That Horrible Smell

As I mentioned in my last post, Bad at Sports, having a kid in sports is not as bad as I had feared. It actually has many good points. I love seeing my son work hard, have fun, improve, and feel good about himself. I love seeing him make friends, and I love getting to know his friends and watching them grow. I deeply cherish the friendships I have made at the rink as well. I look forward to the weekly, post-practice, mother-son “dates” at Ruby’s Diner. And, during these freakishly hot, humid days, I have relished the refreshing, refrigerated air at the rink. It’s fair to say that having a kid in hockey is actually fun—most of the time.

Of course, it’s not so fun to shiver at the frigid rink during the winter months, nor is it fun to wake up at 5:45am on a Sunday to get my son to an 8:30am game. Also not so enjoyable is realizing that we’ve spent way more money than we ever thought we could spend on a sport for a little kid, knowing that our expenses will only increase if our son advances in the sport, and, as a result, half-hoping he will be successful at it while half-hoping he won’t be. Another challenge: watching Kent’s opponent gingerly rake out the puck from between his feet as he stands limply and stares off into space, wondering vaguely where the puck went. Yet none of these challenges would qualify as the hardest part of being a hockey parent. So, what is the hardest part?

Having an acute sense of smell.

***

How acute is my sense of smell? I can smell when water is about to boil in the kitchen—even when I am sitting in the living room. I can smell when meat or baked goods are about to be done—and when they are about to burn. I am like Remy in Ratatouille—family members hold old food up to my nose to determine if it is still safe to eat, long before that first speck of mold appears.

My olfactory powers have functions outside of culinary applications. I can smell how many hours have elapsed since my husband’s last shower. (Just for the record, my husband generally smells very good—one reason we are very compatible.) I know when something I ate will irritate my digestion just by smelling the back of the tee shirt I have worn that day. When planting vegetables in our garden, I can distinguish between different plants, not only by their appearance, but also by the smell of their leaves.

Because of my gift, I am very useful in my household. My husband likens me to a dog: I can’t see worth a darn, but I compensate for my blindness with my super-human hearing and smelling abilities (though, after several years of raising my child, who is quite loud and tantrums quite a lot, I suspect I may be suffering partial hearing loss).

But every gift has its dark side. Like the sensitive and perceptive artistic genius, who is prone to bouts of depression, delusions, and drinking, I am tortured by bad smells that other don’t seem to notice. When I was a kid, my family used to visit our relatives in Hong Kong in the summertime, when I was off from school. I hated riding the MTR subway in the summer, especially when the other passengers held onto the horizontal bar up above, exposing their underarms. The stale underarm odor would linger in the subway car, even late at night, when the train was nearly empty. When Kent was a newborn, I would open the windows and blast the fan everyday, even when it was cold outside, in order to rid his room of that mysterious, stale, Chinese takeout smell that Kent emitted whenever he slept. Pregnancy can heighten a woman’s sense of smell—bad news for me. When I was pregnant, I once woke up in the middle of the night and acted as though I had been sprayed by a skunk: I opened all the windows, blasted the fan (the temperature was in the forties outside), and ordered my husband to sleep out in the common area. Back then, our living room was a home Pilates studio and was furnished with Pilates reformers. That meant that my husband had to sleep in the dining room—on the floor. His offense: he had dipped a piece of bread in garlic oil at a restaurant the night before.

***

How does my acute sense of smell relate to hockey? If you don’t know the answer to this question, then you probably don’t know much about hockey (or you need to get your nose checked by a physician).

For me, the answer to this question dawned on me right before Kent’s first game. I was approaching the rink, dragging Kent's enormous hockey bag, when I noticed an odd smell. It resembled stale sweat, body odor, and mold, but it wasn’t exactly like any of those things. The door to the rink was propped open. As we got closer, the odor intensified. I peered through the glass. Several males, adolescent to middle-aged, were playing a game on the ice. Half a dozen of them were seated in the penalty box. As we passed the penalty box, the odor mushroomed and enveloped me. I held my breath and fled to the changing area, leaving my husband and son in the dust.

