Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Chinese acrobat show

We finally made it to a Chinese acrobat show a few weeks back. Raymond, our friendly tour guide, wanted to take us as a thank you for all the business we have sent his way. (totally unnecessary, of course.) He got us second row seats, which was exciting -- you could tell they were real people, which was pretty fascinating given some of the stuff they pulled off. Kids dug it but were actually a little spooked being so close, in part because it was LOUD.

I took a bunch of video.. will try to find time to splice it together and post. I know aunt Joan will love it. I'm sure some others as well.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

More ski video

I continue to celebrate the return of high-speed internet with video of our Xmas trip. Unfortunately, I did not have any footage of Eli, who skiied really well.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Jacob ski race

Along with pictures, I can finally post video again. I'm back, baby!

This is jacob's ski race from Snowmass.

A little taste of EC

This gives you a pretty good idea of what this band sounds like. Now I'm a little pissed he didn't play "After Midnight." Note the highly idiosynractic styles of both Doyle and Derek. You couldn't search out two more unconventional blues players.

Ahoy Matey

NOTE: Pictures are back. Yippee. Apparently, it was just because of the infernally slow connections we’ve had since New Year because of the Taiwan earthquake interrupting the underseas cable. We are back to almost normal speeds.

Eli wanted this pirates costume so badly.. he begged and pleaded and whined for it.. we finally gave in with a few provisos.. chief amongst them that he goes to sunday school the next day with no whining or fussing.. he actually likes it but carries on half the time like we were sending him to a chain gang.. he agreed.. we bought.

We got home, he put it on and didn’t take it off for 24 hours. the next morning when it was time to go to sunday school he refused to get dressed.. everyone in car and E in his underwear. He lost the costume and his Game boy.. got the costume back after two days, Game Boy is gone for a week. He doesn't care, promised to go the next week.

That was actually two weeks ago and indeed he has gone last two Sundays no problem. I could go on and on with stories about Eli. He is a major character, angelic 90 percent of the time and demonic the other 10, with not much in between. He punched a kid in the face on the playground last week and what made it much worse to me is he was basically acting as a hit man – he did it, to a kindergartener a year younger than him, because another kid asked him to, “because George was annoying him.”

He told me about it that night, starting with, “I’m going to be honest with you about something…”

It can really be interesting to parent someone si similar to you. Sometimes I have to resist the urge to high five him –not over that incident, by the way. And it’s hard for someone like me to be the one forcing their kids to go to Sunday School. I could go on and on about this topic, but it’s enough for now.

Ahoy matey.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Year of the Pig

Becky edited a story on advertising in China for the Year of the Pig and the government's surprising decision to ban ads featuring pigs. Pigs are everywhere now.. in toy stores, gift shops.. cartoon posters hung up everywhere of pigs in chinese garb. I thought it was quite interesting and a good read. Here are some excerpts. Note how much pork is eaten here. From Friday's paper.

Pigs Get the Axe
In China TV Ads,

In Nod to Muslims
Porcine Prohibition Sends
Marketers Scrambling;
A New Year Complication

SHANGHAI -- Next month, China will ring in the Year of the Pig. Nestlé SA planned to celebrate with TV ads featuring a smiling cartoon pig. "Happy new pig year," the ads said.

This week, China Central Television, the national state-run TV network, banned Nestlé's ad -- and all images and spoken references to the animal in commercials, including those tied to the Lunar New Year, China's biggest holiday.

The intent: to avoid offending Muslims, who consider pigs unclean.

I skipped a bunch down to some of my favorite stuff. Check this out.

For most other Chinese, the pig has powerful and positive cultural associations as one of the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac. Year of the Pig decorations already festoon cities and villages all over China.

Pork is the meat most widely consumed by the country's Han Chinese majority. On average, Chinese annually eat more than 80 pounds of pork , according to United Nations statistics. At banquets in southern China, people often roast whole pigs, decorated with blinking red lights in their eye sockets.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Last week's column


Facing the Fears, and Facts,
Of Living With Pollution

January 19, 2007

Rebecca and I first visited Beijing almost two years ago, spending eight days here while trying to decide whether or not to move. About halfway through, the skies became hazy and the air began to smell a bit. The "fog" grew and grew and a day or two later we couldn't see the high-rise construction project outside our hotel-room window.

"It's good that you're seeing this," said our guide. "The pollution's not like this all the time but it does happen regularly and you should know that as you make your decision."

Obviously, it didn't dissuade us from coming and it wasn't really much more than a speed bump in our decision-making process. There have been times, however, when I've wondered if that lack of attention was foolish. Those thick hazy days do occur regularly and we all fret about them. Flying into Beijing, you can often see a haze hovering above the city, which is surrounded by mountains on three sides.

Even on clear days, there is often a heavy odor in the air, especially on winter mornings when you walk outside and smell fire, presumably from all the coal-burning heaters. Many people complain of a "Beijing cough" or upper respiratory infections that linger for weeks.

Somewhat frighteningly, you get used to all this. But every once in a while, something happens that really makes you wonder. One morning, Eli looked outside and said, "Aw, today's not going to be any fun. It's foggy so we can't play outside." The school keeps kids indoors on particularly bad days.

The first eight months we lived here, it never rained4. Then the skies opened and there was 30-hour downpour that evoked thoughts of Noah. When the sun finally came out, it felt like a rebirth; everything looked and smelled better. The city had taken a shower and a heavy layer of grime had been washed away. Even the sky sparkled. I looked out a third-floor window and stared dumbfounded at mountains gleaming on the horizon. Were they always there, but I just never looked out the window?

I erased any such doubts shortly when we went out for dinner and turned down a road I often travel. For the first time, it looked like I was on a beautiful country lane. A sunset-painted sky reflected off of mountains to the North and West. The vista was shocking but I was more shaken in the months that followed when I couldn't see the mountains even on crisp, clear blue-sky days.

We had a couple of really atrocious pollution days in December. In the midst of one, someone told me that a friend of a friend had a chest examination, which revealed damaged lungs. "Living here is like smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, you know," she said.

I had my doubts about this oft-heard legend, but my father-in-law is a radiologist, and I requested chest X-rays when we visited Michigan5. The good news: they looked perfectly normal. The bad news: they likely would have been the same even if we actually had started smoking a pack a day 18 months ago.

Cumulative damage is the issue, and there certainly is reason to worry. At a December environmental conference in Indonesia, the Asian Development Bank released statistics showing that Beijing has the dirtiest air of major Asian cities. Without even attempting to break down the scientific measurements, there is a scale on which the World Health Organization puts the safe level at 20 and Beijing averages 142.

Seeking more information, I paid a visit to the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau, where I met with Deputy Director Du Shaozhon. Just inside the doors of the building, a large flat-screen TV displays the current pollution readings for each of Beijing's 16 districts. Even on a crisp blue day, the rating for the city as a whole was in the range of 80-100, four to five times above the WHO safe levels.

Upstairs, Mr. Du and his colleagues explained a lot of the issues facing the city's air. I was there for hours, but everything I learned boiled down to: "we've come a long way but we have a long way to go." While they have made significant advances in reducing the amount of coal being burned and phasing out older, incredibly polluting cars and factories, there is more of everything, in an economy growing at some 10% a year. Most crucially, Beijing adds 1,000 cars a day.

Wanting to make sure that Mr. Du wasn't spinning me too hard, I contacted a foreign expert on Beijing pollution, who asked not to be named. I was braced for the worst. She agreed that the situation had improved but was still quite bad and while not exactly reassuring, didn't really sound any new alarm bells. "When it looks really bad outside," she said. "It's really bad."

And what about the pack-of-cigarettes thing? If it's possible to hear someone roll their eyes I did so when I asked this question.

"That's a persistent urban legend which started in New York in the 60s and keeps moving around," she said. "Ambient air pollution is not good for you but it can't compare to cigarette smoking, where you are directly injecting the bad stuff into your lungs."

