Cast of Characters-
Nick Jaina: A writer, singer, thinker, composer, graphic designer, traveler, guitarist, trumpeter, pianist, flautist, and producer from New Orleans, New York, San Francisco, Sacramento and Portland, Oregon. He is dressed in a black, wrinkled blazer, a black t-shirt, black and wrinkled pants and some beat up black shoes that have seen their share of miles. The frames of his glasses are also black. He checks his iPhone a lot.
Nathan Langston: A writer, singer, thinker, composer, poet, scavenger hunt producer, married man, violinist, from Portland, Oregon, who now lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is dressed in a tight white shirt with the Death tarot card printed on the front, blue shorts and some beat up flip-flops that have seen their share of miles. His hair is a greasy mess. He loses things very easily.
[Nathan is, expectedly, the last person to arrive at the La Guardia Airport terminal. The Satellite Ballet and Collective is traveling from New York to Fremont, Michigan to workshop two new works.]
[Nathan finds a number of the ballerinas (in street wear, of course) reading Cosmopolitan and laughing about tips on how to be a confident woman because most of the tips are totally absurd. The choreographer is paging through an issue of Bon Appétit. Nick is checking his iPhone. When Nathan appears, there is some amount of disappointment.]
Nick Jaina: Aw. We took bets. I bet that you were going to do some crazy gesture when you saw us or raise the roof or something.
Nathan Langston: Oh! Haha. Sorry to let you down man. Hopefully, you didn’t lose the rights to all of your albums just then.
[The man with the microphone announces boarding and everyone lines up. Nathan asks Nick for a pen as he plans on getting some writing done on the plane. Nick, reluctantly agrees but says that Nathan must be careful as it’s his best pen. Although it is still early, out the door, walking out toward the tarmac toward the small plane, it is already extremely hot. Somehow, in the 30 feet to the airplane, Nathan loses the pen. He searches the tarmac and the baggage cart to no avail.]
[On the small airplane, Nick and Nathan take their adjacent seats. The worst possible smooth jazz is playing over the speakers. The choreographer texts Nick and Nathan that ‘This is exactly how the next ballet should sound!’ Safety announcements are made, the cabin door is closed, the plane rumbles down the runway and lifts off. Below, perfectly visible, is the island of Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty, the enormous swath of green that is Central Park.]
Nathan Langston: Did I tell you that I’m starting a blog about death?
Nick Jaina: Yes. How’s it been going?
NL: Well, I just started it. But I think it’s an almost limitless subject, a sort of Rorschach test for all time. I don’t want it to be super morbid or dark or anything but I feel like there’s so many angles on it. When people think about death, they’re confronting the unknown.
I mean… do you… or… what do you think happens when you die? Do you believe in an afterlife and all that?
NJ: I’ve been thinking lately about this idea of a series of eddies. I mean, like an eddy in a river, when a speck of dust or something is riding along the water, and it swirls around in a little whirlpool for a second, and then it moves on.
NL: A speck of dust? Nick we need to work on your self-esteem, buddy.
NJ: [unperturbed] …And if that swirl lasts a little longer, and more specks get involved, it starts to become a little system. And an order just sort of naturally happens, and it forms a border around it, and everything has its little place. And if you think of that not just in the water, but in the universe, of little objects getting caught in a swirl of energy, I think that’s how life started.
NL: No stork? No diamond under a cabbage leaf?
NJ: And all these cycles that just coalesce and naturally form systems, if you give that a billion years, some of the stronger ones gather together in stronger ones, and that’s how you have cells, and that’s how cells build life. And it’s like a fractal, where at any scale you can see these little eddies swirling around, making what we call life, and ruling our world in small and large ways.
NL: That’s sort of like-
NJ: Wait, I’m not quite done.
NL: Oh shit, sorry. Go!
NJ: …So I think that after such a delicate, almost imperceptible start to life, there is not this preciousness to the significance of what death would be. Certainly there is a clear moment when someone dies, but it’s more that the integrity of the eddy is broken, and begins to dissipate. It happens slowly and subtly, and the body still remains, but eventually that breaks up too. And after thinking of all these religious conceptions of what the afterlife is like– I mean, they all just start to feel like comforting bedtime stories to not upset our egos. Which is totally understandable and fine, but it doesn’t make them true. Just because we have complex brains telling us how amazing and separate from the world we are doesn’t mean that our brain is right. It’s just another swirl of energy protecting itself.
NL: [Nods] Mmm. That’s really pretty. Have you ever heard of a prophet and philosopher by the name of Obi Wan Kenobi?
