Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Name tags everyone?

One of the things lovely about Anchorage is that we still get great theater – even though we may all have to see it within the same week – but during intermission, we know most people in the audience. Now, however, after having lived here 30 years and now in my Third Third, I have this problem: while I may know everyone in the audience, that only means they look familiar.

“Tim, over there – NO, don’t look! – the woman in the striped blouse. Who is she? How do I know her?”


This is not very helpful. And if that woman actually approaches me (despite my trying to hide while I rack my brain), I can go into panic mode. If I smile casually and say “hi,” what if she’s someone I went to high school with 4,000 miles away who just happens to be visiting Alaska … and I just say “hi”?

My friend Linnea is very helpful. Linnea worked out that she sticks her hand out, says, “I’m Linnea. And you are? How is it you and Barbara know each other?” Isn’t that fantastic! But I can’t have a Linnea in my pocket to pull out in all emergencies.

Recently I sat at a party and a woman approached me … with her name tag dangling on her jacket but facing the wrong way out. I slyly said, “Gotta fix your name tag. New people won’t know who you are.” Ha! But name tags don’t solve the other missing data: the context in which you know the person. Previous job? Parent of kid’s friend? Friend in common? (Where is Linnea when I need her?!?)
My situation is complicated in that there are plenty of instances in which people might have seen me (on stage, in the newspaper) but I never met or even saw them. Sometimes, those will really freak me out. Four people in a row saying “Hi, Barbara” and I have no clue – that’s grounds for agoraphobia.

I tell people I have prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize faces. Years ago, I was in a fellowship program that put me on assignment Monday through Thursday. Friday I’d be with the group, returning on Monday to my assignment. Every single Monday, I’d show up and greet my mentor, “Good morning. And you are?” I cringe just to think of it. No matter how much I forced myself to memorize her, she just never took hold. “Oh, did you change your hairstyle? What’s different about you?” This excruciating thing didn’t happen with anyone else…

…except for a woman in Anchorage. She and I were once in a book club together, but her visual image just can’t stay in my head. I see her occasionally, but she knows the situation: “Hi, Barbara, I’m Patti, the one you can’t remember.” That helps me remember her and my history with her, but never her face. I’m sure she changes her hair.

It’s even worse when people are out of context. Once, a naked woman approached me in the locker room at a pool, chatting away. “Do we know each other?” “Yes, we sat next to each other at Back-to-School Night. I’m Dylan’s mother.” I came home and told Sophie this:
     “She was naked?” (horror)
     “Were you naked?” (worse horror)
          “I couldn’t help it. I was coming out of the shower.”
     (extreme horror)

I have my own locker room story. I approached Marlis and said, “Hello, you’re at a different gym than usual. We usually meet at Midtown.”
     “I’m sorry. Do I know you?”
“I’m Barbara.”
     “No, the Barbara I know has bright red hair.”
“Oh, sorry!” I tore the towel off my hair and recognition flashed across her face.
But these are out of the ordinary examples. It’s the old garden variety failure-to-recognize and failure-to-place-in-context that’s such a problem. So I propose a better name tag. In large type so we can read it.


  1. wow, somebody who may actually be worse with names/faces/context than I am. Love your posts in my email, my wife and I actually went out to the McDowell Sanctuary after reading your write-up. thnx

  2. Barbara, I have the same problem. My wife can tell you all the movies we've seen some actor in and I have no clue. But you're an artist. What if you did a portrait of Patti? Take a picture of her with your phone, then get out your watercolors. Or won't that work?


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