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July 22, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 18, 2014

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July 21, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 21, 2014

Since I’ve been spending a big chunk of the past week labeling faces in iPhoto, I wanted to spend a bit more time describing the process.

When you open iPhoto and click on Faces near the top of the menu pane on the left side of the screen, a special icon appears. On the metallic bar at the bottom of the iPhoto window, a trio of head-and-shoulders silhouettes will be near the lower right corner; it’s labeled “Find Faces.”

Selecting Find Faces will open a special kind of screen. This space always shows three relatively large square frames, each of which displays an image that iPhoto has identified as comprising one face. The program sometimes goofs; occasionally, a frame will display two faces in close proximity, or a random pattern that may or may not resemble an actual face.

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Here’s why I’ve fallen behind on this week’s blogging

July 19, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 19, 2014

I’ve fallen behind on my blogging this week! Here’s an explanation.

It all starts with a woman I will call Lady X. We dated for two years or so, and although we broke up a few years back, we still remain in touch. Some weeks back, we made tentative plans to meet up in her hometown of Greensboro, N.C.

At some point after our breakup, Lady X had some kind of computer malfunction in which she lost a great many of her photos. Those included pictures of a wonderful overseas trip that the two of us took together. When we discussed meeting up, Lady X asked if I could supply her with my digital copies of these photographs. I said, of course, that I’d be happy to do so — and soon enough, that promise slipped through the steel trap that is not my mind.

Earlier this month, Lady X sent me a postcard inviting me to come to her house the afternoon of July 17. Then, on the evening of July 16, I rather suddenly remembered that I’d done exactly nothing to make copies of the photographs.

When I got home shortly before midnight on the night of the 16th, I opened up my laptop and launched iPhoto, Apple’s standard-issue photo management program, which I use.

Which I use sporadically, that is. My laptop, a 13-inch MacBook Pro, is nearly five years old, and its had periods of extreme balkiness. (A few months back, I rebuilt its hard drive, and it’s working much better now, thank you.) I’d found iPhoto to be one of my computer’s worst offenders: It frequently crashed, as often as not forcing me to redo photo labeling that had taken me hours. Considering that I didn’t do a lot with pictures, my default preference eventually became ignoring, rather than cataloguing, my photographs. So when I launched iPhoto on the 16th, I did so with no small trepidation.

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Doom comes for most in Wells Tower’s strangely compelling short story collection, ‘Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned’

July 15, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 15, 2014

The characters in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Wells Tower’s 2009 collection of short stories, are generally losers. That it’s often hard to turn away from this anthology is a testament to the author’s skill.

The opening story, “The Brown Coast,” begins with main character Bob Munroe waking up on the floor of a vacation cottage near the ocean in North Carolina. The property was jointly owned by Bob’s uncle and Bob’s recently deceased father. Although the two were not particularly close,

[H]is father’s death touched off in him an angry lassitude that curdled his enthusiasm for work and married life. He had fallen into a bad condition and, in addition to several minor miscalculations, he’d perpetrated three major fuckups that would be a long time in smoothing over.

In short order, Bob made a disastrous error on a house he was helping to build, thereby losing his job; rear-ended a lawyer who won a $38,000 court judgment, thereby wiping out his modest inheritance; and trysted with a fellow traffic school student, thereby losing his home and, potentially, his marriage.

Nearly everything in Bob’s life, in fact, seems to be an exercise in spiraling downward. When Uncle Randall suggests Bob vacation at the cottage, he has at least one ulterior motive — getting Bob to rehabilitate the badly neglected house and yard. Bob begrudgingly sets about improving things, but his life nevertheless continues deteriorating. Back home in or around Chapel Hill, N.C., his estranged wife takes up with someone else, and at the cottage, his proudest achievement is accidentally ruined. The story ends with Bob impulsively committing an act of charity. However, the gesture nearly goes awry, and in the final reckoning, it’s hard to determine if Bob should feel good or bad about the way things have turned out.

Matthew Lattimore, the narrator of “Retreat,” may be Tower’s most loathsome creation. Matthew and his brother, whose parents are now dead, have had a vicious lifelong sibling rivalry. Matthew is down and out, having been ruined by a real-estate crash, but he may or may not be on the upswing after having purchased property in rural Maine that he plans to develop as a residential community.

