The Spring Surprise of Singing Ceramicists
What happened to Dr. Andy when he taught a class last week in a redwood grove
William Cowper’s poem “The Task” (1785) reminds us that “Variety’s the very spice of life, / That gives it all flavors.” One way to ensure variety is to invite surprises. This past Friday, four different past players of the Pub Quiz added significant welcome variety to the first face-to-face class that I have taught in over a year. I shall tell you how.
Like judicious college students around the country, UC Davis students have been sheltering at home or in their single dorm rooms, keeping a healthy distance from their similarly unvaccinated classmates. Most of them see each other’s unmasked faces only on Zoom. Like the rest of us, they ache to return to their communities of peers, whether in restaurants, pubs, or classrooms.
With this in mind, this quarter I’m offering an outdoor class called “Journaling Our Long Walk Together.” As the title suggests, the class has my students and me meeting in different locations on campus and in the city of Davis, walking around while I share context, wisdom, and information about the sites we are visiting, and then sitting down to write in our hardback journals for an hour or more. Walking and writing are how I spend my leisure and mental health time, so, I wondered, why not introduce a group of new students to a couple of the habits that have been so good to me?
The class filled immediately. And then the emails started coming in from first-year students desperate to get out of the house (or the dorm), and into my class. Here’s an example from a UC Davis freshman: “I was wondering if there is any chance to be able to get into the class, as I don’t have the ability to even waitlist until Thursday. I feel like it would be very beneficial to my mental and physical health as it is challenging for me to leave my dorm room and have stomach inflammation that is often relieved from taking walks (I just currently do not have a walking buddy). Please let me know as I would love to be a part of your seminar and will be adding to the waitlist as soon as I can!”
Now, I’ve taught first-year seminars on The Borg, Buddhism and Film, Jazz and Literature, and Poetry Marketing that have attracted interest from single-digit numbers of students. This class, by contrast, soon had a waiting list almost as large as the capped enrollment. Rashly, I offered to teach a second section of the class, meaning that I would be meeting with my students at both 9 AM and 2 PM for our walks and talks. Like my students, I know that I would relish the chance to connect with a new group of people. Plus, as I told my students on at our first meeting, they don’t need to worry about infecting me, for I’m vaccinated!
We met on the first day in the T. Elliot Weier Redwood Grove near Old Davis Road and discussed how odd it was to find a grove of coastal redwoods on a creek in the Sacramento Valley. Soon, though, the welcome interruptions began. One of the passersby revealed that beneath his mask he was Sinisa Novakovic, owner of the Davis cultural hotspots Mishka’s Café and (currently dark) Varsity Theatre. I promised him that I’d introduce my students to his businesses on one of our subsequent perambulations. All smiles, Sinisa said he would look for us in the woods on the subsequent Friday morning.
About 20 minutes later I spotted Eileen Rendahl, the Davis author of more than a dozen novels in several genres. So prolific and talented, Eileen would have to be using the redwood grove walking time to compose, I thought, but she was walking and chatting with a friend, so I didn’t interrupt her conversation or my class to thank her again for being one of the sustaining sponsors of my online pub quizzes. Eileen has made such an investment in the Pub Quiz that her team gets a book from me every month, and just this week I ordered her team some pro-science pins from Dissent Pins. Thanks, Eileen!
When Brian Sway came through the redwoods soon after Eileen, he also had a walking buddy, so I didn’t stop him to meet my students. I did tell my students about Brian’s Peace Corps work helping 350 South African health clinics reorganize in order to address the sort of epidemiological challenges that are now somewhat familiar to all of us. When asked about his work in the Davis Enterprise, Brian talked up his team. “I may be a change agent and pushing people, but I’ve not done this by myself,” Sway said. “I work with great people at CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), good people at Peace Corps and definitely in the South African government and the health clinics. If I don’t have a strong partner in the facility, manager of a health clinic, I can’t do anything. It’s their willingness to bring their people to the table and to be flexible and to collaborate that makes it happen.” In 2019, The State Department gave Sway the Benjamin Franklin Award for Public Diplomacy, the same year that UC Davis gave him the Emil M. Mrak International Award for his work overseas. What a hero! I am grateful to call Brian a friend, and delighted in seeing him at so many Pub Quizzes in 2019, our last year of normalcy.
