Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, January 18, 2005; 3:00 PM

Joel Achenbach, newest Post Magazine columnist, took your questions on his column and the debut of Achenblog.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Joel Achenbach: Oh. Hi. Sorry. I was busy. Welcome to today's chat. I would hope we'd talk a bit about the inauguration, politics, Titan, winter, football, basketball, my new column Rough Draft in the Sunday magazine (which, from the name, is clearly the reincarnation of my old column that ran on this website for several years), or the Achenblog, a work in progress. You can find the achenblog by looking for a picture of a kind of wimpy fellow near the top of the home page today. Why is the top of my head cut off. Whatever. Ahrens says we should put up someone better looking. I agree. Anyway lets get rollin...


About Ti, ME: Don't you EVER do that to us again, Joel! We spent the last - what, year, maybe? - waiting around for the next Rough Draft without even a "hey, I'm takin' off for a while" from you. Boy, oh, boy, oh, boy. Welcome back.

Now be funny.

Joel Achenbach: What do you mean, "Now be funny." I am a trained monkey? I make goofy faces maybe? I actually haven't exactly been out playing golf, y'know. Wrote a book, wrote bunches of articles for Style, and am trilled to revive Rough Draft, though it will of course be somewhat different with a 3-week lead time. Also I'm not really a humor columnist. Gene is a humor columnist. Dave B. is a humor columnist. I'm more like...um...the conscience of my generation????


Alexandria, Va.: Since I see you will be sharing an Achenchat and an Achenblog with us, I thought I would look up the meaning of "Achen" using a handy online German to English translation tool. Alas, it felt the term was untranslatable. Perhaps it has a certain je n'est sais quois?

I then tried translating the full name Achenbach, for which I was provided with the English phrase "Oh brook". Perhaps that sounds better with punctuation: "Oh, brook!". But not a lot better. What do you think it means? And are there more Achenwords in our future?

Joel Achenbach: I think it means "pig thief" in German.


Anonymous: What is Achenblog? I don't live in DC? Thanks.

washingtonpost.com: Achenblog

Joel Achenbach: I think we're actually still trying to figure out the answer to your question. I see it as a lounge. There are people lounging around, talking about things, emitting bon mots, or even mots that aren't so bon. Ideally I will get Stuever and Weingarten et al to write much of it for me. I sure don't have time. I already have a job. But just check it out when you can...


Vienna, Va.: When my dad was 24 and newly married, he went skiing with my mom and, while standing at the bottom of a ski slope, slipped on some ice and broke his hip. Over a year of recovery ensued, with him in the same ward as the 80 year old women. Twenty years later my parents decided it was time to try skiing again so that they could teach us kids how to ski. We had three fun years of ski trips. Then one year Dad volunteered to chaperone our Girl Scout troop's ski trip. While watching his daughters ski quickly past him, he fell and broke the same hip! Needless to say, we haven't been skiing since (and it's been nearly 10 years). Dad did love your article, though.

Joel Achenbach: Ouch. But I bet the 80-year-old women loved having him in the ward. I actually love to go skiing because the food tastes so good afterward. You get so hungry up there on the slopes. Also it reminds me of the movie "Help!", you know the Ticket to Ride scene.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: As a Post writer, will you be attending any of the inauguration festivities and then writing humerous anecdotes about them in the paper? I certainly hope so -- I need to get some humor out of the fact that W is back in office for another 4 years!

By the way, I certainly missed Rough Draft and am glad to hear it's back.

Joel Achenbach: Yes I will be going to the inauguration but not sure what I'll be covering exactly. I want to do the grand sweep of history but probably will just collect quotes from drunks.


About Ti, ME, Again.: "Joel Achenbach, Humor Monkey." I think I speak for the rest of your readership (Hi, Gene & Dave) when I say, "We like that."

Joel Achenbach: I'm the Humor Hamster.


Washington, D.C.: It's so great to hear that you're back! Loved the "Rough Draft" column in the magazine -- quintessenial Achenbach! And love the Achenblog moniker -- hope you'll keep humor at the forefront -- really is your forte! Are the ravers allowed to rant on about politics, etc.?

Joel Achenbach: I'm so burned out on political raving -- I mean the piece that ran the other day, about protesters and the Counter Inaugural, in Style, has spawned rants from the far right and the far left. I guess that's a good sign. And perhaps in wartime extremism is no vice, as Barry G. would say.


Arlington, Va.: Welcome back Joel! I wish I had a brilliant, witty question, but I don't, so I will just say that we are glad to have you back! Rough Draft has been missed!!

(This comment sponsored by the Coalition to Increase the Use of the Exclamation Point!!)

Joel Achenbach: You should get together with the COALITION TO PUT EVERYTHING INTO UPPER CASE. And thanks. (!)


