Some years ago I read for a group of senior citizens at a retirement community on the bay in Virginia Beach. I’ve done this at the same place a few times. But that last time was memorable for the activity at dinner before the reading. My host, Bill, and I were eating dinner in the facility restaurant when halfway through the meal a woman at the next table fell out of her chair and died. Or she died and fell out of her chair. Either way, she was dead on the floor just a few feet away, and Bill said, “Oh I hate when everyone stares when this happens! Why can’t they just do what they are doing?!”
Well, to be honest, my first problem was that I was one of the ones who looked perhaps longer than I should. When she first fell, I jumped up, but Bill said to sit, that the medics on staff would be there in seconds, and he was right. They came out of the kitchen faster than a cook answering a complaint. She was a small woman, at least ninety, and her demise seemed more of a prank fall then a heart attack or choking incident. It was almost as if she were already dead, but a few seconds earlier she had been talking to her friend, who I might add, was polite enough not to stare. The friend sat with her hands folded until the paramedics escorted her to a different table. Which leads me to my second problem: It felt very much as if upon moving in everyone had been told: “If you are eating with anyone, and they die, do not help, do not get up. Wait for someone to move you to the next available table.” Even the way Bill immediately protested, “I hate when everyone stares,” implied this happens often, and people usually, rudely of course, gawk at the corpse. Perhaps the exertion necessary to attend dinner or a function pushes some over the mortal edge. I don’t know, but the way the medics immediately arrived with screens to surround the poor woman, and the way everyone else returned to their meals in unison made me believe I did not happen upon an unusual evening at ye ‘ol facility. I had the salmon and Bill had the prime rib. I sipped my wine. Pinot Noir.
After the reading (which continued without comments concerning the corpse and was well attended by quite jovial people) I thought about Bill’s expectation that no one should stare. There was a corpse closer to me than the basket of bread on my table; I stole a glance. I looked longer than I should, and while I’m sure there is some relevant etiquette, I am equally sure no one in the room was looking at me anyway.
When I was a child, probably about eight or nine, my mother taught me two things: look at people when they talk to you, and don’t stare. These are two seemingly contradictory life lessons for a kid; this is a fine line to walk, especially at nine years old. Mom brought me to the library on Long Island to check out books. We stood in the stacks and I asked the librarian a question, and while she answered I looked at the books instead of her. My mother quickly corrected me: “Look at someone when she talks to you, Robert. Look in her eyes when she talks.” I did and obviously I never forgot that lesson. But later that day when I watched a neighbor struggle her way out of her chair, my mother told me not to stare. I was confused. Look but don’t stare. I knew immediately I needed to work on my timing for the proper etiquette. When someone is done talking, a quick glance away to disengage eye contact is necessary, unless you’re hitting on someone and the chemistry is strong, then holding the stare a bit longer allows the other person to know you were staring, blatantly staring, because you couldn’t look away from her beautiful eyes. The problem there, of course, is if you stare too long you are in danger of crossing that line to psychopath. If she does look away you have to figure out if she looked away because she is completely uninterested or because she is afraid of revealing her deep rooted passion to plow over the table at you. Hard call.
Now imagine one of you is dead. The rules change.
It seems staring isn’t the issue as much as being misunderstood. It is an art form. One thing I always admired about my father was his absolute eye contact when he talked to someone. He was not an intimidating man in the least, yet he somehow commanded respect, and I believe it was because of his eyes which so clearly let people know they could trust him. He looked right at you when he talked or when you talked. And he knew when to let it go. He was the master of the look-stare genre. I picked up on some of his ways, but my profession has altered my opinion about the timing of it all.
As a college professor people stare at me all the time, and when I am talking or about to talk, it truly doesn’t bother me. But often, especially on the first day of class before the lecture starts, they just sit there and stare at me. I suppose they’re sizing me up: do I look mean, aggravated, am I an easy A or a piping bastard? But as I watched the years roll past and students have come and gone, they don’t stare as much. Part of it is because they’re looking at their phones; part of it is because the latest vacuous zombie-obsessed generation doesn’t make eye contact at all, I mean, you know, like, ever?
Some people look, some stare, some have a gander, some a look-see, people peak, they glimpse, behold, gaze, and leer; they survey, observe, give the once-over, and keep watch.
Look, I am not so self-conscious that I care what people think when they scrutinize. I just prefer they get their timing down. Personally, I don’t ever want to stop staring. There is too much to see, too many faces to commit to memory. I’m glad I stared a long time at my father’s face, my grandmother’s eyes. I can recall them now upon demand. I can still see a friend’s brown eyes one spring day nearing some gardens where we worked. I can still see another friend’s blue eyes, I mean blue, over chocolate cake. The old axiom is that a person’s eyes are windows to their soul, but I think they’re transoms to my own life, my own fears and loves and longings.
“Look at people,” my mother said. Absolutely. Like the time a college friend, Lori Baum, and I were at the mall when we saw an old professor from the classics department, where she worked. His wife stopped him and straightened his tie, and when she was done, she pat his chest, and his eyes opened wide and he smiled so that I remember it now, forty years on. Lori grabbed my arm and said, “Did you see his eyes?!?” I did. I still do.
The time two friends from high school whom I hadn’t seen in thirty five years showed up at a reading, and when I looked out across my pages and saw their eyes, I felt seventeen, instantly.
I sit in the room before class and not only is no one making eye contact, they’re not even talking. Everyone—I mean everyone—spends those pre-lecture moments on their phones, and I wonder who is sitting next to someone that might change their life, change their plans for the weekend. It just might be the easiest thing we can do to bring peace wherever we go—to look into someone’s eyes.
Hang on: This is science here:
When you look someone directly in the eyes, their body produces a chemical called phenylethylamine. This wonder drug we can generate with a blink acts as a central nervous system stimulant, it stimulates the mind enough to encourage us to try new things and is a wonder-element at lifting us out of depression.
It does not, however, raise the dead, no matter how long you stare.
I wish, oh, I wish I had made more eye contact, held the stare a bit longer, let go a little sooner, maybe understood better that, as Einstein said, he who can no longer pause in wonder and stand rapt in awe is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.