Questions of Escape

A friend told me that the world is going to hell which sounds like a big inconvenience. He also said that in spite of this inconvenience, it’s like the powers-that-be keep giving us superhero movies to keep us distracted; but then again, he said, we keep buying tickets to them so maybe we like to be distracted, especially in these increasingly uncertain times.

It got me wondering whether all films are naturally, inherently escapist by definition.

I admit there’s a spectrum, a seemingly big difference between a documentary and an action movie, but then again to say any film is escapist suggests one person’s life and experiences are somehow more real and genuine than those of another; and more specifically, that someone watching a film, no matter the film, is having a less genuine experience than someone, say, working their nine to five.

Is there any real science in determining something like that? Is listening to a story strictly an act of removing ourselves from our own day-to-day experience, or is the act itself ultimately not escapist, since it’s technically part of our day?

The more important question may be whether it’s escapist to be enjoying the company of friends, or good music or taking a nice evening stroll and not worrying about our problems. Is it only a problem when we do more of the former at the expense of the latter, when we do more of what we want to do at the expense of what probably needs doing?

Is seeing a film or reading a book really a means of getting away from our own lives, or is it a more subtle manner in which to view our lives through the experiences of other people, regardless of whether or not that experience is fictional?

Are not the same or similar psychological forces at work when we’re hearing a friend, family member or acquaintance relate a situation happening in their own lives? How much of the act is pure voyeurism on the part of the audience, and how much is a deeper attempt by the audience to better understand itself?

Alternative Top-Ten: National Parks Edition

It’s nearly impossible to capture the feeling of being there, staring out and absorbing all the splendors of the natural world and the American wilderness.  It’s an experience that could easily redefine for the beholder what it means to be an American, if not what it means to be a human.  A guest on this planet.

In any case, I’ll start small, keep it simple, and begin with something that many, including myself, always seem to dig: The good ol’ Top 10.  My personal favorite national parks.

One thing to note, I haven’t been to all them.  In fact, I haven’t even been to half of them.  This list is less about the potential for sightseeing and more about experience.  Specifically my own.  I suspect the list will change over time, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

10. Arches

I got in late at night, when I could only see the darkness around me, but the next morning I woke up and found myself in a desert wonderland and standing before the arches in one of the trippiest, most unusual places I’ve experienced in the American Southwest.

Opposite the neighboring Canyonlands National Park to the west, Arches flanks the eastern side of Moab, a small but lively desert town and a prime base of operations for travelers looking to experience the greater outdoor adventures at their full disposal in this southeastern corner of Utah.

At the entrance is Park Avenue, so named after the rising rock formations that might give one the impression they are strolling down a walkway similar to New York City’s famous landmark. Only the hustle-and-bustle of the concrete jungle has been replaced by an undeniable feeling of peace and tranquility within the whispering silence of sandstone a few million years old.

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Ren Michael in Park Avenue; Arches National Park, Utah

Delicate Arch, the most iconic sight in all of the park, ranks alongside some of the most well-known landmarks in the United States. Chances are you’ve seen it on your computer as a desktop wallpaper, or on posters with some inspiring quote about exploration or achievement. Either way, a sense of achievement is no doubt something you’ll feel standing before this astounding desert archway.

The hike to reach it is just over a mile. At the start it seems very simple, but don’t be deceived. It might not take you long to get there, maybe just a half-hour without taking any big breaks, but in that half-hour you’ll be working. On this hike there’s no leveling out, not even for a little bit, so you’re constantly going uphill. It might be a short hike, but rest assured, it is a hike the whole way, so bring water and prepare to get a lot of sun, especially if you’re going in the summer.

Once you’ve reached the top of the slope, you’ll clear a wall of sandstone to your right before you climb another few steps. Then you see it. A strange whirlpool of rock and sand separate you from the monolithic arch, standing alone at the other side before a quiet, calm desert sky. It looks like a portal to another dimension. A desert temple long-forgotten but every bit as sacred now as it was ages ago.

Walk toward the archway. Stand before it. Enter it. You may not come out the same.

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Ren Michael at Delicate Arch; Arches National Park, Utah

 

9. Rocky Mountain

If renewal and reawakening have together formed an ongoing theme for me and my experiences in these places, the Rocky Mountains are no exception. During my trip in 2015 from Los Angeles to Ft. Lauderdale, the Rockies were the greatest height I reached both in the literal sense (12,183 feet above sea level) and in whatever existential, spiritual sort of journey I found myself in at the time.

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Trail Ridge Road; Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

I was coming in from Moab, running on little to no sleep and getting fairly delirious as I drove into the greater Denver area. By the time I arrived into the west end of the park, I was ready to set up camp and take a long and comfortable sleep. The next morning, I woke up and breathed in the fresh mountain air, rejuvenating my senses after a long week of camping in the heat and dryness of the southwestern desert.

Rocky Mountain might be one of the most popular ski destinations in America, but it is every bit as breathtaking in late summer without the snowfall and crowds of winter vacationers. One thing that I felt for certain was the vastness of alpine wilderness and greenery, revealed especially abundant from the vantage points offered along the Trail Ridge Road, built atop some of the highest peaks of the mountain range and taking travelers right through what’s known as the Alpine Tundra. Up here the air is thin (containing 35% less oxygen than at sea level) and possibly very windy. Hold onto your hat.

