Two years ago I wrote about the problem I have recognizing faces since my stroke. This problem is so subtle that I’m not always sure I actually have it, but it has given me some interesting realizations about what is considered “attractive” in today’s society. I have another strange legacy as well: I find that the interior of almost every building seems to resemble a maze. But I suspect this may be due more to the inadequacy of modern architects than to problems in my brain.
When I first got out of the hospital, I found it hard to navigate to even the simplest places, such as remembering to turn left when I wanted to go to the grocery store down the street. I’m a lot better than that now, but I still find that I get confused inside many buildings. Since quite a few of the places we go have been renovated by being gutted and then rebuilt inside, in order to contain more offices, I suspect that other people may get as confused as I do.
Bathrooms seem to be a perpetual problem, since these are often tucked away in odd corners. Three years ago, when I went to the ladies room in our favorite movie theater, Whitley would stand outside and “navigate” me, by speaking in a low voice, so I could find my way out again. I often wonder what other women who were entering that ladies room thought about him standing there! I remember once exiting the ladies room in one of our favorite restaurants to find the maitre d’ waiting for me with a crooked arm, ready to lead me out to where Whitley was waiting in our car. Whitley had given him a nice tip to take his place waiting for me outside the ladies room door.
When you no longer have a “rolodex” of familiar faces in your brain, or when this file has been damaged or diminished, you begin to try to figure out why you recognize some people and not others. I always recognize people I’ve known for many years: Whitley, my son, old friends, although (aside from Whitley) I’m always a little nervous that maybe I’m NOT going to recognize them this time, and of course, that makes it more likely that I won’t.
It’s the same type of problem I had with telling time when I first left the hospital. I knew what time was and could read a digital clock, but I couldn’t read a conventional watch face. Then the swelling or whatever it was in that specific part of my brain went away, and suddenly I could read my watch again. When it comes to recognizing faces, I have the same sort of problem: although I know who a person is, I may not recognize them when I see them.
I always recognize a business colleague who has a funny little wispy beard. He’d probably look better without it, but he confided to me once that he was in an auto accident many years ago that disfigured his face, and I suspect he’s grown the beard to hide his scars. I probably recognize him because nobody else I know has a beard quite like his.
This led me to the realization that I’m more likely to recognize people who are FUNNY looking in some way (I guess a nicer word for this is “distinctive”), which led me to the further conclusion that, in our society anyway, beauty has become equated with BLANDNESS. Even before my stroke, I used to complain mightily that all movie stars looked alike, especially the female ones: they all seem to be skinny with long blond hair. They’re almost interchangeable and maybe that’s the point: if one of them is demanding too much money, a studio executive can simply threaten to replace them with someone else who is nearly identical. No one has that memorable type of Kate Hepburn beauty anymore: You couldn’t have replaced her with just anyone!
In fact, the bland visages of actors can be a real problem when two of them are cast in the same film. I saw a film recently where I simply couldn’t figure out what was going on?the plot seemed to make no sense. Then I realized what the problem was: I had confused two of the male actors with each other, because they looked so much alike! Only when they were finally in the same scene together, near the end of the movie, did I realize they were two different people.
Whitley and I occasionally do a “test run.” If we’re meeting someone in a restaurant, we’ll go in together, but he’ll wait to greet them until I recognize them, to see if I do. Sometimes I pass the test and sometimes I don’t, but even when I do, I never have that “Ah ha!” feeling of sureness that I used to get before my aneurysm burst. I now joke that I remember faces the way other people remember names. If you want to remember that someone is named Jack Black, you tell yourself, “His name is Jack and he has black hair.” I tell myself that I’ll recognize someone because I know, intellectually, that he’s short and blond and wears glasses. But since many people fit that description, it doesn’t always work.
Sometimes strange things happen. Whenever I picture the face of one colleague we’re working with, I envision someone with long, straight hair down to his shoulders. Then when I SEE him, I realize he has short hair. I mentioned this to him once and he said, “Oh, I USED to have long hair, since I was a musician.” Am I somehow seeing him the way he looked in the past?
I used to try to cover up my inadequacy, since it can be so embarrassing, but these days, I find it’s easier just to admit it up front. If I’m going to meet someone I haven’t seen in a while, I just tell them, “I never recognize people, so when you see me, just come up to me and say, ‘Hi Anne, it’s Joy’ and I’ll know who you are right away.”
Meanwhile, I’m navigating through the many mazes I encounter as best I can. And when I DO recognize someone, I never let on that I often don’t recognize people who are considered by the world to be good looking, since this implies that they’re not (this is usually the case, but I don’t tell them that).
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