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

Mona Lisa Wheels

at my table
it’s a beautiful view
for in the cathedral of my mind, and
out across the highway
I’m seeing
visions
of antiquity
the streets of Paris
the slopes of the Sierra
the state roads of the South
along the banks of the Mississippi
river, and the ol’ Rio
Diabolo

I’ve got a set of wheels
a complex machine
sings from within me
my horse and steed
we take this road together
unmatched, obscene
but sharp and clean
over lands unseen
our spirit redeemed

It’s you and me,
let’s begin again now
and tell the old stories
oh how I love you, my friend
my fortune
my glory

dig it
we’re too big for dreaming

I think I’ll be living in Santa Fe pretty soon

I think I’ll be living in Santa Fe soon
picture me walking
‘long a New Mexico road
that Pueblo adobe
& streetlights of candlit
brown paper bags
on a winters night
me and the moon
and You
standing before St. Francis
cathedral
yea I can see it
I can see that being
my little midnight ritual
at the end
of every Saturday evening

let’s do it.

for right now
I’m right where I need to be

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.

Apathy Is Old News.

It’s long been fashionable particularly among young people to regard social activism and politics as something to be avoided, something messy and too rigged or corrupt to occupy our time.

We might regard the whole thing as much ado about nothing, a strange overcomplicating of ideas far more simple than politicians and pundits would have us believe, making compromise itself seem more alien than we ever thought possible.

We may yet have resorted to another kind of indifference, a kind that initially seems valid since it at least reflects a basic open-mindedness in considering both points of view.  Nevertheless it hints at an unwillingness or insecurity in standing up for what we truly believe.

In his book On Tyranny, author Timothy Snyder puts it best.

“What is truth?” Sometimes people ask this question because they wish to do nothing. Generic cynicism makes us feel hip and alternative even as we slip along with our fellow citizens into a morass of indifference. It is your ability to discern facts that makes you an individual, and our collective trust in common knowledge that makes us a society. The individual who investigates is also a citizen who builds. The leader who dislikes the investigators is a potential tyrant.





-Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny (2017)

This may remind us of our current political landscape and those in high office who’ve routinely reinforced notions of fake news along with a general hostility toward nuance and complexity and facts.

Politics is indeed complicated and for the most part it always has been, primarily because there are so many of us, each coming from different backgrounds and occupying our own sphere of personal experience.

But just because it’s complicated doesn’t mean it’s inaccessible. It requires us doing the work in educating ourselves and listening to other perspectives–listening, that is, but still ultimately making a decision.

On that note, in this election we saw a greater turnout than ever before and it’s enough to convince me that the type of apathy I described may be turning into something of the past, to the point that anyone still falling into that “morass of indifference” seems not only impractical but passé to the point of looking silly.

Still, it’s important that our rising passions and renewed enthusiasm don’t lead to recklessness.  In this age of social media it can be particularly tempting to speak out on a cause more for the sake of saying something or simply conforming to sudden popular opinion and less because we truly believe in it or have done a good amount of investigating, critical thinking and listening ourselves.

Such oversight can lead to an increased state of tribalism where each of us places less value in facts and objectivity than we do in our side being right.

We must remember to be vigilant for the breakdown of objectivity both in our society and in ourselves.  Our allegiance belongs to facts and to understanding the truth as completely as possible, not to our own egos.

To that point, what’s particularly troubling is the continued prevalence of cable news in our society, which is without question the main culprit behind the ever-increasing divisions in our country.

These programs, mere talk shows masquerading as news programs, are far less beholden to the rules of journalism than to those of television and ratings; where they’ll report the news for a minute, and then open the floor to pundits and spinsters who occupy the next 20-30 minutes essentially telling us what to think of it.  As if we don’t have that ability ourselves.

“Viewers don’t want to be informed.  Viewers want to feel informed.”

Chet Collier, one of the original founders of Fox News

They’ll call themselves news programs but what they really are is propaganda providing less information than entertainment, reinforcing the things they know their audience wants to hear–indeed a far cry from the quickly fading journalism of the David Brinkley/Walter Cronkite mold anchored in facts and reporting before opinions and personalities.

It’s what we get when journalism becomes less a service than a business–content in which there is ultimately no liberal or conservative bias, but merely a money bias.  A business run by people who know where their audience stands and what it likes, and so naturally they keep playing the information that will keep its attention.

In this way they’re no different than most forms of entertainment.  Of course, the more serious problem is their continued suggestion that they are anything more, that they are something that we can actually trust and take seriously as a source of information, unaware that we are likely doing so less to be informed than to be entertained.

And so we have become the sad enablers of our own creepy addiction.  And our country is suffering for it, as we are more deeply divided now than at any time in modern history.  

Yet, as we the viewers have lifted cable news to this level of esteem, so too can we disenfranchise it by no longer watching it.  We can reinvest our time and allegiances to print journalism, a medium in which ratings are irrelevant and entertainment is not a priority, where outside the editorial section, there is little space for opinions and personality in an environment anchored in facts and words alone.

The better print journalists allow us to consider the meaning, for ourselves and our country, of what might otherwise seem to be isolated bits of information. But while anyone can repost an article, researching and writing is hard work that requires time and money. Before you deride the "mainstream media," note that it is no longer the mainstream. It is derision that is mainstream and easy, and actual journalism that is edgy and difficult. So try for yourself to write a proper article, involving work in the real world: traveling, interviewing, maintaining relationships with sources, researching in written records, verifying everything, writing and revising drafts, all on a tight and unforgiving schedule. If you find you like doing this, keep a blog. In the meantime, give credit to those who do all of that for a living. Journalists are not perfect, any more than people in other vocations are perfect. But the work of people who adhere to journalistic ethics is of a different quality than the work of those who do not.





-Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny (2017)

Indeed the time for apathy is over.  I am encouraged to see a greater feeling of activism among the electorate.  But we must ensure that our passions are those we’ve cultivated on our own terms, and not simply because somebody told us what to think and what to feel.  We must actively participate based on our own individual conclusions, not on those fed to us by what we hear on TV or see on social media. 

If our activism is rooted on our individual ability to think critically, then it will prove to be an activism that lasts, and one that creates the healthier and more united country we seek to become.  

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: General Sherman

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now that was all about to change.

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

Talking About Political Correctness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, that leads to another point of discussion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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