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Jewish World Review / Dec. 8, 1998 /19 Kislev, 5759

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg Sentences at an airport

CHICAGO -- I am reading an article about Franz Kafka while the sun streams through the windows of Gate A2 at Midway Airport. Perfect. Is anything more like Kafka's "The Castle'' than passing the time in one of the innumerable holding pens of a postmodern airport?

Are there any sadder faces than Americans waiting listlessly for their flight? My fellow passengers have the look of people who have put their lives on hold and entered a voluntary limbo in which they age without living. Americans are used to freedom, self-assertion, doing the driving. In a waiting room we don't quite know what to do with ourselves.

At least in a doctor's anteroom we can worry, which someone once defined as repeating the same thought over and over again without doing anything about it. Here we read, we talk, we look bored, we mill about, we stew.

Me, I am content. For I am relieved of all decisions, like a commander after a debacle. The sentences never flow so easily across the yellow legal pad as in airports when there is nothing -- nothing -- else to do. The writing becomes automatic. One sentence follows another as naturally as thought. The result may be surreal, but it's effortless.

I am looking at a winged heart on the wall circled by SOUTHWEST AIRLINES. It is bright, cheery, silent and perfectly immobile. The passengers come and go, but the wings never flap. For such a dynamic symbol, its even lines are remarkably restful to gaze upon, like a hypnotist's watch. Lining up to check in, sitting down to and generally being reduced to cargo may come as close to transcendental meditation as Americans are permitted. The trick is to think of oneself as a suitcase, maybe a spiffy Gladstone bag, and let the mind take a mini-vacation.

But like all vacations, this one draws to a close. The experience of waiting, as any social scientist would put it, is impacting me as my plane arrives, deplaning other passengers. Now there's a sentence almost teutonic, or at least deconstructionist, in its opaqueness.

How many ugly terms can you pack into one sentence, as you would cram a suitcase full? In just that one, there is the confused concept of "social scientists,'' ``impact'' as a verb, "deplane'' as an alleged word. ... There is no end to this game. And don't forget Deconstructionist, another verbal blot.

Do you think there's a future for a version of Scrabble in which only ungainly words would be allowed? Think of the arguments over just which non-words, neo-words and nouns-as-verbs would be permitted. Newspaper headlines and articles in journals of sociology would prove a rich source of material. ("Mishap kills five ... Probe finds eight guilty ... Postmodernism as Deviant Behavior: Has It Been Defined Down?'')

The cattle call to the Southwest gate has begun. In some ways the madding crowd beats the long, decorous lines of passengers at older, more respectable airlines. Southwest has discovered the Russian way of boarding aircraft: Mill around in clumps, then rush on and choose your seat in a cloud of flying elbows. Only the chickens and melons are missing.

This way is more honest. There is less disguising the fact that for some inexplicable reason, one has agreed to be crammed into a small, jet-powered missile and be shot through the air to St. Louis, Missouri, and points south and west. But given a seat to wait in, a book and time, that minor detail fades and the mind goes as blank as an idle computer screen.

The realization sets in that there is nothing I can do to make the plane arrive quicker or leave earlier. For a blessed interval, I am no longer in control. Or rather the illusion of being in control has abated.

It occurs that chesspieces must be quite happy except when under the illusion that they make their own moves. Then they get to feeling responsible, terribly responsible, probably guilt-wracked. But airports regularly make it clear that no one is in control. It might be said that Kafka thought of the world as one big airport. And he was not amused, or amusing.

Is that the difference between Kafka and Gogol? They both may be absurd, but Gogol knows it and laughs. And is that the difference between the Germanic and Russian cast of mind? And why am I drifting away from the article about Kafka to thoughts of Gogol? It must be the effect of leaving the driving to Southwest. The mind begins to wander free as a cat. Who needs a Kafka when you can be your own?

They've called my flight, and I realize I'm missing something. It's not in my pockets. No, not in my jacket or briefcase. I'm sure I had it when I got out of the cab. No, it's not on the seat beside me. Or under it.

I look around, and there it is, standing at the check-in counter: my ear. My right ear, to be exact. The left one is still firmly attached and sending the usual cacophony of signals. All I have in place of the right is an empty space, flat as a flapjack. And a certain sense of peace on my right side.

"Excuse me,'' I say, approaching the errant appendage. "But are you aware you've deserted your post?''

The ear says nothing but only turns itself to the attendant, as if it can't hear. Which is ridiculous.

"I say,'' I repeat myself, "you really need to join the rest of me back in my seat.''

The ear does nothing but accept a separate boarding pass. No. 40, to be exact, which puts it in the second drove of passengers and considerably behind me. For a mad moment I consider offering to save it a seat once I'm aboard. So we could talk about this, or at least so it could listen.

"Have you forgotten your place?'' I ask "What is the meaning of this?''

"I have no idea what you're talking about,'' the ear adds, turning itself toward me at last.

"It is always a pleasure to meet a reader,'' I say, for that is what they all say. ``And I promise to stop using all those big words,'' which is what I always say.

In return, the ear promises to rejoin me as soon as I awaken from my surreal lull, which lacks only illustrations by Salvador Dali.

"Why did you leave?'' I demand to know, like a querulous lover who thinks he can argue someone into an attachment.

"Absolute nonsense happens in the world,'' the ear observes. It is a proposition I am in no position to contest at the moment. It may be the one sensible assertion in this column. Naturally it is not mine, but Nikolai Gogol's.

And it is irrefutable.

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©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate