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A Sandwich Board Amid Hors d’Oeuvres

We went to the Richard P. Feynman Memorial Costume Party recently at the home of Marka and Al Hibbs in Pasadena.

“Come dressed as an interesting question,” the invitation read.

My wife went as Sigmund Freud’s question: What does a woman want? Her costume was a white T-shirt on which she had painted the answers: Equal opportunity . . . Good husband . . . Sex . . . Love . . . Furs . . . Jewelry . . . Perfect kids . . . Money . . . Power. (She might as well have written: She wants it all. )

I wanted to go as Jesus, with a crown of thorns and a little placard saying Forsaken . The question being: My God, My God! Why has thou forsaken me? But I felt my appearance as Jesus might be considered presumptuous as well as blasphemous.

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Finally I just painted Nobody on a length of cardboard and hung it around my neck. It was a clue to the question in Emily Dickinson’s poem:

I’m nobody. Who are you?

Are you nobody too?

It was rather an intellectual gathering, including several of Hibbs’ colleagues from Caltech and the Jet Propulsion Lab. At least half a dozen had come as Hamlet’s question: To be or not to be . . . .

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(Feynman, the brilliant Caltech physicist, was conspicuous in his absence. He had died last year of cancer. At a Hibbs costume party two or three years ago, Feynman had appeared in a long robe and long white beard and announced that he was God, a revelation that prompted Hibbs to observe, “We’ve known that all along.”)

Bob Oliver, a Caltech professor of economics, had come as Col. Sanders. The question: Why does a chicken cross the road? Answer, if you asked for it: To get out of the way of Col. Sanders.

Our host and hostess were dressed alike, with large red hearts fore and aft, pierced by arrows. Their question remained a mystery until they joined the combo in the living room and sang “Why do I love you?”

A young woman in a gauzy white gown wore a halo and carried a harp. Is there life after death? Another’s dress was covered with flowers and plants: How does your garden grow? Another wore a Space Cadet skirt and kept popping at the other guests with a ray gun. Her question: Is there intelligent life in Pasadena?

Perhaps the most abstruse question was posed by John Hopfield (his field is a cross between computer science and neural biology) and his wife, Cordelia. She wore strange little objects in her hair. He wore a bathing suit. The question, he said, was “Waves or particles?” a question that had divided science in the 1920s.

Larry Wilson wore a silver crescent moon above his head, and his wife, Phoebe Wall, carried a long tape measure: Easy: How high is the moon?

A young woman wore nothing but a revealing robe and carried a pillow. The question: Do I sleep in the nude? “Do you?” I asked. “Sometimes,” she said, “I forget to take off my earrings.”

I was afraid nobody would ever guess my question. Then I fell into a small group with a man and wife (who were both To Be’s , and a young woman who wore a white suit with rolled-up pants and a painted-on mustache. In her left hand she carried a peach.

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To my surprise, the man blurted out, “Prufrock! ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock!’ ”

“Right!” the young woman cried. Obviously she too had despaired of being identified. She recited the pertinent T. S. Eliot lines:

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. . .

Do I dare to eat a peach?

I shall wear white flannel trousers and walk upon the beach. . .

That mystery solved, she turned on me. “You’re nobody? Wait! ‘I’m nobody. Who are you? Are you nobody too?’ Emily Dickinson.”

She was a whiz. Pat Saboie, an English teacher at Pasadena City College. The man who had guessed her identity was Peter Lissaman, a former Caltech scientist who is now engaged with Paul McCready in building improbable machines.

Gwyneth Feynman, Feynman’s widow, was the cynosure. Everyone wondered what question she would represent. She wore what appeared to be some kind of horn on a cord around her neck. It ended in a sharp point. Her question: What’s the point?

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It was a question that Feynman had been asking all his life.

Everyone missed God.


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