“Hmmm, that person looks familiar.” It seems I have that thought a dozen times a day.
Wherever I go, the people I see seem to strike a chord in my brain. At the post office, at the Cookie Crock, or on a walk across the ranch, faces all look familiar. It is not only a face that opens my mental file cabinet, but a hat, a jacket, some glasses, or a gait that says “oh, hello again!”
As often as not, the person is a stranger to me. I do my best to smile and say hello, and frequently get a guarded nod or smile in return. Occasionally I get a scowl or a narrow-eyed stare, or a slightly frightened or worried look.
Sometimes my smile falls on someone I know slightly, and we enjoy a brief, pleasant exchange about simple things. Then there are the times where people react less positively, sometimes with good reason, sometimes for reasons only they know. It’s all good, as the kids say. I’m just grateful I can see it all.
What Are You Looking At, Kid?
As a child, I had a “lazy eye” – strabismus – which always had me looking off to the side. At age eight, I had surgery to correct the turn. I can recall, over fifty years later, the terror of seeing the surgeon looking down at me as anesthesia was being administered. I can see his eyeglasses, and the magnifying lenses attached to them, between his mask and his cap. I can still smell the gas – maybe it was ether – and then nothing. I woke up post surgery with a big bandage and the constant need to throw up. After it was all over, I was a relatively normal looking kid with two straight eyes.
Life went on, and I used those eyes to explore the world.
As I aged, my eye decided not to follow the straight and narrow path. It began to drift, noticeable to me but not to others for some time. I would be having a conversation with someone, and would notice them glancing over their shoulder. It dawned on me that they were wondering what the heck I was looking at back there. To me, I was making and holding eye contact. To them, I was scanning the area looking for butterflies. It got weird, so I decided to have it straightened again.
Upon the recommendation of my brother-in-law, who is an expert on eye stuff, I went to see Doctor Martin Lederman. If a call went out to Central Casting for a nattily dressed, old-timey doctor with a speaking style that recalls an earlier era, Dr. Lederman would be the person they send.
Dr. Lederman’s practice focuses on adolescent ophthalmology. He volunteers a lot of his time traveling around the world, performing corrective surgeries on children who face real social and cultural challenges because of their condition. He is a true hero who has changed, and likely saved, numerous lives with his gift.
He would fit in perfectly in beautiful Cambria.
Here We Go Again
After many exams and many tests, we decided that surgery was the best way to straighten me out. We booked a time, and on the big day my wife drove us to White Plains Hospital to get me fixed. My eye, that is.
This time, the terror was replaced by a slight nervousness. The anesthesiologist came in to sedate me, and I told him solemnly, “Doctor, if anything happens to me during surgery, I want to donate my body to science fiction.” Nothing. Not a twitch, not a fleeting grin. Just dead eyes and a big needle. Good night!
I woke up many hours later, groggy, thirsty, and more than a little confused. I had a bandage that resembled a rolled-up pair of sweat socks affixed to my head. I was a sight with sore eyes. After a few weeks of recovery time, I was ready to resume normal activities. Dr. Lederman was quite pleased with the results of his work, saying proudly, “My, I did an excellent job!” After we moved to California, Dr. Lederman referred me to a colleague at UCLA for follow-up tests to locate and treat some residual eye pain. Though he couldn’t identify the cause of my discomfort, he did remark, “My, Dr. Lederman did an excellent job!” Well, then, I guess he did.
Dr. Lederman is particularly interested in improving care to the world’s children and has headed teaching and surgical missions to Panama, Kenya, Morocco, Dubai, and Belize. He cofounded “One World, One Vision”, an organization devoted to training Ophthalmologists in developing countries to treat children and adults with strabismus and children with cataracts.
Seeing a face is one thing; remembering a name is something else altogether. I can “Name That Tune” as fast as anyone, complete with title and artist. I remember lyrics, bass lines, backup vocal parts, and little ornaments within a song. People’s names, though, often frustrate me.
Natalie Portman was, for the longest time, one of those names I could not remember. I could list her movies. I could remember seeing her on Broadway in “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and could instantly visualize her brilliantly funny video shorts on Saturday Night Live. I just could not remember her name. I eventually found myself saying it out loud for no apparent reason. I realized that it was my way of giving my brain a little jolt when I struggled to recall something. Now, when I see her face, I yell out, “NATALIE PORTMAN!!!!!” It’s fine when I’m home, but not so much when I’m out in public.
The same thing happens with former heavyweight boxing champion Lennox Lewis. This giant, dreadlock-ed champion with the British accent, who won the gold for Canada in the 1988 Olympics, who captured the heavyweight title twice, who went on to be a commentator for HBO – well, my mind doesn’t fill in the blank. Lennox Lewis is the Natalie Portman of sports.
Everyone Looks Familiar…at Costco
So, here I am, looking at the world with two straight eyes, pushing my cart down the aisle at Costco. I’m pretty sure I won’t bump into Natalie or Lennox, so the odds are good I won’t blurt out either name as I scan the mini-city. I find myself glancing at faces, listening to voices, and creating flash stories in my head about the people that stream past. An occupational hazard, I suppose.
Every Picture Tells A Story. I’ve Just Seen A Face. Delta Dawn. Mother and Child Reunion. Santa Baby. Inspiration for these songs could well have struck at Costco, or any concern where a wide range of people would shop.
Wait a minute – Santa Baby? Explain, please.
As I did my Shop N’ ScanTM, a woman flew by, headed towards the checkout line. Ding ding, ding went my internal facial recognition program. Scanning records (mental file cabinet stuck, pick up some WD-40 in aisle 35, or maybe some ginkgo biloba in the lotions and potions section), no match. Re-scan. Still no match, but the image of a Santa hat randomly pops into my head.
I mutter to my brain, “Santa hat??? Really??? Do you need some protein, maybe?”
I let it go, only to glance across the aisle to where the books sit piled on tables, and again feel the sense of recognition as a young woman carrying a small child hurried past. Nothing connects, but something seems familiar. I give up, turn back upfield, and see another face, and this one I identify immediately. Then it all comes together. Mother, father, daughter. Cambrians. Neighbors. First responder. Michael. Luna. Uh, umm, uh…Natalie Portman? We chat for a minute, and I am reminded of her name. And immediately forget it. Aaaarrrrgghhh!
Thanks For The Sample
We find ourselves at the registers, separated by a few aisles. I look to my right, and the Santa hat lady and her husband are checking out. She looks over at me; I think she thinks we know each other. We banter, light, and non-committal. I pay for my stuff, get my cart and head to the exit.
As I pass the optometry department, I exchange hellos with Rachel, the always friendly and efficient rep who has helped me with my eyeglasses. Her name, I remember instantly. Maybe the protein from that chicken nugget sample I ingested was helping. Yes, that must have been it, because all of a sudden I remembered who the Santas were – Cambrians who attended a holiday concert, wearing Santa hats! Yay brain! Yay, chicken nuggets! Yay Costco! And their names are, uh, umm, ehh, Lennox and Natalie?
I got in my car and headed homeward, two straight eyes protected by prescription sunglasses Rachel helped select. I made a quick stop at the fire station, did a little research, and added Madison to the list of names I must try to remember.
Names and faces may soon fade away, but I’ll always have Natalie.