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State of Wonder

Joel Achenbach, Explained

by Matt Jones

Joel Achenbach sizes me up in the elevator. A grin crosses his lips as his gaze meets mine. “Yeah, I’m gonna need to borrow your tie,” he says. The doors split open, and we step into a small alcove off The Washington Post fifth-floor newsroom. He turns to face me. Before sunrise that morning, a time zone away, I’d fumbled around my closet in Dallas for the skinny black tie that I’m now fumbling to unknot and pull loose from my collar. When Joel Achenbach asks to borrow your tie, you don’t wait for an explanation. You give him your tie.

“Wow, this is nice,” he says, giving it a mock inspection at arm’s length. “Where’d you get this?” Before I can answer, he tags a passing reporter into the conversation so he can disappear — but not before flashing me a genuine smile of appreciation.

Joel steps into a small soundproof studio in the center of the Post’s newsroom, a bubble of calm in a buzzing beehive of journalists. Within 20 minutes, he’s taping a remote talking-head piece about missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 for MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews. Joel waits for his cue on a wobbly high-school-picture-day stool, fidgeting. He bears the slightly-too-composed expression common among those who’ve never quite mastered the art of appearing on camera. The studio lights really bring out the dark circles under his eyes.

Joel’s published seven books, covering subjects as varied as the Supreme Court’s historic Bush v. Gore decision in 2001 (It Looks Like a President Only Smaller: Trailing Campaign 2000) and George Washington’s scheme to use the Potomac River as an East-West artery across the nascent United States of America in 1784 (The Grand Idea: George Washington’s Potomac and the Race to the West).
 He pored through more than 20,000 pages of unreleased government documents for his last book, A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher, which focused on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Trained at the Miami Herald back in its Pulitzer heyday with funnyman Dave Barry and investigating legend Jeff Leen, Joel’s worked at the Post for 24 years, the last six writing deadline stories and features at the national desk.

But underneath all those grown-up achievements and responsibilities, Joel’s still a kid at heart asking me for a tie and bumming a blazer off a colleague. In the last week alone, he’s covered stories on evidence supporting the Big Bang theory (space!) and a previously undiscovered species of oviraptorosaurs (dinosaurs!). This morning, he rejected a breaking news story announcing the discovery of 2012 VP113, a small planetoid beyond Pluto. “NEW PLANET DISCOVERED” is always fun and will get clicks, he explains, but it’s not newsworthy. “It’s, what, this rock 250 miles across? It’s a planet too far.”

Regarding the tie, in Joel’s defense, MSNBC called him on an hour’s notice. Chris Matthews knows what Joel will bring to the table — and gets right to the point of the newscast. “Joel, thanks so much for joining us,” says Matthews. “I love people that can learn things quickly and put them together in simple, basic, understandable English. You know, all hopes lie with this black box. Where should they lie?”

“Well, this is a very daunting search,” Joel responds into thin air. Matthews is behind his desk at the MSNBC studios half a mile away. “And as far as the likelihood, will they actually find this plane? This is a challenge. This is more like a needle in a hayfield, or actually, many hayfields.”

As he finds his rhythm, Joel chooses each word more carefully. He speaks slowly, deliberately, enunciating where he should enunciate, blowing through details where he should blow through details. “Someone said it’s like mowing the entire state of Alaska with a — you know — a tractor that’s a mile wide, but it only goes about three miles an hour. So it’s going to be a very slow and arduous search, and I think they’re going to have to get lucky.”

The spot lasts about 10 minutes. When the studio cuts the feed, Joel stands, thanks the tech, and emerges from the booth to find no less than three people waiting to commandeer his attention. Joel can’t slip into isolation for long. As he and his editor discuss the latest write-through of his missing airplane story, he pulls off my tie and hands it back with a wink. The gaggle around him breaks into laughter, and battle rhythm resumes.

