Chief Cook and Associate Justice

Sandra Day O’Connor’s current book tour reminds me of my favorite D.C. celebrity sighting, now a short video-clip of a memory from a time before mobile phones, the Internet and Comedy Central.

Back in the mid- and late ’80s, when I was a young reporter covering the Hill, I spotted all manner of political muckety-mucks and highfalutin’ talking heads in ordinary places: George Will in a bookstore, Ted Koppel outside a theater (or was that George Will, too?), Iran-Contra figure Elliott Abrams in the airport, Michael Kinsley at the table next to me in a café.

Sure, I covered senators and other powerful folk as part of my job, but always got a nerdy thrill spotting political and Sunday-morning-talk-show celebrities out in the regular world.

(c) Can Stock Photo Inc. / dc_slim

The coolest sighting happened one day at the Chevy Chase Circle Safeway (not to be confused with other Washington, D.C., Safeways with nicknames like the Soviet Safeway and the Social Safeway).

There, on the pay phone just inside the entrance, was U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman appointed to the high court, and she was giving someone instructions: Put the chicken in the oven at such-and-such degrees.

Wow, I thought, Sandra Day O’Connor is calling home, telling someone to put the chicken in the oven, and how to cook the chicken in the oven.

It was so extraordinarily ordinary, so homemaker-like, something my own wonderful mom might have done. Could then-Chief Justice Rehnquist be seen calling home from a grocery store, telling someone to put the chicken in the oven? Could any of the other justices?

Here she was, one of the most powerful people in the land, deciding the most important issues of the day for the most powerful democracy on Earth — and, apparently, attending to the day-to-day management of her household.

As the now-retired justice makes the media rounds, visiting Charlie Rose, Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart, I wonder if her book, Out of Order, makes reference to O’Connor’s work-home balance, her juggling of constitutional analysis and culinary oversight.

At minimum, I appreciate the memory of my supermarket brush with history.

(c) Can Stock Photo Inc. / thesupe87

Don’t Touch That Dial! – Technologically Obsolete Conventions

A gray shadow falls across a frightened face. Thunder cracks outside. She’s alone in the big, creepy house — or is she? There’s a strange creaking, then a slamming sound. A door? A window? Are those footsteps? She frantically tries to place a call for help but … but … the line’s been cut! (Piercing scream!)

Ah, how well these scenes worked in the old black-and-white horror movies, but what happens now? Can’t she simply hide under the bed with her iPhone and call 911? Post a cry for help on Twitter? Or does she say, in a horrified whisper to herself, “If only I’d remembered to charge this thing?”

Technology has progressed so quickly that our electronic devices have all but wiped out some of our favorite plot devices. How many “Seinfeld” episodes would have to be completely rewritten now, given the ubiquity of mobile phones, e-mail and GPS?

Would Jerry and Elaine have gotten lost on the way to visit the “bubble boy” if they’d had GPS, or even Google Maps and a printer? The episode aired in 1992, when some of us thought windows were just glassed-in spaces in our walls.

Would the gang have endured an evening of farcical misunderstandings and ended up at different theaters and, ultimately, Rochelle, Rochelle in a 1993 episode had they simply kept in touch by cell phone?

Could Kramer have crowd-sourced expertise and funding to make his fragrance idea, “The Beach,” a reality? Would it have been funny? Yes to the first question, probably not to the second.

How might their many angry exes have humiliated them on Facebook had it been around then? How many ill-advised e-mail rants and weak retorts would George have sent and tried to unsend?

Technology, of course, hasn’t simply eliminated old conventions of comedic and dramatic plotting. It’s transformed the way many of us do business. The nuts and bolts job of news and feature reporting is light years away from what it was in the first decade of my career.

In the past, when covering unfamiliar territory, I’d plop down a phone book-sized directory of expert sources — and often the phone book itself — and start looking and calling. It might take me two days to find out I’d been calling the wrong people and another day or two to reach the right ones.

Now, using the Internet, I can find and touch base with the right source in a matter of minutes. Something that once took many frustrating days can now be accomplished — literally — in less time than it takes my coffee to cool.

Fifteen years ago, when I went somewhere to cover a story, I’d have to come back to the office to write it or, if it was urgent, I’d call in dictation. I sometimes used a pay phone to do this! You know, you’ve seen those old movies with the male reporters in fedoras, rushing into wooden phone booths to be the first with the big scoop. What I did in the 1990s wasn’t entirely different from that.

Today, with a wireless connection or air card and a laptop, I can cover something on site, or immediately afterward at a nearby cafe. I can photograph and videotape it on my smartphone and, if need be, write it up on that phone or use the device to actually call someone and dictate. While I may want to be “out of pocket” occasionally, a mobile phone with e-mail and text messaging means I usually don’t have to be.

With an Internet connection, my home office, or cafe office, has access to the same information, databases and other digital power tools of virtually any office, anywhere. I can write for anyone, anywhere. We can go from introduction to pitch or assignment in minutes.

That’s just the proverbial tip of what these technologies can, and will, do. Webcasts, video chat, digital editing and recording programs open a world of potential, and potential new worlds, to anyone with a computer. We can record music in our own “studio” and sell it on the Internet, make our own film and market or show it online, and so on.

This may not be news, but sometimes it’s worthwhile to stop, take a breath, and ponder where we’ve come and where we’re going.

What other plot ploys no longer work in films and novels set in the present day because of the technology revolution? What standard practices in your occupation and industry have largely disappeared, and what has replaced them, for the same reason? Please share!

Start the (Coffee) Presses!

By Dinah Wisenberg Brin

I do a lot of writing in neighborhood cafes, spending much of my daily work hours in a shop about five blocks from home. It’s often easier to concentrate amidst the bustle and conversation of the coffee house than at home, with its quiet distractions.

Cafes serve coffee — and, in the Internet age, as alternative newsrooms.

The cafe is full of people hovering over laptops and netbooks, playing or working or both. I’m hardly the only journalist or writer among them. Once, a guy sitting two or three tables away figured out I was a reporter.

“Who do you write for?” he asked. I told him I freelance for various publications. He, it turns out, was an editor for a news outlet where I worked as a staff reporter years ago. He was outside the office that day so he could work on a project without interruption.

Yesterday, on my way to the cafe, I noticed that two blocks of nearby South Street were closed off and firefighters were at work. I asked a barista what was going on, and the customer next to me piped up.

“Lorenzo’s burned,” he said. “I’m posting about it now.”

An iconic Philadelphia pizza shop was gutted (this news actually trended on Twitter) and the guy next to me was reporting about it on a real estate blog.

In the Internet era, cafes are a new newsroom – one face of the larger telecommuting-virtual office trend. Two winters ago, in the aftermath of a blizzard, I sat in another neighborhood cafe, where I interviewed by phone an executive who was snowed in at home — with his in-laws — elsewhere on the East Coast. An editor snowed in at her home in another state edited my story.

These cafe newsrooms may not have hard-boiled, or softhearted, news editors sending reporters out to grab man-on-the-street interviews about the weather, and they don’t have crackling police radios. They do have their share of quirky characters and good eavesdropping opportunities, and the coffee is much better than that hardened stuff at the bottom of the Mr. Coffee carafe in the newspaper break room.