A Record Snowstorm and Flurry of Perspectives in Tokyo

8 February 2014, Tokyo, Japan

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“… the snowstorm began late in the evening as I left R2 Lounge in Roppongi where old friends, creative colleagues and current classmates gathered, celebrated and cross-pollinated in the midst of the Tokyo winter.

It’s been nearly four years since my last trip, and my Fletcher friends from the mid-1990s remarked how astonishing my network had evolved since we last met in 2010, with entertainers and MBA students now among the mix.  Perhaps the coming Spring and future visits will yield a flowering of new perspectives.  MDN”

*  *  *

7 February 2014

Tokyo, Japan

“You know so many salary men!” my former colleague Sayaka Shiomi said with exaggerated surprise.  She had supported me during the founding of Planet LA Records while we were students in the UCLA Extension program on Entertainment Studies between 2009-2010, and recently moved back to Tokyo to carry on with her career as a music journalist.

Sayaka was referring to my Fletcher alumni friends in dark suits at the Japanese trade and defense ministries, as well as recent MBA colleagues who worked for Japanese insurance and construction companies.  She, on the other hand, was wearing her trademark leopard print skirt which matched her fuzzy purse and seductive name cards.

Earlier in the evening – my Fletcher friends and I exchanged our new and updated business cards at Sushi Zanmai, a fantastic restaurant next to Tsukiji seafood market in the Ginza district.  I would often stay at a hotel in Ginza like I did this past trip just to have sushi for breakfast in Tsukiji, or sometimes observe the record-setting tuna auctions in the early morning hours.

Since we last gathered in 2010 during a Fletcher alumni dinner, most of my Japanese friends had more elevated titles:  Director, Vice President, Head of Unit; and most were still working at the same government ministries and corporations.   My business cards this time were no longer black and white with raised ink as issued by a traditional law firm, but had a unique Planet LA logo as founder of a music entity.  They must have thought I had a serious case of confused identities, and commented on the flexibility for career changes in America compared to Japan’s traditional employment for life.

After dinner at the hip R2 Lounge in the entertainment district of Roppongi – Tokyo’s version of Hollywood or Times Square – the distinct groups from my past and present mingled uncharacteristically but in good fun.   Japanese suits and rebellious rockers, fighter pilots based at the U.S. Embassy, a dash of French and Italian expats, along with a Ukrainian girl who had become a Japanese citizen – found common ground despite bureaucratic rigidity and creative frivolity.

Some of us continued on to a live music venue called Red Shoes in Aoyama until past 3am as the largest snowstorm in a decade hovered over Tokyo (which ended up canceling my flight).  The restless conversations continued on as we ended the evening at one of the city’s all-night, yet elegant watering holes called Bar Deuce — savoring whiskey cocktail nightcaps turned champagne breakfast elixirs until the patient manager politely told us he was closing around 8am.  By then, daylight revealed a vast megalopolis covered in a new snowy coat.  So chill, cleansing and enticing like the evening that would not exhaust itself until dawn.

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“The Luxury of Home: From Shanghai to China Beach”

HaLong-postcardDa Nang, Vietnam, 27 November 2013

… My laptop screensaver has a similar view of Ha Long Bay, from my last visit to Vietnam in 2007. 

Years, locations and career transitions have flown by, and this image has reminded me to keep a worldly perspective on whatever I do — and wherever I go.

Whether as a memory of a visit to my origins — like this moment in writing from a cafe at my birthplace in Da Nang — or as I renew my ventures abroad after six rather domestic years as an entrepreneur in my Western home in Los Angeles.

I must sail on like these ships in the South China Sea.  We are restless, driven by the rising Sun in the East, and in pursuit of the setting sun out West.  MDN”

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Da Nang, Vietnam, November 26, 2013

“Peeezzzz….” Swat!  Within a minute of laying my head down on the lumpy yellow pillow, a mosquito flew directly within striking distance of my left ear.  I knew more were en route as I used a thin worn sheet as a barrier – which barely covered my feet to neck and left my head exposed to their nightly feeding rituals.

