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facts & arguments

Katy Lemay/The Globe and Mail

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It begins with fresh figs and Gorgonzola on little toasties. A glass of red.

It seems we have a lot in common: Ralph and Patricia, fellow dinner guests at the home of my neighbours, share a fondness for a cup of tea and a newspaper on Sunday mornings; a dislike of our current Prime Minister; a stint in India. We are all graduates of the University of British Columbia.

It's time for the asparagus soup. Another glass of wine. My neighbours casually mention that Ralph is an astrophysicist (I sort of know what that means). "I study how stars and planets form," Ralph says.

I spill a drop of soup on my lap. I ask, "Is it true we're made of stardust? Was Joni Mitchell right?"

Ralph laughs – an honest-to-goodness laugh. "Yes," he says, "Joni was right."

I tell him about the first-year astronomy class I took at UBC (Exploring the Universe). I drink more wine. The discussion moves on to dark matter, telescopes in the Andes, a thing called the Large Hadron Collider. I interrupt to quote my UBC teacher: "Imagine the Earth the size of a grape and the sun a grapefruit." I drink more wine.

I paraphrase an essay I wrote about the challenges of learning about the workings of the universe then going to serve skim-milk lattes at Fiddlehead Joe's. Ralph laughs again. "I'd like to read that," he says. And I think he really means it. I go to the washroom and examine my reflection in the mirror. I have one of those red-wine stains in the middle of my upper lip. My neck is blotchy. I'm flushed with all the nervous energy of the universe, and I don't even know the truth about Ralph. I will discover this the next day, while hung over and on a Google fact-finding mission.

Yes, we both graduated from UBC, except that Ralph got a PhD and went on to postdoctoral fellowships in places such as Cambridge and Berkeley and did stints at Johns Hopkins University and the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy. Not only does he study how stars and planets form, he founded a research centre. He gives lectures called From First Stars to First Life. He asks (and even tries to answer): Why are we here? Are we alone?

I've always hated the what-do-you-do question, and now I know why. It's because some day you'll have dinner with an astrophysicist and feel like an idiot the day after. It would be easier if the astrophysicist was arrogant, but he wasn't. He looked me in the eye. He was kind and gracious, not to mention dapper in his tailored, subtly-checked shirt and silver-grey mane.

You are what you eat, they say. But are we also what we do? I hope not.

"I'm a waitress," I would answer for many years. Or "a tree planter."

"Oh," people would say, and I could feel them sizing me up. I didn't imagine this. I felt it physically, from the tips of my toes to my flushed cheeks, the trajectory of their appraising glances.

People really liked it when I said, "I'm a potter." And now, when I say "I'm a writer" (even though I can't earn enough to make a living and rely on grants and an assortment of odd jobs), they're impressed. "Are you published?" they ask. "Yes." "I'll Google you when I get home!" they exclaim.

When I ran a bed-and-breakfast in Haida Gwaii for six months last year (one of those odd jobs), I made a point of never asking anyone the what-do-you-do question. My feeling was that people were on holiday and could be anyone they wished as guests of the Copper Beech House. Some would stay for a week, and I'd know they talked to themselves in the bathroom or sneaked dark chocolate from the cupboard, but had no idea how they paid their bills.

I grew up in a blue-collar town and was once told by my father: "I don't care what you do, shovel shit if you want." The bar was set low. My parents have always been proud of me, regardless of the assortment of jobs I've done in order to live and travel. They are also proud of my two older brothers, one who mixes paint in a factory, the other a supervisor at a nuclear power plant.

If you come visit (and all of you are welcome), my parents will treat you like family. They'll offer food and drink. They won't clean the house first or get dressed up. This may come from their rural Ontarian upbringing in the middle of the last century, a time when it was rude to talk about money or accomplishments.

My parents would really like Ralph. He would never make anyone feel like an idiot (I'm the one who's good at that). For someone who studies the stars, he's completely down to earth. He reminds me that the point is never what you do, but the understanding that we all ask: "Why are we here? Are we alone?" We've been asking for thousands of years. We still just want to make contact – with each another, with the universe. Isn't that our true calling?

"The more you know, the more you know you don't know," Aristotle once said. I am waitress. I am tree planter. I am someone who doesn't know. Let's eat figs and Gorgonzola on little toasties together. Let's stain our lips with wine.

Angela Long lives in Burlington, Ont.