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

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.

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

In-brief: Meditation

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. 

Originally published // renmichael.com

Talking About Albert Einstein

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 the thing that 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.

Following the devastation of WWI, he’d become a committed and outspoken pacifist; but those views changed with the rise of fascism in Germany, the country where he’d lived and worked for most of his career up to that point.  He eventually admitted pacifism’s impracticality in combating the rising Nazi terror, its systemic persecution and ultimate murder of ethnic communities, including the Jewish community of which he was a part.

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.   

 

The Root

Political discourse like broken leaves
Stands in the shadows of laughing trees
The root of evil
Disguised as greed
Only as old as Adam and Eve
Cannot die but it must be beat, and
What comes to pass, what’ll come to be
Sings from deep within you and me.

Like a lion you are
A golden heart
As old as time
Though unborn, just thunder in the dark
Younger, less experienced
His untested mark
The test to wait
Through the blood
The great flood
Many years in the deepest recesses of Noah’s old ark
No angels for you, no
Just those in your soul
We’ll see what you do, unprotected
Still molested
Untested virtue
You’ll need help through the rain
Deep within the grain, your skin screams in pain
They may give you the whip, they may call you insane
And in the dark of the night, few will call you brave
Yet in the dark, like a lark
Goes right to your soul
In the quiet night, yea
In the murdering cold
A voice, quiet choice
Calls out, says you’re not alone
To love your brother, all you got is each other
It’s all you each will ever know.

Soon the voice dies
Some crucified, their eyes
Said to watch from the sky
You feel a need to keep the dream, carry on
Though you question why
Whether you do it, or not
Remains up to you
All you want’s your own life
Nice wife, and your own
bit of fruit

The choice seems clear, then
And it seems quick
Keep the people out, yea
It’s them that are sick
It’s them that rape, pillage
And crack the whip, indeed
A wise man knows when to quit
No,
I won’t cast stones
I’ll just build me a wall
Better to be dressed to kill
Than prone to crawl

And yet every time night falls
Through your window view
You won’t play the fool
You want what’s owed to you
You know you’ll have it all, if you just forget
The voice in the night every time the sun sets
But rich or poor
Still you feel unborn
You got love
But who’s it for?
When you realize a sobering truth
That love itself is no great virtue
To the courage that came first
Living in a dream, still deep inside of you

You wake in a cold sweat, it’s hard to forget
All the gold you own, and the possessions you’ve kept
But you leave it all behind and step out in the night
Soon the sun’ll come a-rising and you’ll enter the fight

And each and everyone will ask you “Whose side are you on?!”
They’ll worship and abuse you, and still you’ll carry on
Through the rain, there’s a thunder
And that rain’ll come hard
Yet still, you’ll stand together
With your brothers in arms.

Travel Log: Budapest/Borders

A few years back when I was still in Europe, people were persuading me not to go to Budapest since we’d heard news that the city was flooded with refugees seeking asylum from war-torn Syria.  But I had roots there and I’d never been as to close to it as I was then.  It was only a 7-hour train ride from Prague, so I decided to go. 

The roots I’m talking about are through my grandfather on my mother’s side.  Though I never met him, I feel like I’ve known him all my life through the stories I’ve heard and through the music–the Hungarian violin and the old gypsy csárdás, which are a type of folk dance native to Hungary made popular long ago by the Romani gypsies.

Whether it takes me to Castilla or Budapest, it seems I’m guided by that music and the unrelenting thirst for movement and experience it seems to inspire. Here I was now, years later, paying homage to my own gypsy blood, riding a train and vagabonding through Europe for close to a month already, finally making my way to a place–much like Castilla–that felt like my homeland in more ways than one.   

When the train pulled in to the station I looked out the window and caught my first sights of the city. I’ll admit, I half-expected to see angry mobs raising all sorts of hell like it was the Bastille at the start of the Revolution.

Yet as I looked out, I saw nothing particularly remarkable. The station was quiet. Nearly empty.  I stepped outside and saw fellow passengers leaving the train, some being greeted by friends and loved ones. I saw a few kids hanging out by the cafe and a few more outside, skateboarding around the courtyard. Whatever chaos had been unfolding in the preceding days and weeks had gone now.