Prior to arriving in Vietnam, I had spent two weeks as part of the UCLA-NUS Executive MBA program in the luxurious confines of the Royal Le Meridien in Shanghai.  The hotel upgraded me to a deluxe room on the 40th floor as a lifetime Starwood Gold Member, a status earned from 384 nights with that chain alone since my globetrotting began after receiving my first degree from UCLA in 1994.

But, every time I’ve returned to my birthplace in Da Nang (also known as “China Beach” the infamous military retreat and setting for the TV show from the 1990s) since the U.S. and Vietnam normalized relations about two decades ago – I have always stayed with my relatives in the center of the bustling city.  No screened windows to keep out the thirsty bugs, few creature comforts in the bathless bathroom and the communal bedrooms, and the occasional rat scurrying across the kitchen floor.  On the faded walls, they displayed pictures of me and my younger brother, cousins and family – and most prominently our graduation pictures which they are especially proud.

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My aunts cooked the same meal this evening to welcome me, as they did the first time the saw me since my family and I left the country in 1975 at the end of the war – marinated beef with lemongrass, fried potato wedges, salad and tomatoes.  On the first visit back in 1995, accompanied by two fellow Americans and Fulbright Fellows who traveled with me during our year abroad in Singapore – we chuckled as we were served the same meal every night, but politely ate as they insisted we were all too thin, and were quite pleased to offer us meat and potatoes given the hardships they’ve faced.

… Earlier in the day, I had an appointment at the Hyatt Regency Resort in Da Nang Beach, one of the newest and most posh seaside resorts in the country, if not all of Asia.  It has an enviable location along a stretch of white sand, and reminded me of beachfront properties I’ve stayed in from Bali to Maui, the Mayan Riviera and the Venetian Lido.

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There I had an appointment with an American businessman who my long-time friend the Deputy U.S. Consul General in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) thought I should meet while visiting Da Nang.   This admirable gentleman served during the War, then returned to Vietnam a decade ago to help train entrepreneurs on modern management techniques.  We spoke of how local businesses were transforming their communities with innovative tapioca farms and sustainable fishing, while multinational companies continued to expand their presence by mining for gold and growing lumber for wood chips.

As we were leaving, we met the Director of Rooms who was previously at the Hyatt’s notorious property on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, where I have been for entertainment industry events.

“You went from Guns ‘N Roses throwing TVs out their windows to this…” I remarked with subtle surprise.

“Yeah, no rock stars riding Harleys down the hallways here!”  he smiled, as we breezed through the pristine marble lobby. “Let me know next time you visit.  We would love to have you stay with us.”

Actually, I had checked the Hyatt’s rates the week prior and was quite tempted to book a room there – which was under $200/night given the off season – a steal for such a gorgeous property (and cheaper than the nightly rate I paid in Shanghai), but extravagant in the eyes of my relatives and most locals.  Moreover, staying there or anywhere but their place would probably have offended their sensibilities.

… The smell of the menthol-infused Tiger Balm wafted in the air; my aunt handed it to me with a reminder it would alleviate mosquito bites.  I looked more closely at the opaque little hexagon canister, which dated back to the mid-1990s when I first visited my relatives, and brought a box as a gift from Singapore.  Amazing they have kept these remedies for so long and perhaps held on to some for safekeeping for my future stays – since they knew I would return and stay at “home” – and therefore would be in greater need of it.

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Too Close to Home, Still Far To Roam…

October 10, 1998, Da Nang, Vietnam

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… family and friendships can be most endearing, and often enduring, despite the strained years.  On my second visit back to Saigon, and now of my birthplace in Da Nang, or “China Beach” — I am touched, and by no means surprised of how quickly — and intimately those emotions are evoked.

Yes, I shared shots of Johnnie Walker with my father’s best friend — and of course, my family keeps commenting that I am too thin — it worked, and I ate my fill.  The nurturing reminds me of just how close we are in spirt — yet so very distant.  MDN”

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October 26, 2013, Los Angeles, CA

“Those are among the strongest chemotherapy drugs,” my oncologist friend explained to our family.

