Sunday, February 17, 2013

THE WOMAN IN A RED WOOL HAT

 I see her on my walks.  She begins as  a tiny speck at the end of Beacon Lane. Then we draw closer and I know her by her red wool hat and her bulky coat, and the pace of her walk. She has long hair, tucked into her collar.  She wears no makeup, but her features are distinct. Sometimes she's checking her iphone.  More often she's simply walking, and when we pass there's a little nod of acknowledgement between us. Now, after more than a year,  we sometimes even exchange  a few words.

 I have my own idea of who this woman is. I imagine she is either in the health care industry or perhaps an interior designer. It's hard to say why I have this impression, except that she has a professional air  about her, as well as an intelligent and open face.  She seems to like herself and to be quite approachable  - although come to think of it - she's not all that approachable, because I don't dare ask who she is. We only ever talk in half formed sentences about the weather.  She looks to be about my age.  I imagine she is single - or else divorced. Maybe she has a daughter or a grown up son, and now she lives alone. I think she is happy that way.

I should ask her who she is. I should say, "what's your name?" or "where do you live?" But if I were to do that, I suspect she would be startled and taken aback.  She wouldn't really like it.

One day I passed her on a different street and both of us were surprised by the encounter. "You're varying your routine," I said.

"No," she answered, smiling. "I always go this way."

Then, later, when we passed each other in our usual spot on Beacon Lane I remarked, "Now I feel much better," and she laughed.  And yet I had the sense that I was overstepping the bounds of our normal interaction.

For instance, if I  were to ask her what kind of work she does, or to tell her what kind of work I imagine she does - that would be way too much.  It would be a breach in etiquette - and we would never be able to enjoy the anonymity of our morning walks in quite the same way.

It occurs to me now, that there are often such neighborhood characters in our lives - people we see doing one simple thing and one thing alone. We want to keep them this way. These ordinary visions ground us.  This woman, for instance, sees me walking my dogs every morning and I see her walking too. That's all we see of each other.  We may develop a narrative around it. But that narrative is private. And that is enough. For her I am simply the woman with a dachshund and a greyhound - who walks the same route every morning. An odd woman with too much hair and a strange accent. A woman who dresses her greyhound in a coat.

Of course, once or twice I have walked past her with my husband. I could see when she greeted me that this was a surprise - not exactly an unwelcome surprise-  but a new piece of information which she was happy to incorporate into her vision of me, but not one she wanted to explore any further.

I have had many people in my life who I've thought of as local characters - people who fill a one dimensional role in my life, and their one dimension reassures me.

There was for instance, the elderly lady we used to see striding up the road at 6 30 am a few years ago, when we drove Elliot to high school.  She lives on Westmoreland and I think her husband might have been in the navy, although he's now dead - because I used to see their cars with license plates that suggested a navy background. Her house is as neat as a pin and she wears red lipstick although she must be in her seventies. Her hair is white and full and when she drives past me in one of her cars she always waves.  That's because I am also a local character in her life.

When we were stationed in Rome, there was a man who swam laps in the pool at the complex where we lived. He always had a snorkel and hand paddles.  He went back and forth, back and forth - for about half an hour or more.  He also had a dog with whiskers who sat in the back of his car - and he had a daughter who was terribly thin, and we wondered about him and found him curious and charming - also reassuring.

I am that strange woman who walks a greyhound and dachshund.  I often find people waving to me from their cars - people I don't know or recognize.  So I guess for them I have become a local character.

In some ways, I feel I am friends with the woman in the red wool hat.  She is a fixture in my morning routine.  I know her, though only in passing.  In passing is enough.  If I were to ask for more, something would topple in the balance of our lives.  So instead we pass each other by, and say good morning, and sometimes we mention the weather. Then, reassured, we go on.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

THE ITALIAN GHOST IN MY COMPUTER

On Sunday over dinner with our friends Brett and Bill,  we talked about cultural disconnection. All of us had lived in Buenos Aires for several years, and after trading anecdotes, I found myself recounting another story,  one about living in Rome,  and about how at the beginning of our four year stay I had asked our portiere for a key to the mailbox. She had responded by giving me her key.  Then she told me I could get it copied at the Upim department store in Vigna Clara, where we lived.

So I went to the Upim the following day, and found the kiosk where the key copier worked, quite easily.  Only trouble was, he wasn't there. Instead, there was a sign. He would be back the following afternoon. 

And so I returned the following afternoon, and gave him the key to be copied.  Sorry, he said. He couldn't copy it right then.  Could I return the following afternoon?

I told him that I could. And indeed I did.  But when I returned, with the portiere's key in hand, he waved it aside, and automatically handed me a ready-made replacement.  "Don't you need this to copy it?" I asked him, in Italian.

"No no, senora," he replied.  "All of those keys are the same."

I went back home with my newly purchased 'copy'. Now I was able to open up the mailbox.

Except there wasn't any mail inside our mailbox.

It was then that the portiere explained.  While I might have wanted a key to open up the mailbox, I didn't actually need one.  Because the mail was never put into those boxes. Instead it was her practice to  hand each resident their mail, whenever they passed her doorway.  There was no need to bother with the mailboxes!

