“Time is the most unforgiving of fires.”
~Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns
Monday morning, I awoke around 4:30, prior to my alarm, and rolled groggily out of bed. I made my espresso shot at the kitchen island and worked through a couple quick emails. Then I signed up for a virtual run, the 2022 Forest Firefighter Appreciation Day Run, from virtualrunevents.com. They say that 15% of my nominal registration fee is donated to the Wildland Firefighter Foundation. I’ve been a wine writer for nearly a decade now, and the past five years have been absolutely brutal in wine country, with hundreds of thousands of acres burning each year, the loss of structures and life is almost unthinkable. What better reason to support firefighters, and besides, the virtual run will, with luck, improve my performance from last week.
I signed up for the 10K and headed down to the treadmill. After a quick core workout I hopped on, slightly incredulous about my abilities after last week’s fizzle-out on Saturday. All the same, I poked the increase button on the treadmill until I was at 7.0, an 8:34 mile, and turned on Sportscenter. The Titans won, which means KC has a two-seed heading into the playoffs. I’ve been a Chiefs fan since Joe Montana was traded to them in the 90’s. Also, Klay Thompson was back playing for the Warriors last night after more than two seasons of recovering from a serious injury. I’ll read his book if he ever gets around to writing it. The 10K flew past quickly, and I felt great. If I didn’t need to get to school, I could have run twice as far without difficulty. 6.2 miles—not a bad start to the week, I told myself. I turned forty last year, but I’m determined not to let time make a fool of me. Running keeps us young—I truly believe that. As Christopher McDougall puts it in one of my favorite running books of all time, Born To Run, “You don’t stop running because you get old. You get old because you stop running.” As for me, well, I have no intention to stop running.
That afternoon, I met with Cailan from the Refugee Empowerment Center, the non-profit I’m supporting with my miles. Cailin actually works at Immigration Legal Services, but after the executive director of the Refugee Empowerment Center left late last year, her non-profit assumed leadership of the REC, at least for the time being. Cailin is kind, thoughtful, and has a wealth of experience. She’s also a runner, a former Boston qualifier in fact, which makes her substantially faster than I am. We shared ideas about this project, about Afghanistan and also Omaha, where we see the most need, and so forth. I look forward to working with her in the future.
Tuesday morning I woke up, checked the score (Georgia won that national championship), and then jumped on the treadmill for five quick miles at a 7:30 pace. I’m getting my legs back and it feels good. Then I did some core, drank a protein shake on the Peloton while I checked my email, and headed to school. My first class of the day was focused on Afghanistan. It was terrific to hear kids share about what they are reading in their books or encountering in the news as it relates to this study. One student shared an article she read about an Afghan college professor being abducted by the Taliban, possibly due to things that were tweeted by an account that was impersonating him. I tried to show a Frontline documentary on the Taliban, but my projector wasn’t working, so I just sent it to the class electronically. During reading time, they sat in complete silence for a half an hour, reading their books and taking notes. A few nodded off, but 7:40AM is too early to have class and my philosophy has always been that people sleep when they’re tired (less of a philosophy than a logical conclusion, actually) so I let them take a little nap toward the end. They’d catch up on their reading later, I knew.
In the Washington Post yesterday, there was a story about a state senator in Indiana who was going on about how teachers need to be “impartial” when teaching about Nazis and fascism. Anytime anyone says something that idiotic, my by now relatively well-honed Nazi-dar goes off; clearly this man doesn’t want himself or his donors to be condemned for their insane racist beliefs. We talked about this in class. What if I taught about the Taliban impartially? What if, as was the case in Texas last year one of my students pointed out, the top-down directive was to teach “both sides” of the Taliban, you know, try to help kids see where the terrorists are coming from?
When I teach about world religions, I use a pedagogy I was taught during a brief summer session at Harvard several years ago, and we heavily emphasize the idea of internal diversity. I’ll never forget Dr. Moore, standing in the front of one of those grandiose mahogany and stone rooms on Harvard’s campus, asking us “Who here has ever taught that Islam is a religion of peace?” only to respond to our raised hands by saying “Well, stop it.” The thing is, the 9/11 hijackers were Muslim—I don’t get to say that they aren’t, anyway. I teach my students that anytime they hear someone put the word “real” in front of a religion they should run screaming in the opposite direction because that person clearly has a dangerous agenda. I don’t decide which Jews are real, nor do I decide which Christians are real. I can’t say that the members of the Westboro Baptist Church aren’t real Christians any more than I can stand to be in the same room as one of them.
Internal diversity is exactly what it sounds like; it honors the complexity and unique nature of human beings, and all human beings are different and, well, diverse. That being said, I don’t think I need to try to help my students see where the Nazis were coming from, nor do I want them to work too hard to consider why the Taliban act as they do. There are those so evil with whom the pursuit of empathy becomes something far too sinister to undertake, and terrorists—be they the Taliban, Nazis, or elected officials who want teachers like me to whitewash history—are among them, at least as far as I’m concerned.
Tuesday afternoon I hurried home and changed clothes. The weather was amazing, north of fifty degrees with no wind and even some sunshine. I’m in the midst of an existential crisis, a career crisis of sorts, and running was the therapy most readily available. I got a second run of the day in, untimed, my five-and-a-half mile route along the trail near my house. There were runners and cyclists and dog walkers all over; it felt like spring in January and I began to clear my head a little. Running is cathartic, and catharsis is something I find myself in dire need of—especially during the cold, dark winter months here in Nebraska.
