Philosophy, Higher Education, Psychology and the Desert

This week I started teaching philosophy at Northern Arizona University, one of Arizona’s three public universities.

I am Arizonan. Although I went to UCLA for undergrad and graduate school, I always felt a little guilty about that. My parents both went to the University of Arizona (in Tucson). Only my father graduated, with degrees in education and business. My mother, a psychology major, quite correctly questioned the behaviorism that dominated psychology at the time. Frustrated, she dropped out and pursued a career in business.

Ultimately, it was philosophers who helped move the field of psychology forward. They formulated alternative models to behaviorism, drawing on ancient Greek traditions, especially Aristotle’s functionalism, which represents the psuche as a set of life capacities or functions.

I have never been fond of psychology. Too often, ancient philosophers have said the same things psychologists have said and said it better. There is a wisdom in ancient traditions that contemporary psychology only clumsily comprehends. The ancients were not constrained by modern “science” and its supposed moral neutrality. How can we understand humans and human problems without considering the moral hue of things?

It is only my opinion, but our current mental health crisis should lead anybody to question the ability of psychological science to solve what are fundamentally social and societal problems. We are facing social, political and familial injustice on a massive scale, not individual psychological problems. We are sad because societies and families are sad, not because there is is anything fundamentally wrong with our individual brains. So many “mental illnesses” are now characterized in terms of trauma (as Margot Julian, who has a background in sociology and anthropology, pointed out to me). People are traumatized because modern society is traumatic. Any real solution is a social solution, not an individual, psychological or biochemical solution. How do we create healthier communities? You cannot fix yourself, if you do not fix your community.


The irony of my own trajectory is that I took my first philosophy class in Arizona, the very state I avoided going to college in. It was a Pima Community College video course. Each week I eagerly awaited a VHS tape in the mail. Each week I would receive a new lesson about philosophy. At the same time, I took a video course in psychology. I instantly knew that I wanted to study philosophy, not psychology. To me, philosophy was the mother science — the study that encompassed all other areas of inquiry.

Since then, I have always connected my commitment to philosophy with Arizona. As a teenager, the sparse, Sonoran desert seemed to be asking me all kinds of questions. Perhaps the desert is a natural place to ponder timeless questions. It is a place of relative emptiness, and so there is room for a person (and her mind) to wonder and wander. There is space. There is time. There is the searing heat, too. It makes things shimmer.

I am always terrified when I start teaching. I remember my own college experience. At UCLA I had professors who literally changed my life. I know what an impressionable time college is. I know what one professor can do for a student’s life. It is a scary thing. I always wonder whether I am rising to the task. I am always wondering, how do I reach them? I resist standardizing anything, because every class is different. Every student is different. We are fortunate as professors to be able to construct our own curriculum, to react to the times and to our individual students.

Teaching in higher education is hard for so many reasons. One reason it is hard is because we professors so often internalize our disciplines. I have been studying/producing philosophy for nearly half of my life. Sometimes it is hard to put myself in the shoes of someone who knows nothing about philosophy. I rely on my students to tell me when they do not understand. I worry that I am out of touch with them. But perhaps this is the perfect challenge for them and for me, when we try to reach each other across a divide.





One Month in Flagstaff, a Photo Journal

About a month ago I moved to Flagstaff, Arizona — a Northern Arizona mountain town of 70,000 residents, nearly a third of whom are Northern Arizona University (NAU) Students. The town is young not only in population but also in age: it was incorporated in 1928, two years after Route 66 started running through it. Old western hotels and Mexican cafes dot Route 66; a part of the historic highway even belongs to the 800-mile, cross-state Arizona Trail.

Legend has it that “Flag” got its name from a band of Bostonian prospectors who passed through (and passed up on!) the area on July 4th, 1876. In honor of Independence Day they crafted a pine flagpole and raised a US flag. Then they left. Or so the story goes. By the 1880’s Flagstaff was a growing railroad town. To this day trains run through downtown, interrupting traffic:


In the old days people came to Flagstaff for work or travel on the Pacific Railroad, which connected Albuquerque to Southern California. These days tourists pass through Flagstaff on their way to Coconino County’s more spectacular children: Sedona to the south or the Grand Canyon to the north. Flagstaff is outshined by its siblings. Which is fine with me.

Upon arriving in Flagstaff my first stop was Buffalo Park, which is a local hub of sorts. After work the park’s trails team with runners, hikers and dog walkers (Flag is a dog-crazy town!):


Not yet acclimated to living at 7,000 feet above see level, I nevertheless immediately biked two thousand feet higher. This first ride (an attempt to mountain bike fifty miles around the San Francisco Peaks) was a spectacular disaster. July’s infamous monsoons rained on me for a solid hour.

