Thursday, July 25, 2013

Like an animal

“I’m not Ezra. I’m a wolf. Ahwooooooooo!” He leaves our house a three-year old boy, but by the time Ezra reaches preschool he has transformed into a pre-teen wolf. This is harmless play, especially since we declined his requests to hold his head out the car window, but whenever Ezra exhibits dog-like behaviors I flashback to my early parenting mistakes. Did my difficult transition from pet owner to parent have long-term side effects?

In reality, I know Ezra wasn’t damaged by the few times I accidently referred to him as a puppy. He, like all children, loves pretending to be cats, dogs, horses, frogs, and dinosaurs. Imagining oneself as an animal is as natural to a child as pretending to be a mom or fireman. Though we like to pretend otherwise, humans are animals. Children display, as well as bring out in their parents, similar instincts, urges, and behaviors as most other mammals. Relating to animals is pretty effortless. This is probably why children don’t pretend to be plants. Have you ever heard a child on a playground yell, “Look, ma, I’m a ficus”?

Sometimes Ezra pretends to be a wolf, and other times he just reminds me of one. Wolves and dogs have 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses compared with Homo sapien’s six million. Dogs, depending on their breed, can smell 10,000 to 100,000 more acutely than us. James Walker, former director of the Sensory Research Institute at Florida State University, who contributed to the study that discovered these figures, points out that, "If you make the analogy to vision, what you and I can see at a third of a mile, a dog could see more than 3,000 miles away and still see as well." And, that’s a breed with the weakest sense of smell.

Not surprisingly, dogs utilize this amazing sense of smell to learn about the world and identify each other. Ezra, like our dog Piper, relies on his nose to recognize people. My sister and brother-in-law gave us a couple of upholstered chairs from their home. The first few times Ezra walked by their chairs, he tilted his head in the air. Sniff, sniff. “I smell Effie and Josh, are they here?” He catches a whiff of a particular scented lotion or perfume in a store and begins searching for his grandma like a hound tracking a fox.

The smell Ezra associates with me is far different than the sweet, botanical fragrance of my mom. I sometimes run from my office to Ezra’s daycare. After running a few miles, mostly uphill on a late afternoon, I am pretty sweaty. Last week, Ezra and I greeted each other. He then lovingly commented, “you smell like Garry.” He has made this statement a few times, and I was reminded of the Jonathan Ames essay Father Smells Bests in his book What’s Not to Love?.

when [my son] was a little kid, he loved my smell. When I’d pick him up at the airport, he’d hold my hand and his head would be level with my wrist and he’d always press his nose against my forearm. "You always smell the same," he’d say happily, visit after visit … Then about a year ago, he said to me, "I figured out what that smell is – B.O.!"
Ames’s son “who once sniffed [his dad’s] arm like a lover,” eventually rejects his father’s distinct odor. Like Ames, I often don’t wear deodorant. I know there will come a time when, like Ames’s son, Ezra will probably find this embarrassing. When this happens, I will conform to the acceptable state of smelling less human. This is only fair. I also expect Ezra to behave in an appropriate manner to fit into human society, and expunge his more canine-like tendencies. Our desire to manage and suppress many of our natural tendencies and smells may be what separates us from the other animals.

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