NJ: Well, since Star Wars is really the only work of “literature” you’ve ever-
NL: -No I mean it, that’s very beautiful. But wait, what do you mean by “not to upset our egos?” You mean our ideas of the afterlife are trying to protect our concept of ‘self?’ I guess I don’t… I mean… What do you mean by that?
NJ: I mean that it’s very important to think of ourselves as unique and enduring and infinite.
NJ: Our brains tell us that we can keep expanding and growing forever, but our bodies tell us different. We want to believe that there is more to us than chemical reactions. I want to believe that too. I DO believe that. But I don’t believe that this life force would be so personal and retain our ego.
NL: Nick, you do know that my ego is too big to ever “stop existing,” right?
NJ: [smiles] Like the idea that after you die you sit on a cloud reunited with your grandparents and everyone you ever loved– it just feels like a comforting story to keep children from crying.
The ego evolved over millions of years, but I just don’t think that it would endure into an afterlife. That’s hard for anyone to accept, but I’m more comforted by the idea of matter and energy dissipating and reforming than by the idea of my soul lasting for eternity. The only thing that really freaks me out is if I deeply consider the concept of something lasting forever. Do you ever think about eternity, and what that would really be like?
NL: Okay, one, you talk about sitting on a cloud as being a spectacular fantasy but we are both literally sitting on chairs in the sky, moving forward at 700 miles per hour at this very moment. Our bodies are in the clouds. While we as humans always had tons of stories about humans flying, like Icarus, we didn’t have the science to make it happen. Yet those “fairy tales” were with us and spurred our imaginations to create a reality in which the clouds are now actually, physically, passing below our bodies.
[Gestures to the rotund landscape of clouds scrolling by the small window]
Look at that man! It’s a miracle! We’re flying! Hahaha!
NJ: Did you hear the Louis C.K. thing where he makes fun of people who complain about airport delays and he says to them, “yes, but did you then magically fly through the air? Did you get to your destination in two hours when it would have previously taken six months?”
NL: [Laughs] That is awesome. So yeah! Flying was “impossible” but now it’s hard to imagine life any other way because of the stories that made it possible.
In fact, those stories we tell ourselves -and the ego is basically a bunch of stories we tell ourselves about who and why we are who we are- oftentimes manifest themselves in reality. While we couldn’t prove that we could fly with science, we had the story of human flight as though the story was telling us that it was still a possibility. Think Jules Verne. Think Leonardo Da Vinci. Think Ghandi. Think Jesus. The real airplane came from the (made up and yet prophetic) story of human beings flying around magically. The stories were trying to tell us something was real before we knew it was possible. Now our bodies are held aloft in the sky by a story!
And two… damnit… um…
[Nathan stares off into space.]
NJ: Was it about how you lost my pen in less than two minutes? I think that’s the record.
NL: I’ll get you another pen, but no. I had both a two and a three… Oh yeah! Two! Science and reason can tell us nothing about what happens after death because there’s no way to use our senses and observations to test theories. After-death is perfectly unknown to us. So going through the pearly gates and walking around on streets of gold with angels and our dead loved ones in the clouds is (logically) just as likely as our ego and sense of self dissipating in a swirl of molecules in the river. One is more post-modern than the other. But each story is equally unproven and unprovable.
NJ: I don’t like the way you derisively said “post-modern” just now.
NL: Third, thinking about eternity -which is what you originally asked about- totally breaks my stupid mind and I can only ever do it for, like, three minutes at a time before I start to freak out. But you remember when we were on tour in… Utah? Yeah, it was Utah and we were going to play that Kilby Court place in Salt Lake City where we drank the 2% beer and had to be “sponsored” by a local to get into a bar…
NJ: And the streets are wide enough for the return of God’s chariots.
NL: Seriously, why are the streets there that wide? That can’t be the real reason. Anyhow, we heard that rad Radio Lab radio show in which the host interviewed one of the smartest astrophysicists on the planet. Actually, now that I think of it, he probably would totally be into your beautiful metaphor. BUT THAT guy thinks about eternity all of the time, pun intended, and it’s his JOB!! He gets paid and buys his groceries because he contemplates the implications of eternity!! Hahaha! Bizarre!
[Nathan makes a farting sound and a gesture with his hands which is meant to show his head exploding.]
So that genius science guy was talking about what it meant mathematically to consider FOREVER. He said (amongst a whole bunch of incomprehensible science-y gobbeltygook) that if you assume a finite number of molecules in the universe, which is the best explanation of the universe currently, here’s what happens. Scientifically, mathematically, the implication of forever means that if you travel in a single direction without end, you will come upon the exact arrangement of molecules that exists here and now. In that “galaxy far, far away,” –
NJ: Star Wars again? Really?
