I'm really, really bad at seeing shapes. You know how people will tell you "turn right at that building that's shaped like a ship" or "you can't miss it - it's the one with the tree outside that's shaped like an old man bending over to pick up his dentures"? Directions like that virtually guarantee that I'm going to get lost. It's not that I can't imagine shapes in things - it's just that I can't imagine the shapes I'm supposed to. When I finally get to this ship-shaped building I'll stare at it in amazement trying to figure out how someone could see a ship in it. A hunk of cheese, yes. A harp, possibly. Even, from a certain angle, Jennifer Aniston's hairstyle. But a ship? How? Where?
My first intimation of this curious failing of mine came from my early essays into astronomy. There I would be staring up at these patterns of stars, trying desperately to imagine them into bears and lions and scorpios and suchlike. That's Orion, the hunter? I'd say. Looks more like a drape gathered in at the centre to me. Or a model for one of those sari ads on TV. Why Orion? Because his arrow is pointing to what? Where? Oh, forget it, I give up.
Thinking back, I realise that the signs of my shape-blindness were present even when I was a still a little child playing join the dots in one of my umpteen 'activity books'. Even then I was always the last person to get what the shape was supposed to be. There'd be all of two dots left to be joined and I'd still be wondering what the hell this thing was. Grown-ups watching me would say "Oh! Look! It's an elephant" and I would connect the last few dots and sure enough it would be and I would stare at them in mystified admiration wondering how they could possibly have known. When they kept doing this with uncanny accuracy time after time again, I became convinced that there was a secret answer key to these things that was made available to adults and only denied to me (yes, I was hyper-paranoid even in those early days) and I couldn't wait to grow up and get my hands on this document. How easy it would be, I thought, if I could just look up what this shape was supposed to be somewhere, instead of going to all this silly effort just to find out that it was a clown wearing a hat.
It occurs to me now that this early obssession with join the dots puzzles may actually have contributed to my inability to see the right shapes in things. Accustomed to the level of detail in those puzzles, I may have lost the ability to take a more minimalist views of shapes. If this thing is supposed to be a hunter, I find myself asking, where is his quiver of arrows then? And shouldn't he have a sack to carry the meat back in? Is he that bad a hunter? Does he shave and if not, then where's his beard? It's this sort of thing that keeps me from seeing the shapes that everyone else seems to see.
Of course, the flip side of this affliction of mine is that I can see a shape I'm looking for in practically everything. Since I don't see the shape intuitively, it comes back to force-fitting that shape onto the object in question, and once you start down that path it's not hard to imagine how, from a certain angle, in a very convoluted way, every building could look like a ship, every combination of 7 stars could like a hunter. So any given night sky is full of Orions for me - Orion the dwarf, Orion the potbellied, Orion the hunter lying flat on his stomach to creep up on his prey, Orion the Bharatnatyam dancer.
Every now and then some kindly soul will try to point out the real Orion to me. This will consist of him or her pointing a finger in the general direction of the sky and saying something like - do you see that bright star over there, the one next to three duller ones? In a sky filled with stars, this is not a useful description. I'll look earnestly for a while, then finally pick a star at random and nod enthusiastically. My friend will then go on to describe some infinitely complicated pattern, none of which I will follow, all of which I will acknowledge in a loud, appreciative tone. After the lesson is complete I will thank my friend for having finally helped me see Orion, then slink away in bewilderment and the secret suspicion that my Orion is the real one and every one else has got it wrong.
P.S. As a further illustration of my incompetence with shapes - it took me years to figure out what people meant when they talked about hourglass figures, and even now I remain unconvinced about the analogy. I mean it's not really like a hourglass, is it, more like two slightly overlapping, high standard deviation normal curves rotated by 90 degrees and reflected in a mirror. The other day a friend of mine was saying something about pear shapes and apple shapes. Whatever. Personally, I think the whole world is bananas. (and please, no jokes about how you can't compare apples and oranges)