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Encounters With Covid, or The Hairy Weirdo With the Key Fob

March 16, 2021
Illustration by Sydney Franklin for Red Canary Magazine.

Sometimes when I can’t sleep, I picture the coronavirus. The vision is usually abstract — a coil of light in the sign of infinity. But other times it’s entirely concrete: a hairy weirdo, Rasputin with a shopping cart, who’s found a remote key fob and is stalking the parking lot hitting the little button with a twitchy thumb. This is no ordinary fob; it’s a skeleton key. It knows your code and your neighbor’s code and certainly mine.

In early November of the Most Unforgettable (No Matter How Hard You Try) Year of 2020, my entire family fell sick with Covid-19. I wound up in the hospital, followed by a long (and continuing) dog-paddle in the virus’ stale wake. We are among the fortunate: We are here, drawing breath, reflecting. We are even able to poke fun at our experiences, searching for the strange light of dark humor. In this essay for Red Canary Magazine, my goal was to capture the raw physical and emotional realities I experienced, without the lacquer of hindsight. That is to say, the piece is very frank—and it doesn’t much flatter its author!

You can read the story, “The Hairy Weirdo With the Key Fob,” accompanied by Sydney Franklin’s darkly funny and (for me) haunting illustrations, here.

(By the way, check out other stories on Red Canary as well—it’s a terrific publication, led by the outstanding editor and writer Joe Donnelly, who captained the late, great literary mag Slake.)

– Greg Blake Miller

Brain Fog

February 18, 2021

When the legendary Green Bay quarterback,
Who is on the screen as I speak,
Becomes “that guy on the Packers,”
When one of my closest friends becomes
“The tall dude from the magazine,”
When my dog, at leash’s end,
Will respond neither to my son’s name nor my wife’s,
Because the dog has a name of her own,
I will begin to believe that things will never be the same.

What will that feel like
If I can’t remember how they were?

Text and photo by Greg Blake Miller

The Voter

February 15, 2021


I wrote this song on election day, November 3, 2020, while the returns were still coming in. Earlier that day my 20-year-old son tested positive for Covid and now sat across the room from me in a mask and face-shield, breathless in more ways than one, as the man on the screen assembled his jigsaw of red and blue. The boy’s fever had hit 101; he was shivering but riveted by the story that—as we now know—was just beginning to unfold.

The Voter

I’m a character in your narrative
A player in your game
I’m a piece upon your chessboard
I’m the fan upon your flame

You built yourself a platform
You spoke loudly, you spoke long
You won yourself attention
You earned yourself this song

And when all the counting’s over
I’ll still be here in this town
You’ll define me and decry me
You will say I’ve let you down

I will call myself forgotten
Though I never have been known
Misremembered, misbegotten
When my soul was out on loan

And you up in your tower
Sitting on your golden chair
You will waver, you will wallow
You will call this world unfair

I am lonely, you’re surrounded
I am sick and you are well
But your dreams have been confounded
And I wish you well in hell.

Covid, Cake and Cadlewax: A Thank-You Note

December 18, 2020

Fifty-first birthday, 51 days after the coronavirus (anagram: carnivorous) started snacking on my cells, five straight days of feeling pretty decent. Sounds like time for a slice of cake, a word of thanks, and a wish for better days ahead—for all of us. So: a word and a wish to my wife and my son who, though they too were sick, were there for me through every anxious day; to my friends, ever relentless with their good wishes; to the doctors and nurses who saved my skin not once but twice. Those knights in pale PPE not only brought me through a six-day Covid-pneumonia sojourn at the hospital but also through a post-Thanksgiving return trip to the ER, when the virus had hacked its way into my neurological and gastrointestinal systems and written an unpleasant code all its own. (I’ll leave it at that; this is a family show.) That second trip was, thankfully, not an overnight stay, but I was sent home with new meds and marching orders that got me through a bumpy fortnight, my own little Wimbledon with its own small victory. Five straight good days! What can you do but drop to your knees and look to the sky? You shake your opponent’s hand—“Well played, Covid.” Then you wash your hands, ready for whatever comes next.

Song of Life

November 26, 2020

The voices beyond the wall are young and full of today, nothing more: One has the ball, one wants the ball. Or maybe there is no ball; I can’t really hear what they’re saying, only their kid-tones through the yellow autumn air on Thanksgiving day, musical assurance that life goes on wherever it can.