NL: -you will be the exact same person having the exact same thoughts and the exact same “soul.” Well, he didn’t say “soul” because he’s a scientist and they don’t say stuff like that. But that means that, once you die, you will, somewhere, still be sitting next to me on this airplane having this exact same conversation. In fact, every possible configuration of these molecules that constitute the universe (and us) exist in reality. Scientifically, mathematically, that sounds like some sort of afterlife. The eddy, as you put it, comes together in every possible way, over and over and over forever. And I can still only think about it for a couple of minutes.
NJ: Two entire minutes?
NL: But I’m sort of playing the devil’s advocate, which I do too much, especially this early in the morning when I haven’t had enough coffee. So let’s assume for a sec that your very beautiful, harmonious and totally unprovable vision of the eddy in the river is how it actually goes down when we die. What about that philosophy is helpful to us while we’re still alive in the eddy? Why would it be useful to think that our sense of self is not fixed? Do you think it makes us feel like more of a part and participant in the universe rather than a separate element? Let’s say, if I were to buy into your story, do you think that considering death as “rejoining the current” would help me live my life better?
[Nathan and Nick are briefly distracted by some very loud laughter from the ballet dancers in the back of the plane.]
NL: Wow, they are having a real time of it back there, aren’t they?
NJ: It’s like Snakes on a Plane, but with Ballet Dancers.
NL: It’s cause they’re all hopped up on that Neurogasm drink.
NJ: People actually drink that?
NL: Oh yeah, they drink the heck out it. But no, what do you think?
NJ: People are always so interested in things being “provable.” Like, that they want to know if God really exists, or if Jesus was His son or if the Jews have it the right way. I’ve just let go of the idea of anything being provable. Because what does that get you? People deny facts all the time, and other people believe in impossible things. Ultimately everything is a story that we tell ourselves. YOU are just a story.
NL: I’m a New York Times bestseller.
NJ: You feel pretty good about that joke, huh? A nice little, funny joke? A little chuckle?
NL: Sorry. Go.
NJ: You could, if you wanted, get off this plane, leave your current life, run away and do something totally different, part your hair a different way, be a different person. The things that coalesce and make us a person are these hormones and chemicals swirling around our brains, all these bacteria hanging out in our intestines, and the story of us is based on repeated actions over our lives. For almost everybody, your story will continue beyond the moment when your physical body dies. For some people it seems to go on forever. Will people ever FORGET about Jesus Christ, the person? It seems unlikely. Does that make him immortal? Kind of. Does that PROVE that he’s divine? Maybe.
I just don’t know why the actual truth of things really matters, or even if there is an actual truth. It’s like if some writer from Rolling Stone says, “Here it is, the absolute best album in the history of recorded music…” And it’s an album that makes me go, “Eh, I listened to a bit of that once. Not my thing.” And my absolute favorite album of all time doesn’t even make their top 500 list. And yet, this album saved my life multiple times, it truly shaped me as a person. Do I need proof that my favorite album is valid, or the best? What does it matter? It’s all just a story that’s personal to me.
NL: The best album of all time is Graceland, by Paul Simon.
NJ: No. That’s not even Paul Simon’s best album.
[Nathan shakes his head in pity.]
NJ: Listening to music feels like religion in that it seems like if you really believe in something, you have to advocate for it and convince everyone else to feel the same way. That’s such an unnatural and unsatisfying thing to do. And the people who do it have the best of intentions, but you can never convince someone to feel a certain way. I recently have decided to stop questioning those things in myself. If I feel them, then they are true. No one else has to agree or feel the same way. We all have an ecosystem of bacteria similar to the Amazon rainforest in our guts, a completely different mix of them in each person, and each little guy pulls us in different directions in ways that directly affect our moods.
NL: Man, you bring up the bacteria in your guts almost as much as I bring up Star Wars.
NJ: How could all the humans on the planet ever all feel exactly the same way about something? There are these tiny little eddies swirling around inside of us, and these enormous eddies outside of us that we’re caught up in, and the best way forward is to just stop trying to control everything, or prove everything, and just submit to the idea that you’re doing the best to collect shiny objects in your little nest of the world so that you can carve out a personality. I don’t mean that to sound limiting. To me it’s liberating.
[They sit in silence for a few moments. The engine whines outside the window.]
