Gambling With My Life

"Soon" is clearly a loose and flexible term here in Stewgadland. A promised update way back in December "soon" turned into next year, as Scrivener predicted. In my defense, I barely managed to turn in my grades on time and remained sick for a good week or so afterwards. At which point, Spousal Unit and I set off on a whirlwind tour of the whole country that I pretty much just returned from. But, excuses aside, a big warm Happy New Year to all the folk I totally miss in the blogosphere!

Since I am overdue a bunch of blogging stories, I'll do my best here to do a kind of State of the Stewgad, and I'll wind up with the story of how Spousal Unit and I went to Vegas for New Years and almost lost our lives in a fairly accurate re-creation of a British Soccer-Fan stampede. This story comes complete with photos, so, if you want to skip the boring stuff head on down to the end of the post for the pictures and juicy life-endangerment story.


First: Teaching. I've finished my first semester teaching as a professor of history at a small liberal arts college. All in all, I think I love it. But, there are definitely moments where I hate it with a fiery passion. Usually those moments occur at midnight or so the night before I teach when I'm sitting on the broken-down-coral-patterned-couch-my Dad-built-from-a-kit-in-1985 that graces the corner of my study attempting to pull together a lecture on a subject I feel that I know very little about and realizing that I only have one page written and 3 PowerPoint slides ready and I have 10 more hours before I have to get up in front of a room full of people and engage them enough with the material to keep them wanting to learn about it. At those times, I really hate the job. I'm also not so wild about the fact that it doesn't end at 5 or 6 (or 7..8..) p.m. when I walk out of the office. Like the dissertation, I carry the teaching with me all of the time. I guess I hadn't anticipated that it would really be any different than graduate school in that way, but still it is hard to grapple with every Sunday afternoon when I'm dying to read a novel on the couch with a cup of tea and instead I have to grade papers.

I love the students, though. They're fun, full of energy and anxiety and hope and terror and ennui and disdain and exuberance. And I love the naive wisdom they casually carry around with themselves and will share if you can just break through the insecurity and the skepticism. I had a really great time with them, and by the end of the semester felt really bonded to the groups in both of my classes -- even the terrible first-years. They really came around by the end of the course. So, that was satisfying as well. And my evaluations were really good -- which is pretty exciting. They really liked the class, the books, and me -- except they thought I was too hard a grader. Which is, of course, what every professor wants to get a reputation for. So, all in all I think it was a success.

The main thing I will do differently next time is to assign far fewer written assignments. I had 8 short papers and 4 long papers. For 45 students. It was crazy. I was exhausted, and by the end I just couldn't bear to read any more undergraduate writing. It was insane. (Which many of you kindly told me in not so many words, and I thank you all ... But I guess like a stubborn ass it was just something I had to learn for myself.)

The thing I think I learned the most was HOW to do it -- HOW to teach. How to juggle things, how to write a lecture, how to plan a discussion, how to understand the rhythm of a semester, of a classroom. I felt like I was learning to walk for the first time -- kind of shaky and wobbly, but increasingly confident. By the end of the semester, I felt like I had a pretty good grasp on what I was doing and could definitely make my way from one side of the room to the other without any help.

Next, I get thrown back into the pool into a deeper deep end. Last semester I only taught 1 course -- 2 classes of the same course. This semester, I have to teach 3 different courses. One is the same one I taught last time, but 2 are new classes -- a history of American women and a history of the Civil War. Both are my areas of specialty, but I've come to discover that it is much harder to teach the stuff you know really well. It is so hard to forget the intricate details and professional fights and argumentative nuances and to just teach the basics when you're so embedded in the field. Anyway, I've got one week to go before I have to start teaching and I don't have any syllabi ready. It's going to be a heck of a week.

