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.








50 thoughts on “Who are you again?

  1. I call it “name-face aphasia”. I remember drugs like nobody’s business, and a whole bunch of verses and choruses (very few bridges) but that’s about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This may not apply to you, but I recently discovered that I have a condition with a lovely name: aphantasia. Most people are able to visualize faces and other things in their minds, but some people cannot. This is one of the causes of face blindness, and other embarrassing memory lapses. I can’t “see” the faces of my children, unless they are standing in front of me.


  3. If only that really was Joel Selvin!!

    Man, I am so with you on this thing! In my line of work I see lots and lots of people once or twice a year. Just the other night, in Albuquerque, I was repeatedly berated by a woman who insisted “You know me!” over and over, despite my polite protestations. If I have met her, I have had plenty of time to forget her from one annual visit to the next.

    My strategy is to admit it. “I’m sorry – please tell me your name again.” Much safer than faking it.


  4. I’ve taken to forgetting names, though I usually remember the faces.
    Also, ” I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry ” by Hank Williams.


  5. I taught class piano at a community college for years, and the name cards at each piano were there, I told the students, so I could use them to take attendance after class instead of using class time. Nobody ever called me on it. The odd thing is that I could remember the students’ repertoire, but not their names.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow, and I thought I was the only face-blind person in the world. It can be very embarrassing but we do develop coping ways, don’t we… Thanks for sharing! btw, I’ve been reading your columns since way back in the Chronicle when I was a kid 50 years ago – Thanks for it all and glad to find you here! Penny

    Penny Leff Agritourism Coordinator UC ANR Small Farm Program University of California Davis, CA 95616 530.752.7779 http://www.sfp.ucdavis.edu

    On Thu, Feb 23, 2017 at 5:10 PM, Jon Carroll Prose wrote:

    > joncarrollprose posted: “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 Previous” >

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I imagine you know that Oliver Sachs was also face blind. So, you never know. Maybe it’s a mark of extreme intelligence, or sensitivity, or something. Thanks for much enjoyable reading. Pat Moore


  8. Huh. Always wanted to meet you. Lived in the Glenview 15 years, still never got to. Now I know it wouldn’t have mattered. On the other hand, maybe it would have been even cooler, since, as an Aspie, I tend to piss people off, including you, on a regular basis – but with your face blindness, I’d have a fresh start, and another chance, at each successive meeting.


  9. Within the past week I apologized to two separate people for not recognizing them. I told both of them I’m face-blind: “really, it’s a real thing!” They both stared at me like I was spouting alternative facts. Now I’m just going to print this column out and hand it over as back-up proof.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. only way out I see is to take it to another level. As in “weren’t we together 25 years ago on the Carizzo Plain…that memorable nightime safari where we WENT DEEP into the antics of Kangaroo Rats? Don’t you remember, illuminated by jeep headlights they actually do jump?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I’ve always been bad at names. I once bought Harry Lorraine’s memory book (gee, I remembered his name!) — but, to show you how effective it was … I had to use a bookmark in it! I could never do the (famous) name-association trick he recommended, at least not while actually talking to someone. But when I once directed a children’s theater company, I suddenly was able to remember all their names with no effort at all … probably because children are so upset if you forget.

    (The Firesign Theatre has a funny routine about the word-association trick for remembering names.)

    Slightly OT: My mother had pretty bad dementia for the last three years of her life. But even when she sometimes didn’t recognize my sister or me, she never forgot who George Bush was and how much she despised him.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Guitar Town is a fine song but old Steve (you remember Steve I’m sure) also wrote ” Galway Girl” and that great song about growing up in a family of bootleggers. I don’t need to quote the tirley


  12. Join the crowd! And Oliver Sacks. He had the same–affliction??disease?? I forget the name of what he had, but he definitely had it!I (Couldn’t recognize faces.)


