The flight attendant walks the aisle before take-off, checking for reclined seat-backs, open overhead bins, and live electronic devices. The woman seated next to the editor is reading a romance novel on her Kindle.
"Ma'am, please turn off your book," the attendant says. It's a phrase the editor hasn't heard before and he makes a mental note, thinking he might use it in the weekly column he writes for a Memphis newspaper. With a sigh, the woman turns off her book. The editor smugly returns to Freedom, the massive Jonathan Franzen novel he has lugged along for the five-hour journey to San Francisco. The editor is headed to a web conference, where he will learn "best practices" for increasing traffic to his newspaper's website.
The following day, the editor is told by an earnest woman using a PowerPoint presentation that "the future is mobile." He notes the roomful of bored people subtly browsing the Internet and checking messages on their cellphones and thinks, No, the present is mobile. The future is unknown, even by well-paid presenters with PowerPoint.
The editor learns about many new mobile apps geared to newspaper websites, including one that tells its users where the nearest happy hours are at surrounding bars. This, he thinks, is totally stupid. He remembers past web conferences, where he was told his newspaper needed to use "recommending" sites such as "Reddit" and "Digg" or else fall by the wayside, buried in a revolutionary avalanche of pixels and meta-tabs. Now Reddit and Digg have fallen by the wayside. The editor takes some satisfaction in this.
That evening, he goes to dinner with editors and publishers from St. Louis, Little Rock, and Salt Lake City and hears what is working and not working for them in their cities. The editor learns more in an hour than he learned all day. As the wine flows, the talk slowly turns from business to personal — children, divorces, career moves, dessert.
Back in his hotel room, Freedom waits on the bedside table and the editor falls back into Franzen's three-generational tale of family dysfunction. He doesn't like many of the characters but the story is compelling and he doesn't stop reading until he's finished, late in the night. As he closes the book, a foghorn sounds over the bay.
How liberating it must be, the editor thinks, to write in the third person, to tell a story as though it were observed rather than experienced. Should he try writing his column in the third person, he wonders. Why not, he thinks? Why not?