“Let’s hope he will pull through the treatment.”

We also reviewed the Advanced Health Care Directive, which my father signed to indicate his wishes in the event of medical emergencies.  We had to take every precaution as he is about to start chemotherapy this week to treat a tumor in a sensitive region at the intersection of his pancreas and vital organs.

My father has always been a solid pillar of our family… strong-willed, stubborn and bullet-proof (literally, after fighting in and surving the Vietnam War).  Now, he and we, are facing the toughest challenge to his well being and our family’s foundation.  In a matter of months, the cancer arose unexpectedly and has hit so close to home.

Meanwhile, my brother and I are poised to venture abroad again soon — after several years of being more domestic in our careers and travels since we moved back to Southern California.  He is leaving for Afghanistan for several months, while I am about to start the next session of my global M.B.A. studies in Shanghai, and a return trip to Vietnam.

“You need to go.  Do what you need to do,”  my father told us.

He has never discouraged us from blazing our own paths… whether my brother’s work assignments to conflict-prone areas in the Middle East and South Asia, or as I filled up four passorts on a jet-set career for over a decade.  We have always pursued the American dream, whether it took us to far-flung and dangerous locales, or navigating professional twists and personal transitions as we returned to our roots.

After we settled in our new home in the States in 1975, he and my mother have worked hard all their lives until their retirement this year.   We would often take our annual vacations in the national parks… Yosemite, Yellowstone, Bryce, Zion and the Grand Canyon and across the Pacific Northwest.  These road trips involved a lot of bouncing in the back of a Toyota camper truck across the Western states.  Our wanderlust was incubated, and has never been cured as my brother and I lived and studied abroad, eager to roam the world and explore the boundaries of our passions.

“If anything happens, take me to Yosemite.”  he said.   Yosemite National Park is among his favorite places, and where we went on many camping trips.  We would often give him poster prints from Ansel Adams and annual Sierra Club calendars… scenes of plunging waterfalls, snow-flocked trees and the rock solid Half Dome… reflecting upon moonlit valleys and Nature’s unpredictable intentions.

Dad in Yosemite

No Medals for Austria in London: Measures of Achievement…

5 February 2000, Vienna, Austria

“… a new lunar year, a new country.  I’ve arrived to find a quiet city grappling with its dark past — no firecrackers are bursting through the night to ward off uneasy spirits — though plenty of police sirens are flashing as they rush off to control the demonstrations against a dangerous new government.

I write this from my Fletcher friend Rainer Staub’s family cafe — which has a rich intellectual tradition.  The tables around me are abuzz with discussions of past and future, mingled with nostalgia — and brewing once again with dissension.

The celebrants of the lunar calendar believe the first day is indicative of the year — which implies that Austria is about to face intriguing times… MDN”

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August 12, 2012

With the end of the London 2012 Olympic Games, there have been many replays of the sporting highlights, and with it reviews of the memorable moments and disappointments.

One athlete — American swimmer Michael Phelps, became the most decorated Olympian of all time, with four gold and two silver medals in London, retiring from competition with 22 total medals at the age of 27.  Another standout, Usain Bolt of Jamaica defended his titles from Beijing as the fastest sprinter ever and in doing so, became a self-professed legend.  Still, others like Oscar Pistorius the double amputee from South Africa didn’t win any medals, but proved he could compete with able-bodied runners in the 400 meter races — and in doing so, fully embodied the spirit of the Games like no other athlete.

Although most athletes will leave London without medals, records or much attention given – these men, women and teams were all Olympians and are a special breed of achievers.  Many will retire while some might aim to train harder than ever in preparation for Rio in 2016, and to try to secure their legacies as the fastest, strongest or most skilled in their sport.

