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First Light (TGWP 7)

May 15, 2017

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From the novel This Game We Play, by Greg Blake Miller, continued from “Madness” (TGWP 6)This is the beginning of the novel’s second section, “The Basketball Boy,” which returns to Tucker’s childhood. Photo by Svetlana Larionova Miller.

I am periodically and not unpleasantly haunted by a childhood image that I can neither place in time nor dismiss as a dream. In this vision, I am sitting atop Mud Pony Mountain, arm’s length from a cloud, a collection of just-gathered rocks spread before me on a rust and tan plaid blanket. An uneaten drumstick from a red-striped chicken bucket bastes in its own grease on a paper plate. My dog, a brindle boxer named Brassy, looks up at me as if to say I’m not gonna eat it either. A few feet away my mother and father and brother are eating and talking and laughing. The noontime sky hangs like a great cracked eggshell over the valley. The mountains look silvery and gaseous, as if one could walk through them to a different room beneath a different shell. I look straight up at the sun and then close my eyes to see how long its ghost lingers. I prop my feet on patient Brassy’s back. I sleep—or, rather, I brush the edge of sleep but stay awake, just enough awake and just enough asleep that the world appears to be a dream but is still the world. I have mentioned this vision to my mother, and she has assured me that we took neither Brassy the boxer nor a red-striped bucket of chicken to the top of Mud Pony Mountain, which, in any case, as far as she knows, is accessible only by helicopter.

This much is true: The oldest memories I have are of my keen pursuit of a waking dream-state, where there was only a slim and dimly understood barrier between physical sensation and magic. I was three years old and full of desire and I did what it took to feel what I wanted to feel. In the evenings, just before bedtime, my mother would put a wet load in the dryer and shut off the laundry room light and from across the house I could hear the room begin to hum. I’d finish brushing my teeth, stroll down the hallway in my pajamas, slip into the laundry room and lie down on the cool blue linoleum. The dryer had a single fluorescent tube up top and it bathed the room in a ghostly gray glow. The place was irresistible.

I was always on the ground somewhere, like a puppy, or an ant; my world was defined by the textures of floor coverings. In the kitchen we had lumpy tan tile that was always cold, and I liked to sprawl there in the path of the warm wind that blew from beneath the refrigerator. Carpets, too, I liked. The hallway semi-shag was thick and soft and the color of avocado, but if I brushed my hand across I could change the shade to something like lime. I could amuse myself for a good while with such tricks. If I followed the hallway far enough, I’d get to my parents’ room, then to their bed, where the brown bedskirt had a sharp edge that tickled my palm in a way I rather liked.

I don’t know how I got away with spending so much time lying around. My brother got used to stepping over me on his way from one room to the next. My mother would do entire loads of laundry in the dark while I lay at the foot of the dryer. Once she turned on the light, and I stood with a start like an awakened cat, and stretched, and left. I think it made her sad to see my peace disturbed so, and she didn’t turn the light on anymore after that.

 

By the time I turned six, my brother Simon had become a basketball star. When he wasn’t playing down the street or in a league, he’d go out to our backyard hoop and shoot 15-footers from around-the-world stations, testing the comfortable old two-handed from-the-chest set shot against a grown-up one-handed jumper. He set me up under the basket to rebound for him and tell him what I thought. He’d shoot a set shot from the left side and say “chest,” then a jumper from the same spot and say “overhead.” And I’d say either “overhead” or “chest” depending on which shot looked better to me. This was an issue of today’s comfort versus tomorrow’s hard-earned success. It was a foregone conclusion that overhead would win. Still, I was flattered to be consulted. And I understood what it was he wanted: I wasn’t to base my judgment on which shot went in, but on which motion looked better. When the overhead shot looked as fluid as the chest shot, Simon would know he was in business. My brother didn’t expect things to come naturally; he knew he had to make them become natural. As a fifth-grader he sat on the couch for hours each night with his feet on the coffee table and a full, forgotten glass of milk in his hand, memorizing Spanish verbs. Here, too, he included me. Peinarse-to comb one’s hair; peinarse–to comb one’s hair; peinarse–to comb one’s hair. To comb one’s hair? And here, of course, I was to say peinarse.

