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Man’s search for meaning, and cell phone reception

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The sun had sunk below the treeline and I was parked alone on a gravel approach, facing a field of dead sunflowers. I had just sped five miles out of the dead-zone town I was staying in, and finally I had mobile data again. As I watched my smartphone screen, two days of emails flooded into my inbox and I felt a physical ecstasy, a squirt of serotonin or dopamine or whatever it is that the body releases when an addict scores.

The rush was so conspicuous that when I was done checking my email I couldn’t help but reflect on how badly I’ve come to depend on invisible wireless networks for my senses of control and connectedness and possibility. I knew that my current situation — stuck working for four days in a town with no phone or internet — was bearable to me only because I knew it was temporary.

My employer had sent me and my assistant to a map-dot called Glenboro, two hours from the city. Accommodations had been set up for us at a green and white 55-dollar motel right on the highway. After we checked in, I jokingly referred to it as a “one-star hotel” — the one star being for, if anyone asked, “No visible mice,” but during breakfast on the last day I had to retract even that star.

I am a city person and have known that for a long time. Small country towns give me existential crises. They make me crave two things: my home city’s tap water, and a feeling of meaning to what I’m doing. I don’t know quite why. In small towns I feel aimless and self-conscious and disoriented, like I’m moving too fast and expecting too much. Maybe I am, and small towns make me confront that. Or maybe I just don’t like them.

Maybe because I was without telecommunications, my sphere of awareness filled with small-town minutae and it was almost too much sometimes. On our first day, this existential daze was settling over me when we finally stopped circling and settled on a place to eat lunch. It was a hotel-bar-restaurant but at least two of the three of those appeared to be permanently closed. The restaurant door was open but there was no other indication that anyone was there. We sat anyway.

We waited for quite a while, mostly staring, before one of us decided to make things happen. My assistant leaned into the door beside the till and called “Hello,” as if he were standing at the mouth of a cave. Nobody answered and he sat down again. Eventually a server appeared carrying two menus and a baby, and disappeared again for a long time.

During that long time it grew impossible to sit still and so I figured going to the bathroom might be slightly more interesting than sitting and staring. So I ventured into the cave, and looked for a bathroom, and I found one, but it didn’t look public. There was a bathtub and fish-pattern shower curtain. The toilet appeared to be unflushed but I would later learn that’s just what the town’s water looks like. At eye-level above the toilet tank there was an embroidered wall-craft that said “Nobody notices what I do around here until I don’t do it.” Below that was one that said “Jesus died for me.” Suddenly I felt like a remorseful burglar and retreated to the dining room. 

Lunch did eventually happen and afterward I was never so happy to go back to work.

Work was the easy part, because it takes place in a world that’s meaningful to me and that I am in control of. It was the evenings in the motel that were deadening. I can’t believe there were only three of them.

Meeting new people, the greatest joy of traveling, seemed unlikely. I think we only saw the same twelve or fourteen people over and over again. There are no girls in Glenboro, I’m pretty sure of that. All women are over sixty and they dress and cut their hair like men. On the second-last night there was, briefly, a young waitress who brought us menus, but I began to doubt that I had seen her because when she returned she was a 300-pound young man and remained so for the rest of the evening.

The inn was green and white inside too. I presume it met whatever legal standards there are for renting a room to someone in a developed country, but it must have been close. The bed was hard and wiry and I had some kind of allergic sinus reaction whenever I got close to it. The water smelled intensely of rust, and so did I after my first shower. The bathtub faucet had so much mineral buildup on its spout that it looked like a pretentious modern art installation.

I don’t like television but without its assistance on those three nights I would have had to confront Pascal’s eternal problem of man not being able to sit quietly in a room alone. I brought books as always but I found when I turned off the television the rust smell from my hair would overwhelm my senses and reset my concentration every few seconds.

So it had to stay on. Oddly it was a new set, a flatscreen about the size of a cafeteria tray, of an unfamiliar brand that rhymes with a familiar brand.

