Friday, April 4, 2014

Finding My Niche

We’ve been back home for two months. We still can’t get enough of the stars at night or the morning sunrise.  We gulp water from the faucet in amazement, and I stare in awe at the size of my washing machine.  We are in love with our friends and family here and can’t believe we get to see them whenever we want.  

When was the last time you saw Matthew this smiley?

Maybe too smiley...

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Saying Goodbye

One week until we leave Shanghai.  When we arrived, not quite two years ago, Eli was four; Townes was eight; and Naomi a newly turned 11.  Now in the jaded eyes of a 43 year old, two years is a short time, but to these kids, it’s a big chunk of their childhood. 

The Bund, May 2012

Early subway ride, March 2012

Matthew and I were talking this morning about the ups and downs of moving our family around the world.  Overall, we agreed, we accomplished our primary goal* – children’s minds blown open.  

*He also did some pretty good work for ISC.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Kids are All Right

Summer break is over.  Vermont was amazing.  So were Chicago and Connecticut.  Non-stop fun with all of our favorite people.

One of many trips to Dairy Creme with our besties.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

What?! No Tennis?? Life goes on in Shanghai...

Tomorrow is a huge day for us.  We're leaving Shanghai for the summer back in Vermont. It's been a year since we've been home.  We're kind of excited.  But before we head out, I thought I'd share some photos from the last month or so, in no particular order.

Sweet corn, fried and drizzled with mayo. 

Cutest kids on the block.  Only time they sat still.

Oh how I wish the tiger would have blinked.  Terrifying.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Warning: Tennis (#1, The Greatest Tennis Match Ever Played)

I'm counting down the Top 5 tennis matches I didn't see. Yes. Incredibly fascinating. You can read about the other ones below, but no links! You just got to go find them if you want.

1. Rafael Nadal v. Roger Federer, 2008 Wimbledon Final

You do not fuck with Roger Federer on grass.

In fact, up until about 2008, you could have stopped before the last 2 words and just said that you do not fuck with Roger Federer. From 2004 to 2007, Federer won 11 of 16 Grand Slam Tournaments, winning 3 each year in 2004, 2006 and 2007. That’s, um… not bad. Great players are pretty happy when they do that. Nadal did it once. Djokovic did it once. Federer did it three times. He also made it look easy.

From 2003 to 2007, Federer won 5 straight Wimbledon titles. If you don’t know, the four tennis Grand Slams are played on different surfaces. The Australian is a “soft” hard court, the French is played on red clay, Wimbledon on grass, and the U.S. Open on “hard” hard court. Each surface is different in terms of the style of play that will do well on it. Grass tends to be speedy, as the ball skips off the surface but without a lot of loft, or bounce, so you don’t have a lot of time to react and hit your normal kind of shot. This favors players who serve very well, because if you can put in a good serve, it’s going to be very hard to return. Sampras was one of the greatest servers ever, and he won Wimbledon a lot. Federer is also a phenomenal server, and he won 5 in a row from 2003 to 2007. That’s oversimplifying a bit – Federer is an all-around great tennis player – but let’s leave it here for the sake of brevity.

Federer also did well at the Australian and U.S. Opens on the hard courts (he won 5 U.S. Opens in a row too). He also did well at the French Open, reaching the Finals there each year from 2005 to 2007, but never won it because of this guy named Rafael Nadal who kept getting in his way. Nadal really, really liked playing on clay. He was born on it, raised on it, like most Spaniards. He’s won the French Open 8 times. In fact, Nadal has only ever lost at the French Open once. He’s played there 9 years, and he has a 59-1 match record.

So: it’s 2008. Federer is great on every surface, every tournament, just can’t quite figure out how to beat Nadal on clay. It seems like Nadal might prevent Federer from ever winning the French. But still, life is good. Federer has won 12 Major titles heading into 2008, and all he needs to do is win two more to tie Pete Sampras’ record of 14 all time and put his name in the conversation as the best ever to play the game. Nadal can beat him on clay, but Nadal is a clay-court specialist, not the all-around magician that Federer is. And no one else can touch him. All he has to do is win Wimbledon a 6th straight time and it’s all good. No problems. He’s beaten Nadal at Wimbledon the previous two years, even though 2007 was in 5 sets.

