Fiascos and hilarity abound in ‘My Heart is an Idiot,’ Davy Rothbart’s collection of essays about life and love

March 22, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 22, 2017

Davy Rothbart, the Michigan-born writer and magazine editor, is like most people: Get some drink into him and he tends to develops the gift of gab. Also like most people, inebriation tends to lower Rothbart’s inhibitions and impair his judgments.

What sets Rothbart apart is his knack for getting into hilarious misadventures — often but not aways with a helpful nudge from spirits — and his ability to spin them into enjoyable stories. Happily for readers, he’s assembled some of his wackiest hijinks in My Heart is an Idiot, a 2012 collection of essays that documents some of his strangest exploits and describes some of the people he’s met during his various jaunts.

The book, which functions as a sort of haphazard memoir, begins with an amusing but largely ordinary childhood reminiscence. “Bigger and Deafer” details the mischief Rothbart and his brothers got into when Davy was inspired to mislead his deaf mother about the phone conversations for which they were serving as intermediaries. The best part about the story is the twists that take place on its final page.

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Tales of Yesteryear!™ — The case of the mysterious next-door critter

March 18, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 18, 2017

Years ago, in a city that shall go nfonnamed in a state that shall remain nameless, I lived in a house on a street named…ah, but let’s not be too specific here. And in the house next to mine, my neighbors had — ah, but I’d better set the scene.

This particular block of this street was lined with houses on each side. The structures were set fairly close to one another. On my side of the road, most (or possibly all?) of the homes had short driveways; most of these were sandwiched between houses.

My property’s driveway ran past the house to a small dark shed. This shed was pretty much exclusively the province of a cubic ton of spiders, give or take. The arachnids also shared their domain with some long-abandoned containers of pesticide and a few yard tools, none of which I recall touching (let alone using) in my time residing there.

A sort of metal canopy that looked a bit like the one offered for sale on this page covered the portion of the driveway that led up to the shed. I often parked my car beneath the canopy to protect it from the elements. Going to the car entailed walking out the front door, taking a short stroll from the front porch to the driveway and walking back toward the shed.

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Notes on my musical preferences

March 15, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 15, 2017

Last summer, I wrote about my favorite podcasts. Now, some notes on my iTunes/smartphone musical preferences.

(What’s iTunes? I imagine you asking. It is, of course, the free piece of Macintosh audio software that served as a precursor to Apple’s immensely popular iPod portable digital music player. It’s frequently used to organize personal music and video collections, but it also launched podcasts as a communications medium.)

When iTunes was first put out, back in 2001, many new computers had built-in CD players, which people would use to digitize (rip, in the vernacular) their music collection. (That started to change after people began acquiring music through the Apple Music Store and other Internet-based means, thereby entirely bypassing the need to pick up a physical copy at the once-thriving type of business known as the record store.)

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A lot of hard work went into developing the comedy career depicted in the Steve Martin memoir ‘Born Standing Up’

March 13, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 13, 2017

I missed almost all of Steve Martin’s entire career as a standup comedian while it was happening.

I wasn’t yet born when Martin first performed before paying audiences as a latter-day vaudevillian at Knott’s Berry Farm’s Bird Cage Theater in 1963; the same was true when he struck out on his own as a Southern California comedian and TV writer three years later, before comedy clubs had even been invented. (Folk-music venues hosted many of his shows.)

I was far too young to watch TV when Martin started appearing irregularly on talk shows in the early ’70s. I was also too young to attend any of Martin’s performances when he became a touring comedian a few years after that, or to watch his early appearances on Saturday Night Live. (He’s served as SNL guest host 15 times, starting in 1976, second only to Alec Baldwin’s 17 stints.)

I did have some friends who were very big fans of offbeat comedy, despite their tender ages, and I do remember them mimicking Martin’s best bits and showing me videocassettes of their favorite routines featuring him. So there was something vaguely familiar to me about seeing Martin appear in bunny ears in the cover photograph of Born Standing Up, his account of his childhood and the first two decades of his performing career. And thanks to catching snippets of SNL reruns and later Martin appearances on the show, I was certainly familiar with characters like his wild and crazy guy.

But even if I hadn’t been — even if I’d just known Martin from mid-career movies such as RoxanneDirty Rotten Scoundrels and Bowfinger — I think that I might have enjoyed the actor-author’s 2007 memoir.

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Crash bang pop! (In which nothing much happens)

March 11, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 11, 2017

So about that car crash…

North Buchanan Boulevard is a quiet street; even more so at night. And as previously noted, this particular moment on this particular Saturday evening, things were especially quiet. So I was quite surprised when, as I crossed the intersection of Buchanan and West Knox Street, I heard a loud POP! and glimpsed a shower of sparks in my rear-view mirror.

I wasn’t sure what had just happened; rather incongruously, it seemed like someone had set off a single pyrotechnic item. Had a street light or maybe a transformer exploded?

The good samaritan in me felt the need to report this. Was this a matter for 911, or should I call the power company, or perhaps the police department’s non-emergency number. I didn’t know, in part because I did not know what had just happened.

I turned left at the next intersection, parked on Englewood Avenue, exited my car and began walking briskly back toward the site of the…well, whatever had just gone pop.

