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Neon in the Rain

So I had one of those dark-night-of-the-soul moments last week. Like a lot of my fellow countrymen, I’d recently found myself unemployed, flat-broke, and scrambling to pay rent. I had a Master’s degree from an Ivy League school that qualified me for no particular job, a not-yet-finished book that I’d been working on for six years, and a promising freelance gig that seemed to be dissolving before my very eyes. I’d just interviewed for a three-month entry-level job at a downtown law firm, where three separate interviewers asked me why a guy with my “credentials” would, in essence, bow so low.

I am now writing to you from their cubicle, a hired gun sneaking in a few sentences on my lunch break, a large turkey chili from the SF Soup Company rapidly cooling on my desk. I’ve just spent four straight hours folding the company holiday cards, which, in keeping with the pro-labor stance of the firm, are multicultural, printed on recycled paper from “well-managed” forests.

Given these rather prosaic surroundings, it seems like a million years since last week, when I found myself stuck on a thought that had regularly occurred to me over the course of my adulthood; after 39 years I had yet to figure out my niche in the marketplace. On the heels of this woe-is-me sentiment came another: what’s the fucking point?

This was not a casual what’s-the-fucking-point. This was the kind of what’s-the-fucking-point that morose adolescent girls who’ve read all of Sylvia Plath entertain. I then found  myself wondering what it would be like to check into a psych ward for just, you know, self-protection.

I’m not sure how long I entertained these thoughts – a few minutes, an hour or two. Long enough to remember that self-pity only feels good for a very short time. Long enough to realize how stupid it would be to throw in the towel just because the world hadn’t given me what I thought I needed to be happy. Long enough to know that I didn’t want to end up like David Foster Wallace.

DFW, the genius writer, was a hero of mine. He’s still a hero, but a dead one, since he hanged himself two years ago. I don’t know the reason or the reasons he hanged himself, but he’d long suffered from depression, and the one drug that had made his life bearable had stopped working.

He’s my hero not just because he was a genius writer, but because by all accounts he was a pretty amazing human being. I’ve read a few dozen interviews with him by now, and that quality is hard to miss. Normally I’d steer you towards a few of those interviews so you could see for yourself, but I’ve been folding holiday cards for four hours and I have exactly 27 minutes left on my lunch break. So you can just check out this memorial site instead.

“Good writing,” DFW once said, “Makes the reader feel a little less lonely inside.” Before reading that, my reasons for writing had all been intuitive, amorphous, and unspoken. But with those words DFW articulated my internal mission statement, or at least what I secretly hoped to do with my writing. Like most good writers DFW could put things into words you’d long felt but had never expressed.

Turning to the writing of a suicidal man when you yourself have been teetering on the edge is a questionable decision. But though DFW may have died of an incurable loneliness (and what is depression, really, but acute, soul-killing isolation?), he had accomplished his goal in making at least this one reader feel a little less lonely inside.

I turned to an essay (in this book) he’d written about attending the Illinois State Fair, many, many years after his childhood there. He wrote hilariously about dessert competitions, steer judging, and the dangers of observing teams of pre-teen girls whirling batons, many with more enthusiasm than skill, in an enclosed space.

Then, strolling through the midway, he turns a bit more somber: “It strikes me hardest here that I am not spiritually Midwestern anymore, and no longer young ­­– I do not like crowds, screams, loud noise, or heat. I’ll endure these things if I have to, but they’re no longer my idea of a Special Treat or sacred Community-interval. The crowds in the midway – mostly high school couples, local toughs, and kids in single-sex packs, as the demographics of the Fair shift to prime time – seem radically gratified, vivid, actuated, sponges for sensuous data, feeding on it all somehow. It’s the first time I’ve felt truly lonely at the Fair.”

Later in the essay he looks down at the fairway from a distance, in the middle of a storm, describing it as, “A whole lot of neon in the rain.”

That sentence stuck with me. With a handful of simple words he turns something garish and cynical and seedy into something almost beautiful. With those words he let me step into his head for a bit.

It didn’t take me long to get a little angry with myself. How stupid it would be to give up on everything just because you couldn’t find your way into the right job. And a couple weeks of work, even folding holiday cards, put some money in my pocket and filled a bit of my soul with some sense of purpose and satisfaction.

I’ve been thinking about changing the course of Dogpoet a bit. Not so much the format of stories and anecdotes and random snapshots of scruffy terriers. More like a change of focus. On the things that do and don’t make me, and maybe you, feel a little less lonely inside. I am going to risk looking way too earnest and defenseless and uncool in an effort to look at the things in life that do us some good. Which is not to say that I won’t also poke fun at the things that DO make us feel empty and sad and disconnected. Cause those can be instructive too. My little “Neon in the Rain” project.

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