Remembering in December

My wandering field life passed the ten-year mark earlier this year. That’s ten years of finding my way into a new work environment and getting to know new colleagues once a year or so. In a more mundane way, it’s ten years worth of photo files to keep up-to-date and to try to remember to share on my blog. A cousin (thanks, Juliette!) noticed that the entries from my earliest days had lost their photos: mine was a rather early blog, and the ways of uploading photos have changed since then.  (Many of those earliest posts appear frankly so embarrassingly shallow to me now that I’m tempted to simply wave my editorial wand and have done with them…but thus far my sense for historical accuracy is controlling that temptation…) If my continued research succeeds, many of those photos will be directly restored onto the blog as I find their originals in backup hard drives and other obscure locations: ah, new year’s resolutions before the old year has even wrapped up!

In the meantime, I’m uncovering little treasures that never made it up here, while fondly remembering where I’ve been and what I’ve done. I was recently saddened to learn that Nancy Schrom Dye, former president of Oberlin College, had passed this year. During my years of active alumni-association work I greatly appreciated her contributions to my alma mater – so I was proud to join some other colleagues in taking her for an end-of-year meal which, the digital date stamp tells me, occurred in Beijing on December 31, in 2005. Up above are also a few rediscovered December 2005 Beijing-area shots which somehow didn’t get posted at the time. (Posting photos was more challenging in those early days…)

Just below are some previously-unposted 2015 shots: early-morning moonset at my home here in Haiti; me with my brother and a colleague when I gave a talk at Carnegie Mellon University earlier this year; and some shots from the lovely Frick House & museum in Pittsburgh, from the same visit. And since this put me in the mood, I’ve wandered through the many countries & continents, family meals & trips & assignments on four continents that have filled the years between these two sets of photos so very fully. Assembling them’s been fun for me so I hope viewing them is fun for you too :-).

This time last year? In December 2014, I returned from Sierra Leone & later went with great friends to enjoy the Ai WeiWei exhibit on Alcatraz Island (more photos from that one in the original post….though that particular set of great friends – you know who you are! – are remarkably camera-resistant):

Where’d I spend 2013? Living in PNG, participating in meetings in Amsterdam & dive trips in Australia, then celebrating the holidays with Steve & Mom in New Zealand:

I began 2012 in the US (where I visited Washington, DC in cherry-blossom season), turned 50 in the company of Howard & Gene at Kakadu National Park in Australia, and finished the year in PNG:

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2011 was mostly Mweso, a little Lamu, a little London and a year-end back home seeing Frank Lloyd Wright homes of Pennsylvania with family:

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2010…wow, what a year. Just seeing all the continents and countries where I spent time (actually meaningful time, with friends and family and work) makes my head spin even now. The photos evoked so much for me that I just couldn’t narrow it down to three or four…so I’m giving you a lot from 2010, a mix of Manipur (start of year) and Mweso (end of year), with a sprinkling of Sweden, Berlin, Paris & California in between:

House, Valley, Hills on Hike - Pre-Monsoon Season

I entered 2009 in Tahiti, yes it’s true: during the year I took off from work to help Mom with her house, I dedicated two months to exploring Australia (and watching the Australian Open!) and New Zealand, flying in via Tahiti with a few nights in Papeete, just because I could. The year ended, of course, in Manipur and included a great trip to see excellent sites of Rajasthan with Howard & Gene:

Ngauruhoe Summit View of Lakes & Clouds

2008 started in Nigeria, and ended in Tahiti…with a lot of good work in Nigeria, a short assignment for the earthquake in China, visits in Germany with my exchange family friends there….and a good deal of time in and around NYC (Mom, aunt Judy & I enjoyed a harbor trip past Ellis Island where our own immigrant ancestors entered the country, and also a trip to our favorite sculpture park up th Husdon)…with a side trip for some hiking in Sequoia and other California adventures:
Rivers-Abia Border Boats & River

2007…I began the year based in Colombo but spend the new year’s period with Mom & Steve at  Angkor Wat, returned to Colombo to finish out an assignment, headed on for training in Paris where I also got celebrate Mom’s 71st birthday…back to the US to reorganize my life after my first two years in the field, and then off for a new assignment in Nigeria. At the time it felt big. Now it’s all fond memories:

…which will bring us back to year two of this current phase of life’s great adventure, the lovely year 2006. From Beijing & Yunnan in China, to Polonnaruwa & Sigiriya in Sri Lanka (where I was based at year’s end), with family time on Cumberland Island (Mom’s 70th birthday dinner!) and in Germany in between. With a special souvenir from Seoul, where I had the opportunity to work a bit with the young ladies pictured with their daffodils. In a small-world twist, I had dinner with one of those two young ladies just a few nights ago in Port au Prince, which she visits sometimes in her current work with the CDC. So much small world, so little time for it all. Happy end of 2015, and many good hopes for a 2016 of more peace and health to everyone, everywhere.KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Australia Day on Federation Square

