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