Tuesday, September 17, 2013


Lighten our darkness ~The Book of Common Prayer
Sunlight is the best disinfectant ~Louis Brandeis
There's no reason to become alarmed, and we hope you'll enjoy the rest of your flight. By the way, is there anyone on board who knows how to fly a plane?               ~ Elaine, in Airplane! 
I was once trapped in the cabin of a DC-10, on the ground at the Dar es Salaam airport, for three hours. (There’s a statement not everyone can make, although my 350 fellow-passengers can.) It was steamy-hot to begin with, and it didn’t get any cooler as the hours passed. I’m a lanky guy, and since the plane was full, the only relief from the torture-chamber leg room of the coach seats was exactly the same as if we were in the air: an awkward pacing up and down the aisle. The down-time at Dar, when added to the scheduled flight time from Kilimanjaro to Amsterdam, made for a total knees-to-chin ordeal of eleven hours. But enough about my personal myalgic nightmare.

The captain came on the public address system every once in a while with a vague announcement about working on the situation and hoping to get off the ground shortly. But here’s the thing: he didn’t come on frequently enough, and he didn’t give us any real information. Thirty to forty-five minutes passed between these ambiguous announcements – enough time (and little enough information) to allow rumors to begin circulating among the passengers. In our scheduled arrival from Kilimanjaro we had experienced a mildly rough landing – the kind where the wheels hit the runway with a bit of a jolt – and someone translated this into the pilot having broken the landing gear. It turned out that our delay had absolutely nothing to do with the landing or the landing gear, but with no regular updates or precise reporting to counter this bit of fancy, it made the rounds of the cabin. And that was just one of the rumors. As the mystery continued and the atmosphere became more stifling, one passenger across the way actually stood up, began tearing off his suitcoat and wailing something like, “I can’t take it anymore…” (I’m sure that’s not what he said, but, hey, it’s been a few years.) I half-expected members of the cast of “Airplane” to come down the aisle and calm him down with wise-cracks and bad puns.

Just before finally taking off, the captain made a cheery announcement that the air-conditioning (of course!) had been repaired and we’d be on our way. I don’t have any idea about what could have alleviated our physical discomfort (short of letting us off the plane), but our mental torment could have been lessened or eliminated with a generous dose of information.

This episode and its lesson came back to me today as I was on a much more prosaic journey: travelling up I-35 to make a hospital call in Minneapolis. I had planned my trip with a fairly strict time allowance, and as I saw indications of road construction ahead, I began to experience just a bit of nervousness about my timetable. And then I noticed a number of things, one after the other. They were pieces of information. First I saw a sign telling me to prepare for one-lane traffic, then a notice telling me to expect to stop if the sign’s lights were flashing (they weren’t); just as I was contemplating a self-designed detour, I saw a placard lit up with digital numerals that indicated how long it would take to get to the river crossing (the end of construction and the gateway into downtown Minneapolis – my destination). This estimated-time signboard allowed me see with a glance that my detour would be a fool’s errand – adding many more minutes to my trip than staying the course and winding my way patiently through the construction zone. Finally, there was a notice stating that both lanes should be used until the point of merging into a single lane. (This relatively new and
helpful method makes it possible for the driver in the left lane to approach the merge without getting the one-finger salute from the driver in the right.) With each bit of information, my nervousness lessened, and I arrived at the hospital with time to spare.

Information got me through. Light in the darkness. The enlightening and therapeutic value of information is why a church should design ways to help the visitor navigate through the liturgy, it is why I should tell my friend what’s been bothering me, it is why family secrets are almost always destructive, it is why web sites ought to be kept up to date, it is why the president should level with us, it is why I should tell my wife that I love her, it is why I should read the instructions before assembling the IKEA desk.

And it is why perspiring passengers in a grounded airplane should be given regular and illuminating updates – or be let out into the sunlight.


Wednesday, September 4, 2013


In a New York Times Book Review article of "The Somme," by Peter Hart, the reviewer notes that the author "daringly... comes to the defense of Douglas Haig, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force, who has usually been depicted as an unimaginative idiot who sent the flower of British youth to an early grave for no good reason." (The 1916 WWI Battle of the Somme remains the most lethal single episode in British combat history—and one of the most deadly in the history of civilization—with over 19,000 killed in the first 24 hours.) Debating the case for the reclamation of the general’s reputation is of interest to me,* but it is the following assertion in Hart’s book that inspires this essay: "It is inane," Hart contends, "to adopt the morbid sentimentality of portraying the men who took part as helpless victims. ... On the contrary, many were actively looking forward to the moment when they could finally prove themselves as full-fledged 'warriors."

There is, however, a major problem with assigning to the young soldiers the responsibility for throwing themselves into the deathly fray -- a problem that is underscored by recent studies in brain development (as reported in, among hundreds of other sites, the American Psychological Association's journal, "Monitor"). Most of these studies cite twenty-five as the approximate age at which the "executive" or judgmental brain is fully developed. Decisions made prior to that age are undertaken in an immature context of risk-taking and poor judgment. So it is simply a fact of life (and brain science) that a great proportion of young men will, of course, seek to "prove themselves as full-fledged warriors." As with decisions (in this stage of life) having to do with drinking, speeding, and sexuality, they don't know what they're doing. (Of course I'm overstating for effect -- but not by much! Do you recall the wisdom of your judgments at age nineteen?)

One reasonable conclusion toward which this brain research leads is that it ought to be illegal for anyone under the age of twenty-five to sign up for (or be recruited to) military service. Of course by that age they are beginning to realize that a guy could actually die, and to discover, in the words of the motto emblazoned on a popular brand of apparel worn by many of them, that "Life is Good." Like tobacco vendors hooking middle-schoolers, a military culture must get to the kids before they've wised up.

In any event, these studies have huge implications for how a humane nation goes about recruiting citizens for war-fighting. One such implication is that encouraging young men and women to sign up for battle may be the moral equivalent of an adult having sex with a teen-ager, or at least, to use a quaint phrase out of our dusty statutes, "contributing to the delinquency of a minor."
* Wade Davis, in Into The Silence, his compelling study of the role of British officers and soldiers in World War I, reports that General Haig’s son raised this intriguing defense of his father, who never once saw the front or visited the wounded: “The suffering of his men during the Great War caused him great anguish. I believe that he felt that it was his duty to refrain from visiting the casualty clearing stations because these visits made him physically ill.”

(title citation: Phil Ochs)