Travel Log: General Sherman

I stopped in one of the last towns to fill up on gas and get supplies–which consisted mainly of sandwich bread, two cans of tuna, some fruit and peanut butter–before starting into the mountains, into Sequoia National Park, where I’d sleep for two nights.

Desert Town - California - Central Valley - Quinby & Co
Small town in the desert, where I got a quick breakfast.

 

After getting to my campground and setting up my tent, I set out to see General Sherman, the largest tree in the world.  I reached the trailhead and made my way into the grove, warm and stuffed with tourists wandering and laughing and taking pictures. I heard babies and toddlers crying and whining, and kids sprinting up and down the trail playing tag and accidentally photobombing the pictures of strangers. I continued and noticed the larger crowds gathering to snap a picture of something in the distance, still obstructed from my view, but something I knew could only be the General Sherman Tree.

It stood mightily at the center, surrounded by excited onlookers who looked like ants by comparison.  It was crowded with admirers and yet it seemed strangely alone. A silent sage. A wise man who’d seen generations come and go, had witnessed all the great moments of human history from the very spot upon which it stood. I even pictured some legend of the silver screen, growing old though still appearing ageless, encountering a crowd of photographers or tourists taking their picture, but just taking it in stride like a professional. They’re no stranger to the attention, after all.  They’ve seen it all before.

General Sherman Tree - Sequoia National Park - Sequoia - California - National Park - Quinby & Co.
General Sherman Tree, and the ants at its feet; Sequoia National Park, CA

I understood and appreciated the truth that trees, like all other plants on earth, are living breathing organisms. And the more I looked at General Sherman, a tree more than 3,000 years old, the more I appreciated the relevance of these truths which concern all living things on the planet. The more I looked at it, the more I connected with it.

Still I felt like it was looking way past me, somewhere far beyond where I stood; and that despite its age and wisdom and experience far superior to my own, it too was still something of a lost soul searching and still unsatisfied with everything it had so far understood its purpose to be on this earth. It was the king of these mountains, but it was still subservient to a higher order it didn’t fully understand.

A soft rain fell, more like a mist than a rain. It probably only lasted a minute, but it seemed longer, as if the rain had slowed down time. In that moment the surrounding tourists vanished from sight and left the two of us alone, facing eachother.

The rays of the sun beamed in through the forest, shining down on us both, revealing the tree in all its eternal youth and ancient power, as the reclusive angel, having kept its vigil for centuries way up here in this shadowy grove, high up in the mountains.

We were pilgrims, old and young. Angel and man. Man and angel. Guardian angel, maybe. Brothers.  In that moment, we were no longer separate from each other.  We never had been.  There I stood, once again remembering something I seemed to know long ago.

General Sherman - General Sherman Tree - Sequoia National Park - Sequoia - California - National Park - Quinby & Co.
General Sherman; Sequoia National Park, CA

It was the first time in a long time that I’d felt this way about anything in nature. It wouldn’t be the last. Unbeknownst to me, an entire network existed, scattered far across the wilderness of America, and farther still, across the Atlantic Ocean and out to the far eastern reaches of Europe.  It took the form of people I’d meet, and the many beautiful things I’d see along the way.

It was ocean and sky, woman and man, living and passed on.  With them I felt connected in common cause: that each of us might reach the realization of love and respect for all living things.  An understanding of our ongoing, unfailing connection to one another.

I remembered something from my early days in the church that made more sense to me now than it did before.  As it was in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be.  United in one breath, one beating heart.

Kaweah River - Lodgepole Campground - Sequoia National Park - California - Sequoia - Quinby & Co.
Kaweah River at Lodgepole Campground; Sequoia National Park, CA

The thought didn’t occur to me at the time, standing in the shadow of General Sherman and the mighty sequoia.  It only does now, as I recall the story and wonder how it might sound to someone reading this. Truth be told, prior to this experience, I wasn’t much of an outdoors person.  I liked to be outside as much as the next guy, but I’d never really camped before at all, and I’d never done much hiking beyond the typical neighborhood hikes in and around LA.

I’d never spent much time in the mountains, amongst the trees whispering at night.  I’d never lay quiet, listening for melodies beside the creek in the early evening.  I’d never breathed in the rush of the river beneath the new morning and the slow, rising sun. 

Now, that was all about to change.

General Sherman - General Sherman Tree - Sequoia National Park - Sequoia - California - National Park - Ren Michael - Quinby & Co.
The tree is my brother. Me and General Sherman; Sequoia National Park, CA

In-Brief: On Parks and Wildness

Save Our Home, Save Ourselves

I recently applied to a job that asked me to select the best pic of myself in the outdoors. It sounds like it could be an exciting one, a job where I’d be spending time in some of my favorite places, or one place depending on how you look at it. That is, the National Parks or in the broader sense, in nature.

To that point, I’ve come to see them less as individual places and it more as one larger whole.  Our planet.  I like that approach more.    

It’s hard to say which picture could ever be the best, but this is the one I felt like posting–taken almost exactly four years ago.

