Open Letter

Louise Brooks

Immortality, or What is the Meaning of Life?

Outside Temp: -58 C., Over Chicago heading towards Kansas City, 2750 km / 1707 m, Time: 3:35 PM PST, Altitude: 10,700 m / 35000 ft., Land Speed: 744 km/hr / 493 mph

Date: 11 March 1994

Dear Reader,

Our airlines have grown quite sophisticated. In between the usual “entertainment” programming, the screen before me (actually over several rows of heads) provides a well-documented, detailed assessment of my current position in the time-space continuum we lovingly call the Universe. I look on a white symbol of an aircraft floating just west of what I have come to recognize as a graphical representation of Lake Michigan. Different views shuffle by on rotation; progress is marked by distance to the next ATC region (I suspect) marked by “O” while our final destination, in this case San Francisco, is marked by a dot surrounded by a diamond figure. Next flyby, or flyover, Iowa City. Funny, I seem to recall driving this area last June while crossing the States heading east. How much further can this go? Perhaps cameras mounted on our wings giving us a live “feed” of the journey “in progress.”

(6:00 local time)

Reader, can you tell that I am fascinated by this? A technological extravagance perhaps but also enthralling and frightening in an existential sort of way.

My sometimes flight attendant just sauntered by. Actually, she is too tense and thin to saunter. Rather, she stepped, or skipped by, like a sprite. Yet, her dark eyes seem so very bored. I wonder what lies behind… and how might those eyebrows arch? Her appearance reminds me of Louise Brooks: very short black hair, clever ears, close to her head, and an angular jaw accented by sharp tendrils of hair. But her voice betrays a less than inspired spirit. Perhaps it is the circumstance. As Paul Westerberg reminds us, “She aint nothin’ but a waitress in the sky… ah ah uh…” Her utterances are flat, monotone, too nasal maybe. All of her features point to her full mouth, only to emit such disappointment.

Ah, but I digress and I am heavy with an abundance of unfair judgment. What if roles were reversed? One can only guess… (editorial note: Mrs. Doubtfire has begun and a wide body has bumped into my shoulder, struggling down the all too narrow aisle). Getting back to me-as-object-of-perception, I find it disturbing for someone to judge based simply on appearance. Yet, are we not guilty of this all too often? We learn to temper and adjust our first impressions but despite our efforts they continue to influence our thinking (Sally Field actually looks decent in this movie, although I’m beginning to feel a little disoriented without my reassuring altitude and graphical progress registers…)

So where was I? A hard question to answer. Here I sit, still yet moving (very fast I expect) wondering what you are doing there. Across the page, on the other side, you sit reading these words, and I hope coming to some understanding of them. I don’t doubt that you have come to wonder if these meanderings will in fact lead anywhere. Frankly, no guarantee can be offered at this point (which is probably just beginning to peek at the majestic profile of the Rocky Mountains). My hand tires and my bladder swells. A rest is in order. Perhaps you should take in a stray thought or two, nothing too serious. Are you thirsty? Have a drink. If you know where I am right now, call me or perhaps write a quick note.

Definitely sprite-like, and more content than I initially thought. Perhaps her stoic look is a guise. My opinion grows, still without opening one question to her, save: “What kind of enchilada?” and “Do you have mineral water?”

So, how was the respite reader? I hope you took my advice and left these words for a while. While I waited for the vacant light to go on, I spied out a small portal. The sun sets and a sea of clouds race beneath our wings. I was reminded of Wordsworth’s view atop Mount… what was the name of that mountain in his “Prelude”? As I looked on the graying skyscape I thought of you, though I do not yet know your name.

Please don’t take offense. I’ve addressed letters in the past without knowing their content and in this case I want the destination to surface along with the words and thoughts. You see, interestingly enough, you know more at this point than I do (I take it back, Sally Field is looking a little ragged… if only I could hear her voice, a $4.00 privilege). So then, who will have the endurance, the inclination to read further? While most letters carry a tone and structure suited for their intended readers, here such form is undetermined, even undermined. Of course, I do have a couple of ideas.

But let’s get to the point.

As I stretch my neck, feeling that “I’ve been sitting in/on an airplane too long” discomfort, I muse on the not so light-hearted notion of immortality or perhaps less precisely, the meaning of life. Spurred by his book, Language, Thought, and Action, I contemplate Hayakawa’s thoughts on the fundamental use of the verbal world (language) — to learn and cope (often unwittingly) through cooperation with the “life process” that surrounds and infuses us. By using experience and lessons learned by previous generations, we are able to minimize and to some extent eliminate unnecessary repetition. For example, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Instead, we are given moments adding to a lifetime to build upon these past accomplishments and, moreover, to grow as an individual amid many roles: human, woman/man, citizen, politician, son/daughter, lover, sister/brother, Jew, W.A.S.P., Christian, American, bastard, student, teacher, adult, child, working-class, middle-class, upper-class, high-ranking corporate executive or perhaps thin-wristed flight-attendant. The labels proliferate, biased of course, and hopelessly misleading and inaccurate. Whatever the distinction, classification or stereo-type, we move through it, eluding an accurate portrait. Of course, the term growth implies progress but let’s not forget ourselves, this is not always the case. Nonetheless, we are propelled into life and the immediate question arises: What do we do with this… this… meaningful process, fragile balance, gift from God, random circumstance, or (perhaps the most disconcerting possibility of all) null set? How are we to spend it? Endure it? Relish it? Pacify it? Succumb to it, our eyes wide with a look of bewilderment on our flushed faces?

How, reader? When you walk down a street on the hard, stained cement, do your bones glide in stride — a testament to “human grace” — or do they start and stop, uncomfortable with the sinews stretched and sewn in place, awkwardly mastering the instinctual yet all the more exhausting posture that you have inherited? Don’t get me wrong. As I let a draught of refreshing water pass over my thirst, I sense, I feel, I know those poetic steps. But for how long?

Decisions, choices, compromises, sacrifices, seem inevitable. Or should we defiantly throw up our arms and declare the pointlessness of it all? End of story. Of course, that is a choice in itself. The illusory seduction of immortality lies in its promise of the elimination of such concerns. Given life eternal, one turns every stone possible, and then another. Life without end — what an equally enthralling, impossible and horrific concept.

Well, I’ve managed to back myself into an awkward corner. Trials lie ahead. I sense them gathering. Yet, there is no way of knowing to what degree they will matter, to know what consequences will surely follow. Many, many words later where do we find ourselves? Any better off? No less confused surely. Yet, in some innate way, I’ll feel more prepared facing the next turn knowing that you have read these words, these translated, bumpy thoughts. As fleeting, temporary and fuzzy as these utterances have been, they remain still.