As unidentical as they can be

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When did the meaning of "identical" change, I wonder. My dictionary still defines it as "exactly the same in every way," yet whenever we introduce our twins, David and Juliana, to strangers, we're asked, "Are they identical?" The fact is, they couldn't be more different. And revisionist thinking notwithstanding, nature, not nurture, seems to have determined their preferences. From the outset, some inborn star defined their character and course, not us.

We never gave David a gun, never taught him to throw a ball, climb out of his crib, take apart his toys; he did so instinctively. We never encouraged Juliana to use makeup, carry a purse, play with dolls, draw with crayons; she did so unprompted.

One morning, David picked up a plastic letter "L" and began blasting everything in sight. He did the same with paper-towel tubes, sneakers, even a Barbie doll, legs cocked 90 degrees. When his friend loaned him a holster and two small cap pistols, he generously handed one to his twin sister, who gripped it by the barrel. She didn't have a clue.

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As a toddler, Juli watched her mother intently, imitated her dress, speech, and mannerisms, asking to try her lipstick, earrings, eye shadow. By 4, she was painting her face with a deftness David would never master: To him, a lipstick was nothing more than a projectile. At 6, she was picking out her own clothes.

David was slow to develop a sense of color. One morning I quizzed him on the color of the apple in his hand. "Blue," he replied. Pointing to his overalls, I asked what color they were. "Blue," he repeated.

"If your overalls are blue, then what color is the apple?"

He pondered a moment, grinned, and shouted triumphantly, "Blue!"

Across the room, Juli was busy coloring. When I asked the color of her crayon she replied, "Lavender."

From the day we brought them home, we noticed significant differences.

David nursed more aggressively, quickly taking his fill and falling asleep, only to wake within minutes howling for more. Juli took her time, nursed more fully, slept longer. She was the first to sleep through the night, the first to begin playing quietly in her crib. She talked first; he walked first. She drew first; he threw first. The only thing they learned in concert was to read.

David spent his early days pushing, climbing, testing every physical limit. The world was real to him only insofar as it could be pushed, poked, provoked. Put him in the same room with his sister, and in minutes he was tugging at her, desperately needing physical contact. Juli preferred her privacy, a quiet room, careful observation. Even in infancy she could entertain herself for hours turning the same object over and over. David quickly tired of his toys, requiring fresh stimulation.

At age 2 he hurled a tennis ball across the kitchen with enough force to knock the phone off the wall. To this day, his sister throws - you'll pardon the expression - like a girl. Elbows, shoulders, wrists, hips, knees, feet: Nothing is where it should be. And no amount of instruction seems to improve matters.

From the time she could walk, Juliana dressed with care, her choices always carefully considered. Until adolescence, David would wear anything set out for him, preferring to run around the house naked. He now lives in shorts, no matter what the temperature, hating nothing so much as a jacket and tie. Juli lives to dress formally, spending as much time planning her outfits as wearing them.

AS ADOLESCENCE begins to rear its pugnacious head, Juliana has grown fractious, bristling at every constraint, intent on having the last word. Her brother, in sharp contrast, retreats to his room, face glued to the TV screen where digital cars race around a track at warp speed. Juli spends her free time poring over the pages of Seventeen magazine, attentive to every detail. When the phone rings, she leaps over beds and across tables to reach it before anyone else. It then requires tools evocative of the Inquisition to pry it from her ear. David answers the phone only under duress and generally keeps his conversations to five words: "Yeah, fine, no [or yes], OK, bye."

Despite their obvious physical differences, people still ask if they are identical. I gently explain that boy and girl twins cannot, by definition, be identical. Sometimes the questioners laugh at their mistake, but just as often they add, "Well of course they're different sexes, but otherwise they're identical, right?" Wrong!

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