Up in the Air

by Walter Kirn

Hardcover, 303 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $23.95 | purchase

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Up in the Air
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Walter Kirn

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Book Summary

A traveling management consultant, thirty-five-year-old Ryan Bingham spends his life on airplanes and in airports as he travels around the country, pursuing his goal to accumulate one million miles in his frequent flyer account.

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Excerpt: Up In The Air

Chapter One


To know me you have to fly with me. Sit down. I'm the aisle, you're thewindow—trapped. You crack your paperback, last spring's big legalthriller, convinced that what you want is solitude, though I know otherwise: youneed to talk. The jaunty male flight attendant brings our drinks: a two percentmilk with one ice cube for me, a Wild Turkey for you. It's wet outside, therunways streaked and dark. Late afternoon. The first-class cabin fills withother businessmen who switch on their laptops and call up lengthy spreadsheetsor use the last few moments before takeoff to punch in cell-phone calls to wivesand clients. Their voices are bright but shallow, no diaphragms, their sentenceskept short to save on tolls, and when they hang up they face the windows, sigh,and reset their watches from Central time to Mountain. For some of them thismeans a longer day, for others it means eating supper before they're hungry. Onefellow lowers his plastic window shade and wedges his head between two skimpypillows, while another unlatches his briefcase, looks inside, then shuts hiseyes and rubs his jaw, exhausted.

Your own work is done, though, temporarily. All week you've been out hustling,courting hot prospects in franchised seafood bars and steering a rented Intrepidalong strange streets that didn't match the markings in your atlas. You gave ityour all, and for once your all was good enough to placate a boss who fears forhis own job. You've stashed your tie in your briefcase, freed your collar, andslackened your belt a notch or two. To breathe. Just breathing can be such aluxury sometimes.

"Is that the one about the tax-fraud murders? I'm hearing his plots aren'twhat they used to be."

You stall before answering, trying to discourage me. To you, I'm a type. Amotormouth. A pest. You're still getting over that last guy, LA to Portland,whose grandson was just admitted to Stanford Law. A brilliant kid, and a fineyoung athlete, too, he started his own business as a teen computerizing localdiaper services—though what probably clinched his acceptance was hischarity work; the kid has a soft spot for homeless immigrants, which pretty muchdescribes all of us out west, though some are worse off than others. We're thelucky ones.

"I'm on page eleven," you say. "The plot's still forming."

"It hit number four on the Times list."

"Don't read that paper."

"You live in Denver? Going home?"

"I'm trying."

"Tell me about it. Nothing but delays."

"Foul weather at one of the hubs."

"Their classic line."

"I guess they don't take us for much these days."

"Won't touch that. Interesting news about the Broncos yesterday."

"Pro football's a farce."

"I can't say I disagree."

"Millionaires and felons—these athletes sicken me. I do enjoy hockey,though. Hockey I don't hate."

"That's the Canadian influence," I say. "It ameliorates thematerialism."

"In English?"

"I talk big when I'm tired. Professor gasbag. Sorry. I like hockey,too."

The atom was split by persistence; you relax. We go on chatting, impersonally atfirst, but then, once we've realized all we have in common—our moderatepolitics, our taste in rental cars, our feeling that the American serviceindustry had better shape up soon or face a crisis—a warmth wells up, acozy solidarity. You recommend a hotel in Tulsa; I tip you off to a rib joint inFort Worth. The plane heads into a cloud, it bucks and shudders. Nothing liketurbulence to cement a bond. Soon, you're telling me about your family. Yourdaughter, the high school gymnast. Your lovely wife. She's gone back to work andyou're not so sure you like this, though her job is only part time and may notlast. Another thing you dislike is traveling. The pissy ticket agents. Theluggage mix-ups. The soft hotel mattresses that twist your spine. You long for awindfall that will let you quit and pursue your great hobby: restoring vintagespeedboats. The water—that's where you're happiest. The lake.