This is what Joel Achenbach does for a living: He explains things in everyman terms. He chanced upon the gig while at the Miami Herald. His syndicated column, “Why Things Are,” and the three books it spawned are crack cocaine for the intellectual crowd. He can explain why time speeds up as we get older, why Citizen Kane is considered the best film of all time, and why horrible songs like “The Candy Man” and “Kung Fu Fighting” get stuck in our heads. When a fellow Post reporter calls him not just a writer but a full-blown narrative writer, Joel appears genuinely taken aback. He’s more surprised than offended; she might as well have referred to him as an inflationary cosmologist. “I’m a pedant. I’m an explainer,” he says.

This week, he’s the Post’s lead reporter on what he calls the “missing plane” beat. He sounds like a salesman running through patter as he raps off what he knows to date about the Malaysia Airlines disappearance into a telemarketer-type headset. “Can you give me some more texture on that?” he asks, leaning back in an office chair, right ankle crossed over his left knee. Joel absorbs information like a sponge. His brain is always hungry, ravenous, craving more —more details, more data. “Like, at — at what exact moment did you find out there was an airplane that went missing? Can you put me there? Is there, I don’t know — a special red phone? A Batphone?”

His fingertips drum a few mindless notes into a blank Microsoft Word document. Then suddenly, Joel leans forward in his chair — tilts forward, more like, shifting his center of gravity — ’til he’s hunched over the keyboard, typing furiously. For the next 20 minutes, he hashes out the nuances of digital handshakes, partial digital handshakes, tracking beacons, transponders. If his brain is always hungry, then this phone call is an all-you-can-eat buffet.

The Post’s Web editor Tracy Grant raves about Joel’s insatiable appetite for facts. Lots of writers try to cover a lack of information or shoddy reporting with flowery language or good words or workarounds. Joel gets the info. “Joel is just a 10-year-old trapped in a grown man’s body,” she says. “He always asks why.”

Bottom line, Joel says, “I get paid to learn.” In a permanent state of wonder, he chips away at the unknown, one “Why?” at a time.

Ask Joel, and he’ll say he doesn’t have any skills. He doesn’t know how to do anything. He’s just worked for a bunch of people who’ve been really nice to him.

Jeff Leen tells it differently. Jeff, the Post’s investigating editor, has known Joel since 1982 when they were pals at the Miami Herald. “When he was 21 years old, he was already a fully formed talent — almost a prodigy,” says Jeff. That was the summer Joel graduated from Princeton University with a bachelor’s degree in politics and took an internship
at the Herald. To see what the newbie could do, the editors sent him to cover the funeral of a local drug dealer’s wife. Joel came back with a 43- inch “mind-blowing” piece full of perception, detail, dialogue, and body language. “It was clear he was a special talent,” says Jeff.

Jeff tells the story of Joel covering a routine (read: dull) judicial race in Florida. Judges don’t receive lifetime appointments there; they have to re-run for office every term. The incumbents run unopposed in most small towns, but the air was always thick with tension on the last day of filing as reporters waited to see who would show up at the district office to declare candidacy. Joel parked himself in the Naples office, says Jeff, and based his story on the incumbent judges clustered together in a corner, biting their nails. “Joel’s a close observer. Being a noticer of human behavior is how you mine little bits of comedy,” says Jeff. “He gets
a lot of humor out of body language. It takes intelligence to be funny — in order to be funny, you need the facts first.”

Joel soft-pedals his talents. Born and raised in Gainesville, Florida, he had what he calls “a little bit of a Huck Finn childhood.” He helped his mother and stepfather grow and sell their own food — Aztec corn, bean sprouts, lentils, mung beans. They planted azaleas and sold them for a dollar each. Joel washed cars, landscaped, hauled furniture, worked at a plant nursery, split discarded chunks of telephone poles and sold them as firewood for $25 a bundle. A good part of his first 18 years of life was spent doing manual labor.