But… this Nadal kid. He’s, um, getting better. All the time. He gets to every ball, like a human backboard, making you hit shot after shot after shot until you finally make a mistake. And more often than not of late, he’s beating Federer wherever they play. His style gives Federer fits. At the 2008 French Open, Nadal didn’t just beat Federer, he destroyed him. It was a 6-3,6-1,6-0 mauling. He made the greatest player in the game look like a 10-year-old.

Still, it’s Wimbledon. It’s grass, it’s Federer, it’s history. You do not fuck with Federer on grass.

You see where this is going. Nadal fucked with Federer on grass.

When I think about this match, my palms start to sweat and my brain to vibrate. I cannot think of another moment that so clearly represented a total sea change, an earth shaking shift, in an entire sport. Nadal had never won a Grand Slam besides the French Open, and of all the other Majors, Wimbledon’s grass surface seemed least suited to his particular talents and style of play. People just did not win the French Open and Wimbledon back to back – they are played 1 month apart, and the French is slow and Wimbledon is fast. In the modern era, only two players had ever won those two tournaments in the same year: Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg. And the last time it had been done was 28 years earlier. Federer had won 5 straight Wimbledons and hardly seemed to break a sweat doing it. He was playing for history, for bragging rights to the pinnacle of the sport.

But you could feel Nadal coming. That shellacking he gave Federer at the French. The way he played getting into the Finals at Wimbledon. But… really? Could he do THAT? It’s hard to remember back to a time when we didn’t know, when it was happening in the moment.

Both players came out firing. Nadal broke Federer’s serve in the 3rd game, and from there clung by his fingernails to outlast Federer in service hold after service hold and take the first set in 10 games, 6-4. This was the first set Federer had lost at Wimbledon in 2008 – he’d played 6 matches up till then, and won each one handily in straight sets.

Federer has been in this match the whole time, though, and proves it by breaking Nadal’s serve in the 2nd game of the 2nd set to go up 2-0. But Nadal breaks back at 4-3, holds serve for 4-4. With momentum swinging firmly in his direction, he breaks Federer again for a 5-4 lead, and serves out the set 6-4.

Now the crowd is buzzing, back on its heels, shaking its collective head. Federer has never been down 2 sets to love in a Grand Slam final, ever. No one in history has ever come back from 2 sets down to win Wimbledon. It seems like Nadal is unstoppable today.

The 3rd set turns into a war. Neither player can break the other’s serve now. They trade point after brilliant point, game after brilliant game, but neither can gain the advantage and it goes to a tie-break at 6 games apiece, 6-6. In a tie-break, they play one continuous series of points. First one to win 7 points with at least a 2-point advantage wins the tie-break, and with it, the set . It’s tightly contested but Federer pulls it out 7-5. Nadal still leads 2 sets to one, but Federer is in the match.

4th set. Again, brilliant play, neither can gain an edge. Federer refuses to give Nadal an inch on his serve, but the upstart Spaniard is playing just as hard, just as tooth and nail. Again they end up tied 6 games to 6 and head into a tie-break. It will be legendary. I can’t improve on this description by Les Roopoanarine in The Guardian:

“Anyone recall another fourth-set tiebreak like this in a Wimbledon final? Sensational. It begins with an acrobatic backhand smash from Nadal that's threaded down the line by Federer for an improbable winner. The Spaniard responds with a devastating forehand, and some big serving then takes him 4-1 ahead. An equally huge forehand from Federer keeps him in the Championships as the players change ends at 4-2. But a lengthy exchange then takes Nadal within two points of the title as Federer sends a backhand wide: 5-2 Nadal. Unbelievably, Nadal throws in a double fault. Worse still for the faltering Majorcan, he then nets a backhand: 5-4. A forehand winner from Federer makes it 5-5, and a service winner brings up set point. The tension is palpable. But Nadal stands firm, rallying with Federer until [Federer] puts an off forehand wide: 6-6. They change ends. Federer puts a forehand approach long: championship point Nadal! But Federer, whose serve has been his mainstay throughout the tournament, pounds down an unreturnable delivery: 7-7. Incredible. But not as incredible as what follows, a running forehand pass from Nadal to reach Championship point again; an equally astounding backhand pass from Federer to pull level at 8-8. The Swiss simply won't lie down. A forehand winner gives Federer set point at 9-8, and when Nadal then sends a backhand long, pandemonium erupts: we're in for a fifth set.”