I thought for a moment about the media and it’s tendency toward sensationalism, as it sometimes ignores other news for the sake of news that will keep us interested or drive up their ratings. I do worry whether it might become the boy who cried wolf, if it hasn’t already; as today I consider those who still have trouble grasping the urgency of climate change, or COVID-19 for that matter.

In any case, however things went down here, it appeared the refugees had either moved on or disappeared into the city blending in with everyone else. They were only people with the same essential needs and aspirations as the rest of us. And the more I recognized that, the more I thought about those qualities that truly defined a country.

Was it borders, or something less tangible? Maybe something not quite set in stone but in constant motion, rooted in history but still vulnerable to change by the passage of time, or by the influence of an outside world–one that can never be kept outside for too long.

If the latter was true, then I figured countries were a macrocosm of the individual human experience, which would ultimately make borders something of an illusion.

I hoisted my bag over my shoulder and stepped out onto the streets, the sky turning a bright pink as the sun set behind the hills and day faded into evening. The air had grown cool.  I could hear a violin somewhere not too far away.

Travel Log: Sundown at Yosemite

I spent the evening down on the valley floor by the Merced River and Tenaya Creek, past the lingering tourists snapping pictures in the last remaining hours of daylight.

I can’t say what I was looking for–maybe something extraordinary, since extraordinary was all that I had seen so far, and I had little indication that anything about that would change. 

The sun faded from view, leaving the sky cast in a pink-purple glow.  The air had cooled quickly, and I heard the sounds of the river somewhere through the trees. 

I approached a small tunnel where footprints led through to the other end.  It was actually more like a pile of rocks, and it formed what looked like a cave at first glance. Maybe it was my imagination running away with me, or some childlike adventurous impulse breaking free that I made no effort to resist. 

Yosemite Valley - Mirror Lake Trail - National Parks - Yosemite National Park - Yosemite - Jude Moonlight - Tenaya Creek - Quinby & Co.
On the Mirror Lake Trail heading toward Tenaya Creek; Yosemite National Park, CA

I crawled through it like some lost boy in his bedroom fort, made from chairs and bedsheets.  Only this was the genuine article, made from boulders and chunks of earth that had probably fallen many years ago.

I reached the other end and heard the sounds of the river growing louder.  I could see it flowing in between the trees.  I glanced up and noticed two birds flying playfully overhead.  I followed them to the water, flowing gently northeast.  I sat there on the bank, quietly upon the rocks and I listened.  The ‘river’ was actually Tenaya Creek, which had broken off from the Merced River at Curry Village. 

I sat there for a while and wrote about the creek whispering secrets, dispatches from the rest of the world with news on where we were all going from here.  The river seemed to know it all.  The river, swift and wise, the great shaper of mountainsides and treacherous canyons–shaping even the grandest and most mammoth caves in America. 

Yosemite Valley - National Parks - Yosemite National Park - Yosemite - Jude Moonlight - Tenaya Creek - Quinby & Co.
Tenaya Creek; Yosemite National Park, CA

The last rays of daylight had gone down as I left the valley and made my way out the west entrance of the park toward El Portal.  I camped for the night at an RV park, perched on a cliff overlooking the Merced River. 

This site was a cool alternative to camping in the park where campsites had been booked for months in advance.  I slept in something that wasn’t quite a tent, but not quite a cabin either.  It was a wide canvas tent the size of a small bedroom, equipped with a bed and nightstand and even a ceiling fan.  I guess it could qualify as ‘glamping,’ though I hadn’t heard that word at the time.  It didn’t have an AC or heating system, but I didn’t need one.  In those first days of August, the air outside was perfect.    

I enjoyed all the sounds of nature I would have enjoyed in a conventional tent, as well as most of the comforts of a cabin.  And I fell asleep to the sound of the river rushing below and the many creatures of the night, unknown and unseen. 

I slept like a rock.