Federation Square is the recently-created center of Melbourne, home to the Ian Potter Center which houses the Australian portion of the National Gallery of Victoria — Aboriginal and European-tradition art by artists from or tied to this continent. There’s an enormous public space there where crowds hang out to watch live concerts, cultural events, and so on. During the Austrlian Open, matches were displayed live on a big screen during the afternoon hours to anyone who wanted to enjoy the crowd and the square despite the hot sun, and then in the evenings a live concert came on. The square was packed on Austrtalia Day with folks there both for the Australia Day fireworks over the Yarra River and the concerts on the public stage, and for the tennis matches broadcast before hand. Herewith some shots of the town, the stands, and some of the proud Aussies who took it all in. (The adorable and friendly guy below moved here recently from Margaret River – see above — to play rugby with the melbourne Storm rugby team. As I see it, he alone is more than sufficient reason to start watching the Melbourne Storm!)

In honor of my long Australia-Day weekend in Melbourne, the nation’s first capital (albeit provisional and temporary since Canberra was already planned, and delicately situated in between Sydney and Melbourne, both then and now rivals for top-dog status among Australia’s cities), I give you sights of the riverfront of this cultured, lovely and very enjoyable city which hosts more leading sports venues than one would imagine, and more adorably Aussie-proud sports fans per capita than even Boston can boast, most likely.

…I couldn’t help feeling it would be tacky if lots of Americans paraded our flag quite so boldly on July 4, but then we’re about 10-1/2 times the population of Australia and cast a bigger shadow economically and militarily, though ever since Vietnam they’ve shown a remarkable willingness to go along with out crazy foreign-intervention and regime-change fantasies. Somehow, it being Australia, it seems rather quaint and sweet to me. I doubt the Papuans and Indonesians would feel quite that way, but what do I know…

Melbourne started in a rather Manhattan-esque attempted land swindle around 1800, not long after the first fleet sailed into Port Jackson on January 26, 1788. (Yes, I celebrated Australia Day precisely 220 years after those first convict settlers landed on the shores of what is now Sydney to try eking out an existence under a different sun and different stars, with an ecosystem more radically different than that of the Europe they knew than they even began to understand until the late 20th Century.) Anyhoo, this guy named Batman (I’m not kidding) gave a few trinkets to some Aboriginals whose ancestors had done a great job of living with and on this land for many milennia, and figured that meant he’d somehow ‘bought’ the land from them — just like that old Chestnut about Manhattan island. And like that, Mr Batman was deluded because under English law, only royal agents could negotiate for land, and the Aboriginal inhabitants, rather understandably, didn’t see how a human could claim to ‘own’ a piece of land which would still be around long after we’ve returned to dust… Still and all, it’s from those roots that today’s gleaming skyscrapers of the modern Melbourne with its Batman Avenue sprang. Like California and Alaska, Melbourne and the newly-organized independent colony of Victoria (it was all New South Wales, at the start, but Melbournians quickly realized they were cooler and more cultured than those Sydney-siders, I guess) grew by leaps and bounds after gold was discovered nearby, and for the latter half o the 19th Century Melbourne was much bigger in population and, I deduce, relative weight within the colonies, than Sydney. Today they’re rather comparable, with Sydney a bit bigger in population and housing the more business, while Melbourne is undisputed sport and culture capital, so I understand.

Despite many similarities between the European arrival in North America and the one in Australia, one is constantly reminded here that one is very definitely NOT in Kansas, or even California, any more. Reasonably educated, cultured and even multilingual Americans (such as yours truly) often need decoders to get by in the land of Oz. To whit, from my excellent Western Australia road atlas and guidebook: “One of the most photogenic of the all the region’s mammals, the chuditch was once persecuted as a raider of chook pens.” This sentence clearly reads as English, but if I didn’t know better I might think it came from the creative mind of a fantasy or sci-fi writer, so little sense does it make to any non-Australian, perhaps even to many Australians. the chuditch is just an indigenous species here, unique to this continent which departed the super-continental mothership much earlier than most of the other continents…except, of course Antartica, which ain’t so known for its land-based flora and fauna. ‘Chook,’ on the other hand, fits into that lovely category ‘Australian Shorthand’ into which also fit such items as Brekky (you can buy, I kid you not, a carton of Brekky Juice aka Orange Juice, in the supermarket here) and Arva (tea in the arvo may not be the Queen’s English, but one does meet up on Sunday Arvo here for tea). Chook? Chicken. But how am I to know that? Is it in the OED? And to think they have the nerve, here in tiny little (population-wise) Oz, to make fun of American English! True, they SOUND more couth than we…but I don’t expect I’ll bind brekky, arvo or chook in the OED when next I check.