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Ren Michael in the Alpine Tundra; Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

In short, Rocky Mountain offers some of the best and most plentiful opportunities for alpine hiking and camping you’ll find in the country. Its shimmering lakes, rivers and waterfalls add to the tremendous diversity of forest and mountain wilderness and to its spectacular scenery. It’s paradise in the mountains. A valley of kings nearly three miles high.

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Bear Lake; Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

I left the park with my spirit cleansed and my head clear. To this day, I’ve yet to leave any place feeling more physically and spiritually renewed.

 

8. Grand Canyon

I remember watching the sun’s rays beam down into the canyon depths, shining its light upon the sandstone cliffs and revealing the faintest trace of the Colorado River, all while a mass of darkening clouds and thunder rolled in from the east before dissipating in the light of the sun and evaporating in a mist that fell softly on my forehead like a kiss from the heavens at sundown.

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Andrea Pavlov in Desert View; Grand Canyon National Park (South Rim), Arizona

A whole world revealed itself to me like an epic drama of rain and thunder and darkness and light. I wonder just how well, if at all, some other place in America might have served as a better landscape for such an extraordinary moment. I wonder if that other place could have even come close.

When I first saw it, I was much younger. I spent maybe a half-hour just looking at it. The prevailing thought then, having never really seen a mountain much less a grand canyon, was that it simply didn’t look real. I used to say things like that about anything I thought even slightly memorable or noteworthy. After my first visit, I’d never again use that expression so freely.

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Ren Michael on the South Kaibab Trail; Grand Canyon National Park (South Rim), Arizona

The Grand Canyon can forever alter your vocabulary, forcing you to fully contemplate the meaning behind descriptive words, particularly those that denote size. People have often said that no place in America is truly so grand. I think it redefines the adjective, and it sets the standard for anything on this planet said be big or enormous, or massive or incredible.

Simply looking at it from any viewpoint along the rim is an experience in its own right. But once you finally begin to get over it—something that took me two separate visits—hiking down into the canyon is a whole new adventure that offers changing and more immersive views as you hike deeper. Just remember, whether you’re going a mile down, three miles down, or all the way down to the river, ultimately you have to come back up.

 

7. Crater Lake

The simplicity of this particular experience, the fact that I was doing nothing more than staring at a lake and yet still finding myself so awestruck and deeply moved by it, is something that puts Crater Lake at lucky number seven.

On paper, during the first day, there was nothing that should have been too memorable about this visit. It was very cold, most of the park was closed, and it snowed all the time we were there, obscuring our view of pretty much anything near the lake, including the lake itself.

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Crater Lake; Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

So why is it on this list?

For one thing, this experience was a clear example of not letting circumstance dictate experience, in seeing through whatever one might deem inconvenient at the time and remembering that I was still in an incredible place, a place unlike any other in the world.

If something about where I currently stood didn’t meet my expectations, then I should have never set any expectation beyond simply experiencing something new. If I allowed myself, I just might see something truly beautiful, something that I’d remember for the rest of my life. Luckily I allowed myself to do that. I let myself be prepared for anything.

For me, it was seeing the lake, just barely in view, peering at me mysteriously through the dense snowfall. I could hardly see it, but I knew it was there, its dark circular outline seemed an ominous presence in that overwhelmingly white canvas before me. Only after staying the night in a campground just outside the grounds of the park and returning the next morning, when the sun was out and the sky was very clear and beautiful, did I see the glistening lake in all its splendor.

While the moment itself was an additional lesson in patience, waiting for the storm to blow over and not turning around and leaving when the weather looked bad, the greater point is that my seeing the lake was just as great an experience as not seeing it at all, or barely seeing it when all the snow was falling. It was all a matter of perspective and what I was allowing myself to see.

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Crater Lake; Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

It’s the kind of thing that illustrates the difference between looking at something and seeing something. The difference between sightseeing and experiencing.

Anyway aside from all that, Crater Lake is a stunning sight. At 1,932 feet, it’s the deepest lake in the United States and the ninth deepest in the world. Formed from a volcano that collapsed onto itself millions of years ago, all of its water comes from rain and snowfall. It’s therefore one of the clearest—and bluest—natural displays of water found anywhere in the world.  Truly, I’ve never seen water so blue, and with the fallen snow and the patches of green still showing in the pine all around us, it turned out to be one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen.

 

6. Death Valley

This place can be intimidating, and I don’t just say that because I got there in the dead of the night when I could hardly see anything. I know, I have a tendency to do that. Maybe there’s something about darkness that both scares me and thrills me. Darkness. Vastness. Put them both together—along with losing phone reception and not being entirely sure where you’re going, no matter what the maps might say because you still have never been to this place in your life—and things can get a little freaky.

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Golden Canyon; Death Valley National Park, California

But uncertainty is part of the adventure. Not having phone service, for example, especially in today’s world, can be scary when you’re in the middle of nowhere and you’re constantly thinking about everything that can go wrong. The trick is to not think about those things, because chances are things won’t go wrong, and if they do, you’ll be alright because you’re prepared. So…you know, make sure you’re at least somewhat prepared. Make sure you have a flashlight, for example, something I learned after driving through Big Sur a few years ago.  Make sure to bring water too.

