Book Review: “Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator” by Gary Noesner

Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage NegotiatorThere’s a part of me that loves superheroes and detectives–this book was a real life tour of the role negotiators play in saving lives and ending hostage situations from terrorism, kidnappings, prison riots, barricades and threatened suicides.

Gary Noesner tells page-turning story after story of tense, walk-the-line between life and death stand-offs and how he and/or the FBI crews on scene handled the situation. It starts with a domestic dispute that escalated when an aggrieved ex-husband kidnapped and held at gunpoint his ex-wife and son. Noesner then describes his own career path, and details Waco, Ruby Ridge and other notorious government failures while also including tales of successful negotiations that talked the perpetrators down without any bloodshed.

He lauds the successful balance between tactical (armed SWAT) units and the negotiators and also what he thinks went wrong in Waco and other bloody encounters. Noesner’s main focus is importance of negotiators and the centrality of both teams working together instead of an over-reliance on force, which he blames for unfortunate outcomes.

The main things that struck me about this book:

  1. It is tense and thrilling–better than a movie.
  2. The power of words. In so many desperate situations, cool-headed negotiators were indeed able to establish contact and communications with the would-be violent leaders and then get people out safely. A well-placed word can save lives and an ill-placed move can lose them. Guns and tanks seem all powerful sometimes, but often a caring, patient tongue can be more effective.
  3. (less important) Noesner’s career path seemed so straight forward. He wanted to work at the FBI; he applied and he started. Getting jobs today hardly seems so accessible.
  4. Normal people overwhelmed by emotions committed most of the kidnapping and threatening. It goes to show how strong emotions can be and how critical it is to manage them properly. Further, it’s something that none of us is better than.
  5. Calm communication can solve most issues–even in everyday life. Noesner even says towards the end that “all of life is a negotiation.” Relationships, rapport, calm, understanding and seeing the needs of the other person are the tools negotiators work with–and their our tools too with each other. Success is in seeing the humanity of the other person and wanting their good–in short, loving them (as Jesus calls us), rather than over-powering them.

Stalling for Time is a fascinating combination of psychology and true crime and true heroes.

Would you read a book like this? Have you ever seen communication strategies work well/poorly in your own life? 

Are there other books detailing the heroics of law enforcement? What about the darker sides of force and government power?


Embracing Differentiation in Education

Differentiation in the classroom – the idea of having choice within assignments and adapted assignments for different student levels — tends to get a hard knock from the older generation. In my first year teaching last year, I was introduced to this concept, and admittedly, I found it new, different and slightly hippie-seeming. After all, I also grew up doing the assignment as it was given and memorizing my butt off for the tests. But I have had the chance to learn more about differentiation and especially about the changing dynamics in the student population over the last half-century, and I can say now that differentiation may seem new agey–but really, it’s very good for students and fits the reality of the set of learners we have in the classroom today.

The group of kids filling desks in 2018 is not the same group that filled Catholic schools in the 1970s. One huge change was legislation mandating that all children receive free, public, appropriate education. In 1975, this came to include children with special needs as well under the IDEA law, which created the modern IEP process for kids in any form of special education.  So, in days past, kids who didn’t sit still and listen well, simply wouldn’t have been in most schools, certainly not in private schools where they could easily be kicked out. Today, all kids are in school, public and private–for different reasons, and that creates a new reality within the classroom.

Before, rote lessons and whole class instruction went over just fine. Today, those methods don’t get much of a foothold. Maybe we can blame it on increased screen time, more distracted kids, spoiled kids. Those probably all do play a factor, but I wonder–were those really better methods? Granted, I believe in memorization–that a solid grounding in math facts or spellings must be the foundation of more advanced skills. But that doesn’t mean lessons and methods can’t also be more interesting and include more choices for the student.

From my point of view as a teacher, creating a solid differentiated lesson is more effort intensive. But when I do it right, it has gone over so much better than me trying to stand in front of the room and talk. Overall, what goes on today looks a good deal different than when I was a student, but I do think it’s mostly good (nothing is perfect), and it is actually desirable to adapt lessons to different student interests and abilities. While there is a time to sit and memorize, Mary Poppins said it best with “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down!”

Rambling on now to connect to another social issue: the homeless and high rates of incarceration in America. In my special education class, we learned about how in the early 20th century people with intellectual disabilities, what used be called “retarded”, were often cared for in state or privately run institutions or “schools” where they lived and never left, much like those with severe mental illnesses. Then, in the 1960s and 70s, a number of abuses were exposed, notably at Willowbrook School in New York, and these institutions gradually closed, and the family re-emerged as the center of care for those with such disabilities or mental illnesses.