She also made the point that air pollution here is no worse than it was in the U.S. or Europe 30 to 40 years ago. "Air pollution is a real problem here and I don't want to minimize it. I just think it's a disproportionate expat concern compared to all the other risks they take every day."

She was talking primarily about driving. That is certainly a good point, but it didn't make me feel any better. We don't drive as often we breathe, but we do so often. Another point that she and others I spoke to made was that our privileged lifestyle shields us from most of the worst effects of the pollution. We aren't doing manual labor outside or living and working in street-level dwellings or poorly ventilated homes heated by wood-burning stoves. But we are living here and I do worry about what it means for the kids.

To that end, I contacted their pediatrician, Dr. Alan Mease of Beijing United Hospital. Our conversation left me feeling marginally optimistic, or at least not horribly pessimistic.

I noted that our kids have actually been unusually healthy since we arrived here, and said I was thankful that they didn't have any asthmatic conditions. Those that do must really struggle. "Some do worse and some do better," he said.

Did you say some do better?

"Yes," he said. "It's very dry here and that is beneficial to people with certain respiratory problems."

But overall, all this pollution can't be good for kids, right?

"There have been a lot of studies about pediatric response to air pollution and they suggest that are some negative effects that can only be measured after a period of 10 to 15 years ," Dr. Mease said. "The real question is long-term. We just don't know what the effects will be when these kids are 70 or 80."

That is a scary thought, but I reserve most of my worry for the Chinese who will live and die here. Most of them don't have an out. Our stay will be relatively brief. In a few years we'll be gone. Back to the nice, clean country air of metro New York.

* * *

Readers Respond

Write to me and I'll post selected comments in a future column. Please let me know if you want to share your thoughts but don't want your letter published. Below are selected, edited responses to my previous Expat Life column, about the perils of transpacific travel with children.
* * *

You ask pity for yourself while knowingly subjecting fellow, fare-paying passengers to hours of torture from your children.

To avoid future travel travails...stay home.

--C Jon Johnson

With all due respect, I don't think I asked for pity and my kids are actually quite well-behaved. For the most part, we are the only ones who have to deal with them. They don't scream, tantrum or do anything else particularly disruptive.

The gentleman next to my son did have it a bit rough this last flight but that was just a few moments out of a 14-hour flight. Furthermore, there were some empty seats on the plane and both the flight attendant and I offered to help him move at the start of the flight and he declined, for God knows what reason.
* * *

I laughed out loud at the image of you unscrewing your head and storing it in the luggage compartment. Having made that flight last summer I understand the sentiment. I did not have kids with me but will forever be more patient when those around me are screaming into my ear.

--Iris Berdrow
* * *

I lived in HK/Beijing for 2+ years and miss it still. I'm unmarried and childless, and I confess that I sat through many, many 17-hour flights silently raging at wailing/kicking/crying fellow passengers - typically (but not always!) children. After watching my sister/brother-in-law navigate young parenthood and reading pieces like your column, though, I've gained a real appreciation for both the in-flight battles of parents and the availability (for me) of melatonin and earplugs. I promise that next time I fly to Asia, I'll plug in and pass out. Until I have kids, anyway.

--Katherine Liu
* * *

We lived in Asia for 13 years. To prepare for our home leaves (every two years lasting about a month) I found small toys, books and games for our two children, wrapped them as gifts and whenever a melt-down occurred, I'd fish out another "Trip Surprise". The quantities of Surprises diminished and the outlays increased as the children grew older. They were great travelers. I always calculated that the first week Stateside was for them to adjust to the time change; the second week for me. That's just the way it is.

--Helen Hughes

The trip surprises are a good idea. We did that initially but have ceased and I'm not sure why. We are going home more than you did, twice a year at this point.

Our kids are also great travelers for the most part.

* * *

I have two words for you: "Business Class." I have done two foreign assignments, Mumbai (18 mths) and Singapore (2 years) and commuted between NY and LA for over two years every week. J class or the upgrade to first was the only way, even Air India miraculously becomes enjoyable in J, Cathay and Singapore, well I am sure you have experienced it.


I have never been on Cathay or Singapore Airlines but hope to be before too long. The front of the plane is simply not in the cards at this time. And talk about my kids annoying fellow passengers!

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Mom's sports quiz

I wrote the other day about my mom's sports prowess and projected what she would know. I couldn't just let that stand untested, so I put Suzi to the test yesterday. I say she passed with a solid B+. You be the judge.

What is a play action pass?
That’s where they pretend to give the ball to the running back trying to trick the defense and then they pass.

Can you name 15 Steelers starters?

15? There’s only 11.

11 on offense and 11 on defense is 22.

Oh yes. That’s hard. All those lineman.. Let me try:

Roethlisberger, Hines Ward, Clark Haggans (good one, mom!), Joey Porter, Fast Willie [Parker], Troy Polamalu, Verron Haynes (he doesn’t start but we’ll give you that one), the big white guy who catches passes, that little receiver Washington (that would be Nate and he doesn’t start, but I say that counts, too), Santonio Holmes, Jeff Reed. How many is that?

A few hours later, she sent me this email: “The guy’s name is Heath Miller! I didn’t look it up either.”

How about the Pirates infield?
Jack Wilson
Jason Bay (not an infielder but he's bonus anyhow since she got the rest.)
Freddy Sanchez
Something Castillo
Craig Wilson.. I know he was traded, but he was the first baseman.
The catcher was a big Hispanic guy. I can’t remember his name.

Can you roughly explain what a zone blitz is?

I don’t know about a zone blitz but a blitz is when instead of some of the defenders running back to cover, fewer drop back to get the pass and they try to get the quarterback instead. They try to capture the commander. [Bonus points for referencing an article I wrote.]

How about a full court press?
When the opposing team has the ball out of bounds and they are trying to get it up the court, they only have 10 seconds to cross the line and you try to defend him the whole way to deter him from making it or steal the ball.

Give that lady a gold star on her forehead.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Clapton in Shanghai

I haven’t paid for a whole lot of concert tickets for the last 15 years or so. I’ve been on that Guitar World gravy train for so long that sometimes I forget how much cash real people tend to pay for such events. Sure, I usually bought tickets for one Allmans show a year at the Beacon so I could have a good seat and enjoy the show like a civilian. Those tickets are usually about 75 bucks and that seemed like a lot.

I follow the industry and I know that tickets are getting higher and higher, with VIP, Gold Circle rings and all the rest.. with bands like the Eagles charging over 500 bucks for the best seats in the house. I knew that was all happening but it didn’t apply to me so I didn't pay that much attention. Until now.

Suddenly, here I was laying out hundreds of clams to go see Eric Clapton almost 700 miles away. Clapton of all people, the guy I’ve denounced countless times for reasons both petty and personal and musically substantial. I passed on a free ticket form the band to spend over $200 bucks to go with my friend Matt Carberry and a bunch of his pals. I figured that if I was trekking all the way down there, I didn’t want to sit alone and I had no idea where the ticket would be and there’s always a 20-40 percent chance of that getting fouled up anyhow. So I laid out the cash, and I bought a plane ticket (about $200) and a hotel room (about $100), all the while being amused at the expense but never fretting it or doubting it.

This despite the fact that I had the chance to see Clapton at MSG a few years ago, a free ticket in my name waiting at Will Call, and passed on it to go play in the basement with Josh Tarnow, hacking out bad blues and Allman Brothers tunes instead of hopping a train to Penn Station to see the real thing for the price of an NJT roundtrip ticket from Maplewood. I thought of that when I climbed into a cab at 7 am Saturday morning and set off for the Beijing airport.