As I dressed Kent for his game, the players from the previous game stepped off the ice. As they passed me, I tried very hard not to faint. Those guys are older, I consoled myself. Kent won’t smell like that because he’s hasn’t reached puberty. At five, Kent still had that sweet baby smell. He would stay that way, at least until he reached thirteen, right? As Kent's little teammates passed me to step onto the ice, I inhaled and was relieved to detect no odor. Thank goodness: they did not stink, and neither would Kent.

Towards the end of Kent's game, the next group of boys gathered for the 9:30 game. To my dismay, the odor returned, a milder version of the stink that had assaulted me as I passed the penalty box. I looked all around me, searching in vain for a sweaty, older male in a hockey outfit. Then it dawned on me: the smell was emanating, not from some adolescent or adult male, but from the seven- and eight-year-olds standing in front of me. And they hadn't even started playing. How could they stink this bad if they hadn't even started sweating? Then it hit me: the odor had been embedded into their gear, the gruesome product of sweat and time. They didn’t even need hormones to generate that stink.

I realized then that the only reason Kent’s team didn’t smell was because they hadn’t played long enough; their gear was still new. But their gear would most likely stink by the time they reached the next level team. I, a mother of prodigious olfactory abilities, had chosen the wrong sport for my son. Unfortunately, after all the money I had invested in lessons and gear, it was too late to back out. The only solution was to figure out how to prevent that horrible smell from entering Kent’s gear in the first place. This became my mission.

***

The first thing I did was ask other parents. Their feedback was unanimous: the stench was as inevitable as taxes and death. Strangely, not one parent I interviewed washed their kid’s gear. One mom reported to me that her husband habitually stuffed their son’s sweaty gear in the bag right after each practice and game and left it to stew until the next practice or game. When she first complained to him about the stink, he rejoiced—the smell validated his son’s existence as a true hockey player. (The mom and I exchanged horrified looks as she told this chilling tale.) A few dads disclosed that the smell of their son’s gear was so offensive that the gear was not allowed in the house; instead, it sat in the garage, offending all the innocent, inanimate objects that resided there. One dad said that I could get Kent’s gear professionally washed by specialists who could exorcise the stench. Hope sprang in my heart at this news—until the dad added that the service would cost $500.

Desperate and unwilling to accept my fate, I turned to Kent’s coach, Coach Dom. He gave me the following advice:

  • The most important thing to do is to air out the gear after each use, to prevent the bacteria and mold from forming in the fabric in the first place. Lay it out to dry, preferably outside, before putting it back in the bag.

  • Lay out the gloves palm side down to keep the leather palms soft and supple, otherwise the leather will harden.

  • Avoid spraying the gear with Febreeze. Most kids do fine with it, but a few are allergic to it. Coach Dom found this out the hard way.

Armed with this knowledge, I hung Kent’s gear on hangers on the doorframe every Tuesday night after practice. Everyone in the family learned to duck when passing from the hallway to the common area to avoid face-collisions with the gear. I also draped his hockey socks over the back of a dining chair and propped it in front of the heater, to facilitate drying.

On Sundays, after his game, I dragged the hockey bag across the lawn and laid out his gear on our old redwood table and a weathered, plastic Adirondack chair to dry under the sun.

***

Though these practices kept Kent’s gear odor-free, it also created some unforeseen challenges:

One Sunday, Kent announced, “Mama! I see black widow spider eggs!” I followed him to the backyard, where he pointed to the underside of the redwood table, which supported his gear. Nestled against the legs of the table were clusters of spiky, white balls that looked like this:

They were also nestled along the undersides of every piece of backyard furniture. I counted about two-dozen egg sacs. How many eggs (i.e. baby spiders) resided in each sack? Several hundred?

“Are you sure they’re black widows?” I asked, totally in denial. Kent nodded. I Googled “black widow spider eggs.” The images on my phone looked pretty much like this:

Suddenly, images of Kent dropping dead on the ice in his black widow-infested gear flashed before my eyes. That was followed by images of Kent dropping dead in the backyard while playing. I had to abort those eggs.

