How to Get Dave Eggers on the Phone

Many years ago my brother Steve and my mother and I drove around Lake Ontario. I cannot recall why we were driving around Lake Ontario, and why in that particular combination: I cannot trace the impulse to an occasion nor a destination. But we did it. One of the things we did to keep ourselves occupied—it’s a big lake, and so a long drive—was a game we invented, a game I wrote about 20 years ago:

The challenge was for one of us to name a person of some renown, and for the others to concoct a course through their social network that would allow them to have a telephone call taken by this person. For example, I said “Bill Clinton.” Steve responded by naming his friend Dave, an editor for the CBC Morning News in Halifax, who worked with Henry Champ, Washington Bureau Chief for CBC Newsworld who, in turn, would probably know someone who could get him to Clinton. Not the strongest case, I agree, but you get the idea.

I love this sort of connection. Not for the standard-issue “networking” possibilities, at least not entirely, but rather for the simple delight of exploring the latticeworks that connect us all.

In that spirit, here is my connection to Dave Eggers:

In the spring of 2005 I took a leap and booked a flight to Copenhagen to attend my first reboot conference. At the conference’s opening drinks at Admiral Gjeddes Gaard I met Jyri Engeström over a beer. A few days later, I heard Jyri speak, which I summarized here as:

Jyri Engeström’s talk, titled Blind Men’s Baseball, where he talked about bringing the kind of presence tools we have on the web into mobile devices to add a sort of “peripheral vision” to the mobile experience.

Jyri went on to co-found Jaiku, which afforded a lot of that “peripheral vision” in a real mobile application, and I was intrigued enough to become a user and a developer, and to keep in touch with Jyri from time to time.

Many years later—Jaiku got folded into Google and Jyri went on to all manner of other interesting things—Jyri became partners in life and work with Caterina Fake, co-founder of Flickr, and also one-of-many-interesting-pursuits.

One of Caterina’s pursuits is a new podcast, Ingenious, and one of her first guests is Dave Eggers, which she writes about here:

Dave and I go way back. We worked together circa 1996-8, at, one of the very first online media publishers, which published, and still publishes, thinky articles on society and culture. They also host thoughtful online conversations and civil discourse. Again, it was an amazing time to be online.

Now I’m on the board of McSweeneys, the publishing company that Dave also founded. It publishes books and magazines, old media. So Dave and I have invested a lot of our energy into making places and spaces for writers doing creative work, finding an audience and getting paid. But these are fraught times for writers. The writers in Hollywood are on strike, AI is taking their jobs, teachers are saying the high school essay is dead. You’re here too and you’ve seen it—there’s a lot of dread to go around. Think we’re reactionary luddites? I don’t think so. Techno-optimists turned tech skeptics, maybe. I think we’ve all become a lot more wary since our salad days.

In any case, there’s a lot of these values and thinking and ideation in this podcast. It is a special episode because Dave and I are old friends, and share a lot of the same hopes for the humans. So give it a listen!

But this really isn’t a post about how I could get Dave Eggers on the phone—could I get Dave Eggers on the phone?—but rather a post about how I bought Dave Eggers’ newest book, The Eyes and The Impossible, this morning from The Bookmark.

The book is available in two editions: a regular hardbound version for $25, and a special edition with a wood binding for $35. I think you can figure out which edition I bought. But if not:

A photo of Dave Eggers' The Eyes and The Impossible, in its special wood-bound edition, taken from above, over a hardwood floor.

I bought the book because Catarina recommended it, because I loved the book’s trailer narrated by Ethan Hawke, and because almost everything I’ve ever read or watched that comes from the mind of Dave Eggers has delighted me.

I just finished reading myself the first chapter, aloud, and I am delighted:

I turn I turn I turn before I lie to sleep and I rise before the Sun.

I sleep inside and sleep outside and have slept in the hollow of a thousand-year-old tree. When I sleep I need warmth I need quiet I need freedom from sound. When I sleep I dream of mothers and clouds clouds are messengers of God-and I dream of pupusas for I love pupusas and eat them with gusto.

I am a dog called Johannes and I have seen you. I have seen you in this park, my home. If you have come to this park, my vast green and windblown park by the sea, I have seen you. I have seen everyone who has been here, the walkers and runners and bikers and horse-riders and the Bison-seekers and the picnickers and the archers in their cloaks. When you have come here you have come to my home, where I am the Eyes.

The woodbound copy at The Bookmark is sold out (you can order another, though), but the hardbound is still in stock, and I second the recommendation.

Gentle Pressure Consistently Applied

Since the spring we’ve been cycling with L. to school every morning when the weather is good. It’s an excellent way for all of us to start the day in motion.