If you missed that, twice during the tie-break, Nadal had a chance to win the whole tournament. A single misstep from Federer, one great shot from Nadal, and it would have been over. Federer wouldn’t give up, played his usual level of gobstopping, and into the 5th set they go. This is the kind of thing that could shatter Nadal mentally – to have the match, the whole championship, on his racket, only to see it slip away and have to face another grinding set of tennis.

In the 5th set at Wimbledon, there are no tie-breaks. The players play until somebody wins by winning at least 6 games, and with a margin of at least 2 games. Once – not too long ago – a couple of guys played 118 games in the 5th set before one of them finally won it with a ludicrous score of 60 games to 58 games. The point being, in the 5th set, one of Nadal or Federer will have to break the other’s service game at some point to win the match. There hasn’t been a break of serve since the 2nd set, about 3 hours ago.

Their play, unbelievably, gets better. They go toe to toe like a couple of powerful, drunk and strangely graceful sailors. At 5-5, Federer serving, Nadal gets two break points. Federer promptly erases them both with an unreturnable serve, followed by one of his trademark forehand lasers. They trade 4 more games, reaching 7-7. At 15-40, Nadal has 2 break points but Federer fights them both off to get to deuce. Nadal gets another break point, Federer denies him again. Finally, on the 4th break point of the game, Federer sends a shot long and Nadal is up 8-7 and serving for the match.

During his service game, Nadal serves and volleys, not once, but twice. I won’t waste time explaining why this is amazing, except to say that he almost never does this, ever. He hasn’t done it in this match once previously. The game is hard fought, but finally after 4 hours and 40-odd minutes of play, in the twilight gloaming, Nadal wins the match and gains new stature in the tennis world.

6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 6-7 (8-10), 9-7

Nadal transcendent, Federer despondent, the tennis landscape shattered, tennis fans everywhere exhausted, spent, and fumbling through long-forgotten drawers looking for an after-match cigarette.

CODA: Let us not feel too bad for Federer. As if we would anyway, but still. Two months later he would win his 13 Major at the U.S. Open (Nadal lost to someone else in the semis). But after four years, Nadal would wrest the top spot from Federer anyway and end 2008 with the #1 ranking. At the Australian Open in 2009, Nadal beat Federer in 5 sets for the championship, and Federer broke down crying afterward. This is a guy renowned for unflappability. Crying on camera. He realized that he had played 3 of the last 4 Majors against Nadal and lost every time, on three different surfaces – clay, grass and hard court. Like everyone else in the world, Federer was starting to wonder if he would ever have an answer to Nadal, if the torch had firmly been passed. But then Nadal lost his only French Open match of his lifetime in an early round, Federer capitalized and won his 14th Major there, the only time he’s won the French and giving him his career Grand Slam. One month later he broke Sampras’ record and claimed his 15th Major at Wimbledon, also joining Laver, Borg and Nadal as the only players ever to win the French and Wimbledon back to back. So Federer is doing fine.

But… WHAT ABOUT ME? Yes, I missed most of this match. I throw up in my mouth every time I think about it. The worst part? I don’t even clearly remember why. My best recollection is that we had someone visiting us for the weekend, someone not a tennis fan (will never do this again). I got up early and went to my in-laws' place to watch the first set, then Federer was up a break in the 2nd, and then my merciless wife, whom I love dearly but on this day, failed me like a deadbeat dad, made me leave to play host to our friends – friends whose identities I have steadfastly expunged from all memory. I missed the rest of the match, and ended up watching the 5th set later via DVR through decidedly blurred vision and grinding of teeth. I can live with having missed the other matches on this list. But this one… I may never forgive myself for.

I guarantee you this: on Wimbledon Finals weekend this year, my ass will be parked in front of a television, and it will not be moved.

Here are highlights from the entire Nadal-Federer match, but really, they don’t do it justice. The whole thing is available on YouTube if you have the stamina.

Next up in a day or two: Honorable Mentions, plus… Whither the Ladies?

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Warning: Tennis (#2, The Gods Walk Among Us)

I'm counting down the Top 5 tennis matches I didn't see. Yes. Incredibly fascinating. You can read about the other ones below, but no links!  You just got to go find them if you want.

2. Novak Djokovic v. Rafael Nadal, 2012 Australian Open Final

Now we are getting down to it. The distinction between this match and the #1 spot on the list is hard to make not just among the best matches I did not witness, but frankly, among the best matches ever played in the history of the sport. It just so happens that there is overlap – I did not witness two of the greatest tennis matches in history.