In review of the numbers, over the past two weeks from July 27 to August 12, 2012 — around 10,500 athletes from 85 countries took home 962 medals in 36 sporting categories, ranging from a leading U.S. total of 104 medals to first-ever medals for tiny countries like Grenada and Montenegro, and developing nations like Gabon and Guatemala.  Notable among industrialized nations, Austria and its 70 athletes were unable to win any medals in the Summer Games, down from 3 in Beijing in 2008 and 7 in Athens in 2004 and the first time since the Tokyo Games in 1964.  Despite its wealth, Austria was bested by countries in 21 sports where it competed ranging from equestrian, shooting and synchronized swimming.  Though, Austrians usually perform better in winter sports and are expected to medal in Russia at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Games.

Perhaps for the next Summer Olympics in Rio in 2016, Austria and other countries without medalists in London should consider offering their athletes generous incentives like the United States, which provides bonuses to medalists ($25,000 for gold, $15,000 for silver and $10,000 for bronze)… or more lucrative payouts like in Russia ($135,000 gold, $82,000 silver, $54,000 bronze) and even higher in Italy, which pays gold medalists $182,000; and reportedly higher in Kazakhstan at $250,000 for gold, and in Singapore at $800,000 for gold. Singapore has yet to win gold, but perhaps its bonuses will create a gold rush to the wealthy island country… of Chinese divers, Jamaican sprinters, American beach volleyball players, Russian rhythmic gymnasts, and the like.  Though, medals don’t always amount to a price as proved by host nation Great Britain which pays out $0 for medals, and still achieved a glorious haul of 65 medals, 29 of which were gold and its best overall performance in a century — that money didn’t necessarily buy.

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August 12 marked the end of the London 2012 Olympics, and on a personal level has been a landmark date for me.  Fourteen years ago on August 12, 1998, I started my first “real job” at White & Case LLP in Washington D.C. after almost two years of internships, short-term work and study in Geneva, Switzerland focused on the newly-created World Trade Organization (WTO).

Seven years later to this day on August 12, 2005, I left my job at White & Case in a desire to relocate back to Los Angeles to spend more time with family.  I began a bi-coastal career still focused on international trade with Bryan Cave LLP – though with a gradual and rather unexpected transition towards becoming a musical artist and entertainment entrepreneur with the launch of Planet LA Records.

In the past seven years since 2005, my personal journey may not be the same as an “Olympian” – but did involve training and new skills, a test of patience and endurance, and attempt to leave an imprint and legacy.  Moreover, I gave my best effort at the greatest of costs, and in doing so, have few regrets in light of the measures of achievement.

Like athletes, many creative types invest in their passions and natural talents as a career — and often without much security or guarantees in return, whether in the form of cash, medals or attention.  In the past several years, I have interacted with so many performers and dreamers… most of whom are unlikely to ever become legends in their quest, but still gain great satisfaction from making the effort.  As a result, I have gained a more humbling and compassionate perspective on human nature, and what drives people to the brink of success and failure.

Today on August 12, 2012, my own journey seems to be heading full circle as I seek to connect the two disparate and separate paths.   Perhaps, the pursuit of a so-called “dream career” on my own terms may have run its course, and I might have to “retire” and return to a more stable and mundane way of life.  Entrepreneurial zeal can drive dreamers to create innovative models, but they face great risks in being able to sustain these realities.  I have been innovative in approach to artist and brand partnerships — but despite being highly productive, have yet to find a sustainable model.   This is a lesson I have learned the hard and fast way in the most recent era.

Over the next seven-year cycle, my best hope is to retain this imagination and utilize these skills in a setting that is the best of both worlds, global in nature and creative in focus… whoever may be in charge, or wherever on this planet.

Like the Olympic athletes who competed in London, whether as medalists or not — their time in the limelight is over for now… but their stories can inspire a generation to dream on, and face up to the measures of achievement based on society’s demanding expectations, and on a personal level of integrity.

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Olympic Glory and Transformation: Beijing to London and L.A.

20 March 2001, Beijing, China

“… 2008 and the Olympic rings.  China is intent upon this sky high ambition.

A successful Olympic bid would crown the country’s integration into the world.

Of course, in the immediate term China has plans to join the WTO — which is one of the reasons for my first trip to Beijing.

With the dawn of Spring — the Temple of Heaven is a beacon in a sea of tranquility in the city which is no longer forbidden.

Though, I missed the opportunity to see the Forbidden City confines. 

