Dear Friends of the Pub Quiz,
Miles Davis is bugling unhurriedly through “Nuit Sur Les Champs-Elysees,” the jazz tune that I chose to silence the caffeinated talkers at the café table next to me as I despair the gun violence in Las Vegas, and reflect upon the world in which we live. I never got to see Miles Davis or Dave Brubeck play, though they were both younger than John Lee Hooker, whom I once saw perform in San Francisco. I had my chance to see those jazz masters, but I’m sure that I was distracted. What were the distractions? A lifetime ago, they might have been television shows or New Yorker cartoons or some other combination of pixels: the ephemera of our digital age. Eventually, I would resolve to become less distractible, perhaps learning a lesson from Jack Kerouac: “Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion.”
Saturday comedian Paula Poundstone told a Vacaville audience that she wonders sometimes if she will soon wake up from a bizarre and frightening nightmare, meaning the strange world in which we live. Older even than me, most of the NPR-addicted audience nodded in agreement and understanding. When I was a teenager, my friends and I told “Bedtime for Bonzo” jokes when the former actor Ronald Reagan was inaugurated several miles from my childhood home of Washington D.C., but at least we had to acknowledge that he had once governed a populous state out west. You Californians had vetted him.
Trump had no such experience, and he has proved to be just as isolated and underprepared as we might have feared. Because President Trump hasn’t the help of an administration that is completely staffed, principled, or sufficiently experienced, Trump’s callow and unscrupulous machinations are reshaping our government in ways that daily heighten our anxiety and concern. When one thinks of the president’s days-long pause before beginning to mobilize help for people of Puerto Rico (who, notably, do not participate in the Electoral College), or when one considers his use of Twitter to insult past presidents and to undermine his own Secretary of State’s attempts to de-escalate the war of words and threats with North Korea, one can’t help but be alarmed.
Whether our anxieties are sparked by Donald Trump or by calamities and tragedies in the news, we each cope with our resulting worries in different ways, perhaps legal or illegal drugs, therapy sessions, or long walks in the UC Davis Arboretum. I posit that at a time like this we should find comfort in the arts. In my poetry seminar this past Friday, my students and I discussed Walter Pater’s assertion that “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music”; after hearing early Miles Davis for an hour or two, I understand better what Pater meant. Such music elevates the soul and the sensibilities, reminding one of those forces and influences in the world that seek to counterbalance the crudity evidenced in contemporary politics, and the sadness that results from disasters caused by nature or by man. For me, poetry also works this sort of magic, whether it be a beloved classic from Shakespeare, Lord Byron, T.S. Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, or Langston Hughes, or something fresh and surprising by a living poet; for example, the spoken-word maestro Fong Tran performs in Davis at the John Natsoulas Gallery on October 5th, while the older Pulitzer Prize-winner W.S. Merwin still turns out amazing and understated masterpieces. Such poetic comfort, discovery, or re-discovery helps us center our thinking, and reflect upon the emotional truths that uplift and endure outside the battling choleric angers and mind-numbing tragedies of our age.
I know or know of storm-ravaged American citizens in Puerto Rico, grieving families in Las Vegas, a forlorn librarian in Portland, and a mom here in Davis who are struggling, who are suffering this week. Many of them are not ready to let in a song or a poem, much less to visit a museum or watch a documentary. The timing or the intensity of their struggles precludes the receptivity and calm needed to receive musical or poetic magic. As the Indian proverb says, “A healthy person has many wishes, but the sick person has only one.” That said, the arts remain for us, ready to help us imagine or eventually make our many wishes.
After telling us about her metaphorical nightmare from which she sometimes wishes she could awaken, Paula Poundstone told us that nevertheless she hoped she wouldn’t wake up until after her conversation with the audience in Vacaville. She recognized the power of performance, and of humor: these were her gifts to us. An obsessive talker, Poundstone also treasured having interlocutors with whom she could share her ideas, her idiosyncrasies, and her comedic reflections on the challenges we all face. Like some candidates for president, cable news is meant to alarm us about an incipient threat, something that would keep us agitated and wanting more, either more reassurance, or more actionable information. By contrast, art, music, and poetry aspire towards the condition of permanency, something outside this era of widespread instability, tribulation, and mourning.
Insofar as they discourage cell phone use and encourage commune, a pub quiz or a poetry reading might just present you a moment of relief from the savage burdens of time, a distraction from the smoke in the air, and the restive and blustery winds that are shaking and emptying our trees in the first weeks of autumn. Join me for such a communal escape this week so that, with a bit of distraction and artistry, I might just be able to help you carry your psychic load.
Tonight’s Pub Quiz will feature questions on some of the topics raised above. Expect also questions on the following: The U.S. Constitution, Emily Dickinson, former Pub Quiz champions, ethical codes, innovators, local basketball teams, last words, kite flying, polls of Brits, difficult starts, fancy clocks, gold stars, understanding conflict, sciences with multiple paradigms, differences from Manhattan, CEOs, Allen Ginsberg, Italian capitals, leaders, unforgettable strolls, physics, eternal rhymes, notable tears, Yoda, Sicily, boa hurricanes, pit bulls, human anatomy, Walt Whitman, really unusual words, constants, Tom Petty, and Shakespeare.
The winds are due to die down by the time the Pub Quiz starts at 7 this evening. I hope you will join us!
Here are three questions from last week’s quiz:
- Another Film Question. Grossing over half a billion dollars domestically, what are the six words in the title of the top-grossing film released in the last 365 days?
- Science: The Dining Habits of Raccoons. At 40%, which of the following makes up the largest percentage of a raccoon’s diet? Invertebrates, Plants, or Vertebrates.
- Books and Authors. Ezra Jack Keats earned the Caldecott Award for his 1962 children’s book about a boy named Peter exploring his neighborhood after the first snowfall of the season. What are the three words in the title of the book?
P.S. Please visit https://www.fongtran.com to see who we have featuring at the John Natsoulas Gallery this coming Thursday night at 8. View the video presentation of his poem “White Hipsters.” Tran is an accomplished performer who deserves our attention.