Well, how about that? For once, I actually submitted my final grades before the 1PM deadline, with whole minutes to spare! It’s barely past noon: 12:12PM, to be exact.
And look at that: today is December 12! So, it’s the twelfth minute of the twelfth hour of the twelfth day of the twelfth month of the twelfth year of the century: 12:12 12/12/12!
That combination won’t happen again until a century from now, in 2112.
It’s curious that this long string of similar numbers represents a unique centennial event. It’s a manifestation of opposite concepts: alikeness and uniqueness, repetition and rarity. It makes me wonder if other events or phenomena embody an analogous paradox, simultaneously expressing similarity and difference.
The first thing that pops into my mind is that maybe I do: that I’m like one of those 12s in the chain.
This morning, a friend posted a picture of the Dos Equis man next to my name on Facebook, followed by the assertion: “L’uomo più interessante del mondo :)” (“The most interesting man in the world”: the tag line for the Dos Equis man). The implication was that he looks just like me.
It made me smile because, unbeknownst to my friend, one of my students had recently pointed out the same resemblance in class: “You know, professor, you look a lot like the Dos Equis man. Do you do some acting on the side?” After he said it, the rest of the class agreed vociferously: “Oh, wow! It’s true; just like him!” Someone then declaimed: “Hey, stay thirsty, my friends!”
I had no idea who this Dos Equis person was, nor that he was dubbed “the most interesting man in the world.” In fact, I did not know what Dos Equis was, nor what the expression meant. I actually didn’t know what words they were saying, as if they were speaking a different language — and, as it turned out, they were. “It’s a Mexican beer,” they informed me (only an occasional and indifferent beer drinker). “You know, XX, double X, dos equis in Spanish.”
Once that was cleared up, I still had to look up the Dos Equis ads on YouTube to see the man whose double I supposedly was. The similarity didn’t seem particularly striking to me. So, I was ready to shrug it off. But then, as if to confirm my students’ claims, my friend posted his very picture on my timeline, implying that it could be a picture of me, and people couldn’t tell the difference.
You be the judge, dear reader! Can you tell the XX beer imbiber from the YY wine sipper?
This got me thinking, however, that, rather than the most interesting man in the world (or one of two such), I may well be the most commonplace man in the world, because this is only the latest of a long series of sightings of a host of doppelgangers of mine.
Earlier in the semester, students came across a picture of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Hero of Two Worlds, who fought for independence and liberty in South America and in Italy, and a Founding Father of Italy as unified nation (1861). “He looks just like you!” they noted and asked if I had posed for the picture, or if I was his direct descendant.
A few pages later in the textbook, there was a picture of the opera composer Giuseppe Verdi, who was also instrumental (pun not initially intended, but accepted gleefully when noted) in unifying Italians culturally, if not politically, by creating music that could be shared throughout the peninsula and among all classes: “our” music. My students again exclaimed: “Wow! You look just like him, too!”
“Do all you Italians look alike?” a student wondered.
“Only the famous, heroic, brilliant, handsome ones with beards,” I explained.
But my doubles are not just Italians. Members of my doppel-gang apparently roam far and wide.
Many people, both those who know me personally and those who happened to see a picture of me on Facebook or elsewhere, declare that I am Ernest Hemingway reincarnated. I was a big hit when traveling in Cuba. People would stop in their tracks, point at me, and exclaim: “Papa Ernesto!” and insist on taking a picture with me. There must be dozens of pictures hanging on Cuban walls of me standing or sitting alongside people who claim to be with Hemingway, or with his revenant.
Is reincarnation possible, considering that Papa Hemingway was still alive when I was born? Boh! — as we eloquently say in Italian for: I have no idea!; Haven’t the foggiest!; No clue!; Who knows? It could be that the reincarnation took place not with my birth but with the birth of my beard. Boh!
People have also wondered if I’m a descendant of the guy on the $50 bill.
Does that middle initial of his, S (which he started using for no apparent reason), actually stand for a mysterious family name of unknown origin, which eventually was passed down to me as a first name? Could that connection also explain why I talk and write so much about the figure of Ulysses in my classes and in my articles and books (e.g., Il secondo occhio di Ulisse, The Second Eye of Ulysses)?
