James Fallows,

James Fallows,

A weeklong electronic journal.
Aug. 24 1998 3:30 AM

James Fallows,

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       Bienvenidos! The week starts on a theme of family reunion from various points in Latin America.
       3:30 p.m.: My wife, Deb, and I step off an airplane from Mexico City at Dulles Airport. Occasion for four days in Mexico was the "future of the press" powwow sponsored by Notimex, the Mexican state news agency. As I remember from days in Asia, the range among journalists outside the United States makes our domestic variety seem cookie-cutterish. Some are idealistic in a way no American reporter has been in decades. When they talk about "freedom of the press," they mean not getting rubbed out by some drug gang or crooked general they have offended. Others are, ummm, less idealistic, practicing the "envelope" style of journalism in which they receive payoffs from the agencies they cover.
       It's been 20 years since Deb and I saw Mexico City. Last time around, we were living in Texas and twice took the 24 hour ride on the "Aztec Eagle" sleeper train from Nuevo Laredo, through the cactus land wastes of Chihuahua state, down to the capital. Mexico City has its well-known problems, but our first impression is: Wow! The prosperous parts are vastly bigger and more prosperous than they used to be. Twenty years ago the standard Mexico City car was a Chevy junker with three hubcaps missing. Now the standard car (apart from the ubiquitous VW Beetle--classic model rather than modern jazzbo version, manufactured in Mexico) is the exact car that I drive in America: the Chrysler Spirit (a k a Plymouth Acclaim). At first I take this as a sign of Mexico's up-to-dateness, the convergence of societies around the world, and blah, blah, blah. Then, when I see that all the Chryslers are newer than mine (which would now be going into fourth grade if it were alive), I realize that another inference could be drawn.
       In Mexico it was chilly and overcast, the rainy season. At Dulles we step into temperatures in the mid-90s, high humidity, some kind of "Code Red" ozone scare. People moan and wilt around us. I think: Yes! Recognizing this as a minority taste, I stick to my philosophy of weather, which is that there is no such thing as being too hot. Partly this is because I really hate being cold. But it also reflects a larger life theory. Heat is life, as scientists have shown! Heat is also summer, and summer means the illusion of unstructured time. The first note of "crispness" in the air, which cheers up people all around me, makes me pout, because it means the end of the unstructured time.
       4:45: Brood further on this theme, as we arrive home and see that the tulip poplars have begun their annual betrayal. These are magnificent big-leaved trees, my favorite East Coast flora, but with two little drawbacks. 1) Their roots are puny compared with their mighty branches, so they are always blowing over and crushing houses. 2) Their beautiful big lyre-shaped leaves turn yellow and fall off starting in mid-August, way before the authorized time. Our lawn has grown full of them in four days.
       5: Start looking through the piles of mail at home. Nearly all catalogs, except for some tiny accessories from IBM for my beloved ThinkPad 560 laptop. The 560 exemplifies lightness and trimness. The parts I have ordered have a total volume of maybe 5 cubic inches, but they come packed in big cartons that could hold a case of beer. Maybe IBM's strategy for diversification is to move into the cardboard business? Mail includes a special announcement from Lamar Alexander: He wants Bill Clinton to quit. Lamar, who cares?
       5:10: Still looking nervously amid the catalogs for something I don't want to see. No, not the tuition bill for two kids in college--that came bright and early last month. On the plane back from Mexico I read a column by my friend and contemporary Frank Rich about the nightmare of getting an AARP "invitation" one year ahead of the fateful two-score-and-10-year time. Noooooh! Thank God, they didn't make the same mistake with me.
       5:30: Deb goes to neighborhood pool to swim off the mounds of enchiladas de mole and escamoles (ant eggs) we'd packed in while in Mexico. I stand by the phone: Our younger son (Tad, age 18) is about to pass through the Miami airport just now, doesn't have much time between flights--but must get through U.S. Customs! Customs from Colombia! Good luck!
       6:45: Deb returns. No call from the Customs holding area. I head off to run at the Georgetown University track--running while dripping with sweat! What summer is for!
       6:52: Stop running. Achilles' tendon blowing out again. Maybe the AARP is right. Go buy ibuprofen at the drug store.
       8:30: Back out to Dulles. Tad has chosen his friends well. Spent first month of the summer in Madagascar, visiting a high-school friend whose family recently moved there. Last two weeks in Colombia, with family of another high-school friend, in the old colonial city of Cartagena then out on idyllic tropical isles. Joke is on the U.S. Customs Service: a breeze getting through Miami. Problem was getting out of Colombia, where the agents took everything apart--looking for drugs, weapons, who knows what.
       10:30: After delivering Tad's friends home, unpacking his bags, and hearing the first of his tales, we say good night--and he begins his last week living in our house as our child, before joining his brother Tom at college.

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.