James Fallows,

James Fallows,

A weeklong electronic journal.
Aug. 27 1998 3:30 AM

James Fallows,

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Themes for the day: family and future.
       7:30 a.m.: Up. Damn! Someone has put an alarm clock by the bed! Oh, it's Deb taking Tad for yet another item on the pre-college departure checklist, a visit to the doctor.
       I hate alarm clocks generically, but I have a soft spot for one I received as a going away present from U.S. News. It is adorned with Arabic script and plays the Moslem prayer call to lull us from sleep. Allah Akbar! Alllllll-llllllaaah AKBAR!! This has a weirdly comforting, return to the womb effect on our household. We lived for two years in the shadow of a mosque in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and heard this very call each morning there. (Was the clock's recording made at our mosque?) The first of the day's prayer calls in K.L., usually around 5 a.m., was, to me, a signal that I had another two hours or so of sack time. I may have to recalibrate if I am going to rely on this as an alarm clock here.
       9:30: Haven't recalibrated yet. Still abed.
       9:45: Headlines in newspaper: "Wrath of Bonnie Strikes East Coast." Outside, the sky is blue, the leaves are perfectly still on the trees. Maybe "... Strikes North Carolina" didn't fit as a headline.
       10: Deb and Tad back from the doctor. The 21-year-old Tom, still with a teen-ager's sleeping powers, impressively outsleeping me.
       10:30: Tad at work getting ready for his big change. He has laid in all manner of cold weather gear for surviving college in the wintry north. Sits on the front step applying superwaterproofing treatment to various boots.
       10:40: Tom, greeting the day, tells Tad all these precautions and extra equipment are not necessary. Looks with the sophisticate's disdain at the overcoats, flannels, scarves, and long underwear that Tad has laid in. "Less is more, I'm telling you." Then relents, remembers his own bushy tailed days when college was an adventure, and shares his brother's enthusiasm.
       Like any two brothers, they have had their tussles over the years. But recently they've grown alike enough--yet different enough--to treat each other with real fondness and respect. When Tad was trying to make up his mind about college, Tom gave him a strong (and ultimately persuasive) sales pitch for his own school, so they'd have a year of overlap. For Deb and me, Tom's willingness to do this--and Tad's receptivity--is about the only sweet part of the famous "bittersweetness" of sending kids off to their new lives.
       11: Everyone in gear! For the first time in memory, having an Official Guest Lunch! Friends flying in from out of town for an afternoon of food and talk. Deb rushing around preparing elaborate cold cuts and condiments. Tad and Tom moving mounds of their and my junk from visible sites on the first floor to the hidden reaches of the bedrooms on the second and (groan) my office on the third. I "supervise."
       12-3 p.m.: Friends arrive, are fed, talk. The visiting dad is a true potentate of the high-tech world, whose name everyone reading this would recognize! (Hah! This will be the diarist's only secret! Or one of two, the other involving tennis results.) I had met him and his wife four or five years ago, in California, during my carefree Atlantic Monthly phase of life. They fly in for a visit, which in their case means having a pilot fly them and their children in the company plane. The dad, like me, is an aspiring pilot. Unlike me, he has already bought his own (noncompany) plane. We bore the others with chatter about steep turns, the nuances of landing, and so on.
       1:30: Our boys snap out of boredom when the talk shifts to high-tech careers. The dad, in his early 40s, informs his kids and ours that he's already out of touch with trends in the business. The future is up to them. Our kids would love to be high-tech impresarios. They would love to be the visiting dad! Neither of them has thought for one instant of aspiring to the pathetic life of the writer.
       2:30: Visiting dad is also an accomplished photographer. It may be a while before the four members of our family are in one place at one time. We seize the moment and ask him to take a picture of us in the backyard. As we're heading out the back door, I glimpse on a table another snapshot of the four of us together. It was a dozen years ago, on the top of the Temple of Dawn in Bangkok, Thailand. I am holding the 6-year-old grinning Tad with both arms, since he was afraid of the (considerable) height. Nine-year-old, towheaded Tommy, as he was then known smiles from the corner. Deb and I, mid-30s, have that complacent look of people who will always be surrounded by lively children.
       3: Bid fond adieu to friends, hope to see them again. Clean up gala lunch!
       3:30: Tad shows photos of his two week plus trip to Colombia to visit family of a close friend. Scenes on the fort walls in Cartagena and on a fishing boat hauling in barracudas, reinforce an impression every parent starts developing by the junior high school era: that your kids have large--and growing--parts of their lives you know nothing about.
       3:45. Linc Caplan, who supervised U.S. News' college rankings (among other duties) while we both worked there, brings over the latest ranking book. Tom and Tad give him a hard time for the new U.S. News policy of rounding off minor differences in scores, which leads to a lot of ties. (This year there's a three way tie for first, among Harvard, Princeton, and Yale; and two tied for No. 4: MIT and Stanford.) Linc and I start to give all the high road rationale behind this shift, born of our many unpleasant discussions with college presidents in the last two years. Then I think: It's not my problem!!! Advice to readers: However you feel about college rankings, check out Nick Lemann's article on the whole rankings controversy. (It appears in this week's U.S. News, and the special U.S. News college book.)
       4: Now, for something different! A surprise phone call from a major corporate titan, with a career possibility I had not even considered five minutes earlier. Arrange to go talk about this in a week or so. I have made a point, these last two months, of postponing all decisions and waiting until September to decide which way to go. Confusing--but fortunately--new, weird paths keep opening up.
       4:15: Another phone call. Another path! In an different direction! Will consider this one next month too.
       4:25: Think about cleaning up my office
       4:30: Thank God! My friend David Ignatius calls for some pre-hurricane tennis. Skies have become impressively hurricanelike, but there is no rain yet. It's mid-90s in both temperature and humidity. My kind of weather! Head out to the courts.
       5: Running hard to the right for a ball, feel the damned Achilles' tendon go once more. Jeez Louise! If they can send a man to the moon, why can't they keep my body from falling apart? Realize that for the duration, my sporting options are pretty much confined to bike riding. No doubt they'll soon shrink to knitting.
       7: Second meal extravaganza of the day. My cousin Lorrie Scattergood comes over for dinner, as another phased adieu to Tad.
       8:30: We turn on the Orioles game. They are down 3-1 as we find the right channel. In the next minute, they're down 6-1. Turn off the game.
       9: Tad calls friends to see what they're doing. Tom starts scanning the movie pages to see what's up. He and I decide to bond with a late night show of The Negotiator. Attraction: Kevin Spacey, who had been hands down my favorite actor until I realized that he reminded me of someone I hate. Perhaps by Freudian process, we drive to the wrong theater--but just in time for the late show of Snake Eyes. This reminds me of the early days of summer, when I went out night after night to all the fluff releases--Zorro, Armageddon, Something About Mary, Out of Sight, even Six Days Seven Nights. Now, as summer winds down, the supply of such movies dries up. Mais ou sont les pulp movies d'antan?

When he last appeared as a Slate diarist, James Fallows was one year into what proved to be a 22 month run as editor of U.S. News & World Report. He is "taking the summer off" and will resume his previous role as a magazine writer and National Public Radio broadcaster in the fall.