Marc Fisher, senior editor at The Washington Post, remembers Joel as young, eager and self-effacing. He met Joel when the two were students at Princeton. Joel approached Marc in the library to ask for advice about working at the student newspaper, The Daily Princetonian. “He called me ‘Mr. Fisher,’” says Marc with an amused grin. “He had this hangdog manner to him that was totally captivating.”

Across 32 years, Marc and Joel have followed similar tracks. Both went from Princeton to the Miami Herald to The Washington Post. Their respective first daughters were born within weeks of each other. Both live the frantic, largely reactive life required of those who pursue journalism. “Joel has an amazing variety of moves, both in long-form and a story you can turn around in three hours,” Marc says at his cluttered desk, phone wedged between his right shoulder and his cheek. He talks while on hold. “Like all great news people, he wants to do it all.”

Joel’s arrival at the Post in 1990 was a “breath of fresh air,” according to Marc. Joel had come from a “wild wild West” paper in Miami and was used to writing stories more creatively, loosely, on the fly. “He’s retained a childlike openness to the world and its experiences,” Marc says, on hold again. “He has this intense curiosity about him.”

Joel started at the Post as a feature writer for the Style section. But when big news like the O.J. Simpson murder trial and Bill Clinton’s impeachment broke, he got the goods. “Like many in the business, he’s addicted to the news,” says Marc. “Whenever Joel takes time off to write a book, he misses the adrenaline rush of the news.”

At the Miami Herald, Joel had started writing “Why Things Are,” a column about the everyday world, mundanities that most of us don’t bother to think about. Why do telephone cords get tangled? Why do we procrastinate when we know it’s bad for us? Why is it better to slice a sandwich diagonally, rather than straight across? He continued the column at the Post, accepting reader submissions and mining his brain for things to wonder about. The Washington Post Writers Group agreed to syndicate the column. “Why Things Are” ran in more than 50 newspapers nationwide — as far as Detroit, Orange County, and Atlanta — until Joel put it to bed in 1996. He credits the column as his gateway into explanatory journalism: “I was trying to make it funny and goofy and entertaining, but gradually I began to move more toward straight science writing.”

Among the hundreds of “Why Things Are” columns that Joel wrote, his editors have only spiked one: “Why is there something instead of nothing?” This was in 1995. “It’s the ultimate existential question,” Joel says. Why does anything exist at all? He put in calls to cosmologists and philosophers, dove into research about the Big Bang and the origins of the universe. “It’s important to remember that we’re working for the readers and not for our sources,” he explains.

“When you tell a story, you’re telling it to an audience. And your audience is the ordinary person, who’s not an expert on inflationary cosmology.” He gestures out the window, down toward the street at the passing crowd. “All these people out here, this is a smart community. A lot of people are smart. I never sense that I’m ever dumbing anything down for people because I don’t — it’s not like I understand it at some level and I’m gonna simplify it. I’m going all out.”

Joel’s editor called the piece “too incomprehensible and abstract” for a syndicated column. It’s the only time his reach exceeded his grasp, but the attempt distills his unique set of skills down to its essence: “I do believe that if you can get good enough at acquiring information and then making some sense of it, that as vague as that may sound as a skill, it’s kind of your key to the kingdom. You can go anywhere. There’s always gonna be a market for people who can find things out and tell a story.”

It’s 6:15 p.m. by the time Joel gets a break. There’s a cigar store that he meant to drop into today about a 15-minute walk from the office — and they close in 15 minutes. He says we can make it if we walk fast.

Joel prides himself on his status as a generalist. “You know how they say someone’s knowledge is a mile wide and an inch deep?” he says, perched on the curb, waiting for the crosswalk signal. The orange hand gives way to the friendly white waving man, and we cross the street. “Mine’s wider than that, but no deeper.”