Consider, further, my predicament three weeks ago at a local winery on lovely Cape Naturaliste (Geographe Bay and adjacent Cape Naturaliste, for the curious, were named after the two ships in the French fleet that first mapped the region): I want to order the salad with rocket, shaved parmesan and evoo. The menu also offers delicacies like kanagroo salad and other items I can’t identify — and my culinary vocabulary is not small by most definitions. When I first saw rocket on a menu in London, around the time of the US Supreme Court’s judicial coup in favor of GW Bush (thanks so much), I wondered how my teeth would handle all that metal. Then I figured out that we were not talking about the Mars lander, but about a classically English bastardization of the French ‘Roquette,’ better known to Americans as Arugula. But evoo? In a country where common animals include the quokka and the echidna, and the emu is regularly seen sharing grazing space with the cow — both destined for the barbecue grill, I think — one simply can’t know whether evoo is a small woodland creature (I imagined those fuzzy things in ‘Return of the Jedi,’ honestly I did!), or simply … extra virgin olive oil?

Such is often my situation here in Australia: we’re speaking the same language, but things often seem a bit reversed or off-kilter. I don’t suppose this should surprise me; my situation is not unlike that of the early British colonists to arrive here, who were surprised to find trees that didn’t shed leaves, but DID shed their bark, summer in January and winter in July. One sadness in my trip south of the equator, thus far, is that all the drains – toilets, bathtubs, sinks, you name it – are too damn good: they just suck that water right out in one big whoosh, leaving no time for a whirlpool to form. This means that I cannot yet confirm or deny rumors that, when whirlpools form here south of the equator, they run counter to the direction of northern whirlpools. Can any scientists in the audience (is there an audience?) confirm whether, somehow, the laws of physics are such that down here, whirlpools run counter-clockwise (that’s anti-clockwise to the very few Aussies in the audience) rather than clockwise, as they do in the 0ld countries?

Having driven, now, roughly 800km on the roads, I can confirm that it is possible to adjust to left-side driving. My parallel parking leaves much to be desired (at home I’m so proud of being able to park well on both sides of the street; but here, the trouble is more understanding how the whole car relates to me when I’m behind the steering wheel on the right-hand side of the car. I find that ultimately, this difference is far weightier than which side of the road I’m driving on — it’s just that everything is reversed: after three days of driving, I’m now proud to say I only turn on the wind shield wipers 50% of the time, rather than 95% of the time, when I go for the turn signal. (Different side of the steering column, of course.) And when Howard and Gene – with whom I eagerly anticipate spending two glorious weeks in New Zealand next month – told me I had to rent an automatic, rather than manual, car, I inwardly sniffed; if it were up to me, my inner devil suggested, I’d save the extra cost of automatic and put it to more bottles of Canterbury Sauvignon Blanc. Thank goodness their wiser heads prevailed, and I did the same when I hired (that’s Australian for ‘rent’)this car in Perth. Even with the automatic, I am still pretty well all thumbs: my left hand and arm simply are not used to being quite that responsible. Heck, they can’t even brush me teeth, and now I’m entrusting them with my life? Possible avenue for scientific inquiry: do right-handed people growing up in left-side drive countries develop a greater level of ambidexterity than most of their counterparts in right-side drive countries? I do find it interesting how very clumsy I feel behind the wheel, though by now I’m generally confident and not so terrified of simply ending up on the wrong side of the road, flat out, as I was to begin with.

Ahhhh the Australian Open

Which brings us to tennis. The original idea of this extended vacation in Australia started with a fantasy of watching the Australian Open in person, which idea sprang from comments heard over the years from players and commentators that the Australian is the most relaxed, friendly, and open (and easy-to-get-good-tickets) of the Grand Slam tournaments. (As the common stereotypes go, Wimbledon is the most grand and traditional; Roland Garros is also grand and full of tradition, with the added element of being highly unpredictable and unusually hard-fought due to the red-clay surface, and highly emotional because, well, it’s in France; the US Open is loud, brash and very New York.) The fantasy took on more potential for reality when my current life with MSF made it possible for me to take extended breaks between assignments, without some corporate bigwig thinking I’d lost my mind and will to work — after all, it’s hard to lose a career when you no longer have one! 🙂 What pushed the idea over the line into true reality was realizing how many friends I’d met in recent years who live here, and who might welcome a visit – which made it both more appealing, and more feasible since I’ve taken shameless and very enjoyable advantage of the hospitality of three wonderful hosts/host families here in Australia.

