Forward, not back.

The author and podcaster Tim Ferris often asks his guests what they would say to their 30-year-old selves.  Often the answer involves the self from the future reassuring the younger self to stop worrying, to be in the moment, to enjoy what we have now trusting that everything will work out in the future.  

Fall 1989

Recently I found my freshman year high school id card.  When I look into those dull brown eyes I think of how naive I was, how foolish.  It’s hard not to slip into a half cooked fantasy of going back and living my life differently.  I would study harder, go on more adventures, have the courage to ask her out, or challenge teachers.  

Of course, this is fantasy, we are not going back to anything.  It’s all downhill from here. Isn’t the point of advising our younger selves about the futility of being anxious and worried, too driven or too focused that we now know everything will work out.  Isn’t the fact that it’s worked out this far for all of us proof enough that it will in the future?

I don’t want to change that kid’s life, he made pretty good decisions. But why can’t he come to me and tell me that we are a fleck of dust in the universe, here for a fraction of a millisecond in history?  That he wants me to stop looking back, what is done is done, use your days wisely. Immortality and happiness are illusions. Don’t look back I want him to tell me, look forward. You got this.

Pappas

Life has a random, ironic and amusing way of playing out.  For the past 16 years, my teaching career has primarily consisted of teaching seniors. These 17-18 years old spend senior year jumping headfirst into the hills and valleys of figuring out what happens after high school.  Twenty-five years ago my college search was neither strategic or planned in fact I’m not sure if there was any point in my life where I was less dialed in then senior year of high school. I assumed I was going somewhere for college but really had no opinion about it.  I’m pretty sure my parents grounded me one weekend in the fall of 1992 and made me apply to two colleges, Longwood and Radford.  Longwood sent me the slim envelope of rejection and Radford accepted.  My last semester of high school was focused on chasing girls and pretending I was cooler than shit. I have a vivid memory of being nervous as I waited in line to receive my actual diploma after the graduation ceremony knowing I might have to make up a class in summer school. I graduated.

Radford--1st day
First semester of college, spring 1994, Draper Hall, Radford University, Radford, Virginia

My parents, in their wisdom thought that letting me go to college in the fall would be a fast track to failing out (a very safe assumption). They decided it would be best I defer going to Radford in the fall and instead attend community college and go to Radford in the spring.  I was unmotivated, clueless and lazy.

A quarter century later my experience plays out in the back of my mind as I proofread a Stanford admission essay written by a senior student who wants to turn it in two months before it is due.  But maybe I speak with the extra air of authority when I tell students to be on top of the process; knowing how poorly it can be done if you don’t have your ass in gear.

Of course, now I can look back and say that destiny was at play. My “gap” semester led to experiences that challenged and developed me.  I’m often reminded of the Jon Kabat-Zinn book on mindfulness, “Wherever you go, there you are” when I’m talking to students who are in the midst of a mental breakdown regarding their futures. “It’s all going to work out” I want to tell them and somehow convince them that it will. Not to say that some will make terrible, even fatal mistakes but it will all work out, it always does. How did it work out for me? If I hadn’t been asleep at the wheel of life during my senior year of high school I probably wouldn’t have gone to Radford University. 

If I had not gone to RU, I would not have been taught by Nick Pappas. Dr. Pappas was a football powerhouse at Shepherd University in the early 1960s. Though he was drafted to play professional football the New York Giants he instead enlisted into the Officer Training School for the United States Marine Corps. In 1965, the Vietnam War began in earnest and the Marines were off to DaNang. As recounted in Philip Caputo’s Vietnam classic A Rumor of War, Lieutenant Pappas was told by his commanding officer that there was a report that the North Vietnamese were laying mines around the airbase in DaNang and that Pappas should ascertain the validity of that report. I recall Pappas telling me that he left the briefing curious how he’d ascertain the validity.

Office Candidate School, United States Marine Corps, Quantico, Virginia, 1965

After a lengthy recovery at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. The disabled Nick Pappas received a doctorate in Political Science from the University of Virginia. In the 1980s he became a tenured professor in the Political Science Department at Radford University in Radford, Virginia.  In the spring of 1994, I signed up for Introduction to International Relations taught by Dr. Pappas.  The I think the reading list was Plato’s Republic, maybe Eric Voegelin‘s Science, Politics and Gnosticism: Two Essays.

