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UC Berkeley Web Feature

Photo strip of faculty hobbyists

The secret lives of faculty, part 1:
Scuba diving, dressage, ballroom dancing, and more

– Among the 2,500 or so faculty members at UC Berkeley are 8 Nobel laureates, 19 MacArthur Fellows, and countless other winners of prestigious awards. But did you know that the faculty also includes a champion horsewoman, a practiced scuba diver, and a veteran gambler?

Amazingly, given their teaching and publishing loads, many UC Berkeley professors still find the time to pursue avocations far outside their academic fields. Inspired by the College of Engineering's look at "Life Outside the Lab," we reached out to departments around campus in search of faculty with interesting double lives — and found more than we bargained for. In this, the first of two installments, Boalt Hall Law professor Jesse Choper reveals his racetrack predilection, East Asian Studies' T.J. Pempel talks about scuba diving with Jerry Garcia, Education's Glynda Hull explains why horseback riding is like teaching; George Chang of Nutritional Science tells why he's "CopCar George"; L&S Undergraduate Dean Robert Holub dissects ballroom dancing's appeal; and Astronomy professor Chung-Pei Ma tells how she learned what 3/4 time meant when she was four.

Part two: Faculty who dabble in mountaineering, aerial kite photography, horse breeding, jazz trumpet and more.

The Gambler

 Jesse Choper
Law professor Jesse Choper in his office at Boalt Hall and at his "other" office at Golden Gate Fields, in 1987. (Top: BAP photo. Bottom: photo courtesy Choper)

name Jesse Choper

title Earl Warren Professor of Public Law, Boalt Hall Law School

hobby Horse races

when he started "A colleague took me out 35 years ago and I was captured by it."

degree of obsession "It's a full-time hobby and my only one. I go every weekend, either Saturday or Sunday, to any track that's open - Golden Gate Fields, Bay Meadows, to Pleasanton, to Santa Rosa, to Stockton, even county fairs when they're the only race in town."

level of spousal indulgence "Once or twice a year she'll come along to the track."

what the racetrack offers that academia doesn't "Someone close to me said I was doing the same thing as I do at work, analyzing the material and trying to pick the winner."

proudest moment "I bet exotic bets - trifectas [where he predicts the first, second, and third finishers] and 'pick threes' or triples [where he picks the winners of three successive races]. My favorite day is not the one when I won the most money — one big bet on the exotic that won an amount in the low five figures — but the day I won six or seven of the 19 races I bet that day. But as someone once said, 'The best day you can have is a winning day at the races, and the second best day is a losing day at the races.'"

going to the track is better than therapy because. "It certainly does take your mind off your other concerns of the day. The cost is very modest - sure, you lose a little bit over the course of time, but there's no hobby that's as reasonably priced."

The Runner and Diver

 TJ Pempel
East Asian studies professor TJ Pempel (right) running the Seattle Half
Marathon with his son Sean McDowell circa 1997.
(Photo courtesy Pempel)

name T.J. Pempel

title Director, Institute of East Asian Studies

hobbies Long-distance running and scuba diving

when he started "In 1977 I met a graduate student from Finland who'd been on the Olympic training team for long-distance running and his goal was to run the Boston Marathon. He got injured and never made it; I got hooked. As for the scuba diving, I was at the University of Hawaii in 1989 and did some snorkeling; it seemed a lot more interesting to get down under the water and enjoy the fish life than cruise along the surface."

achievements Has completed 30 full marathons and more than 350 dives in Australia, the Cayman Islands, Cozumel, the Maldives, Bonairre, Hawaii, Fiji and elsewhere.

degree of obsession Runs every day, around 35 miles a week (down from 80). Goes on extended diving trips three or four times a year: "If someone walked in tomorrow with a plane ticket to Fiji and said 'You leave in an hour,' I'd be on my way to the airport before I remembered to call the office."

level of spousal indulgence "I'm really lucky; she does both herself. Although we don't train together, she's done five marathons and she's been diving with me since I first started."

what hobbies offer that academia doesn't "With running, it's immediate gratification - every day you go out, you run hard, you look at your watch, and you either did or didn't get from Point A to point B by a particular time. It's more concrete and immediate in its feedback than writing a book, where the process of research, interviewing, drafting, rewriting, and getting peer-reviewed can take five to ten years. With diving, it's the chance to instantly escape from everything into another world. It's calming - you can hear almost nothing."

proudest moment "Running the Boston Marathon in 2:36 in 1981."

strangest moment "I got to dive with [Grateful Dead leader] Jerry Garcia a few times in the early 1990s. Jerry was a spectacular diver. He really knew his way around underwater, and loved all the colors and the fish - make of that what you will. I once saw him tease a giant moray eel out of its hole and get it dancing around him for about 15 minutes using rhythmic hand gestures and body movements."

willingness to talk about hobbies "You'd have to staple my mouth to shut me up."

running is better than therapy because.... "There's no charge. You can do it whenever, at your own pace, and it really is very decompressing. You can run for an hour and get away from all your tension and stress, look at the clouds, listen to the noises - or the silence, and come back refreshed. Your problems don't seem as ominous as when you started. The same is true of diving, actually. And I've never seen a neurotic fish."

chances of someday chucking career for hobbies "I'm up for a merit raise this year, so I'm not saying. Seriously, I could envision doing either one on a volunteer basis, either helping out a high-school track coach or being a scuba instructor on someone else's boat."