I’ve kept TV out of my home life for about five years now and I quickly remembered why. It doesn’t entertain me but simultaneously makes me depend on it to entertain me. Channel-wise there was nowhere I can bear to stay for long but continuing to flip was somewhat comforting. It was rare that I passed by something worth flipping back to but that’s probably better because on that remote pressing the channel down button either advances one channel or retreats three channels.

The Democratic National Convention was on maybe seven of the eighteen channels. Each revolution around the channels presented a different party member giving a speech. I have no interest in hearing any choir preaching to itself but I made a game of hesitating long enough to hear a single out-of-context phrase before I moved on, something like “…threat to our children’s future” or “Osama Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive!” and the crowd cheers like they’re at a hockey game as I flip again.

Each channel showing the DNC was slightly different. The most bearable one, as long as the sound was off, only showed Wolf Blitzer in a little window talking to himself while wide angle shots of the convention appeared in a larger window beside him. Behind both windows were red, white and blue CGI stripes slithering across the screen on an angle. Sometimes Wolf Blitzer became Anderson Cooper for a moment.

There was also tennis on, which would have been worth watching but the screen was so small that I couldn’t see the ball from where I was. I could hear it, so I know it was there, but I could only see two players swinging racquets urgently on an empty blue court. It could have been in a modern art museum too, on a silent screen in a dark room with a few patrons watching, each mostly just hoping they appear to the others as someone who gets it.

Even the flies were bored there. Whenever I brushed one away, it wouldn’t move until my hand actually touched its body. My assistant was able to trap one by slowly lowering a glass over it. On the third night he kindly leaned over to shoo a fly from the edge of my glass of coke, but that only appeared to startle it, because it flinched and fell backwards into the coke and disappeared beneath the surface. A few seconds later it emerged like an action star and struggled for a moment before righting itself and flying away. It was a great moment and I will never forget it. Yes I drank it anyway. Coke with a fly in it can’t be much worse for your health than coke.

We drove home the next day, with by then no conversation left in either of us, and it felt more like a Sunday evening than a Friday evening. When I got back I called some friends and went out with a vengeance.

My experience in Glenboro was so vividly dull, so consistently rich in everything I don’t like, that I knew I needed to write it down and that a clear moral would emerge by the end of it. But it didn’t. It was just a bizarre story with no apparent takeaway. I’m someone who finds meaning everywhere, like it’s a habit. Even if I’m only projecting it, it does something for me.

I wracked my brain for the lesson. I made coffee. I distracted myself. Whenever writing leads me to brain-wracking, I end up checking my email and my Facebook without realizing, and that’s when the moral appeared to me in plain words.

It wasn’t that I’m addicted to modern amenities, I knew that already. As I was staring at my word processor, looking for meaning, my friend was posting on Facebook something he said to me months ago, in reference to something completely different, across a breakfast table in a lower east side cafe:

“Honor your experience, but don’t rush to interpret it.”


Photo by beckstei

Vilx- September 10, 2012 at 10:28 am

I think that the moral here is about extroverts and introverts. It’s pretty obvious from your writing that you are a hard-core extrovert, and the town’s subdued setting is the exact thing that makes hell for such people. This video is focused on introverts, but it was that (plus some experience of my own) that finally made it “click” for me, about what introverts and extroverts are. If you have 20 minutes of time, I highly recommend it: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts.html

David September 10, 2012 at 7:45 pm

Haha I don’t think anyone who’s met me would describe me as a hard-core extrovert. I’m a life-long introvert but this year I’ve become more outgoing. For the first time I have felt a real compulsion to socialize, a real ache for human interaction, when before I kind of just took it as it came. Still definitely an introvert though. I’ll check out the TED talk.

Vilx- September 11, 2012 at 2:41 am

Interesting, it seems like I’ve missed my guess entirely. :P From how enthusiastically you usually describe socializing I though that… Oh, well. That’s what you get for trying to judge a man by his blog posts! XD

Dan October 8, 2012 at 8:49 am

I would like to say, that often people who are introverts and find it hard to socialize, are the ones who know the most about the art of communication and socializing in theory, but when it comes to practice they find themselves hitting the wall… And they start to search and study the reasons of their failure, that’s why they know a lot bu they are still introverts.