At the time, I hadn’t fully quit the sensual habits of my younger years—I suppose I maintained the lifestyle a little longer than most kids—but next to Simon’s laborious learning, all my lounging around seemed terribly unproductive. The feelings worth having were to be had through work. Soon enough, I decided to want the same things Simon did. I still wanted to feel the kind of feelings I felt at the feet of clothing dryers and refrigerators, but I stopped seeking the feelings out, stopped cruising the carpets and floors and appliance air vents. By the end of kindergarten I was sitting on the couch with my feet on the table and a glass of milk in my hand, spelling friend over and over with the help of my teacher’s mnemonic trick, “FRIday is the END of the week.” I also went out to the backyard and set myself up with perfect grown-up Simon form (overhead!) and pushed the ball at the basket, which was much, much too far away. As for the old desires, they sank into the creases of my life like pennies you lose in the car seat. Desire, which demands to be fulfilled, turned into longing, which is content to remain exactly what it is. Desire never forgets what it wants; longing, in time, becomes inchoate, a thing in itself, the reason for which can be utterly forgotten. It’s safer that way, anyway. You scare yourself less when you decide you’re unlikely to get what you’re hoping for, when you consign it to an impossible dreamland, a paradise lost, a childhood moment of green grass and shameless sunshine that flared and faded and you don’t know why. You can feel your longing, wonder what it’s all about, then shrug your shoulders and get on to the business of wanting the things that matter.

– Greg Blake Miller

Madness (TGWP 6)

May 7, 2017

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This is the sixth installment the novel This Game We Play, by Greg Blake Miller, continued from “Coach Ax’s Preseason Party” (TGWP 5).

The explosions were just as I remembered them. Players’ eyes shone wide beneath falling sparks, just as they always had. The same milk-and-honey voice boomed over the loudspeaker. If you were a player or a coach or a fan or a little boy who, for this one night, got to sit on the ballplayer’s bench, this was the promised land. There were three firework bursts from the top of each basket and five from center court; columns of white flame rose to the rafters, broke apart just short of the jumbotron, fell in lazy firefly formations toward the blond heads of chanting cheerleaders and died in tiny puffs of smoke just before they could ignite innocent pigtails. Conical beams of light reached down from the arena rim, darting in wild arcs across the crowd, bathing revelers in circles of red and blue and green and ghost-white. As a little boy, I’d pointed up at green-tinted fans as the light circles swung across the stands. There’s the Martians … No, there’s the Martians! Dad would put his hand on my head and muss my yellow Prince Valiant hairdo and smile like a saint at the start of another pilgrimage. Tonight, I had the urge to reach up and dishevel my own moussed head. I had come to my first Midnight Madness when I was six years old and had not missed one until I’d taken my bags and books and jumpshot to the seaside town of San K, where madness came in time to mean a different thing altogether.

And Now…your ZANtrummmm DUSTflames!!!

The cheerleaders unrolled a red carpet with the “University of Zantrum” written along its length in golden lightningbolt script. The players galloped out of the tunnel and over the carpet to center court, upon which was painted the UZ logo, a swirling dustdevil with a flame shooting from the top. Senior point guard Elliott Murphy took a pass from the ballboy and the players began a layup drill in which there were no layups. Murphy, a 6’1” dynamo, made a 360-rotation-two-handed slam and the noise in the place was transformed from an agitated roar to a hysterical scream. Next, Baldwin Pimm, a rangy forward with a smooth jumpshot and a shaved head, took off from the corner of the key and soared in for a tomahawk jam. Eighteen-thousand nightowls, apparently quite successful professionals by day (non-student tix: $55), began slapping each other and howling like wolves and yelling “PIIIIIMeeeee” until their voices went hoarse. Behind the bench, a very old man had brought a great grandchild who appeared to be a few hours old and was holding him aloft like a Pagan battle torch. I was about ready to snatch the poor kid down when Great Grandma, with a great frown, planted some shame in the old coot. Three middle-aged men with John Kennedy haircuts tore off their shirts behind the media table to reveal the words “We Love Ax.” I smiled and closed my eyes and breathed deeply and opened them to wonder anew at these, the assembled people of my native town, who each October 15, at the stroke of midnight, transformed themselves into a Mass Choir of the Insane, something straight out of the old fever dreams of banned Russian writers.

My father had taken a seat on the bench and was wearing the shadow of a frown. He’d never gone in for these ostentatious dunk displays but, by the late ’80s he’d given in to the persistence of fans, boosters, players and marketers and consented, just this one time a year, to the sullying of the sacred layup drill. He was still holding out, a lone figure in an earthen fort, against a formal slam dunk contest. “Let them save their competitive fire for tomorrow’s practice,” he said. “They’ll need it.”