The main reason for going and why it was a no-brainer is that is I just don’t get to see much music around here and it has been such a huge part of my life for so long. It’s strange to go months without seeing a live performance. I do make it out to see jazz fairly regularly and I do enjoy that but it doesn’t give me the same adrenaline rush. Also, Derek Trucks is now in Clapton’s band. As I said before, I have been writing about Derek and following his career since he was 10 or 11 (he’s 26 now). He is something of a friend, I have spent a lot of time with him, I like him as a person, and , more importantly, over the past two or three years he has really emerged as a my favorite guitarist.

I can't think of another instance where I actually watched a favorite musician develop, saw his growth, had a full understanding and appreciation of where he had come from, where he was and where he might go. I’ve caught on to the other greats after they were fully developed. And playing with Clapton is a big deal for Derek, no matter how you shake it. I wanted to see it.

I got into Shanghai at around 10:30 and took a cab over to the apartment of my friend Alan Dezon. He’s here for Ticketmaster and we were introduced by Bert Holman, ABB manager. We enjoy each other’s company, swapping war stories, shooting the shit about everything from the Allmans to Chinese food. He’s also a regular reader of this blog so I’ll take the opportunity to say thanks for the great coffee and I hope to see you again soon, Alan.

We chatted for a while and I hopped a cab to the Four Seasons where I was meeting Derek and fellow guitarist Doyle Bramhall II for lunch and an interview for a story that should run in Guitar World. I had a bit of a photographer fiasco which is long and convoluted but related to me having such long days last week that I could not properly take care of bidness. Anyhow, it turns out that both Doyle and Derek are Leica bugs.. big surprise, so is Clapton, who took them to the Leica store in Germany.

Doyle knew what he was doing and he had a beautiful big digital Leica and he became our official photographer, snapping great shots of Derek and even setting up some cool ones of himself, both with a self timer and by handing me the camera after setting it up. Sometimes I feel like I take pretty good photos and then I look at someone who really knows what they’re doing. Doyle’s Leica really amplified that because it is a serious piece of equipment that I really didn’t know how to use. He sent them to me this morning and they look great, so hopefully I’ll get the story into GW and be able to post some up here.. that is still vexing me. [I can post from online but not my computer.] We had a nice lunch.. dumplings, noodles, soup noodles, oolong tea, lots of good stuff.. then cabbed over to a market area.

There, we strolled up and down alley-like narrow streets lined with small stalls selling everything from junk to some really pretty cool stuff. Derek and Doyle wanted to look at old cameras, which were abundant in a few shops. Also some cool Victrolas, ancient radios, lots of stuff. Doyle bought a “diamond” encrusted fake Rolex, a real bluesman’s watch. I was disappointed that night when the showed close ups of his hands soloing and the watch wasn’t on his wrist.

I got them back to their hotel by 4 as they had to board a van to ride over to the arena at 5, and went back to the hotel for a little nap. I was staying in an incredibly strange but convenient place. The concert was in a basketball arena located in a sports complex. My hotel was inside the soccer stadium next door. Very strange. The whole place felt like a basement. My room was on the sixth floor but the windows appeared to be subterranean. I couldn’t quite figure it out.

Anyhow, it was convenient for stumbling over to the show, which I did at about 7:15. There were lots of scalpers outside.. always are, since a large chunk of tickets are given to party officials and such, who don’t really want to go. The floor tickets we had cost 1800 RMB – about $220. Guys were selling them for something like 800RMB, or so it seemed. I blew by them and walked in. There was plenty of security at the doors, lots of uniformed quasi-military guys floating around, though they all looked sort of befuddled at all the foreigners streaming in. They just smoke and smile and nod.

Inside, however, in contrast to the Backstreet Boys concert I attended and wrote about last year, there was little security, no weird floor seating, with oodles of extra space around each section. None of that. All of that was, I imagine, out of fear that too many Chinese together could potentially create problems. The EC crowd was largely foreign and tickets were a lot more expensive so the Chinese there were obviously high flyers. I suppose that’s why it all seemed much less security conscious and more “normal.” Or maybe it’s just the difference between Shanghai and Beijing. I can't say for sure but I think it’s the former.

We found our seats, tenth row stage left, and settled in. I’d say the crowd was 80 percent foreigners, at least around us. There was a huge diversity within that, though. A bunch of folks with kids, several people pushing 70. The Chinese around me looked really bored. There was a couple sitting behind me and the woman looked like she would have rather been just about anywhere, like she was trying to figure out what all the fuss was about. I would say that the Chinese members of the crowd were all particularly subdued.. or I would have until towards the end I heard some wild screaming, turned around it was three Chinese guys two rows directly behind me hooting and hollering. I thought that was great.

Actually, the crowd in general seemed surprisingly low key. It’s such a rare event and so many of us had traveled a lot to be there, so I expected more rowdiness. The thing is, t one of the big attractions of this show for me is that EC is digging deep into his catalog. He hired Derek in part to replicate Duane Allman’s Derek and the Dominos parts and relive that, extra appropriate given that Derek was named after the band. They opened with five D&D songs, including a few I don’t think he has played much if at all in years. That was fantastically exciting to me, but I’m sure quite befuddling to many. (I’ll post the entire setlist with comments at the bottom.)

The eighth song was ”Nobody Loves When You’re Down and Out” done semi acoustically – three guitarists seated, EC on acoustic, others electric. It’s a 70 or 80-year-old Bessie Smith song but it was also on Unplugged, his best-selling album, and as soon as he started playing it, the crowd roared and grew much more animated and it struck me, “Most people don’t know any of these songs.” I understand and even feel for them, actually, but I can’t tell you how much less I would have wanted to hear “Pretending” or “I Shot the Sheriff,” both of which were in the setlists earlier in the tour and have dropped away.

Hearing Clapton play Little Wing –with Derek!—was alone worth it all for me. It’s a Jimi Hendrix song, of course, recorded on Layla and I’m not sure how often he’s played it over the years, but I’ve never heard it. It evoked the holy trinity of Jimi, Duane and Stevie, who has a close relationship to Doyle – his father was SRV’s best friend and songwriting partner nd someone with whom I have enjoyed speakign with many times, though not in years. So to be standing in Shanghai communing in that way, well, it meant a lot to me.

And getting that feeling, meditative yet adrenaline pumping, having that wash over me, touch me deeply… that’s priceless. Something I need to have every once in a while. Something I get it at pretty much every Allmans show I go to for at least a while and the whole time on a good night. That’s why I keep going and never lose my excitement. It’s a central part of the seeing-music-I-love equation and it’s been absent, something I really miss. After the show, one of the people I was with, someone I don't know all that well, said,"You really looked like you were feeling it, eyes closed..." I have no idea what I look like at such times but I know what I feel like and it's something I need.

I forgot how much I also like Doyle’s playing. I really dug his band Arc Angels and a few other things he’s done but I haven’t seen him perform in well over a decade and I forgot how idiosyncratic he is (lefty playing righty guitar upside down, not restrung). He also has a prime role in the band, has been with EC for five years and does quite a bit of vocals s well. I read a few online reviews complaining that EC had ceded too much space to the other two guitarists but I totally disagree. I think he has reinvigorated himself having two young bucks up there snorting and threatening to kick him in the ass on every lick. I thought Clapton was on fire. He relentlessly drove the band from one song to another. His playing was propulsive and energetic. His rhythm playing fully engaged and creative.

The regular set ended with "Layla," a version far more similar to the original than any I've heard him do. Finally everyone got up and stood and clapped and danced and swayed and all that good stuff. It was weird to go through a whole exciting show seated. The band walked off, came back for an encore and a rush of folks surged forward. We ran right up to the stage and suddenly it felt very much like we were in a high school gym, like Eric Clapton was playing our high school dance. It felt like the expat prom.

