Facial recognition is a pretty primitive thing. Not only can the FBI do it, but freshly born babies make a pretty good stab at it, too. We all look for faces everywhere, and we see them as well. We find faces in clouds, in trees, on rocks, the Man in the Moon… It’s called pareidolia when we interpret a non-existent pattern as something familiar. I think I am a reverse-pareidoliac –I often cannot even make out the patterns that aren’t there.
There was a time when I told myself that I had evolved beyond the primitive –that was why I couldn’t recognize faces. I convinced myself that I used far more advanced people-identification methods: the way they walked; how they parted their hair; the rhythm of their jowls when they pronounced my name –advanced things like that which babies could only dream of.
But now that time has worn thin and the edges have begun to fray, and in the plethora of leisure that Retirement has bolted to my shoulders, I feel that I should try to add to my repertoire of categorization clues -accrete lesser known strategies to advance my capacity to function in a crowd of otherwise-strangers. Well, okay… even reliably identify people who have remembered my name.
I like to go for long lonely walks in the woods with the dog along trails where I don’t have to pick up after her. She is aging now -deaf, and arthritic and seems to become easily confused- so I am the one in charge. I stroll slowly and aristocratically along the paths with pride, and at every junction on the trail, every place that might allow her the option of going the wrong way, I make sure she doesn’t get lost. I am the doting father, the aide de camp; I am the slow courier du bois.
Last week, on a particularly wet perambulation through the dripping forest, beset by mist and things that rustled the bushes unbeknownst to my dog, I thought I saw something on the trail ahead. At first I have to confess that, after dismissing notions of bear, or a feral troll, I decided it was a large tree. The fact of its swaying slightly from side to side did nothing to disavow me of my opinion. Once you have thought a thing through dispassionately and with critical reasoning, the conclusion becomes pretty sticky.
And yet, I am not one who believes in carding shadows; evidence can sway me -I am not a solipsist. When the tree eventually wobbled up to me, I was perfectly willing to admit it was human. What I was less certain about, however, was why he seemed to know me –and me him.
“Well, hello again,” he said, with undeserved familiarity. “Still at it I see.”
I nodded politely, but with not the slightest idea what he was talking about. I decided to reply in kind. “And you too, I guess, eh?” It was a brave attempt at concordance that he immediately disavowed.
“Actually, I’m giving up,” he said with a sigh and looked skyward –well, leafward, anyway. “A little too wet for me, I’m afraid.”
We both nodded and then stared at the ground between us as if for instructions. “Yes,” I replied, trying to find something we agreed upon. “It is wet…” As I spoke, a large drop of water landed on my now exposed neck and made me shiver. “And a bit cold.”
He nodded, but in a familiar way that made me suspect I’d seen him before –that maybe I’d even been introduced to him. “So where’s your dog,” he said looking around.
Aha, he knew I had a dog -I was closing in. I shrugged as if it were really of little importance whether your dog is actually visible in a forest like this. “Oh, she takes her time… probably back there sniffing something I guess.”
He nodded his head as if, yes, dogs were like that.
Why did that nod make him seem so familiar I wondered? I riffled through the files in my head for the answer: a name, a circumstance –anything. But the only thing that kept surfacing was that he had a dog, too. Somewhere… “So where’s your dog today?” It was a shot in the dark. I didn’t see a dog, but usually people don’t walk in the woods in the rain if they don’t have one –or at least one at home, anyway.
He chuckled and looked behind him. “Sometimes dogs hide…”
The name ‘Bob’ suddenly surfaced in my head. Was it the name of the dog…? No, probably not –nobody’d name their dog ‘Bob’. I decided it must be his name, so I thought I’d use it to appear more friendly –but non-referentially, noncommittally, just in case. “Ahh, Bob,” I said, dropping the ‘Bob’ down several notes and slowly shaking my head in a sort of pretend shrug. “Happens, eh?” It wasn’t brilliant, or anything, but I think I pulled it off.
He nodded again –it’s a guy thing on a trail- but he seemed a little uncertain, I thought. Just then my dog came limping in a slow pant up the trail and he pointed at her. “Finally, eh friend?” he said speaking in a direction that could have been directed at either one of us. Then he made eye contact with me, said “Well, I’d better be off now… Nice seeing you again.” and waddled off dogless into the mist, no doubt feeling he’d handled the situation as well as I had.