Posted by: Mark | October 4, 2011

Our Book Trailer

As we’ve mentioned in the past, Giulia and I have a story to share about mental illness and recovery. In fact, one of the major reasons that we traveled around the world together was because we still had some healing to do.

I’ve written a book about what her illness meant to us. How it swept into our lives, completely unexpected; how it transformed who we were; how it scared us, but also reminded us of how important it is to love. We recently finished a book trailer for the memoir, which was made by the extremely talented Aaron Fagerstrom. We hope you enjoy the trailer.

In case you’re new to this blog, you can read some of our older posts that address Giulia’s illness. I think the best two to get you started are The Truth Will Set You Free, and A Walk To The Lighthouse. They’re especially great because one of them is from my perspective, and one of them is from Giulia’s perspective.

Oh and by the way, we are in the process of trying to get our book published. So if you know of anyone in the industry, let us know! (You can find our email addresses in the Contact Us page). We really believe that it’s important to share stories about mental illness, especially one like ours that highlights the experience of a care-giving family member, to keep chipping away at the unfair stigma surrounding mental health.

Posted by: Mark | May 16, 2011

What is Mark doing with his life?

We’ve been home a month. I’ve mostly let this blog sit and gather dust since we’ve been home. But there are still, at times, things worth writing about here.

For example. I wrote this email to my family this morning. I’ve done a bit of editing, but for the most sake I’m leaving it as is. You might remember back when I was in Indonesia, I wrote about trying to find the middle in life. Well, I think this is kind of my answer, for now.

date Mon, May 16, 2011 at 2:49 PM
subject What is Mark doing with his life?
mailed-by gmail.com
hide details 2:49 PM (5 hours ago)

Hey guys

So you might be wondering the answer to the question in the subject here. Now that Mark and Giulia are home, and now that Giulia is working, what the hell is Mark doing with his life?

That’s a question I’ve been pondering for a long time, I think even before Giulia got sick, but it was pressed to the forefront of my consciousness in the many months of Giulia’s recovery, when I went through some of the predictable shifts in priorities and interests that arise in such circumstances. So don’t mind this somewhat self-indulgent, maybe even rambling, offer of an answer to the question.

I think everyone has known that I’ve had an increasing interest in writing. I have written a complete first draft for our memoir Where The Road Meets The Sun. It’s obviously far from perfect, but I have a complete book at around 85,000 words, and hope to get it into the hands of an interested literary agent or publisher. At the bare minimum, we will likely go with self-publishing so that our friends, family, and interested readers can get a super cheap copy for their iPad or Kindle.

But beyond the memoir, I really think that I want to explore writing as a more formal career. I have several friends in the profession who are supportive of my efforts and believe in my abilities, and have helped me consider the various pathways into a writing career. There are, of course, many options of how to “be a writer,” from newspaper reporter to magazine writer to novelist to whatever, but I’m pretty certain that the type of writing that appeals to me most is longform journalism, meaning mostly magazine work.

In light of all of this, I have been pursuing summer internships with various magazines, and today I am happy to announce that I got one! I will be an editorial intern with a new online magazine called MYOO. Weird name, right? It’s an eco-adventure magazine, inspired by environmentally conscious adverturers throughout the world. If you go to their Contributor page, you’ll see that MYOO is hooked up with some pretty incredible people–Kelly Slater, one of the Cousteau grandchildren, Blake from TOMS shoes, Susan Casey, and the list goes on for a very long time. The name of the magazine itself, “MYOO,” is derived from the middle of the word “Community,” which is a concept that I believe in wholeheartedly.

So in short, for the next few months I’ll be working remotely (their main offices are in London) to help fact-check, pitch stories, participate in the editorial process, and hopefully even do a little writing of my own. I hope to learn as much as I can from this experience, and hopefully segue into something more permanent in the world of magazine journalism, but in truth, I’m just excited to be a part of a team working on things that I find very, very meaningful.

The internship is only a few days a week, and so I am simultaneously pursuing other writing gigs–ones that pay, if not much, at least a little bit. For example, I was hired as a freelance contractor to contribute to Shmoop.com, which is an online network of lesson plans for high school students. I’ll spend time this summer working on helping to develop their AP World History curriculum. It’ll be a great chance to try my hand as an education writer, something that blends my past with my present. I am also trying to finalize another part-time writing gig with an outdoors company, working on their blog and writing product reviews for them. This would allow even more diversity, as I could try copywriting.