A few things followed: these young people became part of the school-aged population, now part of our student population with needs that must be addressed, creating another change in the dynamics of the student population. Second, as adults, especially if the family couldn’t provide high-cost care, many of these people became the modern homeless and often those who are incarcerated. This isn’t to say that all/most people in jail have disabilities, but that in the cases of people with disabilities, many ended up in jail for petty crimes in such a way that modern prisons almost serve as institutions.

I found this a fascinating revelation; it means that today’s homeless population and high incarceration rates are more complicated than first meets the eye. It means that there is more to it than: “Jim just needs a job” or “Too many people are in prison.” That’s not even to mention the contribution of drug abuse issues to both problems. It means that neither with institutions nor with today’s methods of helping the homeless or imprisoned have we found an adequate way to address the needs of people with intellectual disabilities.

As I turn this over in my mind, the homeless, incarcerated and drug-addicted social ills of our society seem to call out much more strongly than other hot-button issues today–such as those related to sexuality. A compassionate approach from a compassionate population is needed; and this is something it seems easy for all of us to work together on: finding ways to help these people and integrate them better into society.



The Wise Woman by George MacDonald

George MacDonald, inspiration to the Inklings like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien,

“Suddenly she saw before her, in the dusk of the thick wood, a group of some dozen wolves and hyenas, standing all together right in her way, with their green eyes fixed upon her staring. She faltered one step, then bethought her of what the wise woman had promised, and keeping straight on, dashed right into the middle of them. They fled howling, as if she had struck them with fire.” (81)

In this passage, the confidence of the little girl to run through wolves, inspired by her trust in the wise woman’s words is just inspiring. To us, if we will trust in God’s words, we too can have that confidence. The hard part is the trust.

“A long way from the palace, in a heart of a deep wood of pine-trees, lived a wise woman. In some countries she would have been called a witch; but that would have been a mistake, for she never did anything wicked, and had more power than any witch could have. As her fame spread through all the country, the king heard of her; and thinking she might perhaps be able to suggest something, she for her” (7).

I love this last quote because it is a Christianity unafraid of mythology or unintentional overlap with pagan culture. Sometimes in Christian circles, it seems we run from anything that might remotely hint of other beliefs–which is really too bad, because a lot ideas are compatible with the universal (catholic) if we view it that way. I love that MacDonald’s allegory of the moral life, some have said that focuses on Our Lady, Mary, centers on a “wise woman” figure who some would have called a “witch.” It shows us a faith that focuses on true wisdom, on true faith, that sees good aspects of things instead of everything that could go wrong.

Who are your favorite writers?

Abandoned Places

[A Note to readers: I seem to lack consistent subject matter lately, but oh well. Here are some recent interests of mine.]

Driving around in Delaware and Maryland, I noticed the variety of old, abandoned and falling part structures–it seems to be cheaper to build new than to tear down and/or restore.

And this

And some winter ones

Thor, growth mindset & hope

In school, I’ve been teaching the students about Carol Dweck’s growth mindset: the idea that we actually get smarter and train our brains to do so by facing challenges believing that we will be able to meet them, that we will be able to learn from them and eventually to gain the skills required to succeed and excel.

It helps in math.

Then it started connected with a bunch of other things in my brain:

  1. Thor Ragnarok. He’s a bit meat-headed at times, but Thor literally runs straight at whatever problem he faces, even after the goddess oimagesf death crushes his mighty hammer.  As hard as it is, we grow when, like Thor, we run at problems–believing that we will be able to overcome, even if we aren’t sure exactly how.

Now, this is very difficult advice to take myself, but still. Running away from problems–like Loki–breeds only fear and a smaller world.

2. Growth mindset also reminded me of the Christian virtue of hope. Rather than succumb to defeatism or despair–which I can prone to–we hope in the future. Pope Benedict XVI said, “To have Christian hope is to know about evil and yet to go to go to meet the future with confidence.”

That’s it. Those are my connected dots of the day: Growth mindset, Thor, hope. Funny how truth from different sources overlaps. Truth is truth.

Love of God allows love of self? Jacques Philippe “Called to Life”

51Tzb5jEmFL._SX344_BO1,204,203,200_Philippe links loss of belief in God to loss of appropriate self-love as a source of our modern misery.

