You and Me

A face is very personal –it is what our friends recognize about us, and it’s what we get used to seeing in a mirror. It may not be beautiful and it may have some features we’d rather it didn’t, but at the end of the day, it’s still us. And apart from reconstructive surgery, or some terrible accident, we’re stuck with it. I wouldn’t have it any other way –I like to know what to expect in a reflection. I like to know just who I am shaving.

I suppose there are many ways to compare faces: ‘“Most people concentrate on superficial characteristics such as hair-line, hair style, eyebrows,” says Nick Fieller, a statistician involved in The Computer-Aided Facial Recognition Project. Other research has shown we look to the eyes, mouth and nose, in that order.’  And we tend to generalize similarities, even though side-to-side comparisons might not hold up, so unless a face is truly unusual, it could be mistaken for another. I was once mistaken for Steven Spielberg when I was visiting the old Jewish cemetery in Prague. I considered giving autographs, but I am neither Jewish, nor do I write very well. And anyway, I don’t think it was my face as much as the baseball cap I was wearing.

But that’s just the thing –if I’d been wearing a turban, nobody would thought to ask. Context is everything; you have to be lucky.

Edward was lucky –he was always being mistaken for somebody he wasn’t. And since he wasn’t really anybody in particular, he loved the opportunities it presented. Even I felt special if he came over to my usual table in the window of the local Starbucks. A tall man, with wavy  greying hair and impeccably dressed, he always carried himself like royalty. He looked like someone you should know. I’d known him since university when he was just a slob, though. I think that’s maybe why we used to hang out together –in those days he made me look good. Now, it was me who basked in his light.

“Thought I’d find you here,” he said, coming from the cold of a blustery day in February. It was snowing outside and I’d seen him hurrying by through the steamy plate glass window. “I need you to do me a favour…”

The way he said it made me suspicious. I’ve never trusted an ellipsis, and his was as obvious as a gravel road. I sighed, and reached for my wallet. “It’s not money again is it Eddie?”

His eyes immediately flew back to his face and his forehead, in a long-practiced sweep, suddenly appeared insulted. “No. Of course not… But, if you’re reaching for your wallet, I wouldn’t mind a coffee… Twenty dollars should do, I guess…” he said, eyeing the solitary bill inside.

Damn the ellipses. They were spilling out of him today. “Want your usual bagel, too?” I thought maybe if I were generous, he’d feel guilty about asking me to do something outrageous for him again. Last month, for example, he wanted me to tell a woman he had just met that I’d seen him in a movie.

“You can tell her you saw it a couple of years ago and forget the name of it now,” he’d said with his eyes holding out their little wings like they were pigeons begging on the street.

We’d arranged to meet right here as if by accident. But when he’d arrived at the assigned time, he was alone.

“Turns out she was married, and her husband came back early from his trip,” he said and shrugged, as if he couldn’t win them all. “But he saw me talking to her in the mall, and walked over and asked me if he’d seen me in a movie somewhere, though.” All was not lost. It never was with Edward.

I tried hard not to roll my eyes when he returned with a breakfast sandwich, a bagel and two chocolate chip cookies as well as a coffee –venti size, whatever that means. Oh, and a latte.

“Didn’t have time for breakfast today,” he explained. “And I have to meet Charlene again for lunch…”

“Again?” I could feel what was coming next.

“She’s the director of a small local film company and she’s looking for a lead male role –something about a guy who gets lost in a forest, or something…” He suddenly sighed. “I met her at a party last night, and we danced the hours away…”


He smiled his best innocent smile. “And I told her I starred in a little Nigerian film about an explorer in the jungle a couple of years ago…”

“So where do I come in this time?”

He wasn’t so shy about rolling his eyes when the need arose. “So, it’s a foreign language film, and you saw it on TV when you were visiting Britain last year and you immediately recognized a person you hung out with at university. But you don’t remember the name of the film, however.” Then he winked –or at least he closed one eye as if it was practicing for another role. “And the name didn’t make any sense to me either, of course…”

“Of course.” But I still suspected something. This time it was the italics that gave it away.  “When are you…?”

Just then he looked up and waved at the window. “There she is. We decided to have brunch here…”

I allowed my eyes to roll for a moment. Charlene burst through the door, her glasses steaming from the sudden warmth. A beautiful, albeit short, blond she immediately recognized Eddie and hurried over to the table.

“Charlie,” Edward said, standing up politely to offer her his seat, “This is my oldest, dearest friend…” but before he could say my name he realized she seemed to recognize me already. In fact, her eyes were saucers.

“You never told me, Eddie,” she said, her eyes prisoners on my face. “Wait, don’t tell me your name. I’ve seen you in something…” She closed her eyes for a moment, scrolling through her mental celebrity list.

I could already see that Edward was annoyed. “No…” I said, self-consciously using the dreaded ellipsis in my embarrassment.

But her face turned coy as soon as her eyes flew back to their little cages. “You guys are so protective of your privacy, I know. I won’t say a thing,” she added with a little theatrical gesture as her finger flew to her lips to ensure me that my identity was safe with her. She turned to Edward and blinked. “You never told me you knew him, Eddie…” she said, blushing, and then stared at me with eyes that flushed not so much with recognition, as worship.

Sometimes words are unnecessary; I decided to bask…







A Face by Any Other Name

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.