While my first three friends who strolled through our impromptu classroom had walking buddies, Heidi Bekebrede was walking solo, so I did stop her and present her to my students, telling her that I’m planning to introduce them to her public artwork when we took our art walk in our penultimate class. She asked if I planned to show them to the lyrics of the official City of Davis song, for she knows that I attended the 2013 unveiling of her grand ceramic tile mosaic masterpiece on permanent display in Central Park (also called Farmers Market Park). I asked Heidi if she herself would like to sing the song to my students. This was her response:
The Davis Song
16 miles from Sacramento, heading west on 80.
You will find an oasis where avenues are shady.
Laid out on a grid of alphabets and ordinal numbers,
You’ll find merchants selling pizza, cars, groceries and lumber.
Folks go ped’ling to and fro, to work, to shop, to classes.
Others sit and chat at cafes, clinking ice–chilled glasses.
Some would rather jog about, or do some skateboard jive.
Yes I guess, I really must admit, some people drive.
The city I sing of is DAVIS.
It’s the place the UC Regents gave us,
Over hundred summers are the norm I better warn ya.
D–A–V–I–S C–A Spells Davis California.
Aggies, bikes, tomatoes, Picnic Day, green belts and vet school,
Farmers Market and the Rec Pool
Amtrak stops here umpteen times a day,
What more could a person ask for, what more can I say? Oh!
Pu-tah Creek, the Ar–bor–ee–tum,
Cen–tral Park, you just can’t beat um.
Solar homes and a sloooow freight train through town,
I don’t understand how any one can put it down.
The city I sing of is DAVIS. Where the peace of mind I crave is
If I ever move I know I’m gonna mourn ya,
D–A–V–I–S C–A Spells Davis California
Some may claim we're in the sticks...please write 95616
...And now that we are oh so great, we’ve added 95618.
I can still hear the echoes of my students’ applause (the echoes of their cheers were muffled by masks). After Heidi the singer-songwriter finished her song, took a bow, and continued walking the few blocks to her nearby home, two of my students raised their hands to say that they were born and raised in Davis, and that as children they had learned ceramics from Heidi at Davis Arts Center, meaning that a decade or more earlier, Heidi had actually prepared her students for her 2021 performance in the forest. As Henry Adams says, "A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops."
Walking home after class (my commute to my two classes about walking was on foot, and I took my son Jukie for a walk that evening, for a total that say of 13.4 miles, longer than a half-marathon), I reflected on how much fun it is to engage with actual people once again. That great walking poet Wallace Stevens once wrote this in his own journal: “Poor, dear, silly Spring, preparing her annual surprise!” I welcome spring surprises such as these encounters, these experiences, and I look forward to encountering more admired friends as we all start to emerge from our year-long cocoons.
I write a virtual pub quiz every week, and would love to send you a sample, if you are interested. In addition to the topics raised above, tonight’s quiz will feature questions about faraway places and the languages they speak, National Poetry Month, eastern states, red roses, happiness, electronic capitulation, royals, singular crabs, 12-page laments, insiders’ guides, invertebrates, California counties, Davis institutions, hybridity, involuntary dancing, Australia, bruins, patriotic songs, imposing doorways, foreigners playing Americans, birds and bees, San Francisco legends, the letter V, the crown, current events, and Shakespeare.
I’m hosting a free, synchronous Pub Quiz for Bay Area writers in support of the San Francisco Writers Conference this coming Friday night at 7. To say thanks to all my subscribers, I would like to include you, if you are interested and available. Would you like to gather a team and crash this Zoom event? If so, visit https://ucdavis.zoom.us/meeting/register/tJwrdOyvqj4iEtyBoZEJw9M7NgsEwhAUmchz. Expect a lot of book questions.
I hope you get to see tonight’s Pub Quiz. It about two-thirds the length of this newsletter. Easy reading.
P.S. Here are five (!) questions from last week’s quiz:
What poet wrote the books The Bell Jar and Ariel?
Container Ship Culture. In what country does one find the Suez Canal?
Puppet Movies. Released in 2011, the highest-grossing puppet film of all time featured songs originally performed by Paul Simon, Cee Lo Green, and Nirvana. Name the film.
Science. What do we call an elongated, edible fruit – botanically a berry – produced by several kinds of large herbaceous flowering plants in the genus Musa?
Books and Authors. First composed over 3000 years ago, the title of what divination text is a translation from the Chinese of “Book of Changes”?
P.P.S. If you are enjoying the Pub Quiz, please consider upgrading your membership to get more of the Pub Quiz experience, or consider inviting a friend to join us (please join us on Patreon). As Joyce Carol Oates says, “A good, sympathetic review is always a wonderful surprise.”