NL: So what I take away from all of that is this is that you think I should part my hair on the other side?
NJ: You can’t part your hair. It’s like a falcon’s nest.
NL: Falcon’s don’t make nests.
NJ: I think you need to wash your hair.
NL: ANYHOW! Maybe we’re just totally post-modern fellows, and I am using the word correctly, but I don’t care all that much about what is objectively, provably true either. In fact, just the opposite. I’m interested in death and most of the stories about it because NOTHING about it can be proven except that it is going to happen. It’s all stories and paintings and theories and faith and hopes and fears and dreams. Death is the wall that all reason runs into.
What I want to know though is, if you really believe in the story of the eddies and think of yourself as an eddy containing eddies and residing within eddies, which is, again, a gorgeous concept, how do you think that makes you live a better life? How do you think it might make you a better person? Oh, and I’m not asking you to try and convince me. I’m just honestly curious because you’re one of my best pals and I want to know what you think about it.
[The pilot comes on the intercom to announce that the plane is entering a brief pocket of turbulence and that he is turning on the fasten seat belts sign.]
NJ: I think it’s like the Buddhist saying: “Let go, or be dragged.” Just being aware of how carried along you are on this adventure is the only power you can really have. All you have left is that space in the moment where everything is alive.
The duende. Did I tell you about that show I played a month ago? I decided that instead of worrying about chords or notes or whether someone in my band would screw up, I just focused on expressing the joy of the moment. And right before we were about to soundcheck, we went outside on the patio and the light looked weird and everyone was looking up at the sky. And we looked up at the sky and there was a solar eclipse! The clouds were covering it just enough that you could look directly at it. And then we walked in and started to soundcheck and ol’ Sean Flinn just happened to walk by with his guitar on his back, so I asked him if he wanted to play with us. And the show just fell together, I didn’t care about mistakes or anything other than uniting the room with joy. Afterwards everyone expressed to me how special it felt, how they wished all their friends were there.
NL: Haha! Sean Flinn is great! I miss that guy.
NJ: So, it’s just trying to get to that duende moment that you’ve always been talking about, where you let go of all your reservations and realize that one day you’re going to die. Because, you’re going to die. YOU ARE GOING TO DIE.
NL: Dude! Don’t say that so loud on an airplane! You’re spooking the cattle! That lady up there looked like she was about to pee herself!
NJ: An airplane is probably not the best place to discuss death.
NL: All said, good points man. You know I’ve been obsessed with the Duende for like, 10 years now and felt that, especially in regard to playing violin, it’s always right there on the tips of my fingers. That’s what makes performing in the moment, on the edge of the knife, when every note is so perfectly singular and unrepeatable, so thrilling and inspiring and dangerous, as opposed to recording when you get to do take after take to make it perfect. Perfection is so overrated and boring and unalive. When you realize you’re mortal and that everything about “you” is so fragile and temporary, moments take on such meaning and urgency. That’s why I’d get up on the bar in New Orleans to play or kick over a beer can in San Francisco or holler out suddenly in the moment. Not because I thought about it carefully but it just occurred to me at that second through the music, oftentimes YOUR music.
But be careful man. Duende is a mischievous, totally combustible force, uncontrollable. So what I’m saying is: a very inspiring friend to tour with but a really bad roommate, if you get my meaning.
NL: As for that Buddhist saying, I feel that it has a lot of truth and beauty — are they the same like Keats said? But there seems like there’s also a troubling pill in there somewhere, something hard to swallow, something that I usually hear from science-y folks who love proofs, people who love causality.
Causality is the very reasonable, common sense basis of logic and science that says: one thing causes another, that everything is caused by something else. Makes sense yeah? And the thing that causes the first thing to happen is caused by something that came before it. And so on, backward (and forward) forever. This is sounding like your river that caused the eddy, which is your life.
Here’s the problem I have with that. If everything is perfectly explainable by way of cause and effect, if we are just a bag of chemicals interacting without will according to predetermined laws, if our only freedom, as you say, is “being aware of how we’re carried along,” you and most scientists are basically saying that free will and choice are illusions, tricks our brain is playing on us. Right?
NJ: … Kind of but…
NL: If I were to murder everyone around us- oh man, hahaha, I should talk quieter!, this would not be my choice, it would simply be a manifestation of everything that came before me and there is no reason that I [whispered super low] should not kill everyone on this plane. Why would I feel bad about that? There is no free will, no choice, I am not a man, I am as blameless in my reckless violence as a force of nature like a Tsunami or an earthquake.
