Saturday, February 9, 2013

With Profound Thanks: An Erstwhile Afternoon with Dave Eggers

People from back home in the general vicinity of Waynesville, OH have often asked me what the best thing about living in Chicago is. I'm usually torn about what I should tell them; the abundance of artistic and creative happenings that is so completely overwhelming that the only way to take it all in is to have millions of dollars, copious amounts of free time, and unlimited evenings (i.e. holy crap it's impossible); the wide variety of food and culinary delights of all manner of ethnic types and cultures; the skyline and the sights that make Chicago uniquely its own (for example, the giant monument to baseball resting less than a hundred feet from my doorstep); the crazy stories and happenings that can only exist on public transit that every native has after only two weeks of living in the city. (For an example of the latter, please read the prior blog post.)

After a year and a half of city living, I can safely say that what I love best about living in Chicago is the opportunity to take part in being in just the right place at just the right time. Granted, this can happen anywhere in the world. To boil down my meaning, let me explain one of my basic philosophies of life. I am a firm believer that as long as one applies themselves to their passions and desires, everything that is supposed to happen in life tends to work out exactly the way its supposed to. This results in experiences that live beyond the moment of their occurrence, lifetime lessons that resonate long into the future, and transcendental epiphanies that help shape the course of one's future.

I typically follow up with deep-dish pizza, because people like tangible things that they can relate to. And I love deep-dish pizza.

Living in Chicago, however, has provided me with countless opportunities that have not only reaffirmed my choices in life, but have also pushed me to continue expanding what it is that I'm doing with my life, forcing me to truly examine why I'm doing what I'm doing at this point in time. It's forced me to truly identify what it means to be independent, and how to fill my days. It's also showed me, directly and indirectly, exactly what are the things that matter in my life.

Which brings me to Unabridged Books.

Last Saturday (February the 2nd, or Groundhog's Day for the fans of Bill Murray), I ventured out my door at about 12:30 in the afternoon to walk the six blocks from my apartment to Unabridged Books, an indie bookstore not far from the Belmont Red Line station. It was snowing rather heavily at the time, as Chicago winds its way through an unusually schizophrenic winter season, and my passage along the streets was slightly more adventuresome than I had been anticipating. I could have taken the Red Line, thus increasing the ease of my trip at the expense of standing around waiting for a train on Saturday for an additional ten to twenty minutes. On this day, however, I had resolved to brave the elements, pulling on my reserves of countrified endurance that can only come from marching a mile into a frozen cow pasture to convince an unruly bovine that "there's fresh hay in the barn, so PLEASE GET OUT OF THE SNOW", in order to make it to Unabridged Books with plenty of time to spare.

Dave Eggers was going to be there, at 2:00 pm, for a book signing.

I'll start by stating that prior to this day, I was a big fan of Eggers' work. A modern writer, a product (one might say) of Generation X, world traveler, and philanthropist, Eggers' first claim to fame was as the author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a post-modern memoir recounting the death of both of his parents from cancer and his subsequent struggles to raise his much younger brother in San Francisco. At times hilarious, at times heart-rending, the book dives between fiction and non-fiction like a surfboard through choppy waters, pushing the boundaries of what can be considered memoir as well as how we can reconstruct our pasts to suit our own purposes while dealing with our own grief.

Needless to say, in the months following my mother's death from breast cancer, I turned to many familiar forms of comfort in my collection of books, music, and movies, looking for personal relief in ways that supplemented the support I was already receiving from multiple friends. I found that in the days immediately following the news that it was impossible to read; reading was something that my mother and I shared a deep passion for. Many is the night when I was living at home when I would come home from work, plop down on the couch opposite from her, and read my own book, spending time with her in a way far more meaningful than if we were to play board games or go out for dinner. Consequently, reading with an empty space on the opposite couch seemed hollow, if not downright impossible.

The first thing I actually attempted to read in the days following her passing was HWOSG, cracking it open in the days after her memorial service. Falling into its pages, I was able to relate to passages that before had seemed threatening, looming over my future like towering monoliths, reminding me of the inevitable. Now, they proved far more comforting than I had anticipated them to be, and I lived in that book for several days, reading and rereading it endlessly. In a two months' span of time, I read the book a total of three times, and it's always held a place of high honor on my shelf. I've also branched into Eggers' other works, though I have yet to read what many consider to be his masterpiece, Zeitoun, or his latest work, A Hologram for the King.

In short, I went to the book signing with quite a lot of additional baggage, in addition to the copies of his books that I now carried in my messenger bag.

