Out of Context, Out of Luck

digital illustrationIt’s no secret that I’m ‘bad with faces’. I struggle with what I know is only the mildest of cases of Prosopagnosia, but even my minor jot of that pestilential face-recognition inability causes me occasional discomfiture. More importantly, it has occasioned a moment or two of awkwardness for others when they approach me, knowing that I know or have at least met them, and I fail to recognize them or even register that I saw them quite recently.

I went to a family wedding once and, seeing a cousin I’d not seen often in our adulthood but knew very well in our youth, effused to her on reconnecting. And then I proceeded to do exactly the same with exactly the same cousin at the reception, not an hour later. I knew that I knew her and that she was my cousin, thanks to the occasion and other basic clues, but literally could not see that she was the same person with whom I’d just rejoiced in renewing contact. Even in this obvious setting I failed to see what was as plain as the nose on my face, never mind the should-be-familiar one on hers. My own cousin.

I am enormously thankful that there are people whom I have little or no difficulty identifying and recognizing no matter when or where, but they are not necessarily in the majority. Remove whatever clues to identity my peculiar mind relies upon for identifying a person—that distinctive mustache (especially reliable in the case of a woman!), a man’s unique carriage when walking, that heirloom necklace someone has worn since she inherited it at age twelve—and I am meeting the face attached to that person for the very first time once again. I suppose there might be a touch of the humorous in such a ridiculous predicament, if the person I fail to recognize knows about the situation and isn’t insecure about any failings on my part, but I would rather not have to muddle through the struggle of bridging that synaptical gap, especially in instances when I would rather be friendly and welcoming.

Even the fully operational brain doesn’t always work perfectly in this regard, as witness the lovely and very bright friend I encountered in the grocery store recently. We both took our time staring and sizing up whether the approaching person was indeed known as well as our brains were urging us to know. I, with my Prosopagnostic niggling sense that I needed to place her in a different context to recognize her as a friend from church, school and work paths crossing, was puzzled by my failure to connect the facial proportions and eye color and such with her identity; she, as it turned out, didn’t realize who I was because after knowing me only with my 20-years-established short haircut, she couldn’t place my features now that they’re set in this chin-length swath of hair. So many reasons we might struggle, and it’s rather common after all, but we still rail against the frustration.

But isn’t that just the way life works in general? Whatever our flaws and shortcomings, however valiant and well-meaning our attempts to ameliorate them and better ourselves and at least appear to be improving with age, there are bound to be gaps and mishaps. All I can say is that I’m mighty glad people are generally so patient and forgiving with me no matter what the situation or occasion, and I—well, I will just have to keep trying to put the best face on it.

I’ve Forgotten Your Face, but I can’t Look You Up in the Pictorial Directory, Because I’ve Forgotten Your Name, Too

I won’t deny that the memory diminution that comes with aging is a pain in the neck, if not regions well south thereof, but it’s particularly annoying when that faculty was fairly faint and whimsical from the beginning.photoI seem to have always had a mind less like the proverbial steel trap and much more decidedly iffy—more like, say, a somewhat loosely constructed sieve. It’s pretty good at catching and holding on to big chunky things: that air can be walked through but concrete walls cannot, or that elephants are large and mosquitoes are much smaller yet probably more dangerous in general. But so much slips right on through where I had hoped to store it that sometimes I think it’s a miracle I managed to remember to wear clothes when leaving the house, or to use deodorant rather than shoe polish under my arms. Not that shiny taupe underarms wouldn’t be a wonderfully glamorous fashion statement on anyone.

Perhaps it’s a contributor to my innovative and playful artistic soul, this having a mind so ill equipped to deal with quotidian and purposeful information in useful ways. When I can so seldom remember anyone’s name, let alone his birthday, or what appointments I made with which doctor, let alone what the dates were, it forces me to do some clever detective work and further develop my problem-solving skills, so maybe that’s just nature’s way of keeping me on my toes. In any event, I hope no one takes too much offense for too long that I keep asking them to repeat their names and hope that they’ll drop some hints about the context in which I am supposed to know them, when I think it’s a major feat of memory and deductive reasoning on my part to have realized that I might know them at all.

It truly isn’t that I don’t care; I simply find that getting a memory and keeping it where it can eventually be retrieved intact are not necessarily related, nor are they either one fully functional facilities in my would-be Taj Mahal of a memory palace. Of course, it’s hard enough to try building a memory palace if I forget what one is, or that I meant to try it, too. Apparently the elephants-who-never-forget have long since sashayed out of the place without me.



photoThose things that I can see even with my eyes quite tightly closed are objects of reverence and awe. No matter how much I admire the visible world for its quirks and art and prettiness, I cannot always navigate it with precision. I often can’t recognize faces out of their expected contexts. I miss obvious details that people around me have noted with nonchalance. I fail to see the marvel in many a beautiful everyday thing.photoSo when the attractions of anything are so intense that they live, beyond existing in the visible world, within the depths of my mind’s eye, I accord them special significance. They become icons of a sort, or waking dreams. I can carry with me those images that hold their places in my soul with something stronger than mere physical presence can ever begin to attain.

Were My Eyes Red!

