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"The Future is not an Inheritance, Its an Opportunity and an Obligation" – President William Jefferson Clinton

Month: July, 2012

Reflecting Absence: 9/11 Memorial Site

9/11 Memorial Site

9/11 Memorial Site

It was a warm and humid July evening in New York City. Walking inside New York City is quite unlike anything else in the world, especially on the lower east side. When you’re young there is a certain sense of restlessness when you are inside the city, because you aren’t quite sure what you should do. You are excited to be there, and you want to do what tourists are most fond of. When you grow older (thirty something), you appreciate the a pristine ever present energy inside the city which grips you, and never leaves you until you get to the other side of the tunnel.

For reasons I still don’t know why – I decided to move out of Queens (where I was staying for three days) to live in Jersey for the next two days. I am supposed to get on a plane from JFK to visit mum in two days. As far as I know, you need to get under either the Holland tunnel or the Lincoln tunnel, or go over the George Washington bridge to get outside of New York City – and take it from me, each of those options are worse than the other two. Have you ever tried to fit a T-REX into an erlenmeyer flask ? If you have tried it, then you know how it is to go to Jersey from New York – especially in a cab. Hell, most cabs inside the city don’t even go to Brooklyn or Jersey (Jersey is even worse, you know, with it being another state and all).

But, since I made that ingenious decision I decided to live with it. You take a PATH underground train from Jersey into the city. That is by far the best option that God has given us, for us poor souls who don’t want to navigate through the traffic ourselves. I had been planning this evening for quite some time. Before I left, I wanted to visit the 9/11 memorial site, and reserved tickets well before. People often misinterpret a memorial site to a museum, the latter is not the same as the former.

As I walked into General Square in Jersey City, I could clearly sense the sudden increase in temperature underground. There is no escaping it during the summer, and until the train comes along you have to endure such debilitating heat underground. I had no idea how it would be, but I did know that I wanted to visit the site. For better or worse, 9/11 changed the world forever – and New York City is personal to me. Its where I have had memories from incredible highs, to crippling lows. As the train approached the world trade center site, I got out and came out – and breathed a sign of relief as I felt the cool air on my skin.

New York City is place where you can be surrounded by thousands of people, and yet still feel alone. You can walk hours on a straight line navigating through thousands of people, without ever coming out of your own mental cocoon. Its such a unique place to reminisce, and think about where you have been, and how you ended up here after ten years. As I walked on auto-pilot with my ever present black back-pack, black tee, adidas long knee socks and black tennis shoes, and Rafael Nadal long shorts (pirate pants), I could not help wonder about – well, nothing. I was inside my own world and yet, surrounded by so many people who could render the colors on a rainbow to shame. You had to go to the other side of Battery Park, to collect your paper tickets, and then head to the actual memorial site.

I asked a couple of cops for directions, and I am still glad they obliged. If it wasn’t for them, I still will be lost. In a lot of ways it is like a medium security airport – your bags and belongings are thoroughly searched before you follow the crowd. Once you are in the vicinity of the memorial site, you simply follow everyone. As I crossed the yellow lines, and entered the actual memorial site there were brochures in multiple languages on the wall. I crossed them – and then I entered the two pools.

Widely criticised as a ten year long financial disaster, there they were, the two giant pools designed by an Israeli-American called Michael Arad – the two embodiments of the 9/11 memorial site called ‘Reflecting Absence”.

I did not lose anyone I knew on 9/11, but these were my emotions during those two hours. They were as transient, as they were profound. The pools essentially had a rectangular formation, and the two pools are actually at the base of where the two world trade towers stood. Imagine a rectangle, and then imagine if someone punched a deep hole inside the rectangle into the ground, and then imagine someone carving a smaller rectangle in the middle of the larger rectangle – into which water flowed eternally. The two pools were in the middle of the oak trees. You can sense the energy by observing people around you. Most of them whisper out of respect, some of them stare in silence, and some others grieve in tears. The temperature cools down significantly as you get near the pools due to the cold water running into the giant void (that is the smaller open space of a rectangle).

The names of the victims on 9/11 and 02/26/1993 – are engraved on the bronze parapet around the two pools. If the two pools were designed predicated on such a spartan-like theme, then they accomplish what they were designed for. They leave you with a sense of anguish, hollowness and drained hope. They make you feel hollow in an almost visceral sense – not dissimilar to how you would feel if you have ever lost a loved one. Nothing what you feel there originates from affectation – you almost want to shed tears for someone whom you never knew, but lost their life for no fault of their own. You can quite easily see a member of a family right next to you wondering how it has changed their life forever.