We were in front of the giant P.A. speakers so the sound was way deficient from what it was 20 feet back (surprisingly good!), but it felt good to be there, to push together a little bit, to strain to see over the little girl on her dad’s shoulders in front of me, to look at Clapton digging into “Crossroads” and Derek pushing him on and Doyle smiling. It just felt really homey and I had this sense that everyone was thinking, “Ha! We are seeing Eric Clapton play Robert Johnson in f’in Shanghai! What a world. What a life.”

Overall, I was struck by how much the whole thing felt like a real band, flesh and blood, unscripted, not a stage show. EC seemed inspired by Derek and Doyle and the rhythm section of Willie Weeks and Steve Jordan. I’ve seen EC a bunch of times and the last few it seemed really staid. No one in the group pushed him or challenged him and it was like him playing over backing tracks, running through the hits, playing and singing really well but not so inspired. None of that this night and pushing up close to the stage and hearing the sound form the amps instead of the PA really brought that home.

Then it was over. They walked off and I thought they had to come back, that can’t be it. People stomped and cheered and clapped and they had to come back.. but nope lights on, that was it. Just about 1:45, maybe less, which really seemed too short. I looked it up and they had been doing two-song encores, the other tune being “Cocaine.” I haven’t confirmed it yet, but I’ll bet anything they were told not to play that by the authorities. But they could have plugged something else in there. His catalog is plentiful. So they left me wanting more, but feeling good.

We filed out into the cold drizzly night, walkign amidst a crowd feeling that same post-orgasmic buzz I’ve experienced en masse at so many shows. I heard two guys talking and one said, “The beginning was really boring but then it took off after the acoustic part.” The beginning was the Derek and the Dominos stuff.

We went back to the bar in my hotel, on the 12th floor, overlooking the lit-up but empty soccer stadium and the expat prom continued well into the wee hours. Eventually, a bunch of us left and went to a crazy club. That’s another story for another post though, and a good one at that. I promise to cough it up soon.

First, I need to figure out if this is worthy of tweaking into a column for next week. Let me know your thoughts. I have to see if I can make this all make sense.

01. Tell The Truth
02. Key To The Highway
03. Got to Get Better in A Little While
Kicked off strongly by Weeks and Jordan, and EC’s rhythm playing.
04. Little Wing ( See above.. really a holy moment for me)
05. Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad?
Really sweet gentle coda with DT and EC trading licks, brining it down to a whisper.
All of the above are Derek and the Dominos songs.

Sit Down Set
06. Driftin' Blues (EC Solo)
Very nice version of a Charles Brown classic. I remember watching his Unplugged when it aired and being let down.. this is what I wanted to hear. I thought it was lame that it sounded like a more subdued band concert. Shows what I know.. it resurrected his career.
07. Outside Woman Blues
08. Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out
Shanghai crowd goes wild for a Bessie Smith tune.
09. Running On Faith
Good tune… Matt Carberry’s favorite…

10. Motherless Children
Nice to hear this old gem off of 461 Ocean Blvd. All three guitarists played the slide lick in unison, which was quite powerful. Anther old favorite I’ve’ never heard him play live.
11. Little Queen of Spades
A full band stretch out on this slow blues Chicago-style version of a Robert Johnson tune.. very nice. Everyone shined.. Derek took it the house.
12. Further On Up The Road
Always a favorite of mine. Bobby “Blue” Bland!
13. Wonderful Tonight
Got to throw the ladies a bone.
14. Layla
Full–on great version, with Derek playing the Duane part perfectly, nailing that sucker. EC had his back turned to him, in a way he didn’t the rest of the night. There’s no way this didn’t get him off. I wondered if he turned around so he can shut his eyes and imagine it’s Duane. No one else can nail that sound like this. God knows how many times he’s played this in the last 35 years, but doing so with Derek has to be special.

15. Crossroads
Well done but ended the show too fast and early.

Way to go mom

Many years ago, my brother and his friends had a sports quiz for their mothers. My mom dusted them all. She’s maintained a pretty good sports knowledge all these years. She knows what a play action pass is, can probably name 15 steelers starters as well as the Pirates infield and explain in rough concept what both a zone blitz and full court press are.

This morning I got this email from her:

Yesterday when I went for a pedicure, Verron Haynes was sitting next to me! He was very nice and personable. David is shocked that I didn't ask him what he thinks about the new coach. I didn’t want to disturb him. By the way this was in Greenfield by the Giant Eagle.

Wow. Lots of good stuff here. Verron Haynes getting pedicures in Greenfield to start. And my mom recognizing the Steelers third-down back to end. I asked how she recognized him.

I knew he was a Steeler the moment he came in. He had on a Steeler shirt was incredibly built, had two diamond studs as big as my eyeballs. I asked him who he was. I said they are always in helmets etc and you can't recognize them outside the field!

Way to cover mom! What a great scene. But I think if you’re willing to ask, “Who are you?” then you’ve got to be willing to ask, “What do you think of the new coach?”

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

New Steelers coach commentary

This morning I logged onto and read through fans comments on the Blog 'N Gold steelers fan blog. A lot of them were pretty scary initial reactions. People were really pissed that the Steelers hired the outsider, which I considered a rather loaded term, over the inside guy.

The perceptions are doubly loaded because not only is coach Tomlin shockingly young but he is, you know, black. And Grimm is not only the inside man but he is a towering, beer-gutted Western Pa. hunkie. And Pittsburgh is a crazy place that way. Every time there's a coaching search, they're always focused on local guys.

Whne Pitt needed a new hoops coach, the guys talked about were Skip Prosser and John Calipari. Why? They're Pittsburgh guys! Pitt football hired Dave Wannstedt -- a Pittsburgh guy! I don't think there's any other city that operates quite like this.

So the reaction was sort of expected but still frightening. It prompted me to write this email, which is posted there now:

"Relax everyone. Grimm may have been a good choice, despite the fact that he can barely speak a coherent sentence and the offensive line has badly underperformed. Cowher did not recommend him, which must mean something. The people complaining about Tomlin's youth and lack of experience have short memories. Give the man a chance and extend him the same love and respect you gave the Jaw during his Playoff flops." -- Alan Paul, Beijing, China

I felt a little bad about ragging on Grimm so much, but I was employing hyperbole to make my point. I went back today to look for my letter, which was there, and was glad to see it joined by many other similar posts expressing outrage at the earlier idiots.

Somewhere on there was also a link to this pretty hilarious quiz for any perspective Stillers coaches.

I was also really disturbed by Ron Cook's asinine, racist column.

Here are a few of the posts which gave me some faith.
You can read more here.

"I wish you old, conservative yinzers would use your brains for once! I mean, did you not see Cowher on the sidelines this season, arms crossed, couldn't care less, a shadow of the fiery coach he once was? Did you not see the end result; the undisciplined team, the 2 and 6 start, the lack of development of players like Max Starks, Ike Taylor and Ricardo Colclough, etc. Face it folks, our team drastically needed a change; a coach that isn't one of the boys, one that will instill discipline once again.

Here's a thought; maybe instead of complaining about everything all the time, you can worry about creating some atmosphere at Heinz Field on a consistent basis ... instead of drinking yourselves stupid in the parking lot before the game." -- Bill Soles, Pittsburgh, PA!

"After reading the hilarious and sometimes ridiculous comments on this blog, I have to ask one question of all the "Steeler Fans" who are so opposed to Mike Tomlin as the new head coach.

Does it bother you more that Mike Tomlin is a young, unknown defensive coordinator with no head coaching experience or does it bother you more that he is an African American who beat out a white Western Pennsylvania guy with no head coaching experience?

Please respond to this question so I have more hilarious reading to do over the next few days. I hear the dreary, gray, cold weather is here for a while and I need something to pick up my spirits.

