That I really, really wanted both to post and to reply in a timely fashion, however, strikes me as a hopeful sign. Forcing myself to try to live up to the high standards of this meme -- even if I fall significantly short of the mark -- seems to be liberating a long dormant part of me, at least for a time. Plus, every day that I make myself take photographs is a day when I feel ten times better about myself. Even if I've failed to post for a week -- which is probably my longest dry spell since 2003 -- I've been documenting each day for posterity.
Certainly, there were plenty of moments during the insanity of the past week when having the camera with me was the best way to cope. I'm pretty experienced at distancing myself from situations by documenting them and frequently manage to take a little pleasure in my detachment, even if I would otherwise be stressed out or sad. Somehow, reminding myself of my obligation to record the week made it go by faster and with less furor. And now, as I make the final push to get this post that I've been working on in fits and starts to the point where I can make it public, I'm finding that the "memories" of last Thursday are preparing me for my second long day up in the Phoenix area tomorrow. OK, enough of this preamble and on with the show. . .
Thursday was my first day of teaching for the fall semester. I woke up a little after 4am, with every intention of getting an early start for my drive up to the Phoenix area. But one thing led to another -- doing the dishes, printing class rosters, looking for CDs that would suit my as-yet-inchoate mood -- and I didn't make it out the door for good until I was in danger, though slight, of risking a late arrival.
Luckily, though, the traffic on I-10 was not hampered by the construction that made my commutes in the fall of 2008 and 2009 slower than they needed to be. I know I'm probably cursing myself by making this statement, but the smooth sailing was most welcome for a first day which I began tired after getting only three hours of sleep.
The Tucson-Phoenix corridor makes for a pretty boring drive on the internet. But those who complain about it should try on I-95 in New Jersey for size. At least there are interesting landmarks here and there, not to mention those huge Southwestern skies. I certainly don't take the sight of Picacho Peak in the first rays of the morning sun for granted.
I'm actually looking forward to those days in the fall when the sun's rays don't touch the landscape until much later in the drive, particularly the way the dawn makes the fields of cotton between Eloy and Gilbert glow. I will be pleased this year -- against my own self-interest, as a state employee -- that the destruction of that agricultural land for new suburbs will still be retarded by the terrible Arizona economy. Plus, that strange thrill I get entering the Phoenix metropolitan area from the south is enhanced by having just passed through a landscape that reminds me of what the area was like before the popularization of air conditioning.
Not that I'm about to turn off mine. Once, when my friend Joe was up in Tempe scouting places to live, I decided to drive up there in our old car on a very hot June day. Fearful -- needlessly, I suspect -- that it would overheat, I drove the whole 100 miles with the AC off, periodically placing wet cloths on my head to cool down. It didn't work. And the headache I got afterwards from letting myself overheat made me realize that my safety had to take precedence over the automobile's.
Now that I've been going up to Arizona State for a couple years, I have learned the ins and outs of getting to campus as efficiently as possible. Driving in Tucson has a way of turning off one's automotive skills, because there aren't many crucial decisions to make. But commuting into the Phoenix metropolitan area at rush hour is a high-stakes venture. If I stay on the freeway too long and get stuck in the kind of traffic that never lets me shift out of first gear, I could be late to the classroom. On the other hand, if I panic and opt to take surface streets to avoid I-10, I will make it to class on time but lose all hope of having extra minutes in which to grab a coffee or simply walk at a more leisurely pace. Believe me, when it's already 95 degrees at 7:15am, being able to slow down is no small matter!
At any rate, I've now learned to judge with 90% accuracy whether to get off at Chandler Boulevard, Ray Road or Warner Road or to push on through in the hopes of at least making Baseline or, preferably, U.S. 60, or, best of all, the 52nd Street exit. For the latter, I need to pretend to get off on 60 and then merge back onto 10, which saves me a couple minutes most days. And then I make the mad merge over to the right, through the cars coming in from westbound 60. It's almost like driving in California, which is why I get a rush of satisfaction when I finally make it off the freeway in one piece.
Believe it or not, I actually requested a 7:30am class. I knew that having to leave so early would enable me to have a slightly better rush-hour experience in the Phoenix area than I had last fall beginning at 9am. Plus, parking is easier to find at that earlier time and the walk to campus is much less hot.
As many years as I've taught, I worry that I will have lost my capacity to capture students' attention each time I enter a new classroom. The fact that I'm getting older and more easily worn out doesn't help. Nor does the fact that most of my classes are not in my areas of greatest expertise. That's why getting back in the saddle is so important for me. When I remember how to perform in the classroom, the body memories surging back the same way they do when I get on a bicycle, the mixture of relief and excitement I feel is truly intense and, in the end, a boon for my long-suffering soul.
One of the things I like about Arizona State as opposed to the University of Arizona is that the student body is considerably more diverse. Both campuses have plenty of the undergraduates who wear boxers to class and still believe in the virtues of the tanning salon. But ASU has more African-American students, more Asian students and more students of Muslim background. The latter population is especially prominent, standing out as it does from the crowd that wears flip-flops and diaphanous PJ bottoms to class.
Pretty much everything at ASU feels both better organized and more corporate than at the U of A. I hate to think that those two qualities necessarily go hand in hand. The vendors who set up outside the entrance to the main library have a way of making me feel closer to Jesus.
But the efficiencies one perceives at ASU do testify to an environment in which the torpor of sinecures have been combatted with rewards for performance. I may have doubts about the value of that approach outside of the domain where administration is the primary concern -- true education requires making room for short-term inefficiencies with long-term benefits -- but I do like being somewhere where things -- aside from Blackboard, at least -- just work.