The on-ramp is not always a gentle one, though, and starting last night there was some anti-cycling lobbying going on. I allowed a case to be formally presented this morning, ruled some of the evidence inadmissible (“I need to preserve my energy”) and some of it mitigable (“I can carry some of your load on my bicycle”), ultimately ruling in favour of cycling.

At this point I might have waffled, fearful of whatever reaction might be thrown my way.

This is a normal human reaction to the possibility of discomfort and conflict and, in my case, a reaction enhanced by 23 years of parenting O., for whom the “whatever reaction might be thrown my way” is something I’m so inured to that I have an autonomic reaction deep inside me that kicks in and molds my behaviour toward avoidance.

Last week I hired myself a personal trainer and started going to the gym twice a week. It’s not my first fitness rodeo, but it’s my first time paying any formal attention to my body in 14 years. I’ve only worked out three times so far, so I’m under no illusions that I’m a man-reborn, but in the same way that improv has given me lessons—yes, and…—that I’ve been able to use offstage, working out has already gifted me some mental lessons, chief among which is that I am stronger than I imagine myself to be.

Yesterday, for example, “today we’re going to work on the bench press” was the introduction. While I could imagine push-ups and rowing and barbells being part of a fitness program, it had never occurred to me that mystical things like bench presses existed in my realm of possibility. And yet, there I was, with 45 pounds bearing down on my chest (not a lot of weight, Olympics-wise, but for me it’s a lot) and I was alive and capable. And, more importantly, I have learned that expressing strength can be more a matter of “gentle pressure, consistently applied” than it is “explosive burst of muscle power.” 

This is a lesson that I can carry outside of the gym. And, indeed, that’s what I did this morning: previously, fearful of conflict, disappointment, afraid of walking through whatever blowback funk might result, I would likely have acquiesced, and we would have left our bicycles at home.

Instead, working from a position of strength, using gentle pressure, consistently applied, I took us through the blowback. As soon as we hit the road, the clouds lifted, the joy of being in motion together emerged, and we parted company with hearts pumping and warm.

A Part / To Gather / Apart / Together

A week ago my friend Martin sent an email with an notice headlined VOICE WORKSHOP and the comment “This sounds fascinating.”

A PART / TO GATHER APART / TOGETHER VOICE WORKSHOP 4.30PM - 6.30PM 26TH SEPTEMBER, 2023 BEACONSFIELD CARRIAGE HOUSE $25 Join multidisciplinary artist and vocal coach Robin Love (Tiohtia:ke/Montreal), and singer-songwriter Lucy Farrell (UK) in exploring the roles of individual and community practice in the development and discovery of voice. This workshop will weave together embodied vocal practices that rely on self-reflective focus and attention with elements of group singing to investigate what might be revealed in practice alone and in relation with others. No prior singing experience is necessary.

I invited Lisa to go with me, not really knowing why.

She said yes (she told me later, not really knowing why).

I’m generally not the kind of person who attends voice workshops…” is something I might write at this point.

But I won’t.

Because now I am the kind of person who attends voice workshops.

I also perform in improv shows. I work out twice a week. I go to couples coaching. I am emerging as a version of myself who is much less afraid of things than I used to be, and so much less likely to dismiss different things as “not the kind of things I do.” 

My willingness to attend, against type or not, was based on Martin’s endorsement, and an appreciation for Lucy Farrell’s talents as a musician, with an extra boost offered by witnessing one of my oldest friends embrace singing as something he can and does do regularly.

Otherwise, what happens when you “weave together embodied vocal practices that rely on self-reflective focus and attention with elements of group singing to investigate what might be revealed in practice alone and in relation with others.”? I had no idea: it’s not my language.

Here’s what did happen.

We went through an exercise to pay attention to the tension in our bodies, a body scan familiar to those who listen to guided meditations, with particular emphasis on paying attention to our breath and our throat and our voice and tensions that affect them. We did this while on our backs on the floor, breathing in silently, breathing out with a breathy vibratory “huh,” scanning, breathing, scanning. We then stood up and started to hum, while still paying attention to our breathing and to our tensions, gradually evolving from a hum to a vowel, and loosening ourselves and our tensions by doing things like tapping on our chests.

All the while I was doing this, I was in my head: “I don’t want to end up humming too loudly, but I don’t want to not make a sound at all; my breathing isn’t working; this is silly; what is a body scan anyway?; why does my lower back hurt?”. But eventually I wasn’t in my head so much, and, surprisingly, I felt purer less affected sounds coming out of me, with less effort. When this exercise was drawn to a close after about 10 minutes I was left feeling like it was twice as easy to breath than it was before, and that my “place where singing comes from” in my throat had expanded from a shrivelled passageway to an expansive cave. What a weird feeling.

After a tea break, we learned a technique to slowly memorize lyrics: read them silently, look away, read again, look away, read again; then read aloud, also three times with pauses between, then three times while projecting to a person or object in the distance, and so on.