Actually on second thought, please don't respond, you have embarrassed Pittsburgh enough already." -- Mike Nobers, Pittsburgh

"Once again a big lot of Steelers fans show their lack of knowledge ... must be too much Iron City running through their veins. However, these yinzers seemingly forget that the Rooneys hired a young defensive coach who got his start under Sid Gilman ... wonder how many "Steelers Fans" derided that hire when it first happened. Same thing when the Rooneys hired an untested Defensive coordinator in 1992 ... whoops ... "Steelers Fans" got mad once again. Tomlin is a top defensive mind who learned from Dungy. Dungy learned from Noll. It's not that hard to connect the dots, folks. But then again, the mental capacity of the average Steeler fan is akin to a developing toddler so I'm not expecting much from the Steeler faithful in terms welcoming new blood to the team. Once again, Steeler Nation will be proven wrong with Tomlin as they had with Noll and Cowher and in 5 years they won't even remember they boo'd this guy when he first came in." -- Chuck Mak, Pittsburgh


Lots of people are emailing me some questions. I will attempt to answer them all quickly before slinking off to chiense class, having not done any homework or looked at my book in a week.

The Shanghai trip was great.. clapton was great, played a lot of old stuff, including five derek and the dominos tunes..including little wing.. sweet, sweet... interview happened with derek and doyle that afternoon and will try to make it a GW story.. I will write something real up as soon as I can and get it up here. Pictures are still not posting. Dang!

I do now finally have working wireless thanks to the efforts of my good friend South Orange Steve Goldberg, who needed something to keep him busy while his wife Arlene the crazy Pats fan was rending her garment and poking pins in her Peyton Manning voodoo doll. yes, I saw the game, second half at least. That was a good one. I'm happy for Tony Dungy.

Let the Mike Tomlin era begin. I am excited. Pittsburgh doesn't take change all that well, so this will be interesting. I think he will win them over, but if he doesn't have immediate success, things could get interesting.

Kids are all good, Becky is fine. It's nice to have us all under one roof.

More soon.. off to face the music with Dong laoshi (teacher Dong).

Friday, January 19, 2007

If you are related to me...

.. then you have to buy a copy of the WSJ on Friday, January 19. If you are not related to me, it is entirely optional.

Javascript error

Can any of my tech guru friends help me understand what this error might mean and how I would correct it?

javascrpt: void(0)

That's the message I get trying to load photos.

I Crossed the Finish Line

Well, it's been a quite a few days here.

First, an annoyance -- I still can't post photos. I have two or three posts in draft form ready to go but needing photos. I have some good ones, too. I'll try to get to the bottom of it when I can. But the past few days have been a whirlwhind and I am shaky now.

First, the good news. I have crossed the finish line. Today, my new column is up and tomorrow (Friday in US, so “today” when most of you will read this), my NFL in China story is the main cover feature of the WSJ Weekend Journal. That's all good. Very good, actually. I'm told my column is having a big tease on the front page as well, so good day for me in the paper I suppose. It’s hard for me to feel too gung ho at the moment, however.

I was up to 3 last night waiting for a redeback on first my column and then the other story. Night before I was going until 2 or 2:30. Now that would be exhausting in any situation but B is in Hong Kong for meetings so I’ve also had to deal with the three younguns. I have to say that they have mostly been really good, but still…

I am too stupid or stubborn or whatever to have an ayi sleep over in these situations. I take the kids to school and see a third or more of the kids being dropped off by ayis and I’m in this situation and I think, “Hmmmm.” There’s got to be a payoff down the road with the kids, right?

Anyhow, the first night everyone slept through at least. Last night I’m here at my computer at 2 am and Anna starts wailing. I calmed her down, came back down. She starts again, says she wants go get into our bed.. I should have accepted it was an unusual night and brought here down but I hate kids in my bed, so no go. She nevre, ever sleeps in our bed, by the way, or even asks to. She did it again and this time was crying for mommy.

I calmed her down, came back and a few minutes later Jacob appears in my office, clutching his Webkinz frog and looking confused. I usher him into my bed and he immediately goes to sleep )I’m not sure he was really up, but Anna roused him for sure). Then I return to this damn keyboard.

Anna wakes up again, and I can’t handle this shit man, so I bring her down and put her in our bed. Around 3 I finally finish up but my bed is now full. I tried sleeping on a futon then went to Anna’s bed. Around 7 the kids all woke me up. I stumbled down, got them set up with various things and tried to lay back down. Jacob was on the computer playing Penguins when I got a phone call from NYC for last minute edits. For the next half hour while I dealt with some last-minute stuff, Jacob was extraordinarly helpful. He took care of the other two beautifully.

By the time I was finished it was about 7:50.. Jacob’s supposed to go to school at 8:05 and hadn’t eaten changed, anything. And he insisted on finishing a homework assignment.

They were all a little late to school but made it no problem.

Now I am rejiggering my schedule a bit. Tomorrow morning I have to be up early again to fly to Shanghai. Going to see Eric Clapton and doing a story for GW on his guitarists.. going down to have lunch with them. So that will be good. And I swear I am going to sleep at 9 pm come hell or high water.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Checking In

Man, I am working hard on a WSJ story that should drop on Friday. I will post details as soon as they are in stone.

I actually turned to this site to give me a little release since I have been working too much.. and I can't load any photos right now.. pity too because I have some good ones...

More soon.


Monday, January 15, 2007

Derek Trucks interview

I am going to see Shanghai on Saturday to see Eric Clapton, heading down with some friends. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like Becky can make it, as she has to go Hong Kong for three days this week for meetings. I am excited for the show because I really miss going to concerts and more so because Derek Trucks is now in EC's band. I have been writing about Derek for 15 years now -- and he's only 26.

Looking forward to seeing him and the show. Thisis an interview I did for GW last year that never ran, for a variety of reasons. Basically, I rewrote it into a much shorter story.


The whole music world is about to find out what Allman Brothers fans and jam band aficionados have known for years: Derek Trucks is a strikingly original musician redefining the slide guitar. Derek Trucks. After releasing Songlines, his own band’s sixth and best album, Trucks has joined Eric Clapton’s band for a yearlong world tour, while an album they recorded together will be released this fall. Trucks also remains a member of the Allman Brothers Band, who have restructured their touring schedule to keep him on board; they will hit the road during Clapton’s down time.

Trucks’ rising profile is no surprise to anyone who has been watching his very public development. He has been touring since he was 11, released his first album when he was 17 and joined the Allman Brothers when he was 19. Now 26, Trucks is an endlessly inspired and crafty guitarist, equally capable of playing tasty, minimalist fills or extended improvised solos that never fail to surprise. Always tuned to open E and never using a pick, Trucks has established a wholly individual sound, incorporating Indian classical music, “sacred steel” gospel and jazz into a more classic and rock and blues base.

Trucks was first featured in the pages of Guitar World 15 years ago as a pre-teen Florida phenom with a freaky ability to mimic slide great Duane Allman. He has come so far because, unlike many child prodigies, his own virtuosity never blinded him to the larger picture – seeking to create great music. Instead, he has constantly pushed himself further, exploring the very boundaries of slide guitar.

“I started playing slide when I was 9 years old,” says Trucks. “I was trying to sound like Duane and [bluesman] Elmore James and it was also easier on my little hands – it didn’t hurt as much. Eventually, as I got deeper into it, I felt like slide guitar, by being fretless, had less limitations and allowed me to get more of vocal, nuanced sound, which was my goal.

“And the other thing about slide is I felt it was more wide open and unexplored. Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan have inspired thousands of clones, but slide guitar’s potential is still pretty untapped.”

One reason for the lack of exploration of rock slide guitar is the fact that Allman, its greatest practitioner, died when he was 24, and only just beginning his sonic explorations. In many ways, Trucks has picked up where he left off; mastering Allman’s music has been a starting point for Trucks, rather than a destination.