Alexandria, Va.: Given your penchant for sabbaticals, and the wailing and gnashing of teeth that have accompanied Dave Barry's moratorium, can we be forgiven for suspecting that this new gusher of Achen-content is just a way of inspiring Barry-like mourning when you take off next time?

Joel Achenbach: My "penchant for sabbaticals"??? OK, admittedly, I start columns and then I kill them eventually. It's a horrible habit. It may be an attention deficit sort of thing. Like one day I wake up and realize that I am no longer writing Why Things Are. (I do miss that column.) All my columns have been extremely killable, though, it's not like I was in 400 newspapers or 1000 newspapers or whatever Dave was in. THAT takes guts, to walk away from the most successful humor column in history. Few people other than maybe Gene and Tom Shroder realize how hard Dave has always worked, what a pro he is, and sure he makes it look easy, but only because for years he got up at 3 in the morning to write. Anyway, no sabbaticals for me. I'm strapped in.


9th and Penn., Washington, D.C.: Any chance you will bring back the Why Things Are column? It sounds like you don't have much else going on right now, after all.

Joel Achenbach: Actually I don't see why I couldn't bring it back sometimes for special appearances. I did Why for 377 consecutives weeks and felt like that was a pretty good run. The columns were collected into three books from Ballantine but no one ever seemed to notice and I thought I'd have more success writing big brawny hardcover books, so I did Captured by Aliens (dozens sold nationwide) and more recently The Grand Idea (am afraid to check the numbers). As much as I loved doing Why, I really enjoyed writing those longer books. One has to go forward, even if into obscurity and abject professional failure.


Washington, D.C.: Your article was interesting because it confirmed my belief that what the Democrats need to do is do more outreach, i.e. have more personal contact with local rural communities, whether they are in blue or red states.

Most of the people in your article, except for one, were not staunch Bush supporters. I did latino outreach for the Kerry campaign in Pennyslvania, and have done outreach for other issues. My experience has been that people just want to know you care enough to ask and listen to their opinion about their specific issues. If the Kerry campaign had done so with some of the people in your article, there might have been a chance for us to get some of those votes. Would you agree?

These votes for Bush werent based as reported by most media outlets on abortion and same-sex marriage issues. I don't agree that's why we lost the election. We lost the election because of electorate fear of the unknown, because of resistance to change, and most importantly because Democrats didnt do enough outreach to rural voters throughout the US, such as those you interviewed. If we did, we started too late.

Thats my two cents...
A staunch Democrat, with strong Christian values.

Joel Achenbach: This is a question clearly intended for David Von Drehle, who wrote the terrific piece in the Sunday magazine about Red America. (I linked to it from Achenblog fyi...see what I do for my good friends?) There's an interesting piece that Mark Danner recently published in The New York Review of Books in which he says journalists (including me) jumped way too quickly on the Moral Values explanation for Bush's victory. Danner says it was Iraq and terrorism and the mistaken conflation of those two issues. (I love using the word "conflation." Didnt Jerry Ford have a button that said Whip Conflation Now?)


Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: Joel, What is your view for your new column? How will it differ from your old column?

Joel Achenbach: It will be vastly better.


Chicago, Appreciative: Greetings,
Thank you for the article on dinosaurs last week. My son was able to write a summary of it and get enough points to give him a shot at pulling his science grade high enough to permit him to sleep indoors for the next grading period.

His comment: Hey, this isn't lame.

From a sixth grader, that's about the best you can get.

On this week's column, any thought to combining the Tiger Woods Practice and skiing? I don't think the FCC regulated newspapers.

(You were funnier than Weingarten this week)

washingtonpost.com: Dinosaur Eater Is a Lot To Digest (Post, Jan. 13) Rough Draft: All Downhill (Post, Jan. 16)

Joel Achenbach: Not being lame is my primary goal. I really liked doing the dinosaur piece. That's two pieces on mammalia within a year for Style. Mammals are my beat. (Gene's column was great I thought. He has honed an unmistakeable comedic writing style, just as Dave Barry did.) (You know Gene pulled me out of the swamps, and edited everything I wrote for about 10 years and taught me pretty much everything I know, but I'd have said that anyway.)


Washington, D.C.: There's a Why Things Are book? Sign me up.

Joel Achenbach: See this is why I quit Why Things Are. I think all three are out of print.


Berkeley, Calif.: Joel,
Is your teaching gig at Georgetown the first step toward a new career as a journalism professor? If so, I hope you'll keep UC Berkeley in mind. The skiing's better out here, at least...

Joel Achenbach: That Hayward Fault makes me nervous. But Cal has a good team this year, that's a plus.


Arlington, Va.: Hey Joel,

Kids are good skiers for two reasons: (1) they have low centers of gravity, so they're more stable, and (2) they're not afraid of serious injury because they have no concept of what it means.

I went skiing once, when I was in my twenties. I couldn't help noticing how often the ski patrol folks would pass me dragging an injured skier down the slope in a stretcher. This put a quite a damper on what little enjoyment I got out of the experience, but I'm sure all the kids whizzing past me didn't even notice.

p.s. Welcome back!