Once the players had completed three circuits of slams, they returned to the bench for introductions. Tonight only, announcer MacDonald Kenney—he of the heavenly octogenarian lungs—would introduce not only the starters and the head coach, but the whole squad, the assistants, the trainer and the manager. The non-regulars, especially the freshmen, were hopping in anticipation on spring-loaded legs, as if they were about to take on Duke before the eyes of God and Dick Vitale himself. Thirty-three games a year they found their way by the light shone upon their superiors. Tonight they could bask, just for a moment, in a glow of their own.

I’d waited my entire childhood to hear my name upon the lips of MacDonald Kenney and then, just when the syllables had seemed imminent, I’d cut a detour to the unenthusiastic arena of a red-brick liberal arts school five hundred miles northwest of Zantrum. I had, for a while, flourished in the small-time. Twice I’d made all-conference as a point guard, I’d set the University of San K assist record, and we’d won a cumulative 61 games by the middle of my aborted junior (and final) season. But I had never heard my name spoken by MacDonald Kenney.

Kenney worked his way down the roster. Players dashed out beneath a tracking spotlight into a golden ring of pom-pom girls with uplifted arms. My insides balled up like a fist with bad intentions. Blum’s hand was on my shoulder. I glanced down at it and it seemed huge and hideous and full of deadly power: A Teddy Bear, I thought, is still a bear. This Blum, full of warm ambitions for the Axelrod heir, would simply flex his paws and pierce the flesh of my shoulder and reach down and squeeze the aorta and the ventricles and the superior vena cava and tinker and sculpt and mold until I had become, from the inside out, what he needed me to be at this very moment: a coach’s son who didn’t feel the least bit uncomfortable being the coach’s son; a fine young man growing happily into the shoes of his old man, with neither fear nor ambivalence about filling them.

I looked at my watch for no reason at all. 12:12. I wondered how many times Evan had already woken since bedtime. From across the city, I wished him some sleep, and Priscilla too. I felt like wishing myself some sleep, wishing myself away from this moment I’d dreamed about, away from the roar and the lights and the team and my father. The crowd was producing a ghastly white noise that seemed to come from inside my head. I glanced behind the bench. The only familiar faces in the crowd were those who had known me as a boy, and, I assumed, would never regard me as anything else: Bumbry was sharing a joke with a familiar-faced fat lady wearing what appeared to be a red tent. Simon stood next to my mother, ardently explaining to her things she no doubt already understood. At the end of the bench, sitting with his eyes half closed, as if pondering imponderables in a tall and raftered library, was the old man himself. I felt I should be delivering water to players or cute little quips to boosters. I felt that someone any moment now might approach me and tousle my hair. I felt Blum might hug me. I wanted my wife here; I wanted my son, bedtime be damned. I wanted someone here who knew me as a man.

“Director of Basketball Operations, in his first year with the Dust Flames, TUCKerrrrr AXelrawwwwwd.”

The spotlight swung toward me, surrounded me, fenced me in. I stood dumbly for a second and thought about the movies: Julie Andrews and the Familie von Trapp had had the foresight to bolt before the announcement.

I charged into the circle of high-kicks and pantyflashes and ponytails.

My ears rang with the echo of AXelrawwwwwd!

I couldn’t tell if it was a welcome or a warning.

– Greg Blake Miller

Next: “First Light” (TGWP 7).

Coach Ax’s Preseason Party (TGWP 5)

May 7, 2017

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This is an excerpt from This Game We Play, by Greg Blake Miller, continued from “Earthmovers” (TGWP 4).

I pulled into the horseshoe driveway and parked behind a black Bentley with red leather interior and a license plate (DST FLM) with a frame that read, “I Brake For Pickup Games”. This car, let me be clear, did not belong to either of my parents. I let myself in the house. I picked Dusty the Plush Dust Flame up from the well of the grandfather clock, turned him around a time or two, smiled at him. My father and a fat man walked out of the den, laughing.

“The sharpshooter!” said the fat man. He hugged me and wound up hugging Dusty, too. I’d known Gardner Bumbry all my life. He’d been at the beach with his boys the day I lost my rock.

“Good to see you,” I said.