Ren Michael - South Kaibob Trail - Grand Canyon - Grand Canyon National Park - Arizona - National Park - Quinby & Co.
Ren Michael on the South Kaibob Trail, Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

Much has happened since then both in my life and throughout the world, and I’ve been fortunate to have gone on many adventures in the time in between. Hopefully I’m a strong sum of those experiences, as each was its own unique reminder of my connection to both land and people.

I’m not unique in that respect, since I know many who have turned to the outdoors and felt a similar way. Restored, replenished, readjusted to the point that their day-to-day ambitions either suddenly feel silly, or are just given renewed purpose in light of the bigger realization that they are a part of something bigger than themselves and their possessions.

While I can only hope it’s enough to help us recognize the importance of preserving these places—since all of us deserve to experience the land in equal measure—above all, I hope we each begin doing our part in preserving the integrity of our environment, for the health of our planet, our one true home, for our physical health, and ultimately for our sanity.

I look back on recent years and I think about people marching against gun violence, or against corporate greed on Wall Street.  I think about people marching for Black lives and for our government’s full recognition of their humanity. 

And I think about two weeks ago, when everyday I stepped out and saw a smoke-filled sky blotting out the sun due to devastating regional wildfires.  In the back of my mind, the fire’s reach had far exceeded the limits of the west coast where I make my home.  Indeed, the larger symbolism was hard to miss.      

The issues of violence, racial justice, environmental justice and economic inequality are, I believe, inter-related.  The dangers of climate change for example pose the most immediate threat to Black and Brown communities, a disproportionate number of which fall below the poverty line in the United States and throughout the world–a reality most clearly demonstrated in food and water shortages not just in third-world countries, but here at home.  

Tackling the threat of climate change will not automatically close the gap on income inequality or accomplish comprehensive racial justice.  Still you cannot adequately address problems in your house when your house is, quite literally, on fire; and truly, the fight for a healthy planet has the power to bring people of different backgrounds and beliefs together, likely more so than any movement we’ve ever witnessed.  More to the point, it’s the understanding of our interconnectedness that will ultimately save us in virtually every domestic and global conflict we experience; and nowhere is that realization more critical than in the necessary global effort to mitigate climate change by cultivating a cleaner and more sustainable world for all people.  

The act of getting outdoors, spending time in our public lands and in the broader wilderness of the world has the unique power to reinforce the fundamental reality of our interdependence and dependence on the land.  It’s just one of many reasons why it’s so important they stay preserved and protected.    

I often reflect on whether it will just be an ongoing battle for every generation between people committed to preserving our wilderness for the public benefit, and the people who seek to exploit the land for their own profit. 

I hope that it won’t.  Maybe the dual threats of climate change and a global pandemic will convince people of their stake in each other’s health and the health of our planet, and the influence will carry over through generations to come.      

I only know that the need for such a realization has never been so urgent.      

As for our wilderness, and it’s unmatched beauty and healing power, for now there’s little more I can say, other than to simply go, as soon as you can, and experience it for yourself.

Let’s please take care of our home.  I am committed to doing my part and I hope you will join me.  The Sierra Club is one of our nation’s most enduring and influential forces for environmental action and awareness.  I’ve been a member for a couple years now and I urge you to consider joining and lending your support as well. 

Let’s get to work.   

 

*Take Action –> www.sierraclub.org

Friends of the Earth Action https://foeaction.org/

Natural Resources Defense Council https://www.nrdc.org/

National Parks Foundation https://www.nationalparks.org/

Talking About Political Correctness

I used to complain about political correctness, even though I’d never actually met anyone who shamed me or embarrassed me due to my incorrectness. I wonder then whether most of the people who complain about it are just insecure people?  

The growing consensus seems to be that everybody everywhere takes everything so personal all the time, which may yet be true.

For starters, the complaint seems far more warranted, say, with respect to professional comedy where part of what makes a joke funny at all is it’s irreverence, its breach of political correctness. If a comedian were constantly wanting to avoid offending people, that comedian would likely lose inspiration and give up the whole thing. 

Comedy thrives on irreverence. Even so, the best comedians still grasp the basic concept of knowing how to read a room.

When people look at their life and really think about the number of times they’ve been slapped on the wrist by a friend, family member or acquaintance for using the wrong word or making an insensitive remark, is that number actually few and far between, if at all?

The way I see it, political correctness is a fact of life and always has been, no different from any other form of etiquette that will change depending on where you are in the world. The only difference now is that it’s been given a name, and stigmatized in the one sphere of public life where it’s probably essential–politics.   

I wonder then whether people who complain about having their head bitten off for breaching that etiquette, who yearn for some comprehensive, universally agreed upon rubric for what’s ok and what’s not, and who then further expect it to never change, ever again—at least while they’re alive—are simply operating in some other reality; as if anything like that ever existed at all within the long span of human history and the diversity of cultures that make up this planet, let alone the ones that make up this country.   

They’ll mention how it used to be different years ago, how somethings were ok and others were not—as if the ideal sort of history of language and expression is a static one.

