Innocents abroad

Americans' faith that they can do anything, that they won't be bogged down by the frustrations that stymie lesser peoples, is one of their (our) greatest attributes. And one of the most dangerous.

The French got bogged down in Vietnam? No problem, we'll do it right. The Brits in Iraq? The Soviets (and Brits) in Afghanistan? Step aside, and we'll show you how it's done.

Thus this note in today's NYT from a writer who is determined to keep up her running discipline while in Beijing for the Olympics:

Yes, I'm going. I'll be part of the New York Times reporting team. And yes, I intend to run when I'm in China. I'll even have a training schedule and will e-mail my results to [her coach] and talk to him via Skype.

One running partner, if our plans work out, will be Mary Wittenberg, president of New York Road Runners. She hopes to run for an hour at least every other day, if not more often.

"I'm going in there optimistic," she said. "How bad can it be?"

Hooo boy. ("How bad can it be?," Donald Rumsfeld asked as he approved the stripped-down troop plans for Iraq. "How bad can it be?" asked Robert S. McNamara...)

Before coming here two years ago, I had been a pretty serious runner for many decades in the past. Never broke three hours in the Boston or Marine Corps marathons, but came close. (3:02, but who's counting.) Once insanely took part in a 24-hour relay marathon, in which teams of ten people took turns running a mile each on a track, around the clock -- and our goal was to average under 5:15 per mile over the whole period, though that was long ago.

Yet I have not found it sensible to run outside, even one time, in Shanghai or Beijing. Of course there were days when I could have done so. But on average??? That's what the indoor gym is for, with its illusion of filtered air.

Good luck to the NYT running team, and to the Olympics as a whole. And may America preserve the good parts of its touching "how bad can it be?" creed.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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