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My Life With Face-Blindness

In an old photo, I’m sitting at my grandmother’s kitchen table. I have long brown hair and an impish smile. I’ve just looked up at the camera. A coloring book sits open in front of me, and there’s a marker in my hand. When I show this photo to my husband, he says, “That’s not you.”

Of course it is me. I am the only granddaughter. That’s my long brown hair. I don’t remember the little red purse, or the coloring book, but certainly that’s me.

“No,” he says. “It doesn’t even look like you.”

I look more closely. I recognize the table, the wallpaper. I sat at that table many times as a young girl. But there is one thing. My eyes are blue… and hers are brown. She has brown eyes.

NotHeather 222x300 My Life With Face Blindness

It’s not me.

But doesn’t it look just like me? “No,” says my husband. “It doesn’t look like you at all.”

I could have sworn it looked just like me.

Welcome to my life with face-blindness.

Face-blindness is a relatively little understood condition that has only recently been explored by researchers. Also known as prosopagnosia, it’s a disorder of the brain that impacts the facial recognition centers, and causes sufferers not to recognize people by their faces.

If you haven’t experienced it, it’s hard to understand how that’s possible. The first time someone described the condition to me, I wrote it off as nonsense. Everyone can see people’s faces, right? What do you mean they don’t recognize faces?

But the idea of it stuck with me, and I started researching. The more I researched, the more I realized that a prosopagnosia diagnosis would explain a great deal about my life.

The difficulty I have in following the plot of movies, because everyone looks alike.

The trouble I used to have telling apart the students in my classes, especially when they wore hats.

All those times someone walks up to me and talks like we’re old friends and I have no idea who they are.

There’s this one friend I’m very fond of who changes her hairstyle and color dramatically every week or so, and every week I have to ask my husband, “Is that Kim?”

One time, a different friend shared a link to a short film she was in. I watched it. When it was done, I almost said, “Hey, was that you in the lead role?” because the girl’s voice sounded just like hers. Just in time, I realized it was a dumb question. Seeing as how she had shared the link, said she was in the film, and the girl’s voice matched hers, of course it was her.

Embarrassment averted.

And that’s pretty much the story of my life. Averting embarrassment by keying in on contextual clues to compensate for my complete inability to recognize people by their faces.

Many people (myself included) are so good at compensation that they don’t even know they suffer from face-blindness until they’re adults and start putting the pieces together. We use clues like hair, glasses, unusual features, tattoos, mannerisms, voice, and context to puzzle together who someone is, because we’re missing the essential brain function most people are born with to know who is who by their faces. We just assume everyone else is doing it this way too.

Think of it this way. You go to Sea World (which maybe you don’t because that place is evil, but I digress) and meet the dolphins. The trainer tells you their names and you greet them individually. When you come back the next day, the trainer expects you to know which is which. Well. If you knew there would be a quiz, you might make the effort to memorize specific features–maybe one has a freckle just so, and another has a scar across her nose. A third one has a floppy top fin and the fourth is slightly darker in complexion than the others. You might pull it off.

Dolphins jumping qtl1 300x211 My Life With Face Blindness
I recognize each of these guys every bit as easily as I recognize you.

Dolphins1 My Life With Face Blindness

Dolphins My Life With Face Blindness

But if it were sprung on you, a little pop quiz the day of, would you know the dolphins by their faces?

That is what it is like to be face blind. It’s like everyone is a dolphin and every day there’s a new pop quiz.

Most of the time, I function fine because I know the quiz is coming. When I walk into a room, I know who, more or less, to expect in that room. If everyone has distinguishing features for me to latch onto, I can very quickly assess who is who, and we’re golden. I can call the dolphins by name.

In some situations, however, I fail miserably. For instance, working doors. Please in the name of all that is holy, don’t ask me to work the door. All these people keep swimming by and some of them have paid, and some of them have had their IDs checked, and some of them belong here and some of them don’t, and I don’t know who is who is who is who. I will ask people to pay twice, some people will be pissed off because I’m checking their ID for the fifth time, and other completely unauthorized people will skate on by without checking in, because they look confident and (somewhat) familiar. Way too many dolphins, way too little time to process and distinguish them from one another.

Another thing that is hard for me: People in hats. Gah. How am I supposed to know who you are if you cover up your hair???

And then there are movies. Here’s the thing. I love stories. Like, a lot. I read constantly. I devour lengthy novels. I like live plays, too. But most movies are hard for me to sit through. I never understood why until I learned about my condition. You see, in live shows people mostly wear the same outfit from scene to scene, and the cast tends to be somewhat limited. But in movies, you’re expected to know the names and faces of dozens of characters who change clothes and sometimes even hairdos from scene to scene. And man, but Hollywood women all look alike. A LOT alike. Some Hollywood men do, too.