Sometimes, it's just the simple things. The student bookstore at ASU has free lockers -- with some measure of shade -- set up outside, because they don't let bags over a certain size inside. Aside from rekindling my nostalgia for the emporia of Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, this arrangement surely helps a great deal with shrinkage. The reason I like it, though, is that it's nice to browse through the bookstore's excellent remainders -- the best I've seen since leaving the Bay Area -- without having to lug my heavy bag with me. Plus, if you look up from the lockers at the right angle, you get a pleasing geometric composition.
The main building I'm teaching in this semester may have its faults -- one of the classrooms has a dry-erase board that doesn't really erase -- but I appreciate the fact that the ground-floor computer lab is spacious and flanked by the ASU computer store and service centers as well as other offices where people provide assistance with technology to both students and instructors. Like most of the major meeting places on campus, the lab has a pretty multicultural feel. I tried to sit down for a brief nap -- it's a long, hot day -- in one of the comfy chairs at the front of the building, but was too fascinated by the group of Arabic speakers to my left to doze off.
A perverse boon of spending time in Tempe in August is that the heat usually makes Tucson seem temperate by comparison. The latter has felt more oppressive than usual of late, especially at night, when temperatures typically drop five to ten degrees more than they have been. Nevertheless, the wall of heat that hit me every time I walked outside last Thursday waa still brutal to contend with. The Phoenix area gets the humidity of the Monsoon season without much of the rain, which makes its 108-degree temperatures feel like 120. When I squatted to take this picture -- I wanted a lower angle -- I found it very difficult to get my knee back up off the ground.
Those oblong white discs remind me of one of the funniest things I ever heard at the University of Arizona. Some older faculty were offering up their latest conspiracy theories about the evil folks of Maricopa County. One of them grumpily blurted out, "We can't even get the money to hire someone and they're putting a tent over the whole ASU campus!" Asked for clarification, he explained that he had it on good authority that Arizona State President Michael Crow and his minions were going to eliminate full-sun environments throughout their system. I was incredulous, not at the dastardly plans of ASU, but at the gullibility of the U of A faculty. Not to mention the realization that, despite having been at the university for decades, they clearly had no sense of what was going at the state's other big research university and acted as though it would be beneath them to go on a recon mission. Anyway, several years later, as I was regrouping in front of the Memorial Union Einstein Brothers, I had the sudden realization that those white discs, which one sees at a few locations around the Tempe campus, must have been the inspiration for the tent rumor.
I shouldn't complain about my teaching day, since there are so many people who work much harder every day than I do on Thursday. But I have to be honest about the fact that it has been a major adjustment for me, both to teach more than one section of the same class in a semester and to have a course load commensurate with high-school environments. I used to be able to count on the energy I needed to get up for my classes. Now I know that I can't really afford to get too "up" for any one class, as I need to save my energy for later in the day. Inevitably, this realization has led me to alter my teaching style, so that it is less improvisational and more rigid.
The main thing is to have what I call "modules" I can repeat from one class to the next. Being the sort of rebel I am, though, I almost always end up deviating somewhat from precedent. The white boards I leave behind -- which I took to photographing last year as a way of ensuring greater continuity from one week to the next -- testify to this failure to be the robot I sometimes wish I could become. This particular combination only appeared in one of my classes for the day.
The illustration was meant to show how the parts of an airplane's wing overlap, a subject I touched upon in trying to explain the origins of the term "boilerplate." The irony, I now perceive, is that I taught this lesson in each of my five classes Thursday, thereby reduplicating their content at the level of form. I was using boilerplate to explain "boilerplate"! By mid-afternoon, the tedium of this endeavor was starting to wear me down. When I finally stumbled out of my last class, I felt like I'd lost 30 points on my IQ. And the heat was still intense, which didn't help matters. But at least the angle of the sun made the sights more visually compelling.
Needless to say, the walk to the car felt three times longer at 6pm than it had at 7:30am. But I eventually got there and made my way through mild traffic out to I-10. As I headed out of town, I made a mental note to stop at IKEA the following Tuesday -- my short day on the ASU campus -- to get a couple minor home improvement items. And to eat their meatball special for lunch, too!
The saving grace for my 210-mile round trip commute is that I get to listen to music, loud, without having to worry about anyone else's sensibility. If I had more opportunity to do that elsewhere, the payoff wouldn't seem as high. As it is, I know that I can usually overcome my resistance to making the trip simply by contemplating which albums I will choose to hear. I always bring some CDs with me. And, even if I decide to listen to the iPod instead, I make sure to listen to an album in its entirety. When I pick well, the joy makes the trip seem far shorter than it actually is.
The other bonus, rendered somewhat less compelling by the opening of a new location in Oro Valley, is that I can get In-n-Out burgers where I disembark from the freeway at Cortaro. It's nice to be able to bring something satisfying home. On this particular day, my stop was greatly enhanced when I spotted this vehicle in the parking lot as I headed back to my car. I'd seen it on I-10 some twenty minutes before and tried to get a picture, since it went so well with the retro sound of the new John Mellencamp album I'd been listening to. I think it went even better with In-n-Out Burger, though, like something straight off of the "classic car" T-shirt they sell.
By the time I walked in the door at 9:15pm, I was ready for bed. But I did my best to stay lively for Skylar, whom I hadn't seen all day. And by the time she was tucked in, I'd turned my "tired" into that special kind of "wired" in which it's your very exhaustion that keeps you up, like bad meth made by your own body. I eventually did drift off, though, which was handy, since I had to get up 3am the next morning to troubleshoot a project. Yes, it truly has been "one of those weeks."