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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e  February 2011


Hello, My Name Is

My Facebook must be overdue at the library.

First, I'd like to apologize to the lady in the Albertson's produce aisle whom I tried to photograph with my cell phone while she was picking jalapeo peppers from a bin. Honest, this wasn't some pervy sex thing ("Meet the Red-Hot Mommas of Silver City"). I was trying to email the photo to my wife, so she could tell me who the heck Jalapeo Woman was.

Alas, it turns out to be tougher than you might think to snap a picture of somebody in the produce section without the person noticing and, say, calling the store manager. Or the cops. After a few blurry pix of passing shopping carts and the back of Jalapeo Woman's head, I gave up. She would remain a mystery woman, at least to me.

But of course Jalapeo Woman knew me. Moments before my clandestine camera activity, she'd cheerily said hello to me — by name — and we'd swapped pleasantries about the weather and the price of fresh horseradish. And I knew her face, of course I did.

I just couldn't summon up a name to go with it.

Even if I did have a guess as to her name, I confess, I wouldn't have dared voice it. Whenever people greet me — "Hi, David!" — unless I'm 100% sure I've got the greeter's name right, I default to a generic, "Hi!" or "Hi, how are you?" The more uncertain I am about the person's identity, the more exaggerated my friendliness. If a total stranger somehow guessed my name and said hello, I'd probably hug him. (Well, no, we Scandinavians aren't huggers. Maybe a fist bump.)

I realize that by writing about this, I'm blowing my cover for all future Albertson's encounters. But I've been inspired by Oliver Sacks, the neurologist who writes for The New Yorker magazine, whose latest book, The Mind's Eye, explores six cases of people who've had to adjust to changes or quirks in their vision — including himself. Sacks writes about his own "face blindness," a condition technically called "prosopagnosia" (a term — no kidding! — I tracked down by Googling to a page on, of all things, Facebook).

In a condition that appears to be hereditary, Sacks simply can't "see" faces in the way that normal people can put together this and that facial characteristic and thereby recognize that this is Sam and that's Emily. Prosopagnosia affects about 2.5% of the population.

In an interview with The Economist magazine about his new book, Sacks speaks of how people with "face blindness" deal with their problem: "Some people will avoid embarrassment and confusion and all social contact. Others will become extremely attentive to matters of dress and movement and voice, so much so that they become tuned automatically to how people are dressed and how they move. For my part I think I'm good at recognizing posture and movement. I'm a little bit on the reticent side — that's a primary characteristic of face blindness. People should perhaps 'out' themselves. In the book I tell a story where a man goes to a physician and says he can't recognize people, and so his life has become 'a round of apology and offense.' The matter must be aired. If people know you're face blind you don't have to apologize."

So there you have it. Sorry, Jalapeo Woman, but I'm just really bad at matching faces to names. And I'll take that fuzzy photo of you bending over the produce bin off my Facebook page right away.

I'm not technically "face blind" like Oliver Sacks, thank goodness. In fact, when I make an effort I can be extremely good at remembering faces, at least in the short term. For example, the interview I did for this month's story on the Gila Back Country Horsemen put me in a circle with seven members of the group — three women and four men. As I asked questions and took notes, I had to keep track of who was saying what among seven individuals I'd just met.

So I am, as journalists are fond of saying in a slightly high-faluting way, "a trained observer." If I'm "on," I can recall not only who was who in a gathering but what each person was wearing. I know this guy wore a gimme cap and that gal had a fringed jacket on.

It's just afterward, in nonprofessional situations such as picking jalapeos at Albertson's, that I draw a blank. Or at parties, where I stick close to my wife so she can identify the people we meet whom I'm supposed to know. She's been trained to feed me clues: "Hi, Evelyn, how's business at the antiques shop?" or "Joe, good to see you. Haven't seen you since you were on the Friends of the Library board with Dave." (Sometimes these clues for my benefit are not so subtle.)

Part of my problem, as I like to rationalize it, is that in my line of work I meet a lot of people. Often the circumstance in which I meet someone — say, I'm interviewing the person — is a lot more unusual and therefore memorable for them than for me. I've done a zillion interviews. Most people in everyday walks of life don't get interviewed all that often.

Plus of course my photo is in the paper every month, just in case people need a little reminder of what my mug looks like.

I first noticed this disparity in recognizing people I'd met, especially in the course of my job, when I was a columnist for the Telegraph-Herald newspaper in Dubuque, Iowa. There, too, my mugshot was in the paper — four times a week.

I was sort of the Charles Kuralt of Dubuque and the neighboring Mississippi River country of northeast Iowa, southwest Wisconsin and northwest Illinois — minus the CBS TV camera crew. It was just me and my notebook, trekking to tiny towns and off-the-beaten-path places where the directions typically included barn signs and cows ("turn left at the third steer"). At about 150 reported columns a year, I got to meet a pretty high proportion of the area's population.

When they'd meet me again later on the street, just as fellow pedestrians, my brain had already filed them away and moved on to the next interview. Sure, they remembered me — I was the guy who'd spent two hours asking about their collection of old hats, their perpetual-motion machine or the old riverboat they're restoring. But I had to settle for a generic "Hi!" in response. Sorry, no "Hi, how's that perpetual-motion thing working out for you?"

Sometimes, of course, the shoe was on the other foot and I'd interview famous folks who happened to have Dubuque on their touring itinerary. Even after all these years, I'm sure I'd recognize Tony Danza, the TV actor, if I ran into him on the street, but I doubt that the much-interviewed Mr. Danza would put a name to my face. (And not just because in that particular interview he brought along a couple of buddies from his college days in Dubuque — and a fifth of whiskey.) No question, I'd be able to name Gene Simmons, the lead singer of the KISS rock group, either in or out of his iconic makeup. But I doubt that a 20-minute interview in his dressing room, pre-concert, burned my name and visage into his brain, no matter how witty and penetrating my questions.

So, no, I'm not "face blind." I've just been fortunate enough to encounter more faces in my line of work than most people do. And I apologize in advance if I should recognize yours but don't, or can't come up with your name until much too late and I'm putting my groceries into the car out in the Albertson's parking lot. (Which does, however, explain why I might suddenly cry out, "Seymour!" — startling the kid collecting the grocery carts, whose name is likely not also Seymour.)

If you really want me to remember you, it couldn't hurt to bring along an entourage and a buddy named Jim Beam. Or you could paint your face like the guys in KISS.

Otherwise, sorry, you may have to remain Jalapeo Woman or Pot Roast Guy, at least to me.

Desert Exposure editor David A. Fryxell wishes people
would wear nametags at all times.



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