The funny thing is that I have a lot of anxiety about starting over again -- The comfort that we all developed with each other in each class by the end of the last semester is gone. So, I'm starting all again with a new room full of strangers. I guess that is part of the excitement of teaching, but it is also a bit terrifying. Although I tell myself it will get easier as I do it, I'm still having anxiety dreams. (A few nights ago I dreamed I fell asleep on the couch in my office with the door open and that school started the next day and that I didn't wake up, so that everybody walked by my office and saw me in there sleeping. -- Think I'm worried about being unprepared? Getting caught napping on the job?)


Second: Dissertation Dissertation? What dissertation? Nobody here is writing a dissertation. No way. Look elsewhere for that one, mister.

No seriously, I haven't had a single moment to do anything on it. The stacks of files in my home office mock me. As do the papers in huge piles on my desk that I was going to sort through today. But, since I don't have to get up 3 days a week in front of a group of people to talk about my dissertation, that's kind of fallen by the wayside in favor of the teaching. I'll dive back into it fully as soon as classes end in May. (And, if you're keeping track, expect daily blogging to pick back up at that point as I report progress or lack thereof.)


Third: New Year's Eve -- This is the fun stuff.

So, a few months ago a group of our friends decided to go to Las Vegas for New Year's Eve. Now, I'm not really a gambling, whoring, drinking type of girl. I'm more of a sleeping, reading, stay-at-home kind of person. But, I really like this group of people and Spousal Unit has just a teeny bit of a blackjack fetish (he's frequented more than one Indian-run Casino in the past few years just to play blackjack. It worries me more than a little, but just when I think he's gone round the bend believing that you really can make money at it, he sobers up and realizes that the House Always Wins). Anyway, as these things always go when putting together a group thing, one of the couples dropped out (ironically the one who suggested Vegas in the first place) leaving Spousal Unit and me, and another couple (J and K). J&K got us free lodging at their folks' time-share, so we all figured what the heck, Vegas, baby!

New Year's in Vegas seemed a bit like a Times Square kind of thing -- you wouldn't want to do it every year, but you probably should see it once, if only to say you have been there.

Our trip began when Spousal Unit and I drove to Chicago to hang with his folks for a few days, then we flew to Vegas on New Years eve, arriving around 5 p.m.

(Point of Stewgad Trivia: I totally hate to fly. I do not believe in airplanes. There is simply no way that those things should do what they do. They're made of TONS OF METAL. I've seen birds. They fly. They don't look a damned thing like an airplane. Clearly, airplanes are completely unnatural, sick and wrong, and so I only get on them when there is no choice and when I have been tanked to the gills with sedatives.)

The flight was the single bumpiest flight I've ever been on. It should have told us that things were not going to go well for our weekend.

Here is me on the plane:

I'm only slightly terrified. (Nice so-called identity protection... huh? :))

Anyway, while I was busy freaking out, Spousal Unit was honing his blackjack strategy.

We had a safe, but bumpy landing, took a cheating cab (he drove 35 mph on the freeway, got lost, took 10 minutes to turn around, and tried to sell us scalped tickets to see Kid Rock at a local club), and arrived at our very nice a casino-less hotel on the Strip -- where we hooked up with J & K. We caught up for a bit, and then got gussied up for the evening to go out.

Here we are: I'm in the poncho with the blue smiley face. Spousal Unit is in jeans with the green smiley face. What you can't see since I'm protecting the identity of the slightly innocent is that our grins are far wider than those on the fake faces I've superimposed. We were totally excited. I mean, it was Vegas, baby!!

So, in all our exuberance we headed out onto The Strip. We walked a long way, just enjoying being out with other people who were also excited about the evening.

Spousal Unit and I were also enjoying the fact that it was 60 degrees outside - a welcome change from the Cold Damps of the Northeast. We wandered for a bit, and then headed into The Mirage for a bit of a gamble.