“Got any any eligibility left?”

“I’ve been washed up a long time now.”

“Tell me again,” said Bumbry. “Why didn’t you come play for us?”

“Self-actualization.”

“Your Pop tried to sell me that crap.”

“He did the right thing,” my mother said. She had come from the kitchen to check on Dusty. She was still carrying the toothbrush.

“I’ve got some floss in the car if you need it,” said Bumbry.

“Al was under the impression that he could slice a cucumber.”

My father waved his bandaged finger.

“Are you actualized?” Bumbry asked me.

“He needed to get out from under Al’s wing,” said my mother.

“And yet,” said Bumbry, “here you are.”

I looked at each of my shoulders, then smiled at Bumbry.

“By God, you’re right,” I said.

***

Blum arrived at eight, eyed me across the room and mouthed, “Smartass.” I shrugged and bit into a celery stick. He approached my mother with apologies for his tardiness. “I was delayed at the gate,” he said. “It seems I’d already arrived.” Distracted by the disappearance of a silver dip tray, Mom pressed Blum’s hand. “Of course you had,” she said. Blum crossed the room, navigating the sea of bald spots and silvery perms. He was a full head taller than the doctors and dentists and tax attorneys and real-estate developers and rough-handed founders of carpet-cleaning empires. He nodded and smiled his mournful smile as they looked up at him. These were the folks who cut the checks and bought the seats and whispered in the ears of university regents and kept guileless and code-bound men like Blum and my father gainfully employed.

Blum clapped my shoulder with one paw and gripped my hand with the other. It was either a manly half-embrace or a prelude to tearing my limbs off.

“Clever, Tuck.”

“I think it’s Friar Tuck.”

“They kept me there half an hour.”

“They wouldn’t let me in. You, however, they’ll let in twice. You’re an important man, Aaron.”

“Where’s your better half?”

“Evan’s got the sniffles.”

The ever-gallant Blum saw my wife’s absence as an opening to be frank, so he reminded me about my day on the mountainside. For emphasis, he added the ever-appropriate question “What the hell is wrong with you?”

His hand was on my shoulder again. He squeezed. He sighed.

“I shouldn’t be late for these things,” he said.

“Technically, you weren’t.”

“Technically doesn’t cut it.”

O’Kyle was on the other side of the room, waiting for an audience with Bumbry, who seemed determined to talk to everyone else first. O’Kyle was relatively new to Zantrum basketball, but he understood a thing or two. He knew, for instance, that Bumbry hadn’t missed a home game in 30 years. He knew Bumbry’s love of the program was matched by his generosity to it. He knew the day was approaching when my father would either step down or be gently led into the life of an oracle emeritus. He was not opposed to quietly hastening that day. There was value, he knew, to being in the better graces of Gardner Bumbry.

“I think I’ll go say hi to our friend Kenny,” I said.

“There really is something wrong with you,” said Blum.

When I reached O’Kyle, he was frowning at a cracker. He sensed me without looking up. O’Kyle had better peripheral vision than Blum.

“At least you show up for the parties, Junior.”

“I never miss the essentials.”

“Blum tell you everything’s okay, you’re doing fine?”

“He told me I was an ass.”

O’Kyle got the cracker stuck in his throat. He sucked at an empty Perrier, swallowed hard, pushed me aside and headed for the bar.

A fat hand squeezed my shoulder and I turned to smell the martini breath of Gardner Bumbry.

“Shouldn’t you be making friends at this point in your career?”

“You’d think it, wouldn’t you.”

“A word of advice.”

“Just a word.”

“Care.”

“Now, Mr. Bumbry, that’s the hard part.” I hated myself for saying it. Ever since I’d come back to town I’d been channeling the cast of Blackboard Jungle.

“I don’t remember you being the rebel sort.”

“Neither do I.”

“Do you know what I did before I made my fortune?”

“Personal trainer?”