Briana November 24, 2012 at 10:38 pm

I’m curious though whether introverts can actually “recover” and become more outgoing, because being an introvert or extrovert is largely genetic. Introverts have a higher baseline level of autonomic arousal than extroverts, generally making them more neurotic (self-conscious), which tends to lead to inhibition and decreased interaction. I’m not saying that either one is better than the other…I just wonder if you stopped putting in the effort if you would naturally revert back to being more introverted, or if such a change could become permanent and unconscious.

Marina September 10, 2012 at 12:12 pm

I love your writing so much – it flows so beautifully and naturally, I feel like I could read it forever. Loved this post.

David September 10, 2012 at 7:49 pm

Well thanks Marina. It went in kind of a weird direction. I just wanted to paint a scene really. I get the sense a lot of readers won’t know what to make of it :)

Nathan Buss September 11, 2012 at 11:30 am

Agreed lol. I appreciated this piece more the the use of language than an overall takeaway. But still an interesting article.

Dar September 10, 2012 at 5:47 pm

Very well written. I really enjoyed it.

David September 10, 2012 at 7:49 pm

Thanks Dar

Nathan September 15, 2012 at 12:03 am

The very reason I enjoy small townships and isolated locations is vast. Firstly in an action packed city it is hard to keep up and the sensors are so stimulated they work in overdrive. The connection to the world is also limited to your interaction with the city, culture and conformities. Whilst in a township you have a better opportunity of creating and recreating yourself, inwards (conscious thoughts) and outwards (behavior). Although I live in a city I do enjoy visiting townships so that I can become artistically inclined, transcendental and expressive. It helps me realize thyself and how large and enigmatic the universe is and how small we are. Things which are observed with acceptance instead of despair.

I could go on forever. But what I should say is keep writing David, I can see you have quite a following and every post you make is rather refreshing.

C September 10, 2012 at 6:53 pm

That was just a fun read. You don’t always have to be teaching.

David September 10, 2012 at 7:49 pm

Good! Thanks C

C September 11, 2012 at 1:12 am

The quality of your writing has come a long way since the first blog post. This article, in spots, was like reading good fiction. More a focus on painting a scene, as you say, rather than being didactic.

Marilyn September 10, 2012 at 7:31 pm

Your prose is so lyrical and vivid–it’s a real treat to read. This post resonated with me, too. I lived for a short time in semi-rural Maine–4 hours north of Boston. Someone had cautioned me when we moved their that there were two types of social existences: becoming an alcoholic or recovering from alcoholism. I’d never lived away from a big city before and the culture shock–or utter lack of culture and diversity–shocked and disturb me. I learned to knit, quilt and brew beer. If I hadn’t started swimming every day, I think I would have become unhinged. It seems ironic that these days I never seem to have enough time and yet, when time stretched before me endlessly, I didn’t know what to do with it. What struck me most about your post is that I fancy myself an introvert, yet I felt like I was going slowly crazy when I lived in–and now when I visit–an isolated place. Vilx–what a great clip about introverts and extroverts. Cain is absolutely engaging but–in my case at least–I’m not sure that introversion itself correlates to feeling at ease in isolated areas. As a person who enjoys being alone and prefers to be in a quiet setting reading, I confess I take great comfort knowing that the city is right beyond my door. If I choose, I could be around people at any time. Ironically, I don’t often choose that. But something about not having any choice in an isolated setting feels suffocating.

David September 10, 2012 at 7:54 pm

I feel the same. This spring I moved to the most active area of the city. Now I know can go out my door and be surrounded by people at any time and it’s such a reassuring feeling. I do it a lot, just walk around the block when I’m feeling a bit isolated.

George September 18, 2012 at 2:26 pm

I grew up in a small town that I like to characterize as a great place to grow up in but an awful place to be a grown up in. I think I’ve been to two or three places like Glenboro in the American South and the Southwest. They can be challenging for metropolitan types. Drop a country boy in the heart of the big city and a city boy in the deep rural hollow and they will express surprisingly similar discomforts.