 I had asked the wrong question.  Instead of asking "how do I get my mail?" I had asked for a mailbox key.  I had made a mistaken assumption.

Another time, also during the first few weeks of our four years in Rome - the portiere's husband informed me that I had parked my car in a place intended for TWO cars.  At first I thought he meant I had squeezed in too closely in the space out front - a space I had assumed would fit three cars without any problem.  But no.  He was referring to the time I had parked my car just inside the building - in a place intended for TWO cars.  But in my American greediness, I had taken over two spots entirely with one car.

It's all about perception.

Meanwhile - I've discovered that there's an Italian ghost living inside my computer.  It all dates back to the days when the Italians tried to install new software on my desktop - and installed an Italian version of Word.

The ghost only shows up every so often. For instance today, when I was writing - and chose the word "elaborate"  it was  automatically underlined in red.  "La voce verbale 'elaborate' non concordia in numero con il suo soggetto,"  I was warned.  And then I was advised to "sostituire elaborate con elaborara".

A few minutes later, I used the word "wrapped".  The Italian ghost didn't like that.  It offered serveral alternatives: "rappe, frappe, grappe, trappe, and rapper."

Then when I typed "below" it suggested I might mean "belo" or "bello, belo, or even Belo - or Bello'"

I do try to leave Italy behind me, much as I am fond of it. And yet it continues to haunt me in subtle and amusing ways.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

MANTI TE'O AND THE GIRL THAT NEVER EXISTED

I'm not a football fan, but like everyone else I've been absolutely fascinated by the story of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o and his girlfriend Lennay Kekua, who never existed.  Lennay, it turns out, was the brainchild of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, a young man who  spoke with Manti over the phone in a female voice, often through the night - and fabricated a whole history for Lennay - always, he says, encouraging Manti to be a better person.  When Lennay Kekua supposedly died, Manti's heart was broken.  She was, he said, the love of his life - the one he always turned to.

I watched Ronaiah's interview with Dr Phil. He confessed that he found himself falling in love with Manti, and ultimately, after several attempts, felt he had to kill off Lennay in order to put an end to what had become a complicated deceit.  He did this after Manti was already grieving for his grandmother, but also after Manti had confessed to texting other girls.   Ronaiah insisted that he had genuine feelings for Manti, that none of this was intended to hurt him.  In fabricating the character of Lennay, he had found a side of his personality which was entirely real.  It had protected him from the pain he'd experienced as an adolescent, molested repeatedly by someone close to the family. As Lennay, Ronaiah was able to be fully human. On that level, the interactions were always genuine.  His love was far from a hoax.

At first, when I heard this story, I thought I had never heard anything like it - that this was something that could only happen to a generation where virtual relationships on the internet had become if not the norm, certainly quite commonplace.  But upon reflection, I feel that this is one of the oldest love stories in the book.

Cyrano de Bergerac did exactly the same thing. He fell in love with Roxane, but his nose was so big that he felt self conscious about confessing his love. Instead he wooed Roxane in the guise of another suitor, Christian - who was himself a tongue tied fellow without the poetic authenticity and substance of Cyrano.

In the 1982 movie "Tootsie"  Dustin Hoffman plays an actor who cannot get any acting roles as a man. So instead he disguises himself as a woman - and as a woman, falls in love with an actress played by Jessica Lange. He then works his way into her life and ultimately her heart, hoping to keep up his female disguise - until at last he's exposed and Jessica Lange's character is disgusted to find that she's been duped.  At the end of the film,  you get the sense that Jessica Lange's character has had a bit of time to think about it.  She says wistfully, "I miss Dorothy."  To which Dustin Hoffman replies, "I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was with a woman as a man."

We loved that film, back in 1982.  It said everything we felt was true about gender roles, the woman inside the man who longed to connect - and was able to connect, when disguised as a woman.

There are other examples besides these.  Rosalind in As You Like It - woos Orlando in the forest of Arden - even though she is disguised as a boy.  She pretends to be Rosalind - but then it turns out in a wonderful twist, that she really is Rosalind, the woman he adores! Does this make her duplicitous? Perhaps. But even if it does, Rosalind remains one of Shakespeare's most beloved and irresistible heroines.

Viola in Twelfth Night - madly in love with Count Orsino, disguises herself as a boy named Cesario and in this disguise is unable to confess her love to him.  Instead  she "let concealment like a worm in the bud feed on her damasked cheek." She pines in thought - "and with a green and yellow melancholy, sat like patience on a monument, smiling at grief. Was this not love indeed?"

Yes - indeed it was the best and purest love our greatest poet has imagined! And the wonderful thing is that like Viola pretending to be Cesario, Ronaiah actually still is Lennay.  She isn't dead after all. She lives on - a better woman with Manti, than s/he ever was as a man!  We know what the ending of the story should be.  In the end, understanding the mistake, the duped lover comes to realize how much he really loves the boy disguised as a girl - and he falls in love with that real unpretentious and whole person.

Oh, how I long for this to be the end of the story.  I long to see Manti and Ronaiah in the weeks that follow, come to see the light.  This year our society has taken many steps towards recognizing same sex lovers as equal to their heterosexual counterparts.  As Obama said in his inaugural address, "If we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well."