He says: “I’m convinced that people several centuries ago didn’t find it as hard to love themselves as we do now. Those people of earlier times knew perfectly well that they creatures of God–sinners, certainly, but worthy of love and redemption; capable of great mistakes, but eligible for salvation.

“The rejection of God over the last three centuries was accompanied by the illusion that guilt would be eliminated in this way and human beings would finally be free and happy. But those who thought like that forgot something: without God, mankind must carry on its own the weight of distress, misery and failure of all kinds. If there is no God, there is no pardon or mercy. Whoever makes a botch of his life has no way of being forgiven. Not even an army of therapists can teach us to absolve ourselves. Self-esteem must be based on the certitude that, whatever happens, I am loved and can love. And only God can guarantee book.”

This passage follows Philippe’s brief but insightful exposition on the mutually-reinforcing relationship between love of God, love of neighbor and love of self. So far, this book has struck me in that it seems to understand and illuminate my life experiences and struggles.

I don’t see the passage above as discounting the value of therapy, but rather teaching that our suffering and conscience cannot be explained away by modern conveniences. No one is perfect and everyone makes mistakes, and without God, there is little on which to base our personal worth or the meaningfulness of life in general.

This is something I long agreed with in other phrasings–I see both faith in God and nihilism as logically tenable, but with nihilism–there is no reason to value or enjoy much of anything.


Author Ridley Pearson Visited St. Thomas More

ridley20pearson20photo20and20book2007132016Better late than never.

Two Fridays ago, we had an author visit St. Thomas More: Mr. Ridley Pearson, NY Times bestselling author, with his new series about Sherlock Holmes growing up and the development of James Moriarty into an evil genius: The Lock and Key series.

Pearson gave a presentation to the older students and signed books; he encouraged them to use their powers of observation like Sherlock Holmes and practice writing with an eye to drafting, rewriting and editing, editing, editing.

A neat connection to me was that Pearson is friends with Stephen King and Dave Barry; the cohort has played in a charity rock band together and represent to me a generation of American writers. Despite me not loving King’s horror work, I admire him very much as a writer and as a person, particularly in his work discipline and as a family man.

During the talk, Mr. Pearson shared about his time in a private school–the one he based the novel’s Baskerville Academy on, and that it was far more strict than Catholic schools and included wearing a tie six days a week–even on Saturdays.

Meeting an author on the job is a pretty big perk, I’d say 😉

Next–I’ll have to finish the book.



Happy (belated) Feast Day of St. Francis!

I haven’t been posting much. It’s been a busy summer, and I started teaching 5th Grade at St. Thomas More Cathedral School in Arlington. Prepping for each day has been a lot of adjust to. But I do get to teach Religion, so I thought posting shorter posts may be better than not posting at all.

I celebrated the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi October 4 with the students and had the chance to tell them about his inspiring example of giving up his inheritance and living contentedly as a beggar. And we aloud St. Francis’s Canticle of the Sun.

Front Cover

I have a lovely, illustrated copy from my mother in law that I brought in to read them, and the students were truly captivated by it.

The Canticle of the Sun celebrates all creation and God’s wonder that Francis sees in prosaic parts of nature that we pass by every day. To St. Francis, a blade of grass was not just something to step on and pass, it was a work of a art, a piece of eternity that made a little telescope out for us to view God’s glory.

I especially love Francis’s sense of kinship with nature as being a fellow creature of God.

Here is the full text, unadapted, of the poem:

Most High, all powerful, good Lord,
Yours are the praises, the glory, the honor,
and all blessing.

To You alone, Most High, do they belong,
and no man is worthy to mention Your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon
and the stars, in heaven you formed them
clear and precious and beautiful.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene,
and every kind of weather through which
You give sustenance to Your creatures.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water,
which is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you light the night and he is beautiful
and playful and robust and strong.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains us and governs us and who produces
varied fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Praised be You, my Lord,
through those who give pardon for Your love,
and bear infirmity and tribulation.

Blessed are those who endure in peace
for by You, Most High, they shall be crowned.

Praised be You, my Lord,
through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no living man can escape.

Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those whom death will
find in Your most holy will,
for the second death shall do them no harm.

Praise and bless my Lord,
and give Him thanks
and serve Him with great humility.[3]

Francis finds peace and glory even in death. Nothing was mundane for him; the smallest fragment of life held infinite transcendence. Francis is at home in nature and among others as few of us ever really are, and his poem holds it up for us to glimpse what we long to experience, but rarely do.