Reaching Unabridged Books after a brisk ten minute walk, I sloughed off my trappings and approached the desk. The woman working there kindly offered to check my bag, which I gratefully accepted; standing in line for an hour and a half is only made worse by the amount of literal baggage you carry with you. In my case, I had a layer of winter clothing, my bag with all of my notebooks, journals, and other required reading materials, and my three Eggers' tomes. After a brief conversation regarding how my current attempt at a handlebar mustache resembles the one that Errol Flynn's stunt double wore, I began poking my nose about the store.

The signing table was set up at the back, and I was relieved to find that at the exact moment of my entry into the store, only two people were in line. This is no small feat; in Chicago, if there's an event on a grand scale happening, people are willing to brave the elements and wait in line for anywhere up to four hours. Trust me on this; I went to an advance screening of The Artist last December, arrived two hours before, and found that there were already upwards of thirty people in line.

Anyway, I seized a quick opportunity to pick up a copy of How We Are Hungry, a collection of short stories by Eggers. It always feels of the utmost importance to support small bookstores, new and used, whenever I enter; it's an unwritten rule I have. Having been through a bookstore closing, I am convinced that the only way to ensure the survival of smaller stores is by making sure that I financially compensate such places whenever I walk through their doors. While this may or may not guarantee the fiscal survival of indie bookstores, it does make for a surplus of books on my shelves, as well as a slightly lessened wallet when it comes time to shopping for things such as, you know, food.


Planting myself in line, I looked at my cell phone and discovered that, as it was only 1:00 pm, I had an hour to kill. Had I been anywhere but a bookstore, this might have been unbearable. Fortunately, I was in a bookstore. This wasn't waiting for an author to sign my books, this was a chance for pleasure reading! Arriving early worked to my advantage as not only would I get my books signed quickly, but I could browse through books that I didn't have at home!

Picking up the nearest book next to me, I read the first couple of essays in Patton Oswalt's Zombie Spaceship Wasteland. Expecting humorous anecdotes and quirky observations, I was immediately struck by his relating a story of growing up in suburban Virginia. Reading quickly, I found that at a young age, Oswalt felt bogged down by the trappings of a quiet life, surrounded by burnouts and unambitious twenty-somethings at the movie theater where he worked as an usher. Again and again, he related the observation that getting out when he did was the best thing that he could have ever done in his life.

It might just be my willingness to relate to anyone and anything I discover on printed pages, but I could only feel empathy as I read through his essay. I knew those people! I left some of those people behind myself! WE ARE BROTHERS, PATTON OSWALT AND I!

I try not to read too many memoirs of current popular actors and comedians; they tend to bring out the worst in me.

As time passed by, the line grew and grew. Soon, it wrapped around the upper level of the bookstore, extending down into the basement travel section. I could only feel an intense sense of relief that I had arrived when I did. The only book signing I had been to prior to Mr. Eggers was when Sean Astin visited Springfield, OH to sign copies of his autobiography. This coming in the wake of the Oscar domination of Return of the King, it was quite a popular event. After his lecture, there was just enough time for me and my family to drive home, give me the car, start driving back alone, get pulled over and receive a ticket for speeding, arrive back in Springfield (almost an hour away, mind you), get in line, and wait a further hour to get Mr. Astin's signature on my edition of Lord of the Rings. By this time, Sean Astin resembled something of a zombie, mindlessly signing books as they were placed in front of them, with a horribly forced smile for the crowd.

It was my resolution not to be the guy waiting three hours in line for a mindless scribble.

2:00 rolled around, and Dave Eggers was nowhere to be seen. At 2:05, the crowd began to exchange worried looks. Would he show? Was he late? What if there was a horribly tragic car accident? What if he decided "Screw these peeps, Ima get myself to O'Hare and fly to MEX-EE-COOOO!"? (That last one might be a stretch of the imagination, but I swear, the face on the girl behind me appeared as if she was pondering that exact possibility. It's a very distinct look; you can't miss it.) At 2:10, the owner of the store informed us that Eggers had just left his prior book signing, and was traveling to the store as quickly as he could, prompting a sigh of relief from the small horde of fans in the store.

At 2:17, I looked towards the doorway, not visible from my spot in line, crouched behind a shelf filled with coffee table art books. I could see the entry way, however, featuring a tack board covered with announcements and fliers. I could tell when the door had opened, as a breeze ruffled the fliers ominously. In the back of my mind, a deep voice, probably James Earl Jones' circa Field of Dreams, seemed to say "A great man has arrived."