In short, I’m entering the 21st century world that I’ve read about in Thomas Friedman articles and in David Pink’s books, and I’m finally going to experience it for real: freelance work. I’ll need to be self-directed, and will be juggling several projects simultaneously. Some will pay little to nothing, others might luckily hit the jackpot (fingers crossed on the book), but either way I will get to dabble in a lifestyle that has tremendous appeal to me right now, which is the freedom to work at my pace and on my hours, while still sticking to rigorous demands and expectations.

Of course having several projects also entails various other things. I will still have the time and flexibility to train for the upcoming Ironman, a process which so far has been extremely rewarding to me. I also plan to stay very much involved in the Ocean Beach Bulletin and The Scuttlefish. These two gigs helped nurture my interest in writing in the first place, and I love the work I do for them, and the people I work with on them. I have been very inspired recently by a commencement address given by Robert Krulwich (of the podcast Radiolab) in which he talks about journalism in the 21st century. It’s a long read but very, very, very good, and basically says that the only things you can truly count on when pursuing a career in writing in this era are 1) your passion, and 2) your friends who share those passions. OBB and Scuttlefish sum those two facets up perfectly, and so I’m sticking with them, until either they become huge or else they wither out and die. Either way, I will have felt fulfilled by the writing I have been able to do for them.

Needless to say in all of this, I’m extremely excited. I’m of course nervous and intimidated. I’ve been teaching high school since I graduated college, and so a shift this substantial is not an easy thing to actually pursue, more just a fun thing to talk about. In many ways, I feel like I’ve been standing at the base of a mountain, looking up, and talking about how much I’d love to try and climb the mountain. In getting the gigs with MYOO and Shmoop, and continuing with OBBulletin and Scuttlefish, I feel like I’m finally starting to climb the mountain.

It’s been a huge blessing to have the support of Giulia through all of this, who understands that working in a more creative industry has tremendous risk and takes time and patience. Thankfully her new work seems steady and has tremendous appeal to what she wants right now from a career, so I think we’ve found a pretty good balance for everything.

So anyway, I wanted to send out this update because I’ve been working on these different ideas and projects for a few months, even while we were traveling, and it’s exciting to be on the brink of actually jumping into them. I have no idea how fully I will pursue them, or where they will take me, all I know is that this approach feels very right for me right now, and I’ve got the support of my wife behind me, and so what more could I ask for?

Thanks for taking the time to sort through all of this. I hope you all become regular readers of MYOO, Scuttlefish, and the Ocean Beach Bulletin, if you aren’t already. If anyone is planning on taking the AP World History exam any time soon, I am an excellent resource on those matters, and could be of help.

Otherwise, you’ll find me somewhere in my apartment, banging away at my laptop, a Pandora station keeping me company alongside the snores of Goose, and taking the occasional break to bike 80 miles, cook dinner for Giulia, and be happy.

Love you guys,

Mark

Posted by: Giulia | May 2, 2011

With a Little Help From My Friend…

Ciao Friends!

I am sooo excited about this post I don’t even know where to begin….

As you all know we have been traveling for the last 4 months, and if you didn’t know, well, you have not been paying close attention to our blog. (Sorry, I am in a goofy mood tonight). Along the way, both Mark and I have collected all sorts of memorabilia of our trip. From airplane tickets to business cards, to bus passes and museum tickets…you name it, we kept it. When I got back to San Francisco I didn’t know where to keep all these fun trinkets. All I knew was that they were too special to hide away in a drawer never to be seen again.

So, an idea popped up in my head. This “GREAT, ORIGINAL, FANTASTIC & SMART” idea to call-up my good friend Briana. You see, she is an artist. Not any artist, someone who is so creative and inspiring who would come up with the perfect execution. And oh boy, did she do just that.

My friend Briana hard at work

The same night I gave B (That’s my nickname for her) all my stubs from our trip she emailed me her big concept without giving much away. She said,“I want to create a piece to commemorate your recent world excursion. I want to build something that can grow with you as you continue on your life journey.” Ummm, OK. Can we say LOVE IT?!