Death Valley is the kind of place where it might be easy to think about all those things that can go wrong. At least in the other parks, when you’re in the middle of nowhere, the truth of it doesn’t scream at you in the face. Let’s just say that at times, Death Valley looks damn near biblical. Jesus could have easily spent his forty days in this desert. A friend of mine once said he thought he saw Moses in the distance, marching along the desert floor with the Israelites.

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Ren Michael at Golden Canyon; Death Valley National Park, California

That being said, Death Valley is really beautiful! Again this is the sort of thing that comes down to perspective.

It might be better to come here alone. You have to be quiet. You have to let it all come to you. Think about how old the place is, and how much it’s changed over the years. More importantly think about how it hasn’t changed. How in the ongoing chaos of the world, this desert remains, almost making our own day-to-day concerns seem trivial in light of how fleeting they are. Death Valley existed long before we arrived, and will more than likely exist long after we’re gone.

In Death Valley, I found life. Ongoing and unchanging.

 

5. Smoky Mountain

For those of us on the east coast, the number of national parks might seem a bit scarce compared to all that lies farther west. Maybe a lot of that has to do with history, old Europeans and future commercial interests clearing out vast wilderness and building on land that might have one day been protected; long before Americans began to expand west, when conservation efforts and a collective environmental awareness were growing at about the same time.

This next place on the list, therefore, has become a true sanctuary, having survived over generations and grown particularly valuable in the eyes of anyone who honors the beauty of our natural landscape. For those east coasters seeking the adventure of Grand Canyon or the tranquility of Crater Lake, or both, it is especially cherished; and for many Americans, it just might be the most iconic mountain range in all of our history and lore.

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Smoky Mountains; Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee/North Carolina

Covering 522,427 acres of land, Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited national park in the United States.

With its own biological diversity, endless visions of greenery and waves of mountains seeming to stretch on into infinity, the Smokies reminded me of a lot of the Rocky Mountains. Only here I discovered a greater sense of intimacy and even a bit of southern charm that set it apart from the mountains of the west. My guess is that since there are more towns and cities in the general area, that famous southern hospitality tends to rubs off a little more on this park and give it a distinct personality of its own.

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Ren Michael on the Appalachian Trail; Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee/North Carolina

Unlike any other park on this list and a majority of the parks in America, the Smokies seem as though they are a solidly popular local destination, like something Tennesseans and Carolinians might easily decide to go and visit for a weekend or on a day-off, and lot less like a Yosemite or Yellowstone, which draws people in from across the country and all around the globe.

The local flair adds to that sense of intimacy. It felt less like a tourist destination and more like my backyard. Less like a forest. More like the woods. The waterfalls are smaller, the rivers seem more quiet, and altogether everything is every bit as beautiful as all the grand wonders of the American west put together.

 

4. Yosemite

If I were to keep this list as objective as possible–that is, strictly about sightseeing–then I just might have to put Yosemite National Park at Number One.  Famously described by the naturalist John Muir as “the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter,” it’s no surprise that Yosemite has become a symbol of California and of the greater American outdoors.

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Ren Michael at Glacier Point; Yosemite National Park, California

If weather is permitting, and usually it is outside of winter, drive up to Glacier Point.  Or better yet, climb it. Once you’re at the top, take a look out over the valley, at Half Dome standing mightily over the whole scene like a king in his own vast kingdom.

Down in the valley, at least during the busy summer season, Yosemite can feel a bit like Disneyland. If you want to hike up Half Dome, you will need a permit.  Yet one reason Glacier Point is such a great spot is because you can take them all in at once, as it offers a spellbinding view of the valley, of Half Dome, of Yosemite Falls and the high country.

This was my introduction to Yosemite National Park, when I thought of Muir and his mission to protect both the valley and the parks, publishing in great detail his experiences and reflections on their beauty with the rest of America, all largely inspired by his own first encounter with Yosemite, when he wandered into the valley regarding himself an as “Unknown Nobody” searching for anyplace that was wild.  Yea, I could relate.

As far as hikes go, the Mist Trail is definitely one of the best.  However, while it’s slightly outside the valley, it too can get fairly crowded. To avoid the crowds, detour along the John Muir trail at the base of Vernal Fall. This will provide a far more quiet and enjoyable experience, with superior views of the river and the falls leading to Nevada Fall, at which point you rendezvous with the Mist Trail leading you back down to the trailhead.

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Nevada Fall from the John Muir Trail; Yosemite National Park, California

Of course, this portion of the John Muir Trail is but a small fraction of its entirety, beginning in Yosemite Valley and traveling south through 211 miles of the Sierra Nevada, ending at the summit of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the Sierras; just outside another national park, not quite as famous as its big brother to the north, but every bit as wondrous.

 

3. Sequoia and Kings Canyon

I’d never been so positively humbled in my life, let alone by the mere presence of trees, as I was in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. Of course, these are no ordinary trees. They are some of the largest trees in the world, most notably the famous General Sherman Tree, which is, by volume, the largest in the world.

