Return Trip to Geneva: Re-Connecting with Ground Control

3 April 2014

Geneva, Switzerland

geneva-apr2014-back“… Upon arrival this early Spring morning, I crossed the Pont du Mont-Blanc towards the L’horloge Fleurie (flower clock) which was blooming on schedule as the over-sized hands rotated over the in-laid yellow flowers that were changed with seasonal precision.

Just beyond was the ever potent Jet d’eau (water fountain) which framed a misty rainbow against the billowing sails that made their way between Alpine lakeside towns of Evian and Montreux across the crystal waters of Lac Leman.

It has been nearly six years since my last trip to Geneva.  The WTO Doha Round is now past its 12th year of painstaking negotiation.  Some former WTO colleagues have moved on, while many others have remained to carry forth globalization.   Though, I have traveled less far and often in recent years, my perspectives appear to be deeper and wide-ranging as I reflect upon a former career and promising future.  MDN”

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United Airlines Flight 956:  Newark/New York to Geneva

2-3 April 2014

“Just like the old days” … posted my friend Mike Mossetig, a former journalist with The News Hour in Washington D.C. who has since retired and relocated to Hong Kong.  He was the first to respond to my Facebook update mentioning I was en route to Geneva and Europe.

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The seasoned Boeing 767-300 plane reminded me of the jet-set “old days” and of my previous trip to Geneva in 2008.  I had taken this same route many times when it was still a Continental Airlines flight (which has since merged with United), among the over fifty trips to Geneva while living in Washington D.C. and working for two global law firms for over a decade.

Six Springs ago, I was at the peak of my previous career and was traveling to Europe to participate in a seminar hosted by my former firm’s London office featuring the Deputy Trade Minister of Ukraine Valeriy Pyatnytskiy on May 14, 2008, just after he led his country’s delegation in concluding its 14-year WTO accession negotiations.  Ukraine is now making headlines again with the recent annexation of Crimea by Russia, and given the struggles the country is facing politically and economically.  On that last trip, I also had an interview for a global advisory position with a prominent Swiss insurance company.

Looking back on that moment, if I had remained in a corporate role – the past six years would have resulted in a far different existence… I would have been a wealthier and more traveled man, but perhaps not as enriched as from the independent path I eventually took.  The following year in 2009 upon returning to Los Angeles, I established a consulting practice and creative business in pursuit of a passion.  The seasons have flown by in the West where I had to learn survival skills in an entrepreneurial world, and now am re-learning as an Executive MBA student at UCLA Anderson and its partner program in Singapore.

“Ground Control to Major Tom,” was a repeated lyric from the David Bowie song “Space Oddity” in movie “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” – which I watched during the flight to Geneva on the 3×5 postcard-sized screen of the plane.

Mitty’s character played by Ben Stiller was prone to daydreaming about an exciting life, but in reality had not gone anywhere, or done anything notable.  At the start of the movie, he turns 42 and had been living a life lacking in purpose, respect and romance.

Mitty’s boss in the opening scenes ridicules his daydreaming:  “Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong.  Can you hear me, Major Tom?”

But later as sung by his love interest played by Kristen Wiig — the song inspires Mitty to take a leap of faith towards real adventure and self discovery: “This is Major Tom to Ground Control.  I’m stepping through the door… and the stars look very different today.”

Coincidentally, I am also about to turn 42 and anticipate major transitions ahead.  Looking back, I am grateful for the lessons learned and miles traveled thus far, despite being more grounded in recent years.  Like Mitty, I have embraced substantial risks and challenges… which hopefully should lead to further exploration and greater meaning in the new era.

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Indeed, “the stars look very different today” even though it is starting to feel a bit “like the old days.”

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First-Class Encounters with Hillary and Zac, and a Renewed Perspective on Travel and Life

19 May 2008, Zurich to Geneva, Switzerland

“… Over 50+ trips in the past dozen years, since I first came in 1996 to visit my aunt in Lausanne, then returned to work in Geneva in 1997, then again and again over the years — and today, to interview with Zurich, a Swiss but very global insurance company headquartered in Zurich.

Yes, this little ‘red brick’ in the middle of the map versus the black block I added to mark ‘L.A.’ — have been inextricably linked.

No doubt, my fate is intertwined with these two dots, pulling me back and forth over time, distance and destinies… MDN”

October 5, 2012, Los Angeles, California

Two items appeared today that reminded me of my jet-set days, current crossroads and past encounters with celebrated personalities Zac Efron and Hillary Clinton.

In today’s Los Angeles Times, I read about the release of “The Paperboy” directed by Lee Daniels and based on the Peter Dexter novel, which stars Zac Efron along with Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey and others.  Several years ago, while living bicoastal and commuting on one of the United flights between LAX to DC, I sat in the second row of the first class cabin behind someone who obviously was a celebrity.  He sported a hoodie and sunglasses as he approached his seat in the first row, right side and next to the window.  While on the flight, I glanced briefly in the reflection of the window to my right and noticed he was reading a script called “The Paperboy.”  I didn’t recognize the script or the actor, though remember thinking he looked like Zac Efron, Jake Gyllenhaal or one of the handsome young Hollywood A-listers.  As I got off the plane, I overhead the flight attendants say it was Zac Efron, and it’s good to see the movie has since been released and Efron’s star remains on the rise.