GW: How did you come to be a member of Eric Clapton’s band?
TRUCKS:Out of the blue, I got a call from Doyle Bramhall saying Eric wanted me to come record with him. I was shocked and thrilled and flew out to L.A. having heard no music. The sessions were very laid back and all the tunes went down really smoothly. Being in the studio with people you don’t know can be really tense and frustrating, but this was natural and comfortable. In addition to meeting Eric, I also met JJ Cale who produced the session and Billy Preston, who played keys and that was also really exciting. It was one of those things where even as it is happening, you know it’s something you’ll remember forever and will end up being a career highlight.

GW: It has been said that Eric is recreating Derek and the Dominos with you in the Duane role.
TRUCKS: I know that is the perception of some people the outside but that’ s not what’s really going on. I have not heard Eric or anyone from the inside say that. I don’t really want to be compared with Duane again, but it is inevitable that will come up since I am jumping from the Allman Brothers to Eric Clapton. I just want the chance to do this on my own terms and the fact is no matter what anyone says or where you’ve come from, you have to make it happen. Once you’re in the studio or standing up on stage, no one cares about anything except whether or not you can deliver the goods.

GW: What is your role in Clapton’s band? How much will you be playing assigned parts versus ripping improved solos?
TRUCKS: I have no idea. It’s actually really exciting to go into such an unsure situation and to think about playing a gig where 95 percent of the audience has no idea who I am. It’s a real luxury to play with a great band without expectations that you should be carrying the show.

GW: You are going to have a very busy year.
TRUCKS: To say the least! [laughs] Eric basically tours one month then takes a month off and during those times I will go straight into an Allman Brothers tour. And my guys [the Derek Trucks Band] will be opening a bunch of the ABB shows. With Songlines coming out and the band reaching a point I feel very good about, I have to do whatever it takes to keep it going and that means working more than usual. It will be an exhausting year but it’s a really exciting time for me. Opportunities like this Clapton tour don’t appear too often and you have to seize them when they do. You can work out the details later.

GW: On Songlines, you again play everything from Delta blues to Indian classical music, but it somehow feels more unified than it has on your previous albums.
TRUCKS: Thanks. That is the goal. In the past, people have complained that we sounded like three or four different bands on one record and I thought they had a point. That is less and less the case, as we solidify a band sound regardless of what we are playing. That has been for the last two or three years and the recording felt like the culmination of that process. . This is our first record that I can enjoy listening to instead of only hearing a million things I wished I could redo.

GW: Though still very raw by contemporary standards, Songlines is also more produced and polished than your previous efforts, utilizing a variety of tones and more multi-tracking.
TRUCKS:We really wanted to utilize the studio, not just capture a great live performance. We wanted to air things out and do something a little different. We have always taken pride in capturing songs in one or two takes but we were much more open minded this time. We were striving to make a great album, which is kind of a lost art, especially in this little [jam bands] scene we find ourselves in.
We have approached previous albums by writing out a set list and seeing if we can capture a great performance. But now we have recorded an actual live album [2004’s Live At The Georgia Theatre] and it was time to try something else.

GW: At 26, you have already been a touring musician for over 15 years. Has the perception of you has changed now that no one can say, “He’s really good for a kid”?
TRUCKS: It’s really nice to get away from the kid thing. The novelty tag helped us at the start -- it probably kept us on the road by keeping the interest up --so I don’t want to say anything too negative about it. But it is definitely nice to move beyond that and have the music taken at face value.

Busy, busy

Had a very active and fun weekend but I don't have time to fully capture it. It included..a ski trip, an Anna sleepover, a Chinese acrobatics show and a CBA hoops game (just me) last night that ended with me sitting in TGI Friday at midnight eating fried shrimp with God Shammgod and the editor of Chinese Slam.

Lots of good stuff and i will try to get some of it down, and some pictures ups but I have to write my column, finish work on a WSJ Weekend story on the NFL trying to come in here and do some work for Slam...

Meanwhile, the forums for my last column continue to be really interesting. Have a look.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Interesting interview today

Well my next column Is not going to be as funny as my last one was, that’s for sure. I’ve decided to write about air pollution in Beijing and dealing with that lovely topic. I figured I better know what I was talking about so I started making some calls and all of a sudden I’m like a real journalist or something.

A researcher at the Journal was helping me and the director of Beijing Department of Environmental Protection (approx, name only) wanted to talk in person. She asked if I wanted to join her and I figured I should. So we headed over today. We were supposed too meet him at 2:30. The office is on the west side of the city, very far from home.

I went down to the WSJ office and Sue and I headed over together, with Mr. Dou driving us. He didn’t know where it was, had a little mixup, which almost never happens with him. He took us to t a national government environmental protection building. There were a lot of guards in front. I was kind of excited because I could actually read a couple of the characters on the sign, although I couldn’t get past “Chinese Home of…”

She told me it was the headquarters for, I believe, nuclear safety. Dou asked the guard where the city dept of environmental protection was. They pointed west. We drove on. After a bunch more driving around and asking people, we found the place. We walked in at around 2:35. Inside the lobby there was large flat screen TV cycling through different charts and informational pages. Sue said it was showing the pollution index for today, the graphs representing different parts of Beijing.

Today was very cold and very clear, crisp and blue. You could see the mountains in the distance though they were a little hazy. The TV said the reading was 80-100. The World Health Organization sets a goal of 20 for healthy breathing. We went upstairs, found the office of the assistant director and the spokesman. They w ere nice guys, about 45-50. They seemed gentle, serious, bureaucratic but not drone like. They were wearing light jackets and the whole building was slightly chilly and there not a lot of lights on.. the hallways were dim. Perhaps a way of saving electricity. It felt like.. a city government building.

They said the director was in a meeting, we would have to wait a bit. We sat on a couch. They gave us some bottled water to drink, labeled “Beijing Mineral” water. I laughed but drank it. They were very nice. We interviewed the spokesman guy and after a while I had enough info. It was almost 4:00 and I was ready to leave. Then the Director arrived and we were escorted to his office up stairs, along with their translator. They wanted their own person.

She was young and her English was halting. After we left she said that the other woman, whom they wanted to translate for me, actually didn’t miss much, though I had definitely assumed otherwise and it didn’t really matter because I was only going to use about .025 percent of the info anyhow. The director was a friendly guy who didn’t seem too pompous but who really liked to hear himself speak and it didn’t matter too much what I asked. He had his talking points and he talked.. and talked.. and talked…

While he was going on and on, I received a text message and two phone calls from an American doctor specializing in Beijing pollution whom is more important for this. But I was busty nodding my head and trying not to nod off. We (he) spoke for well over an hour. By the end of it I was almost convinced that there isn’t that big of an air pollution problem here. After all, they had surpassed their goal of 245 “blue sky” days for last year. And there were charts and evidence of huge improvements since 1998 and thousands of coal-fired boilers had been converted to clean-burning natural gas. A nd yeah, there are 1,000 new cars a day on the streets of Beijing but much higher standards means each one pollutes only as much as 20 cars did a few years ago.

Truth is, Beijing was recently named the city with the worst air pollution in the world, based on satellite imagery. His bottom line was two fold – 1. We’ve come a really long way. 2. We have a really long way to know.

I didn’t walk out until 5 pm. I described the whole thing to Becky and she said, “well, you haven’t had too many interviews like that since you came to China.” True enough. It was educational, at least a little bit in the way I intended it to be.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Video, Eli school play

Hard to describe how excited he was for this and how pleased he still is.

Back to school

Kids started back to school today… always a reason to celebrate at the end of long breaks.

Been a fun but long five days o so since we got back. I only hinted at the jetlag in my column really.. it's brutal.. up at midnight, up at 2, 3, 2, 4, etc. etc.

We mostly respond by going to bed at 8 or 9 ourselves, which leaves you at least okay ion the morning but also running out of steam in the afternoon. It is like having a newborn basically. We seemed to be almost back to normal, with everyone sleeping until 6 or so yesterday but Jacob got up at 4 this morning. He had passed out last night at about 7.

