Saturday, March 19, 2005

The Dinner Meeting

Unlike the Prince of Wales, medical oncologists do not have particularly crammed social calendars. To use the analogy, if the Prince's evening engagements are like a vast buffet of exotic culinary creations shimmering on satin-covered tables and glowing beneath candelabras, mine is a baloney sandwich on a paper towel - with no mustard, because I forgot to buy it.

There is one invitation though that if viewed at the correct angle becomes an oasis of earthly delights on an otherwise dreary weeknight. That is the dinner lecture, which is provided absolutely free of charge to any and all practicing doctors who can fill out the R.S.V.P. and find the restaurant - two tasks that laypeople might take for granted, but absent-minded oncologists do not. I rarely attend these lectures, mainly out of consideration to my family, but recently received an invite that contained the two requirements for an evening of pleasure: the topic and the restaurant both were appealing. I therefore scribbled my name on a reply and circled the date on my calendar, while visions of victuals danced in my head.

When I say I don't frequently leave the homestead I mean it has been years since I entered a noisy chophouse on a Tuesday night. I presented myself to the front desk, which was surrounded by a dozen or so young hostesses all dressed in black - combining the twin business concepts of maximum assistance plus chichi attitude. It took four of them to escort me to the "private" room in the back of the place. The clinks and laughter of the paying customers eddied behind me as I walked through the doors. As I surveyed the crowd my smile immediately shifted downward a fraction, like a rock formation preparing to crash into the gorge.

The room was packed with strangers of every shape and size, all boisterously waving glasses about. They all seemed to know each other, and did not exactly turn and applaud as I entered the room. For a brief second I felt as if I should be wearing a fez. The lecture was just about to start so I was unable to find a friend let alone slap any backs. I squeezed into the only seat left in the rows of narrow tables, which was way up front and to the left of the lecturer's screen. As I looked around I recognized only a handful of the attendees. Many of them seemed to be of high-school age, or was it just my wizened visage in comparison? The speaker was introduced and I set my wine glass next to a plate of what appeared to be seaweed dip surrounded by doggy biscuits. The room settled into a sine wave of respectful attention. The lecture began.

Dinner lectures such as these are always sponsored by a pharmaceutical company - no surprise there, since doctors are not known for their legendary check-grabbing let alone paying for their own chow. The speaker always discloses any financial relationship with the company sponsoring the show and then is free to comment on the product as he likes, although it is rare for any lecturer to announce that the featured drug is about as helpful to mankind as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. As our expert began I realized that my viewing angle was quite skewed due to my proximity to the wall - it was like trying to read a billboard while on a merry-go-round. I settled into my salad which was on a plate shaped like an isoceles triangle. This may be the latest trend in china but I found it frustrating and was unable to keep my arugula from sliding onto the tablecloth. I thought of asking for another serving so I could push the two together, making a parallelogram. This might increase my fork-to-mouth ratio.

The lecturer droned on, and after about 45 minutes I sensed that he was only partway through his topic. This is a violation of the dinner meeting, which as any doctor knows should contain a speech of no more than half an hour so that the convival proceedings can resume during the entree, or at least dessert. The faces in the room were still rapt but I sensed an embalming of the ambience as the slides flashed on and on. If there had been a clock in the room its ticking would have echoed off the walls, each second beating out the rhythm that we were all too timid to announce: "dull...dull...dull...."

After ninety minutes - one and a half hours of attempting to decipher slides with abbreviations like CRTX and LVDI the crisis hit me. Two crucial parts of my anatomy cried out for attention, each jostling to be the first to plead their case to me. My keister was killing me, and the wine and water I had consumed had reached their final destination before returning to Mother Earth.

This was going to be trouble because the only way I could sneak out to the restroom was to pass directly in front of the speaker. Surely no guest could be so brazen as to commit such a breach of decorum. As the suprapubic aching increased drops of sweat began to bead about my temples. Just before I reached the point of no return two amazing things happened. First, the doctor on my right got up and walked right in front of our lecturer, using a pace that betrayed any attempt at hiding his intentions. Second, my entree was placed in front of me and for some mysterious reason the salmon I had ordered had turned into a big pile of beef. I don't like beef.

The night air contained just the faintest hint of flowers as I found my car. Spring was late this year and seemed to be just about ready to burst through the manicured gardens and forests of the city. It would be wonderful to once again enjoy the warming of the earth, but as I drove on home I thought of the cooling of my abandoned steak, lying on its plate, surrounded by elbows digging into their dinners. I wondered if the waiters would offer it to the dinner lecturer, for I figured by the time he finally finished his dissertation the restaurant would have long been emptied, with only a forgotten coat or two remaining in the cloak room as a reminder of the evening. Perhaps it is not so bad that only one person gets to be the Prince of Wales. There's something to be said for an early supper, a chapter or two of the latest thriller, and a quick bon voyage to dreamland.


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