An Uplifting Afternoon of Staggering Genius
By Lou Fancher
Too bad time travel isn't real. If it were, you would be able to shift into immediate reverse and experience the joyous occasion that was Dave Eggers, speaking at the Lesher Center for the Arts Sunday, June 6, 2010.
Kick-starting the Contra Costa County Library's Summer Reading Festival, Eggers was funny, humble, inspiring, and (despite his comments to the contrary) in control. Plus, thanks to downtown resident Melissa Gorden, he wasn't lost.
"I was running errands," said Gorden, "when a man came up and said, 'Hey, do you know where the Lesher Center is?'" She directed him, then followed him; the chance encounter having reminded her of forgotten plans to attend the event.
Other audience members arrived with less serendipity. Madison Barrett, 24, a recent college graduate, is a long-time fan. "He's articulate, and I especially like his descriptions," she said. Barrett brought her younger sister Katlynn, and both were excited to hear the award-winning author speak.
Eggers, walking onstage after introductions from "guybrarian" Bill Kolb and County Librarian Anne Caine, arrived dressed in sensible Sunday afternoon attire: brown jeans, gray T-shirt under a plaid cotton shirt, his sleeves rolled up. "I hope everyone's dressed as casual as I am," he began, blinking under the stage lights.
If his manner and clothing were the soothing everyman, his message was bold and rich, the stuff of kings and heroic icons. How else to describe the San Francisco resident who writes prize-laden novels, founded and serves as editor of McSweeney's, an independent publishing house, co-founded 826 Valencia, a nonprofit tutoring center for Mission district youth in San Francisco, raised his own brother--and is an expert in pirate paraphernalia ?
Instead of gloating, Eggers zoomed in on humility. Titling his talk "No, You Have Very Little Control Over Your Life, and That's Probably OK," he described the path and purpose behind his work.
Eggers' life did a u-turn when he found himself not going to a hoity East coast college, not living as a 20-something in Europe, not finding complete fulfillment creating award certificates for employees at Pac Bell, and not anticipating the number of people who would read his first novel, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. That novel caps a series of life-changing events, which also includes the death of his parents and raising his brother. "We didn't expect anyone to read it," he said. "I mean, I put in actual names and my friend's real phone numbers!"
But the book, a smashing success, allowed Eggers to travel abroad, writing and "being in his head." The experience wasn't as glam as he had anticipated and he returned to the Bay Area, looking for something meaningful to do
Friends, many of them teachers overwhelmed by the unmet needs of their students, provided Egger's next beyond-his-control adventure. "Maybe we could build an army of tutors," he remembers thinking. The center he began with 30 volunteers was poorly attended, at best, when they ran smack dab into the law, which required the enterprise switch course from tutoring to retail. The heartache of that time is softened today with an impressive army of 1700 volunteers. At locations in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Brooklyn, Ann Arbor, Seattle, and Boston, the 826 Centers provide tutoring, in-school workshops, field trips and the opportunity for students to see their words in real anthology books and newspapers.
And Eggers has pirates to thank for the organization's success. The retail store, a pirate supply store conceived to ridicule the zoning laws as much as to provide a legal front for the tutoring activities, has turned out to be a treasure. "The storefront actually helps kids open their minds, feel accepted," explains Eggers. The eye patches, peg-legs, planks, hooks—"and hook protectors, for night time," Eggers adds—convince the kids that their own ideas, often not accepted by adults, just might come to life at 826 Valencia. Revenue from the store is astounding: there's little to no need for fundraising to support the center.
Having reached the point of saturation, with an audience already in awe of his golden touch, Eggers read from his new book, Zeitoun. "I wanted to tell the story of an all-American family that happened to be Muslim," he says, introducing the story and his passion, human rights advocacy through the written word.