He begins to explain that during his undergraduate years at Princeton, he felt like a “blank slate.” As a result, he says, “I became
a bit of an autodidact. Everyone there was much smarter than me, and my high-school education” — he pauses to choose his words diplomatically—“wasn’t particularly rigorous.” He eventually selected politics as a major. “But I think I always, in the back of my head, knew I was gonna end up being a reporter. It was the right match for me, in part because I don’t know how to do anything.”

The first time Joel applied to the Miami Herald, they said no. It was spring 1981, his junior year of college, and he was interviewing for a summer internship. His interviewers (legends Pete Weitzel and Gene Miller) considered him “unseasoned,” Joel says. “Not eccentric, but I was unformed. Undeveloped. Not exactly very grown up yet.” But one of Joel’s close friends from Princeton (multiple Pulitzer Prize winner Bart Gellman) intervened, and Joel was hired “sight unseen and un-interviewed” for an internship at the San Jose Mercury News. He spent the summer of 1981 – “a magical summer” – working in California and burning gas up and down the coast in his ocean liner of a 1967 Mercury Monterey.

The following spring, Joel applied to the Miami Herald again. This time, they said yes.

Technically, we get to the cigar store at 6:31, a minute past closing time. The shopkeeper lets us stay, though: “You made it through
the doors,” he says, not quite smiling. Joel selects two Cubans from the dozens of cigars displayed beneath glass cases on red velvet, like diamonds. He’s treating himself while the wife’s out of town, he explains with a sly grin.

We cut across Junction Circle so Joel can stop at a 24-hour bookstore he favors. As we stand side-by-side, he offers a single commandment of writing advice: Read for fun.

Conversation trails off as we ogle the window display like we’re teenagers at a strip club. “You’re a grad student, yeah?” I nod yes. “So you’re probably not reading much for fun these days?” he says.

“Not really,” I respond, transfixed by a new Michael Chabon book. “Mostly just”— luckily, the words “your books” set off klaxon alarms in my mental filter — “you know, school stuff.”

You’ve got to read for fun, he says. Study how the professionals do it. Look for little tricks in language. “It’s how you learn to use and play with words,” he says.

Funny he says that. In A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea, I had underlined a passage where Joel inserted a speaker’s thought process into a quote — mid-sentence — without breaking the flow. (See two paragraphs above for a test run of this technique.)

There are days when Joel Achenbach feels as if he’s one good cup of coffee away from being a Master of the Universe.

Or so he says with his crooked grin as
four lanes of traffic separate him from the Starbucks a block east of The Washington
 Post building. It’s a Friday afternoon. So far today, he’s filed a new post on his professional blog — the Achenblog — and written the first draft of Saturday’s front-page story about the Malaysia Airlines search. His eyes race across a still-warm printout as he waits for the light to change.

The “Master of the Universe” quip comes from that morning’s blog, it turns out. The Achenblog is Joel’s professional oasis from hard news, where he stretches the humor muscle when he needs a break from transponders and tracking beacons and partial digital hand- shakes. To scratch the itch, he posts musings on life, the universe, and everything as raw copy to the Internet. (“Not trending since 2005” is its mocking-the-blogsphere motto.) One week, he’s musing about the Breaking Bad finale. The next he might be offering his two cents on parenting or debunking the latest controversial claim about the Shroud of Turin. “I’ve been doing it for nine years, and I haven’t gotten the operation shut down yet,” he says.

In 1999, when Internet access for most Americans came courtesy of the harsh modem screeches and hearty greeting of America Online, Joel started publishing “Rough Draft,” the newsroom’s first online-only column. His editors considered it novel, almost pioneering. In 2005, when the term “blog” was synonymous with angst-ridden teenagers baring their souls on Xanga and LiveJournal, he started the newspaper’s first blog — the Achenblog.

True to form, though, he insists he wasn’t doing anything special: “I was early to the game, but I was still just writing sentences. I was still doing essentially text. The column was the same thing I’ve always done. It was just done in the morning and finished by noon. That’s the only difference.”

