We were at 8,500 feet over Garberville, California when Will, in the co-pilot's seat next to me, had a minor panic attack. The battery in his headset had died and its noise reduction had stopped working. As I flicked switches and reseated plugs to attempt a fix, Will began to wail, "It's not working, it's not working!"
Piston-engine airplanes are noisy, especially on takeoff. But in cruise flight, the engine isn't working too hard. It's relatively quiet and electronic noise reduction (ENR) is far from critical. So losing headset power for a few minutes wasn't exactly a life-threatening emergency.
Will was a high school senior. Since the start of our flight, he had stayed deep in his hand-held video game. Will and his mother had come to the airport straight from Stanford Hospital. I wondered if the mini-tantrum was a reaction to the harsh steroid therapy he'd just undergone. Whatever the trigger, the presence of an emotionally labile, 170-pound young man within reach of the airplane's controls troubled me more than just intellectually.
I was flying Will and his mother home for Angel Flight West, a nonprofit that brings together pilot volunteers with patients in need of non-emergency transport. Not all the volunteers are pilots; many plan logistics, liaise with hospitals and social service agencies, raise funds, or otherwise support the organization.
Not all passengers are patients either. Although a majority of the missions are treatment-related, Angel Flight also arranges transport for special needs events (such as burn survivor camps and wounded warrior gatherings), for relief operations personnel, and even for family members with critically ill relatives. AFW operates in the western United States. Altogether nine such nonprofits cover all 50 states, flying many thousands of missions every year.
The vitality of AFW reflects the remarkable ability of Americans to organize and get done what needs doin'. To borrow from de Tocqueville, I admire
... the infinite art with which the inhabitants of the United States [manage] to fix a common goal to the efforts of many men and to get them to advance to it freely.
The cooperative genius of American society is often overlooked. In light of its frequent social eructations of hyper-individualism -- Tea Parties, Ayn Rand fêtes, and the like -- that isn't too surprising. My familiarity with the Indian social sector doubles my admiration. Organizations such as AFW achieve remarkable results with lean rosters and an absence of cant or cults of personality. For instance, I bet the average AFW volunteer has no idea who runs it. Which is as it should be.
Most of my Angel Flight passengers, like Will and his mother, are visiting a Stanford University hospital or clinic. By far the majority are children visiting the Lucille Packard Children's Hospital. They come from as far away as eastern Oregon. Some of the trips have two or three legs of up to 300 miles each.
My youngest passenger so far has been Linda, a veteran of five Angel Flight trips between far northern California and Palo Alto. Racked by gastrointestinal complications, Linda has spent three of her first eight months in Stanford hospitals. Before she has learned to talk, she has had a heart attack. She cannot be moved without her oxygen computer and feed pump.
During our flight, if a change in air pressure hurt her ears, Linda sucked her lips and made clicking sounds. When it hurt bad enough to cry, her resting pulse rate of 150 shot past 200. But for me, Linda made a great passenger, seemingly enraptured, either by my beard or my eyeglasses.
My passengers' ages have ranged into the seventies. Tom is a retiree in his seventies with a successful kidney transplant. A strenuous ten-hour car trip for his annual check up is, thanks to Angel Flight, reduced to two flight hours. Going home with me, he even got to fly the plane!
Perhaps my most unusual trip involved ferrying Susan, a pastor's wife who charmingly expressed curiosity about my religious views. Since I'd read Poulos' Irreligion recently, playing Devil's Advocate with Susan helped the hour fly by. Needless to add, with most folks, religion and politics are not normal conversational fare.
Most of my passengers have been Angel Flight veterans. Their demeanor typically features gratefulness marbled with a stoic weariness. It's usual to see a mother (the accompanying adult is almost always the mother) transparently suppressing her nervousness about flying in a small plane with someone she met ten minutes ago. I find it especially amusing when, upon landing, a tight-lipped parent immediately becomes garrulous. I imagine the relief must overwhelm.