…Aussie fans are so much fun, especially in the first week when there are still Aussies in the draws for whom they can get drunk, paint themselves in the national colors (officially the flag, but yellow and green for sport), and shout out “Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi” endlessly during changeovers.
But getting back to tennis. It’s now Monday AM in Melbourne, I’ve only a few more days in Australia before moving on, last night I sat in row JJ to watchRafael Nadal beat Roger Federer in the first five-set men’s final here for more than 20 years, and I feel like posting some of the tennis pictures I’ve taken over the past two weeks and indulging myself in some of the thoughts I’ve had while watching all this tennis. I was treated, two nights ago, to the best match I’ve ever watched in person and one of the best I’ve seen even on TV — Nadal/Verdasco in the second men’s semi-final; a five-set match that will likely live long in history and is already the longest match in Australian Open history (last night’s final was excellent, but since Roger was clearly not playing his very best, it didn’t feel quite so satisfying to me). I’ve never seen two players so consistently come up one extraordinary shot after another, and one extraordinary return after another. The entire stadium was in awe as the match unfolded, wondering if Verdasco would ever have a Cinderella moment of realizing how out of this world he was playing, against one of the true all time greats, and fold…but indeed, it was literally not until Nadal had actually won the match in the fifth set that one knew that would be the result.

An advantage to being in the stadium is you get to see all the matches, including doubles which TV usually short-changes, because the audience usually short-changes it. We moved down to excellent courtside seats for most of the men’s doubles final which followed Serena’s demolition of Dinara, which the Bryans Brothers from Southern California won in three sets. I was close enough to get Bob’s left shoe, when he threw it into the crowd! Now if only I could figure out what to do with it…

…Venus serving to Dinara, above and below, during the women’s final.
I was quite chagrined, Saturday night, to see Dinara Safina live down to the worst fears of her possible underperformance in the underwhelming women’s final, rather than living up to the clearly tremendous game she is capable of. Trudi, in the stands with me before the match, asked why there were so many empty seats; I told her a) that it would fill up more by match start and b) that frankly the women’s matches at this year’s AO have usually been either lopsided, or see-saw matches where first one player then the other goes off her game — not battles of will with two players consistently producing their best tennis over multiple sets. (E.g. Verdasco-Nadal.) And anyone who loves tennis has to be asking themselves some hard questions about competition in the women’s game. When we demand money for women’s matches and so on, fans have the right to expect more of the women’s tour than we’ve seen in this tournament. Men’s matches are best of five sets to begin with, so they’re frankly working harder throughout the tournament; but what lover of good tennis would prefer to watch Serena wipe the floor with Dinara in less than one hour, rather than the 4-1/2 hour epic which confirmed Rafa in his place at the top of the game, and told us we’re likely to have another year of tremendous rivalry as Roger tweaks his game to show Nadal he can still be #1?

…I saw several of Venus & Serena’s doubles matches, including this quarter-final trouncing of a Chinese team on an outer court where I had the pleasure of sitting in the very front row.

Serena gamely tried to make it sound like she ‘had’ to go for broke becuase Dinara hit the ball so hard, but let’s be real — Serena worked far less hard in the final of this year’s first grand slam, than she would in a casual practice during one of her off days this week. Like most fans, I was charmed by Ana Ivanova’s ready smile and great game at last year’s French Open final — and I wonder what the heck has happened to her since then?! What the DEVIL is wrong with the women’s game? Why is women’s tennis beset by women who can’t come up with the goods when the pressure is on? Where are the long hard-fought matches between Graf and Seles, or Navratilova and Graf or Evert? The game is crying out for some great new players to emerge and really claim their place — to challenge Serena in a meaninful way. Dinara can do it, but she’s gonna have to believe she can and develop some consistency; and until she and a few others raise the bar and contend consistently for the top spot, I for one am going to find women’s tennis boring and very secondary to the current excitement on the men’s side.

…the first week, I had literally courtside seats on Hisense Arena, the second-largest arena, as well as being able to see any match I wanted on the rest of the courts. That’s where I got these really close up shots of Venus – good thing I saw her in singles action during the first round, which she won; and of Andy, below.

…this being one of those smaller, outer courts, on which I watched Ernests Gulbis in the first round. One of many lovely things about the AO is that Melbourne Park is literally in the heart of the city, so sitting in the stands you’re seeing the skyscrapers of downtown right there, plus of course it’s easier to get to.