Then again, it’s not just size that makes these trees so extraordinary, but their age.  As some of them are over 3,000 years old.

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General Sherman Tree; Sequoia National Park, California

This is where it all began for me. When I first became aware of the national parks and experienced a connection to them—to all of nature—unlike any I’d felt before. Looking up at giant Sequoias can do that to you.

My introduction to the park was through Kings Canyon, seeing the General Grant Tree, walking through Grant Grove and those surrounding it, and looking out over the marvelous canyon itself.

In the years since, I’ve written down a few observations, entries, many notes and even some music about my time here and I expect there’s a lot more to come. It has left a lasting impression, having greatly altered how I think and view the details of my life and my daily experience as a human on this planet.

If you’re staying in the park, the Lodgepole Campground is the most centrally located. It’s just two miles from the Giant Forest, the majestic Sequoia grove that is home to General Sherman. Lodgepole is also the busiest campground, though it never feels overly crowded. Still, going north up Generals Highway to Dorst Creek is a nice alternative, if you’re looking for something more quiet. Even farther north is Grant Grove Campground, which is another more popular campground and the Kings Canyon counterpart to Lodgepole.

Returning south down Generals Highway will lead you to Moro Rock, the trail to which can be accessed from the Giant Forest Museum, or from a parking lot just outside the rock, making the hike only a half-mile versus nearly two miles one-way. I would suggest the longer route if you’ve got time. The hike itself is pretty smooth until the last half-mile, that steep and winding trek up the rock. Once you’ve reached the peak, you’ve got a spectacular view of the mountains and the grand entryway into the greater Sierra Nevada.

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Ren Michael at Moro Rock; Sequoia National Park, California

 

2. Zion

I had no idea of what to expect and I’d never seen any pictures. It was just a vague understanding, some distant and shadowy vision of what stood waiting for me once I arrived. And then of course, adding to the allure was the name. Zion. It had an air of mystery.  It felt unassuming yet powerful.

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Ren Michael at the Grotto; Zion National Park, Utah

As I write this now, I still can’t articulate what it is exactly, what it is that makes Zion so remarkable. I’ve seen bigger mountains, more colorful and vibrant scenery and wildlife. The canyon itself seems far less impressive certainly than the Grand Canyon.

My first impression was that, while indeed smaller than the Grand Canyon, it was also greener and more dynamic. The most well-known part of Zion Canyon is the Narrows, which is a ten-mile hike round trip if you’re planning on heading as far as Big Spring. Whether you hike ten miles or two miles, you will be hiking in the river, which can be fairly challenging. At times, you’ll be waist deep in the water, so bring trekking poles and the right kind of footwear, shoes and clothes you don’t mind getting wet. Hopefully, you’ll find your footing in no time and eventually get into something of a rhythm; and so once you’re there, hiking in the gorge, try not to spend too much time still looking down at your feet. Look up. Look around. The Narrows gets its name because it’s the narrowest section of Zion Canyon, with walls 1,000 feet tall and a river sometimes a mere 20 to 30 feet wide.

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Mount Carmel Highway; Zion National Park, Utah

Other more famous hikes are the Angels Landing, which provide commanding views of the entire canyon. Great for thrill-seekers.  The Emerald Pools trails might be a better option for those looking for something a little less strenuous, but beautiful nonetheless.

All these places lie within the actual canyon in Zion National Park, and are thus accessible only via transit, a very reliable bus system that takes you from the entrance of the canyon all the way to the Narrows.

If you want to stay in your car and explore more of the wilderness in the outer reaches of the park, keep driving from the main entrance and continue via Canyon Ridge Road for some stellar views that are far less crowded and equally extraordinary compared to anything you’ll see back in the canyon.

To anyone coming in after a long drive through the southwest, if ever so great an oasis existed in all the American desert, it’s Zion. The Promised Land. A kingdom of Heaven living and breathing on the earth for all those who seek it. To all the pilgrims of America, young and old, Zion can feel a lot like home.

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Ren Michael at Canyon Overlook; Zion National Park, Utah

 

1. The Everglades

Surprised? Yea me too.

Of course, I am from South Florida. Born and raised. I grew up with the Everglades. I didn’t truly appreciate it then, but as I’ve grown older and more understanding of the connection I share with it, I’ve come to recognize it as home. Since it’s five minutes or so from the house in which I grew up, The Everglades is quite literally my own backyard.

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Ren Michael at Long Pine Key; Everglades National Park, Florida

Still, it’s a swamp. It’s almost always hot and looks the same pretty much all year. But don’t let any of that fool you. In the right time of year, or with enough mosquito repellant, you can find a whole array of secluded trails to hike, or lush creeks and canals to take a canoe and explore. In the lush subtropical wilderness—the largest in the United States—you will discover plants and wildlife unseen anywhere else in the world.

But that’s not the only reason it takes the Number One spot.  The other reasons have more to do with its history and what the park essentially represents.

There are no mountains. No rivers. No waterfalls. There aren’t even any hills. The highest point of elevation is about 6-8 feet. It’s not necessarily about scenery. It was never founded with the intent, far more typical at the time, of being a place full of wondrous views where vacationers might come to leisurely spend a weekend getaway.