Nothing. That’s what I did. I wanted to publish the Tribune, so I pulled my old man’s partners and drinking pals together and I sweet-talked the bank and I drew up a slick-sounding business plan and I bought the damn thing. Before that, I was just a kid out of college coming back to daddy’s railroad dough–”

Gardner Bumbry liked to call his father a railroad man and himself a publisher, and it was true enough, though for a long time now the real money had come from the immense real-estate holdings he’d inherited on the Zantrum Prospect, as the resort corridor was called. The old rail baron had spent the ‘30s gathering up desert lots like feathers from a flustered pigeon, and the land was already making handsome rents by the ‘60s, when Gardner came of age and became a major creative force on the Prospect. Gardner Bumbry built hotel-casino-spa-resorts with elegance dusty Zantrum had never seen. The Acropolis, The Seventh Sea, Baghdad (renamed Babylon in 1991)–all of them were conceived by Gardner Bumbry. By now, he’d cashed out of most of the properties, or stayed on as a small investor with a big voice. He’d even passed stewardship of his first love, the Tribune, on to his son, Dickie. Most of all, now, Gardner Bumbry gave away money. Gardner Bumbry was the city’s leading philanthropist. Gardner Bumbry was a very rich man. I could never tell if it was cool or compromising that he seemed to like my father so much.

He was still talking.

“…I saw that I had certain advantages and I capitalized on them in a hurry. I didn’t do anything else before deciding to do what I wanted to do. Tucker, listen to me. You’ve got what I had: an IN. Access. And instead you’re quitting teams and running around all the libraries in hippyville futzing around about God knows what little wars in God knows what century–”

“Fifteenth.”

“It doesn’t–”

“Not war. Internecine struggle. But mostly village life. Peaceful village life.”

Bumbry grabbed my shoulder again. This time he squeezed it. Why was everyone after my shoulder? Later that night I found a bruise.

“Look,” said Bumbry, “your life is not a staging ground, it’s a proving ground. Since you’re here, I imagine you’d like to be a coach. My advice to you is–”

“Nope.” I shook my head at the most powerful man in town. “You’ve already used up your word.”

Bumbry, eyes glassy with a mix of alcoholic emotion and fatherly sincerity, stood flabbergasted. His glass tilted in his hand and he spilled on a crocodile shoe.

I took his glass. “Let me freshen that up for you.”

Bumbry shrugged and turned up his palms as I walked away.

“Now he’s a waiter!” he said, and was, just for a moment, alone, an old vaudevillian in an echoing theater.

***

I never did make it back to Gardner Bumbry with a new martini on new rocks; as I approached the bar, the party hit that moment any good party hits, when some Bearer of Essential Charisma walks in, shifting the mood, raising the expectations, casting a new light on everyone else. Or maybe it just seemed that way to me. In any case, my big brother Simon had arrived.

Bumbry somehow transported himself to the entry hall and was first to welcome Simon and Donna. I couldn’t hear the chatter (I could, however, hear Bumbry’s mighty backslap), but I watched as Simon smiled his most generous smile and shook Bumbry’s big hand, adding a brotherly left-hand grip just above the rich man’s elbow. I watched as Simon managed, with no rudeness whatsoever, to turn from Bumbry to old Leticia Morten, the singer’s widow (she got a big warm hug), and then from her to Dick Plumley, our parents’ young neighbor and a fanatic golfer. Dick was touching his own elbow in a clinical sort of way, apparently seeking advice. Simon the Surgeon took it in his piano-player hands, manipulated it back and forth, put a wise look on his subtly lined face and leaned forward to whisper something in Plumley’s ear. Plumley’s handsome blue cheeks widened into a big, dimpled smile. “So, Tuesday!” he called as he stepped away. Simon nodded and winked and punched something into a Palm Pilot. Meanwhile, petite, redheaded Donna was graciously accepting too-eager embraces from my mother (who perhaps thought she could squeeze a child out of her) and basking in Dad’s little-boy-with-a-crush smile. Simon looked up from his palm pilot, raised his hand and ran it through thick chocolate-brown hair. The hand hovered for a moment at Simon’s newly gray temple. Each bone in that hand seemed exquisitely apparent to me, each muscle coiled and supple, each finger a finely tuned athlete. Look at us! the hands seemed to say. They were business cards written in flesh. Simon narrowed his dark eyes, searched himself inwardly for a moment, then pressed his lips together and nodded slightly, as if recalling something important, something that assured him that everything was, indeed, just fine.

– Greg Blake Miller

Next: “Madness” (TGWP 6).

The Falling City

April 27, 2017

The wonderful insignificance of a dead hotel

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[Editor’s note: Already awash in nostalgia, I wrote this remembrance in 2003. Another wave recently hit me—nostalgia for nostalgia—and I’ve resurfaced from the archive, safe if not quite sound. The paintings are by the talented and inimitable Eric Roberts.]