And then Dave Eggers walked into the store.

A short man (people are always shorter than I imagined them to be, a byproduct of being a tall man myself), his hair was long and shaggy, exactly as I imagined it to be. He wore a blue University of Illinois hooded sweatshirt that looked as though he'd had it since the early 90's; I mean, this thing was filthy. Maybe not that filthy, but bear with me. That part of my brain that identifies with my heroes immediately suggested that he looked much the way that I do on a Saturday morning. You know, like a normal guy.

One of these days, I'll get over my obnoxious case of hero worship.

"Sorry I'm late," he gushed, walking towards the owner. He then turned to take in the line, all watching him with rapt interest. "Sorry everybody!" he said, flinching only slightly.

He was swiftly escorted to the signing table, where he sat down with a hand to his forehead. "Can I get you anything to drink?" asked a helpful employee. "Water? Coffee? Anything - "

"Asprin," said Dave Eggers, looking directly at the employee. "Asprin, please." As the employee ran off to get asprin, I deduced two possible reasons for his needing pain-killers: 1) that signing books for three hours twice a day would give anyone a headache; 2) he had a hangover after hanging out with lifelong friends the night before. (As Mr. Eggers is a consummate professional, in the middle of a long signing tour, and didn't appear otherwise hungover, the latter is most likely just a fantasy scenario in my mind. But hey, you never know.)

Without further ado, the signing began.

The first man in line held several hardcover copies of all of his books. Dave took one look at the pile, said "Hello" and started signing.

"You ever come in here before?" he said, punctuating his signing with forceful stabs of his black Sharpie marker.

"Uh, no," stammered the guy. His hardcover editions, all published by McSweeney's (Eggers' own publishing house), suggested that he only ventured out occasionally, acquiring books as they came. No doubt a devoted fan, he flinched beneath the uninterested face of the writer before him.

"Well," said Dave Eggers, "You should!" He finished signing, shook the man's head, and bid him out the door.

The next guy had only a few books, but told Dave that he was there for his girlfriend. "You're a good boyfriend," said Eggers, signing the books to Sheena after inquiring about the spelling of the name. Already, he seemed cordial and relaxed, quite impressive given that he'd probably be signing somewhere in the vicinity of one thousand to two thousand books today.

Finally, it was my turn.

I approached hesitantly, conscious of my lower moral standing in comparison with a writer that I've followed for years.

Before he even asked my name, he looked at me and said: "Nice mustache!"

Dave Eggers likes my mustache! I died a little bit inside, smiling the awkward smile of the imbecilic, and muttering "Thanks".

"Do you wax it?"

I immediately realized that my tongue was incapable of forming human speech. (Dave Eggers likes my mustache, you guys!) "Uh, no, it's infant - it's uh, infan - it's still in its infancy."

Dave Eggers now thinks I'm a moron.

He asked my name and began signing his books. Before he could get beyond the writing of my name, I looked at him and said "I just want to let you know that, uh, Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is what helped me get through my mom's death a year ago. Almost exclusively."

And then he stopped.

And then he looked at me. "I'm sorry to hear that. How are you holding up?"

This was not what I expected. In my relations with celebrities of any standing, such encounters are usually tight and formal, sticking to a finely tuned script. (This would be somewhat proven by rather formulaic inscriptions on the other books I had brought: "Stay Hungry." "I Hope You See the World." "Keep Listening." For him to actively ask about my state of being completely rattled me. I almost didn't know what to do beyond bolt for the door.

"Uh, well, you know," I said. How can I possibly relate to him? I lost my mother, sure, but he lost both of his parents at the same time from horrible diseases and then had to take care of a young boy without any prior warning! We're on completely different levels. "It's been a long year," I said finally. "Not the easiest time." He nodded at this, setting aside HWOSG and moving on to the other books before he had finished signing that one. "I guess - just trying to move on, you know."

"Well, you don't," he said, looking down at his books. "I'm still getting over everything that happened in my life, and it never leaves you, you know? It never goes away. It's always there.

"And that's okay."

I have no words.

"What you can do is: write about it." He finished signing my other three books, though HWOSG still sat to the side, awaiting his Sharpie. "You know, anecdotes, memories, things that only you remember. I'm losing a little bit more everyday, and it hurts, man. But you've just got to take what you can, and know that it never leaves you. But that's okay."

I'm almost in tears. I'm sure he said more, but just hearing those words come from someone I've always admired moved me in a way that I've only felt a few times before. It opened up new wounds, it bared my soul wide open, and shook the foundations of the store. There were no other people in line, waiting to get their books signed; it was only me and Dave Eggers. And he felt the same way.

