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?
The steam rose ominously from the surface. The pools were clear and strikingly blue, beautiful to look upon like the water in Crater Lake, that collapsed volcano in Oregon whose fresh water continually forms from the annual snowfall.
Crater Lake has its own volcanic history, mostly thousands of years in the past. Here in Yellowstone, of course, that history is ongoing, as its volcano is still very active; and I was constantly reminded of it from the geysers, hot springs and prismatic pools I faced that afternoon. Beautiful indeed, deceptively so. Look at them for long enough and you might feel that slight inclination to jump in. Don’t be fooled by the undeniable beauty. Contact with that boiling water would be excruciating and possibly fatal. I recalled the sirens of Greek mythology, who with their enchanting voices lure sailors to their own shipwrecked doom on the sirens’ rocky shores.
Yellowstone National Park stands atop an active super volcano. Its caldera mainly encompasses the perimeter of the park. Nearly all its marvelous and most defining physical features, like its geysers and springs, are owed to this continuing volcanic activity. The scientific consensus is that we’ll have plenty of indicators, like earthquakes, before an eventual eruption. It’s an ominous fact that’s hard to ignore.
Even so, one can ultimately learn to surrender and embrace the sheer majesty of a place so unique and teeming with life, no matter how volatile the source of that life may seem, or how violent its natural, topographical history. Here you’ll find a precious, expansive wilderness home to a wide variety of wildlife iconic to the American west. The mighty buffalo, the elk, big-horned sheep, wolves, wolverines, bobcats, coyotes, otters, badgers, mountain lions, and of course that solitary king of the mountain, the grizzly bear. And that’s just the wildlife. Yellowstone offers one of the most incredible natural landscapes in all the world that includes a vast array of geysers, Yellowstone Lake, and another one of my personal favorites, that serenely beautiful waterfall cascading down the marvelous Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
At Midway Geyser Basin, I continued past a few of the crystal-clear pools on the basin and towards a hulking mass of steam rising from the southern end. As we approached, it blew toward us like a dust storm, enveloping us to the point where we could only see a foot or two in front of us. It cleared for a flashing moment and then thickened again.
The warmth felt nice. A welcome change to the chilly mountain air of the early afternoon. We continued as the steam cleared again at random intervals for short windows of time just long enough for me to get a glimpse of what stood before us. A shot of blue, then orange and red. A wondrous vision that I might have regarded as mere fantasy were I not catching my first glimpses of it right then and there. The steam cleared, and I saw it in full. The Grand Prismatic Spring.
I never lost sight of the fact that I was walking atop an active super volcano, and yet somehow the recognition didn’t fill me with dread but with a rush of joy. My only impulse was to stay and listen and feel, for I felt as close to the planet’s core as I’d ever been and may ever be. I could see it as a threat to my own human existence, or I could view it as a natural part of the living, breathing planet that is my home.
Gratitude eventually cast out any lingering fear. I was grateful for the National Park Service, as I’ve been on so many occasions, for existing, for preserving places like this for us to enjoy and experience. The moment was made all the more poignant by the fact that I was in Yellowstone, our first national park, where I stood face-to-face with the beating heart of the earth. In my own way, I guess I did jump right in after all.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
I was thinking about the Headspace app, and how for me, it was the real introduction to mediation. It’s a great app for the beginner, and it does a wonderful job at making something long-considered esoteric more approachable and welcoming.
I started using it in early Spring 2016 and I continued meditating consistently for the next 2-3 years.
The experience taught me how to better handle my thoughts by adding some context and theory to what I probably already knew intrinsically—the simple idea that thoughts come and go and that there is no need to attach ourselves to them unless they are useful.
Simple enough, theoretically, though not necessarily easy to grasp.
The problem I ran into was that I got preoccupied with the notion of how I thought it should be. That is, how mediation should be and how I should be having started the practice.
This of course only led to more thinking, which inhibited me and had me second-guessing myself on matters I’d already more or less settled. How I approach my creativity, chief among them, but really a broad range of matters from how I relate to people to my morning routines, from how I dress and to my taste in music
Those hiccups might seem unfortunate, but maybe they were necessary in order to stand on more solid ground further on up the road.
I’m beginning to see how that sort of thing happens from time to time.
So you might have anticipated this piece to be more about Einstein’s contributions to theoretical physics and modern science, but I admit that even after reading his biography, I’m still not quite able to grasp the theory of relativity enough to explain it, which is less the book’s fault than my own.
The book is Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacon, and what struck me most about it is what compels me to read anyone’s biography in the first place: Character. Einstein’s personality. His opinions. His habits and world view. All those things that can be summed up in the simple question: What was he like?
And while the personality was sort of what I imagined—aloof, often emotionally detached to the point of seeming an eccentric, but gentle, kind, even charming—it was the public stances he took later in life that impressed me most.
His own friends and colleagues at the time supported cultural assimilation–the process of taking on the characteristics of one culture by giving up your own–giving up their Jewish identity in favor of a German one.
Einstein refused and admonished the notion, viewing it as an offense to individual expression, to say nothing of personal freedom.
He left Europe for the United States in 1933, thinking he might return in a few months. Shortly after his arrival in America, however, Hitler seized power in Germany. Einstein renounced his German citizenship and became an American citizen in 1940. He would in fact never visit Europe again, and would live in the United States for the rest of his life.
I initially wondered how difficult that was for him, whether he felt any strong ties to Germany and had any desire to return after the war.
Apparently not, and it’s not entirely surprising considering his broader view of the world and his place in it. Einstein always viewed himself less a citizen of any one nation than a citizen of the planet. He despised nationalism and he adamantly promoted ideals of international cooperation to the point of favoring the creation of a one-world government, which would theoretically diminish each country’s own military in favor of a global one to police international relations and potential conflicts.
In his final years, Einstein was regarded as something of a political radical. During the McCarthy witch-hunts he was thought by many to be a communist sympathizer, which he consistently denied.
That speculation only grew when he pled on behalf of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, two American citizens convicted of turning over atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, and sentenced to death. Einstein didn’t argue that they were innocent, but he did believe the death penalty was too harsh a sentence–one that seemed driven more by popular sentiment, a thirst for vengeance rather than justice.
When word of Einstein’s overtures to the President got out, he received more than a hundred angry letters from across the country.
“You need some common sense plus some appreciation for what America has given you,” one read. “You evidently like to see our GI’s killed,” wrote a soldier serving in Korea. “Go to Russia or back where you came from, because I don’t like Americans like you living off this country and making un-American statements.” The Rosenbergs were executed June 19, 1953.
For me, the times then bear striking resemblance to our own. Where emotions are high and so many of us are quick to take sides, driven more by tribalistic impulses rather than objective reasoning. We can learn from the example of Albert Einstein. A man whose legacy justly transcends even the vast limits of the modern science, whose own life provides valuable lessons on how to be good Americans and more intelligent human beings.