I quickly discovered that Slot Machines have about as much interest to me as dryer lint. I had imagined somehow that they would be as addictive as computer solitaire and that I would be in serious danger of throwing money away in Vegas like I throw away time at home. Not so. It was a big snooze, let me tell you. Here I am learning exactly how boring slots are:

J & K were hamming it up for the camera. Spousal Unit had said "look excited." I couldn't hear him over the din. At this point I was growing unhappy with the system, although I was clearly prepared for chips to start tumbling out. (note the cup clutched tightly in my hand.) Later I learned, much to my disappointment, that all the casinos had converted over to a computerized "receipt" system. So it prints you out a paper receipt with a bar code, like at the grocery store when you cash in cans for dinero. Then, you take this stupid piece of paper over to the lady behind the cage to get real money. Adding insult to injury, the machine makes this tinny cha-ching sound as it prints the receipt, apparently attempting to imitate the sound of coins dropping into the tray at the bottom of the slot machine.

Worse than the slot disappointment was the false advertisement of the "free drinking" that happens in the casino. Not a single person approached us to take a drink order. In fact, the entire time we were in Vegas, we paid for all of our drinks. Which wouldn't be so bad, except for the whole hype about casinos loading you up with free drinks so that you'd throw your money away on the dryer-lint slot machines.

Anyway, after we got bored with the Slots, Spousal Unit sat down at a $25 dollar minimum blackjack table. Now, those of you who used to read regularly back when I posted regularly, probably remember that Spousal Unit is not the most free- flowing of dudes when it comes to money. He likes his money in the bank, safely tucked away from marauding wives with expensive tastes. So, it was a bit of a shock to me to see The Gambler emerge from Spousal Unit's mild mannered shell. He even knew the sneaky hand gestures that you make when you tell the dealer what to do with your cards. I was pretty surprised. But, not as surprised as I was when half an hour later he walked away from that table with $280 over and above what he had plunked down. [At this point, Spousal Unit has asked me to include the following disclaimer: Despite his behavior in this incident, Spousal Unit maintains "that you cannot beat the House, that Gambling is not a reliable source of income, and that there is no such thing as a predictable and recognizable Streak." ] Yeah, yeah, yeah. He was hot. He was on a streak. And he had the good sense to walk away. I had the good sense later to take $200 bucks of that money and hide it in the hotel safe with my own secret code when he wasn't looking. But, I digress...

At this point, it was about midnight, so we headed outside to join the crowds to watch the fireworks. We were pretty giddy -- although we were about the only people on the Strip who were stone cold sober because we couldn't lay our hands on a goddamned drink. (The bar had been so swamped, we couldn't even catch the bartender's attention so gave up.) Here's a picture of the crowd in front of The Mirage:

It was really fun -- people were excited, our place in the crowd was good -- up by the gates of the casino, but still with a good view. We counted down all together, cheered, kissed, and then there were some amazing fireworks. The big casino/hotels coordinate them -- so that they are synchronized up and down the strip -- it was pretty incredible. The photos don't even come close to doing it justice, but here's the best:

When the fireworks were over, we hung about for a bit, and then decided to return to our hotel to open the champagne that clever J & K brought to toast the new year. We started walking down The Strip, with slightly less enthusiasm than we had had for it earlier in the evening. It was pretty crowded. There were a lot of people who were quite drunk. One nice man declared at the top of his lungs that he had a giant boner and needed to go masturbate. We quickly got out of his way. Most people were just wishing everyone else a happy new year ... at the top of their lungs with slurred speech. By now, we were really looking forward to the solitude of the hotel room, and although it was crowded in the closed four-lane street that is the Strip, we seemed to be moving along OK.

Until we weren't. It was kind of like those pile-ups you see on TV -- when the cars in front are stopped, and the cars behind just keep slamming into them anyway. The people in front of us stopped, and the people behind us kept pushing their way into the mass. We wound up in the middle of a crowd that was just not moving, and as people kept joining in and pushing, we got increasingly compressed. At first, though we were all uncomfortable, we weren't too frightened, figuring it was a temporary logjam that would sort out in a minute. I suggested that we try to move perpendicular to the direction that people were trying to go in, but we couldn't see to either the right or the left, so we didn't know if there was any room for us to move in to. K was in front, and then J, then Spousal Unit, with me bringing up the rear. So, I was mostly surrounded by 5 or 6 strangers getting extremely up close and personal with me. And not in a good way.