Sleep bonnie bairny behind the castle
by by by by
thou should have a golden apple
by by by by

We memorized each line, then gathered in a circle to sing them together, over and over and over, eventually shifting from singing in unison to singing as an overlapping round.

As with the earlier exercise, I entered self-conscious and timid, and the effect of mindful repetition, in a group, led me to forget the process and relax into the song. Also a weird feeling.

We finished with Lucy singing a new song by Karine Polwart, The Stars Are Ours, written in support of the Dartmoor campaigners. We joined her on the chorus:

For the stars will not be sold
The stars are ours

It is a lovely song, Lucy’s rendition brought tears to my eyes, and it was a fitting way to end our time together.

Did we “weave together embodied vocal practices that rely on self-reflective focus”? I don’t know. But I do know that I learned something about my breathe, something about my voice, something about the corrosive effects of holding tension for as long and regularly as I have, and experienced a few beautiful moments of singing in harmony.

Martin was right: this sounds fascinating.

The Orwell Bay Culinary Tour

Three culinary discoveries last week, made with Lisa, all clustered around Orwell Bay, east of Charlottetown, and each worthy of a visit.

  1. The Boys Comfort Cuisine in Earnscliffe was a referral from our friend Sue, who’s a regular customer. Partners relocated from culinary Montreal, and during COVID they converted their garage into a commercial kitchen. They sell frozen food to go; food, as their name suggests, that sits on the lasagna-mac and cheese-butter chicken axis. We had their lasagna for supper on Saturday, with leftovers for lunch on Sunday, and it was everything you’d lasagna to be. You can drop by their Earnscliffe in person, or pick up their wares at Discounters stores across the Island. And while you’re in Earnscliffe, find your way to Cherrycliff Park, a gem of an oceanside place that’s quite unlike any other on PEI.
  2. Country Taste Kitchen and Bakery in Belfast is part of the same family that brings you Riverview Country Market in Charlottetown. They make an excellent espresso, tasty baked goods, and have a lovely large gazebo on the front lawn under which you may consume same.
  3. Bar Vela Pizzeria & Mercato in Point Prim makes the best pizza on Prince Edward Island, no exaggeration: lovely dough you can lose yourself inside, tomato sauce that’s pitch-perfect, interesting ingredients on top; oh my. It’s all made in a jet black shipping container, tucked into an unassuming barnyard on a property about halfway between the highway at Point Prim lighthouse. Take-out only, though they have picnic tables and beanbag toss games for your dining pleasure. Surprisingly, they are open year round (suggested eating location in midwinter: your car; this is the kind of pizza you eat within minutes of it leaving the oven). I cannot tell you how happy it made me to eat this pizza; it is amazing.

It’s worth an early-autumn visit to all three some day soon; you will not be disappointed.

Topsy Turvy Reinventorium

Five years ago I moved my office and letterpress shop from The Guild to the basement of St. Paul’s Parish Hall. It was a helpful move, allowing me to be closer to home—about 45 seconds, if I hurry—to help support teenaged Olivia and ailing Catherine. What I gave up in natural light and culture industry neighbours I gained both in proximity, and in a parish that’s wrapped its arms around me, and my family, in the years since.

The Parish Hall has undergone many laudable renovations in recent years, the extension and repaving of the parking lot, and creation of an accessible entrance most prominently. An unfortunate side effect of these updates has been that my basement office, dry as a bone for the early years, started to leak on every rain storm. While none of my equipment or supplies suffered damage, it was disheartening to find a small flood in the office every time it rained, and eventually the office became inhospitable. At the same time, partly due this, and partly due lifestyle changes, I began to work more from home, from coffee shops, and from the public library (ironically, given all the attention I paid over the years to ergonomics, this was the smartest ergonomics move I’ve ever made). 

After a lot of work by the Parish, especially sexton Clar, the basement leaking was finally attended to this summer: a crew from Nasty Cracks jackhammered a deep trench along the entire width of the office, along the outside wall, filled it with a sluiceway, added an impermeable barrier, and installed a sump pump. We’ve been through several big rain storms since, and there hasn’t been a drop of water in my shop, so it worked!

My shop floor with drying concrete over the sluiceway.

The hold in the corner of my shop where a sump pump would eventually be set.

The new sump pit finished and in place.

The disturbed floor with concrete poured and drying.

As an extra bonus shop-challenge, it was determined on the day the crew arrived that, instead of clearing a path through just half of the room, I’d need to clear out the entire shop, both to afford trench-blasting access, and to ensure dust didn’t coat everything. It took a Herculean effort to do this, by myself, one rainy morning, and the end effect was that five years of somewhat-organized shop contents, analog and digital, became a completely-unorganized morass of stuff filling up the adjoining hallways.