As you see multiple layers of cold water in a crystal lattice formation flow vertically into the intermediate base, and then to eventually flow following the exact vertical trajectory into the bottom rectangular void, you cannot help but wonder about a profound absence – the absence of all those lives we lost on 9/11, the lives we lost that have disappeared into that giant void at the bottom of the pool, and continue to lose around the world everyday. Almost rhetorically, you ask yourself – ‘so where is the water that goes into the void? as much as you want to ask what happened to those three thousand people who lost their lives that black Tuesday’. The spartan design leaves you with little hope and almost angry, at how we have erred throughout history. As I meticulously placed my index finger on bronze parapet wall and read a couple of names engraved on them by running my fingers on a horizontal line, I swore I would do everything possible that this will not happen again to the next generation. I remembered the wonderful daughter of one of my best friends who is two, and has her entire life ahead of her.

I did not really know what happened on my way out and how I ended up in Battery Park, on the south side of Manhattan Island I instinctively took the Ferry to Staten Island. As Lady Liberty stood proud in front of the landscape of golden evening summer skies – I just knew we should never build another memorial site – the lives of our children are precious infinite.

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Fernando Alonso: The Machinist

Alonso in Hockenheim 2012

Alonso in Hockenheim 2012

I had the pleasure of watching Fernando Alonso drive last Sunday, and in more ways than one it was an education, as much as it was an experience. I have watched formule one for the better part of the last two decades, and even as far as only five seasons apart – I remember a boyish Alonso with a goatee and a funky Elvis like coiffure (which twists itself at the top). Little is it surprising that the legendary Flavio Briatore took another young man under his wings, and nurtured him to a couple of world championships. However, driving for a Briatore managed Benetton is analogous to getting started with Bryan Adams or Bon Jovi when you stumbled into this mystical world of rock and roll in your adolescence. There is nothing wrong with neither Adams nor Bon Jovi, but you eventually want to graduate to either the ferocity of Metallica, or the eloquent six strings of Led Zeppelin

During his Benetton (Renault) days, Alonso was struggling with the external pressures, as much as his internal expectations. He was a young man struggling to prove himself to the world. Such youth, is inevitably accompanied by flashes of anger, ephemeral rather unjustified disappointment directed towards his own team when he loses a close race, questioning whether his own team supports him – openly in the press, and above all, the unquenched desire to win a world championship during the time of the quite incomparable, Michael Schumacher.

Two championships, a fractured relationship with McLaren when he and his best mate Lewis Hamilton ended up dead heat (109 points each), only to see a scarlet clad Kimi Raikkonen steal a championship right under their eyes, and one more year spent languishing with another mid field Renault team, Alonso evolved, and evolved rapidly. He found the religion of Ferrari, and he needed them as much as they needed him.

The Alonso you see today is complete, and a thoroughbred professional than the young outrageous talent who won double world championships half a decade ago. He no more needs the best machinery in the entire field under all conditions to win. When you watch athletes such as LeBron James, Tom Brady or Roger Federer in action, you almost feel a sense of serenity that relaxes you as a spectator, or even better – a supporter. Its because deep inside you always know, “I know it looks a bit difficult or bleak right now – but I know Roger knows what he is doing, and he has this under control’.

Similarly, watching Alonso is almost like an education in race management, as much as its an exhilarating experience in watching someone at the absolute peak of his career.  With the support of an ingenious and an excellent team – Alonso manages multiple constraints on track. He absorbs rapidly uprising pressure when he needs to, drives flawless and handles the risky corners when he can potentially get overtaken, remains half a step ahead in terms of thinking ahead with regards to strategies, and above all – makes no (or almost – no) discernible mistakes on track. He manages a race as efficiently as a driving machine. He does not need the best machine on track to win races, and that makes him even more dangerous as Ferrari develop their summer updates at a blistering pace. What is even better ? his rivals know it as well, that he does not need the best car to win.

The grand canyon sized chasm between him and Massa is emphasised by the difference in points between both of them (154 – 23), and he has out-qualified Massa in all of the ten races this season. Ferrari knows they owe their leader a team mate he can count on consistently. His solitary resistance against a two pronged attached of McLaren and Red Bull only makes his performance stellar.

As we head into the latter half of the season, Alonso needs to drive like a world championship leader. At times he needs to sit back and play the percentages, and at times, he needs to go for broke, for the win. Its a fine line, and no one else on track can walk that fine line with such elegant precision.

