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!

My most recurring thought on January 6th was that if the insurrectionists had been Black, they’d be dead.  They would have been tear-gassed, beaten, thrown in jail and murdered.  Tanks would still be patrolling the Washington mall.

If anyone is still on the fence about white privilege, uncertain what it is and how pervasive it remains in our society, they needn’t look any further than the pictures of those who stormed the U.S. Capitol and ransacked congressional chambers and offices, their feet propped up on the desk of the Speaker of the House, getting caught in the act by police, and then not getting arrested but instead walking freely out the door.

Imagine if they were Black.  Or Latino.  Or Indigenous.  Do you honestly believe the reaction would have been the same?  If so, then I implore you to step outside your own circle and listen to people you haven’t listened to before.

Of course that speaks to the broader mechanisms at work which led to the riots in the first place.  We have justly recognized Donald Trump as the leader and the primary inciter of the plot to overthrow 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.

That 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 insurrectionists 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 Donald 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: 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

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

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.

a capella #1

I am not exactly a conventional musician, you know…
I couldn’t tell you anything about theory.
I can’t even read music. No,
I’m just like this wild man of the woods
born of the swamp, singing
if not screaming to the heavens
and sometimes to my people
and I’m gonna use whatever
I have on me to be able to do it.  

Though all I really need is my voice.

mantra #1

an exercise for clearing
out the cobwebs in your head…

for if we are truly
to get to writing then
we must have no fear (and)
keep the lids off the pens
things will get messy
as we paint the towns red.

as we write and we
write, see we write, write on
all excited once again when we
finally get to bed
as our body shakes and trembles
as we arrive outside our head

before the morning and late evening
when we do it all again

Mr. Moonlight Slim

Chase not the praise of others
seek only the affirmation of self
as you keep an eye out
for anytime you think
you’ve got things
figured out

as you constantly
create yourself
you may yet switch
names like you do
different hats
adopting shapes to match

but all the while
the stars align with
Slim the crescent moon
smiling in night
you are they
and they are you

a bluesman, true
born of the southern
American swamps
singing, dancing
for the coming
light of the sun
up the road, knowing
remembering all is
but one

Quick Tips: Photo Albums

As we continue life in quarantine and many of us spend an increasing amount of time at home, you may or may not have slipped into something of a routine or found yourself doing things to keep you busy or your spirits up.

One thing I’ve found particularly worthwhile is going through photos in my phone.

Now bear with me, because I know it sounds strange. Probably because it is. It’s also a simple way of passing the time which, for me, has proven to be a strong mood booster particularly when things around us seem so uncertain these days.

I take a lot of photos. Probably too many. Maybe I’m a nostalgic person, but I think the habit is due more to the fact that I like to celebrate moments. I take the pictures less as an insurance of not forgetting something, and more as a simple tribute to that singular moment in time.

It’s not that my memory isn’t good, I’m just generally a more visual guy and having the image helps me internalize the moment on another level.

In any case, it leaves me with a fair amount of photos, and while organizing them might seem at first like a tedious job—which it sometimes can be—with the right attitude, it can actually be very gratifying.

If you’ve ever gone through old photos with a family member, maybe old printed copies that were stashed away in a closet somewhere that neither of you had seen in a long time, then maybe you see where I’m going.

I know for me, in those moments, I walk away feeling less nostalgic and more grounded. I walk away with a better understanding of where I come from.

So let’s say I’m go through my photos and delete some, ‘favorite’ others, and as I’m going through maybe I’ll create an album and begin sorting them accordingly. All the while, I’m reflecting on past experiences which–in both subtle and obvious ways–naturally made me who I am.

Put more simply, going through our own history is useful for the same reasons it is going through any kind of history. It helps us better understand and appreciate how we got here. It keeps us grounded. Our feet are more firmly rooted with a greater understanding of self.

And so as we navigate the road ahead, and some of us are pushed to limits we never anticipated, remembrance might prove more valuable, and more necessary than we realize.