Even I, a month into illness, five days from a hospital bed, feeling certain that my head will go on hovering like a helium balloon, have come out to play today, masked on the sidewalk, masked in the park, strolling past foliage gone impossibly gold, past a caterpillar finding its way across the sidewalk to reach a quiet place to reinvent itself, past a single curled red leaf collecting sunlight like cinnamon tea. 

My wife is with me, my son, my dog. Only the dog has remained unscathed by this viral month, and a case could be made that she is leading us, she is keeping us whole in the world, she is requiring us to remain part of all that is. The voices of the neighborhood kids follow us home. During the early months of the pandemic, my wife whispered a sing-song sentence, “The birds don’t know, they sing and sing.” The kids are like birds, but they know. They know and they sing anyway. 

Inspired, my son takes a tennis ball into the backyard, sets himself up before our old hoop, and commences an improvised version of basketball. He’s just turned 20; he’s home from college, part of the national effort to keep students away from the coronavirus. He got it anyway. After three weeks his lungs are once again growing strong with air, his muscles agitating for action. His gesture is open, the invitation is clear, Let’s play.

My mouth starts to say no, then I hear it say yes. Basketball leads to baseball catch, then to a specialized sort of catch where each of us are allowed to throw and catch only with our off-hands. My smart son tells me that this will foster new neural connections in my brain. Already the helium balloon is reconnecting with the body, already the world is calling me back, and wondering if I will accept the invitation. 

Happy Thanksgiving.

The Roadside: A Covid Tale

November 7, 2020

My son, Elek, is the top-ranked compound junior male archer in the United States. Today he was supposed to be at the Gator Cup in Newberry, Florida, to cement that ranking for 2020 and earn his place on the junior national team. This had been his goal for six years, and he’d worked tirelessly to achieve it. This, as they say, was his moment. The tickets were purchased, the bags were packed. But last Sunday he developed a high fever, which shot up further on Monday. On Tuesday morning, Election Day, he tested positive for Covid-19. I can tell you that young people can, indeed, have heavy symptoms. Elek is still quite ill.

For seven months, we were extremely careful. Our corona-caution extended to a whole assembly-line ritual of “de-Coviding” the groceries when we brought them home. Elek is taking his classes online for his sophomore year at the University of Arizona. We wear our masks. We’ve tried to be true to the early social principles of the coronavirus era, when we were told that we were all in this together, before it became politically useful for powerful people to use the virus to tear us apart. Between March and October we traveled just once, to the USA Archery SoCal Showdown, where Elek won gold. 

Two weeks ago, we decided to make a short trip to Tucson so that Elek could visit his university and spend some time working with his coach. He wanted to get his shot, his bow, and his mindset in top shape for Gator Cup, which would be the final tournament of his junior career. Again, we were cautious throughout the trip—masks, clean hands, giving others as wide a berth as we could in aisles and on paths. All the same, the journey felt like a sort of return to the wide world, a rediscovery of a lost planet. We brought our dog; we walked her on dusty trails among exotic cacti and tangled green mesquite; red-tailed hawks soared above, an owl hooted from someplace unseen, families of quail skittered through the brush. The dog is a border-collie-beagle, silky black on her back, wooly white at the chest, 11 years old; she’s had three surgeries in 11 months; two to remove tumors, one to fix hind legs that had worn themselves out. She seemed to get younger on these walks; her steps were swift, her eyes alight with nature, her nose reading the encyclopedia of a fresh new world. Her sense of health made us all feel healthy, the world cooling into bright autumn, all the year’s poison burned off at last. We have these sensations sometimes: pleasure, longing, hope, mirage.

***

Elek’s Tucson training lasts four days—he’s ready now; his bow tuned to sweet precision, his shot rhythmic and true. Time to head back to Las Vegas, stay healthy for a few more days, and head off to the big tournament. We drive the bright highway, past Picacho Peak, jutting into the sky like a cartoon cat, around the endless perimeter of Phoenix, weaving through Wickenburg. Political signs festoon even the smallest towns. We’d love to be listening to music, but instead we freight our journey with CNN.