When he invites Stephen, a lonely and struggling music therapist, to fly out from Oregon for a visit, it’s not clear — probably not even to Matthew himself — whether he wants to reconcile with his brother or to engage in another round of oneupmanship.

But the relationship has a new dynamic thanks to Matthew’s friend, George, who sold him the property. By the story’s end, hubris drives Matthew to begin eating a dinner of tainted meat. It’s an act that verges on suicidal, but the conflict of egos make it seem perfectly understandable.

The next tale, “Executors of Important Energies,” is more ambiguous. It begins with the unnamed narrator, an unsuccessful inventor living in squalor in New York City, attempting to dissuade his stepmother from visiting. He’s unsuccessful, and Lucy arrives with the narrator’s increasingly demented father in tow.

Roger, a chess fanatic, invites his playing partner in Washington Square Park to join the family for dinner. After Dwayne, who may be homeless, insults Lucy, she storms off with her husband’s jacket. By the time dinner is over, she hasn’t returned. The destitute narrator is forced to pay for the lavish meal and has the thankless task of hunting down his stepmother. (Roger doesn’t know the hotel in which he and Lucy are staying.)

It’s not clear how the ruined evening will end, but Dwayne turns out to be willing to help his newfound acquaintances. As the trio drives into the night, the narrator reconsiders his assessment of Dwayne, while Roger fixates on a meaningless bauble in the chess player’s car.

The best story in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned may be “Down through the Valley.” The narrator is Ed, who is summoned by his estranged wife, Jane, to a New Age retreat in Western North Carolina where she is staying. The reason: Barry, the man for whom Jane left Ed, has broken his ankle. Now Jane wants Ed to drive Barry home along with Ed and Jane’s daughter, Marie, because the sprawling mountainous compound is not a safe place for a young girl to go unsupervised.

Much of “Down through the Valley” is in keeping with Tower’s other writing. The narrator reminisces about his broken marriage; he bickers and reconciles with the people with whom he’s spending time; he narrator shifts from churlish to likable and back a number of times.

When Ed pulls in at a roadside diner, his attention is drawn to a young quarreling couple. Here things take a turn: When the quarrel turns physical, one of the travelers intervenes. What follows is a flurry of violence that reveals all too clearly the heart of one of the characters, and lays bare a truth that had been concealed by half-understood dreams.

“Door in Your Eye” is the tale of an aging man who moves in with his daughter and becomes obsessed with the woman — a possible prostitute — who lives nearby. When the narrator, Albert, see a visitor to his neighbor’s apartment engage in a futile attempt to burn it down, he goes to see the woman himself. It’s not clear how what Albert learns about Carol, and what she learns about him, may alter their lives, and the lives of Albert’s daughter, but it seems likely that a big change is just over the horizon.

“Wild America” is another story about people on the cusp of a major transition. The main character is Jacey, the only daughter of divorced parents who lives with her mother in or around Charlotte, N.C. The tale spans part of a late-summer Sunday shortly before the start of school. Practical Jacey — who plans for a career in pharmacy or physical therapy, but who longs to escape this mundane fate — chafes at spending time with her tall artistic beautiful cousin.

But Maya is staying with Jacey and Jacey’s mom for a few more days before she begins her studies at an exclusive performing arts high school, so Jacey doesn’t have much choice in the matter. After making an abortive play for a boyfriend Maya is trying to dump (the cousin, alarmingly, is now enamored of an administrator at her new school), Jacey invites a friend named Leander to come visit. The trio wander into a nearby park, but Jacey becomes disgusted after Leander falls beneath her cousin’s enchantment.

Jacey walks away and begins chatting with an older man who invites her to ride in his car. Disaster is ultimately averted, but humiliation is not — a pattern, one senses, that will repeat itself often in Jacey’s life.

Humiliation and disaster seem to visit most every character in “On the Show,” the tale of several people working at and visiting a traveling carnival decamped in a small Florida county. One character, a 7-year-old boy, is assaulted in a bathroom; his father, a divorcé enduring a date with a sloppy-drunk fellow divorcée who is quite smitten with him, realizes that his ex-wife will use the incident to cut off visitation.

A young man named Jeff Park signs on as a worker on the Pirate, one of the rides in the carnival, after brutishly scrapping with his newly remarried mother’s husband. He soon learns that his enormous boss and squirelly coworker are neither trustworthy nor sympathetic:

Park gazes at the climb, fifty feet up an extension ladder, lashed to the back of a support stanchion with nylon rope frayed to needles. His legs feel watery to look at it.

