Skip to content

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 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 had been to a big political rally. Elek ordered his sandwich to-go, but it 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

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

American Crossroads

June 1, 2020

At some point, when the embers cool on the street and the news channels move on from the 24/7 coast-to-coast feed, the image we’ll need to remember is the one that started it all—the murder of George Floyd.

We will need to memorialize Floyd not only with tears, but with policy. The policy must not end with a revision of police procedures; it must include a rethinking of the American community. We can no longer consign entire neighborhoods, regions, races to the American Upside-Down in which the achievement of some modicum of stability, peace, and security is the stuff of against-all-odds TV movies. We must at last acknowledge that access to quality housing, healthcare and education is not a privilege but a right—the place from which a healthy society is born.

Food, shelter, health and learning are the proverbial bootstraps by which we keep telling Americans to pull themselves up. An America that cannot or will not allocate the resources for these bootstraps and yet continues to call itself the land of opportunity is a nation in the killing grip of delusion. We have a choice before us: concerted, optimistic action or defeatist self-destruction.

How, exactly, will we choose to make America great?

Greg Blake Miller

Turning Off My Phone at Midnight

May 19, 2020

 

GBM-Phone in Phone

Staggered and beaten by pixels,
I fade, float, try to sink into warm cavelike analog darkness,
Blue light swimming on the walls,
My eyelids invaded by the inhuman outer glow of information,
Endless, bottomless, underworld stuff
Devoid even of the spirit of Hades,
Immaterial material,
Materialism without material,
Nothing tactile to reform or remake or melt or beat into ploughshares,
Weapons of inner war now securely tucked inside my mind
To deny even the independence of my disobedient dreams,
The dreams of a beaten man,
A man beaten by the infinite contents of his own pocket.

– Greg Blake Miller

 

Authoritarianism Made Easy!

May 11, 2020

GBM-Ilustration for "Authoritarianism Made Easy".jpeg

I know what you’re going through: You want to be an authoritarian, and it’s just taking too long. Here’s a secret: While you’re busy listening to the so-called “experts,” reading up on the Establishment’s “classics of authoritarianism” and deciding on your authoritarian “belief system,” others are cutting out the waste and actually being authoritarians. Think about it: You’re TRYING to be an authoritarian, while they’re actually living the authoritarian life. They’ve simplified their goals, clarified their message, and taken action on their dreams.

Well, now it makes sense to ask, “What do they know that I don’t?”

I’m here to help.

Today I’m going to let you in on what I’ve learned in decades of successful authoritarianism. Most aspiring authoritarians are wasting time and money on old-school “solutions” like authoritarian policymaking and crafting coherent authoritarian ideologies. With my simple seven-step program, you’ll learn secrets that can save you valuable energy that would be better used on the things you really want to do, like attacking enemies and watching television. These techniques have been used by successful authoritarians the world over. Don’t take it from me, take it from the well-known dictator Josef Stalin, who used these techniques in such brilliant managerial moves as The Campaign Against Trotskyites and The Denunciation of Rootless Cosmopolitans.

The simple tools I’m going to teach you work whether you consider yourself “right” or “left” or even simply “wrong.” True authoritarians know that these directional signals are window-dressing, the result of years of squandered energy in pursuit of old, tired ideas such as “justifying my draconian actions” and “building a seemingly coherent intellectual rationale for a crackdown.” If you’ve been spinning your wheels on such projects, you know that the only “right” is “I’m right” and the only “left” is “You’ve been left behind.” Don’t miss the opportunity to learn our PowerOfPower7™ Secrets today. No less an authority than the renowned authoritarian Adolf Hitler agreed with Stalin on these seven simple steps—and those guys couldn’t agree on anything. Well, there was that once, but we’ll blame that on Molotov and Ribbentrop.

This is the beginning of a journey that will allow you to overcome your inhibitions, silence your rivals, and bend the arc of history whichever way you damn well please. Why wait? Let’s get to the first Seven Steps!

Authoritarianism Made Easy, Lesson One:
Ridding Yourself of Rivals: Setting up Scapegoats in the Power Structure

  1. Assert authority. | You alone can fix it!
  2. Delegate authority. | Work smarter, not harder!
  3. Renounce responsibility. | It’s not your fault!
  4. Denounce those to whom you’ve delegated. | It’s their fault.
  5. Inflame the people against rival power bases. | Leverage the power of blame!
  6. Assert authority. | You alone can fix it.
  7. Purge rival power bases. | Winning.

 With these simple steps, you’ll be dispatching enemies within days. Don’t waste time taking responsibility when you can be taking power! By putting these lessons to use today, you’ll take your first step* toward The Power of Power™ and impact countless lives in your community, or what’s left of it.