Appropriately named “Waterline Road”:


By the time I got to Inner Basin trail, the rain had let up a little, allowing me to enjoy the aspens:


In the weeks that followed I joined biking groups. One ride ended below an ominous statue of NAU’s mascot, Louie the Lumberjack:


While my riding companions and I were sprawled out beneath this menacing figure, I got a call from the Chair of the NAU philosophy department: I would be teaching two sections of Introduction to Philosophy. Louie took mercy on me!

Soon I familiarized myself with the campus. The new Honor’s College is a little like having a liberal arts college inside a state university: on-campus housing, small classes and independent study with an emphasis on interdisciplinary learning and civic engagement.

New student housing for the Honor’s College:


As is the case in many small college towns, student housing is, well, an “issue”. There is not enough of it. Locals are resistant to it. Rents are high. Personally, I have my eyes on a little RV park just outside town, nestled in some pine trees. 🙂 It has my name all over it.

Until relatively recently, NAU was relatively small. In fact, it started as a teacher’s college and, despite being a research university, it still puts a huge emphasis on undergraduate teaching:




Recognizing this principle, we of the Arizona State College faculty dedicate ourselves to maintain the highest standard of professional efficiency in a campus atmosphere of scholarship and friendliness. Furthermore, we feel that within and without the classroom the line of communication between the student and the faculty must be kept open. And the individuality of the student must be preserved.

So, this is what I have to live up to! After all, I would not want to anger Louie the Lumberjack. Did I mention that NAU is known for its School of Forestry? 🙂 It might have something to do with all those trees.

View of Lake Mary Valley from Fisher Point:


Yes, trees. Lots and lots of trees. And clean air.

In addition to biking and trail running with new friends, I am doing a book promo event with a new local independent bookstore, Bright Side Bookshop.


Athletic training has not really been happening, but I have found a great running spot near my roommate’s house. I have a habit of running there at sunset, barefoot. I blame my lack of training on the sun setting too soon. Campbell Mesa:

campbell mesa

More soon!


Free Camping in Sedona: Monsoons and a Meeting


When I drive down magnificent highway 89A from the forests of Flagstaff to the high desert of Sedona, Arizona, I am not seeking adventure. I am chasing a balm for a hot feeling in my heart — the result of recently starting anew in Flagstaff, a college town nestled beneath Northern Arizona’s San Francisco Peaks.

What is your calm place? Mine is Sedona, ever since I first mountain biked the red flanks of its sandstone rock formations. That joyous ride was a decade ago, and I am still drawn back in. Some attribute the pull of the place to its renowned energy vortices — rare ‘electromagnetically live’ pockets of the planet. Or so the story goes.

Indeed, Sedona is a hotspot for new age mystics who believe that the vortices are portals to new planes of existence. I co-organize a philosophy workshop here, which shares conference space with workshops on seances and telekinesis. In Sedona ‘Philosopher’, ‘Mystic’  and ‘Metaphysician’ are interchangeable concepts.


This time I decide to try “dispersed camping” — aka, free and primitive camping. No reservations. No running water. No restrooms. No nothing, except for a glorious patch of public land to pitch a tent on. If you are lucky there may even be a fire pit or creek nearby. Maybe. You must pack out what you pack in, leaving as little human trace as possible.

Dispersed camping may be found north, south, east and west of Sedona. (See the forest service’s useful “Dispersed Camping Guide” for all locations.) I drive west on Highway 89A, electing to camp west of Sedona along Forest Road 525. Because west is best, right?


As I drive my CRV north on a bumpy dirt road into the Coconino National Forest, my mouth hangs open. How are there so many uninhabited, beautiful campsites to choose from? And the land is PUBLIC — the land is FREE! I drive deeper and deeper into the desert in search of something far from the highway — a special space I can be truly alone in. After 6 or so miles I find this:


I park the CRV and suit up for a ride. My mission? To figure out how to get from here over Boynton Pass to the fast and flowing Aerie Trail, an area that teams with javelina. I start east down a series of chewed up jeep trails.


Not before long thunder booms through the desert, and lightening sizzles in the sky to the east. I am riding into the storm.


After a few miles I stop. I stare. I linger. Do I turn around or go on? The wind answers for me, whipping up dirt into fearsome funnels of sand. When I turn around to pedal back, the monsoon follows me — spitting rain in ever increasing volumes. I pedal harder, my drivetrain squeaking and rumbling in the wet. I duck low on my bike, not wanting to attract a stray lightening bolt. The wind pushes and shoves me.