“I thought — I thought you said you’d do the high work, Ellis,” says Jeff Park.

Ellis sucks a tooth. “I changed my mind.”

Jeff scales the stanchion with the lightbulb in his mouth. The ladder is missing rungs, and his arms tremble as he climbs. He has nearly reached the top when a sudden wind rocks the ladder. “Oh,” Jeff cannot help but say. The lightbulb drifts from his lips and shatters on the deck.

“Three dollars,” the giant calls up to him. “Them shits don’t grow on trees.”

The sexual assault roils the carnival. Jeff suspects that Ellis may have something to do with it. Someone in the carnival’s management seems to pick Gary, the mildly autistic man who runs the Zipper ride, as a fall guy for the crime; he inhales an anonymous gift of drugs and is promptly injured on the job. The only person who eludes punishment is one who seems to most deserve it.

Tower’s title story is the final one in the volume, and it’s distinctive on several levels. The setting is Scandinavia in the Middle Ages, and the narrator is Harald, a Viking farmer who engages in pillaging whenever the superstitious community deems it necessary.

The round of warfare depicted in the story is mostly, but not entirely, bloodless. Harald’s bereaved best buddy, a widower named Gnut, emerges from the expedition with a new wife, and Harald himself is able to start a family when the voyage concludes. But the ending is bittersweet. The narrator learns that even when people get what they want, it’s hard to be content.

What’s strange about the collection is that it should be depressing, but it isn’t — not entirely, at least. Although the characters are screw-ups, they have moments of redemption and serendipity, however fleeting. While some may be doomed, Tower frequently leaves readers with at least a smidgen of hope that some of his character might be able to lead relatively happy lives.

I am not a devoted consumer of short fiction, but I enjoyed Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. I’ll be more likely than not to read other volumes penned by Tower.


With a great character comes…alas, just a decent superhero movie: Revisiting 2002’s ‘Spider-Man’

July 14, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 14, 2014

In 2002, Columbia Pictures released a movie titled, simply, Spider-Man. It was a pretty fun outing starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst as, respectively, the eponymous hero ( Peter Parker) and his longtime next-door neighbor and not-so-secret crush, Mary Jane Watson.

What few people could have foreseen was that Spider-Man would unleash a cinematic infestation of, well, Spider-Man movies. The wall-crawler’s first big-budget cinematic outing was followed in 2004 by Spider-Man 2 and in 2007 by Spider-Man 3, all of which starred Maguire and Dunst and were directed by Sam Raimi.

The first two movies in the series, especially the 2004 release, received a decent critical reception. The third feature, which I’ve never seen, is widely considered to be a sprawling mess.

Still, it was a bit of a surprise when, in 2012 — not a decade after the debut of the first Spider-Man — Columbia released a reboot of the series. The Amazing Spider-Man starred Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, and it was fun, even though there hadn’t seem to be an urgent need for it. Earlier this year, we got The Amazing Spider-Man 2which was also enjoyable, if a bit overstuffed. Both films evidently did well at the box office, and I gather that another sequel is on its way.

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The losing hand: Tale of a would-be bad beat

July 12, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 12, 2014

Thursday night. The early tournament at Oh’ Mulligan’s in Morrisville, N.C. It’s about 10 minutes to 9 p.m.; the early tournament, which started a bit after 7:30 p.m., has just shrunk down to the final table. My group of players has been summoned to what I think of as the head table, near the largest television in the establishment. I am sitting facing the screen on the far right.

Blinds, I think, are 2,000 and 4,000 chips. I am second to act. The man who is first to act — at this moment, the player on the end of the table, who’s sitting directly opposite tournament director John Martin — folds.

My hole cards are the king and queen of clubs. “All in,” I say, shoving 29,000 in gray and black chips that represent nominal units of value.

Fold, fold, fold, fold — action proceeds around the table, with no one wishing to call my bet. I stare down at the black surface in front of me, trying to maintain a perfect expression of impassivity as one person after the other returns cards to the dealer…

The dealer folds. The small blind folds. The big blind — hesitates.

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The agony and ecstasy of the 200-year-old teenager: ‘Byzantium’ thoughtfully delves into the lives of two bloodsuckers

July 11, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 11, 2014

In an odd way, Byzantium, the stylish 2012 feature directed by Neil Jordan, is a coming of age tale about 200-year-old vampires.