The Achenblog has a fan base, a cult following that calls itself the Boodle. Some Boodlers have advanced degrees, others work in government, others are everyday readers. Joel calls the Boodle a “safe haven on the Internet” for intelligent people and civil conversation, a refuge of reasonable debate a step above the flaming and trolling of the masses. Walking into Starbucks, he sounds like a proud papa as he points out the McCormick & Schmick’s where the Boodlers sometimes gather for drinks.

Joel orders a small, half-caff coffee. He must not need much of a boost to officially hit “Master of the Universe” status.

Every day, Joel takes a 10-minute walk from the Post building to Whole Foods for lunch. He snags scoops of fresh vegetables from the salad bar at random, piling them on his plate. “If I pick a little bit of everything,” he reasons, “I’m bound to end up putting something healthy into my body.” As he climbs to the café over- looking the grocery aisles, it’s clear his brain’s still at the office.

Is there a book in this missing Malaysia airplane?

“Not for me,” he says. He spears something green and leafy and pops it into his mouth.

“How about A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea?” The 2011 book about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was his first book-length investigation into a single hard-news event. It’s a 250-page “Why Things Are” column, explaining in simple English why a black plume (a plume!) pouring into the ocean from beneath the waters proved so frustratingly difficult to stopper. “How’d you decide to write that one?”

“My publisher called me. I said yes.” He keeps chewing, his mind elsewhere, until he does a double take. “Wait, you read my book?” All but the last chapter, I say.

He swipes a palm through the air dismissively as if waving away a fly. “You’ve read it. It could’ve used another six months.” Joel’s oddly tight-lipped about his books; he doesn’t like to discuss his babies after they’re delivered.

Definitely don’t ask him about his book, Captured by Aliens: The Search for Life and Truth in a Very Large Universe — Joel’s attempt to delve into our fascination with extraterrestrials and the science behind the search for alien life. Joel failed to dig up any definitive evidence confirming or denying the existence of life beyond planet Earth. The book ends on a similar note of ambiguity, a choice that proved controversial with readers.

A reporter doing a profile in Joel’s hometown newspaper, The Gainesville Sun, once asked him about Captured by Aliens. Joel’s first response was a joke, a quip that the book “sold in the dozens nationwide.” As he elaborated, though, a tinge of insincerity leaked through, noticeable only in contrast to his real-life, no-bull conversational style: “I think the problem was there were no aliens in it. The next time I write a book on the topic of aliens, I’m going to make sure, by gosh, it has aliens in it.”

It’s tempting to label Joel Achenbach as a computer with a personality. He’s an input-output machine. Input data (so much meticulously researched data). Output (a version of events that makes sense to the common man). Rinse. Repeat. It would be just as tempting to take his friends’ word for it and pigeon-
hole him as a 10-year-old in an adult body. Sometimes — in his blog and op-ed pieces — he layers in his personality and his boyish sense of humor. He’s Hobbes’ pal Calvin with Internet access and a press badge. Joel makes sense of the universe for himself, because he needs to understand. He just found a way to make it pay.

Maybe, in the end, it’s best to let the explainer explain himself.

“Hey, when you’re writing this thing,” Joel says, “make sure you put in what I said about how lucky I’ve been. I mean, when I was a kid, I wanted to grow up to write for The Washington Post.”

It’s Friday afternoon, and the sidewalks are clogged with pedestrians ducking out of work early. The first real sun the city’s seen in two days fills the otherwise empty cafeteria of the Post.

“I have no skills.” he says. “If you have no skills, and you wander around in a permanent state of curiosity, wonder, awe and astonishment at the world, being a newspaper reporter’s a good gig. You can spend your life probing the mysteries of the universe and the meaning of life, and they’ll pay you for that. That’s the sort of — what’s better than that?”

He pauses, meets my gaze imploringly. He’s not being rhetorical. “Right?” he asks.

Joel Achenbach, Explained
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