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Ren Michael and Andrea Pavlov at the Shark Valley Watchtower; Everglades National Park, Florida

This distinction underscores the deeper meaning of the park itself, which further exemplifies the dual significance behind most of our national parks and monuments.

As a home to some of the most rare plant-life and endangered species on the planet, like the American crocodile, the manatee, and the Florida panther; the Everglades is the first national park founded for the sole purpose of preserving an ecosystem.

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Shark Valley; Everglades National Park, Florida

And yet it’s not just for the survival of the life that exists within it, but also to better ensure our own survival, the survival of we who depend on the health of our environment and the stability of our ecosystems everyday—usually far more than we realize.

Sometimes these ecosystems are glorious and mountainous and marvelous. Other times, they’re more discreet. Sometimes, it’s a swamp.

In this way, the significance of the Everglades is a lesson for us all, a truth we can all cherish throughout our time here on this fragile, beautiful planet we call home.

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American Alligator in Shark Valley; Everglades National Park, Florida

The Redemptive Power of Classical Music

I’ve always found music to have healing powers. That’s probably why I play it and why anyone plays it, let alone listens to it. It’s what I think about when I hear classical music in particular. I think about it’s ability to heal, empower, lift people out from the darkness of their times or individual situations and believe in something enough to keep moving forward, embracing imperfection a little better than they did before, while simultaneously striving to improve.

Europe has a long history that embodies that very human struggle, as so much of it is well-documented for us to read about and learn from so that we can walk forward ourselves with a greater understanding of who we are. It’s no surprise then that classical music is so inextricably tied to European history and to a specific region in particular, whose own history proved no less volatile at the time classical music reached its creative height.

I’m talking about Central Europe; and when you consider the fact that Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Handel, Strauss, Schubert, Chopin, and Liszt were all born in this region—either in Germany, Austria, Poland or Hungary, nearly all of them within the same hundred-year period, you cannot help but reflect on the state of the continent at that point in time, or at the very least, wonder whether there was something in the water. It was a time, after all, that witnessed the Age of Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the rise and fall of Napoleon, among other historical milestones.

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Outside the Hapsburg Palace; Vienna, Austria

Anyway, it was inevitable, as I walked down the streets of Vienna on a clear and beautiful morning, that I reflected on that history. I put on my headphones and listened to Mozart’s 41st “Jupiter” Symphony, as the cool morning breeze brushed against my face and I started into town.

For anyone arriving into Vienna for the first time, pick your favorite composer, make a playlist, put on some headphones and press play. Trust me. You owe it to yourself.

I’d just arrived from Budapest very late the previous evening, so I was only getting acquainted with Vienna for the first time that morning. From the way I was strutting, classical music might have seemed to be the last thing I was listening to in favor of Bruno Mars or maybe even, by the looks of me, Stayin’ Alive by the Beegees. But no, I was listening to Mozart.

I was on a music high. Just two nights ago, I’d gone to see my first orchestra play in Budapest at the State Opera House. I knew it then, just as I know it now, that the experience was life-changing. As a musician, it kicked open the door to a universe far greater than any I’d expected to find. The musicians, of course, played in perfect harmony, with illustrious style and profound feeling, and revealed to me in the span of an hour, a world of limitless creative possibility. And yet more than anything, I remembered just how deeply the music was rooted in history, in the collective human experience.

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Exterior of Beethoven’s apartment building; Vienna, Austria

It was in that spirit that I progressed onward to Vienna, this city that became the uncontested capital of the art form, the seat of the former Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire. Nearly all of the musicians and composers I previously mentioned lived and worked here. In particular, two of my favorite composers who also, arguably, might be the most recognized: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig Van Beethoven.

Beethoven’s apartment, where he lived and worked for the better part of ten years and composed some of his most exceptional work, is in the middle of town. The floorboards still creak. The staircase is windy. The building is well-kept but still smells musty enough to make it easy imagining living there at the time, hearing the keys of a piano sounding throughout the stairwell, being played by a master, slowly losing his hearing and yet still earning his living, still finding the will to continue, as ever, perfecting his craft.

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Beethoven’s Piano at his Vienna Apartment; Vienna, Austria

If you walk in, you’ll find the piano still remains, as well innumerable drafts and sketches of compositions, preserved in cases of glass for anyone to come in and read. For me, the experience was surreal.

I knew that Mozart’s former apartment was still in the city and available to see, but I never did get to it. In fact, I figured the more worthwhile experience might actually be in his hometown of Salzburg, stepping into the house where he was born and raised and instructed in music by his father, who himself was a musician.

Salzburg - Austria - Hohensalzburg Fortress - Ren Michael - Quinby & Co.
View of the south bank and Hohensalzburg Fortress at the top of the hill from the Salzach River; Salzburg, Austria

Salzburg is most definitely aware of its heritage and favorite son, as the several souvenir shops around town will show; along with its “Sound of Music” fame, but that’s for another kind of trip. When you walk inside the old apartment, you’ll find a few trinkets the young Mozart would have played with, not least of which include his own violin, as well as other household items and furniture used by the family in those early years. You’ll step into the room in which he was born. You can read letters exchanged between he and his family during those years where he played for kings, clerics, and noblemen, traveling around the continent before eventually moving to Vienna.