The nice thing about it would be that my heart could be completely unburdened about any time I ever acted like a dick to you. The bad thing is that, without a belief in my self-possessed and willful ego, a lot of the meaning, a lot of the preciousness of my actions seems to go out the window.
So if I were to say, which I completely mean, that ‘I am so thankful to be sitting next to you on this plane while we are both alive to enjoy this conversation,’ it wouldn’t be me, Nathan, saying it. It would be that the chemical compounds that compose me were forcing me to say it. That is not a very beautiful way to look at my very real gratitude for this interaction of ours.
NJ: Yeah, I’m glad we got seats together.
NL: Me too pal. But… I mean, don’t you worry that, by depriving yourself of a sense of agency and selfhood, you’re throwing some really precious parts of existence out with the bathwater?
NJ: [Thinks for a sec and then shakes his head] No. That’s being extreme about it. A friend who was really into astrology used to say, “The stars IMpel, they do not COMpel.” That is to say, there are large forces carrying us along that we can’t drastically change. I can’t move our planet to another solar system. I can’t change the problem of health care. I can’t even convince you to do anything other than hand me an Altoid. That’s not the point.
NL: I’m all out of Altoids so you can’t even convince me of that! I imagine Paul Simon singing, “We ate the last one an hour agoooooo!”
NJ: It’s like saying there’s no purpose to playing poker, because the cards are dealt and you have no control over that. But you have control over how you play them, about what impression your give off of what cards you have. You play those cards and that’s what your life becomes.
NL: Are you about to sing “Know When to Hold Em?”
NJ: There are a lot of things about your personality that were pretty much certain to happen given where and when you were born. You would grow up believing in a Christian God. You’d have a pretty good American education. You’d be influenced by the popular culture of the era.
NL: Especially Star Wars.
NJ: Seriously, dude. Stop with the Star Wars.
NL: I can’t. I have a problem.
NJ: …A lot of those macro forces have shaped you into someone different than a person who grew up in Persia five hundred years ago. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t have the freedom to poke me in the shoulder right now, or go off and murder someone. To say that you are swept along on a great tide doesn’t mean that everything is chaos and that you’re just a soul-less husk of a being.
In fact, it’s the opposite. The whole purpose to life is to put magic into everything that you possibly can. That’s what I think the duende is all about: allowing magic to happen. Like you said, you can’t force it, and as soon as you start depending on it, or think that you’ve figured it out, it leaves you. That’s why we’re not in control. But we can still gather up our shiny objects in our little eddy and cultivate a personality and an art to our lives.
[Nick looks around the cabin.]
Do they serve drinks on this flight? I always think it’s funny that no matter how short a flight, there is an understood need that we must consume a beverage in that time. I was on a half-hour flight once from New York to Baltimore, and they raced around with the beverage cart even as we were landing.
NL: There is totally a drink service on this flight. I checked. And we expect it, nay, demand it because it is our birthright as citizens of the sky!
NJ: Anyway, I know you’re being a devil’s advocate, but don’t you think you have full control over your life, and yet in a larger sense, you couldn’t have really escaped so much of who you are?
NL: While I’m not much one for astrology, and am pretty creeped out by the idea of being “fated,” of course I totally agree with you man. As is the case with almost any dialectic conversation, the answer is always somewhere in the middle, both contraries superimposed on top of one another. It reminds me of a quote from one of my favorite books, “The Glass Bead Game,” in which the main character’s teacher says: “Our mission is to recognize contraries for what they are: first of all as contraries but then as opposite poles of a unity.”
NJ: That’s cool.
NL: So we’re willful, self-contained individuals with free will and choice and simultaneously swept along in a larger river that we do not control, coming from one unknown and going to another, from one forever to the next. Sometimes, it’s best to think that you are in control, that you have the power to decide and choose the best course of action. When I make a choice to call my mom to have a chat, she feels good about it because she knew that I thought about her and then decided to pick up the phone.
PS- I need to call my mom.
Sometimes though, it’s best to realize that there are huge parts of life and the universe (most of it actually) in which we are not in control, times when it’s best to let go and experience the river in a state of grace. Confronting an unknown as vast as death, it’s probably a good time to try to make peace with how small we are. Que Sera Sera.
[Both Nick and Nathan fall silent, each in their own thoughts. The drink cart rattles by. A ballerina laughs a high glissando somewhere in the distance. Nathan looks out the window at the wing and the engine and the land passing far below.]
NL: Hey is that Cleveland below us? Dang, this was a short plane ride. Didn’t you and the band once go to a baseball game in that stadium down there?