People once used words like ‘thee’ and ‘thou’, words like ‘colored’, just as men once wore stockings and wigs out in public. And yet if you spoke or dressed that way today, you’d look like a jackass. Why? Because things eventually fall out of fashion. And yes, it might be a phenomenon but if we can’t accept it, then we might want to find ourselves another planet.

The complaint ignores the fundamental truth that language changes because people change.  It ignores the fact that larger, free-thinking societies are quite naturally heterogenous.  The bigger they are, the more diverse they will likely become, with each community and sub-community developing their own customs and standards of decorum. Political correctness, then, at the very least seems to represent that basic truth in the matter of how we converse with one another, when each of us comes from a different background and our own sphere of personal experience.  

I’ve noticed that people who travel a lot typically have no problem understanding this, because they’ve spent a good amount of time in communities other than their own. They learned to adapt, and often a part of them even enjoys navigating the complexities of different cultures.

They don’t get upset over the fact that they have to learn a new language, they embrace it as an opportunity. If something changes in the country or community they visit and they have to adapt yet again, they don’t dismiss the people as petty and refuse to budge any further.

They are often driven by an appetite for learning new things, and a wonder before all the intricacies of the world and its many points of view.

They don’t get hung up on the possibility of making a mistake here and there, because they’ve already accepted the high possibility that they will make one sooner or later.

However, that leads to another point of discussion.

Could those who are hip to the changing tides of fashion be more polite about it? Do they have to be such a dick about it? Is being woke, for example, nothing more than a matter of bragging rights, one that ultimately involves shaming all those who are out of the loop?

I’ve never encountered anyone like that, but if and when I do, I don’t think it will surprise me. I used to complain about political correctness because I’d automatically bought into the notion that these types of people were everywhere and running absolutely wild…even though I never met one.

I think it had to do with insecurity. My own fear of making a fool of myself led to a defense mechanism against the enemy I had never actually seen. If these woke people exist–and I do think there are a few out there–then I imagine they are likely motivated by the same fear. Fear of not being hip, fear of looking like an idiot, or just someone out of step with the times. An outsider.

I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with being ignorant. I think the real pity is either burrowing yourself in your ignorance, or over-compensating in the direction of righteousness or enlightenment, all for the sake of never being wrong and being some kind of insider.

Personally I think it’s more fun being a little bit of both, having one foot on the inside and another on the out.

It’s one reason I like to travel.  I like knowing that I can adapt easily enough to changing surroundings, and I know doing that involves a flexibility of perspective, a willingness to listen and an actual openness to being wrong every once in a while.

It’s something I’d forgotten about myself, but I think it’s a good lesson for all of us to remember. It might make life a little more complicated now and then, but with the slightest tweak in perspective, if we can set aside our ego, it might also make life a whole lot more enriching.

In Focus: What is the Green New Deal?

These days we’re hearing more and more about the Green New Deal and rightfully so.  Given the devastating wildfires along the west coast, which only seem to grow in number and intensity each year in proportion to rising global temperatures, we think that a Green New Deal sounds great right about now. 

But what exactly is it?  What does it entail and is it practical?  We did a little research and were able to iron out some nuts and bolts, say, for your added consideration when casting your vote this year.  So let’s take a look.

The Green New Deal is a congressional resolution, essentially the most comprehensive plan for mitigating climate change and reducing income inequality put to paper by our government so far. 

You can read the official document here.

It was drafted last year by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Sen. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, both Democrats, and it takes its name from the New Deal of the 1930s, a series of programs and regulations enacted by President Roosevelt as a means to help the United States recover from the Great Depression. 

It emphasizes that climate change and income inequality are inextricably linked, and that the proposals would cultivate a cleaner environment and create new jobs. 

These proposals include a sweeping national mobilization effort that would be implemented over a ten-year period, one that includes sourcing 100 percent of our power demand from renewable energy and zero-emission resources (e.g. wind, water, solar). 

It calls for the overhaul of our transportation system to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector as much as possible–by investing in zero-emission vehicle infrastructure and manufacturing, in affordable and accessible public transit, and in a high-speed rail system.

Additionally, the resolution says it’s the duty of the federal government to provide job training for new workers, particularly those families and communities who currently rely on their jobs in fossil fuels.

 

The Details

But is it feasible?  Can it actually work?  That’s where things seem to get a little tricky.  

Almost 80 percent of America’s power still comes from fossil fuels, a resource that is relatively cheap and plentiful.  Another problem is that the cost of these new initiatives would indeed be expensive, though supporters argue that it’s a cost that would pay for itself in the long run.    

Additionally, as Republicans are equally quick to point out, the Green New Deal would involve a greater government presence in many facets of public life to adequately implement the standards necessary for curbing our greenhouse gas emissions.  In short, it would go against the common instincts and virtues intimately linked with modern American industry, namely less federal regulation and more privatization.  

Now to that point, one might hope that a global pandemic might shift the collective consciousness enough to translate into policy that actually reflects the popular sentiment that we’re all in this together.  After all, when it comes to climate change, that sentiment has never been so true.

The logistical obstacles most often mentioned are the costs and the ten-year timeline.  While the cost of reaching the goals outlined in the resolution would amount in the trillions, the cost of continued inaction would almost certainly amount to trillions more.