By Greg Blake Miller

There is, I’m sure, something in the subconscious to explain my attachment to all things old, but here on the surface, where I am unblissfully unaware of what that something might be, I’m stuck taking seriously the task of mourning things that will soon go missing. Cultures far greater than Vegas have been plowed under and sowed with salt and little lamented. And yet, eight years after the fact—it is not even an anniversary; my sentimentality demands no news hook—I find myself suddenly and inexplicably lamenting the fall of the Landmark Hotel.

It had been a failure almost from the start, and I didn’t care. My grandfather liked the Landmark, and I liked it, too. It was the 1970s, and Grandpa visited often from LA. He was approaching 80 and already long retired. He hadn’t made a great career, and he knew everyone around him knew it. He spoke softly, rarely, and always about the past. I liked to think he saved his words for me. He told me about 1910: He told me about selling now-defunct newspapers on Montreal sidewalks in the shadows of buildings he could still describe, buildings he could still go see if he chose to. We talked about places much older than our Landmark. Who knew the Googie Vegas casino would take its place among buried Pharaohs and sunken cities long before the old mansard rooftops of French Canada? I suppose I knew. Maybe that’s why I liked the Landmark; my parents always said it was a dump. I liked the Landmark because it was unappreciated and marked for death.

The Landmark was a monument to irrelevant exuberance. A giant lollipop of a place with hotel rooms in the skinny stick, it missed the entire point of why casinos had hotels attached to them, the whole concept of the semi-captive in-house audience, the lazy beauty of stay-here play-here thinking. But a big blocky room tower next to the stick would have ruined the whole pretty confection. The Tootsie-pop top of the Landmark was a riot of square tinted windows, glass upon glass, like a viewing wall at the airport, or the air-traffic tower, or the control room of a faraway space station; I gazed upward and mixed my metaphors. The lollipop became a flying saucer. The saucer looked huge on the stick; the whole structure looked top-heavy. I dreamed of impending flight. The stick was the fuel tank, to be jettisoned once it had done its job. The saucer would do the flying. I suppose the vision is fitting enough for a place where the rooms themselves seemed an afterthought, a sort of hasty mental correction after the long, pleasant dream of putting restaurants in the clouds.

I can’t think of a single time I ever went into the Landmark. It was, like so much of the Las Vegas of my childhood, a place not to experience but to glimpse and re-conceive. My grandfather would say, I went to the Landmark, and I would picture the place in my mind, with its chilly blue stripes and ice windows, and I’d see it in all its beautiful uselessness, this place that was loved by my grandpa the dreamer, who—as I’d heard often enough—had the brains to do more in the world but had inexplicably chosen not to. He and I shared this secret admiration of inexplicable choices; in this, we were alone in our family, and we took pride in the loneliness. Of course, a dream leaves you nothing to hold onto but its memory. I knew even then that the Landmark was slipping away. I used to think of what I might turn it into—A small college! An office building with movie theaters up top! But it almost hurt to plan for the future. I regarded the Landmark with the advance mourning one reserves for things not of this world.

After seven years out of town in college and grad school, I came home in 1995. I parked my car on Paradise road, lined up the Landmark and the rising Stratosphere in my viewfinder, and I snapped a picture. I snapped another. I snapped and snapped until the sky went dim and the film ran out and the night arrived when the old dream would die.

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly in 2003.

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The Documentarian

April 23, 2017

Disorientation and orientation
Take turns leading the dance,
Coming closer
Until we realize that they are one.

– Greg Blake Miller

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Director Kerry Candaele at work on Love & Justice: In the Footsteps of
Beethoven’s Rebel Opera

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A Strong but Merciful Nation

February 4, 2017

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The following is a letter I sent to Senator Dean Heller (R-NV) on January 28, 2017.

Dear Senator Heller,

One of the cornerstones of the American story, the story that has made the United States a beacon to freedom-loving people for 240 years, is the notion that these shores welcome those whose liberty, health and lives are endangered in their homelands. Emma Lazarus said it best:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

While our nation has not always lived up to its promise—a promise deeply ingrained in the Judeo-Christian tradition—to welcome the stranger, we have in most cases remained true to our ideals and remained the world’s leading bastion of freedom for the “tempest-toss.” Through war and famine, pogrom and genocide, fascism and communism, the United States has given people from around the world a chance to start over, contributing their talents to the Great American Project. Refugees face the most challenging vetting procedures of any class of immigrants—we understandably want to make sure that we are being wise while being kind—but the diligence of our procedures has never dimmed our goal of providing shelter and safety to the oppressed.