The Rider

 Glynda Hull
Education professor Glynda Hull jumping her horse Gallant Lad at a Rancho Murietta competition in 1999. (Photos courtesy Hull)

name Glynda Hull

title Professor of Language and Literacy, Society and Culture, in the Graduate School of Education

hobby Dressage

first question people ask "'What's dressage?' I remind them of the Lipizzaner team, the white stallions that perform in the United States. Or I describe it as being like dancing or figure skating with your horse."

when started "I grew up on a farm in rural Mississippi. Riding was something I learned to do with my father when I was 7 or 8, and something I never forgot. My father says I never outgrew my 'Annie Oakley' phase. I put it on hold while I was in graduate school and then picked it up again around 12 years ago."

degree of obsession Owns two horses, a half-Thoroughbred named Gallant Lad, and a dressage horse nicknamed Lily that she brought over from Hanover, Germany, several years ago. In the summer, Hull rides four times a week for several hours. "I'd ride more except my horses are in Castro Valley. If I can't ride for a while, I miss it. I'm less obsessed with it than I would be if I weren't obsessed with my work. I love my teaching and my research, and I also love my writing."

what riding offers that academia doesn't "Riding keeps me connected to my past, to my agrarian roots. My work at the university is intellectually challenging, and this is more physical. You're not dealing just with yourself and your own body, but another living creature. It's also very rewarding because you build a relationship - when you're riding well, the horse can't tell where your body ends and its begins."

proudest moment Came in second in the state in beginning dressage and was eventually ranked seventh in the nation among amateurs.

goals "I want to compete well at the second level in dressage and hopefully next year at third. It's easy to compete at first level, but the higher levels require so much more practice time, and they're more challenging for you and your horse. Serious 'amateurs' don't do anything else. Right now I'm training to do flying changes, when the horse switches his leading leg in mid-canter. Dressage is really about training the horse as well as the rider."

chances of someday chucking career to ride instead "Never. Teaching is a great joy to me, and riding and teaching are the two moments I feel most alive. When you're teaching well, you are very, very present in the moment, engaging with your students, you see them concentrating, you're creating this collaborative space. And with riding, there's also this sense of unity with another being, and this sense of performance about both."

The Mechanic

 George Chang
Nutritional science professor George Chang with his latest old police car. INSETS: The homemade back door handle Chang fashioned and the dashboard vacuum gauge he rigged to monitor the engine. (BAP photos)

name George Chang

title Associate professor of Nutritional Sciences & Toxicology

hobby Used police cars

nickname Cop Car George

when started "I got my first police car from UC Surplus in the early 1970s for myself. Then when my kids were old enough, I wanted big, safe cars for them to drive. And if they didn't have good mileage, that would be good, because the kids would drive less. I've owned about a dozen over the years and have two Ford Crown Victorias at the moment."

history of hobby "I've been interested in cars all my life. When I was seven, my dad bought a brand new car. We were so excited. Pretty soon I fished a screwdriver out and unscrewed a few screws, and then unbolted a part and put it back. I started to do that a lot. Occasionally I would break something and I would feel very bad. But then after a couple of weeks, I'd be taking something off again. My dad put up with it, I think, because he realized eventually he would have an in-house mechanic. By the time I was in junior high I was taking care of everything for his cars."

pros "Even though police cars have often seen rough usage, they've been maintained very well. And that's really important. If I were trying to boast, I could say that I do save a lot of money by buying them at auction, although often it's a very good price but it needs quite a lot of repair. I've had some good cars and some unpleasant surprises, but on the average I do OK."

cons It's hard to find parking for the police cars: "When we drive around Berkeley, we drive our mini pickup instead." Usually, when police cars are put up for auction they take out the police customizations like lights, sirens, radio, and the cage between the front and back seats. "But a few times at auction I've gotten so interested in the engine that I've forgotten to check to see if they have rear door handles. So I've had to fashion door handles out of steel I buy at Ace Hardware. "

level of spousal indulgence "My wife's been an angel about it. She does come to the auctions with me, I think because she wants to make sure if I buy a car it has door handles."

most harrowing moment "We had an ignition module die in our police car on the freeway at the 880 and 580 intersection. We didn't have a cell phone and there were no call boxes, but we were right over the Oakland police station, so I was able to shout down for help. Unfortunately, in the next two hours four tow trucks went by and none of them were for us. We ended up flagging a cab, which cut across four lanes of traffic to pick us up."

willingness to talk about hobby at dinner parties "I've got a big mouth and I'll talk about it everywhere. I've run Freshman Seminars on auto mechanics, because I strongly believe that everybody should realize how to unscrew a bolt and screw it back in."

what hobby offers that academia doesn't "When you work on a car, you try something and you can get instant gratification. If it doesn't work, you know it immediately, which is very different from academics."

if cars could talk. "I bought a car once and only later discovered there was a bullet hole in the floor under the driver's seat. I wish that the cars could tell stories, because I bet they'd have some interesting ones."