I often think about the weather in Nebraska, weather I have so often professed to disliking. For the unfamiliar, Nebraska winters are bitter cold, icy, and dark. Spring can be deceptive; two years ago we got eight inches of snow on April 16, my birthday. Summers are hot and humid, though they’re my favorites by far. Falls are confusing; we had more than one seventy-degree day in December this year, but its not unheard of to have such cold that trick-or-treating is unsafe for small children. I’ve been exposed to this weather for forty years, but what of those who move here? I worry often for the South Sudanese, the Ethiopians, the Somalis, the Burmese; their climates are nothing like ours, and I hear often of people encountering snow for the first time, sometimes even on the night they land at Eppley here in Omaha. Afghanistan’s latitude is substantially south of ours in the direction of the equator, but their altitude and mountains—and the images I’ve seen of snow easily as deep and wind easily as strong as ours—make me think that perhaps the Afghans are somewhat better suited to acclimate to Nebraska’s erratic extremes.
Wednesday morning I got up and ran a fast five miles with Sportscenter on in the background. Already on Wednesday morning, I’ve run more than twenty miles and I feel good. Tonight’s weather should be nice again, but it’s my father-in-law’s birthday and, besides, I need to be sure not to overdo it. It is only January, after all. Thursday, a similar routine, but with a 10K, gave me a total of 27.9 miles on the week. First block at the school where I teach, we had our first Socratic Seminar over our readings of Afghan literature. I’m a long-winded person (my cross country team have dubbed my pep talks “TED Talks”) and to paraphrase the Dowager Countess, I’ll never use twenty words if I can fit two hundred in, yet I know that good teaching is less about what I know and think and more about what my students do. For that reason, I love Socratic Seminars because my policy is to talk as little as possible and let my students flex their mental muscles, struggle, triumph, and do it all together. I love it, and most of them do as well.
I sat in the front of the room in my pink trousers with one leg crossed over the other, my lime green and navy blue argyle socks popping out like a beacon to the fashion police, a look I’m coming to embrace enthusiastically in my forties. I sipped black coffee from my Hamilton mug and massaged the tightness out of my left calf while my students spoke for nearly an hour about what they are reading and learning about Afghanistan. All sorts of issues, ranging from women’s rights to gender, familial relations, the internal diversity of Islam, nation-building, foreign aid, sanctions, hope, coping mechanisms, and the complexity of the characters in our books—fiction and non—made its way into the discussion. My students spoke thoughtfully, knowledgably, and in a way that made me proud to be their teacher. They don’t know everything, but they want to, and I find their curiosity and inquisitive natures to be inspiring. Young people can be so utterly amazing—it’s too bad that eventually we all turn into adults, time making fools of us all yet again.
Friday morning I got up and met my friend TJ for a run. It was thirty degrees but I bundled up, shivering as I looked at his shorts and long-sleeve t-shirt. The day before, I’d run a 10K on the treadmill, then another 5.5 that night, but I was feeling great and ready to run. TJ and I set an easy pace, around ten-minute miles, and chatted the entire time. Running slow isn’t a bad thing for anyone; in covering those ten miles I exceeded forty on the week. I’m building up my base, getting stronger in my muscles, getting used to it in my mind. By the time we got back, I had peeled off my hood and gloves, and a small layer of ice had built up on my facial hair (I need to shave). TJ got into his car and handed me a gatorade—perfect. I got inside, ate an apple with my kids, and took a long, hot shower. It was the best start to a day in a very long time.
The weekend was a blur. We’re doing a kitchen remodel, which starts Monday, and a lot of time has been devoted to packing. The first playoff game for the NFL came Saturday afternoon, with former Husker quarterback Zac Taylor coaching. I got the final seven miles of the week in on a treadmill while watching the game and cheering for our old QB. The Bengals won their first playoff game in decades, and I completed my first fifty-mile week in several years. All told, by the fifteenth of January, I’ve run 81.9 miles—easily the most aggressive and productive January of my nearly thirty years of running, and enough to raise several hundred dollars. I committed Sunday to rest, both physically and mentally. I’m on pace for 1,965 miles in 2022, which is at once extremely ambitious and still somewhat short of my goal. If I’m going to get anywhere near that figure, however, then I know I’ll have to take good care of my body and rest as much as possible.
I wrapped up my week thinking about something one of my students—who is also one of my runners—said in class during the Socratic Seminar. She’d read numerous books on Afghanistan prior to our class, and is now reading one of Khaled Hosseini’s, A Thousand Splendid Suns. She pointed out that every narrative she’s seen on Afghanistan can effectively be reduced to the protagonist rising above the circumstances of the nation, and she went on to wonder aloud if anyone else found that somewhat problematic. Many did. It is true that Afghanistan is in a state of turmoil right now, and has been for generations. The Soviets, the Taliban, the Americans, the Taliban again—will Afghanistan ever be stable? Will she ever be in a position to govern herself? But then, are these the right questions to be asking of my students?
I’m reminded of what the great Palestinian Poet, Mourid Al Barghouti, once said: “If you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with ‘secondly’.” I felt guilty—and I still do. In my quest to teach about Afghanistan, to help my students understand the refugees who are pouring over our borders, landing at Eppley Airfield and all around our nation in droves on a daily basis, I had done the easy things: I raised money, I read books, I provided a chance to read them in my classes. True, I had made it a point to be sure that these were, with only a few exceptions, Afghan voices. Yet I had failed even to consider that by selecting only stories of struggle, triumphant though many of them undeniably are, I was in a sense telling their story. I controlled the narrative for I selected the books—the age-old dilemma of the English teacher—yet somehow or other, despite knowing better, I had still managed to start with “secondly”.