Starting in January 2009, as I began working for myself — I straddled the worlds of policy and entertainment between D.C. and L.A. — as an international trade consultant commuting frequently between coasts and abroad, and as an artistic entrepreneur pursuing my passion and with greats hopes of launching a creative career.  In fact, I remember having to shave for each trip to D.C., carrying my suit bag which was a souvenir from the stately Hotel Prince de Galles in Paris, along with talking points for visits to the U.S. Congress and U.S. Chamber of Commerce, legal meetings and diplomatic functions.  On my return flights to L.A., I would break out the ripped jeans, Garage Band software, iPod playlists and The Hollywood Reporter weeklies, which was more appropriate attire and briefing material for visits to Sunset Strip concert venues and Billboard Film/TV conferences.

Coincidentally, my United Airlines lifetime mileage was nearing 800,000 by 2010 (790,615 to be exact) — and as a long-standing Star Alliance and United 1K elite member, I felt I could continue the streak of jet-set travel and creative vision — and ultimately, keep the left and right sides of my brain engaged and in balance.  This proved to be a greater challenge than I ever planned for or dreamed of.

Also today in perhaps what is another sign, I received belatedly the September 2012 copy of Condé Nast Traveler featuring Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the cover while on an official visit to New Delhi.  It is the first copy I have received since I let the subscription lapse at the end of 2010.  Perhaps, I should consider the cover story as an encouraging omen of favorable winds ahead.

I have admired, and on several occasions crossed paths with Secretary/Senator/First Lady Hillary Clinton — briefly while she was with President Clinton at the APEC Ministerial Conference in Jakarta in 1994 and the WTO Ministerial Conference in Geneva in 1998, more recently as a campaign supporter during her run in the presidential primary in 2008, and up-close as I took a picture for someone with her during the Vital Voices gala at the Kennedy Center in D.C. in 2005.

Since I was an intern at the U.S. State Department in D.C. and at the American Embassy in Vientiane Laos from 1993-1994, a global career had been my focus and Condé Nast Traveler was my monthly bible.  I would eagerly await the exotic and practical tips, and annual rankings of global properties, airlines and attractions.  I would base my bucket list on these listings each year, from stays at the magical Four Seasons Sayan in Bali and the St. Regis Grand in Rome; recharging at premium airport lounges after connecting flights from Frankfurt or to Singapore; and lofty views from the statue of the Cristo Redentor in Rio, Temple of Heaven in Beijing and the Great Pyramid of Giza in Cairo… check, check, check… and cut!

2011 also marked the first year since 1994 in which I didn’t take a trip abroad.  I was moving too far “right brain” in creative yet local pursuits, and not making enough ground “left brain” in logical reasoning and structure.  No more Condé Nast Travelers, no passport stamps, and a blunted perspective brought on by too much risk taking and passionate ambitions.  By the summer of 2012 (coincidentally as I turned 40), things came to a head as my business partner and I closed the offices of Planet L.A. Records and have changed its operations.  Personally, I realized it was time to regain control of my direction, destiny… and perspective.

“I think where there has been more travel, there is greater understanding,” Secretary Clinton tells Kevin Doyle in the Condé Nast Traveler cover article.

Clinton elaborates:  “There may not be agreement — we may still believe that the political system of another country is wrong or the way women are treated is not acceptable — but we get closer to seeing the world through somebody else’s eyes, and I really believe that’s the essential step not only for diplomats and other government officials but for business people and for American citizens, because it helps us get perspective.”

Exactly!  “perspective.”

Jonah Lehrer in his book Imagine writes:

One of the most surprising (and pleasurable) ways of cultivating an outsider perspective is through travel, getting away from the places we spend most of our time… [and]  According to the researchers, the experience of another culture endows the traveler with a valuable open-mindedness, making it easier for him or her to realize that a single thing can have multiple meanings.”

Perspective is critical — whether for a diplomat, entrepreneur, artist or outsider — to be more thoughtful, creative and effective.   Perspective is a skill that must be constantly sharpened — whether through travel, cultural exposure or open mindedness to the world around us.

In hindsight, I was losing track of the global perspective I had worked so hard to gain over a decade — which hit an impasse last year with no meaningful travel.  As a recent outsider to the entertainment industry, my unique perspective has been the greatest talent I can offer along with a passion to succeed.  Indeed, these two elements (e.g., left or right brain, business or art, Hillary or Zac) are intertwined and can be complementary — just as I used to travel often between L.A. and D.C., Switzerland and the world, and between mind and space.

Thus, restoring that balance is essential.  Momentum is moving in this direction as I will soon travel to D.C. and elsewhere for important meetings that will set a new career course and educational path.  Nevertheless, entrepreneurship and artistic endeavors can still coexist, and perhaps be more focused by renewed perspective.

The Condé Nast Traveler article mentions that Secretary Clinton has traveled more than 800,000 miles to over 100 countries since 2008, the most traveled American foreign emissary in U.S. history.  800,000 — the figure immediately reminded me of my United lifetime mileage balance, and how that figure has stalled recently, and why that must soon change if I am to stay true to my professional ability, creative nature and worldly perspective.

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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”

*  *  *

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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