Some things take time… MDN”

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The Olympics like the upcoming tournaments in London starting July 27, 2012, provide prominent cities like Beijing — the host of the previous games in 2008, and elite athletes the opportunity to make huge strides and sacrifices in pursuit of glory.

For a brief two weeks, these places, people and experiences can leave lasting records, impressions and legacies.

My visit to Beijing in Spring 2001 was on the eve of the ancient imperial capital being awarded the 2008 Games on July 14, 2001, and also its imminent membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO).  There was great anticipation in the air as many observers felt that momentum was in the city’s favor with the Olympics as well as China’s WTO membership (concluded on December 11, 2001) — would coincide with and were critical to China’s greater openness to the world.

Seven years later, Beijing and China rose to the occasion and staged a spectacular and memorable series of Olympic events.  Moreover, China has continued down the path towards greater economic liberalization as an active WTO Member.  Despite the persistent challenges, China has no doubt become a more prosperous, open and innovative country in the past decade.  London also won its Olympic bid on the premise that the Games would help transform and reinvigorate the fortunes of the city’s impoverished Eastern territory.

There is something about the feeling of “change in the air” — as will and vision are critical to realizing results and progress — whether as individual athletes and performers, collaborative teams and communities, or dynamic and forward-thinking cities and nations from Beijing to London.

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June 23, 2012, Los Angeles, California

“Today is a celebration of our common pursuit of a dream,” I said to the artists, family, friends and strangers gathered at Planet Dailies restaurant as I turned 40.

“Thank you for allowing me to share a part of the American dream over the past 37 years.  I came here with just this picture, my clothes and the hope that comes with new roots.”

I held up a signed poster — a reprint of a black and white picture of me which was one of the only items that my mother brought with us from Vietnam as we fled upon the fall of Saigon in  April 1975.

My mother was at the party along with my brother and sister-in-law, and it was actually her first time seeing me perform with my band.  My father couldn’t make it as he had to work on Saturday evenings, the same long and labor-intensive schedule six days a week.

“And thank you Mark for creating opportunities for artists,” Brent Michelle said as she introduced me and the ad hoc When Planets Align band (since my original band members Juan Lizarazo and David Lopez couldn’t make it from Bogota and New York City for the festivities).

The evening featured a lot of talented artists including Brent Michelle, who I met when she was Michelle Brent and was the most impressive performer among about two dozen at the first open mic evening where I played — at the Un-Urban Cafe in Santa Monica in December 2008, just as I was about to leave my corporate job and dive headlong in pursuit of a passion.

An array of other performers took the stage in the shadow of Hollywood as the California summer sun set on one of the longest days of the year.  Singer-songwriters Rebecca Sullivan, Julia Lucafo, Bryan Titus and Gianna Nguyen shared stories from their soulful hearts; duo performances came from global artists including Nadine Ellman and Jeremy Ferrick, and Maria Aceves and Martial Chaput; and leading songs from frontman Gabe Watson of Planet LA Records band Native June and frontwoman Julia Dettwiler of rock band Lunar Rogue, Elyse Haren of the self-titled group Elyse + The Aftermath, among others.

My “band” (being me and others who I’ve never performed with publicly before) was the last to go on as the evening also marked the release of our latest and possibly final album “The Universe in Me.”

Julia Dettwiler filled in for my original bandmate Jacqueline Van Bierk (who was in Nashville that weekend) and performed “Life’s Too Short” — one of the first songs I ever wrote, and probably the most inspirational of them all.

I played guitar and sang back-up vocals, including the rideout lyrics of “Life’s Too Short””

“The Universe is guiding me… Just let me be what I want to be… Yeah yeah yeah yeah!”

Then, took the microphone to sing two of our newly-released songs starting with “L.A. (I’ll Be Back Someday)”:

“City of Angels do I have a chance, for fame or fortune?

Shine my way, for just a passing glance, for a minute a moment…

Please remember me!”