The most notable aspect of this supposedly charitable activity is the remarkable depth of benefits that accrue. My flights, which would otherwise be doomed to being $100 hamburger runs, gain purpose and meaning. Since, unlike $100 hamburger runs, Angel Flights can involve flying in imperfect weather, it's easier for me to remain instrument current. The flights foster connections with people in different situations -- small town Californians, teenage video game savants, even fruit-pickers and manual laborers. That is a cross--section I would otherwise be unlikely to encounter. As yet I have not had a flight or a decision I made during a mission that I regret.
If you're wondering what happened with Will, it turned out fine. As soon as I snapped new batteries into his headset, he calmed down. Then, instead of refocusing on his video game, he began to tell me about his plans to go to college and teach special needs children. When I asked if he'd be interested in flying the plane, he really perked up. We practiced altitude control, turns and descents. Combining the latter two into descending turns appeared to unnerve his mother. But she smiled and held on tightly. We landed uneventfully and took pictures in brilliant sunshine, each happy to be alive.
(For privacy, I've changed the names of the passengers.)
Sanjay Saigal is founder and CEO of Mudrika Education, Inc., with offices in Silicon Valley, CA and Delhi, India.
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.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Thicker ink, fewer smudges, and more strained hands: an Object Lesson
Recently, Bic launched acampaign to “save handwriting.” Named “Fight for Your Write,” it includes a pledge to “encourage the act of handwriting” in the pledge-taker’s home and community, and emphasizes putting more of the company’s ballpoints into classrooms.
As a teacher, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could think there’s a shortage. I find ballpoint pens all over the place: on classroom floors, behind desks. Dozens of castaways collect in cups on every teacher’s desk. They’re so ubiquitous that the word “ballpoint” is rarely used; they’re just “pens.” But despite its popularity, the ballpoint pen is relatively new in the history of handwriting, and its influence on popular handwriting is more complicated than the Bic campaign would imply.
Wine snobs, string quartets, and the limits of intuition
Several months ago, this author sat at a classical music concert, trying to convince himself that wine is not bullshit.
That may seem like a strange thought to have while listening to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major. But Priceonomics had recently posted an article investigating The Price of Wine, part of which reviewed research that cast doubt on both consumers’ and wine experts’ ability to distinguish between quality wine and table wine or identify different wines and their flavors. It seemed a slippery slope to the conclusion that wine culture is nothing more than actors performing a snobbish play.
Listening to an accomplished musician while lacking any musical experience resulted in a feeling familiar to casual wine drinkers imbibing an expensive bottle: Feeling somewhat ambivalent and wondering whether you are convincing yourself that you enjoy it so as not to appear uncultured.
Dealing with misinformation, feeling powerless, and slowly getting better together
I thought the article would validate my husband’s experience. That’s why I emailed him the link to the decade-old New York magazine article about his alma mater, the American Boychoir School for vocal prodigies, where alumni from as late as the 1990s estimate that one in five boys were molested. Boys like Travis.
“It used to feel like an isolated incident that affected just me," Trav said.
It was the end of my workday on an October afternoon; I had just set my keys on the kitchen table. My coat was still buttoned.
“Now I know I spent nearly three years of my childhood at a boarding school not just with random pedophiles, but in a culture that allowed it.”
As his wife, how do I respond? That he survived? That he’s brave? That he’s a hero for letting me talk about it? That I will stand beside him with a personal mission and public vow that nobody will ever hurt him, physically or emotionally, again, the way they did during his 30 months as a choirboy from 1988 to 1990?.
The new drama series, which follows the Colombian kingpin’s rise to power, feels more like a well-researched documentary than the gripping saga it wants to be.
Netflix’s new series Narcos is possibly arriving at the wrong time: The doldrums of summer aren’t really the ideal moment for a narratively dense, documentary-like look at the rise and fall of the Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Narrated in voiceover by DEA Agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), the early hours of Narcos feel like a history lesson, though an visually sumptuous one.