When I first saw the final artwork in her living room floor I was confused. It was a beautiful painted canvas but nothing was on it. I didn’t really get it. What happened to all my cool trinkets? Where they all hidden underneath the thick paint?

Briana used magnetic paint to create this beautiful canvas...

The artist painting the border of the wooden canvas wine red.

Then the light bulb went on when I saw the hand-made wooden magnets B had created to accompany the canvas. Wow! is all I could say…

Ticket stubs and other memorabilia from our trip that Briana transformed into magnets!

Such personalization and craftsmanship! It is something that will continue to grow, change and evolve with us for years to come.

Hugs to the creater of this project! Add a few pictures and voila'.

Close-up on one of my favorite magnets. A ski pass from Nagano, Japan.

Thanks so much B!

xoxoxo.

Giulia

Posted by: Mark | April 23, 2011

What Comes Around

We are home. The dog is with us. We are back to sleeping under our own roof, in our own bed, seeing our friends, walking the streets that we know and love, and are re-acquainting ourselves with feeling settled.

It’s an obvious understatement to say that we enjoyed ourselves while abroad. We did more than just “enjoy.” We grew, we learned, we were inspired…plus a lot more. And now we are home.

At home, those things can continue to happen, and very much should. I want to keep growing, learning, and finding inspiration. I want to find it in the familiarity of the faces we left behind, but I also want to find it in the new friends we are yet to meet.

One aspect to traveling that stuck us, with the most obvious immediacy, was the generosity of those we encountered. The human race is demonized as greedy, self-serving, and un-trusting, and there are pockets of existence where those traits are true and real. But what we encountered was a humanity that loves, and opens doors to strangers and feeds, them and clothes them without any demands of reciprocity. Whether we were surrounded by the poverty of Kenya, the creativity of Istanbul, or the opulence of Tokyo, we felt welcomed.

All throughout the travels, we have talked of “paying it forward” when we got home. We want to count ourselves in the overwhelming masses who trust each other and treat their neighbors kindly. And most of all, we want to pay that kindness forward to travelers like us who might feel lonely or sad or nervous, and who just need a warm place to rest for the night.

A few days ago Giulia read on twitter that a touring band needed a place to stay for the night on Friday, after a San Francisco show. She knew I would say Yes, so she offered. We found out that the band, Lost In The Trees, is made up of 7 musicians, and would have the solo opening act with them (Sean Rowe), and that the lead singer’s wife was their tour manager and she would be there as well, as well as the sound engineer, and so in essence we had agreed to let 10 people stay the night on Friday….our fourth night of being home.

In doing some research in the last few days, I realized that both acts are really, really talented, with soaring, beautiful music, and that they have been featured on NPR several times and basically are awesome, and so I got excited to host them, and most of all, to see them perform live.

They stopped by in the early evening, before the show, and dropped off all their stuff. They know how to pack to crash on someone’s floor, and had sleeping pads, dozens of pillows, and countless blankets. It was impressive to witness. And then they were off to eat and get ready to rock and roll.

We crowded into the Hemlock Tavern for an intimate show, and unfortunately missed Sean’s set but got there just as Lost In The Trees was finalizing their set-up, and we had a blast. It had been a while since we had been to a concert, and not just a live cover band playing at a bar somewhere, and it was a great show. Ari, Emma, Genevieve, Leah, TJ, Mark, and Drew (not bad, I remember all the names) were utterly fantastic up on stage, and for the last few songs of the night, they abandoned the stage and joined the crowd to play in the middle of an appreciate audience.

The video recording is dark, but you can still hear the music well (the song is called “Time Taunts Me”), and get a sense of their style, and are hopefully encouraging to go and buy some of their music because they’re great.

And now I’m up early, waiting for the band to come out of their post-show slumber, and I’m gonna make them all pancakes before they take off to Portland. Oh, there goes someone, wrapped in just a towel, to take a shower. Time to start heating up coffee.

Some people might think that we’re crazy for letting a group of musicians that we’ve never met sleep in our house. In the skeptic’s eye, we were begging to be ripped off. They could have come and stolen our stuff, or even our dog ,or beaten us up or anything. And there’s a slight, teentsy-tiny, practically non-existent chance that that could have actually happened. But what kind of a way is that to live? Why spend so much time distrusting and fearful? You miss out on fantastic experiences, and close the doors to human connection before they even come into clear sight. I’d rather trust everyone and be ripped off occasionally, than trust no one and always be right by always finding reasons for my distrust.

