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From the Archives: Revolution Square

September 17, 2019

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It’s 1996, I’m writing for The Moscow Times and wandering the parks and alleys of the capital, gathering it in, allowing it to become a part of me, each day finding new mysteries in its cool air and cold lovely stone. It’s my third tour working in this country; I’m no longer entirely a stranger here. But Russia, weird and wondrous, can’t help but leave even the most experienced foreigner feeling just a little bit strange. Here’s one of my adventures—and maybe not my proudest moment—described in a 2012 essay for Vegas Seven, “Revolution Square”.

 

 

From the Archives: The Morality of Slow

June 27, 2019

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In 2011, I was editing the weekly city magazine Vegas Seven and recalibrating my sense of place in the hometown to which I had only recently returned. The city was at once deeply damaged by the Great Recession and, as always, energized and ready for change—constantly reshaping itself beneath our feet while we hurried from one moment to the next trying to keep up with it.  Meanwhile, our digital existence seemed to echo our civic life, skittering about in our mental space, ever-shape-shifting, keeping us continuously looking down to make sure we understood where we were, seducing us into forgetting where we had been, telling us not to slow down, not ever, lest we fall behind. Amid this instability of both physical and virtual space, I reached a point where I sat down at (where else?) the keyboard and typed a thousand words that, I suppose, amounted to one: “Enough.”

Here’s the result—“The Morality of Slow.”

From the Archives: “Is The Smith Center the Last Good Thing?”

April 8, 2019

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Seven years ago, with Las Vegas still digging out of The Great Recession, a national commentator argued that The Smith Center was the tomb, rather than the launching pad, for the city’s civic energies. I disagreed, a lot. This was my reply in the late, great Vegas Seven. How does it hold up?

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The Set in the Woods

March 19, 2018

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I stand on the edge of an artful world,
Where the red of the fire
Is dimmed by smoke.
Don’t be alarmed:
Everything is under control.

Only the eyes
Flash like traffic lights
Beneath the pale sunset moon
Of a temporary town
In a dried-grass clearing.

We have work to do:
“Quiet on the set!” they cry,
Out of pure habit—
Nobody is saying anything anyway;
Only nature speaks its night language.
But they seem satisfied with the semi-silence,
As if unable to concede that the world goes on without them.
Even the wild dogs
And the dying leaves
And the face of a child in the forest
Go unnoticed, unheard, unseen,

Except by me,
Here on the edge,
Lost on the job
In the temporal space between last and next
And not-quite-now.
It’s never quite now with me.

I am not exceptional,
But somehow I am an exception,
Dazed by incomprehensible pauses in the action,
By my own elusiveness when community beckons.
I never knew life had such breaks.
I thought the story told itself, beginning to end,
In such a way that made it difficult for the characters to simply run off.
I wander into the woods
With no purpose,
No plan.

Like a hero from Cooper,
The child steps on a twig beneath dry leaves.
The twig—such lonely applause!—cracks;
From behind the cover
Of a lightning-struck stump,
A dog turns with a start,
A muffled growl, and then
A bark.

The child jumps,
The shimmer of surprise upon him like a feather on the soul.
Where had that dog been hiding?
And how did he get lost out here
Among the cedars?
The boy drops to his knees
And against my unspoken recommendation
Pets the lost mutt.

From the edge of the clearing
I smile to myself.
The kid is safe, I assume,
A local boy. I turn around
To those traffic-light eyes
Which now flash in the dark
As the director’s commands
Drown out the dog’s bark.

Greg Blake Miller
Outside Golitsyno, Russia, 1993

How Much Caring Goes Into Your Sharing?

March 17, 2018

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When we wander into Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel The Circle, the first thing we must do, akin to adjusting a watch when landing on faraway soil, is reexamine the notion of “Sharing Is Caring.” Eggers paints a portrait of a massive social-media corporation—The Circle—that gradually but relentlessly redesigns society, extending its circumference from its sylvan California headquarters outward to the city, the nation, the world. The engine of this radical growth is the corporation’s capacity to make the absurd seem inevitable. In smooth rhetorical steps, it reframes service to the company as service to society, privacy as theft, and erasure of self as selflessness, trusting that nobody will wade into philosophical waters to ask whether one can be selfless if there is no private self from which to give. The Circle’s guiding principle is “All That Happens Must Be Known,” but those grand words are dependent on the more innocent slogan, “Sharing Is Caring.” Those words provide the pseudo-ethical foundation for every step the company takes, for the most outlandish actions of its leaders, for Eamon Bailey’s overweening dreams and Tom Stenton’s cynical schemes. They also offer a window into the way we live today.

At first the phrase seems innocuous, or even, in a bumper-sticker sort of way, wise and loving. But upon closer examination, within the specific context of The Circle or, more importantly, the broader context of life in the age of social media, it develops shadows, first around its edges and then at its very heart. In these contexts, “sharing” does not mean what it seems: It does not connote the voluntary handing over of some portion of one’s worldly goods and privileges to another who is in need. For the most part, it also does not signify the voluntary, mindful sharing of one’s time and effort to help or console a person, animal, or community in need. Rather, the ancient ethic of opening one’s door to the stranger is invoked here only in the most cynical of ways: In The Circle, the knock on the door comes from the new governing authority—The Circle itself—the opening of the door is far from voluntary, and the one who knocks seeks not your aid and hospitality but your will and identity. In the broader social-media context of our lives outside Eggers’ book, there is a less direct sense of an authority barging in with its bogus warrant, but in its place there is often a more insidious type of authority at work: A bland but almost binding cultural rule of the road that we must leave our doors open and consent to being raided, observed and robbed. Our time, attention, data, creativity, and sense of self are suddenly available for the taking, like so many old possessions scattered on the lawn for a garage sale.