While technological experts agree that ten years might be too short a time to achieve the zero-carbon infrastructure outlined, they do agree that 20-25 years is more viable if we get to work now.  

 

Our Take

Something is better than nothing.  While the logistical dilemmas might be valid, specifically whether ten years is too short a time, the simple truth is that we need to try.  

Every time we hear about the threat of climate change–a threat, by the way, that is already here–we naturally begin talking about solutions.  And the solution is basically the same every time, involving each of us making individual sacrifices for a greater more common good.  The Green New Deal is essentially that very realization put to paper and hopefully, ultimately national policy.   

If the fundamental ideas of the Green New Deal seem far-fetched, then it says an awful lot more about us then it does about the ideas themselves.  To throw up our hands and say it’s all a fantasy is to say that we’re incapable of working together to promote the general welfare.

Of course any such notion is nonsense, and a person only needs to look at history to understand why. 

It’s very appropriate that the resolution borrows its name from the New Deal of the Depression.  Then as now, Americans were facing a cataclysmic event that had upended public life for several years, not to mention the looming threat of a second world war.  It begs the question of just how catastrophic things need to get here and now before ordinary people across this land recognize a similar sense of investment in one another.

Despite the logistical issues this new new deal, it’s still the most tangible form of action we have yet realized in addressing climate change through legislation. 

If we cannot succeed in every aspect of it, we might succeed with some if not most of it–and some is most certainly better than none. 

It’s a blueprint, at the very least, a guideline we can follow in the years to come for enacting policy that would provide for a more sustainable environment and equitable society.  Of course that’s no small thing, and we personally put more trust in those who see its value versus those who outrightly dismiss it.

Apocalyptic skies in San Francisco, CA. The lights are still on along the Bay Bridge, which are supposed to turn off after sunrise. Photo by Jessica Christian, San Francisco Chronicle

In Focus: The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2020

 

John Lewis has received a great deal of praise over the last several weeks following his passing in July. 

Everyone from former presidents and congressional leaders to the innumerable voices in social media have highlighted his legacy fighting for Civil Rights both on the streets as he marched with Martin Luther King and in the halls of Congress where he served as a Georgia Representative for over 30 years.

We’ve heard about his near-death encounter with Alabama State Troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge while peacefully marching for the equal right to vote, and his multiple arrests in the name of what he called getting into good, necessary trouble.

What few people may realize is how the very thing for which he fought has been jeopardized these last seven years, and how its restoration formed a driving cause to which he dedicated his remaining years as a legislator and citizen.  

In 2013, the Supreme Court removed a key component of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one that required districts with a history of voter suppression to get federal approval, or preclearance, before making any changes to their election laws.  

The Court ruled that the provision as it stood was based on antiquated data, essentially stating that the barriers which once disenfranchised Black voters in those districts no longer exist. If the Federal Government wanted to reclaim its oversight, the Court ruled, it would have to do so based on contemporary data.

So while the preclearance provision still exists, it’s no longer being applied, since the specific districts once required to get the federal approval are no longer required to do so.  Many of these districts are comprised of southern Black communities. 

“Today the Supreme Court stuck a dagger in the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” said Lewis at the time of the ruling. “They’re saying, in effect that history cannot repeat itself.  But I say come and walk in my shoes.”

While it’s true that the more overt forms of voter suppression are gone–such as poll taxes and literacy tests–many others still remain such as the restricting of early voting, the arbitrary re-drawing of district maps, strict voter identification laws, and the closing of over 1,600 polling places between 2012 and 2018 in those same districts once required to get federal approval before making any of these changes.  In Texas, 750 polling places closed following the Court ruling.  Most of these closures took place between the 2014 and 2018 mid-term elections.     

In December, the House passed a bill to restore the Voting Rights Act.  Congressman Lewis led the drafting of the bill, which was based on the updated data the Court had ruled necessary.  After the congressman’s passing in July, the bill was renamed in his honor–The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2020.    

It has yet to be passed in the Senate.  It currently sits on Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s desk, as it has for well over 200 days. 

Without a Democratic majority in the Senate, and while President Trump remains in office with his power to veto, it is unlikely the bill will be signed into law.  

Note: Election Day has yet to be declared a federal holiday, though it consistently falls on work days in which many Americans don’t have the time to get to their polling place and vote.  Colombus Day, meanwhile, is still a federal holiday.  Let’s all vote this year, yes?

 

Here are resources to take action.

https://support.naacp.org/a/john-lewis-voting-rights-act-passes-house”>https://support.naacp.org/a/john-lewis-voting-rights-act-passes-house

*The following data was compiled by the Leadership Conference Education Fund, a research arm of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights: http://civilrightsdocs.info/pdf/reports/Democracy-Diverted.pdf

 

 

Marinara Sauce and the Beginner’s Mind

It was a year ago today, around my birthday, when I was thinking a lot about Italy and the food I’ve loved since I was a boy.

I never thought of myself as much of a cook, but over the past year I’ve come to see that the fundamentals of cooking aren’t half as complicated as I thought. 