The Dancer

 Robert Holub
L&S dean Robert Holub with his wife at a recent dance class. (Photo courtesy Holub)

name Robert Holub

title Dean of the Undergraduate Division, College of Letters and Science

hobby Ballroom dancing - the "smooth" dances (fox trots and waltz), some of the "nightclub" dances (like swing), and the Latin dances (rhumba, salsa, cha cha)

when started About seven years ago

time devoted Two nights a week

level of spousal indulgence "We do it together. That was the original motivation."

degree of obsession "We'd like to dance more, but we have two small children. Sometimes I do secretly practice, a lot of times I go through steps in my mind and try to think what I did wrong and how I could correct it. But that's never the same as with a partner."

what dancing offers that academia doesn't "It's a break from thinking about things going on during the day, concentrating on something completely different with a different group of people. It's primarily something to do with my wife, but it's also a way to be social with other people, especially outside the university - you have the opportunity to meet people from different walks of life."

pros "In our classes we dance with other people, not just each other, so you perfect your skills at leading and coordination with other individuals."

cons "In ballroom dancing, the man has to not only lead but think of what's going to happen next and prepare for it; the woman just has to be sensitive enough to follow what the man is doing. So unfortunately, if you're not dancing well, it's usually the man's responsibility."

most embarrassing moment "There are many of those, because you forget steps or forget leads you should be doing. I always seem to forget the easiest steps in the rumba, for example."

willingness to talk about hobby at dinner parties "It doesn't come up very often."

dancing is better than therapy because… "I don't think it's really like therapy, but it is interesting because you have clear roles - the man leads and the woman follows. They both have specific tasks that they have to do and they have to do them right for the dance to work."

The Violinist

 Chung-Pei Ma
Astronomy professor Chung-Pei Ma with her quartet at a recent performance; (l-r) Poppy Crum, Ma, Jukka-Pekka Vainio, and Jen Mankoff. (Top: Wendy Edelstein photo. Bottom: photo courtesy Ma)

name Chung-Pei Ma

title Professor of Astronomy

hobby Classical violin

when started Age 4

how inspired "I was tagging along to my older brother's violin lessons in Taipei and wanted to try it. My parents wanted me to take piano, but the teacher said to come back in a year, that I was too small. My brother's teacher offered to teach me instead."

challenges "When I first started playing I couldn't even really count, but somehow the teacher taught me the concept of fractions, using an apple, so I could understand 3/4 time and such."

degree of obsession "Before I had to write my thesis in graduate school, I would practice one to two hours a day, or sometimes three to four hours every day if I had a concert coming up. Now I play once a week unless our string quartet is performing."

level of family indulgence "They were fantastic. They really had to suffer through my practicing. I would play the same passage like a hundred times. The first five years you just sound horrible."

achievements Joined a youth symphony in Taiwan at age 8 and traveled for performances. Won several competitions.

most magical moment "There was one piece, the Chaconne for Solo Violin by J.S. Bach, that seemed to elevate me to another level every time I played it. It did win me the Taiwan National Violin Competition, when I was around 16. It's a very famous, very complicated 15-minute piece. You're playing alone and accompanying yourself - there are four voices going on. I spent a lot of time learning it, going to different teachers and studying Bach's original manuscript. I treasured that piece."

willingness to talk about hobby "I don't like to advertise it too much. If I'm giving a big recital I'll tell friends and family, but I don't really tell anyone about the little concerts."

what music offers that academia doesn't "People often talk about how mathematical music like Bach is - the structure, the rhythm, the logic. Both music and physics do demand my full attention, but to me they seem so different. Music is an instant enjoyment, whereas physics is more abstract. When I play with my quartet, sometimes we'll sight-read some pieces for a few hours and I'll get so tired, it's as if I'm using an entirely different part of my brain. Also, I really love playing chamber music in a quartet, because that's a human aspect you don't have in physics."

question people always ask "Whether I'm related to [the cellist] Yo Yo Ma, since we have the same last name. I say, 'Probably 300 years ago.'"

chances of someday chucking career for music "Never. I would consider taking a three-month break, but I think having both of them is so magical that I'm unwilling to give up either. I've invested so much in both, and they seem to live pretty harmoniously together."



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