Two seasons ago, I saw Alonso lose a 24 point lead in the last race in the infamous Abu Dhabi – where Vettel came back from absolute doldrums to win. Alonso is fitter and hungrier, and he learned from that experience, and something tells me he will not quite let this championship out of his grasp this time around.

Half a year in formula one is an eternity – but for the bleeding heart and soaring passion that is Maranello, Scuderia Ferrari and ‘The Tifosi’ – they need the cold precision of a machinist in Alonso.

Off to Hungaroring in two days …

This IS Federer

Wimbledon Final 2012

Wimbledon Final 2012

It was a steamy afternoon in New York, and as Novak Djokovic pushed the semifinal to five sets coming back from two sets down against a rampant Federer, it looked like his comeback would be neutralized as Federer stood at two match points (at 5 – 3 in the fifth). In the midst of almost a carnival atmosphere that is Arthur Ashe, Federer gave the crowd an additional moment to settle in, as he bounced the ball more, and meticulously adjusted the strands of his hair.

He served.

What followed was almost a reckless forehand return winner from Djokovic, slapped with absolute consummate disdain. Djokovic would berate the crowd (in a quasi-friendly way) to let them know that he too, has been playing his heart out the entire afternoon. Djokovic looked the part that day, and his body language was not that of a hunter, but of the hunted. He knew on that afternoon, he owned Arthur Ashe as much as his celebrated opponent on the other side of the net. Federer would lose the game, surrender the break and go on to lose the set 5 – 7. It was almost a painful Dejavu, as he lost at the same stage, on the same court to the same opponent, after being two match points up the previous year.

The process started on that warm afternoon in New York. After that, Federer has defined consistency which has predominantly been responsible for him getting back to the pinnacle again. His semifinal losses to Nadal (Melbourne 2012), and Djokovic (Paris 2012) now withstanding, you always knew he needed a couple of breaks along the way before he gets back into the winners circle. After all, this is DA’Federer we are talking about.

Murray played incredibly aggressive earlier this afternoon. There isn’t another blue print to defeat Federer in grand slams. Murray played an impeccable first set, after which he had break points to serve for the second set. In hindsight, that was the stage when Murray should have pressed more, but this was never a case of him losing the match, as much as Federer wrestling it out his hands. As Murray stepped onto serve at 5 – 6 (30-0) in the second, Federer as I would like to call it – ‘took a small trip into “Fed’Town”. The vintage forehand drop volley would have made Rafter proud, and he opened the match wide open with an artisan like touch backhand volley winner, to win the second set. There was nothing Murray could do, not when Federer ventures into “Fed’Town”. The Beckhams, David Cameron, Kate and Pippa Middleton looked startled in gaze.

The rains came down, and the roof closed, which favors Federer more than Murray.

Murray, with his Spartan like training regime was in no mood to go away, and he never did. But with the liberation of winning the second set, Federer found his range in the next two sets. He had his teeth into the match and from this point on, it was always going to be an uphill battle for Murray. Federer’s serve was rock solid, as he time and again painted chalk to get himself out of trouble. With each passing game in the fourth you can sense time running out for Murray, and the last grain of sand did run out of the Aztec clock when Federer closed it out in four.  Customary celebration ensued, as he fell on to the most hallowed turf in the world in tears.

Nadal has always embraced the role of a hunter, rather than being the one hunted. Djokovic loves to swing freely when he has nothing to lose as well, as he has seen the landscape in tennis transition at a demonic pace. Barely three weeks before he was two sets away from attaining ‘NOLE-SLAM’, and now he has been deposed from the pinnacle of the sport? This provides him all the motivation he needs, as we move onto probably his most favorite part of the tennis circus, the North American hard courts (after Olympics).

Murray’s response to Sue Barker on court was all vintage elegance and class. FOUR grand slam final losses are hard to accept, for anyone, leave alone someone who carries the entire hopes of a nation each time he steps on to the court. As tears flowed during his speech and afterwards, the grace and incredible poise he displayed during the ceremony was endearing. You almost wanted to say, ‘We wanted you to win Andy, we REALLY did’.  As Federer points out quite often, with the tears come the realization that Andy deeply cares about the game.

My only response to how this can happen, when someone who lost the world number one ranking got it back on the wrong side of thirty? – ‘This is Federer’.  As Federer’s twins watched dad win on his most favorite court, one could only hope that they remember this moment when they grow up.  It feels enchantingly odd, but has a certain sense of normalcy prevailed with the number ‘1’ preceding the name ‘Roger Federer?’

Sweeter Seventeen!

