Tag Archives: Movember

What Do Halloween, Movember, Christmas Parties And Selfies Have In Common?

10 Nov

This time of year seems packed full of events which cause me all sorts of problems, and all of them have the same thing in common: they mean I struggle to recognise anyone. You see, unlike most people, I don’t recognise people by their faces. Instead, I use all sorts of other cues, like hairstyles, facial hair, how they stand or walk, the way they usually dress and the place I usually see them in. This means that when people start dressing up in costumes, or growing moustaches for charity, or putting up their hair and donning their Sunday best for the annual Christmas party, many of those cues I rely on to recognise them suddenly disappear, and I’m left standing amongst strangers, even though I may have known the people concerned for years.

When I bump into someone I usually see in jeans and t-shirts in a suit or cocktail dress, I can be talking to them for a good five or ten minutes before it finally dawns on me who they must be. Even then, I still don’t recognise them, and I’m not infrequently completely wrong, and that can be very awkward, especially when I end up saying the wrong thing to the wrong person because I’d mistaken them for someone else (I once asked after a colleague’s husband only to given a cold stare as I was told in no uncertain words, ‘He’s still shacked up with his graduate student!’ – I’d thought she was someone else completely, and if I’d recognised her I wouldn’t have raised what was such a touchy, and scandalous, issue).

Now at this point I should explain something. I’m not as crazy as this can make me sound. Rather, I have a condition called Prosopagnosia. This is something that, as far as I know, I was born with, and that I didn’t even know I had until I started writing my first novel. It’s strange to suddenly find out in your forties that your brain doesn’t actually work the same way as everyone else’s, and that something that you never knew was even possible, everyone else does in a split second without even thinking about it. You see, Prosopagnosia is also known as face blindness, and it means that in my brain, the part which others use to recognise the faces of people they’ve previously met in an instant, even if it’s years later, just doesn’t function the way it should. It’s not that I can’t see faces, or judge whether someone is good-looking or not (I get asked that one a lot), it’s just that the moment someone turns away, I’ll have little or no recollection of even the basics of what they look like. And it’s not just a matter of me not paying enough attention, I can stare at their face for minutes (now that can freak people out!), desperately trying to commit it to memory only for it to vanish the moment they’re gone.

This coming week, my abilities will be tested and found wanting yet again when I teach my annual class at my local university. I’ll have fourteen students in the small seminar room I use and I’ll have to do some pretty fancy manoeuvring to make sure that I don’t end up calling anyone by the wrong name. I have a few tricks up my sleeve to try to minimise the chance of this, like getting them all to introduce themselves to each other at the start as I quickly scribble down who is sitting where. The only trouble is that students have a tendency to change places, and I can hardly force them not to (they are grad students after all, and they probably wouldn’t appreciate being treated like first graders). This means I’m having to constantly update my diagram as they trade seats after every break. This is fine if I notice, but if they do it when I’m out of the room, I’ll have no chance. It doesn’t help that over the course of the several days I’ll be teaching them, they’ll change their clothes, or suddenly decide to wear their hair differently, making a difficult problem so much worse.

Of course, to some extent, I can get away with it by simply not referring to any of them by name, but that won’t stop the next problem I’ll have. This is the annual departmental Christmas party which will be held in a few weeks time. Those same students who I’ll be teaching next week will be there, mixed in amongst the faculty, research fellows and PhD students, some of whom I’ll have taught in previous years, and I won’t have a hope of recognising any of them, even though one of them is my own brother. I know this sounds extreme, but, then again, I struggle to recognise my own face in a mirror or a photograph, and when I close my eyes, I cannot summon up any sort of an image of what my face looks like beyond a vague blur.

This is where my dislike of selfies comes in. Selfies, almost by their definition, exclude all the elements I use to recognise people as they are usually little more than a face with nothing else in shot. Worse, most are shot from a high angle looking down, an angle I will almost certainly never have seen someone at before, and that means I’ll have little chance of working out who it is I’m looking at. To me, selfies, are pretty much meaningless shots of complete strangers, no matter how well I know the person involved and even if I’m told who it is that took it.

Of course, there are plus sides. When I write, I tend to be really good at describing how people are standing, or moving around, they way they play with their hair when they’re nervous or the little mannerisms that make them them. This is because, to me, it is this, rather than their faces, that makes people individuals. I do need an editor to remind me to put in at least some facial descriptions every now and then, but the other details really help to make the characters come alive within the readers head.