Happy (belated) Feast Day of St. Francis! Do you have a favorite saint? 

Two Freelances: Wonder Woman and Pro-Life Feminism at CUA

Pop Culture and Theology: Wonder Woman: Facing the Darkness and Embracing her Gifts

“Nevertheless, our calling is precisely to join that inner fight. The Catechism continues, even taking up the analogy of battle: “Finding himself in the midst of the battlefield man has to struggle to do what is right, and it is at great cost to himself, and aided by God’s grace, that he succeeds in achieving his own inner integrity” (409). To see the evil outside in the world and the urges to it inside our own hearts, and to seek to counter that, as Diana’s friends do when they elect to continue their mission despite lack of payment and high likelihood of death, is the central focus on our life on this planet. They master their own selfishness, their inner temptations, and in so doing challenge evil in the great war itself.”

Wonder Woman: Facing the Darkness, Embracing Her Gifts

Truth and Charity Forum – How Abortion Divides the Feminist Movement

“Best, was both sides recognizing the structural factors lead to the demand for abortion and agree that those are problems. The demands of caring for young children can prevent hard-up women from from supporting themselves. As pro-life Catholics, glossing over these realities makes us lose our credibility.

Meanwhile, hearing the abortion supporters articulate the philosophical worthlessness of the person: whether born, developing, dying or suffering was the most tragic part. This mentality that easily permits physician-assisted suicide, abortion in general and abortion of the disabled, poses a rapidly-eroding threat to the value of life which must undergird a healthy society, one that values all its members.”

More here –

Learning Latin is like learning English

A latin student of mine asked what it would take to get ready to be ready for AP Latin? And it made me reflect on what it really takes to learn a language and how we learn even our native tongue. I thought I would share my answer and my ponderings.

I think that language is more transformative than we tend to realize. (NB I’m not that great at it, but I’m a little further than my students). Language is part of the building blocks of our mind, how we think, how we live. Words make abstract feelings and experiences communicable. George Orwell was onto something when he wrote 1984 and imagined the government limiting language in order to limit thought.

I told my student that to be ready for AP Latin, you need the latin equivalvent of what it takes to be ready for AP English. Advanced English is more than noun/verb agreement. Reading novels introduces the advanced middle-schooler, for instance, to stylistic language, an expanded vocabulary, building scenes, implications, repeated metaphors and meanings that carry between sentences. To make this linguistic level jump, a student must have the basics of language down, as children do. Children converse with their parents about concrete objects; they listen to songs and watch television in it. The Latin student should likewise have a child’s level of fluency before beginning advanced and abstract and stylistic texts.  Learning Latin is hard because the culture that goes along with it just isn’t around anymore. So we have to make it up through anachronisms such as the video above of a latin professor singing Adele’s Hello.

To get to fluency, the language must become our own, internalized. It isn’t enough to memorize charts of verb conjugations; to learn a language we have to care; it has to be part of us; it has to start to form the shape of our thought. It’s the difference between reading Shakespeare on the page and being confused, and watching it played out well–seeing the words in action, embodied by actors who express their reality and about whose fate we are actually concerned.

I’ve heard it said that it takes a relationship to learn a language, a person that we care about enough to make the jump of total communication in that language. I think this is true. I recommended memorizing text, reading in basic Latin and listening to songs in Latin. Middle schoolers listen to songs in English–it’s one of the cultural, subconscious ways they experience language as tied to art and emotion.

That’s it. The question was interesting to me because it made me reflect on the effort it takes to learn and what it takes for us to rise the levels of linguistic experience in our native tongue and how that corresponds with learning another language.

For me and Latin, even though I’m not that good at it, a large part of why I care is because I am Catholic. I wanted to learn Latin to read theology, to access the history of the Church, to pray in Latin. I have Latin prayers memorized, and I sometimes try to read the Bible in Latin–which was recommended to me by a professor. It’s smart because as Christians, the Gospel stories are so familiar to us, that it’s almost impossible not to understand them even in another language if we can pick out just a few words. Then our brains can  make the jump to piecing together all the meaning connections between the words. It’s a funny sort of experience. I like it, and I’m still not the best language student, but I do want to keep working at it.

Have you learned a foreign language? How long did it take? What strategies helped? If you could learn any language, what would it be and why?