*Just for you we have a very special offer available today only: Write to us with your name, e-mail address, and checking account number, we’ll send you, at no cost, Lesson 2: Becoming Your Own Public Disinformation Officer.

– Text and illustration by Greg Blake Miller

A Redemptive Dream of the Bad Old Days: Nostalgia, History, and Materiality in Tarkovsky’s “Andrei Rublev”

May 3, 2020

Andrei Rublev DVD Cover.jpeg

[This article was adapted from my dissertation, Reentry Shock: Historical transition and temporal longing in the cinema of the Soviet Thaw, Greg Blake Miller, University of Oregon, 2010).]

Rolan Bykov is sweating. Leaping, spinning, standing on his hands, kicking a drum with his feet, singing things that ought not be sung in polite company.  Fortunately, he is not in polite company, but on a film set, in a crude log hut, performing for actors dressed as peasants, having great fun describing the sexual misadventures of the 15th century Russian nobility. The film is Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1966 masterpiece, Andrei Rublev, a meditation on the life and times of Russia’s greatest medieval icon painter. Bykov plays the role of the skomorokh, the itinerant jester whose rough stock-in-trade is the profane leavening of a heavy life. His motion is elemental; it stirs the stillness like a hard spring wind; in medieval huts, as on Soviet film sets, the anarchic spirit is an indispensable and dangerous thing. The jester rests, accepts water from his grateful audience. Outside a window frame, rain falls hard upon the countryside. Three monks have entered for shelter; one will betray the jester. Henchmen of the Grand Prince will arrive, pull the jester outside, bash his head into a tree trunk. He will lose his freedom. He will lose his tongue. The film will go unseen by the Russian public for five years; the Soviet authorities will consider it too blunt in its presentation of a cruel age. In 1969, the film will show at Cannes and win the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) Prize. By 1971, the authorities will relent, and Andrei Rublev will make its way onto Soviet screens and begin its long ascent into the Russian cinematic canon.

Bykov would later say that he saw in Tarkovsky’s works a nostalgia “not aimed at the past” (Bykov, 1990, p. 155). What can this possibly mean? Isn’t nostalgia all about the past? And what kind of nostalgia can one attribute to a director whose vision of the past includes such things as the removal of jesters’ tongues? Wouldn’t this be the opposite of nostalgia?  Bykov’s words, however, are not to be dismissed. Tarkovsky’s cinematic nostalgia, he said, replaced longing for a lost past with “a yearning for the future, whose roots he sought as an artist interested in history.” Like any good jester, Bykov gave conventional thinking a sly twist, and in doing so offered a gateway to a deeper understanding of Tarkovsky as a director, Andrei Rublev as a film, and the position of both filmmaker and film in Soviet culture.

In this paper I will take up Bykov’s invitation and analyze the ways in which Andrei Rublev encourages and rewards a creative reconsideration of the very concept of nostalgia. In the first section, I outline the film’s narrative and point out the crucial questions it raises about the nature of hope and longing. The second section introduces and develops Svetlana Boym’s typology of nostalgia. Next, I discuss the conventional portrayal of Rublev as a historical figure and the film’s challenge to that portrayal. Finally, building on the ideas of Henri Bergson, I explore the ways in which the materiality of the film’s images embodies an ambiguous, open-ended, and highly spiritual brand of nostalgic longing. … [READ THE FULL ARTICLE HERE.]

There Will Be No Game Today

April 9, 2020

Baseball Mitt, Spring 2020.jpeg

The spring of 2020
Is the player to be named later,
Left out of the headlines,
Which promised a bargain
For our side.
But these stories
Were based on insufficient data.
The reporting was incomplete,
Whether out of laziness
Or simple humanity:
Who knew?
Who knew that
When the deal was completed
It would turn out
That the Other Side
Had gotten everything.

– Greg Blake Miller

 

The Rebels’ Run to Glory, 1990

April 2, 2020

GBM-SEVEN-COVER-"RUN TO GLORY"-"THE REBEL ALLIANCE"-MARCH 18, 2010-JUST COVER.jpeg

Thirty years ago today, a team, a coach, and a city forged a dream of “electric togetherness.” Read “The Rebel Alliance,” the story behind the 1990 UNLV men’s basketball team’s run to glory.

Dept. of Flying Time: I wrote this feature in 2010 for Vegas Seven to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the victory, when the city was in the doldrums of a very different crisis. Now, as then, we could use a little of that old electric togetherness—with appropriate social distancing, of course!

Be safe, be strong, be well!

– Greg Blake Miller