What does “Sharing Is Caring” mean when the sharing becomes obligatory (you have no choice but to share), ceaseless (you cannot stop sharing), unvaried (you cannot decide what to share and what not to share), and ubiquitous (everyone shares everything all the time, so that any effort to opt out is socially deviant)? In our world outside The Circle, of course, this sort of sharing is less obligatory, and we have more choices about when, how and what we share. But do we tend to allow the “Sharing Is Caring” ethic to become a sort of de facto rule in our online lives? Does yielding our time, attention and data become a custom so ingrained in our way of life that it is difficult to opt out, or even to consciously grasp what exactly we are yielding? Are we in the grips of McLuhan’s Narcissus Trance, so consumed by a communications medium that we no longer understand the way it controls the pace, scale and pattern of our lives? Have we become Dallas Smythe’s Audience Commodity, a resource ripe for harvest?

In ancient monastic traditions, the notion of voluntary self-emptying is a path to enlightenment. The ego yields and the individual dedicates self to something (God, spirit, community) larger. The bumper-sticker value of “Sharing Is Caring” is built upon its subtle association with this saintly ethic, half-remembered from old tales and dusty sermons. But The Circle uses the phrase as part of a cynical bait-and-switch. When “Sharing Is Caring” is based on obligation (in The Circle) or mindless surrender to cultural norms (under the de facto rules of our online lives), sharing cannot be caring. Caring implies that one has been careful—full of care—in ones choices, particularly in the willful decision to serve another. When sharing is obligatory or mindless, it derives not from caring but from obedience or reflex. It is demonstrably not caring. Sharing, in this case, is set above caring. It does not really matter whether you care or not.

There are times when the notion that “sharing is greater than caring” might be useful: Think of reasonable taxation that allows us to maintain a judicial system and build schools and foster public safety and protect the nation and stitch together a social safety net. There is no admonition in the Constitution that we must care—with all of the individual will and empathy the word implies—in order to give our government the necessary resources to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty.” Paying for these things is the price of admission for Americans. We can shift the shape and scope of our public expenditures through political action, but short of revolution, civil disobedience and garden-variety tax avoidance, we cannot selectively opt-in or simply opt out. In the broad sense, when it comes to paying for the upkeep of the nation, it once again doesn’t matter whether you as an individual care or not. Your tax bill arrives all the same.

But we have traditionally drawn the line between such sectors of life where sharing is greater than caring and those where sharing is the outgrowth of caring. We cherish a private sphere, a zone of self-ownership. Traditionally, we share the details of our lives with those whom we care about and who care about us. We try to make conscious choices about how we spend our personal time and who we invite to share that time. We choose our causes. We devote ourselves with care. We express solidarity when we feel it. We guard our thoughts and experiences and convey them to others when and if we’re inclined to do so. When it comes to sharing the content of self, we like to believe that we pick our moments, control our message, and choose our audience. But do we? How much do we share by reflex? How much do we share out of a sort of numb conformism? How much to we share without even knowing we’ve shared? How mindfully do we empty ourselves? Is our sharing unconscious? Or is it conscious but cynical, as we craft alternative selves, identities designed and constructed to suit the norms of our online community—the circle we live in, one that does not need Eamon Bailey to set the agenda because we ourselves help set it every day. Are we reshaped by the alternative selves we construct? Are the alternative selves, that is, constructing us? Are we sharing or being shared? Do we care?

– Greg Blake Miller

Mar Monte

September 3, 2017

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The hole was dug,
Neat and square.
The boards were laid.
Hands worked here,
They placed these boards,
Bracketed the corners
To frame the pour.
The barrel of the truck spun through the dark of night.

The foundation was poured,
The sludge made solid.
The gray of concrete reassures.
You can trust gray.

Sludge filled the square.
This all happened long ago.
It dried smooth,
Ready to be
Dressed in hardwood. Danced upon.

A grandparent, a great grandparent.
Your people were married here, in this building.
The pour was hard and strong. No cracks but the vents placed for pressure.
Eighty years go by with a gasp and a cough and a sigh

And the birth of three generations.

You return here, where you have never been, but they have, and you are
The legacy of the pour.

The cracks have grown. The vent was not enough.
You look upon the crumbling verandah
And you know that you, that we, have a responsibility
Not only to live
But to mend.

But you have grown in a different age
And have not built those skills.

Greg Blake Miller
 June 19, 2017

Summer in El Segundo

August 30, 2017

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Pale children in purple bathing suits,
Siblings, I’m sure,
Carve angry faces in the sand
And the elder spits slowly upon the younger’s creation.
Closer to the surf, Little Leo cuts his foot on a shattered seashell. The tide stings his wound. He does not cry out, only winces.
A bright jet roars over and nobody hears that Leo is not crying.
Sue pulls down her shades as the sun glints off the refinery walls.
A former footballer, I’ll call him Henry, is sucking in his disobedient belly, remembering the man he once was and imagining that he remains that man.

Is Sue watching Henry?
Henry would like to be seen.
Sue is not watching.
Nor is Big Beverly, who chars beneath a two-oh-six sun,
Dreaming,
One presumes,
Of igloos.
All this I pretend to know
On a lonely windless afternoon,
When I’ve forgotten to bring a book, and
God’s in his heaven, and
Everything is delightfully
Not right with the world.

– Greg Blake Miller, August 6, 1998