Tim September 10, 2012 at 9:02 pm

I’m quite enjoying your blog, David. Nice to read something by a fellow Manitobian!

As you’ve mentioned somewhere else on this site, every face has a story. Even in towns that barely seem to sustain life, there’s still something happening.

I’ll try to remember this the next time I stop in Oakville for gas.

David September 12, 2012 at 6:52 am


Ahkasha September 11, 2012 at 3:35 am

Ive been reading your posts for a while now. I always seem to get the point of the writing. I guess what I am tring to get at here is, did you find a conclusion to your search for meaning? I am very curious.

DiscoveredJoys September 11, 2012 at 3:41 am

There’s an argument that people just construct their own narratives and meanings – I guess Glenboro was so threadbare that the undifferentiated universe was showing through.

The human discovery ‘moral’ that if you have to create your own stories and meanings you might as well create positive ones.

David September 12, 2012 at 6:53 am

> I guess Glenboro was so threadbare that the undifferentiated universe was showing through.

You know, I think you nailed it

Penny September 11, 2012 at 7:52 am

I love this! Good job! It perfectly decribes every experience I’ve ever had in Small-Town-Alberta!

Amity September 11, 2012 at 9:21 am

I have lived in a small town all of my life and I hate it. I can’t wait to get out of here and am working towards it. Pretty sad when you consider a move to Pittsburgh more exciting…it’s not that big of a town, but it’s a lot better than where we are! I’ve always felt like I never belonged here, when I first went to Los Angeles I had this amazing sense of belonging. Everyone there was weird so I didn’t stand out, it was great.

David September 12, 2012 at 6:56 am

>when I first went to Los Angeles I had this amazing sense of belonging. Everyone there was weird so I didn’t stand out, it was great.

That’s what I felt when I first went to New York, and since then I haven’t felt quite home here in my smaller city

krista September 11, 2012 at 10:37 am

I enjoyed this post quite a bit. I like the idea of living in a big city, but also a small city…..still, what you describe makes the town seem completely creepy–in a deliciously descriptive way. It reminded me of a Rob Zombie film, or even Texas Chainsaw Massacre–how the entire town was “in on it.” Thanks for the entertainment. :)

Ryan Haase September 11, 2012 at 4:19 pm

If anything it seems that it was an absurd experience as you had to make the town of Glenboro exist in a digital setting where the town itself lacks this amenity.

Brenda September 11, 2012 at 5:22 pm

Minus the last three paragraphs, this piece becomes a short story. Do you read The New Yorker fiction section? Stories there have a similar postmodern narrative flair. Tales just sail along and then they stop, a lot like a Seinfeld episode. You don’t see much effort to analyze and explain reality in postmodern writing. Have you tried your hand at fiction? With some dialogue and character development, you’d have a great short story here. As for making meaning or not, that’s always the job of the reader.

David September 12, 2012 at 6:54 am

I love the New Yorker’s fiction. I will definitely do some fiction a little down the road.

Marilyn September 11, 2012 at 7:35 pm

I agree with Sarah about the lovely lyrical aspect to this piece. David, your writing is filled with vivid imagery and details. It can be spell-binding (otherwise I wouldn’t take the time to write). I see the point about it being published but I prefer it, as is, to fiction. And somehow, that this is a real experience–not embellished or fictionalized–makes it even more potent. I smiled visualizing the fly struggling and plummeting into the coke then bobbing to the surface and triumphantly resurfacing like an action star (a metaphor for anyone who’s been in a small town and eager to escape). I smiled more broadly when you confessed that you still drank it. And I winced slightly at the sign above the toilet. to me, all of those tiny details seemed priceless b/c they were real. If you sent your writing anywhere–and I agree that you could easily see them published, if that were your goal–I’d hope it’d be to the narrative nonfiction section.

Reuse and Recycle, Cairns September 17, 2012 at 2:46 am

lovely and insightful critical reflection Marilyn~ thanks for sharing.

