Sometimes I wish I were oblivious.
Years ago, as my husband and I enjoyed a sumptuous dinner and breathtaking view of the Pacific Ocean we were paying entirely too much for, the couple at the table next to us broke out into a quite heated and quite loud conversation. She had used a French term to describe something and he’d corrected her pronunciation, irritating her and derailing her whole story and subsequently the whole meal – for all within earshot. Except my husband. He had no idea what I was talking about when I mentioned it. While I stewed about their inconsiderate behavior toward all those gathered in this hushed dining room, he told me to ignore it and enjoy our nice food and each other’s company.
He was right. I, however, could not acquiesce. Not because I’m nosy. Not because I can’t mind my own Ps and Qs. Not because I feel like an authority on proper etiquette. Because I chose two of the worst professions for one who wishes to be oblivious – even if only for some of the time.
Years in the classroom as an English teacher developed both my ears and the eyes in the back of my head. Multitasking is an understatement. I needed to address a large group, scan for questions, read body language, catch the note being passed at the back of the class, hear the tiny whisper above the rustle of papers. I had to ‘put my roller skates on’ as one of my colleagues used to say and move about the room facilitating group work, attending to one group while still monitoring the sounds of work and/or inactivity from others’. I had to be the fly on the wall, the all-seeing eye. Front and center and everywhere. Attendant to all even while listening to one.
All of which does not make for a pleasant dining experience when one cannot tune out. Or even a trip to the mall. One time, I had to bite my tongue in order not to scold some kids down from a raised barrier around a flowing fountain.
Then I took on writing. Early on in this venture, I heard Jack Gantos speak, saying that to be a writer, one has to notice everything, even if only for a little bit each day. I saw stories at the bus stop, on the sides of trucks, in snippets of conversation. Most of them stayed observations, never switching to story, but boy, did I notice. Now I’ve fine-tuned my observational skills and cull what I know I can truly use. But that’s not to say I don’t still hear it all – like last night.
My writers’ group convened at a cozy booth on the upper level of a restaurant surprisingly boisterous for a Wednesday night. Next to us was a booth twice our size and packed to the gills. The group was mixed so I had trouble imagining what might have brought them together, but the tone and volume of their conversations suggested celebration. My group layered our conversation in amongst the din and started our critiques. All was fine until our talks wound to a close and theirs up to a fevered pitch, perhaps in direct relation to their intake of wine as the night wore on.
I heard them lamenting MCA’s death, which I did, too, when I heard (not on a personal level, but for the loss of a hugely talented contributor to the music world), but they said how it freaked them out because he was the first of that generation to die of natural causes. Last I checked cancer was not a natural cause of death. And these people were too young to consider themselves part of his generation.
The fragment that most got me, though, was when a woman who, by my estimation, is at least ten years younger than I am waxed philosophical on her decision to dye her hair. At first, she said, she wanted the grey to add to her esteem, her perceived wisdom. But as more and more grew in, she decided it was making her look too old. I’d venture to guess she had ten grey hairs hidden beneath that black dye. I wanted to call across the bench seat, you want to see greys? I’ll show you greys – and with no hair dye to cover them up.
Maybe I’m bitter because I went grey at an early age (which may have been her case, but I toughed it out, chica, and didn’t use it as an accessory to my image first). Maybe I’m pissed off by clueless people. Maybe I just wanted them to be quiet.
Maybe I just wish I could tune out all external stimuli. That would help with a whole lot more than dinner conversation, now wouldn’t it? It’s not something that’s easily turned off, though. Sometimes, I really do think oblivion would be nice.