Once I realized what my problem was, I started watching movies again. Instead of suffering in embarrassed silence, I’d just ask my husband who each person was whenever I got confused. That approach worked well for me for the duration of one movie, after which Carey announced that he no longer really wanted to watch movies with me. Apparently, pausing the movie for discussion after each scene takes the fun out of watching. Who knew.

Nevertheless, it’s freeing to understand the cause of my difficulty. Among friends who know of it, it’s nice to be able to say, “I’m sorry, who are you again?” without offending them. It’s nice when people come up to me and without ado introduce themselves for the sixteen thousandth time, just because they know it might help me. It’s especially nice when I run into someone unexpectedly in the grocery store and they tell me their name. Thank you, gosh, thank you, I love you for that.

Which brings me back to the beginning. When I took the official face blindness test, I scored so low on facial recognition ability that I was classified as “extremely impaired.” But I recognize my own children! I thought to myself. Some people don’t recognize their own children. I have that at least. Of course, there is that little thing I did when they were little, where I dressed them in bright, distinctive colors when we went out so I wouldn’t lose them. Everyone has to have their children in distinctive colors to tell them apart from the other children on the playground, right? Right??

And lots of people mistake pictures of strangers for themselves, right? Before I showed that old photo to Carey, I posted it as a TBT on Facebook. The first comment on the thread is from my mother-in-law. She said, “I would not have guessed that was you.”

Well. Apparently my mother-in-law knows what I look like. Even if I don’t.

And that’s what it’s like to have face-blindness.

[Note: This entry was inspired by this delightful essay by Kelly Twine: What It’s Like To Be Face-Blind]

P.S. If you’re curious how you’d do on the face blindness test, it’s available online, right here.

Why Big Bird’s Heartbreaking Tale Matters

The story of Big Bird calling up a little boy in a cancer ward went viral under the title, “Big Bird Broke Our Hearts Today,” and for good reason: It’s a massive tear-jerker. Sweet and quiet and redeeming and heartbreaking.

But I think it’s more than that. I think it’s important. BIG and important.

Until recently, almost nobody had ever heard of Caroll Spinney. He’s been playing the same exact character on the same show for more than 40 years, and nobody ever even saw his face. He made sure of it by asking photographers to never publish images of him outside of his costume. I mean, who does that?

01 caroll spinney 02 sized 300x257 Why Big Birds Heartbreaking Tale Matters
1969 photo Spinney requested not be published so it wouldn’t ruin the character for the children.

Why didn’t he, at some point, leverage his success to take on “more challenging roles”? Or roles that at least showed his face, set him up for bigger roles? Maybe his own show. He could have been a superhero!

Isn’t that how it’s done?

Instead, he chose to stay in the same place. Some people would call that stagnation. Some people would say that it was a waste of his talent, or that it was cowardly–why not take some risk? Why not do something bigger and better? I mean, 40 years? Wouldn’t you get BORED?

That’s not how Caroll Spinney saw it. He saw that he had a good thing and that was enough for him. He saw that he was doing something that made a difference, and that was enough for him.

And when he called that little boy, he saw that, “What I say to children can be very important.”

And isn’t that true for all of us? Isn’t it true for the mothers who hold their children while they cry; the mothers without children who see another mother struggling and say, “you can talk to me if you want to”; the grieving mothers who see someone else’s child and do a small kind deed even though inside they are crying?

You (and I) don’t have to be known to the masses. We don’t have to strive for that big promotion or that byline in the major magazine or Best Employee of the Year award. We don’t have to do big things that everybody knows about. None of that really matters anyway. What matters is this:

What we say to children can be very important. And that is enough. That, my friends, IS how you become a superhero.

 

Sports in the Afternoon

Yesterday I drove 40 minutes to watch Monty play Lacrosse in Mooresville. I sat next to a loud-mouth who wouldn’t stop bad-mouthing our team and our coach the whole time, a prime example of one reason I don’t like sports: They seem to attract this type.

Also, they’re boring. Mind-numbing.

Monty played about ten minutes in the first game, and I missed five of them because I was reading Sartre.

In the hour between the games I lay in the dry grass and let him sit in my chair, because he was tired, and I stared at the trees and wondered how I came to be here and why.

In the second game, he played quite a bit and I saw all of it. I watched how he kept his head up, went where he was supposed to go, did what he was supposed to do. Nothing flashy, just a kid doing his best, listening to his coach, and looking out for his teammates.

On the way home he played Taylor Swift and Bruce Mendes on Youtube through the car speakers and I listened to it all because I got it figured out, why I went, why I sat through it all. It’s not because I love sports (I don’t), not because I had to (I didn’t), not because I’m a great mom (ha).