I think I had a deer-in-the-headlights moment on a recent morning. When I went to wash my hands and looked up into the mirror, a bizarre monster was looking back at me and I froze. I stared uncomprehendingly, quite unable to make sense of the world for a moment, what glared back at me from the looking-glass was a creature with the strangest pair of burgundy wine-colored eyes I’d ever seen.

digital image from a photo

BOO! [artist’s rendition of conjunctival googly eye]

A quick assessment–possibly including a bit of arm-waving to see if the monster waved back at me in perfect sync or, rather, in reply to my advances–convinced me that I was looking at myself after all. An inexplicably unrecognizable self, but mine all the same.

I wasn’t in pain. There was no horrible itching, no creepy gunk running down my face. None of my limbs seemed to have detached themselves from my torso. I could feel no symptoms of anything untoward at all, and had awakened feeling perfectly dandy, with no sense of impending doom whatsoever.

As it transpired, the red-eyed madness was evidently a friendly reminder that I’d slept the night on a hotel pillow unlike mine. Perhaps the pillow’s stuffing or even, I suppose, the detergent with which the bed linens were laundered, bestowed upon my freakish new beauty by the agency of an allergic spasm of hyper-chromatic hilarity.

The really surprising thing about this whole episode is the series of alarms it set off in recognition that I often, well, don’t recognize the perfectly obvious in front of me until its moment has already passed. Ah yes, those many times when I’ve sat talking with a person and not realized until later just whose presence I’d taken for granted–whether an acquaintance I’d not recognized thanks to my prosopagnosia, a celebrity I’d not recognized by failing to connect name or title or other clues, or any other person I’d not fully appreciated in the moment. It’s a pity we are sometimes so blind to who or what is right in front of us that we don’t recognize how fantastic our lives really are, and how much richer for the company we keep.

If I need further periodic reminders, I hope the great people who are around me will kindly give me the needed nudge. So very much kinder and cheerier a nudge than, say, the appearance of an alien in the mirror. And lest I have failed to make it clear to you, this is also my time to say Thank You and express my appreciation to all of you good people who do give me the time of day, regardless of my thick-headedness or my bleary red eyes.

graphite drawing

Oh deer, what can the matter be?

Matters of Perspective



Stormy skies can bring destruction . . . or the rains of growth and promise . . .

I’ve said before, and in ever so many ways, I’m a firm believer that we all live our lives wearing our own very distinctive glasses. By that I’m not referring to the glass-half-full vs. glass-half-empty attitude–but that’s indeed part of the whole idea. It’s about how we see the world through our individual filters.

In a fairly concrete fashion, that means that the quality of my actual eyesight–my acuity, ability to detect and distinguish colors, textures, shapes, depth of field aided by stereo vision, and all of that sort of thing does, in fact, have a profound effect on my world view and how I experience my passage through it in life. As a longtime visual artist, I am dependent upon all of this stuff for my very sense of self.

But I’m also convinced that each of us has a life history that includes our adventures from birth to the present, our nurturing or lack thereof, our environment and resources and social contacts and political influences and educational progression, and that whole reality is so distinctive for each of us, right down to a cellular level, that I can’t quite imagine how even the closest of kin could possibly have identical points of view.

I’ve been reminded of this in the last few days as I’ve been reading the latest Oliver Sacks book on which I’ve laid hands: The Mind’s Eye. Every book of his that I’ve read thus far is, since he’s a neurologist, a humane and humorous thinker, a deeply curious scientist, and a citizen of the world with wide-ranging interests, bound to be an adventure. Given the visual theme of this particular collection of case-studies (including his own discovery of and treatment for an ocular tumor), it is indeed a confirmation of my sense that such complex inventions as human bodies, multiplied by the almost infinite variants those influences I mentioned above can infuse, create and incubate an incredible range of possible ways to see and experience life in this world and whatever we can conceive of beyond it.

Yes, I am enjoying this latest Sacks book as immensely as I have all of his thus far. It’s been rather striking, too, to add to the layers of my own filters, many of which I’ve only come to recognize rather more recently in my life. I have sussed out and confirmed to my own wildly non-medical satisfaction that I am very probably distinctly dyslexic or cognitively ‘different’ in a whole bunch of ways, and having looked at this good doctor’s descriptions of face-blindness, or prosopagnosia, I’ve a feeling that my realization sometime not long past that I might have a degree of face-blindness might well be accurate. I’m certainly no less inclined to believe it since immediately before the book arrived on scene at the local library, I was working in our front yard when a car pulled up and the nice driver called me by name and conversed with me pleasantly until I could identify by her voice, questions and comments that she is the neighbor who lives directly across the street from me. Sigh. Sometimes the ol’ filters do get a little blurry.

More importantly, though, I’m convinced that how we respond to our life experiences and our histories–the choices we make and what we do with what we’re given and who we are within it–those are the truly telling filters. They’re the things by which we’ll be known, be remembered (if we’re remembered), and that offer us ways to define ourselves and our place in the world. So while I’m happy as an artist to play (as you saw in the last couple of posts) with my reality in the artificial world of visual imagery and how I attempt to show others what it’s like to see through my lens, I realize that my moods and attitudes are a part of that process too. Can I get others to understand or accept my point of view? Rarely, if I’m mighty fortunate. Can I help them to see it? More likely, if I work hard. Can I give them happy access to their own filters that might improve their moment or their day? That, I hope, I can do if I am true to the better of my instincts in responding to the world as I know it and expressing, the best that I’m able, with passion and with compassion. With love and joy.

digital painting from a photo

Heavens! What started as a grim and ominous day can become something bright and hopeful . . .