I have a real obsession with faces. I see them everywhere. When gazing absentmindedly out of the bathroom window here in Vermont, suddenly a face will emerge from the irregularities in the grass on the lawn or from the bark on a tree. Yes, there are the two eyes, between them what passes for a nose and yes, below the nose is what could be a mouth. And sometimes there’s even the hair, a forehead or the ears or a chin. I don’t ever really look for a face but when my eyes will relax and go out of focus for a moment or two, it just sort of comes out. If I look away toward some other object in my view I may lose that particular face, but another may appear when looking a different direction or at a different surface. And when this occurs, it’s always a face, nothing else.
Faces are obviously important to me. If I meet a new person, perhaps the friend of a friend or a new service person who comes to my house to do a job, I will look intently at his or her face and eyes, trying to gauge what kind of person they are. I look for a kind, understanding face or perhaps one expressing respect, resolution or confidence. I think that faces are the passageway to the inside of a person and show what kind of person they are.
Now, from a developmental, evolutionary point of view, faces are even more important. We absorb a face into our memories, not a name, explaining why when we definitely remember a face we often forget the name. In ancient times, it was the face that identified a friend or foe, certainly not the name, reinforcing why faces are so important.
In my precious former profession, education, when interviewing teachers, I became accustomed to paying attention to teaching candidates’ faces, always looking for an expressive countenance, because I had noted over my career that the most successful teachers were those whose faces were mobile and expressive, who “wore their hearts on their sleeves” and were able to show children how they felt. Teachers with expressive faces were always the best disciplinarians. Their faces showed students that they cared, through easily showing pleasure, disappointment, surprise, concern and humor through their faces and body language. I have always claimed that good teachers control their children with the raised eyebrow, not the raised voice. Children inherently want to please us and we have to constantly demonstrate an appropriate response.
As an elementary principal I supervised many teachers over the years who never had a single discipline problem and also had a few that failed utterly at running good cooperative, joyful classrooms. Or one group of children would be “full of troublemakers” according to their teacher that year but the exact same group would go on to the next grade and be the “best class I’ve ever had” to another teacher. Why? The teacher’s expressive face, demeanor and body language, but especially the face, meant the difference.
With regard to remembering faces I should relate an amazing story about face recognition. Many years ago while at a Mexican restaurant in Tucson, Arizona, I was struck with the familiarity of the face of a waitress working there. I knew that face from somewhere in the past but could not remember where or how. After glimpsing her several more times as she conducted her job and noting her voice and body language I finally decided that I must know her from Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was convinced that she had been a cashier at the Harvard Coop, where I regularly went to buy LP records for many years after I had been a graduate student. She specifically had manned a cash register in the record department. But….how could this be, how could I be sure, after being so far removed from that Massachusetts memory, both in distance and in time? How could that face belong to someone whom I encountered in this somewhat insignificant role at least five years ago in the past at a place over two thousand miles removed from Tucson?
Upon mentioning this conviction to my wife, who shook her head in surprise and disbelief, claiming that I had to be mistaken, I resolved to approach the young lady and ask her about my strong belief that she once worked in the record department at the Harvard Coop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Finally summoning my courage, approaching her and asking the question, she beamed with surprise and pride and said that yes, she had worked for several years in precisely that establishment before moving to Tucson. Absolutely amazing, the depth, power and memorability of a face. Oh sure, the fact that his young lady was attractive probably had something to do with my memory of her, but nevertheless, I will forever be amazed at this incident.
And speaking of faces, I have to discuss that of our President, Joe Biden. Listen, I’m awfully happy that he won the presidency. I shudder to think what our country would have been in for had our fascist friend Donald Trump won a second term. But of course I would much rather have had Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders as our leader because of their authentic “for the people” propensities so evident in their careers and campaign proposals.
Unfortunately there is little authenticity to former machine politician Joe Biden who for 34 years represented the Cayman Island-like state of Delaware, save the now hackneyed declaration that “he’s a good man” and that he is genuinely empathetic because he has “suffered loss”. Indeed, losing the loved ones President Biden has lost over the years would soften the hardest of hearts and souls and he wears the empathy badge quite genuinely. And I do think that he genuinely cares.
And during this horrible pandemic that has now killed well above half a million of our citizens and thousands more world wide, it has been wonderful to have a leader who can say the right words to us, to be a credible “comforter in chief” as it were. His recent speech on the subject, sympathizing with those millions who have lost loved ones, was impressive, made even more so by knowledge of his personal experience with loss.
