Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Where are you from?

[Kyle]One of the odd juxtapositions of my job as an airline pilot is that even though I work in a large company with thousands of other flight crew members, almost every time I go to work for the week, I find myself working with other people who have also worked at the same company for years, but who I have never even seen before that day. Occasionally, I will recognize somebody’s face as one that I have exchanged nods or hellos with a few times, but that is the extent of our relationship. This is in part because none of us work the same hours and also because we are physically separated from each other by hundreds of miles most of the time.

This makes for a few awkward moments at the beginning of the week as we size each other up and try to figure out what the trip is going to be like. This process is prolonged by the fact that the time that the airplane is on the ground is a very busy time for each of us, with the pace of work being generally too hectic to partake in much socializing. I have to input the flight plan and do various systems checks, the First Officer also has to do system checks, plus the pre-flight inspection and the bulk of the paperwork. The Flight Attendant is busy checking the cabin safety equipment and then greeting the passengers. Several briefings are exchanged so that we can all be sure of being on the same page. What this often means is that the first time I am able to engage in any kind of small talk with the First Officer is toward the top of the climb, when things have quieted down a bit. For the Flight Attendant, we may be able to squeeze some small talk in during boarding but, usually, it’s on the van ride to our first hotel.

As I’m sure it is with other groups of people, airline crews have a few standard questions we ask each other to break the ice. The most common seem to be “How long have you worked here?”, “What did you do before this job?” and, “Where are you from?” This last one may seem odd to people who work in a fixed location with everybody living in the vicinity and as a matter of fact, I don’t recall hearing that question asked before I got this job except on rare occasions, such as meeting a new neighbor or hearing an unusual accent .

It is this last question that gives me trouble. I never have a good answer, or at least a reasonably short one. Like the question, “How are you doing?” People are expecting a short answer and not a long diatribe about your life. This question has a few variations, namely “Where do you live?” and “Do you commute?” For airline people, commuting specifically means by plane from another city, as opposed to driving to work, which we call driving. Airline people actually ask each other questions like, “Do you commute or do you drive?”

Most people I meet seem to have followed a standard pattern. They grow up in an area, move out of the house to somewhere in the same area, maybe they leave for a few years to go to University but they’re soon back in the same town getting a job, buying a house and raising a family. Occasionally, they grow up in one area and relocate to another, which eventually becomes the place they’re ‘from’. For most crews, working out of town is an aberration and the commute allows them to live in the place they consider home. If somebody says they commute from Greensboro, it is likely that they’ve spent the bulk of their lives in and around Greensboro and intend to keep doing so. My last First Officer, for example, grew up in the Washington, D.C. area but now lives in Charlotte, N.C. He’s not sure whether he’s going to stay in Charlotte permanently or if he’ll go back to D.C. My Flight Attendant grew up in Alabama but has decided to move to Nashville permanently.

I haven’t really followed that pattern. I did grow up in the Denver area. When I was young and imagining what my life would be like, I just assumed most of it would take place in Denver. This was less because of an attachment to Denver as home than it was just my not understanding that anything else was even a possibility. For what it’s worth, I feel no attachment to the Denver area and haven’t done so for a very long time. I spent most of my childhood there in and around the mountains to the west of Denver. Denver itself has become unrecognizable to me in the two decades since I lived there last. The place seems to be all McMansions and huge, sprawling malls. It could be any city of a certain size in the U.S.

I did spend a lot of time all over the mountains to the west of Denver and I do feel a special affinity for the American West. Any time I am where mountains reach into the sky, I do feel like I’m where I’m from. It matters not whether I’m in Arizona or Colorado or California or Oregon.

Since leaving the Western U.S., I’ve lived in lots of places that were just places to live but it still could legitimately be said that I lived there. Now that Maryanne and I are out cruising, we find ourselves in the strange position of living lots of places, just not officially. Right now, we ‘live’ in the BVI but we don’t have residency status within the country. To them, we’re just tourists who they think have stayed awfully long. Unlike a lot of cruisers who may have kept a house while they took a year or two off to go cruising, Maryanne and I don’t have another house. The only place that we have to live is aboard Footprint. For me, home is anywhere both Maryanne and the boat are. I’ll arrive at a place we’ve been for only a week and when I get on the boat with Maryanne, I feel the relief that anybody feels when they go through their front door at the end of the day and know they’re home.

The most accurate answer I’ve been able to come up with to the “Where do you live?” question is to say that I live on my boat. If the boat ‘lives’ somewhere, like when we had a contract for a slip in Portsmouth, it could be said by extension that we lived in Portsmouth. Now we just anchor a lot of places that we visit in the boat on which we live, so there’s no good answer, at least to those trying to figure out where to place my personality geographically.

The problem, I think, is that most of society is not made up of people who are nomadic and so the language we are used to using assumes that Maryanne and I live somewhere permanent or that we’re only out temporarily and will finish soon and go ‘home’. When we have been out with other cruisers, however, we get questions like “Which boat is yours?” and “Where have you been?” to which we do have quick, easy answers.


The Flying Pinto said...

I know exactly what you mean...that's just how it's like as a FA. It's even worse after 911, it seems like FA's and pilots were more social with one another before. It's not as easy to pop up to the flight deck and say hello!

So, are you retired from flying? Looks like you and Maryanne are living the life: )

Mommy Dearest said...

This inability to succinctly and quickly (dare I say dismissively?) answer that question is one of the heavy burdens you must bear for your choice to live a nomadic and non-traditional lifestyle in paradise with plenty of rum drinks, a beautiful and exceedingly clever wife who does the engine work for you, the absolute glut of spectacular sunsets, swimming with sea turtles. Ahhhh...poor you! Such a difficult situation you have gotten yourself into ;-)

If it is any consolation, I get this question in only a slightly different form, "Where do your kids live?" to which I usually respond as to the #1 Son--"I'm just not sure today." Probably most of Arizona thinks my #1 Son lives under a freeway viaduct. So if you come up with the perfect answer, please pass it along for the rest of us who occasionally are called upon to "explain" you.

Thanks for writing about this. Your writing, as always, is brilliant.