One of the pleasing things about the movie is that it doesn’t rush to clarify the relationship between its two main characters. Are the bloodsucking Eleanor Webb and Clara Webb friends or sisters? Are they lovers? Theirs turns out to be a relationship literally unlike any other in history. But the script, which screenwriter Moira Buffini based on her original stage play, takes its time explaining the specifics.

The story is set in motion when a man who seems to understand Clara’s unusual nature strong-arms his way into the flat that Clara (Gemma Arterton) shares with Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) in a run-down English housing project. Clara responds violently, and the pair flee in the middle of the — presumably autumn — night to a quiet coastal resort town in what I take to be Ireland.

While Clara quickly and efficiently begins plying a familiar trade, prostitution, Eleanor wanders into an assisted-living facility for the elderly, where she draws the interest of an awkward young worker named Frank (Caleb Landry Jones, who to my surprise turns out to be an American actor).

While Eleanor coolly attempts to fend off Frank’s gentle but unwelcome attention, Clara quickly insinuates herself into the life and home of Noel (Daniel Mays), the lonely owner of a bankrupt hotel-cum-boarding house called the Byzantium. By the end of their first full day in the resort town, Clara and Eleanor ensconce themselves in Noel’s large, lavish but ill-kempt property.

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Now I have six (or seven) wins: Further fuzzy tales of no-cash poker

July 9, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 9, 2014

I’ve written a few times about bad beats, and last week, I wrote about winning a local World Tavern Poker tournament. The odd truth is that it’s harder to write about the latter than the former.

There are a number of reasons why this is. One is that a bad beat tends to be a single, discrete event: You and your opponent acted, it didn’t work out for you, and — against all odds — it did work out for your foe. If you went all in and lost your stack, then you have plenty of time to stew over what went wrong and how cosmically unjust the entire affair was.

That’s not the case when you win a hand, of course. Unless you’ve just won a tournament, then there will be another hand to play — and, typically, another after that, and then another after that, and then another… One rarely has time to dwell on what just happened, and the continuing run of events crowds out even the details of many memorable hands.

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Cross-border care: When health insurers send Americans to other countries

July 8, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 8, 2014

Adam Teicholz and Glenn Cohen took an interesting look in The New Republic the other day at cross-border care, a relatively new phenomenon in which U.S. health insurance companies send patients out of the country — mainly to Mexico — for certain tests and other medical procedures.

Cross-border care is distinct from medical tourism. In the latter, which is better known, people travel to other nations for medicine or procedures that are easier to obtain away from home.

“Easier to obtain” often refers to a difference in costs, which the website MedicalTourism.com says can be up to 90 percent cheaper than in the United States. For example, the site lists the cost for a heart bypass as being $144,000 domestically. Overseas, the same procedure can cost as little as $5,200 in India. (That accounts for airfare for two, but not food, lodging or other expenses.) In all of 10 other countries that the site lists, a heart bypass is estimated to cost less than $30,000. Even accounting for travel costs, a patient can come out ahead.

For this very reason — that charges for health care can be significantly lower outside of the U.S. — a handful of American insurers are requiring their clients to leave the country for some care. And therein lies the key difference: Medical tourism is generally undertaken on an individual’s initiative, while cross-border care is spurred by institutional imperatives.

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Soccer plus games: Précis of (parts of) a holiday weekend

July 7, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 7, 2014

Independence Day was another hot and humid Durham day. I bicycled to a coffee shop on Ninth Street in the afternoon. It closed early for the holiday, at 4 p.m. I went to a nearby grocery store to do some shopping: Peanut butter, salsa, popcorn, rice…

As I sat on the store’s porch, packing my backpack for the bicycle trip home, I realized that the day’s second World Cup quarterfinal match was still being played. I decided to go watch it.

I swung the straps of my now extremely heavy backpack over my shoulders and walked back to my bike on Perry Street. Then I pedaled east, across Broad Street and onto Duke University’s East Campus.

After cycling past the Duke dorms and gym and administrative and miscellaneous buildings, I emerged on Buchanan Avenue. I continued heading east on Dacian Avenue, across North Duke Street and onto the gravel byway that links to the South Ellerbee Creek Trail. I turned right and followed the asphalt ribbon to its southern terminus at Trinity Avenue. For the sake of exercise, I went a few extra blocks east on Trinity before hooking right on North Street and backtracking west on West Geer Street.

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