Salzburg at Dusk - Austria - Hohensalzburg Fortress - Ren Michael - Quinby & Co.
Evening in the city taken from Fortress Hohensalzburg; Salzburg, Austria

When you hear something like that, it might seem especially preposterous even to consider that Mozart and Beethoven, each recognized globally as a genius in their own right, could still have led lives that were in any way similar to our own. But for me, that was actually the greatest souvenir. When you step into a place where someone lived and worked, it has a funny way of bringing you closer to them, rather than farther away.

These men were, ultimately, just people. It’s one very simple yet crucial fact I took away from my time in Central Europe.

Of course, greatness is a matter of perspective. But if we define it simply in finding joy and self-affirmation in doing what you love, while simultaneously creating some component of that feeling for anyone who happens to see or hear what you do, and be moved by it, inspired by it like I was hearing that orchestra play in Budapest, then maybe greatness isn’t quite as inaccessible as we tell ourselves. It takes practice and work, and when you remember that these men in creating their art likely experienced the same doubts we all experience in life, it’s something that brings you closer to both the artist and, if you listen just right, to humanity as well.

*Hey everybody, thanks for reading! Here’s one of our own personally curated playlists of classical music, made for your ultimate listening pleasure. Of course, feel free to reach out to us for any further recommendations. We’re happy to assist. Thanks again and enjoy!

 

 

When I Get Back to Paris

The rain-soaked streets were quiet that evening. I don’t remember whether it was a weekday or weekend or whether it even mattered to anybody. I remember being excited to get to the Notre-Dame Cathedral and walk along the banks of the Seine, across its bridges and back again.

Before I reached the river, I spotted the peak of the Eiffel Tower shimmering in electric light over the rooftops to my left. I was hearing music too. People singing and guitars playing. Flames over stove tops and candlelight in restaurant windows. People were laughing, lovers young and old holding one another, kissing in the still, cold night.

Man I couldn’t believe it, but somehow this city was already turning out to be everything I ever imagined and hoped it would be, which was saying a lot.

Ever since that first evening I’ve found it difficult to write about Paris. It could have something to do with expectations and some inflated idea of what an account of my time there ought to be and sound like. Many have written of it and will continue to do so, and I’m not sure whether I have anything particularly novel to add to the ongoing conversation but I can try.

What surprised me about Paris was that it met and more often surpassed every expectation I originally had of it from years of reading stories in countless books or seeing it in film and other media. Expectations were high enough to make it seem as though disappointment were inevitable, but like so many others I too fell in love with the city. Now during what are hopefully the final days of lockdown and travel restrictions, it sits among the top of my list of places I look forward to seeing again, not too long up the road. So maybe it’s no accident that I’m finally writing this now, years after that first night, since a city like Paris represents the opposite of everything most of us have experienced for the past year.

Where many of us understandably might be at a point where we’re re-evaluating our lives and no longer taking as much for granted, Paris is a place where nothing seems taken for granted and where every detail is savored and art, beauty, fine food and good company are given the priority they deserve.

Take the parks for example. Not only are there plenty of them, but they’re all beautiful and they stay busy with groups of friends gathered there on any given morning, afternoon or evening, sitting atop a picnic blanket enjoying wine, good food and ultimately the added company of everyone else sitting across the lawn of the Champ de Mars or along the hillside below Sacré-Coeur.

Or take the restaurants and how uncommon it is to see one that doesn’t have tables out front with seats positioned side-by-side, facing town instead of each other, so people can enjoy not just the company of the person with whom they’re dining but the feeling of being out in their neighborhood and appreciating where they are and where they live.

Then again, you’re equally apt to see someone sitting alone at one of these cafés having lunch or enjoying a coffee (no laptops) and out in their city in the company of strangers, in the company of neighbors, and in the broadest sense, in the company of fellow citizens and human beings, all participants in this grand experience of life and living.

If such a person can learn to recognize this and to cherish it, they may still be alone in that moment, but I can almost guarantee they’ll feel a lot less lonely.

We’ve heard the phrase work to live, not live to work. I wonder whether to someone in Paris, the phrase might sound silly not because it isn’t true but because it’s so obviously true. For here it’s an understanding that seems second-nature, as obvious as any other common realization made generations ago and now never given a second thought.

In the days ahead, after more than twelve months of lockdowns and social distancing across the world, I’ve got a feeling Paris is about to become a lot less exceptional, at least in this regard.

A man can hope and dream.

Ren Michael - Paris - Saint Michel
Ren Michael at Saint Michel

Leonardo’s Garden

I can hear you honey coming my way, I
remember how you used to speak my name
I saw you walking long the river to my garden
Your hair shone like the milky way
Lamplight glowed down in St. Germain
Day is gone and we’re only getting started

I hear the music like I always have
won’t force you none, though I’m moving fast
what’s done is done
what’s past is past

You are the angel
breathing in my dream, you can
Call me goblin
Call me the creep
You know who I am
You know I never sleep
How much longer shall we dance this dance, we’ve been
waltzing all along the Cumberland
you’ve called my name
and baby I’m your man

I saw you rise as the desert sun
I was born, we were one
heard ‘em say we were old
and today we are young

I hear you walking through my secret garden
the music through you and calling my name
the world’s changed
and I don’t feel the same
But I can sing and you know I can dance
I’m making way through this cold and damp
day’s breaking, as I take your hand

Let me lie back in sweet surrender
Let me honor, cherish and defend her
I lost my track again but I know I can remember
Is this life lady, and life only?
Well your beauty took me
honey, it stoned me
I think I’ve been here baby
Yea I know how you told me

Open Up (Happy Anniversary)

Throw open your desk
toss it upside down and
listen to Schumann, break
down the walls of every room, sell everything you own and over the new flames from within
begin to create
a brand new art form

Then when the sounds of the violin cease
open the window
and listen
to the distant
sounds of the city
in the cool
morning
breeze

That’s Infotainment!

