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Business gets personal with Davy Rothbart of FOUND magazine

Pieces of you



Davy Rothbart may have run across someone who bored him once, but it was probably a very long time ago.

"I am pretty curious about other people," he says by way of explanation.

Rothbart, a writer and contributor to NPR's This American Life, is the creator of FOUND magazine. It's a repository for the things people find that illuminate others' lives: journals, notes, lists and ephemera found in old books, behind furniture and on the sidewalk.

Rothbart will be in Colorado Springs on Thursday at the Ivywild School, a stop on the FOUND Magazine Unfinished Business Tour. He'll read from his latest collection of essays, My Heart Is an Idiot, and present items from the FOUND collection.

My Heart Is an Idiot includes essays that chronicle Rothbart's habit of falling in love very quickly and dramatically, making interesting friends everywhere he goes, and going to plenty of places on his travels with the FOUND tour.

"I don't engage with every single person that crosses my path on the street, but if it makes sense in the circumstances to start chatting with people, I like to try and discover what is really happening with this person," he says.

'What the hell'

It's a habit that has led to some amazing essays in this collection. There's the long-term phone-sex relationship he had with a woman from Austin, Texas, who turned out to be very different from what he expected when he finally arranged a meeting. And there's a bus trip from the Midwest to New York City in the days after 9/11 surrounded by fellow pilgrims in distress — and a driver who made special deliveries.

In short, this guy doesn't meet too many strangers.

"It's a matter of being open to adventure," he says. "It's not so much seeking it out as that when those opportunities occur, saying 'What the hell,' and getting into the car."

While Rothbart doesn't ignore possible threats, he thinks the odds of meeting a truly dangerous person are much lower than most of us believe. It's our fear of strangers that keeps us from meeting the interesting people who far outnumber the sinister ones.

What's striking about Rothbart's writing is the level of honesty and compassion that infuses his "regular guy" observations. Perhaps all the time he's spent with other people's inner secrets — their journals, love notes and apologies, which end up among FOUND's treasures — has made him more willing to be open about his own failings.

"Some of the writers I really like a lot are the most self-lacerating, like Jim Carroll — The Basketball Diaries — or Jonathan Ames, or the graphic novelist Joe Matt," he says. This led him to understand the power of being honest about one's own failings, because "your weakest moments or things you're not proud about, other people find most relatable."

He also attributes this view to his work with the FOUND materials. "The things I've laughed at the most, some of the pitiful love notes, I laugh so hard because I've written those pitiful love notes myself. I try to remember how universal some of these qualities are — the emotions and instincts and the things that get you into trouble."

Not-so-small talk

Rothbart's search for those universal qualities may have started with FOUND, or it may have come from his upbringing.

He describes his father as "one of those gregarious guys."

"If you go to a restaurant with him, by the end of the meal the waiter or waitress is sitting with you talking about their life," he says. "That certainly had an effect on me."

And his mother, who became deaf as an adult, was also a profound influence on Rothbart — one of the funniest and most heartwarming essays in his book is about his "translating" of phone calls into ASL for her so that he'd keep out of trouble and get what he wanted as a child.

For her, "[c]ommunication is not all that easy, even with people who know sign language, so she doesn't waste time with small talk," he says. That direct-to-the-heart style may have something to do with how he "always [has] been interested in connecting with the deepest parts of people, what really represents them."

And that goes back to FOUND, and the materials in it. "The authors of these found notes are so naked and honest in expressing themselves," Rothbart says. "I feel like if I can match that nakedness and openness, if I can reveal myself entirely, I think people will forgive it and even appreciate it."

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