plants, and I get it out every Sunday to plan my week.

A week or so after making it, I was sitting with my friend Munro at lunch, and our conversation turned to goals for the year. He described some of his goals, and I described some of mine, most of which involve behaviors. He asked what my “end state” was, the objective of these behaviors, and I thought for a while, then couldn’t answer him. I think the reason is that for my habit goals, the goal is simply to do things because they are good. For example, like Eric Sandy, I have been sober all year so far – and I am going to be sober for the rest of the year, at least. It isn’t a judgment on drinking, and I am not going to abstain for the rest of my life, but for this year, I am just going to not drink; I don’t want to get to the end of the year and celebrate this, but I do want to get to the end of each day with a clear head and the ability to think, read, and process my day intelligently, and I want 365 of those days in a row. I am not worrying about following a Slow Carb diet this year; instead, my goal is to eat plants at every meal and not worry about anything else. It is intentionally broad, and a side of fried potatoes with a hamburger counts; I trust myself that for the most part, my meals will be veg-heavy and healthy, and the goal is simply to ingest as many different kinds of nutrients as I can without being overly obsessed about my food.

Then, I thought about when I had met Sunny and started to think he was someone really special, someone I really wanted to get to know. I was a lawyer at the time, and Sunny was interning with us to see if he might want to go to law school. One day, a Monday, I went by to talk to him, and he looked terrible – bags under his eyes, a slack jaw, slumped over. I asked if he was OK, and he said yes – but he hadn’t been sleeping for the last two days. Why? He looked at me, fatigue radiating from the bags under his eyes, and he asked if I had ever put much thought into compound interest.

(This is how fascinating he is.)

I knew about it, but as for putting much thought into it…no. No, I had not.

It turned out that Sunny had started learning about it on Friday evening, and realized its incredible importance. He found he couldn’t stop; he was a convert, and spent the weekend learning and thinking.

And being reminded of Sunny, and then remembering the Munro chat, made me think: the end point of all of my goals this year is to have compound interest on my activities, and an improved life at the end of the year – to invest my time and energy in pursuits that, at the end of a year or a decade or a life, have compounded interest so that my life, overall, has been enriched in the ways that make life worth living.

That is how I want 2023 to end.



  1. What a terrific way to approach 2023! Compound interest on activities in furtherance of your goals. It is your organizing principle. And the way to build a legacy.
    My brother and I took baths together too, when we were the ages of Daniel and Nick. Remembering that makes me happy.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s