Pat Cashman | Things, even faces, are ‘natural' in Canada

See the picture of the goofy-looking guy that accompanies this column? Well, that’s nothing. You should have seen his first Costco card. Now that photo was a masterpiece of doltishness.

Unfortunately, I lost that card a couple of days ago - and that really bums me out. I will never be able to duplicate that spectacularly grizzled look again without the help of a Hollywood makeup artist - and a bottle of scotch.

In the photo, I not only had a beef-witted grin on my face, but my hair was so unkempt - I looked like I had spent the previous night strolling through a wind tunnel, and then sleeping under a truck with a broken oil pan. That, combined with the unflattering lighting, created the look of a disheveled but cheerful hobo - a guy who had just hopped off a railroad car, and then showed up at Costco to pickup their signature giant jars of mayonnaise, huge slabs of cheese and immense packages of toilet paper. (I once bought a set of tires at Costco only to later discover they were doughnuts.)

Since I now have to get a NEW photo taken at Costco, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the look I’ll want to affect this time around. Maybe I’ll try to look contemplative - by placing my hand just under my chin, while casting my eyes thoughtfully skyward. Or maybe I’ll go with an ambivalent look - uncertain whether I am entering or leaving the store. Perhaps a facial expression registering terror and shock might be best - trying to duplicate the same look I get at the cash register when I find out my total.

In any case, you can bet the photo-taker at Costco couldn’t care less about anyone’s particular pose. But in Canada - at least in the passport department - it’s a different story. The Canadian Foreign Ministry - which is in charge of issuing passport photos - announced several years ago that they would no longer accept photos of people who are “laughing, smiling or frowning.” It is so.

The ministry said that Canucks can only use photos with “a neutral expression.” On a car, neutral is the gear position to use when you don’t want to go anywhere. On a Canadian passport photo, if you don’t look neutral, you also aren’t going anywhere.

The United States passport rules insist on a “natural” expression. But Canada uses the word “neutral” - which is even more peculiar. After all, one person’s neutral expression might be another person’s sneering scowl. Human faces are as different as snowflakes - and sometimes just as slushy.

I don’t know about you, but as soon as someone tells me to look serious, that’s when I start snickering and snorting. So it seems pretty certain that Canadians must be steadily testing the limits of their ministry’s regulation. In fact, while people getting passport photos have been banned from smiling or frowning, there is apparently nothing wrong with wearing silly hats, wax lips - or even Billy Bob teeth.

For that matter, the regulations don’t spell out a specific ban on letting a trickle of drool creep down the corner of your mouth. They also don’t disallow a long, twisting hair to protrude from one’s nose.

In fact, there is no specific mention of the need to even wear a shirt. A dickey alone might be good enough. And it does not appear there is a problem with a person wearing one of those fake arrow-through-the-head-things - provided, of course, they maintain a “neutral expression” while doing so.

When I was a kid, I bet my brother a dollar that I could screw my face up so completely, that I could walk right past our mom and she wouldn’t recognize me. He took my bet. A few days later, while walking home from school, we spotted Mom walking into the supermarket. She hadn’t seen us yet - so I tucked my ears in, messed up my hair, crossed my eyes and twisted my mouth as far as I could. Then, with my brother peering around a corner aisle, I went strolling past Mom. Scarcely looking up, she said, “Pat, stop making that face or it will stay like that.” My brother walked up to collect his dollar.

I’ve been practicing in front of the mirror quite a bit, but have found that it is really hard to create a “neutral expression.” I’m not even sure what one is. But if it means, “a look that reveals nothing at all about what the person is really thinking,” it might be worth studying the faces of people working the counter at the DMV.

On second thought, maybe it’s dangerous to practice a “neutral expression.” It might stay like that, you know.