Who are you again?

I’ve been face-blind all my life, and it’s gotten worse as I’ve gotten older. A surprising number of things have gotten better as I’ve gotten older — my Gross Happiness Index (GHI) is higher than it’s ever been, as has my Sudden Understanding of Previously Mysterious Things. On the other hand, my body is slowly dying. That’s been true forever, but somehow it comes up more than it used to.

Alison Gopnik? Is that you?


Usually it’s not a problem. All the faces I see in daily life are familiar, from Darcy (the baby next door) to Omar (the mayor of Glenview) to my friend Brian (who hates the Internet and will never read this). I recognize them. But anyone I haven’t encountered in the last six months: Absolute blank. I know I know them, but I don’t know who they are. I don’t even know if I’m supposed to like them.

Actually, it’s worse than that. When I retired, I threw a small party for 50 or so of my closest friends. Naturally, not everyone could come. Terry and Pete were off in New Zealand, Peggy couldn’t make it up from Santa Cruz, and my daughter Shana couldn’t make it out from Montreal because she had a thing. (My daughter Rachel, who lives in the Bay Area, could and did come). So the day before the party, a Saturday, I was watching sports on television, probably college football. There was a knock on the door.

“Goddamit,” I thought, and probably said. A mid-afternoon unexpected knock is probably  a door-to-door solicitor, often one of the kids from an “American Honey”-like scam. Second choice: A neighbor with some questions or some data, including things like “did you know you left your groceries on the sidewalk?”

I opened the door. Standing there was a middle-aged woman. “Yes?” I said, and then the world went out of focus momentarily as I changed the parameters in my in-brain recognition software.

“Shana!” I said.

“Daddy!” she said.

She was the surprise guest for the party. I was perhaps a little too surprised.

Someone said that was Leonard Pitt. I think.

Last week I went to the Berkeley Public Library’s annual author’s dinner. Tracy and I were being honored or something; our names were on the program, but we didn’t get a plaque or anything. (I like me my plaques you bet). We were part of a fund-raiser, and who doesn’t want to help libraries? Plus, free food, and the opportunity to meet people I hadn’t seen for a while. Uh-oh.

All  of which was complicated by the presence of people whose names I knew but whom I had never met. Probably. Did I ever shake hands with George Lakoff? Had I hung out with David Goines? I’ve had several long conversations with Dave Eggers, but would I recognize him? He’s a big guy, right?

I entered the fray. Tracy went one way, I went another. Everyone was smiling in a vague, non-threatening way. A short woman in a flowered dress came up to me. “You probably don’t remember me,” she said.

“I’m sorry, I don’t.”

“I took a class from you.” Lord, I should remember this person. I peered at her name-tag. Problem:  The name-tag design team had made the first name real big, and the last name real small. I leaned forward to look at the name tag. She flinched a little bit. I realized that my face was about two inches from the woman’s left breast.

I jerked back to the full upright position. “Arlene!” I said. She nodded and noticed an entirely imaginary person over my right shoulder. “Excuse me,” she said brightly.

In that case, I did the right thing. I’d said, “I’m sorry, I don’t remember your name”. I said it lot that night, and only occasionally was it really embarrassing. “Vicki!” I said, forgetting the face of a woman I’d known for 40 years, a woman who was indeed my agent for 10 of them. (Technically, she’s still my agent, although there ain’t no money in being my agent any more).  She was gracious. She may even have forgotten who I was, since many of us share the similar shameful secret.

Dawanau Market Series.
I’m pretty sure that’s Robert Reich

Ten minutes later, I was chatting with a gray-haired man who quickly assured me that I was not supposed to know who he was. “I just want to say,” he said, “that I still remember a column you wrote. You said that  ‘Guitar Town’ was probably the best song ever recorded.”

Fortunately, I know what I’m supposed to do. Unfortunately, I didn’t do it.

“Ah,” I said, looking vague. I could certainly figure this out from context.

“Well, I agree! ” he burbled. “It’s just a great, great song. I think he’s touring now. Have you heard him recently?”