Any other passing travelers–bands, backpackers, honeymooners, lost souls, found souls–don’t hesitate to ask if you can crash at our place when you come through San Francisco. After the generosity that we experienced while abroad, we will be paying it forward for a long time.

Today marks a special day. Its our last day in Dublin. But it’s more than that. It’s the last day in a foreign city. Tomorrow we head back to the States, New York to be exact, ready to embark on a new journey. Our life back home.

I know Mark tends to be the spiritual, reflective one while I post all the pretty pictures. But for my last post I want to make it a little extra special for our friends, old and new, that decided to follow us on our 4-month adventure around the world.

But this post is actually dedicated to my husband. While we walked to the Dublin Lighthouse today I was reflecting on the fact that I wouldn’t be here in this world if it weren’t for him and his unconditional love for me. You see, I was very very sick for half of 2009 and a lot of 2010. I suffered from a major depression that stole from me my love for life. I was suicidal for a very long time. I was hospitalized in a psych ward for 23 days. I describe this period of my life as “hell on earth.” But Mark. Oh Mark. He was by my side every single day.

While I hold his hand today with our matching All Stars (he is not too happy about this) everything feels different. We have been together for close to 11 years but the love and admiration I have for him today feels completely new.

This was never meant to be just a fun trip to get away and see the beauty of this world. This was a healing journey for the two of us. Getting sick changed everything…for the better I should add.

“How is that possible?” you might ask. I am a better person having suffered through a mental illness. I am a more loving daughter, wife and I know one day mother. I wouldn’t change a single thing. My past led me to today. And today I have a new-found love and appreciation for myself and my life. A new way of seeing the world and the people in it.

So my love, this post is just for you Mark. Thank you for being by my side in sickness and in health, through the good times and the bad, while we were laying on the beaches of Indonesia or with the beautiful girls at Daraja… you are my everything.

I’m looking forward to our many journeys in life. Holding hands, of course :)

Love,
Your Wife

PS. If you want to hear more about our life story Mark is wrapping up our memoir. It’s going to be titled “Where The Road Meets The Sun”. How very fitting! You didn’t think that was by accident, do you?

Posted by: Mark | April 12, 2011

Adventures in Milkshakelandia

On December 20, 2010, the night before our trip’s departure, we met our friends Wendy, Celine, Lee, and Paul at Mel’s Diner on Van Ness in San Francisco for dinner. I, of course, ordered a milkshake. A giant milkshake, the kind that you get served with the silver milkshake cup so that you can really stuff yourself on milkshake. It was glorious.

I have searched the world for substitutes, but nothing compares to that good old fashioned American style milkshake, served in an absurdly large proportion and in a silver cup. Sure, I’ve sipped milkshake imitators while taking in the views of the Indian Ocean in Bali, and even slurped down milkshakes in Kenya that were so thick they were basically ice cream, but I had yet to find the milkshake that made me feel at home.

Until today. Walking back to our hotel through Dublin, I passed an “Eddie Rocket,” which is basically the Irish version of Johnny Rocket. I didn’t hesitate. My heart was set on one task only, and that was to find a milkshake.

Introducing…Adventures in Milkshakelandia!

It’s worth it to click on the photo and zoom in to really enjoy the facial expressions. Till we meet again, milkshake!

I will be given a swift kick to the shins if I don’t publicly acknowledge the entirely collaborative creative experience that was Milkshakelandia. It was Giulia’s idea to over-document the experience, and my idea to turn it into a comic, and in the end we have the first true Mark AND Giulia blog post.

Posted by: Giulia | April 10, 2011

It’s all in the details…

I spent the last 10 days with my parents in Italy. I really believe my mom must of been a famous interior designer/painter in a previous life. She has always loved doing art, but her passion for painting started 10 years ago when I moved out of the house to go to college. She started having more time in her schedule and when she moved back to Rome she started taking art classes. Now, all our walls in our houses in Rome and Pian Di Scò, a tiny town in Tuscany where my mom spent her summers growing up, are covered with murals. I absolutely love it! She has an amazing ability to get inspiration all around her and create some really fun pieces. I wanted to share with you some of my favorites. This is more for me to remember her when I go back to San Fran.

