Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Figuring It Out

Has this ever happened to you? Someone says "Oh! You look just like so-and-so!" If the so-and-so is a celebrity you can either be baffled and flattered (Sandra Bullock) or baffled and insulted (Sandra Bernhard). But rarely do we ever respond to that with "Oh, I know. You are so right."

Apparently facial recognition hinges on whatever salient feature we use to identify the person in question. So, if the beholder associates my face with a full mouth, they may say Sandra Bernhard and completely disregard my nose. If the beholder associates my face with dark hair and almond-shaped (yet Caucasian) eyes, they may say Sandra Bullock and disregard a good many other things. They will also be the beholder for whom I have a higher regard because I will associate them with shameless flattery and disregard any other unpleasantness. The human brain, not being the most straightforward of tools, sometimes mixes up emotions into this form of pattern recognition as well. This is why grandparents will look at a newborn grandbaby and say "Why, they look just like me!" (The one exception to this lack of objectivity may apply to grandfathers because most babies do, indeed, look like old men when they are born. Not mine. But most. Just saying.)

We use pattern recognition in our everyday life just to function. Whether it's picking our loved ones out of a crowd, or driving a car, or folding the laundry, we do it automatically without much thought. I secretly believe some people are better at it than others, (behold the woman driving the wrong way down the one-way parking lot!) but we all do it to free our brains up for more important conscious thought like: "Would I rather have a nose that functioned as a pencil sharpener or a belly button that functioned as a condiment dispenser?" (The answer to this is obvious.) Sometimes, however, as happens with all supercomputers, our brains get stuck in an algorithm that doesn't necessarily apply. ("How about a nice game of chess?" Name that movie.) We attempt to make patterns out of things that don't make sense to us. Sometimes we get a nice, off-the-cuff blog post about it, but sometimes we drive ourselves (and occasionally others) insane.

I was driving past a bus stop a while back and saw a man bent over the bench. He was either showing that bench a really good time or he was heaving up three days worth of food. I wasn't sure which, so I took the opportunity afforded by the red light to stare at him and try to figure it out. As I craned to see around the car next to me, it suddenly occurred to me that either way, was it something I really needed to watch?! But something in my brain wanted to figure that out, to put that poor man's activity into some sort of category so that I could go on about my business.

I was at the library the other day and encountered three people of indeterminate gender. It was a puzzle that my subconscious worked on the entire time I was there. Did it matter at all to me what gender they were? Of course not. Would I be interacting with them in any way that would make my knowing their gender necessary? Nope. But my brain just needed to know for some reason.

But what happens when we spend a lot of time and energy "figuring things out" and we come up with Sandra Bernhard? What if the salient facts we choose to link together completely disregard something as obvious as the nose on a face? What if, in doing so, we make further decisions based on this faulty pattern recognition? If you walk around thinking that the whole world is using you for their personal Port-O-Let, then everything will taste vaguely of urinal cake, no? What if the salient facts we link together actually have nothing at all to do with each other and we just think they do? What if the salient facts I link together actually have nothing at all to do with me and I just think they do? Being the center of the universe, I hardly believe that last one is the case, right?

It's all innocent enough when you mistake me for someone else, but what if based on that mistaken impression, you move in with me thinking  I am your mom? Or you hate me? Or you send me demented fan mail and stalk me? Unless you are Matthew McConaughey mistaking me for Sandra Bullock and wanting desperately to get back together, I'm unlikely to let that slide. How often do we do this? How often do we insist, in spite of evidence otherwise that we fail to see, that something is definitely one thing and not another?  How often do we end up "moving in" with these mistaken impressions and letting them own us?

Our brains are wired to make sense out of nonsense. That is why an intrepid few people read my blog. But sometimes things are just random. Some things don't make a whole lot of sense. Sometimes the patterns we see are just an attempt to make chaos manageable. A scary notion in some ways, but liberating to me. If we're going to do it anyway, why not choose the good salient facts? Why not see Sandra Bullock? Why not make the pattern we recognize be the one wherein we are blessed and people are generally nice and we can learn from whatever happens to us? Why waste the mental energy and anguish figuring things out that have no bearing on us whatsoever? If you're not going to do anything about it, what does it matter to you what that man is doing to the bus stop bench? Why walk around tasting urinal cake in the back of your throat when it could be the delicious condiment of your choice (Hummus. Is that a condiment? I think so.) that is dispensed by your belly button? Why not mix up a metaphor Kamikaze and toss it down?

As for me, I look like neither of the Sandras. I look like me, random chaos that I am. And my kids? They totally look like me. Until they hit that awkward elbowy phase. Then they'll definitely look like their dad.

21 comments:

  1. When I was younger, people told me I looked like Lynda Carter of Wonder Woman. Could have been the steel bra I used to wear :)

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    1. This made me snort coffee. Definitely must have been the bra!