This is not to say that I don’t sometimes wish that I was better at being able to recognise people from their faces alone, just like everyone else, because there are times when I do, but as I’ve never known what it’s like to be able to do this, I can’t really miss it. It must be worse for people who develop face blindness because of an illness or accident (which can happen), because they’ll know they can no longer do something that they used to be able to. For me, it’s just normal (well, normal for me at any rate).

So, if you happen to bump into me at some special occasion over the next few weeks, and I seem to ignore you, ask yourself is it because I’ve forgotten you? Or that I’m blanking you? Or that I’m simply being rude? Or it is, and this is much more likely, because you’re wearing a fancy dress costume? Or you’re all dressed up for a good night out? Or that you’ve suddenly decided to sprout a moustache for the month?

Of course, the chances are that if you smile at me and talk to me as if we’ve known each other for years, I’ll smile back and shake your hand, and say, ‘It’s nice to see you’. This I’ve learn is a perfectly neutral response that you can say to anyone even if you don’t know whether you know them or not. Say ‘It’s nice to meet you’ to someone you’ve already been introduced to or, worse, know quite well, and they’ll feel slighted that you’ve forgotten them. Greet a stranger that you’ve never met before like an old friend, and they’ll think you’re crazy. Or that you’re after something. But say ‘It’s nice to see you’ and the old friend will be quite happy thinking you mean it’s nice to see them again. The complete stranger will be happy to because they’ll think you’re just pleased to make a new friend. It’s not a perfect solution, but at least it means I can get through most social functions without accidentally insulting too many people.

It is, however, easier just to avoid such situations in the first place, and maybe that explains why I only teach one class a year (and a small one at that – I’d have no chance in a class of 30, or 60, or 100), and maybe that’s why I only go to social functions filled with lots of people if I really can’t avoid them. It certainly explains why I don’t grow a moustache for Movember and why, unlike what seems like everyone else on the planet, I’ve never taken a selfie in my entire life. After all, what would be the point of taking a selfie when there’s a good chance that I wouldn’t even be able to recognise myself in it?

From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.

Of Movember And Zombie Apocalypses

11 Nov

It’s that time of year again when men everywhere start synchronously sprouting hair along their upper lips, all in a good cause, and it has reminded me of something which really annoys me when watching zombie apocalypse films. The same issue also arises in The Walking Dead. So what is it that gets on my goat, and what on Earth does it have to do with Movember?

Well, it’s facial hair. Somehow in amongst all the melee and confusion, men within these zombie apocalypse stories somehow manage to remain almost universally beard free. At best, they, like Rick in The Walking Dead, grow a bit of designer stubble, but nothing more. It seems they manage to have an unlimited supply of all the accoutrements required to keep male facial hair at bay: razors, shaving foam, electric trimmers and shapers, and so on. Even if they somehow managed to keep themselves well-stocked with all that’s required, there’s the issue of getting the warm water needed to use them. As a rather hirsute man myself, I can tell you that shaving with cold water is, at best, a painful experience and, at worst, a rather bloody affair.

I first learned this when I was twenty and spent a month on a yacht in the waters off Labrador on the east coast of Canada chasing humpback whales round icebergs. Don’t worry, the aim wasn’t to hurt them, but to photograph the unique pattern each individual has on the underside of its tail so we could tell who was who and to use a crossbow to collect a small skin sample from their backs for genetic analysis. The yacht we were on was very much a working boat and fuel was sufficiently limited that warm water was viewed as a luxury, so was fresh water. As a result, bathing and shaving were done using buckets of water plucked directly from the sea. Within days, I learned that shaving and ice-cold, salty water do not mix and it quickly disappeared from my daily routine. The result was a surprisingly full and rather fetching beard which has remained within me, in various guises, ever since.

From this experience, I can tell you that regular shaving will be one of the first casualties of a zombie apocalypse and any man of sufficient age will quickly start to develop facial hair. The exact extent will vary from person to person, with some being full and luxurious and others being little better than patches of peach fuzz, but you cannot escape the fact that facial hair will be a feature of almost any post-apocalyptic world.

If you wonder how long it would take for facial hair to start making an appearance, simply find the man nearest to you whose participating in Movember, and watch the whiskers appear as the month progresses. Now, I know some of you might not be aware of what Movember is, so to give you an idea, it’s a challenge where normally fresh-faced men (and a few very brave women) stop shaving their upper lip for the month of November.

This is done to raise awareness of men’s health and, in particular, male cancers. This is a cause I very much support, and I’d participate if it wasn’t for the rule which says you have to start the month clean-shaven. The last time I chose to shave my beard off was when, early in our relationship, my girlfriend urged me to get rid of it so she could see what I looked like underneath. The response from all around me was immediate and unanimous: grow it back as quickly as possible (the six year old daughter of my best friend pretty much burst into tears and told me she didn’t like what I’d done).