And while I can’t pinpoint exactly how or why it began with marinara sauce, I think it had something to do with travel. 

I was 18 years old when I first visited Italy and the experience changed my life.  For one thing, it was one of the first countries where I spent any good amount of time outside of the States.  Not only did it broaden my perspective, but it did so in a way that inspired a deeply-rooted trust in the basic goodness of people, a trust that continues to this day. 

Never in my life had I met people who were so consistently happy, helpful and welcoming; and the realization was enough to make me weep especially when complimented with a cuisine so unbelievably good that I was convinced I could feel the love of a people put into it with every bite. 

And then of course, there was the wine.  I’d never really sipped or much less enjoyed wine before, but that first night in Rome marked the beginning of a love affair which, as my best friends will certainly tell you, also lasts to this day.  Chianti remains my favorite wine.  Forever and always. 

Simply put, Italy is one of the most friendly, romantic, sexy, joyous and culturally rich countries I have ever visited in my life.  It was an incredible way to begin what I further hope is a long life of travel. 

So I guess I can tell you exactly why I began my cooking trip with marinara sauce–because every time I make it, I reflect on these experiences.  I think about the old ruins and cobblestone streets of Rome, the ornate fountains, the candlelit restaurants that feel like they might stay open all night.  I think about the hills and cypress trees of Tuscany, and the Arno River in Florence glowing in the moonlight.  I think about the history.  The ghosts of the Coliseum.  I think about the art.  The art!  This is the land of Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci.  The Renaissance.  The opera!  This is La Dolce Vita and the surrealist dreams of Fellini and the great masters of Italian cinema.  

It’s a place where time doesn’t exist except in all the right ways, and for all the right reasons, where you’ll see flashes of modernity amid the backdrop of ancient ruins.  For me, life is a flashing moment and one great big beautiful trip that ought to be celebrated and revered.  Italy is a place that encapsulates that realization, one that I hope is a realization for the rest of the world that encourages us to not take life for granted, but to cherish it and truly cherish one another.

Finally there’s one other reason why I appreciate making the sauce.  As it’s a reminder of that first experience in Italy, perhaps by extension, it also reminds me of the excitement in beginning something new, something that’s about to unfold in a way I can’t even begin to imagine.  

It’s the thrill of being a beginner, when everything is unknown and mysterious and you’re unburdened by any heavy expectation because, in the beginning, you’re too humble and open-minded to indulge it.  I try to maintain that mindset in everything that I do.  Though I’ve learned and experienced a lot in the time in between, I still like to consider myself an amateur.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Ren Michael - Marinara - Quinby & Co.
Molto Bene! Me in my kitchen, the night I first made the sauce.

Now, let’s get to the dish.  Like many people, Italian food is my favorite cuisine, and though I’m inclined to say that it’s more the intangibles that I appreciate the most–the warmth, the attitude, the lack of pretentiousness, the familial, convivial nature of the restaurants and the country, the red wine and all those wonderful things I mentioned earlier–if there is one constant that makes me enjoy Italian food as much as I do, I would have to say it all comes down to the sauce.  

Since I was new to cooking, I figured marinara was a simple enough dish to start, since it incorporated so many basic principles of cooking: using fresh ingredients, prepping the ingredients, using oils and garlic effectively, knowing how and when to add salt for taste, and then, my favorite part, the process of letting something cook slowly while you periodically check in to stir, maybe add more salt or get a better idea of how much time you have left.  Of course, you’ll likely add your own flourishes and personal touch with time, as I typically do myself, but here are the fundamentals.

Recipe:

1 can of whole tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)

1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil

7-10 cloves of garlic

A little basil

Salt

And that’s all you need my friends.

Directions:

Prep your garlic by slicing thin.  The thinner the better.

Crush the tomatoes by hand in a big bowl.

Add the oil to the pan and heat over medium, add the garlic and then let it sizzle, 1-2 minutes so it doesn’t burn.  When that happens, go ahead and add the crushed tomatoes.  I like to add a cup of water, which I’ve poured into the empty can of tomatoes to get any remaining bit of sauce.  

From here, just let it look and stir every twenty or thirty minutes.  Add salt to taste.  When it starts smelling real good and the water has absorbed, you’ll have your sauce, finish off with thinly sliced basil.  Buon appetito!  

 

 

Suggested music:

As you can see, we’ve provided our own curated Spotify playlist above.  If you’re looking for upbeat, Louis Prima is the way to go.  If you’re looking for romantic, try anything by the legendary tenor Luciano Pavarotti.  You might also consider the soundtrack to the Godfather. 

For some reason I enjoy listening to film scores when I cook.  Another great album is the score for Anatomy of a Murder by Duke Ellington.  If you’re looking for smooth, try Quincy Jones’ I Dig Dancers or The Quintessence, or Henry Mancini’s score to the Pink Panther.

 

Ren Michael - Signature - Quinby & Co.

 

 

Travel Log: Hearts in Half-Dome

I’ve been thinking a lot about Yosemite these last few months, living in quarantine and longing for the outdoors again, for wide open spaces.