"Wow," I said finally. "Thanks. She - I know she only wanted the best for me and my brother." He nodded, pulling HWOSG back to sign. "Breast cancer." He grunted, feeling the pain. "Twelve years. But she never quit. She was still teaching two days before she died." Saying that last part might feel almost rote to others by now, but I'm constantly amazed by the idea that my mother, in the middle of dying, still had it in her to teach at two separate colleges; that's why it never feels scripted to let others know that.

"She sounds like a true warrior, then," said Dave Eggers.

Now I actually did feel tears coursing down my cheek.

"Remember," he said, finishing whatever he was writing in HWOSG as he slid it back to me. "Memories fade. The pain doesn't, though. That's why it's so important to remember the things that matter. Keep writing, keep doing whatever it takes to hold on to those. I wish I'd written down a hundred things that are lost, now. But do that, and you'll stay strong."

We shook hands. "Thank you," I said.

"Take care, man."

As I walked away, I looked back at him. The next person in line was already moving up eagerly. "Good luck, man."

He laughed, understanding my sympathies and consciously aware of the long hours awaiting him. "Thanks."

I stepped over to the desk, retrieved my bags, and thanked the lady working at the desk, clutching my books tightly to my chest. Bundling myself up, I stepped out the door and make the quick walk to the Red Line, bound for downtown where I had to work that evening. (I had to meet Dave Eggers in my server's uniform. I am a tool.) I hadn't opened the books yet, waiting to sit down so that the paperbacks wouldn't be marred by the snow. Finally, I fought my way onto the train, taking a seat at the rear of the car. Pulling out my stack of Eggers' work, I began riffling through the pages to see what was written.

How We Are Hungry: Stay Hungry.

You Shall Know Our Velocity!: I Hope You See the World.

What is the What: Keep Listening.

Each punctuated by his sprawling signature. Often repeated, broken down to easy words for a mass audience, I wasn't bothered by their casualness. (They had my name at the top, man!) Dave Eggers had a long day ahead of him; just the fact that he bothered to write anything was impressive.

And then  I opened A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.


With profound thanks.
Be well.

Dave Eggers

I understand that he must have a conversation similar to mine every ten minutes of his book signings; he's a popular author. I realize that the above inscription might be what he writes in every copy of the book; it's his life story, of course he'll be profoundly thankful to people for reading it. I also realize that he might say the same thing to everyone he meets, at lectures, in interviews, and in casual street encounters.

But none of that matters.

It was exactly what I needed to hear at the exact right moment.

And really, that's all that matters to me.

HWOSG sits on my coffee table now, not far from reach. I'm working through a pile of reading at the moment, but it is in that pile now, forcibly inserted by these recent events. In my head, I'm working through exactly how to implement the suggestions that Dave passed on to me. I could write a biography of my mother's life; I could continue to write stories about growing up; I'm working on a full-length play about how we deal with grief, with cancer, and with living. A hundred different ideas have passed through my mind, as I work from a garden apartment near Wrigley Field.

It'll be a year ago a week from Sunday.

In that time, I've gone through three drafts of my first book, completed the second draft of the sequel, written a dozen short stories, two short plays, and agreed to direct my first full length show since graduating college. All of it knowing that my mom is watching.

Now I know that, truthfully or not, Dave Eggers is rooting for me as well.

And that's more than I could ever ask for.

(Sidenote #1: A catch-up on where The Atlantean Chronicles stands. As of now, the first draft of Book II is completed, and my small army of readers are pouring over it, discovering new ways to tell me about how much I suck. In the meantime, I've resolved to self-publish Book I: Defenders of Avondale. I'm in contact with an artist friend of mine who's willing to provide a cover, and going over my options. What I can safely say is that it will be available in e-book format on, most likely for a price of $5.00, with whatever I make from that being used to buy a new laptop that isn't cracked, ten years old, and slower than molasses. If you have a tablet/e-reader/Kindle/iPad, you'll be able to read it. If not, let me know, and I'll figure something out. In addition, I've decided that to further honor my mother, 10% of the proceeds from the sales of the book will be donated to the National Wildlife Federation. So that's ANOTHER reason you should get an e-reader! Stay tuned for more information.)

1 comment:

  1. Great story, brother. I've heard of Eggers before, but never read any of his stuff. I'll have to give it a try. I actually have the draft of book 2 opened up and I just got started. Looking forward to it.