The possibility that I, born and raised in Italy, with ancestors who, as far as I know, all came from there, could be related to General U. S. Grant seems rather remote. But who knows? Grant did travel to Italy after his presidency. While there, he might have enjoyed a dalliance with my great-great-grandmother. He still would have been young enough for amorous dallying, only in his mid-fifties. But his wife, Julia, was with him, greatly reducing the chances of such dallying and consequent potential contributions to my ancestral gene pool. Still, maybe DNA testing is in order.
My very own son insists that I look just like the guy on the left:
If he — my son, not Bond, James Bond; oops, I mean: Connery, Sean Connery — should read this, here’s a hint: different eye color: his, brown; mine, blue (visibly so, when not squinting against the sun). And, okay, perhaps also a slight difference in physique. I never got around to competing for Mr. Universe.
Over the years, I’ve lost count of the number of times people have sworn that I look just like a cousin, uncle, friend, colleague, or neighbor of theirs.
I don’t mind. It’s not a bad part to play, since it’s usually someone they like or miss, and they tend to transfer that sympathy and affection to me. All I have to do is just add a smile or two to those pre-existing feelings of friendship and fondness, stir in a little conversation, and voilà: instant bonhomie and benevolence.
Well, dear reader, if you’re still there, you must be wondering, as am I, what could possibly have brought about this concatenation of thoughts and images roaming through my mind. In part, it must be due to the sense of liberation after submitting the final grades and putting to rest another semester. Freed from having to concentrate on the material taught in my courses, my thoughts can finally roam around more freely.
On the other hand, although released from their curricular duties, those newly liberated thoughts embarked on a direction imposed by the very topics addressed in essays I had been reading. Free to wander but led by the nose: another contradiction.
For the course “Italy: Matrix of Civilization,” one of the questions was whether there is such a thing as an Italian identity. Some students argued that there is, as represented by a common cultural patrimony: literature, painting, opera, religion, and soccer — especially soccer!; and common historical figures and heroes: Marco Polo, Dante, Michelangelo, Galileo, Garibaldi, and Pirlo. Others, on the other hand, claimed that there are only local identities: Venetian, Neapolitan, Florentine; Sicilian, Lombard, Piedmontese. They recalled and deployed the term campanilismo to indicate an allegiance to the church steeple of one’s hometown. Each region, indeed each city or town, they point out, has its own history, language (often incomprehensible in other parts of the country), customs, cuisine, folklore. And, last but not least, there were also a few students who argued for a combined identity: a unified national identity superimposed on diverse local identities, making Italians similar to and distinct from other Italians.
One student used food to make the case. When traveling in Italy, she never encountered what might be termed a national dish, only local dishes. Even common enough items, such as pasta and pizza, were prepared in ways unique to the location. But when she traveled outside of Italy, and especially when she came back to the States, there were so-called Italian restaurants that served so-called Italian food. Italian cuisine, she opined, existed only outside of Italy. How one perceives identity depends on whether one is looking from inside or from outside.
It’s too bad that I’m the only one to read these essays at the end of the course. Students would learn much from reading and discussing each others’ opinions and conclusions. There was a physics major in the class, who might have shed light on this other paradox: the need to be positioned both inside and outside, by pointing out that this is what quantum superposition and entanglement are all about: particles being distinct, far away from each other, and yet entangled, part of the same wave.
I once read that we, human beings, are waves. If so, if I am a wave, am I too superposed and entangled with other human beings, even those who are not in my proximity — what Einstein dubbed: “spooky action at a distance”?
Waves are a force that is propagated through matter, or through particles. Ocean waves are not a conglomeration of water molecules that travel great distances, but rather a force that is transmitted from molecule to molecule. The water is a medium. When traversed by waves, it is agitated up and down and all around, side to side, forward and backward, but remains more or less where it was before the wave passed through it. It’s not the water that travels; it’s the wave that travels through it.
The cells in our bodies are also a medium for the transmission of something that travels through them. Our cells are not permanent. They renew and mutate constantly. Except for some brain cells and ova in women, which apparently do remain intact, no cell in our body is the same as what was there, say a decade ago. Every few years, we have a body made up of new cells. And that doesn’t even take into consideration the non-human cells that constitute 90% or so of all the cells in our body: the bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms of our microbiomes, all of which also replicate and mutate continuously.
All our cells change, and yet our physical features remain the same: skin, hair, and eye color, height, bone structure, moles, scars, etc. At the cellular level, we are almost totally new and different (although not always improved, alas!) at different points in time. Yet, we somehow remain the same at the level of the whole body.
And something analogous happens at the mental level. Our memories and our knowledge constantly change and grow. New memories are added with each experience. Old ones are altered. And they all get mixed up and rearranged, and yet remain more or less intact and continuous throughout our lives, giving us the illusion of being one and the same person through the years.
All of these accumulating paradoxes circle back to the original conundrum of how something can be both unique and commonplace. None of these tangential reflections help to resolve the conundrum, only to accentuate it. But perhaps they do suggest that a “both/and” approach might be more fruitful than an “either/or” paradigm. If particles partake of both the properties of matter and of waves, as quantum physicists hypothesize, perhaps people do, too. As individuals, we uniquely occupy a specific time and space, but as members of communities — family, state, organizations, church, clubs, workforce, circle of friends, and so on — we are caught up in the waves that traverse those socio-cultural spaces (e.g., traditions, rules, laws, guidelines, beliefs, expectations — forces that entangle us all with others in the cohort).
But, dear reader, if you’re puzzled and perhaps disconcerted, as am I, as to how and why I have trespassed into the forbidding, if not forbidden, territory of quantum physics, let’s beat a retreat to a more familiar field in which I have toiled: the study of language.
With lexical spade in hand, let’s dig up some etymological roots for the word that here seems to be in question: “identity.” First of all, we should notice that even in the way we use it today — in its above-ground branches — the term is ambiguous. We carry an “identity” card to prove that we are exclusively the individual we claim to be: a token of our uniqueness. And yet, the root of the word is idem, Latin for “same,” the opposite of “unique” or “distinct,” and, true to that root, the adjective “identical” doesn’t mean “pertaining to one particular identity (ascertained by the ID card),” but “exactly like something else, a duplicate”; hence, “identity” means “resemblance” and “commonality,” antonyms of uniqueness.
So, even staying within the boundaries of my own oft-tilled field, I run into an analogous paradox. Our identity, what our ID card represents, consists of seemingly contrary properties: our commonality, our sameness with each other, as well as our difference from everyone else, our singularity.
Conclusion? No, probably not; there is no conclusion. Rather, another starting point: continuation through mutation — riding the wave across different patches of the sea of history (or seas of histories). We are all part of the same family, each person with different and unique contributions to make to the whole family, and all benefiting from what each has to offer. Or, if permitted to trespass one last time to another realm — this time just across the Alps, and just across the hall from my university office (in the Department of French and Italian), to the adjacent field of French literature, in which I have occasionally toiled — let me plagiarize the Musketeers, who put it more succinctly, forcefully, and memorably: “All for one and one for all!”
But, enough of this post-grading rapture and rudderless cerebral rambling! After all, 12:12 12/12/12 has already passed and won’t come around again for a hundred years. So, who cares about those 12s? I’d better get back to the calendar to count how many shopping days are left before the holidays.
But, lo and behold, on that December calendar, what do I see? Someone else who looks just like me! At this wintry time of year many people, especially children, have often noted a striking resemblance between me and this seasonal worker, with whom I share not only a white beard and a comparable girth, but also a similar first name, and on occasion — when my grading is done — a similar proclivity for jollity and mirth:
So, I’d better not cry and I’d better not pout because Sante Clones are all around town. They’re too many to list, let alone to check twice. So, I’d better be good, get some gifts, and be nice, and bid all: Merry Holidays, Happy New Year, and don’t slip on the ice!
Sante Matteo was born and raised in a small agricultural town in southern Italy, emigrating to the United States with his family when he was almost ten. He had the good fortune to maintain and strengthen his ties to Italy by becoming a professor of Italian Studies. He is currently Professor Emeritus at Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio, where he resides, reminisces, and writes. Recent stories and poetry have appeared in THE CHAFFIN JOURNAL, DIME SHOW REVIEW, RIVER RIVER, SNAPDRAGON, THE NEW SOUTHERN FUGITIVES, OVUNQUE SIAMO, SHOWBEAR FAMILY CIRCUS, KAIROS.