Anyway, the crux of the matter is this: when they stop shaving, men grow facial hair surprisingly quickly, and when men stop having easy access to hot water to shave, most will give up shaving pretty much immediately. So it’s a simple fact of male biology that zombie apocalypses will be populated by hairy-faced men and not clean-shaven ones, and this won’t simply be trendy designer stubble, but full on facial fuzz. Frustratingly few portrayals of zombie apocalypses reflect this, what some might consider, ugly little fact and it breaks the illusion that it could be real. It’s a small thing, and you could rightly accuse me of being pedantic, but gets to me every time I notice it.

From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.

Why I Hate Movember…And It’s Not Because I Don’t Like Moustaches

4 Nov

Movember is here again, and I hate it.  For those of you who don’t know what Movember is, it’s the challenge for men who do not usually sport one to grow a moustache during November to help raise money for men’s health charities. Why do I hate it?  It’s not because I’m too miserly to give to charity (I’ll happily give), or because I don’t approve of the cause it raises money for (it’s a great cause), or because I don’t like wacky money-raising ideas (I think they’re great). Instead, it’s something more personal.

I have prosopagnosia, a condition also known as face blindness.  The chances are you have never heard of it, and even though I have it, I only I found out it existed a couple of years ago. It is a weird condition that can sometimes stretch peoples’ credulity to the limits and it means that I don’t recognise or remember faces.  I’m fine with everything else, it’s just faces I have a problem with. It seems I’ve had it since I was born (as do about 1% of the population), so to me it’s normal not to recognise people by their faces.  In fact, I’m so used to it that it wasn’t until I was in my late thirties that I discovered that this wasn’t what everyone did. At that point, I had myself tested for prosopagnosia (I turned out to be at the moderate to severe end of the spectrum).  Suddenly, a lot of things in my life fell into place.

I struggle with films, especially when the lead characters change how they look (such as dyeing their hair or changing its style), and if I meet people I know out of context, I won’t recognise them.  An example of this occurred a few years ago (before I knew about face blindness), I was asked to pick up a friend’s daughter from school. She was five or six at the time and while I’d known her since she was about eighteen months old, I’d never seen her in her school uniform.  When the end of the day came, I sat outside the school and was faced with a hundred little people running out towards me, all dressed pretty much identically. I was suddenly struck by the terrifying realisation that I couldn’t tell which of them I was meant to be picking up. Luckily she recognised me or it could have got very awkward.

Once I found out I had prosopagnosia, I mentioned it to my brother. He wasn’t surprised. Over the years, he’d repeatedly seen the blank look on my face when I met people who I should clearly have known. My best friend, who I’d known for twenty years, dismisses it as me just not putting in the effort, and I can’t really blame him. It just sounds so bizarre to say that you cannot do something that everyone else around you takes for granted. My girlfriend is very supportive and puts up with me leaning over and asking in a hushed tone who people are, whether they are ones in our social circle or actors in movies (and it can be several times for the same character in the same movie!). She also has to put up with the fact that I can’t always pick her out of a crowd if I don’t remember what clothes she’s wearing on a particular day.

There’s another side to this though. I now realise I tend to primarily recognise people by their hairstyles and I’ll confuse very different people who wear their hair in a similar way. There have been several times when I have been confidently speaking to someone who I thought was one person only to work out from what they’re saying that they a completely different person. As yet, I’ve never put my foot in it too badly when I’ve done this (or at least not as far as I know), but I’m sure one day I will.

Each day I’m faced with people who I don’t recognise when I should, and others who I think I might know when I don’t (because they have similar hairstyles or facial hair to people I do know). My strategy to avoid offending people is to smile and nod at pretty much everyone, just in case.  If it’s someone I know, they won’t be offended.  If it’s not, they’ll just think I’m being friendly (hopefully).

So where does Movember fit into all this?  Well, because of Movember, at this time each year, people start sprouting all sorts of weird and wonderful facial hair. It’s great for the cause they’re raising money for, but is a nightmare for me because it means I’ll no longer recognise them. And it’s not just other people. When I first grew a beard, it took about three years before I could recognise myself if I unexpectedly caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror. So, if you know me and you’re participating in Movember, I’ll applaud (or laugh!) at your effort, I’ll give you money for the cause, just don’t get offended if you pass me in the street and I ignore you.  It’s just with that new moustache, I won’t recognise you any more.

For more about Movember, visit: http://uk.movember.com/about or https://www.movember.com/

For more about prosopagnosia, visit: https://www.faceblind.org/research/index.html

From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.