In a lot of ways, my love for the National Parks began here, at least in the sense that I was suddenly aware of it, where I fully realized my devotion to the Parks and recognized them as a valuable and critical American Institution.  

While my connection to these places mostly began at Sequoia and Kings Canyon–which I’d visited in the days leading up to Yosemite–when I reached Glacier Point that afternoon and stood at the overlook, and I took in that sweeping panorama of the valley, of Half Dome, the Merced River, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, and Vernal and Nevada Falls; at that moment my love for the parks was ultimately affirmed.  I’d never seen anything so spectacular in my life. 

Ren Michael - Half Dome - Yosemite National Park - Yosemite Valley
Ren Michael at Glacier Point over looking Yosemite Valley; Yosemite National Park, CA

What’s uniquely striking is the silence, maybe because a sight like Yosemite Valley might lead one to imagine an accompanying sound of equal magnificence, some choir of angelic voices or maybe the low, grumbling of the earth churning from the infernal depths between here and the planet’s core.  Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, maybe?  Something, anything befitting a sight so wondrous.

And yet the only sound was silence save for the whispering echo of a waterfall.  As I looked out, I saw a blackbird soaring through the air, and I remember how for a few seconds at least, it seemed to be the loudest note anywhere around me, a reminder of how silence can allow for other smaller details to sing.

I remember Half Dome most of all, standing there like some benevolent king overlooking the valley and seeing far past the horizon. 

I have a tendency to think this way, to look at a natural landscape or a particular landmark and project an emotion onto it, or more specifically an archetype.  It’s a creative impulse that might raise a few eyebrows here and there, but it’s an impulse I don’t resist. 

Glacier Point Overlook - Yosemite National Park - Nevada Falls - Vernal Falls - Yosemite - Quinby & Co.
Glacier Point Overlook with Nevada and Vernal Falls visible in the distance just to the left of the tree in the foreground; Yosemite National Park, CA

I saw Half-Dome as an emissary having kept its vigil for eons, since the earth’s beginnings.  Might it be in tune with something more all-encompassing than we could fully understand in a single lifetime?  Or better yet, was it merely one of many reminders across the globe that we too have access to the deeper currents and vibrations guiding all of life on earth?  All we have to do is get out of our own way.

It’s incredible to think to myself, even as I write this morning, how a mass of rock can inspire that sort of contemplation.  That it can steady me through times of great sorrow and uncertainty, if I just remember it.  I don’t even need to be there and look at it.  Just knowing that it’s there anchors me.  What a gift that is. 

Nevertheless, I’m thankful I got to see it that day, and I am most definitely looking forward to getting back and experiencing Yosemite once again, discovering new corners of the park I haven’t seen before.  

That afternoon, I thought about all the generations of people who had come here before me and marveled at the same sight.  Had they experienced the same thoughts and feelings as I did?  I was sure there were many.  I felt tied to all those people, and proud to carry on what I suspected was a long human tradition.

As I finally turned around and began my descent down into the valley, I kept that sight with me, one that has been with me ever since, smiling to myself and maybe just half-aware of the fact that my life would never be the same again.

Ren Michael - Yosemite Valley - Half Dome - Yosemite National Park - Quinby & Co.
Valley views from Glacier Point. Half Dome is the taller formation on the right. // Yosemite National Park, CA

 

Ren Michael - Signature - Quinby & Co.

A personal statement

In recent years, as a rising number of voices far more qualified than my own began speaking out on racism from the standpoint of their personal experience, in movements like Black Lives Matter, I thought it more appropriate to speak less and listen more.

While it was mainly an act of deference, it also partly came from a fear that my own voice might further add to what I viewed as a dangerously monotonous chorus perpetuated by social media, a superficial facade of allegiance rooted less in justice and more in fashion, something I saw as alarmingly characteristic among people–particularly in the white community–in this rising technological and social media age.

While this point of view had some merit, it’s one I can no longer fully practice. I’ve had the opportunity to educate myself more deeply over the last few years, and while that experience certainly continues, my silence has reached it’s end.

I am a musician. I play American music. I often play what some people call Roots music. The term is typically used to group together folk music, jazz and the blues—art forms unique to America that shaped the music we enjoy today, an enduring tradition through which we continually express ourselves.

As such, it’s a useful conduit to understanding the broader history and dynamic character of this country. While all communities have shaped and continue to shape that character, it is critical to understand that Black people specifically laid down this country’s foundations—both literally and to a large extent, culturally. For me, a great part of understanding that foundation has been through the music they’ve given to America, and to the world.

This wasn’t an act of mere patronage on my part. It wasn’t done out of pity or wanting to better understand a community that I viewed as separate from my own, much less from me. It was an act of studying my country and by extension, myself. It’s been an intensely personal, at times painful, and ultimately gratifying experience.

Still, as I continue along this road, which often feels cyclical as well as linear, I’ve returned to one specific realization over the past few weeks. It’s simply impossible for me to continue playing American music without actively speaking out against racism. To do so would be a betrayal of my personal and artistic roots and to the generations of people who profoundly shaped our country and way of life, one that I celebrate every time I sing, or strum the guitar.