I should have known better. I am well acquainted with Arizona’s monsoon season, having spent most childhood summers in Tucson. Within minutes a calm and sunny desert day morphs into monstrous monsoons. Previously parched landscapes flood.

I am drenched when I reach my car. Although the CRV is parked on an elevated plateau the surrounding area could quickly flood and become impassable. Moreover, my vehicle is the tallest thing in the vicinity, a shining beacon for lightening. Should I drive out? Upon driving in I passed a sign (about a mile back) that read: “Beyond this Point Road Unsuitable when Wet”. I turn the key in the ignition. Time to GO.

Lightening and thunder crack all around the CRV as I slosh through newly formed streams of water along FR 525c. I pass an unoccupied red Prius on the side of the road before nailing it through a powerful water stream. My dashboard lights up with emergency warnings. How are they going to drive through this? I wonder as the sun sets.

As I approach Highway 89A I notice campers congregating at the only dry campsite — a large pullout on the west side of the dirt road about a half mile from the highway. Their car headlights spray light over the hard orange dirt.  I guess this is where I camping tonight! Although the storm is mellowing I am eager to camp among people. I am shaken.

I pull my car up behind a black Civic parked beside a little white tent at the far western end of the campsite. As I assemble my one-person waterproof tent, a male voice calls out from inside the tent, “do you need help?!” “I’m fine!” I call back, surprised and a bit defensive. Why would I need help? It is dark out, but my car headlights provide ample light.

My camping gear is my bikepacking gear — a thin blowup air mattress, a lightweight 40-degree sleeping bag and a 2-lb tent. Within ten minutes I am sprawled out on my lush sleeping pad and silky sleeping bag, nursing a craft beer and a good book. I use a bicycle light to read. I hear only laughter, the highway, the gentle pattering of rain on my tent and the hum of insects. The red Prius soon joins our little neighborhood, carrying an Australian couple. They made it.

This is the calm I was looking for.

I quickly drift to sleep, only to awake at 12 am. A couple camping near their RV just south of us is fighting. Their tent is pitched beneath an old oak tree. The entire “neighborhood” can hear their argument. It is the perfect couple’s quarrel — hitting every note just right as though it were choreographed. After about an hour of this show, I hear a rustle from the white tent, then footsteps and then, “Hey guys, this is Sedona”. White Tent Man speaks. “You are using your minds to solve this argument and it is futile. You need to use your hearts.” Silence. Then, “Thanks man”, the couple replies in new, earnest tones. White Tent Man returns to his white tent.

I listen for voices. Nothing. Then, “Hey, can I ask you a question?” White Tent Man queries me. “Sure”, I say a bit hesitantly. “Is that a CRV you have?” I answer affirmatively. “I have a Honda, too … a Civic”, he remarks with pride. I tell him I used to drive only Civics. Then I tell him my name. He responds with a name that is Persian for “Warrior”. A peacemaking warrior. I smile.

The peacemaking man tells me he is looking for work. I suspect he is living out here. It is legal to camp at any one area for 14 days out of 30. One could easily rotate around Sedona, in effect living on BLM and national forest land. We agree to talk in the morning. The neighborhood is quiet now.

I toss and turn all night. I never sleep well when I camp.

I awake at 6:30 am. It is already hot. I pack up quickly and snap some photographs of the campsite.



My neighbor is up and about, preparing to drive to town. He leaves his tent pitched. As he walks over I am stunned. He looks like a model. He also looks like he needs something to eat. He munches on a protein bar. “I got offered a job in Flagstaff this morning”, he remarks stoically with a hint of a smile. “I just got a job in Flag, too”, I tell him, incredulous. Fellow “solo” campers, we wish each other luck. Perhaps we will hike together one day. He leaves to check in with an Australian couple. This is his town.

Before leaving Sedona I do a rainless mountain bike ride from Bell Rock, up Llama Trail, Little Horse Trail and Chapel Trail to my favorite chapel, Sedona’s Chapel of the Holy Cross. I adore chapels not because I am religious, but because I am attracted to sacred places. I like the hushed calm of the exquisitely sculpted chapel. I like how it blends with the land. I like how its stone cross is part of its architecture, its inner skeleton.

I head to Chicken Point Vista, finishing up my ride on the hog trails and Mystic Trail.

View from Llama Trail:


View from Chapel Trail:


View from the sticky sandstone flanks of the hogs:


‘Till next time,