The reasonable kindness of our nation is an essential element of our national security; a strong but merciful nation has grateful and reliable neighbors. It also has indispensable allies in the very nations whose behavior we hope to see transformed: During the Cold War the American Story was an inspiration to dissidents in the Communist world; more recently, the example of a tolerant, strong and unafraid United States has been an inspiration to freedom-seeking families across Central Asia and the Middle East. If we surrender to demagoguery, if we become a nation unworthy of our own ideals; if we allow the words of Emma Lazarus, inscribed upon the Statue of Liberty, to be degraded into so much disposable advertising copy, we surrender our moral leadership in the world, and we make it a more dangerous place for all Americans—and a more hopeless place for all mankind.

I thank you for your service to the nation and to the State of Nevada, and wish you success as we work to help our country live up to both its potential and its ideals.

Greg Blake Miller

Harvest of Grievance

December 11, 2016

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Slavophiles, Westernizers and the roots of Russian propaganda

A communications proverb for the age, or perhaps the ages, is that propaganda grows best in the soil of grievance. Skilled propagandists are not entirely cynical—they understand what it means to feel put upon; they nurture the feeling and harvest it within themselves. And when the time is right, they have an empath’s gift for identifying, nurturing and canalizing grievance in their targets. This helps us understand the verve with which the Russian Federation—and before it the Soviet Union, and before that the Russian Empire—has used polemics, information and disinformation to tease, tickle, torment and otherwise upset both the West itself and its own would-be Westernizers.

For centuries, the Russian intelligentsia and governing class have known what it feels like to be defined from the outside in, looked upon as the most peculiar sort of Other—a population neither conquered nor co-opted, but also never accepted—a nation feared in the worst of times and, in the best of times, viewed as a junior partner and cultural hinterland with occasional veins of mad genius. But if the West, in its race to material plenty, political democracy, social individualism and spiritual disinheritance, saw Russia as backward, many Russians determined that the West was simply looking at the world from the wrong end. And as early as the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, with the propagandistic moniker of “Holy Alliance” applied to postwar despotism under the triumphant gaze of Alexander I (the erstwhile Westernizing reformer) and Nicholas I (a despot by disposition), Russian leaders knew how to appeal to the sectors of Western society who felt as threatened by the so-called enlightened West as they did.

Separated from Catholic Europe by religion and, for two crucial centuries, the Mongol Yoke, Russia had to follow its own path of development, famously foregoing the Renaissance and undergoing its own artistic, ecclesiastical and political transformations. Later, even when the roads intersected—Peter I wanted to build a “window to Europe”; Catherine II enjoyed an epistolary relationship with Voltaire—Russia saw in the West a wayward and condescending cousin, one who had become adept in the ways of the world, but in troubling ways and for all the wrong reasons. By the 19th century, powerful currents in Russian society looked at Western progress and saw impending decay. The epithet of the age was gniloi zapad—the rotten West. This mood (for disdain for the spiritually dead West was not merely an opinion but a way of life, complete with its own fashion do’s and don’ts) was not limited to the generally conservative Slavophiles; Westernized socialists, too, such as the populist narodniki and later the Socialist Revolutionaries, saw hope emanating not from the salons of Paris—with which they were quite familiar—but from the peasant communes of the Russian heartland.

The polemic literature of the Slavophiles—seen most prominently in the writings of Alexei Khomiakov, Ivan Kireevsky and Konstantin Aksakov, as well as in the later work of Fyodor Dostoyevsky—ranged from spiritual and sweetly wounded to outright chauvinistic, but it almost always identified the harsh and seemingly dehumanizing elements of rationalist, early-industrial Western life. If Western individualism, even before Darwin boarded the Beagle, meant survival of the fittest, Russian social life meant sobornost, a nuanced model of unity-in-diversity in which, to use Aksakov’s metaphor, every individual was part of a great choir, singing in his own voice but subservient to and subsumed by the common music. (Riazanovksy, 1965) The propaganda of this age was practiced internally, part of the epochal, brotherly battle between rival (and sometimes overlapping) camps of the intelligentsia, the Slavophiles and Westernizers, in a pitched battle for one another’s hearts and minds, and the right to someday transform a people and a nation.