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A short drive through downtown Durham

March 9, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 9, 2017

Author’s note: The day after this blog post was original published, I adjusted one paragraph after realizing that I’d driven through the Brightleaf District closer to 7:40 p.m. than 8 p.m. As usual, additions are marked with boldface text; deletions, with a strikethrough line. MEM

I inserted myself into the wake of a car crash on Saturday night. This is the story of how I maneuvered myself into falling just short of actually witnessing the collision.

I’d spent much of the afternoon participating in World Tavern Poker’s North Carolina Central East Regional Championships at a hotel in Southeast Durham County. I’d played decently for much of the tournament, but I was never able to recover after I misplayed a hand during the 4,000–8,000 level.

The event had started with around 225 players, of whom the top 10 percent, or 23 players, would qualify to play in the National Championship Finals this spring. When I was eliminated, there were four tables of players; they weren’t keeping track of the exact number, but I went out around 35th or 40th — not bad, but not as good as the finish I’d had in the previous regionals.

Anyway, I was feeling somewhat morose and contemplative as I drove home that evening. When I left the hotel, I headed north on North Carolina 55 until I reached North Carolina Central University. I haven’t written at all about NCCU on my blog, but it has the distinction of being the nation’s first public supported liberal arts institution for African-Americans. I don’t pass by Central much — it’s on Durham’s east side, as opposed to Duke University, which has its main campus on the west side of the city and is much closer to where I live.

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Sisyphus, with car, in winter

March 7, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 7, 2017

Back in the 1990s, I saw something that subtly but permanently altered the way I engage with the world.

I was working my first job out of college, a position that I’d held for more than two years at the time this happened. For some reason, I’d gone to the office to work for a few hours on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. It was a bitterly cold winter day. Earlier in the week, a storm had passed through, and some ice and snow remained on the roads.

The company where I worked was located in an obscure office park a stone’s throw from the New York–New Jersey state line. The park was situated on a hillside, and so the roads and the parking lot were graded. The angle was not particularly steep, but it was enough to come into play when your car’s tires were struggling to get traction.

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The news cycle gazes fondly upon Trump, but only for a brief moment in time

March 3, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 3, 2017

President Donald Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday was, by his low standards, not a bad speech. Trump largely stuck to his script, offering little in the way of needless provocation. While the address contained plenty of misleading information, it featured a notable dearth of novel or headline-making lies. This is, shall we say, a slender basis for praising the leader of the free world. Then again, that’s where we are in 2017.

Unfortunately, much of what the president said was undercut either by the facts or by his earlier statements — in some cases, ones that Trump had made that very morning.

Trump took a few seconds at the beginning of his remarks to condemn the wave of anti-semitic bomb threats and cemetery vandalism as well as “last week’s shooting in Kansas City,” an apparent reference to what appears to have been a racially motivated murder in Olathe, Kansas. Some commentators called this a grace note, but this was literally the least that the president could have done — Trump, who is quick to snipe at people who disagree with him on Twitter, had been silent on the subject for days. Moreover, that morning, he’d suggested to Fox News interviewers that the wave of anti-semitic incidents might be a false-flag operation designed to make him and his deplorable followers look bad.

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Intriguing independent science fiction suspense movie ‘Infini’ is a minor treat for genre fans

February 28, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Feb. 28, 2017

The 2015 science fiction suspense movie Infini borrows plenty of concepts from superior movies, among them Invasion of the Body SnatchersSolaris and Aliens. But although this independent film is obscure, having been made in Australia on a minuscule budget, it’s executed well enough to make it worthwhile viewing for science-fiction aficionados.

Most of the movie takes place on an abandoned mining base on Infini, the farthest-flung outpost in the galaxy. A few hundred years into the future, when members of Infini’s skeleton crew go insane and program a deadly cargo to be sent to Earth, troops are teleported (“slipstreamed,” in the movie’s parlance) to the location to shut down the shipment. But the first wave of responders quickly go insane, and an elite search-and-rescue team led by Capt. Seet Johanson (Kevin Copeland) is summoned to clean up the fiasco.

The group encounters the only known survivor of the disaster, a security specialist named Whit Carmichael. The frazzled Carmichael (Daniel MacPherson) claims that he shut down the base’s heating system during the carnage, thereby leaving most of it in a deep freeze as crazed personnel slaughtered one another. He agrees to help his would-be rescuers disable the cargo transport, but during the process many of the team members are exposed to the same toxic biological material that plunged earlier visitors into madness.

The rest of the story consists of Carmichael’s increasingly frantic efforts to evade the armed psychotics who are hunting him (and each other) while counting down the hours until he can teleport back to Earth.

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Some notes about my conversations with myself

February 26, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Feb. 26, 2017

I was thinking the other day about my history of talking to myself.

I’m not sure just how I picked up the habit, although I definitely was doing it in elementary school. My monologues were likely motivated by a variety of factors: I think at least one of my parents used to mutter to himself; it was surely something that characters did at least occasionally in the cartoons and TV shows that I watched; and it sort of mimicked the way that characters’ thoughts were often portrayed in the books I’d read.

At some point in high school or college, I realized that most other people perceived my talking to myself as a sign that I was mentally defective in some way. Since this was having the opposite of the intended effect — I fancied that talking to myself made me seem intelligent or important somehow — I made a conscious effort to cut back on these one-sided conversations.

I still do it, but not nearly as often as I once did. For the past several years, I’ve tended give myself short pep talks while showering. (I think I also sometimes do it when I’m playing Scrabble in person.) But what I realized recently was that the nature of these pep talks — or perhaps more accurately, the way I regard these pep talks — has changed.

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