Recreated Mona Lisa Full of Vibrant Colors

The beautiful Audrey in black and white

Of course a Vespa had to be in the mix!

A mural depicting what would of been the view on the other side of this wall.

Wish I was as talented as my beautiful mama!

Posted by: Mark | April 8, 2011

Climbing Il Duomo

Just a glance at those paintings and you too would want to see yourself this way, you’d want to believe that you’re different from all others, a unique, special and particular human being
-Orhan Pamuk, “My Name Is Red”

I climbed to the top of Il Duomo in Firenze. Because my wife is Italian and because I’m a bit of a snob I refuse to call the city “Florence.” It is a staggering structure at 91m tall. It dominates the Florentine landscape. Roberto Longhi wrote of Il Duomo that it “climbs steeply to the skies, [and is] wide enough to cover the whole of the Tuscan people with its great shadow.”

I am afraid of heights. I constantly try to combat this fear, but I can’t deny that it is there. Over the years, my fear has escalated to such an extent that at times it is almost crippling. But I still try to push myself to do things like climb the 463 steps of Il Duomo.

I went by myself and slowly climbed, trapped behind a slow-moving German couple and in front of chatty American students who said “like” way too many times. On the climb, I constantly pondered how, and maybe more importantly why, the architect Brunelleschi had the whole thing built without scaffolding. No scaffolding! Incredible.

Firenze was the nucleus of the Italian Renaissance and stands today as ground zero for the appreciation of the Italian Renaissance. Without Firenze, there is no Renaissance; without the Renaissance, who cares about Firenze.

Il Duomo perfectly encapsulates the Renaissance’s humanistic emphasis on the grand abilities of man. To build a dome is impressive; to build a 91m tall dome is staggering; to build a 91m tall dome without scaffolding is brilliant and terrifying, adjectives we should reserve for God, but in this case we must appropriate to the makers of the building. I felt like I was climbing towards heaven as I climbed the dome. Maybe this Duomo was the Tower of Babel.

Renaissance art and architecture were almost entirely made for the Church because the Church was the only entity with enough money and clout to commission such massive endeavors. The result is that on the surface, Renaissance art is extremely religious. Il Duomo was built for the glory of God. But I think the true purpose of the art, consistent with the philosophy of humanism, is really the glory of man.

“We are special creatures!” so boasts Il Duomo as it draws the admiring gaze of any who see it. “We are the center of the world! We can create!” Michelangelo’s David proudly says that same thing as he stands there, perfectly formed, the paragon of human achievement. “We are spectacular.”

In the modern world we don’t waste the time pretending that we build to glorify God. We build to glorify individual achievement, and are fairly overt about it. (eg Trump Towers, Rockefeller Center, etc.) Renaissance artists had to be more crafty. They glorified human achievement but disguised it as religion, for example by subtly including portraits of their generous patrons into frescoes depicting the life of Jesus.

I shivered nervously at the top of Il Duomo and looked over the railing at the bustle of Firenze below. I spent most of my experience in silence, but couldn’t help but to tell the two Brazilian people next to me that I was terrified of heights, and I mean terrified, and I was really scared to be up here. They patted my hand and said, “Just try to enjoy the view.”

Two American students nearby discussed which was the best phrasing to use in their Facebook status to describe that they were at the top of Il Duomo. Blackberries in hand, they pondered how to publicly include themselves in the creation of Il Duomo. This was nothing new. The passageways up to the top are drenched with the graffiti of people who wanted their presence to be known. “Michael Was Here” and “I Love Tricia” can be found everywhere, even though there are plenty of signs that clearly prohibit writing on the walls. When Il Duomo was built, patrons had their names carved in marble. Over the last few decades, visitors have scribbled their names on the wall in haste. The 21st century equivalent has things even further simplified: we update Facebook.

I think the students went with something fairly bland and literal for their updates, like “I’m at the top of the Dome in Florence!” Status Updated. They were now a part of Il Duomo’s history.

In fact, updating Facebook is kind of like building a dome. Brunelleschi built his Duomo so that he could be remembered. We update facebook and I write on this blog so people will remember me, and admire my ideas and thoughts and smile at my pictures. Modern social media allows all of us to very proudly reiterate our existence, so, as the Pamuk quote states at the beginning of this, we can feel “unique, special, and particular.”