Then the pushing started, and I started to get really scared. I began to have trouble breathing because there was no room for my lungs to expand. It was that crowded. So just instinctively I made a cage for my chest with my arms. The guy next to me was like, "your elbow is in my stomach." I said I was sorry but didn't move. It was every person for herself in there and I needed to breathe. I was shaking so badly, my knees were knocking. I know that the only thing holding me up was the crowd and Spousal Unit's back. Then we all started getting really pushed and people started screaming. The man behind me told the woman he was with "No matter what happens, stay on your feet! Don't fall down! -- do you understand?! Stay on your feet!" Then, the group really started leaning and staggering. Louder yelling and screaming to stop. I shouted out "Hey, everybody just chill out! JUST CHILL OUT!!" I don't know what possessed me, but it seemed better than screaming. Then, the crowd seemed to ease up just a hair -- as if people heard me and obeyed. I'm sure it was just that everyone realized there was no point to shoving and perhaps got a sense of how much danger there was. But, by then we were truly terrified, increasingly unable to breathe, and really afraid that someone in that mob was going to do something stupid(er). At that point, we decided that taking our chances with the right or left movement seemed better than what was going on in the mosh-pit crush we were in. I don't know how they did it, but somehow Spousal Unit and J - the male half of our friend couple - got us to the side, and then suddenly, we were out of it.

It was so strange to be free of that crush. We were on a sidewalk with plenty of space in front of Caesar's Palace, standing next to a mob of screaming people who were being crushed by themselves and others. It was distinctly odd to be free of the mass and be able to breathe, but to see it right there next to us. To our right was a stairway leading up to an over-the-street crosswalk that was closed, and standing on the steps were four Cops, with a perfect elevated view of the crush that almost killed us. Spousal Unit approached them to tell them how dangerous it was in there. They indicated, politely, that they didn't plan to do anything about it. We then walked over to some stairs that were coming out of a back door to the Casino and sat down. K - the female half of the couple - and I sat there and just shook. I shared my poncho - we were both freezing and, I think, in shock. J leaned against a wall. Spousal Unit stood up on the banister and took this picture of the already thinning crowd we had just escaped:

I particularly like that I almost was crushed to death underneath a bare ass the size of my house. It adds a nice touch of class to our ordeal, don't you think?


Winding Down: From Vegas to LA

While we were sitting on the steps trying to recover from the terror and trying to figure out what to do next, Spousal Unit noticed that he had acquired a second Happy New Year cardboard hat. None of us knew how or when. Somehow, in that crush, someone gave SU a new hat. And he didn't sense it being placed on his head. Odd, that. Then, a nice couple opened the back doors of the casino to go out and offered to let us in. Once inside the outdoor patio area of Caesar's, we made a beeline for the nearest bar and bought two medicinal plastic bottles of beer and two plastic bottles of red wine. I swear, plastic-bottled wine never tasted so good. We nursed our drinks for a while, and when we were calm enough, started to head back to the hotel. We opted off of the Strip for the trip home, and wound up trekking a fair ways around the back side of all of these casinos and hotels on the dusty side of a traffic-jammed street without sidewalks littered with ads for $39 prostitutes. We only passed one guy urinating, though, so it was all good. And, we were not in a crowd, which at that point was our primary goal.

Here's the picture we took when we got back - Note the exhaustion and the dusty shoes:

Back at the hotel, we filled the Jacuzzi tub with bubbles and scalding water, got into said tub in our swimsuits, drank two bottles of champagne, and tried to forget the craziness we had just experienced. It was great. Until I woke up the next day with a massive hangover and dying for eggs and coffee. Turns out, there aren't many places in Vegas that serve all day breakfast. Of all the places in the world where you can get breakfast at 2 p.m. on New Year's Day, one would think Vegas would be it. But, nope. True to our whole experience of Vegas, we waited in line for the privilege of waiting in line, to then wait another half hour to be permitted to turn out or whole wallets for a small service. The place we finally found to eat charged $8 for a bowl of cold cereal and $25 dollars for eggs. We didn't care. It was worth it just to have food and coffee.