Final Ceremony

Another Page in History

Wimbledon 2012

Wimbledon 2012

“Great Moments, are born from Great Opportunities”

As the clock strikes two in the afternoon in London tomorrow, Andy Murray will play the biggest match of his stellar career so far, a match that if he wins, will change everything. With such encompassing love for sport, British tennis loyalists have been looking forward to this moment from 1936, which was the last time when they had a men’s singles champion (Fred Perry).

For an island in northern Europe, Great Britain has time and again produced outstanding champions in Soccer, Formula One, and Rugby, and the sports mad society of Britain would prefer to add a tennis player to that very list tomorrow.

Murray almost always emphasizes that he wants to win the Wimbledon title for himself, but deep inside he knows there is a little more to it than that. You can almost expect an ambiance similar to that famous ‘People’s Monday’ final (Rafter V Ivanisevic, 2001) tomorrow.  Royalty, soccer players and Hollywood will be in attendance, and as the clock ticks close to 2 PM, a certain fervent frenzy would hold in its unrelenting grasp – the crowd inside the cauldron of the most hallowed turf in the world. This is what Federer and Murray have trained for their entire life, this is why they run hills on Christmas eve, and it is for days like these they play the game. For those five odd hours tomorrow, you will witness a Davis Cup ambience. As much as the British crowd will try and be respectful of the ever famous six time champion, their pulse and hearts will probably always be pulling themselves in the other direction. It will remind Federer of the New York final he played in 2005, against Agassi in front an adoring and rambunctious crowd.

As they say right – “For the Love of the Game”.

Remember that speech by Kurt Russell in “Miracle”? It is always my most favorite speech in these occasions. Here it is.

It quite poignantly summarizes what Murray is up against tomorrow. We all know he can beat Federer and has he game to do it, but can he do it in front of an adoring home crowd in a grand slam final? Even with a positive head to head, he has never won a set off Federer; leave alone win a match against Federer in grand slams. In fact, he has never won a set in any of his three grand slam finals. But pressure exerts a unique dimension of stress on people, and that is where one hopes if someone less experienced (even, Djokovic) would serve Murray well, if they had reached the final.

Federer is going to feel the pressure, but let’s be honest – he has won and lost some of the biggest tennis matches in his distinguished career on this very same court. Once the umpire says “PLAY”, Federer is going to do just that without thinking about the world, pressure and British tennis fandom – “JUST PLAY”.  Just hit the round yellow optic Wilson dawg !

I have never seen Federer play a bad first set in a grand slam final against anyone named, not Rafael Nadal. He almost will win the first set, and then it becomes a boxing match for Murray where he needs to absorb the pressure and somehow eek the second set out. Even Murray knows going two sets down against Federer is a very bad idea. The problem in Federer winning the first set is, it liberates him and relaxes him significantly – and he will then be able to display his complete repertoire of artistic elegance on a tennis court. It is incredibly difficult, but it is absolutely necessary to win the first set off him (something which Nadal does time and again).

Murray has to stay the course, and stay firm throughout the ebbs and flows in the match. If he has an open court with his forehand, he has to finish the point at will. Playing rope-a-dope with Federer is never a winning strategy, based on the fact that it neither worked in New York 2008, and Melbourne 2010. Ofcourse, Murray can only adapt his game towards a winning strategy, and cannot completely change it overnight, but he has to finish the points against Federer, and not prolong it for his cat and mouse entertainment purposes.

The problem with Federer is, at any point in the game he can elevate him to what I call as “Fed-Town”, where he red lines his engine, paints chalk at will and steals the set from right under your nose (ask Djokovic: 4-4 in the third set). Murray is almost sure to encounter a few trips from Federer, to “Fed-Town” tomorrow.  Think about how unique Federer is, it is almost impossible to get back the number one ranking once you have lost it, and come Monday Federer can be world number one if he wins this match. It reinforces what I have always thought: “Nothing is Impossible for him, He is FEDERER”. If Federer wins tomorrow, it is inevitable he will go past Sampras and hold the number one ranking for the longest time in the history of our game.

When all the dust is settled, and the mechanics of the game are exhausted from our discussion,

The romantic in me wants to pick Murray in five, but the betting man in me picks Federer in four. Sixty two million ardent British fans would disagree with me, and I have never been happier to be proved wrong. Both Federer and Murray have their tryst with history on the morrow.

Another page will be turned …

Horace Rackham

Horace Rackham

As I was searching for a moment of inspiration in Dana Building (School of Natural Resources and Environment), I knew seeing Rackham would lend me that rather than reading any other document for my phone interview tomorrow. As I passed the diag (The Michigan Diag, and its tale needs to be a separate post in itself), and sauntered nomadically towards Rackham I saw those pale grey tinted steps on the outside.

