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?

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.

Anticipation

According to a 2010 psychological study about the connection between anticipation and happiness that was published in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life, just planning or anticipating your trip can make you happier than actually taking it. The authors of the study, researchers from the Netherlands, interviewed 1,530 people, including 974 vacationers, and found that the vacationers felt most happy before their trips.

Prepping, Planning and getting excited.

Maybe

I’ve been teaching high school since the fall of 2002. I suppose teaching is the only career I’m going to have. I’m a mediocre teacher. Strictly junior varsity. On good days, I think I can explain things in a way most seventeen and eighteen-year-olds understand. I lecture too much, grade too little, don’t plan enough, tell too many stories.

I used to be so certain about teaching. I thought I was changing the world. But the world goes on without me and my students.  Forces much larger are at play. I get depressed when I read the utter stupidity displayed in my local paper’s letters to the editor. I dread the day I realize some former student is the author of some ignorant screed.

Some former students have been wildly successful or moved into lives that are admirable, and impressive.  Students have graduated from challenging schools, moved a world away, started families, taken over ranches, and made me proud that I know them.  I’m not naive enough to think I have anything to do with their success. Certainly, teachers can help, but we are such a small process in the equation that includes parents and inner drive.  

Last year a student attacked me and my teaching in an anonymous letter I found left on my desk. It devastated me. It’s been hard to forget when every time a student sighs, rolls their eyes or snickers under their breath, I remember that letter.  It’s made me question everything I do, and don’t do. I thought this year would be the year that I dedicated myself to the passionate energy and brilliance I had when I began. I had an image of all the best practices I would adopt, all the lives I would inspire.  The truth is on a good day I’m lucky to walk out of school feeling like I’ve made any difference.

Down the hall is the classroom of a junior AP literature teacher.  He coaches policy debate and he often tells me what their debate topic is and I spit out some ideas supporting and attacking the prompt.  Sometimes it is on a topic I know a lot about. Periodically he asks me to visit with his debaters and give them my take on a topic. I enjoy it, it’s usually an interesting topic that can be turned over lots of different ways.  It’s fun to watch the kids wrestle with these hard issues.

Two days ago he told me that I was being awarded a “Friend of Forensics” award for my work with his team.  Tonight they gave me the award. I struggle with praise, but it was nice to hear his kind words. It’s been hard to look other teachers in the eye this year, maybe this will make it easier.  

As I sat listening to the debate team award ceremony I looked around and so many of the students I teach.  Many of these students are students who compete with for my Model UN team, many are involved in my We The People Constitutional Debate team.  Both of these groups performed extremely well for me this year. Maybe I am doing better, maybe I am changing lives. Maybe these kids are naturally talented.  Maybe they are lucky. Maybe I’m lucky.

It’s hard to say.  As the Stoics teach we know not when it’s all over.  We should live our lives knowing that we might not get another shot.  Maybe it’s all going to come together.

Sonder

“Sonder n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.” —from The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

January 20, 2009, Washington, D.C.

“The Purpose of Time is to Prevent Everything From Happening at Once”


Suppose your life a folded telescope
Durationless, collapsed in just a flash
As from your mother’s womb you, bawling, drop
Into a nursing home. Suppose you crash
Your car, your marriage—toddler laying waste
A field of daisies, schoolkid, zit-faced teen
With lover zipping up your pants in haste
Hearing your parents’ tread downstairs—all one.

Einstein was right. That would be too intense.
You need a chance to preen, to give a dull
Recital before an indifferent audience
Equally slow in jeering you and clapping.
Time takes its time unraveling. But, still,
You’ll wonder when your life ends: Huh? What happened?

X. J. Kennedy
Corolla, North Carolina

Break Time

Above Hole In The Wall, Glacier National Park, Montana

In the past seven days, Whitefish has been covered with two feet of snow. As I’m sipping my coffee and starting the day the temperature stands at -6. I see another long boring treadmill run in my future. On days like this, let your mind turn to planning, and dreaming of the future. Allow your thoughts, the same consciousness that is the engine of thoughts filled negativity and darkness, to breath the promise of something different, something better.

Summer is coming, with every day the sun hesitates before setting. Soon our concerns will not be about how warm to dress but if the smoke from wildfires has made it unsafe to be outside. All things pass. Dream for summer adventures, stir dreams for future insight, dream for better days. Unfold those maps, let your fingers trace the countries of future memories.

Advance permits for backcountry backpacking in Glacier National Park can be submitted starting March 15.