But when watching our president during any kind of emotional outpouring, something is missing. Perhaps I’m being petty, but I don’t see Joe’s face reflecting any anguish, sadness or empathy. Whether he has been outlining legislative goals on the campaign trail, accepting the results of the election, or extolling the virtues of the nation and pledging to uphold its values during his inauguration speech, Joe’s expression is pretty much the same – the same beady eyes, the same immobile mouth, turned down at the corners in a perpetual grimace, and of course, the same blindingly white teeth, big and lots of them…when he smiles.
As I noted above in a different context, I think the face is everything in human communication. The frown, the raised eyebrows, the smile, the knitted brow, the eye roll, the clenched teeth, can often convey emotion and understanding that words cannot and can certainly punctuate words and phrases and give them emphasis, additional meaning and emotional impact. Look again at President Biden’s speech about the pandemic – the words are perfect and quite meaningful, but we are left hanging without validation from his expressionless face.
Now, we should ask why is this? Why is our president’s face so empty of expression…of whatever kind? Anger, laughter? When looking back at the many pictures and videos of Joe in the past, it is clear that his face has changed – dramatically. Remember his famous aside to President Obama after the Affordable Care Act became law? “This is a big f——-g deal!”, he chortled in the president’s ear, his whole face smiling and reflecting his glee.
Other pictures and videos from his many years in the Senate, show a face full of expression, able to show sarcasm, surprise, concern, or embarrassment quite easily. Actually, even when then Senator Biden ran against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2015, his face was fine. But something happened to that face between his run against Clinton and his run for the Democratic nomination in 2019.
Now, we all know about the vanity of politicians and Joe Biden was never an exception. As a balding senator, in fact the victim of a very unseemly process, where the hair seemed to thin severely but uniformly, no bald spot or receding hairline for Joe, his vanity response was his famous hair plugs – swiped from his neck and various other places where the hair was thick and then inserted into his scalp. Okay, baldness assaults the best of us and we all deal with it in different ways, including the famous “comb over” (https://ralphfriedly.com/2016/07/04/the-comb-over/). But Senator Biden’s answer for his problem was quite radical and obviously quite expensive.
Well, all this was fine – we got used to the “hair plug look”, but why mess with the face. Joe’s face, aside from a sagging double chin or wattle, was always fine. His smile and his hearty laugh were always engaging, as my son Conrad can attest, when Vice President Biden visited with and thanked his Peace Corps group in Jordan in 2008. Really, Biden’s engaging personality, favorably supported by those expressive characteristics, was one of his finest attributes. But apparently his vanity expanded unwisely well beyond those hair plugs after he ran against Clinton in 2015. It was during his run against Sanders and Warren for the Democratic nomination, that his supporters and we voters noticed a fundamentally altered face and its resulting negative characteristics.
Yes, Joe Biden is old. Hmm, well maybe not so old since he was born in the same year I was, 1942. I’m already 79; President Biden will turn 79 in November. But he is without doubt the oldest person to become a US president. The closest to him was Donald Trump, who when he was elected in 2016, was 70 years old. But to me that’s not a good enough reason to change an engaging and expressive face to one that’s most times a complete cypher, in an ill advised effort to look younger. His wife, “Dr. Jill”, should have advised against it.
But President Biden, a devoted exerciser, is trying to ensure that his body is up to the exhausting role of US President. He’s been known to challenge opponents to push-up contests, among them President Trump. And yes, he would have easily won. But in my humble opinion he should also have exercised, not excised, his charming and distinguishing facial characteristics, retaining the expressive face of the “lunch bucket Joe” that we grew to respect and love as Senator and Vice President.
Another story about facial expression that I wanted to share but that would not fit easily into any of the above, concerns a Mark Twain book, me and my father.
I mentioned in another article that many of my favorite books were purchased at a used book booth at Packard’s Farmers Market on route 206 in Somerset County, New Jersey when I was a youngster. One of them, an ornately bound first edition of Mark Twain’s “Innocents Abroad”, was quite special. I remembered some clever illustrations in the book dealing with interpretation of facial expressions that I wanted to consider for this article but of course this precious book was on a bookshelf in my study in Scottsdale so I abandoned the idea.
But, would you believe it, after idly typing the title and author into google, a scanned version of exactly my first edition came up and after looking through the chapters and pages, I found the exact page, illustration and text that I wanted. Both the illustration and Twain’s text describing the expressions caused lots of uproarious laughter from both me and my father when sharing them. They still don’t exactly fit into the article but here they are, along with the text – I hope you enjoy them:
There is an old story that Matthews, the actor, was once lauding the ability of the human face to express the passions and emotions hidden in the breast. He said the countenance could disclose what was passing in the heart plainer than the tongue could.
“Now”, he said, “Observe my face – what does it express?”
“Bah, it expresses peaceful resignation! What does this express?”
“Stuff! It means terror! This!”
“Fool! It is smothered ferocity! Now this!”
“Oh perdition! Any ass can see it means insanity!”