Dr. Pappas

Pappas usually wore the same thing, every day.  A blue oxford shirt and blue work pants.  In the winter he would hobble into class with a fur-lined bomber hat and he would announce his approach with loud bird calls from down the hallway or immediately outside the door.  He took the time to figure out what his students did: if on a sports team there was usually talk about that upcoming or recently past contest and some discussion of the opposing team’s mascot.  He learned that I grew up not far from the Quantico Marine Corps Base, where he had done his Officer Training.  He would often describe a place on the base and ask if I knew if it was still there. His primary instrument of teaching was a handout known as a Raptorgrasp.  Using quotes, thought bubbles and pictures he would draw the outline of his lecture, make connections and graphically plot out his thoughts.  Every class I took from him followed the same basic format, he’d lecture and assign a writing prompt.  We would write an essay in blue books for the following class.  He would hand back the previous weeks marked up and the grade would always be assigned a Greek word.  The Greek word for excellence, “Arete” was the highest score, they were rare.  

Pappas Raptorgrasps

Pappas was my teaching ideal, mysterious, irreverent, and inviting.   Most of what he taught was unknown to the recent high school graduate.  Or, perhaps  Plato, Hagel, Marx, and Nietzsche were on the syllabus and I slept through them.  He had a fantastic way of making our ignorance accessible.  He’d say, “Don’t you remember Book VII of The Republic, Plato describes the Cave Allegory”?  We didn’t, he knew we didn’t but rather that simple introduction allowed us to pretend we did and no time was lost.  It was effective.  

Many times I’d stop by to see him in his office.  A turn of the century railroad house a block off campus, home of the Political Science Department.  Even if you hoped to drop off a late paper, the creaky wooden doors and floors would betray your presence.  Pappas would often either be asleep or deep in a book when you crossed the threshold into his office.  More often than not he would have a chew in and he’d look up, his eyes would open super wide and he’d make the “one second/one minute” signal with his index finger as he swiveled around to spit out the chew into a white paper cup that he always had on his desk.  

He was always willing to visit. And would suggest books to read, movies to watch, songs to listen to.  He once gave my girlfriend at the time a Country Gentleman mixtape, he was obsessed with the song “Matterhorn” and would sing, “Men have tired and men have died to climb the Matterhorn” every time we walked into his office to see him. Like most good friend and teachers much of what he said to me has taken decades to sink in.  He made me want to understand Thucydides and he showed me that an academic didn’t have to be some stuffed shirt.  His influence made me the teacher I am today.  

My wish for my students is that there is a Dr. Pappas out there for them.  He changed my life in immeasurable ways.  Life is short we are often told.  I am strictly JV kids stuff when compared to this mountain of a man, but I like to think that a little of him rubbed off on me.  

Dr. Pappas died aged 77 on September 5, 2017.  I miss him terribly and wish I could thank him for all that he did for me, one more time.  

1995 Pappas Raptorgrasp

Goodbye Old Friend

Sophomore year of college I saved up and bought a big Mountainsmith backpack.  It has all the new fancy bells and whistles and from what I could tell, fit like a glove.  Hundreds of miles through the Virginia and North Carolina sections of the Appalachian Trail that pack carried my gear.  When I moved west it saw trips in Yellowstone and Glacier, the Elkhorns, the Snowies, the Absaorkas, up the Lima Peaks and down into the Missouri Breaks.  

Trusted Mountainsmith Pack, Mill Creek Pass, Absaorka Range

Last year that old trusted pack broke on a multiday trip into Glacier with C3.  I tried to rig it back together but on a short trip into the Bob Marshall this past summer I sighed the sigh of resignation, knowing my beloved pack was not going to be on my next trip.

Glacier National Park

The other day a box showed up from REI.  Smithers scored a sweet deal on a fancy-pants Osprey back.  This past weekend I dropped my old Mountainsmith at the goodwill store.  Goodbye old friend, many miles you caught my sweat, kept me warm and were with me as we discovered the most beautiful places on earth.  Thank you.  