Now it's my turn. I make a full report. Single, but on the lookout—younever know, the woman in 3B might be my soul mate. Had a wife once, the prospectof a family, but I knew her mostly through phone calls across time zones. Grewup in Minnesota, in the country; father owned a fleet of propane trucks andserved as a Democrat in two state

legislatures, pressing a doomed agricultural agenda while letting his businessslip. Parents split while I was in college, an eastern hippieschool—picture a day care run by Ph.D.'s—and when I got home therewas nothing to come back to, just lawyers and auctioneers and accusations, someof them true but few of them important. My first job was in computers. I soldmemory, the perfect product, since no one has enough of it and everyone fearssome competitor has more. Now I work as a management consultant, minoring in EET(Executive Effectiveness Training) and majoring—overwhelmingly,unfortunately—in CTC (Career Transition Counseling), which is a fancy termfor coaching people to understand job loss as an opportunity for personal andspiritual growth. It's a job I fell into because I wasn't strong, and grew totolerate because I had to, then suddenly couldn't stand another hour of. Myletter of resignation is on the desk of a man who will soon return from a longfishing trip. What I'll do after he reads it, I don't know. I'm intrigued by afirm called MythTech; they've put out feelers. I have other logs in the fire,but no flames yet. Until my superior flies back from Belize, I work out ofDenver for ISM, Integrated Strategic Management. You've heard of Andersen?Deloitte & Touche? We're something like them, though more diversified."The Business of Business," we say. Impressed me too, once.

As the hour passes and the meal comes (you try the Florentine chicken, I takethe steak, and neither of us goes near the whipped dessert), the intimacy wedevelop is almost frightening. I'd like to feel it came naturally, mutually, andnot because I pushed. I push sometimes. We exchange cards and slot them in ourwallets, then order another round and go on talking, arriving at last at thetopic I know best, the subject I could go on about all night.

You want to know who you're sitting with? I'll tell you.

Planes and airports are where I feel at home. Everything fellows like youdislike about them—the dry, recycled air alive with viruses; the saltyfood that seems drizzled with warm mineral oil; the aura-sapping artificiallighting—has grown dear to me over the years, familiar, sweet. I love theCompass Club lounges in the terminals, especially the flagship Denver club, withits digital juice dispenser and deep suede sofas and floor-to-ceiling views oftaxiing aircraft. I love the restaurants and snack nooks near the gates, stackedto their heat lamps with whole wheat mini-pizzas and gourmet caramel rolls. Ieven enjoy the suite hotels built within sight of the runways on the ring roads,which are sometimes as close as I get to the cities that my job requires me tovisit. I favor rooms with kitchenettes and conference tables, and once I cookeda Christmas feast in one, serving glazed ham and sweet potato pie to a dozenjanitors and maids. They ate with me in rotation, on their breaks, one or two ata time, so I really got to know them, even though most spoke no English. I havea gift that way. If you and I hadn't hit it off like this, if the only wordswe'd passed were "That's my seat" or "Done with that BusinessWeek?" or just "Excuse me," I'd still regard us as closeacquaintances and hope that if we met again up here we wouldn't be starting fromzero, as just two suits. Twice last October I sat in the same row, on differentroutes, as 1989's Miss USA, the one who remade herself as a Washington hostessand supposedly works nonstop for voting rights. In person she's tiny, barelyover five feet. I put her carry-on in the overhead.

But you know some of this already. You fly, too. It just hasn't hooked you; youjust don't study it.

Hey, you're probably the normal one.

Fast friends aren't my only friends, but they're my best friends. Because theyknow the life—so much better than my own family does. We're a telephonefamily, strung out along the wires, sharing our news in loops and daisy chains.We don't meet face-to-face much, and when we do there's a dematerializedfeeling, as though only half of our molecules are present. Sad? Not really.We're a busy bunch. And I'm not lonely. If I had to pick between knowing just alittle about a lot of folks and knowing everything about a few, I'd opt for thelong, wide-angle shot, I think.

I'm peaceful. I'm in my element up here. Flying isn't an inconvenience for me,as it is for my colleagues at ISM, who hit the road to prove their loyalty to acompany that's hungry for such proof and, I'm told, rewards it now and then. ButI've never aspired to an office at world headquarters, close to hearth and homeand skybox, with a desk overlooking the Front Range of the Rockies and access tothe ninth-floor fitness center. I suppose I'm a sort of mutation, a new species,and though I keep an apartment for storage purposes—actually, I left theplace two weeks ago and transferred the few things I own into a locker I've yetto pay the rent on, and may not—I live somewhere else, in the margins ofmy itineraries.