I recognize that they aren’t my ancestors, but without question, they are my musical forbearers; and I cannot, I will not turn my back on them. To do so would be to turn away from myself.

So while this is just a brief summary of my own personal experience as an artist and American citizen, my ultimate intention is that is serves as a call to action for anyone still ambivalent about their stake in this country, in something bigger than themselves.

We must fully recognize racial justice as a cause relevant to more than just one community, and recognize the necessity of it being no longer their fight, but our fight. What happens to one of us will and should affect the other. The riots in our cities are living proof of that universal reality, and while I don’t advocate violence, I implore everyone to communicate, openly and with respect, preferably face to face.

To abstain is to compromise not only the welfare and prosperity of one people, but the soul and lasting integrity of our country.

Until these virtues are fully realized, so long as people of color continue to suffer under the tyranny of systemic racism, persecution and oppression, we should–at the very least–expect people to kneel when we sing the national anthem.

____

Resources to Take Action

https://blacklivesmatters.carrd.co/

I Can’t Breathe

By Ren Michael

I’ve been told to believe in equality
but if that’s reality, it’s never been seen
when you see a color before a human being
and feel like a target every step up the street

you ought to stay home, don’t give ‘em the bait
keep away from the windows, they’re no longer safe
if you’re gonna be out, don’t make it too late
how many more years? how long are we gonna wait?

I don’t care if you’re hip.
I don’t care if you’re woke
I’m not looking to be anyone’s token
I’m so full of rage
I could choke with the pain
I’m looking for a friend
who won’t fade away
like smoke in the rain

how many songs, mantras, manifestos will be written?
you don’t have to leave it to the blowin’ of the wind
we might depend on the poets to express what we know
or say it ourselves in the world that we grow

I gaze outside at that rain breaking ground, and
I won’t abide the same recycled old sounds
I won’t abide fear in my own hometown
Am I ready to lay my destiny down?

Well, I’m done with a discourse of making the rounds.

I don’t claim to know what another man feels
but I have had wounds that never did heal
and you’ll never understand the reason we kneel
until you recognize the wounds as real

I want a country, a home, a creed in which I can believe
A flag and anthem that rings true to me
But I’ve gone too long, unheard and unseen
I’m tired of waiting, and I can’t breathe

Short Story: The Rain

A short story, which recalls a conversation between Jose Anselmo de la Cruz and Jude Moonlight, on the day Hurricane Irma hit the coast of Florida.

The rain was beating down hard. I heard it coming down mercilessly as the wind howled outside. We sat in the garage, in the dark, our faces glowing in dim candlelight. Through the door, back down the hallway I heard whispers, and the sound of someone laughing. Maybe they were still playing cards. I heard another cracking and fizzing sound. Someone opening another can of beer.

It was only three o’clock in the afternoon, but it felt like three in the morning. I think most of us had lost all track of time by now. Except for Anselmo. He sat there in front of me still, looking somewhere past me, over my head, as though listening for the slightest change in weather, communicating with it in some strange way. He sat relaxed in his chair, smoking his pipe.

I was starting to feel a little high, but not too much. Whenever I smoked, I never got too high. I had a feeling Anselmo was the same way.

“Some storm,” he said.

“Yea. Unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”

“How old are you?”

“23.”

“23. Yea, so you weren’t alive for Andrew.”

“No, I missed that one.”

“Feels like just yesterday. That was the year after I arrived. We had an apartment in Kendall then.”

“What happened?”

Anselmo laughed to himself a bit and kept quiet. He smiled and let out a long sigh before speaking again.

“My wife and I hunkered down in the bathroom. Next morning, when we stepped outside the door…well, we found ourselves outside, looking right through where the wall and part of the roof used to be.”

“Oh man.”

“Yea, you’re telling me. That was some scary shit.”

He laughed again.

Welcome to Florida,” he continued. “I’m surprised we even stuck around afterward, not that we really had anywhere else to go.”

“What kept you here?”

“We hadn’t been overly fond of Houston or New Jersey, and my wife’s family had all moved down here too. So after the storm, we just moved in with her sister for a bit until we found another apartment. Besides, what the hell, I’ve been dodging hurricanes my whole life. I remember when I was a boy, we had quite a few. Seemed like every summer we’d have one or two, at least.”

“In Cuba?”

He nodded.

“That’s what you get living in the tropics,” he said. “But still, even in Jersey, we had to deal with one. Hurricane Belle, I think it was called. 1976. I’d been living there for three years.”

“You’ve got a good memory.”

“I give it a lot of exercise.”

“Do you think a lot about Cuba? Your memories there?”

His face darkened a little as his eyes shot down to the floor. For a second, I regretted asking the question.

“Well, sometimes I do, sure. Of course. I think about the mountains. The beaches. I miss the streets. The people. Hell, I miss just about everything but the politics. I miss the feeling of writing and at the same time knowing, or at least thinking it was going to make some kind of difference, outside of me getting thrown in jail.”

“Do you ever think about writing anymore?”

Anselmo was quiet for a long time before he shook his head.