It’s worth considering what is so wrong with glorifying man in the first place? What is so wrong with tweeting our thoughts and forcing cathedrals into the sky and breathing underwater and doing things that we were never created to do? I don’t actually know what is wrong about it, but I know that at times I have a gut feeling that it’s wrong. I don’t know if we should believe that we are the be all and end all, as so much of our behavior suggests. But I have to admit that I’m attracted to the concept. We are in fact special. We do in fact create. We are in fact spectacular. We are worth fighting for, saving, and admiring. Right?

But we humans, us centers of the universe, are all impermanent, so says the Buddha. We will die, and even if we have gorgeous tombs in the walls of the Santa Croce, we will just be decomposing bodies under slowly wilting marble. Even the great Duomo will some day crumble, and the countless signatures scribbled onto the walls will be lost in the rubble. The Tuscan landscape will lose its Duomo, and its rolling green hills will also shift and change. Because all is impermanent.

Maybe that’s why we so frantically try to build and create. We fear our impermanence, and try to cope by doing everything possible to build ourselves to last. Did you know that the Library of Congress is archiving Twitter? I mean all of it. The mind-numbing, the brilliant, the sad, the humorous, all of it will be archived for as long as the archive can last. How strange, and yet how heroic.

Maybe, in a subtle twist of irony, all of these creations do in fact glorify God after all, as they were originally intended to do. Not deliberately, but they capture us as we attempt to mimic God and fight our impermanence. Il Duomo has lasted much longer than Brunelleschi has, and so we still admire him and speak his name. The Library of Congress will preserve my tweets.

But in truth, what we create is still ultimately fleeting, just with a more distant expiration date.

In short, our attempts to defy impermanence end up serving to further illuminate it.

Posted by: Mark | April 7, 2011

Time Travel

We left Kenya in the middle of the night. Our plane rose into the air at 3am. We fell asleep and woke up in Istanbul…a new destination, a new continent, and as I grew to appreciate, a new time period.

Kenya, like much of Africa, has been unfairly left behind much of the developed world in terms of its basic infrastructure. I have seen my fair share of developing countries, but Kenya, the only African country I have visited for an extensive period of time, has stood out. Even the nice places in Kenya are antiquated, and I don’t mean that in the way that charming medieval churches are antiquated. I mean it in that electricity is unreliable and there is no clean drinking water. That kind of antiquated.

To further explain myself: there are only three building materials that you’ll see in Kenya—dirt, wood, and stone. You have to dig deep into the fancy heart of Nairobi to find steel and drywall. We spent the bulk of our time on Daraja’s campus in one of the many volunteer bands (circular huts) which have been designed to accommodate mzungu visitors. We had a western toiled that didn’t flush, but at least we could sit down. Our shower water was a bit murky since it was pumped from the river, but at least we didn’t have to walk down to the river with our buckets to gather our daily ration of water. We only had electricity for 4 hours a day, but at least we didn’t have to spend the day looking for firewood to light our home at night.

I make these comparisons because the latter is how many rural Kenyans live. It feel like life is out of a different century. With the exception of a few modern conveniences, like overcrowded matatus (mini-vans) and cell phones, the lives are Kenyans are from a bygone era.

There is the obvious unfairness to point out in all of this, and the profound question of “How has humanity gone so far astray that we force so many people to live like this?” On the other hand, there is the temptation to romanticize the poverty, to say cheerfully that the Kenyans smiles through their woes, and only if only us over-fed and over-stimulated Americans could be so happy and grateful. Both of these are interesting strains of thought to pursue, but I’m not going to follow them to their conclusions. I’m more interested in time travel.

When we woke up in Istanbul, it really felt like we had traveled through time. We got used to our Kenyan life. And life in Istanbul felt decades if not centuries ahead.

In Istanbul, we were re-absorbed by the 21st century as we stayed with our friends Goknur and Orhan, an infinitely cool couple. We got to their cozy apartment and they were playing cool music. They both have cool jobs, and take cool pictures of each other, and talk about cool things. I noticed out on the streets of the city that smartphones were ubiquitous. We had good, reliable WiFi and a hot shower whenever we wanted them. In fact, on one night Giulia and I did what I think many 21st century-ites do with increasing regularity: we watching a movie while we played on our phones. Multi-screening at its finest.