We have justly recognized Donald Trump as the leader and the primary inciter of the failed insurrection attempt on our democracy; but we must confront the reality that he is only the tip of the iceberg, go deeper and recognize not just the man who incited it but the system that propped him up in the first place, the system which sustained him and all those like him for years, long before 2016.

The system is the modern infrastructure through which we access our information, comprised mainly of social media outlets and cable news.

With the accelerated rise of each over the last ten years, Americans now essentially occupy different realities.  I have no doubt that the men and women who broke into the Capitol believed they were doing the right thing.  According to the information they are constantly fed through Fox News personalities or any of the various fringe outlets they follow on social media, Donald Trump won the election and their government is therefore being stolen from them by culprits ranging from a broad covert socialist movement to Bill Gates.

Yet the fact that Trump was even able to ascend to power in the first place, mostly by lying and stoking paranoia proves that he must have had a platform, multiple in fact, that gave him the stage.  I recall in 2011 how every cable news network—whether allegedly right or left leaning—was perfectly willing to have him on as a guest, while he spouted out baseless conspiracy theories that Barack Obama wasn’t born in America, that he therefore snuck in and unlawfully became President.

Why did they have him on in the first place?  Was he an expert on anything?  Had he been conducting any sort of hard reporting on the ground and thus been able to provide some kind of groundbreaking news relevant to the public?  The kind based on actual evidence? 

No. He was entertaining.  A personality who was good for ratings.  Who liked attention and who knew how to wield it, as demonstrated since the 1980s throughout his many public feuds perpetuated by New York tabloids.  When it came to playing the media to boost his profile, Trump was a true maestro, and he would prove to remain so for years into the future.

A liar needs a stage to consolidate power and Trump’s success is owed to the pervasive entertainment culture of our modern news media and to his mastery of it.

In their eagerness to follow him, driven by their need for high ratings, the cable news networks became his all-too-willing accomplices.  In the meantime so did we, all of us who continued to watch these programs and give them our viewership.

We created this monster and now we’ve seen the consequences quite literally breaching the walls of our institutions and our very system of governance.

In answering the inevitable question of what we do from here, it’s worth noting that We the People can still exercise our power by simply making different decisions on how we get our information, on what we will and will not watch, or read.  In making these personal decisions, it’s worth asking ourselves the following questions:

-Why do I trust this program/person?
-Are they providing evidence to back their claims?
-Can I access the evidence myself and if so, am I even willing to investigate the evidence myself?
-Have they made a claim in the past, one that was initially disregarded, dismissed or considered outrageous, that turned out to be true?
-Is what they’re saying backed up by other reputable sources?
-How do I define reputable?
-Am I watching this because I want to be informed, or because I want to be entertained and merely feel informed?
-Do I like this person’s personality?
-Should their personality be relevant?
-How would I react if they were merely reporting news and facts without adding their opinion?

Any broader political or legal action, beyond these personal decisions each of us can and should make, naturally raises new questions concerning free speech.

Or does it? Maybe all we need to do is study history, and remember the federal regulation which existed for nearly forty years before it’s revocation in 1987: the Fairness Doctrine.  It required that TV and Radio stations present all sides of an issue for the sake of an informed electorate.  The Reagan administration revoked the policy, believing that such considerations were better left to the will of the free market.

If at face value that seems sensible, consider whether the evolution of our media over the past 30 years tells a different story. In the mid-nineties, conservative talk radio took off with leading personalities (not reporters or journalists) like Rush Limbaugh. Shortly thereafter, perhaps picking up on radio’s cue, two competing cable news networks debuted within the same year–Fox News and MSNBC. Perhaps at first, the coverage on either network seemed straight enough and relatively light on its editorializing. That would change as other personalities like Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and Chris Matthews proved better for ratings, people less known for their reporting than for how they reported, for their personality and manner.

Today the cable news landscape is dominated by these prototypes, whether it’s a show’s host or the rotating usual suspects of spin doctors they consistently invite to speak, the talking heads telling us how to think and how to feel.

Editorializing is nothing new, nor is it particularly dangerous. What is dangerous is the editorializing being disguised as news, television shows–governed by the rules of entertainment before journalism–being equated to news programs that report facts absent of spin or opinions. Put it this way, if you’re wondering why we don’t have any more Walter Cronkites, David Brinkeys or Tom Brokaws, it’s not because they don’t exist. It’s because their modern equivalents have been overshadowed by the people who bring in more money for the networks.