In memory of the Zong Massacre

Surfers, Maui, Hawaii

It was on this day, the 29th of November, 1781 that the white crew of the slave ship Zong began murdering slaves by throwing them overboard.  The crew hoped to claim the murdered slaves as part of an insurance policy that allowed slavers to make claims for cargo that was jettisoned in order to save other cargo.  Due to faulty navigation, the Zong had sailed past their intended port in Jamaica and had run out of drinking water after the mistake had been identified.  The plan for murder was made after the slavers feared the starved slaves would die a natural death.  

On 29 November, the crew assembled to consider the proposal that some of the slaves should be thrown overboard. James Kelsall later claimed that he had disagreed with the plan at first but it was soon unanimously agreed. On 29 November, 54 women and children were thrown through cabin windows into the sea. On 1 December, 42 male slaves were thrown overboard, and 36 more followed in the next few days. Another ten, in a display of defiance at the inhumanity of the slavers, jumped into the sea. Having heard the shrieks of the victims as they were thrown into the water, one slave requested that the remaining Africans be denied all food and drink rather than be thrown into the sea. The crew ignored this request. In total, 142 Africans were killed by the time the ship reached Jamaica. The account of the King’s Bench trial reports that one slave managed to climb back onto the ship.[

Wikipedia

The horror of the Atlantic slave trade inflicted on humanity should never be forgotten.  Let us resolve to know this history.  To honor this history and to ensure that it will not happen again. 

I’m Good

894 days ago, on June 16, 2016, I woke up and decided that I was not going to drink alcohol anymore.  Nearly 23 years before I had gotten drunk for the first time a few days after I graduated from high school.  Over the course of those years I did lots of regrettable things under the influence of booze, nothing that led to criminal charges or deep remorse, but enough to increasingly wonder why I was drinking.  

I never found a middle ground with booze.  I would drink to get drunk, nearly every time.  I loved how my world would narrow, how funny everything was, how funny I was.  I would get loud, smile a lot, talk a lot. Yet, I would usually say something to somebody that was inappropriate and didn’t reflect well on me.  

Woodford Reserve

In the spring of 2016, everything was ripe for me to quit drinking.  I was in the middle of a personal renaissance, had started to practice meditation and mindfulness and was visiting with a shrink.  In my head I made a mental pro/cons list of using booze. The cons outnumbered and outweighed the pros. Booze took away, on average, a weekend a month from me.  Nursing a hangover I would be a useless partner and lazy father. Booze kept me up too late and wrecked my sleep patterns. Booze was expensive and it in a state with little public transportation and brutal winters put me in the ethically ambiguous border of drunk driving far too many times.

Montana Rivers, Hot Summers, Cold Beer…..

I read once that booze was a great servant and a terrible master.  That is certainly true.  If you have the stops that allow you to use responsibly then who am I to judge?  I had no stops and it was an issue so I stopped.  I’m shocked by how easy it has been for me.  When somebody asks if I want a drink my stock answers is, “I’m good”.  Nobody cares that I don’t drink, nobody.  I’ve been at concerts where everyone around me is drinking and drugging, no worries, no pressure.  Maybe it’s time to ask yourself what if alcohol is still your servant.  Maybe not.  Either way, know that it can be done.  

“I think about my children when I look at any child’s face & pray that we will find a way to get with all this amazing grace”

Schnaus Cabin, Flathead National Forest, North Fork of the Flathead River, Montana

I was unfamiliar with Greg Brown before I moved to Montana.  I quickly learned that if I was going to be able to chat with any woman who I was remotely interested in I’d best become familiar with his music.  Like all good folk prophets, he has the shaky, gravel bar of a voice that evokes wisdom and timelessness.  

About the time I was leaving Montana the first time, in the late fall of 1999. Brown released his album Covenant.  I pretty much had that CD on repeat for about a year after I bought it. Middle-aged heartbreak and longing are what I heard, something my late 20s self-thought was pretty appropriate for me.  

The song, Rexroth’s Daughter, is still a favorite.  I suppose it has something to say about the poetry of Kenneth Rexroth.  I didn’t then and still don’t know much about the poetry of Kenneth Rexroth.  Good art, good thoughts, good writing, good songs are vague enough to allow the audience to glean what they must and that certainly was true of this song. 