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  2. War Games. Haven't even finished reading yet, but I had to name that movie!

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    1. 10 points for you. That was an easy one.

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  3. Okay, I've been told I look like Kellie Martin, Reba McEntire, Sarah McLachlan, and most recently, Laura Linney. All of the people who have told me that are clearly not all together.

    Back to the real world ... this is fascinating to me because (not to be Capt Bringdown here) I spent 12 months racking my brain, trying to figure out what happened with my Dad. I couldn't figure out why he would do what he did, what would make him think that life was so terrible he had to end it. Finally, one day, I realized it didn't matter. The answer to why he did what he did had no effect on my life. I wasn't going to change how I feel about my Dad, how I felt about his life, how I remembered him. So, the liberation in letting that question go was more than I could comprehend.

    Incidentally, both Matty and Sandra supposedly live here in Austin. They haven't brought a housewarming gift yet, though, so perhaps they're not all that fond of us being in the neighborhood after all.

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    1. And you get 146 points for reading my mind. This is exactly the sort of "figuring out" that I was thinking of when I wrote this (not you, specifically.) I'm all about examining life, but sometimes we wear ourselves out trying to understand the ineffable.

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  4. What you said got me thinking about my relationship with Ian, and the basis for it...we are so very different; by all accounts we are the LAST people who should be together...constant clashing, firs and ice...and yet we stay. Our first impressions, even if they are sometimes random and out of context, count quite a bit when it comes right down to it.

    Was it you that doesn't like Melissa Gilbert? Either way, I looked a hell of a lot like her when I was younger- frumpy homemade dresses, braids, and all. Imagine reddish-brown hair and green eyes in this picture, and that was me: http://www.imdb.com/media/rm4279941120/nm0001271

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    1. Don't get me wrong, Melissa Gilbert is as cute as a button. It was her voice... you don't sound like a nasal cavity, do you?
      First impressions always matter, but they aren't always definitive.

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  5. Wow. That was deep, and amazing. So true! I will ponder this and continue to nod my head.

    I was totally engrossed until the Matthew and Sandra comment. I have to sheepishly admit I didn't know they were ever together, and I honestly would have never guessed, never ever ever see them together. Like ... how?!
    Anyways, took me a while to get back to the post after trying to sort that one out.

    As far as celeb look-a-likes, I've been told I look like Keira Knightly. I don't care what it is they saw, keep seeing it!

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    1. Oh honey. You were probably too young to know who they were when they were together. How's that for condescending? Lemme think... it was back in the mid to late 90s I think.
      I would give big kisses to anyone who told me I looked like Keira Knightly.

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  6. Lex and I like (OK, Lex likes it but he's kind of Yoda to my Luke Skywalker) to play a little game he calls, "What past experience filter did you just apply to that situation"? Actually, he probably has another name for it - something shorter and snazzy - but I don't know what it is. All I know is it can be a sucky game but always enlightening.

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    1. The most enlightening games are almost always sucky at the time. Don't be a Luke.

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  7. "That is why an intrepid few people read my blog." - I found this a very interesting statement. It is close to a hyaku, hyaku-ish (?)

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    1. My wordveri was "genumbo" - this would be gumbo for the next generation.

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    2. The intrepid few
      read for sense of what is non-.
      Genumbo. Carry On.

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  8. This one really speaks to me. I've lost track of the things that have been so OBVIOUS to me, but have turned out to be so OFF-BASE. I actually woke up in the middle of the night a few months ago with this phrase in my head: "The things I was the surest about are the things I've turned out to be the most wrong about." It was so fully formed and clear, I became briefly convinced I must've read it somewhere, but have so far been unable to find it.

    And Sheena Easton/Pat Benatar were my Sandra Bullock/Sandra Bernhard for a while. In the eighties & early nineties, I got one or the other. After twenty years and four kids, it's Queen Latifah, never mind that I am a pale-ish white girl. ;)

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    1. I had to explain who Queen Latifah is to my daughter the other day. It didn't go well. That's an amazing sentence to wake up with. So very true.

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  9. The only celeb I've been told I look like is Marie Osmond. Maybe it's the Utah connection or my big teeth.
    (And I totally knew the movie. Loved War Games and at the time really wished I looked like Ally Sheedy.)

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    1. 10 points for guessing the movie and 123 points for being told you look like Marie Osmond. I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world when I was 4.

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  10. Funny how convoluted our wiring is...
    I wonder if it's too late to get a refund for the human brain?
    But then again we got it at bargain basement price, so it's probably non-refundable, huh?

    It's a wonder any of us are "sane" (whatever sanity is) given the kaleidoscope that is our neural network.
    Fascinating scope for thought in this.
    But you always give us tasty bits to ponder!

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    1. Happy to give you some gristle.
      Sane is completely relative.
      Even though the wiring is faulty and temperamental, I think our brains are pretty beautiful little operations, too.

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