I gathered Kent’s gear, stuffed it into his hockey bag, and dragged the bag into the house. Then I marched to the garage in search of a weapon. Kent followed closely behind. “Go inside the house!” I ordered, shooing him away with my arm. “No, I wanna help!” Kent insisted. I grabbed a weeder. Kent grabbed a pitchfork. Together, we marched back towards the spider eggs, looking fierce and mean. I knelt down on the grass and held my weeder up to the eggs nestled under the table. My hand shook. Kent stood next to me in a kung fu stance, pointing his pitchfork at the egg sacks. “Ready?” I said. Kent nodded. I stabbed the egg sack with my weeder, over and over again, like Norman Bates in Psycho. I expected hundreds of angry little spiders to explode out of the sacks, crawl up the weeder and my arm, and bite me until I dropped dead. I regretted not having taught Kent how to dial 911.

But the sacks didn’t explode with baby spiders. Instead, they just deflated.

“Good news, Kent,” I said. “There are no babies in there. Maybe they already hatched.”

Wait a minute. Exactly when did they hatch? Could they have hatched an hour ago? If so, where could they be now . . .

On the gear.

In the bag.

In the house.

I ran into the house, dragged the bag back to the backyard, and zipped it open. At that point, I faced another problem. What color are black widow spiders?

What color are Kent’s hockey pants, jersey, gloves, and helmet?

What color is his bag?

This is not good news for a person with poor vision and arachnophobia. I searched every piece of gear, holding it up to the sun and shaking it out for good measure. I also searched every corner of the bag. No spiders, as far as I could see.

The following Tuesday, I watched Kent closely during his lesson, poised to call 911 should Kent collapse on the ice. No wonder most parents never aired out their kids’ gear. It was a life-threatening endeavor.

The following week, I checked under the table before laying out Kent’s gear. It was still free of spider eggs. We were safe at last. An hour later, however, as I placed the dry gear back into the bag, a large black spider (not a black widow) crawled out from a gap between the wood slabs and scurried into bag. This time I got help from Eddie, who removed every item and smashed the spider with a shoe.

That’s when I gave up on the redwood table.

***

I eventually bought a two-tier drying rack that eliminated any more encounters with spiders. It didn’t completely eliminate encounters with nature, though. I had a habit of laying Kent’s stick on the top tier of the rack, to dry out the stick and prevent water damage. The neighborhood birds mistook the stick for an attractive looking tree branch and frequently perched themselves on it. Every twenty minutes, I had to chase them away with a broom, shouting, “Go away! No pooping on the gear!”

My encounters with nature were not limited to animals. After months of airing out the gear week after week, I decided to boldly go where no parent or player had gone before . . .

To the washing machine.

I agonized over what temperature and which wash setting to use (warm or cold? regular, permanent press, delicates, or hand wash?). I settled on regular wash with cold water. I placed each item in laundry bags and tossed them in the washer with regular laundry detergent. Then I waited with nail-biting anxiety. No one in my hockey circle had ever washed his or her gear. There must have been a good reason for that. Would the fabric come out frayed? Would the padding explode into popcorn-looking pieces of plastic and foam? Would I have to go back to the store and buy another $200+ worth of gear? Would everyone at the rink laugh at my foolishness?

After the washer beeped, I examined Kent's gear. Everything was intact. Then I held it to my nose and inhaled deeply. Ahhh . . . the perfume of laundry detergent filled my nostrils. Success! Smugly, I laid out the damp gear on the drying rack, which was sitting on the lawn.

Minutes later, it started to rain.

I rescued Kent’s gear and positioned it in front of the heater. Though the weather was already quite warm, I blasted the heater to facilitate drying and prevent odor-causing bacteria and mold from taking root. I sweated through my clothes as the gear dried.