  13. Lot of people commenting who share the affliction. Occurs to me that, in this era of sophisticated face-recognition software…there should be an app for that.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Is there a name for people who recognize a face but don’t know where or when? The “don’t I know you?” ploy usually just turns out to be embarrassing when they don’t remember me. Oh, well. I get to blame it on old age–good cop out.


  15. And what did Shana say to being called a “middle-aged woman”? A person could get his face re-arranged for saying that, depending, of course, on how well he brought up the daughter.


  16. Good morning. I hope you slept well and are feeling better.

    http://Www.joncarrollprose.com. He was a ‘color and commentary’ writer for the Chronicle, much like Scott Ostler for sports and Mark Morford. His columns always made me laugh and think. I looked forward to reading him in the morning with my coffee and was sad when he retired. I was delighted to find out from a friend that he’s been writing blogs.

    Check him out! XXXXXXOOOOO

    Sent from my iPhone



  17. Yes I have prosopagnasia. Made being a teacher pretty difficult. And as for navigation in town – everywhere looks the same. But Google Maps has saved me – takes me to the right street name every time. Unfortunately some of them are in different towns.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Jon Carroll–

    Thanks you for sharing your memory-related struggle. It is easier to be “out” about such things than in the closet. Your writing is still very funny: no losses there.

    (BTW, we have never met but I am an avid fan of your writing, so you need not struggle to recall who I am.)

    My problem is that I recall voices and faces but can rarely remember more than a few names at a time. And the issues are worse because of epilepsy (and taking anticonvulsant meds) and a few concussions suffered along the way. Not to mention that I am older: I just qualified for Medicare.

    You are not alone. Most of us need to remember that others have the same kinds of memory lapses–regularly and otherwise–that we do and behave like John Eggers did–graciously and helpfully.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There is a certain amount of wisdom in that. I am afflicted with an Aspergers-ish memory that recalls way too many insignificant details from way too long ago. Out of the blue, I remember when I said something to hurt someone’s feelings, made an ass of myself, or some social interaction I could have handled better, from decades ago, and I am overwhelmed with guilt and chagrin – when chances are, the other party has long since forgotten the episode, if not me entirely.


  19. I just read your blog on . . . (This is the honest truth, I can’t remember exactly what it was on.) Oh, yes, memory or face recognition. These questions are not to be answered . . . 1.)How in the world did I happen to find this blog? 2.) Who in the world is Jon Carroll? I got some clues to the last question from some of the comments. Finally he gets to the point . . I loved your story. I am so very glad I found you.


  20. I’m not sure, but Robert Reich looks taller somehow. Also, the Danny Flower song “Before Believing” done by Emmylou Harris. I think it’s on the Elite Hotel Album.


  21. Jon:

    OMG, there are a lot of us. My affliction is I remember faces sometimes, but I freeze up on names. Your description of the shift to the name recalling memory function is so apt. I freeze in the moment, but may remember 30 minutes later. Or I occasionally confuse the person with someone else who is similar in appearance which is embarrassing as the conversation goes sideways. It is as if my brain gives me direct access to the names associated with only a relatively small number of faces, but hides the rest in long term storage to frustrate me.

    I have taken up birding and can recognize the birds but have trouble with the names. So I set up a photo album with a series of my photos of the birds, only some of which are labeled. That exercise of memory reinforcement has helped.

    So now your response to my email on your retirement makes sense. You remembered me as someone far more interesting than I actually was in reaction to my statement that we were at UC Berkeley at the same time. I was the engineer that did not move much from my classrooms to where the action was (e.g. FSM) and had memories of your Daily Cal columns.

    Denny Parker


  22. My late father was a preacher. And he could stand at the sanctuary door Sundays and greet what must have been a couple of hundred people, nearly ever one by name. As an adult I remembered this and not having any ability with names at all, a non-skill that is getting worse, I asked my dad how he did all those names. I figured, assumed, some mnemonic, a trick or technique. However what he said, kind of fiercely, was, ‘I worked Very Hard, on that. Very Hard.’


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