As Netflix continues to expand its streaming empire, it’s making a concerted effort to appeal to worldwide audiences, and Narcos fits neatly into that plan, alongside last year’s expensive critical flop Marco Polo. Narcos was shot on location in Colombia and stars the acclaimed Brazilian actor Wagner Moura as Escobar. It takes full advantage of its setting, loaded with sweeping helicopter shots of the Colombian jungle where Escobar founded his cocaine empire, filling a power vacuum left by various political upheavals in late-’70s South America.
Nervous Democrats are looking for alternatives as Hillary Clinton falters. But is the VP the right person for the job?
“I think panic is the operative mode for the Democratic Party,” David Axelrod, who has been on the receiving end of panic mode many times over the years, told me this week. I had asked Obama’s political guru how bad the current panic was for Hillary Clinton—bad enough for the party to seek an alternative? Bad enough, perhaps, to create an opening for Joe Biden?
Axelrod didn’t think so. “I think it’s indisputable she’s had a rocky few months,” he said. “But if you look at her support among Democrats, and the resources she brings, she’s still very strong—I think she’s going to be the nominee.”
Not everyone is so sure. Public opinion has turned starkly negative on Clinton in recent months, as she has struggled to put the scandal over her use of email as secretary of state to rest. In a poll released this week, the word most commonly summoned when people were asked about her was “liar.”
On the desperation behind the migrant tragedy in Austria
On Thursday, as Krishnadev Calamur has been tracking in The Atlantic’s new Notes section, Austrian authorities made a ghastly discovery: a truck abandoned in the emergency lane of a highway near the Hungarian border, packed with the decomposing bodies of 59 men, eight women, and four children. They are thoughtto be the corpses of migrants who suffocated to death, perhaps two days earlier, in the bowels of a vehicle whose back door was locked shut and refrigeration and ventilation systems weren’t functional. Stray identity documents suggest that at least some of the victims were Syrian—refugees from that country’s brutal civil war. The truck featured an image of a chicken and a slogan from the Slovakian poultry company that the lorry once belonged to: “I taste so good because they feed me so well.”
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Bruce Springsteen’s breakout album embodied the lost ‘70s—the tense, political, working-class rejection of an increasingly unequal society.
Forty years ago, on the eve of its official release, “Born to Run”—the song that propelled Bruce Springsteen into the rock-and-roll stratosphere—had already attracted a small cult following in the American rust belt.
At the time, Springsteen desperately needed a break. Despite vigorous promotion by Columbia Records, his first two albums, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, had been commercial flops. Though his band spent virtually every waking hour either in the recording studio or on tour, their road earnings were barely enough to live on.
Sensing the need for a smash, in late 1974 Mike Appel, Bruce’s manager, distributed a rough cut of “Born to Run” to select disc jockeys. Within weeks, it became an underground hit. Young people flooded record stores seeking copies of the new single, which didn’t yet exist, and radio stations that hadn’t been on Appel’s small distribution list bombarded him with requests for the new album, which also didn’t exist. In Philadelphia, demand for the title track was so strong that WFIL, the city’s top-40 AM station, aired it multiple times each day. In working-class Cleveland, the DJ Kid Leo played the song religiously at 5:55 p.m. each Friday afternoon on WMMS, to “officially launch the weekend.” Set against the E Street Band’s energetic blend of horns, keyboards, guitars, and percussion, “Born to Run” was a rollicking ballad of escape, packed full of cultural references that working-class listeners recognized immediately.
What the Iran “debate” has taught us about our ability to discuss world affairs
Over the past month I’ve run a series of messages from readers in North America, the Middle East, Europe, and elsewhere about the JCPOA Iran-nuclear deal that the Congress will soon formally consider. You can see the latest item here, and the whole collection here. That most recent installment, from Samuel J. Cohen in Israel, emphasized the contrast between the fury over the deal in the United States and Israel, and its taken-for-granted treatment everywhere else.
Here is another reaction worth considering. It is about the way the debate has evolved inside the United States. This comes from a young American who works for a well-known international organization and who himself has experience overseas. He writes: