James Fallows,

James Fallows,

A weeklong electronic journal.
Aug. 26 1998 3:30 AM

James Fallows,

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       Maybe it's time to think systematically about the differences between having a big-time job and not. Naaaah, maybe it isn't time--later in the week, perhaps. This July and August have been like no summer months since I left high school 30 years ago. Real time off, which somehow manages to get filled. Thus:
       8 a.m.: Up. Damn! Some jackhammer has started up behind our bedroom window. When we moved into this house 15 years ago, it backed onto what appeared to be some national forest preserve. In fact it was the Washington estate of Nelson Rockefeller. About that time he sold the manor house itself to Sargent Shriver. (Ah, for the happy summer nights when we'd hear party sounds of the Shriver children playing around the pool, with a plaintive cry of "Oh, Arnold" from time to time.)
       The rest of the territory was sold off to developers for subdivision and million dollar plus "tract" homes. Through every week of the last dozen years we've woken to the sound of bulldozers, air hammers, mortar mixers, and related construction noise. I don't understand how, exactly, building four dozen houses could be stretched out this long.
       8:20: Jackhammers mysteriously cease. Maybe this is how they stretch out the project?
       9:15: Head out once more, via I-270 and the Sam Eig Highway, to the Montgomery County airport. One big discovery of the last five months: Talk about flying is really, really boring to people who are not doing it themselves. So instead of recounting all the exciting details of my "solo cross-country" up to Lancaster, Pa., in the Amish belt; then over to Frederick, Md.; and back to the Montgomery County Airpark--all the while balancing Bonnie-spawned winds on the east and an annoying thunderstorm belt on the west--I will mention a few things I know now that I didn't before:
       The hard part is (duh!) the landing, but this is much like learning to ride a bike. First it seems impossible, then it seems possible. Don't know yet whether the rest of the bike comparison applies: Once you learn, you don't forget.
       A big terror reducer was: No longer thinking of the plane as being suspended in the air (like a girder from a crane), but sensing instead that it swims through the air, including slithering down to the landing strip.
       The sky is amazingly big. When flying a little plane you're always looking for other traffic but, except around airports, you almost never see any.
       Flight instructors--like nurses and day-care workers--don't get enough money for how nerve-racking their job is. Nurses and day-care workers have historically been underpaid because they're women. Most flight instructors are men, but they're underpaid because many are just trying to "build hours" to qualify for a job with the airlines. (This is the place for a free ad for my instructor, Ken Michelsen, a former Marine pilot who actually likes to teach and who showed great calm as I nose-dived the plane toward the runway in early "landing" lessons.)
       If I hadn't taken these lessons, I wouldn't know about three wonderful books. Stick and Rudder, by Wolfgang Langewiesche, was written in the 1940s but would strike anyone today as a model of clear, funny, powerful prose. Langewiesche is said to have grown up in Germany and learned English relatively late. Based on how good the writing is, this can't be true. Flight of Passage, by Rinker Buck (about two brothers who flew across the continent in the 1960s), is as funny and charming as Russell Baker's Growing Up. Inside the Sky, by William Langewiesche (yes, Wolfgang's son), came out this year and examines a central paradox: why the act of flight, so magical that most people dream of it as kids, seems so mundane today. Part of the reason, of course, is the buslike horror of the standard airline trip.
       11:30: While on the ground in Lancaster, walk into the terminal to see if they're offering scrapple or other Pennsylvania food treats. All that's available is Tastykakes in a vending machine. OK, that's Pennsylvanian enough: I buy one to eat on the way back.
       1:30 p.m.: In my car on the road again, heading back home. To avoid talk radio, plug a book on tape into the player--another installment of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series that began with Master and Commander. The more I listen, the more I think that Capt. Jack Aubrey should be the model for all modern managers. Why didn't I pay more attention to this during my management era?
       2:10: Check the mail at home. More catalogs! More computer junk! This one is a replacement part for the marvelous Ricochet wireless modem that attaches to my ThinkPad like a remora. The replacement part is 2 inches square; it comes in a small envelope. When Ricochet is as big as IBM, will it use huge cartons too?
       2:45: Deb and Tad back from a mass-shopping trip to Price Club. While they unpack, I look on and wonder: Do people realize that Price Club is not a term like "Value Village" but is based on the name of the founder, Sol Price?
       3: Hear that a good friend, who has recently gone into the high-tech world, now has a worth (on paper, or rather in his company's stock) of more than $30 million. Nice for him, but ARRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGHHHHHH!
       3:30: Hear from another friend about the Lewinsky-Clinton "cigar" story being circulated by Matt Drudge. Of course, as the conscience of journalism I deplore scurrilous rumors, etc., etc. But again I think ARRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGHHHHHH! If this is true, Clinton is done. All the bets I've placed in recent months--that he'll last out his term and so will Starr's inquiry--no longer look so good.
       4: Think about cleaning up my office. Think again. Time for the phone!
       5:30: Tennis at the neighborhood courts with my friend Linc Caplan. It was Linc who summed up the three cardinal rules of health and fitness for newsmagazine employees during the time we both worked at U.S. News: 1) no exercise; 2) no sleep; 3) bad food. Therefore I've erred on the side of lots of exercise--daily tennis! frequent runs until the tendon blew out!--in the summer months. Thinking like a strategist, I tote up the respective advantages Linc and I bring to a match.
On his side:

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  • younger
  • crafty southpaw
  • better racket (the B-117 Stealth titanium model)
  • much better natural athlete (star halfback in football, etc.).

On my side:

  • taller.

       Usually this helps me as much as Gheorghe Muresan's height (note for nerds: He is the 7 foot 7 inch Romanian specimen who plays basketball for the Washington Wizards) would help him against Michael Chang. We play to a sweaty tiebreaker; further details withheld.
       7:30: Out to National Airport--oops, Ronald Reagan National Airport--to collect our older son, Tom, coming home for the first time since June. He will be a senior in college, has held a job all summer, will be here for just a few days of overlap with Tad.
       Pull the car to the curb and wait while Tom collects his baggage. Airport cop immediately appears and starts writing out a ticket (while I'm sitting at the wheel with the motor running). Explains that "in the current security environment" you can't even drive up to the curb until the passenger is standing there bags in hand. I prepare to moan and groan, quickly switch to "Yes, officer" mode when he says it's just a "warning ticket."
       9: After dinner, Tad is off to a friend's house; Tom is answering e-mail to his friends. Deb and I turn on the Orioles game and preside over our temporarily unified family.

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.