I did it because I’m keenly aware that not everybody gets to spend an afternoon with their 14-year-old, not everyone gets to watch their baby grow up. Some people would trade almost anything for an afternoon like mine, and by gum if I won’t be grateful for it.

Grandma Leaves Me Coins (Part Two)

I’ve been convinced for some time now that my grandma leaves me coins to let me know she loves me and is still with me. I’m not sure how it works exactly, but I have my theories, as you can read in the original “Grandma Leaves Me Coins” essay.

She leaves them strategically, exactly at moments when I particularly need to know she’s with me.

She frequently leaves them for me at the theater where I perform improv comedy. This makes sense, logically speaking, because the theater is behind a bar and people often drop coins, so of course I’d find more coins there.

What logic doesn’t explain is how, when we cleaned out their house after Grandpa’s death, we found coins in every nook and cranny, in every drawer, in every wallet, jewelry box, crevice, and box. Pennies, dollars, quarters, half dollars. The place overflowed with coins. At one point, Dad handed me a silver dollar and said, “There. Now your grandpa leaves you coins too.”

Yes, yes. Of course he does. Yes.

In a box in the garage, Mom found a gift of coins from Grandma to her four grandchildren: Four brand new electronic coin banks, still in their boxes. A gift from beyond this world. Coins.

Explain it. I’m sure you can. I’m sure it’s just coincidence or confirmation bias or some other scientifically validated phenomenon. Randomness in action.

I’m sure you can explain it away, I’m sure you’re perfectly capable, but I won’t believe you.

On Saturday night, there was a bright, shiny penny in the coat room where we leave our things during performances at the theater. I picked it up, of course, and put it in my pocket. On the way home that night, there was another penny in a crack in the sidewalk, an old, beat-up, dark brown, dented and pockmarked penny. I picked it up and put it in my pocket too.

Then I gradually started freaking myself out. I got to wondering if maybe Grandma doesn’t approve of my performances at the theater. Maybe she thinks they’re too worldly. Maybe she’s trying to tell me that before the performance, I’m a bright and shiny penny, and afterward I’m dirty.

Because this is the ridiculous way my mind works sometimes. Because Grandma would never have gone to so much trouble to be judgmental.

Ridiculous, but it worried me.

Until Grandma reached out and showed me the truth.

Sunday afternoon, we headed back to the theater for our weekly practice. In the driveway was a penny. I picked it up. On the car seat was another penny. I put it in my pocket. In the parking lot beside our spot outside the theater, another penny. In the bar behind which we perform, I found a dime. Shiny and new. I put them all in my left pocket. For some reason, I also reached into my right pocket, which had previously been empty. I had just pulled my pants out of the dryer right before leaving the house, and yet–there was now a penny in that pocket.

There was another penny, a shiny, bright, brand new one, in the center of the front seat in the theater. I found one more on my way back in from the bathroom a short while later.

Total: Seven. Seven coins between our house and the theater in the course of an hour. Seven far exceeds the record for a whole day, let alone one hour. Seven is a magic number. Seven is the number of completeness. Seven is the day God rested in the perfection of creation. Seven. Seven is a record-breaking, over-the-top display of abundant love. Seven is the number of coins Grandma left me.

“Don’t stop. Keep playing. I love it when you perform.”

She always did love to watch me perform. She was so proud of me. Is so proud of me.

She thinks I’m perfect.

Grandma leaves me coins.

The Peculiar Birth of a Strange Child

You know those birth stories where the mom’s in labor for, like, 40 hours, and it’s miserable and hard and she cries a lot and everyone worries about the baby and then, finally, at the end the baby FINALLY comes out, with a lot of help, and everyone’s exhausted but proud because they got through it?

Eli’s birth story was nothing like that.

Eleven years ago today, at about this time of day, I started feeling some pressure in my abdomen. I called a friend (Meredith Barringer Sutton) and told her that I felt “funny” but that I didn’t want to bother Carey at work.

About an hour later, I did call him and asked him to come home, because I just felt so odd. “But don’t hurry, Babe–just whenever you’re able to get away.”

A little later, I called again and said, “Oh, and pick up some snacks on your way home?”

When Carey arrived home, around 1:30pm, I was in the tub with our 3-year-old son, and I said, “I think we might have this baby today. I don’t know, though.”

Thirty minutes later, Elijah Pierce Head slid out into the world on a second hollering push, into the hands of his mother and father simultaneously, while his big brother watched shows in the other room with his hands over his ears to block out the “too loud! too loud!”

Eli’s birth was strange, and powerful, and fast, and he hasn’t slowed down on any of those measures since. Still skinny, too.