He and Anna were very excited to go back to school. Eli was, sort of, too, but he had great anxiety about his haircut, which looks really nice. He kept saying since he got it cut, “Will my hair still look like this when I go back to school?” He got there and refused to take his hat off. I wasn’t there so Becky had to deal with that joy. Eventually, his teacher just took it off. I would have sent him with it on and left it to her all along.

Last week's column

The forums for this were really interesting.

The Ultimate Endurance Test:
Trans-Pacific Flight With Kids

January 5, 2007

Please forgive me if my words lack a bit of zip or even coherence. I am writing from deep within a daze, which is both hard earned and hard to shake off. It is the product of round-the-world travel with three kids and it is as inevitable as it is brutal. No matter what I do or don't do, it will take about four days to begin feeling fully human again and a week to be about back to normal.

As I write this, I've been back in China for less than 12 hours and I haven't had a proper night's sleep for something like 48, though I'd have to take out a pad and paper to calculate the specifics. We left Bay City, Mich. on a 10 a.m. flight on New Year's Day and flew to Chicago O'Hare, where we boarded a United 747 for the almost 14-hour flight over the North Pole and into Beijing. This is a huge improvement from the recent past, when all flights had to fly West rather than North and most trips from America to China required a change of planes and took considerably longer. But it is still quite a haul.

Things got off to an auspicious start when my Chinese-made and bought "Ecko" hiking pants badly ripped before we even boarded our first flight. That was shortly after checking eight bags filled with all our clothes in addition to puzzles, Hot Wheels, Legos, Bionicles, Superman walkie-talkies, Cabbage Patch dolls, endless books and two bottles of Manny's Texas Weiners habanero hot sauce. I bent down to shove three travel-ready boxes of Fruit Loops into one of our four bursting carry-on bags, heard a tear and looked down to see the pants shredded on the right side of the crotch seam.

I had meticulously placed a change of clothes for everyone into a rolling carry-on bag, but my own alternate wardrobe only included a shirt and socks. I figured I would get a new pair of pants at O'Hare, but once there I realized that while Bears garb, Uno's pizza and Chicago-style Vienna hot dogs are plentiful, there isn't a single clothing store in the huge airport. I opted against fashioning a loincloth out of a Bears sweatshirt and boarded the plane for our long journey home with a gaping and growing hole in my pants. The only upside was that it provided intense amusement to my boys, coming in handy when I needed a distraction. And you're never far from needing a distraction when flying 14 hours with three kids.

People often ask how we make the journey, apparently assuming that after a few times you learn some sort of cosmic secret to lengthy air travel with young kids. If only it were so. We still end up dragging way too much stuff onboard while lacking enough properly charged DVD-viewing options. The one tangible thing that experience provides is the knowledge that you will eventually make it alive to the other side of the world, by hook or by crook.

That's an obvious point but one that becomes invaluable when things are at their bleakest -- when you find yourself somewhere over the Arctic Circle, seven or eight hours from landing and contemplating whether or not it's possible to unscrew your head and place it in the carry-on compartment.

You board the plane feeling weary but optimistic, ready for combat and reminding yourself to stay calm, that the race is a marathon and you will eventually cross the finish line. But you always reach a point of crisis, after you have watched a couple of DVDs and put away the portable player with a dead battery. You have read a few books and eaten a few meals. The kids have played Game Boy and befriended the kid three rows back. They've run up and down the aisles, charming some passengers and annoying others. You have received a few warnings from the flight attendants about your junk falling into the aisle and blocking the way. You have survived it all and feel pretty good. Then you look at your watch and a panic emanates in your gut and creeps through your entire body. Your insides turn to mush and you want to scream, "We have seven more hours and there's nothing left in my bag of tricks!" It happens every time.

I boarded our flight from Beijing to San Francisco already exhausted, a result of two nights of little sleep as I stayed up late and woke up early scrambling to finish my work. I wanted nothing more than sleep but Anna and Eli had other ideas. Jacob slept halfway through the trip but the other two were up for hours. (This is typical.) As I carried Anna up and down the aisles on my shoulder, hoping she would fall asleep, I became irrationally angry with the childless people flipping through magazine or books. I wanted to scream at them, "You can sleep and yet you choose not to! Fools! Don't you know it is going to be 8 a.m. when we arrive?"

I avoided that kind of insanity on the return flight by making sure to not start out too exhausted at the start, a trick we managed in part by celebrating New Years with the kids at 9 p.m. Even a relatively uneventful trip like yesterday's has its moments of existential dread. As usual, Eli had a hard time falling asleep and, as his exhaustion grew, he started wriggling and tossing and turning, growing agitated and cursing both his fate and me. "I hate this flight!" he screamed. "Why did we have to move to China?"

Another round of Game Boy soothed the savage beast and he eventually passed out on my lap. I was happy, though I felt bad for the poor guy sitting next to Eli, crammed up against the window and getting kicked in the ribs.

Though we made it to Beijing with no further incidents, we're not exactly on the other side yet. As much as you count down the minutes on the plane, the endurance contest is hardly over once you walk off. It takes nearly a week for everyone to get back on schedule and at least half of that to even approach normalcy.

We got home at around 5 p.m., unpacked a bit and ate a light dinner. Everyone was asleep by 8:00 and awake for the day by 11:30 p.m. Rebecca and I took turns being up as the kids alternately drew, watched movies, played on the computer, tried to go back to sleep, woke each other up, ate cereal and finally, fell back asleep. By 6 a.m., as I struggled toward the coffee pot, I had no idea who had been up for how long.

We are certainly left a bit dazed and confused by our 16-day trip to four destinations, involving eight flight legs. But I have no regrets. One advantage of packing so much into such a short time is it makes it feel like a long time, in every possible way. Therefore, it doesn't feel like too short of a trip. It's quite remarkable that we were only gone about two weeks. We really did a lot and saw a lot of people. Of course, with almost everyone we saw, we could have spent twice the time with them, and there were many things left undone and people left unseen. That's just the nature of our lives for now.

We are exhausted but unbowed, happy to have reconnected with so many people we love and glad to be back. Embrace the chaos!

* * *

Readers Respond

Write to me and I'll post selected comments in a future column. Please let me know if you want to share your thoughts but don't want your letter published. Below are selected, edited responses to my previous Expat Life column, about deciding to head home for the holidays.

* * *

Imagine this: the busiest travel day (Dec 17) and week at Heathrow and a luggage conveyor belt breaks down. Allegedly some 10,000 bags pile up. Then fog strikes for most of the week and here we expats and UK visitors to US sit with no luggage and no information on what is happening for a week. They should have called in the US Army!!!

-- Naneen Neubohn

Sorry to hear your horror story. We dodged a few bullets but made it through our journey amazingly unscathed, only losing our bags from Denver to Newark for a couple of days. It was a miracle we made it through Denver and into NJ in the first place so it was easy to shrug off.

* * *

I see the logic in your trip home each year, but maybe one of these years you should turn it upside down. What if you helped bring some family members to Asia one year? I spent a Christmas in Singapore once and it was a wonderful time.

-- Edward R. Blessman

I would love to bring some people here one year. We may well do it sooner or later, but we both have large families and we see a lot of people on these trips.

* * *

Your words describe my current experience perfectly. Our family also makes 2 home trips per year, largely for the benefit of our young children. I myself make the US trip 8 times per year, so I would gladly stay in Shanghai - but for their benefit and for their grandparents, we make a similar grueling expedition.

I depart today [Dec. 22] for two weeks: with stops in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charlottesville, Virginia Beach, and Indianapolis. The journey is always grueling, but I am always glad at the end. The concentrated family time helps maintain a sense of identity that is easy to take for granted until you transplant yourself to distant frontiers.

-- Doug Wright, Shanghai.

