It is a strange phenomenon: the human being who sits next to you at a dinner party and never asks one question about you. I had this experience last night. There were other people at the party who did engage in a more balanced exchange with me, but I was unfortunately seated for dinner near three men who must have, as my mother used to say, "been brought up in a barn." I asked them all about themselves, their jobs, families, etc., and these three men, in turn, answered my questions, and we had a conversation that sounded like an interview. One man went on and on about his wonderful job as an environmentalist; he was also a science professor at UC Berkeley. These three men were in their fifties, highly educated, intelligent, nicely dressed in suits and ties, and never asked me one thing about my life during the cheese soufflé appetizer, the onion soup, the heart of palm salad, the coq au vin, the apple tart or chocolate mousse, the tea or coffee or cognac. Not one. I was a little tired from interviewing, so I left the party early. I walked down the street toward Bart and almost got hit by a bus.
On the Bart train, everyone looked exhausted and like they'd been hit by a bus. We did not ask each other about our lives. It was an equitable exchange.
As the train blasted with a screeching whine through the underwater tunnel, I wondered, what is it that makes us so self-centered? I read somewhere that evil is the absence of light. An opaqueness, a state of self-absorption. Like a dirty window, the light can't shine through. I actually felt dirty, sitting at that table with three civilized men, so highly educated and well-groomed, who were blind as proverbial bats, hanging upside down in their cave of shitty manners. They were only looking at themselves through the dark window.
I looked at myself in the dark Bart window. A sad and tired face looked back at me. I closed my eyes and tried to think of something good, something of light. I saw the face of my friend Maureen who is coming to visit Kenneth and me today to celebrate Kenneth's 50th birthday.
And I remembered this poem, a great poem to pull out of your pocket when you're at a party, and you know it's time to disappear. But be careful of buses:
The Art of Disappearing by Naomi Shihab Nye
When they say Don't I know you?
When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
If they say We should get together
It's not that you don't love them anymore.
You're trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.
When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven't seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don't start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.
Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.
Causes Susan Browne Supports
Run Together, A Race to Raise Money for Leukemia and Lymphoma Society