After we recovered from our hangovers, we walked for miles and miles trekking between Paris, New York City, Ancient Egypt, Camelot, Colonial India, Venice, and Ancient Rome. It was a little weird. But, later that night we had a lot more fun because we left The Strip and went downtown to the Freemont area -- where the classic casinos are. I highly recommend it if you're going to Vegas. It was MUCH more relaxed. Strange to say about a couple of blocks crammed with casinos, bars, and neon, but it was. Maybe things were chiller because the stakes were so much lower at the casinos, so people weren't loosing their shirts. (Although Spousal Unit did lose the rest of his gambling allotment at the blackjack tables there, thus curing his short-lived hope that blackjack was actually a profitable venture. Again, I'm quite glad that I stashed away that 200 buckarinos.) We had a great, surprisingly affordable seafood meal at an amazing little place tucked away inside a cheesy casino that our Time Out Guide book recommended (Three Cheers for the Brits!!), and went home to bed.

The following day, Spousal Unit and I (and, it turns out every other human being on the planet) drove from Vegas to LA. The 5 hour trip took us 11 hours because of traffic. But, we had a scrumptious In-and-Out burger on the way, and woke up the next morning in LA and had breakfast on the beach with my best friend. Yep, literally, on the beach. Feet-in-the sand, seagulls-vying-for-our-plates kind of on the beach. Then, we went to the Huntington gardens in Pasadena and saw some wonderful and amazing plants:

Wonderful -- cacti that imitate rocks:

And Amazing -- huge sprawling cacti:

Strangely enough, I was much happier here than in Vegas:


The End. You have been reading "Stewgad's Tale of Teaching, Travels, and Travails." Tune in next post for "How to Impress your Students and Wow your Colleagues by Writing a Syllabus in 1 Day or Less!!"


At 9:26 PM Scrivener said...

First of all, welcome back and happy new year!

On teaching, my one piece of advice for that class that you're repeating next semester: don't be afraid to repeat what you did in the fall. Especially if it went well in the fall, but even if you thought it would and it didn't--sometimes it's nice to try it again. You do not need to reinvent exercises each time, and in fact there is much benefit in repeating them.

I've never been to Vegas, and have only been in a casino once. We went for a weekend on a work-retreat thingie with my wife's firm. We followed the advice we'd been given, set aside a certain amount you can afford to lose, gamble until that's gone, and then don't spend anymore. The problem with that advice, though, is that I sat down at a blackjack table, lost all of the money I had said I was allowed to lose in about fifteen minutes, and had to spend the rest of the day and part of the next trying to find something to do in a casino that didn't involve gambling away any more money. It was terribly boring. I would have had much more fun had I won $200, I'm sure.

I'm glad you didn't get trampled! Good luck with the syllabus.

At 12:02 PM What Now? said...

Happy new year, and I'm glad that you had some time to recover from your frightening experience before the work started again. Good luck with the syllabus preparation and all of the other last-minute things that always need to get done before school starts again.

At 12:32 PM Dr. Mon said...

Happy New Year! Glad to see you back in action after quite an adventure!

At 12:03 PM jo(e) said...

I just love the anonymous photos.

At 2:36 PM Sfrajett said...

Glad you're back! And what a fun post to come back on. I have always heard that the blackjack tables are the way to play, and I agree that slots are about as exciting as household appliances. My grandmother is addicted to them and I just don't get it. I identified with your bored self in front of those terrible hungry machines.

I liked thinking about the beaches of California. Someplace warm and sunny. Sigh.

At 6:33 PM Abbey said...

I just taught my first class last night and it was good to see that my experience is somewhat reflected in yours and that it will get better :)

At 2:42 AM trillwing said...

12 papers for 45 students?! That's crazy. I'm glad to hear you had such a terrific time over break--it was obviously well-deserved. Good luck with the new semester.


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