“No. No, I don’t think I…No, I don’t. I don’t think I ever will. Just never really got that desire again.

“Yea.”

“For one thing, when I arrived in New Jersey, I barely spoke any English. I learned quickly enough, but by the time I had, I was already keeping busy with other things. My family for one thing. My day job, another. Just blending in, I guess. I got real deep into history. American history. I’ve always believed the most patriotic thing a person can do is study the history of their country. It’s the best way to throughly understand it’s character. You can better assess the present and more intelligently influence it’s future.”

“I’ve always liked history.”

“Yea?”

“Yea, I mean, I never really thought of it the way you just put it, or really thought twice at all about why I even liked it, though what you said makes a whole lot of sense.”

Anselmo smiled. “What part of history do you enjoy?”

“The revolutionary generation I think. You know, from 1776 to the first years after the drafting of the constitution.”

“Sure.”

“I’m not exactly sure why…”

“You know, when I think about the founding of this…republic,” he said. “I see a group of highly flawed, yet intelligent men with a vision. They’re so close it, they can touch it. They hold it right in their hands, you know what I mean? Like some raw orb born right out of the soil, strikingly beautiful for having lived so long in the earth and the mud. But it’s hot. It’s way too hot for them to handle, so they hurl it across a vast wilderness.

“Anyway, I think we, as in subsequent generations, we’ve been looking for it ever since, forgetting a little bit more each day what it even looked like, but we add our own experiences to it as a way of filling in the gaps, for better or worse. Though, in the back of our mind, we know we’ll never quite get there in the end.

“But that doesn’t matter. I think as long as we remember where we come from—enough to hold it close and study it, talk about it, shake hands with it, write and sing about it even—and we do it with a lens wide enough to cover our sins as well as our triumphs…then we’ll survive. But I think remembrance is key. Without that, we’re truly lost. We might as well be swinging in the dark.”

I shuffled in my chair. It was all a little hard to believe. I was thinking about the rioting in the streets I’d witnessed just days before.

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

“Well, I’ve seen a lot of violence lately that doesn’t leave me feeling so optimistic.”

“Yea those clips I saw on the news were pretty disturbing.”

“I’ve had mixed feelings about whether it was all necessary.”

“I see.”

“What do you think?”

“Well…I’ve got mixed feelings on riots, or at least revolutions in general, but I favor them if they’re carried out effectively.”

“Seems like a sensible view.”

“–Though easier said than done.”

“–Even if that revolution is carried out violently?”

Anselmo seemed to think long and hard about the question before speaking again.

“I don’t celebrate violence as a means of action and I never will, for the mere reason that we so often feel it’s even necessary in order to be heard, and create the world we want to see. That, in and of itself is a tragedy.

“However, while I don’t celebrate violence, I do accept why people resort to it as a course of action; and I can’t altogether disagree with its usefulness in calling attention to the problems in our society.

“Now, with respect to recent events…let’s say a business owner’s store gets destroyed by people rioting in the streets. He or she has every right to be angry and resentful. I don’t judge them for it. Yet at the same time, I cannot judge the people who destroyed it either. Their anger is real and is the result of being overlooked and unheard.

“Now, in a situation like this, I think both sides are essentially right. But it’s always been difficult for us to accept that sort of complication. We are used to viewing things in a binary way. We’ve always been more comfortable with black and white. One side being right, and one side being wrong. It’s less messy for us that way. Easier to understand.

“Of course, that’s never been the nature of reality. Some thing’s cannot be labeled so neatly. In situations like these, then, it’s less a question of who is right and who is wrong, and more a question of addressing the root causes of why the whole thing happened to begin with.

“Until the root, systemic causes are addressed, we cannot expect peace.”

“Right,” I said. “But in this case, that root cause is racism.”

“You bet. Something intimately tied to the history of this country.”

“I saw a storefront owner get his whole shop destroyed. I knew him. He seemed like a good guy–”

“I’m sure he was. But that really is a basic universal truth seen in action, isn’t it? Right before our eyes. The truth being that we cannot isolate ourselves any longer from racism and hate. It doesn’t matter if you’re a good person. If you’re a good person, you’re still vulnerable. The problems of the world will still, sooner or later, come crashing through your window. It’s a testament to the fact that racism is not merely their problem, that is, the problem of any one community. In fact, it’s never been their problem. It’s our problem, one that all of us need to finally own.”

“Ok, so let’s say we own it. Then what do we do?”

“We destroy it.”

“How?”

“By standing up for it’s opposite, and by facing the people who need to be faced. Not online, but by actually facing them. By talking to them, and communicating the truth of our cause in whichever way will most effectively convince them.”

“And if that doesn’t work?”

“If necessary, we must be ready to defend ourselves and those who need more immediate defending. But never stop trying to speak up, to stand up for the right thing. Communicate always with compassion and basic respect. Violence, ultimately, is a failure of communication.”

“Yea well…sometimes communication just fails.”

“Yes, sometimes it does. But we’ve always had a hand in it’s failure, most specifically when good people do nothing.”

“Yea. I guess that’s pretty true.”

“Yea. It is. So do something. Now.”