For whatever reason, sometimes a line from a song or movie will really stay with us. And sometimes it’s hard to explain why. Content, context, and delivery probably have a lot to do with it, I’m sure. But that’s rarely the whole story. Sometimes we just relate. We connect. We ascribe meaning, even when we can’t actually put our finger on what exactly it is. That’s where this all begins—with that kind of line.
Up in the Air is a perfectly adequate film.1 Ryan Bingham is a “career transition counselor,” which is a polite way of saying he fires people. He spends most of his time figuratively “on the road,” but literally “up in the air,” as he flies around the country doing the dirty work upper management no longer seems to have the stomach for. But “up in the air” is also a statement about Ryan’s personal life. His continuous travel comes at the expense of keeping in touch with his family and developing real relationships.2 In fact, it appears that Ryan’s only ambition in life is to earn 10 million frequent flier miles, a feat achieved by only six people before him.
As the plot develops, Ryan slowly begins to appreciate the void that his profession is creating. The climax of his realization—the encounter that catalyzes in him a desire to ground his distant, detached lifestyle—comes mid-flight, in the skies somewhere over Duque, when he finally reaches the 10-million-mile goal. The airline’s chief pilot comes out of the cockpit to congratulate him. Ryan has played out this moment in his head countless times, but he’s at a loss for words. Attempting small talk, the pilot asks, “So, where you from?” After the question lingers for a second, Ryan softly replies, “I’m from here.”
While answering perhaps the most banal, icebreaker-type question, Ryan managed to sound cryptic and introspective and a bit like a weirdo, which is not usually what we aim for when we field the same question from strangers in our day-to-day lives. But I have always felt cosmically entangled with what Ryan was trying to say for reasons I could not explain. (“Sometimes we just relate.”)
It seems painfully obvious to me now, but I eventually discovered that the profundity of Ryan’s answer is not just about fromness, it’s about timing and circumstance. With the right amount of situational overlap—when our answer becomes Ryan’s—the question can really jerk us out of neutral.
I’ll get to my own encounter with the question later. Indeed, for purposes of narrative, telling this story out of order more aptly reflects what unraveling this mystery was like for me. But I can say now that, in the aftermath, the parallels I began to draw to the experiences of others solidified my conclusion that “being from here” can push you in a direction that is anything but. And the most obvious parallel ran with Steve.
Steve was born and raised in the suburbs of Houston with a last name that is ethnically Cajun. Growing up, he spent a lot of time at his grandparents’ house in Louisiana, where he fell in love with the state and his Acadian French heritage. While Steve never had trouble fitting in back in Texas, he never really felt at home there either. And so he ultimately ended up at LSU, where we became close friends.
I’ve known Steve for the better part of a decade, and I’ve heard him field the question more times than probably any other person. And in the last eight years, his response hasn’t changed. Not even once. “Well, I grew up in Houston, but with a last name like mine, I got here as quick as I could.”
Steve’s answer shouldn’t be taken to mean that he hates Texas. He doesn’t. His upbringing is part of who he is. But somewhere along the way, Steve realized that being from Texas did not make him special.3 But being in Louisiana did. Though he’ll never stand out on the census here, Steve gains enormous self-actualization from living in a state, settled by his forbears, which has a unique cultural heritage known the world over. And that’s something Steve has always wanted to be a part of, to proselytize, and to preserve.
I, on the other hand, did grow up in Louisiana. Even though I have an immense appreciation for where I was raised (partly as a result of Steve’s influence), I have never been able to escape my grass-is-always-greener mentality. I still regularly combat misgivings about my career and my geography regardless of how happy I am and how well things are going for me—a feeling which is exacerbated by the fact that I have friends who live all over the world and who are doing a number of varied and fascinating things with their lives.
I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. Some of it is tied up in my own road-not-taken regrets. But to a larger extent, it’s endemic to our generation,4 upon which was showered more wealth and more privilege and more you-can-do-whatever-you-set-your-mind-to promises than any other before us. And even though many of us could, none of us could do everything. So on occasion, even when we wake up with the job we’ve always wanted in the city we always wanted to live in, the whole world seems terrifyingly static. That I am a chronic sufferer of this condition is frankly the reason why I respected Steve’s answer so much: because he had one, and because he was so sure of it.
But what has since dawned on me is that Steve didn’t always have an answer. At one time, he was hurdling through the universe just like Ryan and me. And like us, he too hit a point at which he figured out that he never set any coordinates. I’m not sure when Steve crossed his 10-million-mile mark, but I know it occurred after some Texan asked him the question and he didn’t like the three words that came out of his mouth. For those pathless wanderers stuck in the everyday, admitting to being from here can be mystical—a moment of recognition. Steve recognized it, Ryan recognized it, and after a chance exchange in an all-too-familiar city in which I no longer live, while working at a job I soon thereafter left, I recognized it as well.5
It happened as I was biking home one evening after enjoying a happy hour (or two) with my friends. While exploring the back of my mind instead focusing on the pavement in front of me, I found myself at an intersection in a part of town I had no business being in. Taking note of my intense confusion, a man, who until my arrival had been quietly enjoying a cigarette from his front porch and likely thinking he would help out a hapless tourist, called over to me with some amusement: “You look lost! Where you from, son?”
Image courtesy of Jamie Dobson. Some rights reserved.
Apparently, it’s also a book. ↩
He comes close with a woman named Alex, but (spoiler alert) it turns out she’s married, which only increases Ryan’s feelings of emptiness. ↩
Yes, Texans, it’s true. ↩
“Our good fortune allowed us to feel a sadness our parents never had time for.” Beginners (2010). ↩
Andrew Largeman, the protagonist of Garden State (2004), also recognized it, though he was primed not by a question of fromness, but after a confrontation with his father that involved his decision to stop taking the medications that made him feel “so fucking numb” to everything he experienced. His father questioned whether he would be able to handle the impacts of this decision, and Andrew fleshed out his revelation: “This is my life, Dad. This is it. I’ve spent 26 years waiting for something else to start. So, no, I don’t think it’s too much to take on, because it’s everything there is. I see now it’s all there is. You and I are gonna be okay. You know that, right? We may not be as happy as you always dreamed we would be, but for the first time let’s just allow ourselves to be whatever it is we are, and that will be better, okay? I think that will be better.” ↩