The differences were very real, but I don’t mean to disparage Kenya. I absolutely loved it there. I had the time and peace to put serious emphasis on the development of my personal spirituality. The month at Daraja almost became a retreat for me, and the girls nurtured my searching through their examples of staunch faith. A stand-out moment was when we all interrupted class to pray, and then dance, when rain started falling. It was the first rain in 3 months, offering relief from an increasingly challenging drought, and we rejoiced together. I’ve never felt so grateful for rain before.

I don’t know in which century to classify Kenya—18th? Early 19th?—but it is a time dedicated to the spirit. School and family are important pursuits, but everything is trumped by God. Live gracefully, love fully, and praise God endlessly. When you drive through the country, you see countless trucks with bible quotes emblazoned on their rigs. The girls’ biblical knowledge is staggering, far surpassing my own, and I’m a guy who takes a bit of pride in my biblical knowledge.

The 21st century, by comparison—in Istanbul, Manhattan, San Francisco, and everywhere else—seems to me to be dedicated to creativity and personal expression. Technology has unleashed our dependency upon memorizing, which is still greatly emphasized in Kenyan education where Google is very, very far from the students’ fingertips, and has democratized creativity. We all can publish. We all can share pictures. We all can reach an audience. And so we do.

The guidebook says you only need about 45 minutes to fully explore the Hagia Sophia. Orhan, Goknur, Giulia, and I spent a solid 2 hours there, each of us pursuing our own independent artistic expression of our experience. The building was built for the enjoyment of a very privileged few, and it was alive and teeming with optimistic artists, each hoping to capture the mood as it struck them.

I think above all else, putting the pro’s and con’s of the material comforts aside, this is the most striking difference between these two places and times. One focuses on the spirit; the other focuses on creativity. Both are noble pursuits. And of course, both can be found in other places as well. I am painting in broad strokes and making sweeping generalizations, but I find them to be mostly true. The Old World is for the soul, and the New World is for the creative spark.

It has me wondering. How many artists have been left unexplored and undiscovered simply because of access? Have we buried Kenya’s Picasso under the rubble of inopportunity? And on the other hand, how many present-day Thomas Aquaineses have ignored their spiritual thirst because of modernity?

As a history teacher, I sometimes dream of visiting other time periods. For example, I would love to have seen 12th century Toledo, a hodge podge of trade, intellect, and religious diversity. But I can’t tell which era I actually want to be in, and not just visit, like Bill and Ted did in their time-travelling phone booth.

Of course, as the Flaming Lips would say…”All we have is now. All we ever have is now.” Point taken. I guess it’s up to me to decipher what now means, both spiritually and creatively.

Posted by: Mark | April 1, 2011

Give Me The Fucking Money, Honey

I’m not a big shopper. I typically am dragged through markets, trying to make the best of them, but for the most sake, I don’t love rummaging through little knick-knack stores looking for gifts or tokens or trinkets or chotchkies or whatever the hell you want to call them. And here on our travels, we’ve been through a lot of markets.

So it says a lot when I claim that I had the best shopping experience of my life in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.

We were casually walking through the Grand Bazaar when a man with a beaming smile approached us and asked, “Are you Americans?”

“Yes, we are Americans.”

“Well I’ve got a secret about Americans. But I can’t say it out loud. Come here, I’ll tell you the secret.” He grabbed Giulia’s arm and led us to his shop, and with an even broader smile and a wide flourish of arms, displayed his tea sets. “Americans love to buy tea sets. That’s the secret.”

He was balding with his hair greasily pulled back, his face was dominated by a big crooked nose, and he had just enough lump and sag through his mid-section to give him the exact appearance of what I would expect a merchant in the Grand Bazaar to look like.

“Which one will you buy?”

We had no intention of buying anything.

“That one looks pretty nice,” we pointed out together.

“That’s because it is very nice.” He immediately took out one of the tea cups, and exclaimed, “very durable. Very strong!” and then proceeded to bang the tea cup against the floor. He then propped it up and stood on the tea cup, holding onto our shoulders for balance. “Very strong!”

We were all laughing by this time. He knew he had us hooked. He had us hooked from the first minute.

