As in early childhood, after a certain age the differences between the sexes become less pronounced. Seen from the back, men and women in their golden years are often indistinguishable. Baggy jeans and oversized t-shirts minimize differences in body proportions. Once-glorious heads of red, blond, and black hair have thinned and disappeared beneath a flood of white, and most women, weary of decades of blow-drying, have embraced the convenience of short hair.
In the retirement community where I live this homogeneity has sometimes caused me embarrassment, such as the day when I caroled “Hi Dave!” to a fellow resident, only to realize too late that I was addressing a woman—and one I knew well, at that.
The problem of figuring out who is who worsens in winter, when no one steps out the door without wearing a quilted, hooded coat, snow-worthy boots, mittens, a scarf, a hat (yes, under the hood), and sunglasses to protect from the glare. Add to this the blurring effect of snow, sleet, and freezing rain, and you can see why the merest stroll becomes a social challenge. Luckily the voice remains a fairly reliable gender give-away, so you can always shout “Hellooo!” into the gale, and listen for the answer.
Now, in this pandemic winter, the mask and distancing mandates have made recognizing passers-by, let alone chatting with them, almost impossible. Even if something, such as a pink hat, hints at the gender of the person I am approaching, I still have no idea whether she is a friend, an acquaintance, or a stranger. So like most others I have adopted the non-committal but enthusiastic wave, which signals friendliness without presuming friendship.
Often, however, the wavee feels obliged to respond with a remark of some sort. This, due to the combined effects of distance, mask, and wind, usually comes out something like “mwah-hee?”to which I, assuming that it is an allusion to the weather, usually answer “yes, isn’t it!” If she interprets this as meaning, “good to see you!” no harm done.
If she has a dog, on the other hand, things go more smoothly. I am acquainted with almost all the dogs in the community, and although some have developed white muzzles, unlike humans they have retained their distinctive coat colors. I may not be sure of the name of the masked figure before me—Susan? Mary? Nancy?—but I know without a shadow of a doubt that her tiny terrier is Trixie.
So when I, out walking Bisou, meet Susan/Mary/Nancy with Trixie, we stop and, standing leash-distance apart while the dogs wag their tails and sniff each other, we too have a conversation of sorts, through our masks. “Waaa hm-hm!” she exclaims, arching her eyebrows behind her glasses. “Um woo!!” I respond, nodding emphatically.
When the dogs have finished chatting, we wave good-bye and turn towards home—two dogs and their humans, each warmed by the chance to commune with a member of their species on this dark, lonely winter day.