And ending with a dedication to the late author Ray Bradbury — a champion of space exploration and pursuit of the grandest dreams — with the final song “Crush The Stars”:

“I had drifted across the globe, a grain of sand lifted by the sea

Escaping history in pursuit of hope, no roots bind or limit me…

Life sometimes moves in reverse, when we see beyond this earth

Across the ocean blue, futures can come true!”

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July 9, 2012, Los Angeles, California

“I’m glad I can help you complete this project,” my former UCLA Extension music production instructor Jeff Lewis said, “And great to hear you finished the program!”

“For you, the student rate is $90.  Maybe someday I’ll be able to afford health insurance… but we do what we love!” he said with a laugh.

Jeff had spent nearly three hours mastering the final songs on the album “The Universe in Me” as it wasn’t finished in time for the release party two weeks ago.  One of our producers Joshua “Cartier” Cutsinger who has received a Grammy nomination for his prior work, finalized the mixes on the remaining three songs in early July, which I then took with me to Moonlight Studios that sunny afternoon.

As Jeff finished what had involved nearly three years of production and producers, more than a dozen musicians, tens of thousands of dollars in costs and over three decades of life experiences — his words struck me.

“No health insurance.” — ditto.  “We do what we love.”  — check.

For most my life, going from an immigrant with just rags to a successful career as a globetrotter with near riches… I’ve created safety nets, pursued stable careers and built nest eggs.  Now, most of those securities are gone including health insurance, retirement funds and a steady job.

But, as an entrepreneur, creator and dreamer for over the past three years… I have done what I love, and held in my hand a simple, shiny disk of ten audio files that could well be my swan song to this pursuit of a musical legacy.

“Thanks Jeff!  It’s nice to be done… now we’ll see where this, or I go from here,” I said as I wrote him a check for $100 — which was a very reasonable amount for his effort, though felt much more precious in 2012 than it did when I started throwing money around in 2008.  I then ran off to meet a CD manufacturer to place a rush order in time for an important industry event this week.

As I left the studio, I checked my email and noticed a comment on my blog Mark39.com (which was now a misnomer given I was no longer thirty-something) — the first since my last posting and 40th chapter over two weeks ago on June 23.  Someone was still reading in cyberspace and from a far-flung place.

From “StephGlaser” (July 9, 2012):

“Mark, I love the concept of your blog and it is so inspirational to read. (I’m sad it’s ending…I hope there’s a sequel or new incarnation.) We dreamers need to support each other and I thank you for being the first person to like one of my posts (“Drinking Poop Coffee in Bali”).”

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“You aren’t that young anymore… and have worked so hard and very late these days,” my mother said, as I returned to writing this blog after a two-week absence.

“Don’t let your future slip away,” she cautioned as she went to bed.

My mother worries a lot, like most loving and mildly doting mothers.  She has been very concerned about my financial health and well being (though is not aware of the lack of health insurance otherwise would really fret), and seems to lament the fact that I may or may not be around much longer, at least in the same household.

In the past two weeks, momentum has been building for one of those “critical juncture” moments… which I can feel in the air, and is getting closer each day.

On the one hand, Planet LA Records has closed its office as of June 30, but our business relationships are stronger than ever after three intense years of activity.  In fact, I recently initiated several meetings with senior and executive vice presidents at a major TV network and leading brands — to launch an innovative media platform to support artists.  It took three years of toil to build this kind of network and credibility, and these discussions are leading up to a make-or-break private event on July 12 at the Gibson Guitar showroom in Beverly Hills.  Many among our industry network plan to attend and will learn more about our future plans, and whether we have a future.

On the other hand, I have begun to reach out to my global affairs and corporate circles about possible new roles — whether they involve going back to my roots in Vietnam and Asia, familiar professional worlds in Washington D.C. or Geneva, or other places in or beyond L.A.  It would be ideal to utilize skill sets gained in both diplomacy and branded entertainment, but if I must return to the nuances and regulations of international trade law, then I am ready and willing.

Whatever the outcome, I have been inspired to write again… as this story and life as I know it didn’t end on June 23, 2012 with the expiration of Mark39.com.

Stay tuned and let the (Olympic) games begin!

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