Rackham (called, Horace H. Rackham Graduate School) is the academic heart of Michigan, which eventually gives us our diplomas, and manages the entire process. As I sat on those steps overlooking the sky, I remembered a cold, damp summer (August) afternoon in Ann Arbor back in 2009 ever so warmly – like looking through a sand clock in the Aztecs. It reminded me of nostalgia and reminiscence. My dissertation was finally approved three years before on the very same day, after a myriad of tribulations. After it was approved, I sat on the same steps wondering in intermittent rain on how it all ended. I was to leave Ann Arbor the next day, and go to New York to see the US Open practise with Arun. A few days later, I would leave to India, after which I would go to Australia for my postdoctoral work.

As I entered the elegant first floor, I saw the contrasting difference between outside and inside. It was almost elegantly spartan inside, a few luminous chandeliers above the circular oak tables, and the tables had nothing on them. A sense of serenity set in. I love running my fingers through fabric and walls, as I approached the main audutorium I slowly ran my fingers through the pale brown textured leather on the doors (they were locked), and remembered Al Gore speaking inside many years ago. It was a speech arranged by my own center in Ann Arbor. As I walked back, I saw the plaque about how scientists in Ann Arbor had conducted experiments and identified a drug for poliomyelitis (polio, a condition I have) back in the nineteen hundreds.

I always wanted to appreciate Rackham this way. When you go to University of Michigan, you only go to Rackham for an official meeting, receive feedback on your qualifying exams, or receive sealed feedback on your dissertation in itself – all of which are watershed moments. It is analogous to Federer seeing SW-19 (Wimbledon) now, and coming back in ten years to appreciate it differently.

As I took the stairs up on the right hand side, I ran my fingers through the pale grey marble walls  – I knew it was a unique building. The air smelled and felt different inside. A picture of Rackham on a vintage paper surface enclosed inside a glass case said the building was given to the University of Michigan in 1936. I remember waiting to walk for my graduation next door.

When I picked up the mini cup-cake wrapper someone had left on the carpet floor, I noticed the three trash cans for different recycling materials on the side. There were two students in there, and she said hi. The corner room inside has a meeting table that can easily hold twenty people. I was surprised to see a white board and markers, when I opened the two equal halves of the wooden dark brown cup board doors – I don’t know why I was surprised to find a white board and markers in there.

I walked up to the fourth floor encompassed with spread out dimly lit elegant chandeliers. As I walked through the hall way with no one inside, I could appreciate the serenity and satisfaction Rackham offered me. After all, the dedication lines in my dissertation read: “To the Power of Creativity, Imagination and Rationalism Bestowed Upon the Human Race”.

Rackham is normative (on how ought to be) in spirit. I could hear my own footsteps due to the acoustics inside, and I smelled the wooden air – that was when I knew why I love Rackham ever so much. It is a suspension from reality, and it presents an opportunity for dreams, thoughts, progeny, dare I say (Audacity of Hope), and nourishes our incredible power of imagination to change the world. When you are from deeply liberal graduate student towns such as Berkeley, Stanford or Ann Arbor – you are encouraged to dream, and encouraged to believe that you have the power to change the world. You believe that this is where ideas are germinated, thought process is encouraged and nourished, and solutions are expressed ever so elegantly that you almost believe that this microcosm  – that in so many ways is not reflective of the real world is true, pristine – and even worse, the norm.

As someone who believes I can change the world, I make it a point to visit as many grad schools as possible where ever I am. I believe education presents a solution for poverty, ignorance, our children’s future and terrorism. Rackham embodies in spirit, what the real world does not in the latter’s quest for money and mundane pragmatism. Rackham is enchantingly idealistic.

As I came down on the other side from which I went up, I ran my fingers through the coral understated blue walls – remembering that I indeed went to Michigan. That spirit of idealism, service, a commitment to the future generation, and providing them with a cleaner planet Earth is embedded in myself. As the Horace H. Rackham plaque read:

Horace H. Rackham 1858-1933: Poverty did not embitter him nor wealth affect the simplicity of his life and the even tenor of his way. His mind moved always on a high plane, serene and noble, and his vision extended to the problems of human suffering and happiness everywhere. His broad humanitarianism and his pervading wisdom remain a living force, his memory a refreshing inspiration.

I cried on the first floor, wondering how I am to leave Ann Arbor in a few days.  I have always been a dreamer …

Its must be Rackham


History of Rackham

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