Mass of disorganized stuff in the hallways around my office.

While this was, well, a lot, in the now-dry aftermath, if gives me the opportunity to reimagine the space, both to deaccession the things I don’t need, and to convert the entire space into an analog workshop, for printing, bookbinding, paper making, sewing, and all manner of other creative pursuits.

With Lisa’s help, I’ve started this process this week; today I spent three hours disgorging the buckets of ephemera that gathered unsorted over recent years into organized piles:

A photo of my basement office, with piles of like things gathered together spread over the floor.

The yellow labels for each pile identify the like things assembled, and include Paper, Electronics, Letterpress, Personal Archive, Garbage, Stationery, and, my favourite, Huh? (a very helpful pile that prevented me from getting blocked by hard-to-categorize things that I couldn’t bring myself to just throw away; things like the Apple QuickTake camera that Kevin O’Brien and Peter Richards and I went in on together back in the day). In those piles, among many other things, are old love letters, USB hubs, Tomoe River paper, paint brushes, and a copy of the Journal-Pioneer from 1965.

The next step is to curate each pile: what to keep, what to give away. Once I’ve done that, Lisa, who excels at managing storage, will join me to find well-crafted places to put everything, places that will afford me readier access to things than I’ve had in a long time (or perhaps never).

Once all that is done, I am so looking forward to getting back to making things, and looking forward to having Lisa join me in the shop as a creative co-conspirator.

Our deepest fears are like dragons guarding our deepest treasures”

Steven Mayoff, interviewed in Authority Magazine, in 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Artist:

5. Follow your fear. On the corkboard above my desk I have two quotations from poets written on an airmail envelope. The first quote is by John Berryman that reads: “We must travel in the direction of our fear.” The second, by Rainer Maria Rilke, goes: “Our deepest fears are like dragons guarding our deepest treasures.” While these pearls of wisdom can be applied to many facets of life, for me their greatest relevance is regarding writing. Digging deep into a character can sometimes be an ugly business. While all of us strive to be the heroes of our own lives, we also have a dark side that is not always easily confronted. This is what I love about writing fiction. How it allows me to think about the human condition and the ways it manifests in various situations and relationships. My perspective is both objective, because these characters don’t really exist, but also subjective, because these characters are my creations. When they do terrible things or think terrible thoughts, I do not have the luxury of judging them. I have to let them exist on their own terms as I want to exist myself on my own terms.

Naming the Surface of Mercury

Scottish singer-songwriter Karine Polwart has produced a new series for BBC Radio 4, Seek the Light. In the episode Out of the Shadows she delves into the intersection of planet Mercury and Scottish folk singing:

All the craters of Mercury are named after famous artists, Burns and Pushkin are there along with Bach and Boccaccio. And it was this dominance of white men that Annie wanted to challenge. The International Atstonomical Union’s naming conventions around new discoveries have proven themselves inherently sexist and exclusionary and Annie felt compelled to do waht she could to rebalance it. In her lifetime, Lady Carolina Nairne was responsible for such staples of Scottish folk singing as ‘Charlie is my darlin’ and ‘Caller Herrin’, yet she’s largely unknown, publishing much of her work anonymously or under pseudonyms. Now there is a corner of the universe that will forever be a testament to her talents.

I think a lot about sexist naming practices, given that I live in a city where almost all the streets and public buildings are named after colonial white men (as I type this, I’m sitting at the intersection of Pownal Street, named after John Pownall, secretary to the British Board of Trade and Plantations and Secretary of State, and Richmond Street, named for Charles Lennox, Duke of Richmond).

Ian Petrie’s Wise Words on Land

Ian Petrie, one of the Island’s wisest thinkers on agriculture and land, takes a step back to look at the current zeitgeist, in Money, land and murky violation of the LPA in Island Farmer.

Both the Irvings and Bliss and Wisdom have access to almost unlimited capital, but their intent and goals are quite different. The Irvings were following a business pattern established by K.C. Irving almost a century ago. Buy land for its inherent investment value and use it to produce the raw materials to supply other Irving companies. Bliss and Wisdom bought land and built temples for worship and teaching facilities that have attracted thousands of novice monks and nuns, about 90 per cent from Taiwan.

The LPA — the Lands Protection Act — is a piece of legislation I know intimately from my days with L.M. Montgomery Land Trust: the lands on the Island’s north shore that the Trust seeks to preserve are as subject to the LPA as any other, and it quickly became apparent that it was an imperfect and blunt instrument for keeping land available for appropriate-scale agriculture. Smart bureaucratic elders who were around during its formulation characterized it to me as a temporary stop-gap, a finger in the dike until a richer and more well-thought-out solution could be found. But that richer solution has yet to arrive: the amount of political courage it takes to confront the centuries old land issues bred into the bone of this Island is something no administration has been able to muster.