“Coldest night of the winter working up my farewell
In the middle of everything under no particular spell
I am dreaming of the mountains where the children learn the stars
Clouds roll in from nebraska dark chords on a big guitar
My restlessness is long gone i would stand here like an old jack pine
But I’m looking for rexroth’s daughter the friend of a friend of mine

I can’t believe your hands and mouth did all that to me
Are so daily naked for all the world to see
That thunderstorm in michigan i never will forget
We shook right with the thunder & with the pounding rain got wet
Where did you turn when you turned from me with your arms across your chest
I am looking for rexroth’s daughter i saw her in the great northwest

Would she have said it was the wrong time if I had found her then
I don’t want too much a field across the road and a few good friends
She used to come & see me but she was always there & gone
Even the very longest love does not last too long
She’d stand there in my doorway smoothing out her dress
& say “this life is a thump-ripe melon-so sweet and such a mess”

I wanted to get to know you but you said you were shy
I would have followed you anywhere but hello rolled into goodbye
I just stood there watching as you walked along the fence
Beware of them that look at you as an experience
You’re back out on the highway with your poems of city heat
& I’m looking for rexroth’s daughter here on my own side

The murderer who lived next door seemed like such a normal guy-
If you try to follow what they shove at us you run out of tears to cry
I heard a man speak quietly i listened for a while
He spoke from his heart to my woe & then he bowed & smiled
What is real but compassion as we move from birth to death
I am looking for rexroth’s daughter & I’m running out of breath

Spring will come back i know it will & it will do its best
So useful so endangered like a lion or a breast
I think about my children when i look at any child’s face
& pray that we will find a way to get with all this amazing grace
It’s so cold out there tonight so stormy i can hardly see
& i’m looking for rexroth’s daughter & i guess i always will be”

Greg Brown, Rexroth’s Daughter

Good songs, good art has a message for every year of your life.  Though I didn’t know it then the line “I think about my children when I look at any child’s face and pray that we will find a way to get with all this amazing grace”  breaks me down now, in a way that it never did so many years ago. Sure, add a marriage, add some kids, add the hills and valleys of life, the fear of the future world my kids will inherit.   Time shifts worries.  19 years ago, I’d play this song on a cheap Japenese guitar, over and over again.  How is that a line that can break me down now was a throw away twenty years ago?

Of course, the only thing that is constant is change.  As much as I can I can’t slow down how fast they will grow, I can only hope that I’m present enough to be fully conscious of how beautiful this amazing grace is.  

Mount Oberlin, Glacier National Park, Montana

Thank you Greg Brown for brining me to my knees, then and now.

First Peoples

Tonight, during a trivia competition, I was reminded of the tremendous heritage and culture that makes Montana such a unique state.

  • In 2016, 67,222 Montana resident were recognized as being Native American in a state with a total population of 1,062,330.
  • Seven Federally recognized Tribes exist in Montana today
    • The Blackfeet Nation
    • The Chippewa Cree Tribe
    • The Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes
    • The Crow Nation
    • Fort Belknap Indian Community (Assiniboine and Gros Ventre)
    • Fort Peck Indian Community (Assiniboine and Sioux)
    • The Northern Cheyennereservation
  •  In addition to the seven Federally recognized tribes, The Little Shell Chippewa Tribe has only State of Montana recognition,  and is a landless nation with most of the tribe residing in the Great Falls area.
  • Native American languages are being preserved and taught.  crow

    IMG_4966
    Crow Fair, Crow Agency, Montana
  • Article Six of the United States Constitution states that the Constitution, the laws of the national congress and treaties are the supreme law of the land.  For much of the nineteenth century American Goverment Policy was to sign treaties, ratified by the US Senate, with Native American Nations.  Thus in many cases Tribal Law exisits on a reservation by reservation basis depending on what the treaty signed with the nation states.  For instance the Flathead Reservation of The Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes is governed by the 1855 Hellgate Treaty.

    IMG_4977
    Crow Fair, Crow Agency, Montana

Camp

Every summer my daughter leaves the state to attend camp for four weeks. Though her absence is intensely felt in our little family, I relish the opportunity to communicate with her through letters only.  I find that I communicate things that I would never bring up verbally with her.  I also know she is going to be in a distraction-free environment to reflect on what I’m trying to say. The most rewarding part of this experience for me is when I show up to get her.   The confident, rested, and glowing young girl who spent the previous month pushing herself personally and mentally is a favorite version of a person I adore.
On the banks of the Guadalupe, Hunt, Texas