By far the most interesting women’s matches I watched were doubles matches featuring Ai Sugiyama and Daniela Hantuchova. Ai Sugiyama has to be the most polite player ever to grace a tennis court. Not only does she play her big heart out on the court, which is always great to watch, but she literally holds out her hand in semi-apology every time she hits a winning volley at the feet an opponent or between two opponents at the net. The message, it seems, is ‘I’m so sorry that in order to win I have to beat you.’ Probably the best women’s match for me was Hantuchova/Sugiyama’s three-set thriller over Black/Huber, a match whose final outcome wasn’t evident until the last point had gone down in the third-set tie-break.

Gulbis (a Latvian) is a supremely talented quite young player, and wonderful to look at for both his shots and his looks; I’m not alone, I think, in hoping that his mental game can mature to match his skill level.

Close runner-up to Sugiyama in the Outstanding On-Court Demeanor awards is Elena Dementieva. This player, who can smack the crap out of the ball from the baseline with the best of them (her semi-final against Serena was far better than the final with Dinara, though she too choked on key points), took balls from the ballkid to hit over the net during serve warmup, so Serena wouldn’t have to wait to keep warming up her serve (when all the balls had ended up at her end of the court, because Serena was booming so many practice serves). She waited with great concern to make sure Serena was really OK after Serena fell in returning one of Elena’s great shots. During her service games, when every other player man or woman would take a few balls, and then just toss the unwanted ones backwards behind them as they head to the service line, for the ballkids to more or less scramble after, what does Elena do? She looks at the ballkid, asks for a ball; once the ballkid has tossed out the new ball, Elena throws the old one directly back to the ballkid, so it looks rather like some child’s game with both of them tossing balls through the air — but what it really is is Elena taking the ball kids seriously and making it easier for them to do their job, rather than harder…

…since I love his backhand and his game in general, and never mind looking at him, I caught all Richard Gasquet’s early matches and cheered loudly in French for all the good points. Even enjoyed seeing him hatless – which never happens in a match – at a practice session.

…Which brings up a contemplation of politeness vs winning toughness and confidence, selfishness and boorishness vs focus and determination. Most fans would agree, I think, that among the many things that make Federer, Nadal, and Serena unique and special among great players of the game is that they not only bring absolute commitment and determination – utter lack of doubt or fear, essentially – to every point along with their great skill. They are single-mindedly focused on their games, yet they also never act up or behave rudely or nastily – I’ve seen them all wait patiently while an opponent threw a tantrum or the fans behaved badly; I’ve seen them all give gracious post-match interviews whether they won or lost. Roger, of course, is the unequaled leader in being both tremendous gentlemen and deadly predator on court (last night’s loss notwithstanding…though Rafa really is getting ever closer to Roger’s greatness, and is also truly a well-behaved and well-spoken player). It’s that combination that, to me, makes these players among the true greats of all time. So do Elena and Dinara need to just get more selfish – perhaps even more boorish? During the women’s dubs final between Venus/Serena and Hantuchova/Sugiyama, Venus and Serena were never rude on court, but they also generally didn’t seem to take account of their opponents except when a ball was coming off one of their rackets — their opponents existed only as obstacles en route to another trophy. As a player myself, I long for that focus and know I’ve almost never brought it to the court — I like my opponents usually, sometimes I don’t, but for me the social aspect of tennis is usually as enjoyable as the competition, and I appreciate their great shots as much as mine. But I’m a duffer, and no one’s ever paying to watch me play. Dinara, much as I love her – and however adorable her apology to Australians for having to beat their lone remaining singles player – owes us a better match than she gave us last night – especially when we all know she can deliver if she just gets over her mental block.
It is, indeed, their humanity that allows us to welcome these players into our hearts the way many of us do. But ultimately, what we want from them is great tennis – not charm or apologies or good manners on court. Even I, who loathed John McEnroe’s on-court behavior, would far rather watch McEnroe play any day, even at his racket-throwing ballboy-and-umpire-abusing worst, than see another set of Dinara double-faulting away games. (I also think McEnroe was often right on the points he wanted to argue – he had and has among the best eyes in the game and is now one of the very best and trenchant commentators on TV.) So: give us more Federer from here to eternity: grace and lyricism on court, killer instinct with gentlemanly behavior and never a moment’s doubt of his ability to win. And let more of the women emulate him, Serena and Nadal — yes, sometimes Nadal’s intensity can be scary, but the boy leaves his heart out there, and always behaves well on court and toward his opponents. Onward and upward, dear game of tennis.