Growing up as the youngest of five children my role at the dinner table was pretty much - shut up and eat. Not that those words were ever used. As most children and other animals instinctively know, I knew the pecking order. I got pretty good at eating. I’ve been doing it most of my life. And I became an observer. The eyes and ears of the table. Everything that was over my head, which was most everything, was stored away for a later date when I would grow into it and finally understand. What I haven’t gotten better at is dinner conversation.
Dinner at home is fine. We know and love each other well enough to let most of what passes for conversation slide into long, comfortable silence. The difficulty arises upon going out to eat. Eating in a restaurant; OK, a “nice” restaurant, is an intimate experience. The ambience can be anywhere from relaxing to romantic to adventurous. The smells and the visual style of the place, the universally dim lighting, the background music, even the murmur of private conversation going on around you and the secret pleasure of “listening in” occasionally, all pile up conspiratorially toward a goal of not just making you hungry but of making you open - sensually. Add a couple of drinks and the table is set, so to speak. But (this where the but comes in as well as the food) regardless of the ambience and the fantastic meal you’re just now beginning to dig into and all this openness you’ve just succumbed to (or maybe because of it), you suddenly become keenly aware that there, sitting approximately 30 - 36 inches opposite of you is your table-mate. Face to face. Eyeball to eyeball. Masticating mouth to Masticating mouth. Have you ever seen a photo of yourself taken while you were in the act of chewing? Did you think you looked pretty good? I didn’t think so. Now (gulp) start talking. Its part of the experience. Or should be …but…conversation, good conversation, is an art. For some it’s a performance. For some it comes naturally. For others its like pulling porcupine quills from your dogs nose - from the dogs perspective.
I have been highly entertained by various dinner companions but always with some guilt because the river always flowed in one direction. Its not something I’m proud of - my lack of ability in this area. I’m not stoic or morose. I’m not bound to silence by any sense of machismo. I am there. I have tried. Its just one of those things, one of those unchangeable things in my nature. Its called baggage. We all have either some, or too much. This is mine. I shut up. I eat. I am the eyes and ears of the table. Someday I will finally understand.