Eli in Hats 229x300 The Peculiar Birth of a Strange Child

Organized Chaos

My grandparent’s house is a study in organized chaos. Grandma and Grandpa saved everything, significant and insignificant, and we are left to sort it all–a task simultaneously both beautiful and grueling. The living room is piled with mementos, the bedroom is stacked with clothes. The kitchen is mostly intact except for the box where we toss flashlights when we find them. There are approximately six thousand of them in there. It is overflowing.

This afternoon, Dad came out to the garage from the kitchen, where he stopped to toss in yet another flashlight before stepping down into the path we’ve carved through the boxes of tools and costume jewelry and vinyl records. He cleared his throat, and with great emotion, said what we all have been thinking.

“What wouldn’t I give for the chance to look Dad in the eye one more time,” he said, “and ask, ‘Dad, what were you thinking when you purchased that last flashlight?'”

IMG 20150120 155232349 300x168 Organized Chaos

I Slept All Weekend And Here’s Why

Got back from Boston Friday. Conference was amazing–energizing and inspiring. Made some decisions about the future of my company:

  1. We’ll now market exclusively to Inbound agencies.
  2. I’ll be building toward a content software platform model that will help marketers–and the companies they serve–generate large quantities of custom content much more quickly and effectively by utilizing internal SMEs.

Then I came home and slept most of the weekend. Introvert requires recharging. Now I’m ready for Monday and all that that implies.

Short-term things on my plate:

  • Finish revising my novel
  • Meet sales goals for September
  • Nurture relationships started at Inbound conference
  • Continue creating content for Scopcity
  • Manage projects

Mid-term things on my plate:

  • Hone marketing & sales to match new Inbound-only model
  • Structure organization for scale
  • Make decisions regarding new business opportunities
  • Write Taming the Beast (The Inbound Marketer’s Ultimate Playbook Faster, Better Content) book

Long-term things on my plate:

  • Strategize & execute on content wizard software concept
  • Create strategic partnerships to support content wizard platform

I’ve got a session with my coach, thank goodness, tomorrow afternoon. So we’ll be sorting through all this and creating an actionable plan.

I also have a few things coming up that may be of interest to my followers (hi Mom, that’s you).

  • Serving on a marketing panel for the Montcross Chamber Entrepreneur Summit 2014 on October 10.
  • Serving on a content marketing panel for the Business Marketing Association Charlotte Chapter on November 20, link not yet available.
  • Serving as a “content marketing expert” guest on the Brand Journalism Advantage podcast with Phoebe Chong Chua… some time soon (release date tba).

So that’s that. The kids are good too. I have that parenting thing going on, but I’m not doing a particularly spectacular job of it. I haven’t yelled at them lately, so that’s good. And by lately I mean in the past half hour or so.

The kids are spectacular, actually, come to think of it. They kept the house clean and the dog walked the whole time I was gone. Mostly because Carey bribed them with unlimited computer time, but still. Maybe they’ll turn out all right.

Wandering in Salem

It’s been more than a year since I’ve posted and I’m only posting now because I have actual work to do and this lets me pretend I’m doing something practical and is therefore an ideal form of procrastination.

I’m in Boston for an Inbound marketing conference. I had today off, though. I went to Salem and toured the House of the Seven Gables and walked by the water and watched a school of fish swim under the shimmering surface over the shifting cobbles below and met Nathaniel Hawthorne’s grandfather (his tombstone, anyway).

IMG 20140914 103822431 300x168 Wandering in SalemIt’s unlikely that any of this has to do with slavery or the Underground Railroad and yet there was a book on the topic in the visitor’s center and of course I bought it because it was $8 and had pictures in it that I had never seen, like a brown paper silhouette portrait of a slave girl named Flora, and then I absolutely decided that my next book–after I finish the trilogy of which I’ve written only the first book–will be an historical novel (still YA) set against the backdrop of 1840s-50s slavery and abolitionism etc.

And so I pounded out some preparatory stuff on that–character sketches, plot highlights, etc. Statistically speaking, odds are the material will now molder for several years at minimum and never grow much beyond a few pages of notes, but you never know. One always begins in hope.

Had a lengthy and invigorating discussion of Platonic views of death among Salem Puritans of the 16th and 17th centuries with a rather significantly underemployed tour guide at the Hawthorne birthplace. Also discussed classism, modern and historical, textiles, art, and the love lives of famous creatives. Oh, and home birth, gender issues as regards non-gendered and trans-gendered individuals, and the legal and social structures of power retention. Why limit yourself to one topic?

Now I’m sitting in the dark updating my blog when I’ve got actual work to finish before tomorrow afternoon.

I blogged! Now for those client deliverables…