Our dog needs to stretch her legs; we need a bite to eat. We pull off the road onto a gravel driveway where a corrugated-steel hangar houses our favorite little roadside cafe. The owner has become a friend over the years. She always greets us with kindness; she takes an interest in our lives, and we in hers. She makes wonderful pies. Elek goes in to order a sandwich. There is no better sandwich on the road from Tucson to Vegas; you take a Sharpy and a little laminated card and check the boxes of everything you want. My wife, Svetlana, treasures this place more for its grounds than for its grub. She and I stay outside; we walk the dog through a sweetly overgrown garden, up a little manmade hill with a tiny waterfall. A scarecrow is sitting on a bench. Everything speaks of care, refuge. By the side of the cafe, in the shadow of a tangled mesquite, Svetlana pours some water for the dog. I go inside and sit with Elek. He has taken a seat, his mask still on; he waits for his sandwich. It’s quiet, peaceful; we’re tired and this place promises replenishment. Inside, the owner is not wearing a mask, but the place is empty.

Several men enter the cafe, none of them in masks. They are talking loudly about constitutional originalism. One is wearing a red cap with a famous slogan; he says he’s been to a big political rally. Elek’s sandwich, which he had ordered to-go, arrives on a ceramic plate. He tries to eat quickly. Svetlana appears at the door with the dog; she waves to the owner, and the owner, kind as ever, smiles, gestures to our dog, whom she knows well from the passing years, and says, You can bring her in!

Now we are, all of us, sitting in the small cafe, a few feet from the unmasked men, listening to their latest jurisprudential theories. Svetlana orders a slice of pie to go and a cup of tea, but once again, the food, which is delightful, arrives on a ceramic plate, complete with a scoop of melting vanilla ice-cream. The owner asks my wife if she wants the pie warmed up. Caught in the spirit of the moment—we like the owner, she likes us, the food is good—Svetlana says yes. The men at the counter are talking more loudly; they know all the news, a certain sort of news. Elek has stopped eating his sandwich and put on his mask. We wait. A large family enters unmasked—a mother, an aunt perhaps, a couple of little kids, a teenage girl—and forms a chatty semicircle around the cash register. 

We have, in six years of traveling to and from Arizona, never seen the place this crowded. We’re pleased that business is going well, and we really want to leave. It is an American scene, in some ways the best of America—people of all sorts interacting with a certain generosity, the kind that makes people open with their views and the stories of their daily lives. In ordinary times, it would feel healthy—the kind of social health the Internet has robbed us of. But these are not ordinary times, and the difference between goodness and, frankly, un-Christian indifference to others is as thin as a peace of simple cloth worn over the mouth and nose.

We ask for our food to be packed up. Svetlana and Elek head outside with the dog; I wait for the semicircle around the cash register to disperse so I can pay. The owner asks me about Elek’s archery, his school, how we’re holding up through the Covid era. I ask her about business, about her family. I can’t resist engaging in conversation; this sort of engagement is a relic of my earlier self, the one that lived before the pandemic, and I don’t want to let go of it. 

We get back on the road, arrive home in the evening to catch the final innings of the World Series on TV. Our beloved Dodgers win for the first time in 32 years. One of the star players, Justin Turner, receives news of a positive Covid test in the eighth inning and has to leave the game. Later, he returns to the field to celebrate with his teammates. He pulls off his mask for the team photo; he lingers, exchanges hugs and high fives. We can’t really blame him, except we can. This season of American life allows no pure sensations of triumph.

A few days later, the first sign appears—Elek’s dream, in which a new species of tarantula-lizards are engaged in some kind of internecine war, attacking and devouring one another. A day after that he is sick, and a day after that the Covid diagnosis arrives. Now we are all wearing masks in the house; Elek doesn’t want to get us sick, so he even puts a shield over his mask; he looks like an astronaut, going through his days, taking his online tests, looking at his bag, still packed for Florida, sitting in the middle of the living room. 

On the Thursday after Election Day, Svetlana and I develop fevers, too, along with coughs, body aches, shortness of breath and sharp sore throats. On Friday, we test positive as well. Last night was long and difficult for all of us. I woke in the deep of night, entirely unable to breath; I caught my breath and calmed myself by thinking about, of all things, writing. We each have our own peculiar coping mechanisms. With all due respect to the flu, which can be serious business, this is not just the flu.