To a worker or displaced peasant or even an intellectual thrown loose from his former life by industrial technology and rampaging early capitalism, sobornost is a vision of socio-spiritual warmth and support, in which each man plays his part, stands shoulder to shoulder with his peers, and is never forsaken—a place where he may not be fully individual, but at least is not fully disposable. The Soviet Union, in classic syncretic fashion, made sobornost a tacit part of its secular-spiritual practice, and the promise of a community of solidarity was indispensable in the Soviet message to the disaffected workers of the West and the colonized nations of the Third World. Russia also benefitted from its centuries-old air of mystery—it was, after all, the Other, neither West nor East, the in-between, the lovely unknown, undertaking a never-before-attempted experiment upon which the hopeful dreams of an aggrieved world could be projected.

Early Soviet communication policy was aimed at speaking to the aggrieved—sometimes the messaging was unsuccessful (avant-garde filmmakers were flummoxed to find that workers had bourgeois cinematic tastes and liked an old-school narrative arc as much as their bosses), but the targeting had focus and purpose, and many workers and disaffected members of the Western intelligentsia responded, from California to Berlin. Their concerns were very different from Lenin’s—Steinbeck’s Reverend Casey, “lousy with the spirit” and utterly devoted to the workingman, hardly saw religion as an opiate—but the Soviet siren song, for a man like Steinbeck himself, had deep within it a chime of hope. Such hopes would be dashed by the late 1930s with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, but would be reborn with Russia’s extraordinary suffering during World War II and its postwar appeal to the peoples of the Third World. Grievances were skillfully identified, and the message was sent: We understand you. We, too, think their “progress” is a ruse. We, too, have suffered in search of a better way.

How does the exploitation of grievance, played out in movies and radio broadcasts and broadsheets in a 20th-century ideological struggle, come to the stage in the 21st-century battle for hearts and minds? Lazarsfeld and Merton (1948) pointed out—by way of correcting the old notion that propaganda was a hypodermic needle injecting irresistible medicine beneath society’s delicate skin—that core beliefs were not so easily revised, but that existing beliefs could be subtly revised, or “canalized,” by well-aimed applications of the right media concoction. The growth of the Internet during the post-Soviet age was a spectacular gift for anyone seeking to identify niche audiences and canalize existing tastes, habits of mind, or grievances. Suddenly it was possible to reach entire subcultures instantaneously.

But the real breakthrough came with social media, when it was possible to start a conversation within a niche group and then watch it spread within the group, like a virus within a new host organism. The disaffected niche did not necessarily need to be approving of, or even interested in, Russia. It just had to s
hare a sense of grievance toward the Western Establishment. The goal for the new Russian propagandists was easier than it had been for the Soviets: Soviet canalization was intended to lead the canalized ultimately to an embrace of Soviet Communism. Contemporary Russian canalization has only to further sour audiences on institutions they already disdain, intensifying their disaffection with globalism, human rights and the rest of the hooey that poses as anti-authoritarianism but constantly imposes unwelcome cultural and institutional “innovations” upon every sector of life.
This propaganda longs for tradition, for deep-rooted notions of power and patriarchy, for brotherhood defined not by law but by blood and custom, for leaders who speak plain and work swiftly. It does not dismiss freedom, but favors the ancient Russian volya—an interior freedom, a will to live according to one’sGBM-The Grievance Harvest-List.png lights—over the newer, more abstract and socially-tinged svoboda, which, as Daphne Skillen (2016) points out, acquired the stain of the Enlightenment—the idea that freedom is not only “freedom to” but “freedom from”. The volya/svoboda relationship is fuzzy at the edges, and the notions overlap, but conceptually it is kin to the rhetorical-political clash between “freedom” and “rights” in the American heartland. Russian propaganda—as in its anti-LGBT rhetoric and policies in advance of the 2014 Sochi Olympics—identifies with those who are exhausted with the Enlightenment rhetoric of the rights of others and consider it an imposition on their own freedom. Russian propaganda draws on its own experience of grievance to challenge the West and domestic Westernizers and to encourage those disaffected by the modern Western synthesis to harden their resistance. It seeks to disempower the neoliberal order and substitute for it a peculiar blend of organic individualism and corporatist brotherhood.

– Greg Blake Miller