I did not know the song “Guitar Town.” I did not know who recorded it. Usually, I can pick up some sort of hint, but my guy kept just using the third person pronoun. He this, and he that, and I’m thinking: Who he?  I was in too deep to admit error now.

It was ghastly.

I later learned that “Guitar Town” was a much-praised song by Steve Earle. I know who Steve Earle is, sort of, (wasn’t he shot in the face on “Treme”?) but clearly not enough.  So, lovely enthusiastic gray-haired man, I apologize for misleading you. My favorite all-time song is either “You Can Call Me Al” by Paul Simon or “Sinner Man” by Nina Simone. Unless it’s “Hey Jude” by the Beatles, or “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (not the Joan Baez version). Or maybe “Numberless are the World’s Wonders”  by…OK, I’m stopping.

So on and on. I met Steve Wasserman, the new boss man at Heyday Books. His nametag said “Steve (Unreadable)”. I searched my database for Steves. I just don’t live in a universe of Steves — except of course for the very famous Steve Earle. But then my Steve said something that provided context, and almost immediately I was chattering away like anything.

Later I met up with Dave Eggers — he is a big guy — who was chatting with a tall vivacious woman. I offered my hand and said I was sure we’d met somewhere before. Maybe some City Arts and Lectures. I wondered what kind of books she wrote. Probably works of philosophy; it is my impression that women philosophers are often beautiful. But who…

Dave, God bless him, could see that I was struggling. “Jon, I’d like you to meet my friend Connie Nielson.” He said the name distinctly, with emphasis on each syllable. “Con. Nee.  Neel. Son.”

Oh, right. The famously beautiful and intelligent actress. Was in “Gladiator’ (Russell Crowe, Joaqin Phoenix and Oliver Reed  all chewing the scenery with great appetite), “The Devil’s Advocate” (Al Pacino wiping the floor with overmatched Keanu Reeves) and “Rushmore” (Bill Murray being wry, so wry).   And here she was, waiting for words to come out my mouth.

“So funny, ha, I thought I knew you but only from the movies, I guess…”

“I get that a lot,” she said kindly, and moved her gaze back to Dave.

And then it was time to go into dinner. Later on, I was pretty sure Lakoff was at the next urinal, but it seemed like a bad time to talk about my enthusiasm for “reframing”.  Besides, it might not have been him.

After dinner, we thanked the appropriate people and I went home with a woman  who may very well have been my wife.


Photography by Tracy Johnston

Useful person in moments of panic: Michelle Mizera

Joel Selvin and Geoffrey Nunberg, chatting informally

You know, “Madam George”  by Van Morrison may be my favorite song.








The wonderland of things

“So let me postulate a situation. You’ve got a young married couple, all dewy-eyed and lust-crazed, moving in to their first house. It’s not a bad house, because her father helped with the down. So they stand there in the their first real kitchen. Say marble countertops, built-in dishwasher, electric not gas stove, which is an abomination but never mind. There are boxes on the floor filled with kitchen stuff. It’s time to unpack.”

I pause for a breath. Scott looks at me expectantly. We’re having lunch in the Sidebar, a fine Oakland establishment across the street from Lake Merritt. Scott knows a lot about design, probably. Scott knows about a lot of things, some of which may not be things. I picked him to listen about kitchens. Lucky him.

“So here’s my question: How do they decide where things go? That pair of scissors, for instance. Where does it go? The flatware drawer? The tool drawer with the screwdrivers and the one hammer? Maybe it doesn’t even  go in the kitchen. Maybe the scissors belong in the home office. Which brings us to the garlic press, the wastebasket, the kibble container, the fruit bowl, the baking powder, and so forth. Where do they go? How do you decide?”

“How do you decide?” asks Scott, stressing a different word in the sentence.

“Me? How do I decide? Mostly I’m not the decider in the kitchen. But I think some of it has to do with how our parents’ kitchens were organized. I’m sure that very few mothers actually explained why the colander goes where it goes, but, you know, kids. They internalize things, and pretty soon the colander is in the baking drawer because that’s where Mom had it. Which is too bad, because the colander belongs on the occasional pot shelf.”

