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The Lost Art Of Lunch

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Robert and I have been trying to lunch together since June. He works in Georgetown, which isn't far, but this isn't a matter of miles.

Alas, the art of lunching seems to be getting lost in Washington among my set -- let's say around Obama's age, 48 and under. For those in their 30s, this seems all the more true. There simply doesn't seem to be enough time, even on a slow summer day, to get together and compare notes on the passing parade in the nation's capital.

Take this week. I was scheduled to lunch with three friends: Robert Monday, Sarah Thursday and John Friday. This was an unusually full dance card for a week. Reader, every one of these plans fell through the floor, but that's not what bothered me. What struck me is that I wasn't surprised at that outcome. We the people in the chattering, creative and governing class do not often enjoy quotidian rituals.

Starting with Robert, a gentleman of letters: we failed to connect by e-mail or mobile, although we both left and sent messages that morning. By 12:15 I was having a fine impromptu lunch with our former editor, Al Eisele, in the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars dining room.

But because Robert and I never actually picked up the landline phone to call each other, we missed the connection. Our 21st century systems failed. Again, we put it off. We're kind of like Charlie Brown and the football: there's always next time, next week. Al, who knows the way of the world well, is of the vintage that believes in sitting down, breaking bread and having a few shared laughs and stories with sources, scholars and colleagues.

The joke may be on us, the Facebook crowd that has a hard time meeting face to face.

Robert's father, the peerless Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., was the foremost American historian of his generation, and a fabulous bon vivant in New York literati circles. His published a captivating book of Journals 1952-2000. The pages are full of vignettes from breakfast with Henry Kissinger, lunch with Bill Moyers, a dinner party at Jackie's or with President Clinton's ambassador to France, Pamela Harriman. He knew how to write and live large in telling the tales of his times. He caught the characters in portraits with a living light on them, not by going to meetings and checking his Blackberry all day.

Sarah and I share an intellectual zest for Abraham Lincoln. I like to claim him as my historical boyfriend, but she understands the man from Illinois just as well or probably better. She directs education programming at the polished, restored Ford's Theatre, not far from where I work on Pennsylvania Avenue. Right between the White House and Ford's, the route of Lincoln's last ride. Table talk about Lincoln with this bright young expert would be a real Washington treat.

But Sarah got pulled into a meeting shortly before lunch time and couldn't come over Thursday. Dashed, I consoled myself with looking ahead to the Friday lunch date with John, a government lawyer and author. He and I met by e-mail across the world after the September 11th attacks. A commentary I wrote on how it affected our generation - history hitting home for the first time - somehow reached him at the end of the earth. We struck up a rapport and friendship that way, as unlikely as it sounds, that lasts to this day.

I thought this time was more ironclad because I kept getting calendar messages and reminders, but no. Something at work came up close to the noon hour, and so John and I are down for Wednesday with Thursday as a back-up. Truth be told, Sarah and I are meeting at 11:30 Thursday and Robert and I are going to give an summer lunch another try on Tuesday.

As for all of us sitting down together, that sounds like a lot of fun, but it would never happen. I'll keep you posted, if you will, on next week.

Jamie Stiehm is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

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