“How much is this?”

(I’m going to invent prices because we are planning on giving the tea set as a gift, so bear with me on the fictional numbers)

“200.”

“200? No way!” Giulia crossed her arms stubbornly. She has become a good bargainer over the last few months. In her estimation, she has become the world’s greatest bargainer. I wouldn’t go that far, but she definitely has gotten us some good deals. “We will only pay 80.”

Charlie, as we discovered the merchant’s name to be, was already putting the tea set in a bag for us. “80? Get out of here.”

But he still was preparing the set. He went and got us a set of spoons–”no extra charge for the spoons, you’re getting a good deal!”–and even a box of Turkish tea, and placed them all in a bag. “200,” he said proudly as he handed us the bag.

“80.”

The conversation went into the rapid-fire of just numbers.

“150.”

“80.”

“120.”

“80.”

“85.”

“80.”

Now for those who are offended by indecent language, I apologize for what follows. I am only trying to accurately portray the experience.

“85. That’s it. Just give me the fucking money, honey.” In reading this, Charlie might sound hostile. But he was giddy like a school boy through the entire exchange, obviously delighted by how much we were delighted by his sales methods. At this final declaration I truly lost it, bent over, full-on guffawing, which is an awful sounding word but a great description of what I was doing.

“Done. I’m sold. This was fantastic.” I took out the money and handed it over, happily. We were getting a nice tea set and had a fantastic experience.

Giulia was still insistent. “80.”

“Honey, he’s giving me the fucking money. 85.” Charlie’s smile had shifted to one of triumph–he had made his sale, he had earned my enthusiastic support, and his confidence was through the roof.

“Let’s have some tea.”

He walked over and buzzed a buzzer and ordered 3 teas. There are tea porters that scurry through the market to keep the vendors well caffeinated, and apparently, to occasionally seal a successful transaction. Within moments we had piping hot tea, and pulled up three stools in front of his shop.

Charlie took out a tall stack of looseleaf paper. He wasn’t done with us.

“You are nice people. I need some help. This guy gave me these English sayings and I don’t know if they are right.” He handed us each a stack, and looked through some of the sayings that were particularly bothersome for him.

“Oh, for example, this one. ‘Do you have enough balls to buy this?’ Should I say, ‘do you have enough balls to buy this?’ or should I say, ‘do you have the balls to buy this?’”

“‘Enough‘ is definitely better,” I offered quickly. He made a few corrections on the paper, then looked up and asked earnestly, “What about a woman? Can I ask a woman if she has enough balls? Because, you know, she does not have balls.”

I did in fact know that women do not have balls.

“It depends. Young people like us would find that very funny,” Giulia explained. “But be careful if you are speaking to older people.”

“Thank you honey.”

Pause as we sipped our tea. The tea was very good.

“What about this one. ‘Are you looking for a piece of shit?’”

“Charlie, why would you ask someone if they are looking for a piece of shit?”

“Because if they are looking for a piece of shit, I will send them to another store. I only sell quality.” He was entirely serious as he made this declaration.

“Ok, well then yes, that question makes sense. ‘Are you looking for a piece of shit? Then go somewhere else.’”

“Perfect, thank you.”

Meanwhile, Giulia was flipping through the newspaper that Charlie had in his shop. Our host, our wedding photographer, was cousins with an actress who the night before was up for the award for the Best Actress in the Turkish Oscars. No kidding. We went to bed before Goknur (our host) got home from the after-parties, and so Giulia was dying, and I mean literally dying, to find out if she had won. (The paper was written in Turkish, so we had to wait until we got home to find out that unfortunately, she did not win the award.)

We went through another few memorable phrases, phrases I can’t imagine an American shopkeeper ever using, and tweaked the grammar. Phrases like, “You don’t look like you have enough money to shop here,” “Don’t get stressed out by little things like the price. You are on vacation!” and “Don’t worry if your wife doesn’t like it.”

We finished our tea, laughing heartily throughout. When we were done, Charlie jumped up and started walking away. “Come with me!” he called over his shoulder after he was halfway down the corridor. Not knowing where we were going, we hurried after him, to find ourselves in a carpet shop. “This is the best carpet shop in Istanbul. You buy here.” Charlie shook our hands, took a bow, and walked away, carrying his smile with him.

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