“The occasional pot shelf?”

“Where the pots you use only occasionally go. The big one you only bring out for stew when company is coming, the little sauce pan that’s rarely used for sauce. As opposed to the every day frying pan or the useful pot for cooking pasta. Clearly, some of the decisions are based on some kind of frequency-of-use algorithm. But others…”

My voice trails off. I’m at the limits of my pre-lunch speculation. I take a ruminative bite of polenta. I love lunch. When I was starting out as an editor, lunch was always the time for idea development. Plus, it was usually free. I don’t imagine you kids have heard about expense accounts, but they were one of the loveliest flowers of the old capitalism. Now everybody eats kale chips at their desks, finished off with their ninth cup of coffee of the day. I remember when a nice veal piccata and a glass of white wine was a routine treat. I —”

“My arrangements are always logical,” Scott says. “For instance, all the things with pointy ends go in one drawer. Knives, scissors, that sort of thing.”

“What about the meat thermometer? That has a pointy end. You could kill someone with a meat thermometer.”

“That goes in the cooking drawer, with the pot holders and the measuring cups and the small pile of folded recipes. The treasured recipes, of course. Mom’s meat loaf,  the chicken dish my wife learned in college, the infinitely elastic lasagne. Are 17 people suddenly coming to dinner? Let’s have lasagne!”

Can you find the cherry pitter? The knife sharpener?

I could see that Scott was getting into it. I could see that he enjoyed making lists of kitchen thingies. Buying kitchen implements — a wooden spoon, a whisk, a pepper grinder — doesn’t really even seem like consumerism, although if you add up the cost of all your utensils and containers and one-use appliances — popcorn popper, anyone? It’s basically a hair-dryer with a top — it would probably be more than a Meneghini refrigerator.

(I just looked. A Meneghini La Cambusa will set you back a cool $41,000. But it’s a damn good refrigerator.)

“Of course, my arrangements are darned logical too. I think everybody thinks their own arrangements are logical. Those scissors I mentioned? That was not a hypothetical example. Tracy thinks the scissors belong next to the sink. That is of course ridiculous. They belong over in the prep area, where boxes and bags require opening. But, you know, other people. They sure are protective of their opinions.”

“So what happened?”

“We bought another pair of scissors. We needed an anti-bickering strategy.”

(Research indicates that we have five pairs of scissors in the kitchen. We also have a cherry pitter, an egg slicer, a lemon squeezer, a potato masher, a funnel that used to belong to Tracy’s mother, and a large ashtray in the shape of Dodger Stadium. We also found this:

Does it fly? Is it used in witchcraft?

Which, who knows? Not us.)

It was Scott’s turn to meditate. He chewed his Cuban roast pork sandwich. “Is there a point here?” he finally asked.

“I had an idea that I’m pretty sure is not new, but it came to me in my own little head, so I like it. Everybody’s a designer. Everybody has dozens of design ideas that they don’t know they have. Like, some people favor symmetry. They’re always discovering an object that must go in the center of the table or wherever, and then arranging objects on either side. Bonus points if you’ve got two of something — porcelain rabbits, say — and put one on either side. Other people prefer a more subtle aesthetic approach, while still others like random scattering of stuff,  because that makes life more interesting. It’s hard to say where these preferences come from. Family patterns, sure, but there are plenty of examples of people who grew up in a symmetrical household and became militantly chaotic as soon as they left home.”

“And how does this relate to the scissors?”

“Just this: I have no idea where my preference in scissor location comes from. I could make up a reason why it’s logical, but that would be post-hoc hand-waving. It comes from the same place as my fondness for cacti and my love of old cars. It feels hard-wired. And, I, well, think that’s interesting.”

Scott smiled. I know he thought it was interesting too. “Want some coffee?” he asked. I was pretty sure he was hinting that he would enjoy a discussion of coffee worship and its attendant grinders, pressers, steamers and beans from the north slope of Mount Confundida in Costa Rica. But no, he just wanted coffee.

Photography by Tracy “You really want me to take a picture of our table?” Johnston

Not so much into chaos: Michelle Mizera