The Looming Tower

Years ago I was in a book club that read Lawrence Wright’s book The Looming Tower: Al-Queda and the Road to 9/11. I didn’t read the book then, but was fascinated during the discussion, particularly with the story of Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian academic and political dissident who came to the United States in the 1950s to study at the Univesity of Northern Colorado, in Greeley.  Shocked by the sexualized secularism and racism of this rural Colorado town, Qutb returned to Egypt and wrote a book titled, Milestones, that became the seed for the anti-western thought that fueled terrorists like Osama bin Laden, Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, Amman al-Zawahiri.

Another interesting note from the book is the role Jamal Khashoggi played as an interminteary sent by the Saudi Government to Sudan to lure bin Laden back to Saudi Arabia with the hope that he would give up his jihad rhetoric.  Of course after 9/11 Khashoggi would begin to critique the Saudi royal regime for being undmeocratic, till he was eventually murdered by the Saudi Goveernment on the orders of Prince Mohammad bin Salman in October of 2018.

The book is a stark reminder of hubris that has marked America’s greatest blunders of the last 100 years.  From Vietnam to Iraq the false superiority generated by technological military might has killed thousands upon thousands of Americans in the pursuit of policy that is created by people who have no idea who their enemy is.  

Ground Zero, New York City

On the other hand The Looming Tower also provides a stark assessment of how lucky Al-Qaddafi and bin Laden was time and time again.  It was only the United States’ complete failure to understand the threat that allowed the timeline of horrors that began with the African Embassy bombings to continue.  Bin Laden too misunderstood his enemy believing that the 9/11 attacks would propel the United States to disnegrate as a world power and withdrawal from the Middle East while also believing hundred of thousands of faithful Muslims would flock to Afghanistan to join Al-Queda and bin Laden.

Lawrence Wright is a gifted writer who has a unique ability to thread often complicated plot lines and unfamiliar concepts together while providing the reader with a narrative that never bogs down.  Unfortunately, almost ten years after the death of bin Laden, most Americans have moved on from Al-QaedaQ and bin Laden. The lessons will be forgotten, even now I wonder what threat looms in the fog.  

100 Days

Saturday, May 18, 2019 was exactly 100 days till the 2019-2020 school year begins. As a joke I posted that fact to my facebook page and raised the ire of a number of teacher friends. Though at times I may be rightfully accused of being a contrarian I wanted to make light of one of my biggest struggles, future planning and time management. Being a high school teacher means that for the majority of my life, I have had summers off. Like kids, teachers also begin the summer in a state of suspended bliss knowing that for seventy plus long days they can craft their own destiny and do what they please. Teachers have the added beauty of knowing that long delayed plans, projects and dreams can be tackled during these halcyon days.

And yet, like students the summer days slip away, like trying to cup water in your hands the time pours out till the next school year is here. How many times I have felt a churning of regret in the middle of August about the opportunity lost from another summer. And when you look back at what emergency must have stolen your summer hopes away, rarely can you find one. Instead you are left thinking of the mundane things you did to whittle away the summer.

This summer is going to be different.

Last month, while visiting DC, I was shocked by the number of people I saw navigating life in the city on their phones. It’s not that I don’t see people in Montana, on their phones all the time, I do. What was different in DC was the number of people in transit on their phones.

Union Station, Washington DC

I too spend far too much on my phone, on my computer. One thing I know for certain, I’m not going to regret spending more time on my phone at the end of this summer. “I wish I had checked the weather more, I wish I had seen if anyone emailed or texted” are all things I will not being saying. “I wish I had one more ride, one more run, one more adventure” is what I will be wishing for.

Washington, DC

Turning my phone off is not going to win this summer. It’s often been said that the power of procrastination is the idea that “I have to” and that simply thinking “I get to” can transform the procrastinator into a force of action. Despite hearing this hundreds of times I have always struggled to implement this important cognitive change. Then I heard Sam Harris talk about gratitude and it clicked. Harris’ own words will show you,

I’d like to talk for a few minutes about gratitude. 

There’s now a lot of research that suggests that gratitude is good for us. (No surprise there.)

And, as an emotion
 it is very easy to invoke. Unless you are living the worst possible life, it should be easy to find something for which you’re grateful.

And it can be very skillful and wise to do this.

Now one reflection I find myself doing when I’m in some ordinary contracted state of mind—let’s say I’m stressed-out by something not going well, I’m reacting to some hassle. I could be caught in traffic and late for an appointment—I sometimes think of bad things that haven’t happened to me.

I might think that I haven’t been diagnosed with a fatal illness. I’m not caught in a war zone. And I think of all the people on earth in
 that moment who are suffering those sorts of dislocations in their lives. 

And then I reflect that if I were in their shoes, I would be desperate to get back to precisely the situation I’m now in: just stuck in traffic and late for an appointment, but without any care in the world. 

I noticed this at dinner the other night with my family. Everyone seemed to be in a fairly mediocre frame of mind…We were all in some way disgruntled or stressed-out. I had a million things I was thinking about. 

And I suddenly noticed how little joy we were all taking in one-another’s
company. 

And then I thought: “If I had died yesterday and could have the opportunity to be back with my family…” I thought of how much I would savor this moment with my family right now. 

And it totally transformed my mood. It gave me instantaneous access to my best self. And a feeling of pure gratitude for the people in my life. 

Just think of what it would be like to lose everything and then be restored to the moment you’re now in—however ordinary. 