I mentioned previously that for a time in his career, Pete Sampras was untouchable. Better than anyone else on the planet. Now, in order to put this 2012 Djokovic-Nadal match at the Australian Open in perspective, I need to explain that over the last ten years or so, I’ve seen three players come along in succession who seemed better than him at some point in their careers – and perhaps, each better than the last at their height.

Let me try to say that a different way. Imagine if Michael Jordan had ruled the NBA in the 1990’s as he did, and then in the 2000’s another player -- let’s call him Player X – even better than Michael had dominated the game for a few years, and then another player (Player Y) came along who dominated Player X, and then yet another player (Player Z) came along who dominated Player Y. And, that all of them played against each other contemporaneously. Their peaks overlapped. Can you imagine that kind of continuous escalation of talent, where it just keeps amplifying to another level that you didn’t know existed and couldn’t believe you were witnessing, again and again and again? In a nutshell, that’s tennis in the last 10 years or so – the last 6 years in particular.

Player X – Player X, of course, is Roger Federer. Almost universally recognized as the greatest player ever to step on a tennis court. This is the Michael Jordan, the Muhammad Ali, the Lionel Messi of tennis. He’s won every Grand Slam tournament at least once, and he’s won 17 of them in total – 3 more than Sampras, his closest rival on the list. He’s spent more weeks ranked #1 in the world than any player in history. From 2003 until 2008, he reigned supreme and I could not believe that I had lived to see a player better, more dominating, more unstoppable than Pete Sampras. Federer transcended the sport and to this day, at 31, he is still dangerous – he won Wimbledon last year and although has become less consistent, can still summon greatness.

Player Y – Enter Rafael Nadal, circa 2006-2007. Words fail me with this guy. I am not gay, but a couple of times a year Nadal makes me ask myself if I’m really sure about that. He’s the toughest, fastest, fittest player I’ve ever seen, and he’s got gargantuan talent to back it up. Federer and Nadal have played 30 times to date, and Nadal has won 20 of those matches. At 20-10, he is one of the only players on tour to have a winning record against Federer and the only one by a good margin. From 2007-2009, Federer seemed to have no answer whatsoever for Nadal, at any time or on any surface. For a record 6 years, from 2005-2010, these two finished first and second in the rankings every year. Nov. 10, 2013 was the first day in 10 years that neither of them were ranked in the top 2. What does it say about Nadal that Federer is the best tennis player who ever lived, and that since 2007 Nadal has essentially dominated Federer two-thirds to three-quarters of the time? That Nadal has also won every Grand Slam tournament at least once and a total of 12, and is 4 years younger than Federer? Where does that put him in the conversation? Keep this in mind…

Player Z – Enter Novak Djokovic, circa 2011. For years prior to this, it felt like Djokovic would always be #3, that he would never break through to play at the same level as Federer and Nadal. Djokovic had a reputation for choking in big matches, for getting down on himself and giving up when things didn’t break his way. He’s also a bit of a cut-up and self-styled comedian and does impressions of other tennis players, which perhaps leant further credence to the idea that he wasn’t a serious champion (he’d won only 1 Grand Slam in 6 years of play prior to 2011). In 2010, Djokovic reorganized his support team, got a new coach, and rededicated himself to his fitness and his game. This set the stage for one of the most amazing years anyone has ever had in professional tennis. He won 43 straight matches to start the year, which is ridiculous. He won the Australian Open, plus every other tournament he played, finally losing to Federer at the French Open in early June. After that he went on to win both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, both against Nadal. In fact, he faced Nadal in 6 tournament finals in 2011 and he won all 6 times. He played Federer in 5 matches and won 4 of them. And these weren’t fluke wins – he earned them, outplaying the best the game had to offer. Pete Sampras referred to Djokovic’s 2011 season as the best he’s seen in his lifetime, “one of the best achievements in sports.” Boris Becker called it “one of the very best years in tennis of all time.” Rafael Nadal described Djokovic’s play as “probably the highest level of tennis that I ever saw.” Andre Agassi said that Federer, Nadal and Djokovic might be “the best tennis players who ever lived.”

That brings us up to January, 2012: the Australian Open.

To repeat, at this point in time Djokovic had won 3 of the last 4 Major tournaments. He had played Nadal in 6 tournament finals in 2011 and won all of them. Nadal had only won the French Open when Djokovic dropped the semifinal to Federer, causing Djokovich to miss his chance at a calendar “Grand Slam,” a near-mythical event wherein a player wins all four Majors in the same year (last done by Rod Laver in 1969).

So it’s fitting that Djokovic and Nadal would meet again in the Australian, and that it would be titanic.

It’s hard not to overdo it with the superlatives on this match. It was the longest Grand Slam finals match of all time, clocking in at 5 hours, 53 minutes. So long, so grueling, that neither player (both tremendously fit athletes) was able to stand during the trophy presentation ceremony. Tennis legends like Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras, Mats Wilander and Andre Agassi all referred to it as the greatest tennis match they’d ever seen. From start to finish, the quality of the tennis was superb, and even seemed to grow better and better as the 5th set waxed on and on. Rafael Nadal would call it “the best match I ever played.” And he lost. The final score was 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5-7), 7-5 in favor of Djokovic, giving him his 4th Major victory of the previous five.

For the last three years, men’s tennis has been an embarrassment of riches. In 2012, last year, the four Majors were won by 4 different players – Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Andy Murray (that’s a whole other story). These are four guys playing fantastic tennis almost all the time, as evidenced last Friday when Djokovic and a resurgent Nadal played another 5-setter in the semis at the French.

I can’t wait for Wimbledon 2013. I feel sad for you that you aren’t a tennis fan at this particular moment, as I know almost none of you are.

What’s that? Oh, yes. I missed this match too. It started at 3:00 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, during a period when I was trying to get ready to move to China. It lasted 6 hours until just before 9:00 a.m., but none of us realized we could have watched the end until it was over. I asked my father-in-law to record it on DVR, but the match was so long that the DVR timed out and didn’t even record the final set and a half. So I missed a match most consider the greatest of all time, though I’ve since seen parts of it.

Notice I didn’t say the match that I consider it to be the greatest of all time. I disagree with all the tennis greats, in that I’d put another match over this one as greatest – although I missed both of them.  Ballsy of me, maybe, but to be honest I don't think it's even close.

But that's for tomorrow.  Here are the highlights of the 5th set of this Djokovic-Nadal match:

Coming up tomorrow:  The Greatest Tennis Match Ever Played

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Warning: Tennis (#3, The Lull Before the Storm)

I'm counting down the Top 5 tennis matches I didn't see. Yes. Incredibly fascinating. You can read about #5 here and #4 here.

3. Andre Agassi v. Pete Sampras, 2000 Australian Open Semifinal

This one is on the list more for personal reasons than any of the others. No one would call this match one of the greatest of all time, despite the fact that it was a 5-setter in the late stages of a Grand Slam tournament contested by two of the all-time best players in history. The quality of play was just a bit too uneven, Sampras made just a few too many unforced errors, for it to rank up there with the very best matches.

Still, I’d like to have seen it. The Sampras-Agassi rivalry defined a long stretch of my fascination with tennis. Sampras was cool, unflappable, a brilliant serve-and-volley player with impeccable service skills. Agassi was emotional, lightning fast, a baseline player with one of the best service return games anyone has ever seen. Their contrasting personalities and playing styles always made them interesting to watch, even though by most measures Sampras had by far the better end of their long running feud. From 1989 to 2002 they played 34 times, with Sampras winning 20-14. They played in 5 Grand Slam Finals, with Sampras winning all but one of those. Sampras spent 286 weeks ranked #1 in the world, Agassi 101 weeks. Sampras won 14 Grand Slam titles, Agassi 8. About the only honor Agassi could claim that Sampras couldn’t, was that the former won every Grand Slam tournament at least once and Sampras never could manage to win the French.

But they were both great, and their matches great to watch. I picked this one because it was a 5-setter, and because Agassi, who I just liked better, won it, and then went on to win the Australian Open that year.

Why didn’t I see it? Just because it’s the Australian Open, really. In 2000 I was living in New York, and still no cable television. And Australian Open matches, wouldn’t you know it, are played in some place called Australia. It’s on the other side of the world or something, so matches are usually on television around 3:00 a.m. in the U.S. Even if I’d had cable, I’m not sure I would have caught this one. Although you never know….

Here’s the 4th set tiebreak, probably the highlight of the match:

Next up tomorrow: The Gods Walk Among Us