So while most of us think we’re getting informed, we’re really just getting amped up with more of what we want to hear–not from reporters who report facts, but by people who think like us and present information (or don’t present it) in a way that will keep us in our own ideological bubble.

It frankly astonishes me that people remain perplexed as to why we’re so divided in this country. And while it might be too late to close Pandora’s box or fully reinstate the Fairness Doctrine in a modern media landscape so vast and diverse–at least without provoking mobs of people rallying against what they view as some ominous government censorship–we do need to begin properly distinguishing the news from propaganda.

Laws decree that motion pictures and television shows are given content ratings, that music with any profanity be labeled explicit. It might be time to issue similar regulations for television shows or internet channels posing as news, for personalities quietly reassuring us that we can count on them to provide all the facts we need, so long as they reserve the right to tell us how to feel about them.

Unless we take serious steps in regulating our media and information infrastructure we should expect our country to grow more divided, the mobs more frequent, and We the People to become a greater danger to ourselves.

Lyrics: Today We Are Young

Lyrics By Ren Michael

Come you princes and gamblers
And I’ll tell you a tale
About an unborn world
From the cold winds of hell
I think you will find
That my story’s been told, indeed it’s centuries old
And though I am young,
You may know me quite well.

They may call me king bishop,
They may say I’m unkind
That I’m a blue-tuned sailor,
Got a simple mind
Tell me, when you look in the mirror
Or through your window view
Do you see a stranger’s eyes
Staring straight at you?

All you big-wigs and con-men
Who stole from my town
How’s the blood in your coffee,
Soaked in your nightgowns?
And how does it feel
To live behind a wall?
They may call you rich men,
But you don’t know wealth at all.

To the big who are small,
Self-proclaimed greats of all time
Who sweat over accolades,
Wasting their rhymes
Man, they couldn’t pay me
To put on your shoes
Held down by the weight
Of having something to prove.

To those who march through the wild,
Along the borderline;
To the persecuted and exiled,
I’m yours and you are mine
And to every shade of oppressor,
Your day will come soon
But in the end, just remember,
You are me and I am you.

You may quote from the wise,
Or your scriptures of old
But when you spill the blood of my brother,
Call the prophets your own,
In the eyes of the Lord,
You cast every stone
To twist the good word
In your own quest for the throne.

And so to all those
Who’ve taught me to love
Who in the same second,
Flaunt their handguns
Your sons and your daughters
Look to you every year
As you preach of peace
In the cold fortress of your fears

Come you princes and gamblers
And I’ll tell you a tale
About a battle-scarred world
That’s seen some serious hell
I think you will find
That my story’s been told, indeed it’s centuries old
And though I am young,
You ought to know me well.

Yea, along life’s ladder,
You may recognize every rung
And though you may feel real old;
Know today, we are young.

Lyrics: Made in the U.S.A. (American Made)

fire at the Bastille
bringing death to all your woes
I’ll break from these chains
and claim my mind as my own
the winds are blowin’ strong
the night is getting cold
I’d like to see America
before I get too old

I marched for our lives
I occupied the streets
I gave you all my love
in the time of COVID-19
I was born to run
Maybe I’m a rolling stone
I ain’t letting go of rock n’ roll
No I just don’t wanna be alone

the tune’s as smooth as wine
we’re crooning in time
I’m patching up matchboxes, now
and blue valentines
the winds are blowin’ strong
the night is getting cold
I’d like to see America
before I get too old

I’ve got Beethoven to my left
Robert Johnson on my right
I can hear the blues playing
on the river Danube tonight
I see Jimmie Rodgers on the coastline
And the Carter family too
Train whistle’s blowing
Neath an Appalachian Moon

I’m no beast of burden, and
I don’t shoot to thrill
I wanna see Rita Hayworth
on every hundred dollar bill
I’d like to read Walt Whitman
William Blake and Danté
You can take Jackie Robinson
Cause I’ve got Willie Mays

I swam ninety miles
of a blue crystal sea
I reached the rocky shores
of the Florida keys
we’ll raise a toast to the road
a toast to you and me
we’ll raise our glass
at Half Dome over
Yosemite Valley

rise of the cotton gin
death to my woes
I’ll break from these chains
and claim a house as my own
you wanna hear that I resist?
say my life is hard?
How long can I go
before they say I’m playing any card?

with rhythm and rhyme
like fruit of the vine
I’m patching up matchboxes
and blue valentines
In a home of the brave
where together we are saved
I’ll be your man
baby, we’ll be
American made

I don’t dwell on immortality, no
Legacy from me to you
I’m a guest here, I know
Only passing through
the winds are blowin’ strong
the night is getting cold
I’d like to see America
before I get too old

I write on the backs of napkins

I write on the backs of napkins
I write on scraps of tissue paper
for you ought to not sweat
the fancy jet
the time yet, no
or the old lessons of propriety
don’t stack that shelf
full of fancy volumes, neither
no, don’t overload the head with journals
with their pages crisp and clean
with the ribbons in between
if you’ve got paper
and you got a pen
then write it down
and let it all
flow
and ease the weight
from within your head
you’ll thank me in the end

Cordially Yours,
Your friend,
Ren

 

Originally published // renmichael.com