I call it Airworld; the scene, the place, the style. My hometown papers are USAToday and the Wall Street Journal. The big-screen Panasonics in the club roomsbroadcast all the news I need, with an emphasis on the markets and the weather.My literature—yours, too, I see—is the bestseller or thenear-bestseller, heavy on themes of espionage, high finance, and the goodness ofcommon people in small towns. In Airworld, I've found, the passions andenthusiasms of the outlying society are concentrated and whisked to a stifffroth. When a new celebrity is minted in the movie theaters or ballparks, thisis where the story breaks—on the vast magazine racks that form a sort oftrading floor for public reputations and pretty faces. I find it possible here,as nowhere else, to think of myself as part of the collective that prices thelong bond and governs necktie widths. Airworld is a nation within a nation, withits own language, architecture, mood, and even its own currency—the tokeneconomy of airline bonus miles that I've come to value more than dollars.Inflation doesn't degrade them. They're not taxed. They're private property inits purest form.

It was during a layover in the Dallas Compass Club, my back sinking into a downysofa cushion and coarse margarita salt drying on my lips, that I first told afriend about TMS, my Total Mileage System.

"It's simple," I said, as my hand crept up her leg (the woman wasolder than me and newly single; an LA ad exec who claimed her team had hatchedthe concept behind affinity credit cards). "I don't spend a nickel, if Ican help it, unless it somehow profits my account. I'm not just talking hotelsand cars and long-distance carriers and Internet services, but mail-order steakfirms and record clubs and teleflorists. I shop them according to the miles theypay, and I pit them against each other for the best deal. Even my broker givesmiles as dividends."

"So what's your total?"

I smiled, but didn't speak. I'm an open book in most ways, and I feel I deservea few small secrets.

"What are you saving up for? Big vacation?"

"I'm not a vacation person. I'm just saving. I'd like to give a chunk tocharity—to one of those groups that flies sick kids to hospitals."

"I didn't know you could do that. Sweet," she said. She kissed me,lightly, quickly, but with feeling—a flick of her tongue tip that promisedmore to come should we meet again, which hasn't happened yet. If it does, I mayhave to duck her, I'm afraid. She was too old for me even then, three years ago,and ad execs tend to age faster than the rest of us, once they're on their way.

I don't recall why I told that story. Not flattering. But I wasn't in greatshape back then. I'd just come off a seven-week vacation that ISM insisted Itake for health reasons. I spent the time off taking classes at the U, hoping toenrich an inner life stretched thin by years of pep-talking the jobless. Mybosses matched my tuition for the courses; a creative writing seminar thatclawed apart a short nostalgic sketch about delivering propane with my father ina sixty-mile-per-hour blizzard, and a class called "Country-Western Musicas Literature." The music professor, a transplanted New Yorker in a blackStetson with a snakeskin band and a bolo tie clipped with a scorpion in amber,believed that great country lyrics share a theme: the migration from the villageto the city, the disillusionment with urban wickedness, and the mournful desireto go home. The idea held up through dozens of examples and stayed with me whenI returned to work, worsening the low mood and mental fuzziness that ISM hadordered me to correct. I saw my travels as a twangy ballad full of rhyming placenames and neon streetscapes and vanishing taillights and hazy women's faces. Allthose corny old verses, but new ones, too. The DIA control tower in fog. Thedrone of vacuum cleaners in a hallway, telling guests that they've slept pastcheckout time. The goose-pimply arms of a female senior manager hugging astuffed bear I've handed her as we wait together for two securityguards—it's overkill; the one watches the other—to finish loadingfile cubes and desk drawers and the CPU from her computer onto a flat gray cartwhose squeaky casters scream all the way to an elevator bank where a third guardholds down the "open" button.

I pulled out of it—barely. I cut that song off cold. It took a toll,though. Because I seldom see doctors in their offices, but only in transit,accidentally, my sense of my afflictions is vague, haphazard. High bloodpressure? No doubt. Cholesterol? I'm sure it's in the pink zone, if not the red.Once, between Denver and Oklahoma City, I nodded off next to a pulmonaryspecialist who told me when I woke that I had apnea—a tendency to stopbreathing while unconscious. The doctor recommended a machine that pushes airthrough the nostrils while one sleeps to raise the oxygen level in one's blood.I didn't follow up. My circulation is ebbing flight by flight—I can't feelmy toes if I don't keep wiggling them, and that only works for my first hour onboard—so I'd better make some changes. Soon.



Copyright © 2001 Walter Kirn. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-385-49710-5