I hope you're having a great trip, which sounds even nuttier than ours was. I'm sure you know the drill already, but I still hope you don't read this week's column until you're back.
* * *

Your article brought back memories of the eight years I spent living in England. I came home for just one Christmas, several years after I had left. While it was great to see my family and friends, I didn't really fit in anymore. I had been gone long enough that neither country's traditions really were mine. The same thing happened when I came back to the US, and returned to England the following Christmas.

I blend my traditions now. I serve traditional American holiday food, but dessert is Plum Pudding with Brandy Butter. My American friends think it is "quaint". I send gifts to my friends in England - and they enjoy telling their friends that they came "all the way from America".

I wouldn't trade the fact that I had the opportunity to live in another culture, and I think we would be better off as a whole if more people did the same.

-- Janice Keller

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Becky and Lisa

One of the great parts of our two-day stop in San Fran was getting to see Lisa Russ and a glimpse of her and Adam and Zach's sweet little life in Oakland. She sent along this photo.

Last column

This is the first and last at least for a while edited on a Blackberry (Becky's) at approx. 12,000 feet -- inside Up4Pizza, atop Snowmass Mountain.

Family Beckons: Heading
Home for the Holidays

December 22, 2006

The holiday season can be a source of great stress for people living abroad, just like anywhere else. Among the most agonizing decisions for many expats is figuring out whether or not they can or should head home. Christmas is not a recognized holiday in China and getting enough time off to justify a 10-13 hour flight to the U.S. can be a problem. Yet there is no school for the kids for three weeks and it's hard to sit still and watch friends jet off to every corner of the world. Also, of course, many people simply long to be with their extended families on Christmas.

We entered our expat existence assuming we would return home twice a year -- winter and summer breaks -- largely because that's what the first people we spoke to did. Last year, as the fall moved along and our transition happened surprisingly quickly, I doubted the wisdom of going back to New Jersey for a visit just four months after moving. I worried that the kids, who had adjusted remarkably well and amazingly quickly, would lose their momentum, growing homesick and tentative to return to Beijing, that all their progress would be wiped away.

The opposite happened. Seeing their friends and family reminded them that everyone was still there, while leaving Beijing and getting ready to return somehow made it seem more like our home. It reiterated that we actually lived there. The trip was profoundly worthwhile even while being completely exhausting -- there's no other way to describe moving a family of five through New Jersey, Pittsburgh and Michigan while battling vicious jet lag.

This year, I again had my doubts about going back for winter break, though my reasons had shifted. It seemed that most veteran expats returned home just once a year, for an extended summer visit. I felt like a bit of a wuss running home just months after returning from such a vacation. Part of me also longed for an Asian adventure, as I am anxious to explore as much of the continent as possible in our limited time there.

All of these feelings eased a bit as I spoke to more and more people and realized that many were in fact returning home, often without the husband or wife who had to stay and work. Many others who could not make it back expressed envy and excitement for us. One French friend who has been in China for five or six years told me she would never consider not returning home for the holidays. "Going back twice a year is what allows me to do this," she said.

Still, even as I relaxed and began to grow excited at the thought of an American trip, I still fretted over the expense and dreaded the long plane rides with our kids and the little time to properly recover from the jet lag. My family swayed me. Rebecca really wanted to see her parents and sisters; a year is an awfully long time for people to not see rapidly changing three-year-old Anna; and almost-nine Jacob loudly bemoaned that we were now missing out on "an important family tradition" -- large Hanukkah parties with his cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents.

Rebecca shrewdly suggested we meet my parents for a Colorado ski trip, something we did most years before moving. That excited me, though I doubted the feasibility. Weighing all of that, I called a recommended travel agent to see if there was any way to fly from Beijing to Colorado and still make it to New Jersey and Michigan.

I mostly wanted to prove it was a mission impossible, but the agent came back with an eight-leg trip that looked grueling but doable and was surprisingly affordable. (It still costs an arm and a leg to fly a family of five from China to America but we could do all that traveling for the same price we usually pay to simply fly round-trip to Newark.)

So, we booked the tickets and I am sitting in Colorado right now, enjoying a ski vacation with my parents and feeling about eight million miles away from Beijing. In a few days, we'll fly to New Jersey, and then on to Michigan to have belated Hanukkah celebrations with more relatives than you can shake a latke at. We're all happy to be here, no one more so than Jacob, whose outrage fueled the trip.

In the weeks before leaving, we became increasingly crazed preparing to depart, attending the kids' winter shows at the school and turning ourselves into Hanukkah experts. With such a shortage of Jewish families -- maybe four or five others in the school -- our "expertise" was needed to teach the kids about a holiday that many had never even heard of. I did some online research and Rebecca and I went to all three kids' classes to light menorahs and explain the holiday's history and traditions.

Other friends who stayed put for the holidays seemed to feel pressure to make the event extra special. My friend Lisa certainly felt that way. She rolled her eyes when I suggested that the holiday frenzy was less intense in Beijing, thanks in large part to the lack of overwhelming seasonal cheer and constant reminders that you should drop everything and go shopping right now.

"No," she said. "We bring our craziness with us."

Another friend has lived abroad for 10 years, returning home for Christmas only once. For some reason, an intense longing to see her extended family washed over her this year, after she and her husband had already booked trips for a southern China beach vacation. She watched people like us packing up to leave with a heavy heart and little enthusiasm for her own vacation.

Others, however, are happy to create their own new traditions. One friend admitted to being relieved about not having to deal with the family politics of the holiday. Home in Australia, they spent Christmas morning with her husband's family and the evening with hers. Neither side is fully satisfied with the arrangement, causing her to spend the entire day looking at her watch, feeling guilty she's not somewhere else and agitated that she'd been made to feel that way.

This year, she will skip all that to remain in our little expat compound in Beijing hosting a Christmas gathering of four families representing six nationalities -- American, Australian, Venezuelan, Austrian, Dutch and British. They hope to borrow something from each nation's Christmas traditions. Were we there, we might well join them and light a menorah. That's sort of how things go around there.

I'll let you know how our crazy eight-leg trip went in two weeks. In the meantime, happy holidays.

We're back

Made it home... everyone asleep by 8:30 last night and up by 12:30 am... I am in a strange state of suspended reality or something.. and writing a column to boot.

Great to see everyone we saw aqnd sorry to have missed everyone we missed during our whirlwind trip. It has left us exhausted but unbowed. Embrace the chaos!

Monday, January 01, 2007

Winding down and heading back

We are on the last day of our whirlwind 16-day tour of America, heading back to china tomorrow. We’re in Bay City, staying in Harold and ruth’s house with 10 other people. There are people sleeping (or nor) in every nook and cranny of the house.

It’s been a good trip but I think we feel ready to head back. You can only sleep like sardines for so many nights. One good thing about packing so much into such a short time is it makes the short time feel like a long time, in every possible way. In other words, it doesn’t feel like too short of a trip. It’s really quite remarkable that we’ve only been gone for two weeks.

Despite that, of course, with almost everyone we saw, we could have spent twice the time with them, and there were many things left undone and people left unseen. That’s just the nature of our lives for now.

We are still accumulating bags and bags worth of stuff, largely because of Chanukah and other presents for the kids. We have largely avoided big shipping trips that have marked previous visits home. I think that in the relatively short time we’ve been in China it’s become easier to get just about everything and you also just get used to things. The only thing I really feel compelled to bring back is coffee and hot sauce.

I’m excited to get back at this point but not so much for the flight back. It’s a bit of a grueling endurance test no matter how you cut it. We are flying back from Chicago this time, which is how Becky and I went the first time we visited but which we have never done as a family.. and we have an extra flight for the first time, albeit a short one from Bay city to Chicago. I just don’t think there’s any way to do this without feeling like hell on the other hand. The key is not feeling like you want to unscrew your head midflight. I’ll let you know how that goes.

I have to turn a column in the day after we return and the flight seems like a fine subject to me.