Joel Achenbach: Once on a chairlift, a ski patrol guy next to me was saying that a doctor who loved to ski had been killed that day, and I asked how, and he said, "Caught an edge and hit a tree." That phrase is burned into my brain.


Crystal City, Va.: Welcome back, Joel!

I have a question about a recent article: how can they tell, by just looking at a fossil, whether the critter is mammalian or not?

Joel Achenbach: That's a great question. A while back I did a story for National Geographic on dinosaur research, the new science, led by young paleontologists, and it was amazing how many different ways they could examine what to you and I would look like an ordinary bone. They build computer models, they study tiny markings on the bone, they build these "phylogenetic" charts in which animals are described by specific types of features -- hip joints, sockets for teeth, whatever. So if you're a paleontologist I don't think it's hard to know what's a mammal and what's a reptile. That would be like you being asked what's football and what's basketball.


Washington, D.C.: Who are your heroes?

Joel Achenbach: I like Spider-Man and Thor.


Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: Weingarten said today that you are funnier than he is and will put him out of business. He also took credit for writing your skiing column. Just FYI.

Joel Achenbach: "Gene" didn't say that. One of Gene's staffers who writes that weekly chat for him said that. Gene is a conglomerate. You know he also goes by the name of Tony Kornheiser.


Rockville, Md.: Hello,

In your Achenblog, I see the following:

"Guy Gugliotta's story makes the crucial point that Titan seems to have weather, something we don't see anywhere else in the solar system."

Huh? Certainly there are clouds and winds on Mars, and the Great Red Spot is a super-storm of some sort, isn't it? Am I missing something?

Joel Achenbach: The Great Red Spot doesn't ever move. I don't know exactly what it is, but if you're in a cyclone that blows and blows and blows and blows for millennia, that's not "weather." Weather changes. Mars has seasonal changes and "dust storms" but with so little atmosphere that's really stretching it to call it weather. Titan has a thick atmosphere.


Bethesda, Md.: Congrats/Commiserates on the blog:

"Would that just once I knew the truth about anything," you observe. Is that an offhand, bloggy throwaway line, or your settled conviction? Surely some one convinced of that would be bound to keep silent, a stance you have demonstrably not adopted. Surely some one who speaks in public must be convinced he knows the truth about something. Don't you agree?

Joel Achenbach: Well, take the Titan thing I just wrote. I'm not entirely sure my answer was right. I think I got it right but I don't know absolutely and am always carrying around the sense that everything I know is preliminary.


Silver Spring, Md.: Welcome back, Joel. Now that you and Kornheiser will be writing more for the Post, it will be an infinitely better newspaper. Now, if you can figure out how to fix Giant Foods which has -- how can I put it -- taken a nose dive -- Washington, D.C. will be in your debt!

Joel Achenbach: Yeah tomorrow I'm fixing Giant Foods. That's on my list.


Arlington, Va.: Two urgent questions:

Who's your producer?

Milk chocolate or dark?

Joel Achenbach: Meredith Bragg. Dark.


Washington, D.C.: Congrats on your column and online chat, Joel! This has been a long time coming and sorely needed. Now all we need is for Hank Stuever to get a chat and the trifecta (you, Weingarten, and him) will be complete.

Joel Achenbach: I want Hank to write my stuff for me. That's what I want Hank to do. He already has enough acclaim. He should share.


Joel Achenbach: I am going to wrap this up and get back to the Achenblog and the inauguration and the Rough Draft. You know you can email me at achenbachj@washpost.com or to the blog at achenblog@washpost.com. I think we'll be doing another chat next week. Sunday's column is about Blue states, fyi...DVD did the Red, i do the Blue on sunday...cheers, Joel


Getme outtahe, RE: You say you have plans to attend the inauguration, but that means you have to get in the city somehow on Thursday. Car or Metro?

Joel Achenbach: Chopper.


Washington, D.C.: Speaking of ski-related horror stories, I was once writing a feature on ski patrolers for a local paper and was being brought down a slope in the "basket" so I could experience firsthand how the ski patrol worked, etc. and my trip was interrupted for a real emergency -- a young skier had taken a jump off a mogul on an expert slope and landed on a limb which impaled him in the upper leg. They had to bring him down sitting up with the branch still in him because they were afraid he'd bleed to death if they pulled it out before they got him to a hospital (he survived and was back on the slope by the end of the season). Funny thing is, I was in my early 20s then and it didn't seem as horrific as it does now that I'm double that age. Maybe you could get a lot of mileage with the ski theme in future columns -- or are there other death-defying sports you're involved in?

Joel Achenbach: I've had tree limbs impaled like that and it REALLY hurts...thanks for the horrific image! My only other death-defying sport is playing board games, such as Parcheesi. Ok that's all! Thanks...be good...J


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