After the rain incident, I learned to place the drying rack next to the awning along the side of the house. The rack was close enough to the house and windows to discourage birds from sitting (and pooping) on it. To make my rack even less bird-friendly, I started placing the hockey stick on the bottom tier. Because the ground in that area was covered with concrete instead of lawn, the area was hotter, further facilitating fast drying. And because it was near the house and next to the awning, the gear could be rescued more quickly during a rainstorm. As I stood at my new drying site, folding Kent’s dry and fresh-smelling gear, I congratulated myself on my cleverness.

Then I looked up and found a wasp nest full of wasps nestled under the awning.

***

I continue to learn from my mistakes. For example, over the summer, Kent was in hockey camp. As a result, the leather palms of his gloves were soaking wet from having more ice time, which meant more time to ignore the coaches and make snowballs. Consequently, I was under more pressure to dry his gloves quickly, so he could wear them the next morning. Impatient for results, I turned the gloves palm side up. The following morning at camp, Kent said, “Mama, I can’t close my hands.” I watched him struggle in vain to pick his stick up off the floor. That was the first and last time I ever went against Coach Dom’s advice.

***

I realize that my drying and cleaning habits are as strange and obsessive-compulsive as a hockey player’s superstitious rituals, and I sometimes wonder why. One reason is that my sense of smell is so acute that I really am more tortured by bad smells than most people. And maybe I am just plain crazy. But there may also be a more psychological reason (not counting the crazy part): it is very stressful to feel out of control.

I’m pretty relaxed about Kent’s involvement in hockey now, but initially, I was a little anxious because I didn’t understand the sport or how I was supposed to support my son in the sport. I also felt out of control with regards to Kent’s schooling. I was supposed to make sure he did his homework correctly. I was also supposed to read to him everyday. Pretty simple, right? The only problem was, he was in a Spanish-immersion program, and I knew not one word of Spanish (, no, and taco don’t count). I read to him everyday, but both us were frustrated because neither of us understood what was being read. Between hockey and dual immersion, I was experiencing chronic, low-grade culture shock. I spent that whole year reflecting on what my parents went through and what other immigrant parents must go through and came away with a much deeper sense of empathy and respect for their struggles. On top of hockey and dual immersion, I also felt ignorant and out of control because of Kent’s special needs, which were undiagnosed at the time. I knew that I was struggling more than other parents, but I didn’t know why or what to do about it.

So how do many of us respond when we feel out of control, like the whole world is slipping through our grasp? We find something else to hold onto, and we squeeze tight. Perhaps that is why I insisted on dressing Kent in preppy polo shirts when all the other boys wore tee shirts with superheroes on the front. Perhaps that is why I coiffed his hair with styling wax, as if he were going to a photo shoot instead of public school: I wanted him to appear studious. It was my way of saying, “Look, I’m sorry about the poor grades and the behavior problems that give you grief every week. He really is a smart kid and a good kid, and we really are trying our best. We are a good family.” Likewise with the hockey gear. I may look like the village idiot at the rink (again, see Bad at Sports), but I am one of the best when it comes to gear maintenance—or at least gear cleanliness.

I’ll be the first to admit that maintaining Kent’s gear is more about me than him. But I’d like to think that it serves his ego as well as mine. A while back, Kent asked me, “Mama, am I the best player on the team?” I struggled with the answer. Kent has athletic talent, maybe even hockey talent, but objectively, I could list many players who were stronger because of talent, attention span, age, and/or experience. Finally, I replied, “Kent, you are the best smelling player on the team.” Kent smiled proudly and skated away.

You see? Fresh smelling gear can actually improve a child’s confidence and self-esteem!

At least for now. Come adolescence, if Kent continues with hockey, the hormonal winds of change may blow, and I may ultimately lose the epic battle against odor-causing bacteria and mold. Hopefully by then, Kent will be in a stronger place emotionally, socially, and academically, and I will feel more empowered and less insecure as a parent. In the meantime, I will take pride in my small accomplishments. And when I’m having a bad day, I will open my son’s hockey bag and inhale.

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