You can reboot your mind in this way, and it need not take any time. 

The truth is, you know exactly what it’s like to feel overwhelming gratitude for your life. And if you have the freedom and the free
 attention to listen to this lesson right now…You are in an unusual situation.

There are at least a billion people on earth at this moment who would consider their prayers answered if they could trade places with you. There are at least a billion people who are suffering debilitating pain, or political oppression, or the acute stages of bereavement.

To have your health—even just sort-of.

To have friends—even only a few.

To have hobbies or interests, and the freedom to pursue them.

To have spent this day free from some terrifying encounter with chaos isto be lucky.

Just look around you, and take a moment to feel how lucky you are.

You get another day to live on this earth. Enjoy it.”

Sam Harris

And so to really enjoy this summer, not only am I going to bury my phone, unplug, but I’m going to remember that I truly “get” go for a run, tackle those annoying projects, prep for another school year, spend an hour playing soccer with my kids, hike another ridge and be alive.

What are you going to do to make this a life worth living?

THIS MUST BE THE PLACE

Going to the Sun Road, GNP, Montana

One of the best parts of Spring in the Flathead Valley is the slow opening of the Going To The Sun Road inside Glacier National Park. As the National Park Service works to plow and remove the snow to Logan Pass, the road is open to cyclist only. And so for roughly two months unparalleled road riding is available. It’s a treasure and a gift that I simply can’t get enough of.

Everyone Is A First Responder

In the spring of 1999 I was working at an adjudicated youth rehabilitation facility in Boulder, Montana.  The details are long lost into the vacuum of my forgotten memory but on the afternoon April 20th, a beautiful spring day in Montana I first learned of Columbine High School.  The 13 killed that day would soon be surpassed at Virginia Tech, and Newtown and the many other places now synonymous with young lives brutally extinguished by the unstable with far too easy access to firearms.  

At Columbine the police waited hours to respond till the gunmen were located and the SWAT team was ready to sweep the school, the standard procedure for SWAT scenario up to that point, victims bled to death waiting.  As a result law enforcement adopted a policy that all available officers would respond immediately to kill the gun, without waiting for backup.

At Virginia Tech, students and teachers who barricaded classrooms or hid from the gunman survived.  Classrooms where the gunman was able to gain access saw the majority of those killed. As a result policy was changed again to instruct teachers to barricade classrooms, hide students and wait for the police to come and eliminate the threat, which usually was under 10 minutes.  

Combat Medicine trauma wraps are designed to fill wounds and are coated in chemicals that promote blotting, several are located in my office desk.

At the Newtown Elementary School students who hid from the gunman and were found died.  Teachers and students who ran from the gunman lived. Policy was changed to instruct students to run if they could, barricade and hide if they couldn’t, and fight if they had to.  Two years ago, all teachers in the school district I teach in were required to spend a day long training in which the “Run, Lock, Fight” responses were explained, practiced and simulated.  

This week, the New Yorker magazine published an article about the changing nature of mass casualty first response in medicine.  Tournaquits, once seen as barbaric measures that cost victims limbs are now seen as the best response to gunshots to limbs. Wounds to the body proper are now treated with dressings coated in chemicals that promote blood clotting (my trainer referred to them as “Israeli battle dressings”).  Teachers are taught to be able to lock their doors within seconds or to keep them locked at all times. Many teachers have cans of wasp spray strategically placed around their classroom to spray at intruders and disable them.

The door is always locked, at the first sign of trouble, a student or I can rip it off and secure the classroom,

I must admit that I rarely enter a room or building without noticing the exits and thinking quickly and quietly what I would do, where I would hide, if there was a sudden explosion of violence from a gunman.  The chances this is going to happen to me are still small, but maybe I’ll be ready.

Also, as a gun owner myself.  I should say that I would gladly wait weeks, months and years till I could purchase a new firearm or a used firearm while my mental health, criminal record, weapon storage situation, and firearm training was evaluated.  I have never needed a gun immediately and think these common sense evaluations would save thousands of lives a year.

Welcome to teaching in twenty first century America.  

Montana

Lion Mountain Trailhead, Whitefish, Montana

From 2002 to 2004 I taught at Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax City, Virginia. Though I only lived a few miles from the school the commute was ridiculously long. I was a first year teacher, exhausted and anxious, that long half hour on the way too and from school would allow my idle mind to race into all the catastrophic nightmares I could conjure. Often I would think back to my time in Montana. In Montana you could always substitute your personal worries to worrying about the weather, wild land forest fires, large mammal attack, drowning, or being caught in a shootout with some outlaw biker gang or white aryan nation battalion.

Oh, Montana, thank you for giving me a life worth living.

This too shall pass

Winter froze everything in February and March, including my mind. I’ve been wracked with procrastination and indecision everywhere and in everything. Yet, the mantra “this too shall pass” is a reflection of nature that surrounds us. Snow drifts melt, flood waters recede, iceand spring is breaking into northwest Montana.

My own procrastination has been replaced by action. Don’t underestimate the power of taking that one step, of starting. May we never lose the courage to move forward, even in the smallest step. Action, any action is the most powerful tonic.

The Gorge, George, Washington

Summer will be here soon. Emerge from your dark homes, gather in the dawn for a run, meet at the trailhead, linger on the patio in the last rays of the day. Make plans now, buy the tickets, make the reservation. Invest in memories, it slows time down in the most enjoyable way possible.