James Fallows,

James Fallows,

A weeklong electronic journal.
Aug. 25 1998 3:30 AM

James Fallows,

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Today's theme: fun with transportation.
       7 a.m.: Up. Damn! The point of the summer, and of having no job to go to, is being able to sleep as late as you want. What I really want is to sleep until about 10, which would still get me up an hour or two before the 18-year-old, naturally hibernating Tad. But since I'm worried about being tired--about my eyes hurting and my attention wandering--naturally I can't get any more soothing rest. And the reason I'm worried is:
       9:30: Drive 24 miles north, along stretches of Interstate 270 and the Sam Eig Highway I have long since memorized, to Montgomery County Airpark for today's flying lesson. (Yes, this trip is being made in the Mexican National Car, my Plymouth Acclaim.) I have always wanted to fly a plane, and in my first week at college I went out to the local airfield to sign up for an intro course. Didn't get around to it for 30 years, until this spring, when the imminent departure to college of our younger child (Tad, above) used up my wife's "you can't do this with kids around!!!" rationale. During my newsmagazine existence, when each day of the week had its strict logic, I could take lessons only on weekends--and sometimes missed weeks in a row with chancy spring rains. When my time became my own this summer, I decided to follow the advice of the teaching books and cram a lot of lessons into a short period of time.
       More on the Meaning of Flight tomorrow, when I plan (Hurricane Bonnie permitting) a 150 mile solo cross-country flight toward the Amish lands of Pennsylvania. The term "cross-country flight," which really means anything more than about 75 miles, is one of the campy bits of flying diction, along with the phonetic alphabet, that add to the fun. The trainer plane I usually fly--a Cessna 172 Skyhawk, with all the dependability of a Taurus and just as much glamour--has a tail number that ends with 17H. No one cannot love saying over the radio, "Tower, this is Skyhawk One-Seven Hotel." But I stop short of using the standard airline pilot drawl or saying "niner" for nine.
       Today's flight was short and sobering and not because I was so groggy. By the time I reached the airport, it was sunny and at least 95 degrees outside. Contrary to yesterday's view, I discovered today that there is too such a thing as being too hot. The point comes when it's so hot that thermal air currents come boiling up from the overheated ground. This might be fun if you're flying a glider, but it is roller-coasterlike if you're chugging along by yourself in a little plane. Twenty minutes out, soaring and falling gust by gust, I realized that I was flat scared. I had taken to heart the many instructions about having the courage to chicken out of unsafe situations: I turned around, landed back at the "airpark," drove home.
       2 p.m.: Tad unloads his haul of bounty from Colombia. For his mother various lovely pieces of jewelry. For me a T-shirt with a smiling coffee bean--and a "scratch and sniff" feature, so that the shirt always smells of coffee.
       2:30: In reciprocal gratitude, I try to convert Tad to the cult of the "Pocket Pal" (my name for the PalmPilot, and the name Palm should have used too). For a minute I have his attention, as he thinks of the convenience of keeping his friends' e-mail addresses close at hand or having alarms to wake him up before class. Then he sees his mother roll her eyes, and he says, "Uhhh, thanks Dad."
       3: Tad has received the names and phone numbers of his five college roommates. He begins making the calls. I pretend to do what I've avoided each day: dealing with the two years' worth of detritus piled up in what once was, and soon must be again, my third floor office.
       3:05: Distracted from above by the first of several dozen calls I suddenly "have" to make. Most of these involve my glacierlike progress back to the working world in the fall. (Which practically means next week!)
       6: Tad decides to go on a bike ride to keep in training for college sports. Invites me along on the spiffy bike I got for some recent birthday but have ignored. For the next hour we zoom along the Potomac towpath, an area that makes Washington seem as stylishly exercise-oriented as Seattle or Santa Monica. I try not to think that this is Tad's last week. No Achilles' tendon miseries!
       7:45: Showering, dressing, channel surfing, I catch a glimpse of Slate's editor on Crossfire. Who's minding the store?
       8: The roommates start returning Tad's calls. Long talks with each of them about furniture, dividing up the space, likes and dislikes. Deb and I look at each other, very happy and very sad.

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.