***

I don’t know if we were infected that day at the cafe. I hope not; the place was a small grace note in our lives, and I don’t want the memory of it to be upended by this new meaning as the source of illness. I have always thought of the cafe as a place of refuge and solace on a long, desolate road. I’d like to keep thinking of it that way. Maybe the virus came to us by some other means, at some other place. But I can’t help thinking of the strange aggression that causes our fellow men and women, our brothers and sisters who know of the fragility of both their bodies and ours, no matter how mighty we think ourselves, to forget the duty of care we all owe one another. I can’t help thinking of the simple gesture of putting on that mask, which could be the difference between sickness and health, or even life and death, or at the very least, a dream achieved or a dream denied.

– Greg Blake Miller

Electoral Aftermath: Jubilation, Anxiety and the American Future

November 7, 2020

After so much mourning, jubilation in the streets of America.

The celebration is well and truly earned, for these have been punishing years for believers in any of the old Superman virtues—truth, justice, the American way, back when it went without saying that the American way implied truth and justice. They have been punishing years for believers in democracy, in civility, in conversation and cooperation. They have been punishing years for people who believed that the Civil War had been fought and won by the right side, that the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were every bit as much a part of the constitution as the words penned in 1787, that the collapse of Reconstruction was a calamity or that the Civil Rights movement was a moral triumph, however incomplete. 

It has been a punishing season for people who believed that the scientific method has worth, particularly when we are dealing with matters of science, that the health of our brothers and sisters is not disposable, that we owe one another a duty of care, that political discourse is not a bloodsport. 

It could be argued that we have all been naive, and that the very traits we disdain in the passing era are now permanent fixtures in the American social genome, engineered into place by the wizards of the Internet, who told us we could have what we wanted, and we responded: “Conflict.” 

That’s where our work begins: Can we learn to want something else? Can we learn to treasure concord rather than discord, the non-zero-sum game in which we give a little, get a little and realize that the giving and getting aren’t mutually negating but mutually reinforcing? Can we embrace a public life not based on the negation of the other? Can we rise above the infantile language of winners and losers, acknowledge that we are on the same team, and play hard together?

These are our tasks, and this is our time.

Reflect. Connect. Slow down. Look closer.

July 8, 2020


In an age when so many of us arrive at each conversation with a ready-made verdict, we need to return to the finer fundamentals of curiosity, listening, study, open engagement and creative thought. Productive conversations start not with answers but with questions.

The Fabric of Belonging

July 4, 2020

This is not the flag of nationalists and nativists, but of all Americans, of every origin and walk of life, dreaming, striving, working together to form a more perfect union, one where those famous self-evident truths by which we measure ourselves become ever more evident in our daily lives. So when we say, “Let’s do better,” it’s not un-American; it IS America.
#BLM #MATH #BeWell #GoldenRule #HappyFourth

Greg Blake Miller

The Response

June 5, 2020

When media outlets label these anxious days “America in Crisis,” as an (otherwise solid) NBC special did last night, it’s important they state clearly that the crisis is not the protests, but the virulent racism that made the protests necessary. 

Even then, it’s possible that the exclamatory language of “Crisis!”—in conjunction with endless imagery of police on the street in full riot gear—is a sort of dog whistle to those who believe that dissent is fundamentally dysfunctional. In reality, dissent is a social immune response, the swelling of the body politic at the site of a wound. In the best-case scenario, the result is health that is not only renewed but transformed—a hardier society with greater resistance. 

As we’ve all learned in the national biology lessons of the Covid era, immune systems can be capricious; the response can overwhelm the body. But we’ve also learned that without any response, our bodies are playgrounds for pathogens. In the body, as in the nation, the proposition becomes this: Resist or perish. The question is, what is a properly calibrated resistance? What kind of response leads to sustained health?

Media discourse—both verbal and visual—that proposes the false equation “protest = crisis” misreads both the cause of our national pain and the course of our recovery. The real prognosis, while still provisional, may be be better than the discourse is letting on: Dissent, on the whole, might be doing the job it’s meant to do, the one the founders had in mind when they established the rights of free speech and assembly.

If the protests remain peaceful—which is not to say passive—we should (should!) see the language of crisis subside as the media and the nation realize that we are witnessing not only sustained dissent but the birth of a sustainable movement for a more just America. 

Next step, voting. Beyond that, policy.

Text and illustration by Greg Blake Miller