Brenda September 11, 2012 at 9:53 pm

Did I just get smacked down by an overly educated smart girl? I don’t know, it sort of feels that way. OESM should show more respect for commenters here, especially those who’ve been around since the inception of this blog. And who is Sarah, and where does one find narrative nonfiction? I’ve never even heard that term. Notice no one has commented since OESM had her say, and why would they if they thought she might smack them down too. David is too nice to say it so I will: Play nice, smart girl, please and thank you. Smackdowns are not allowed here.

David September 12, 2012 at 6:55 am

I’m really confused by this comment Brenda. I didn’t see anybody being rude in the comments.

Marilyn September 12, 2012 at 5:19 am

Yikes. Brenda, I’m sorry. First, I wasn’t at all intending to insult you even though somehow, in the exhausted stupor in which I replied clearly I did. “Sarah” was my careless mistake–I meant Brenda, not Sarah. I’m embarrassed by that but I’m utterly horrified and appalled that my comments came across as offensive to you. I just discovered this site and have been deeply moved by David’s writing and and have enjoyed reading all of the comments–yours included. In fact it was your that prompted me to write. Again I really mortified that I wrote Sarah not Brenda, but that stupid typo notwithstanding, I really didn’t intend to insult you. My comment has nothing at all to do with education–I’m not even sure how/why my education would come into play here at all. I certainly didn’t bring it up. And it has zero bearing here. My comment was just my personal gut reaction to your suggestion–as I interpreted it-that David’s post could be–and might be better–fictionalized. I’m a little flabbergasted that it seemed like a smack down and I can’t say more than I’m so sorry. You asked about narrative nonfiction–please don’t accuse me of being overly educated for explaining: it’s just another term used for creative nonfiction–memoirs are creative nonfiction and the New Yorker contains that genre was well as fiction. In the New York Times, the section Modern Love–which is completely written by freelance submission–is narrative nonfiction. I feel really horrible that you feel my comments discouraged other people from writing–that’s the absolute last thing I’d ever do. Not everyone who is overly educated is critical–I’ve learned that education has little to do with wisdom. And I gravitated to this site because David’s writing is filled with wisdom. As are most of the comments. Except, it seems mine :)

steph in berkeley September 13, 2012 at 3:05 am

We’re glad you’re here. And I frequently feel the same…once I post comments I think how crap or surface or just ineffectual they usually are. But the article is always worth the visit, and frequently so is the sometimes awkward commenting experience.

Pam September 14, 2012 at 1:14 am

Marilyn, I am enjoying your comments on this piece and did not perceive any intended insult, either. Most everyone who comments here seems so well-spoken, and I am appreciating that.

my oh my September 12, 2012 at 8:26 pm

Golly, David’s whimsical poetics has women fighting over him.

steph in berkeley September 13, 2012 at 2:31 am

Had a recent similar experience right down to the eerie feelings, bad water and bored bugs (yellow jackets in our case…we couldn’t leave the room without them following. And the husband naturally was stung after teasing me about fearing them, and that was INSIDE the room). Ironically, the town’s draw was being near Clearlake,” which happened to be the least clear lake I’d ever seen. Its algae was spectacular if you’re a marine biologist. Still, I hope only certain odd places bring about such eerie feelings. I like small towns, or at least I came from one or two (me and Mellencamp were neighbors, true story). So I’d hate to now think they’re all creepy, or that I’ve changed that much that I can’t appreciate even the quaint ones. Anyway, I enjoyed, laughed, related. Thanks.

Liane Marguerite September 13, 2012 at 4:09 pm

“Coke with a fly in it can’t be much worse for your health than coke”
Best part. I agree. :)
Small towns, gotta love em. They always help me to understand the viewpoint of David Lynch a little bit more.

Lars September 13, 2012 at 10:30 pm

Did I miss a few episodes? When did you go from health-oriented vegan to coke with fly?

Amelia September 14, 2012 at 12:53 am

“Honor your experience, but don’t rush to interpret it.”

Yep. That lesson is worth something in and of itself, and it’s often easier said than done. Especially when one has a habit of (potentially) over-analyzing. Be in the moment, but once some moments have passed, there really is no reason to revisit them for further study.

Pam September 14, 2012 at 3:14 am

There are so many things to like about this article, but I don’t want to tarnish its beauty by dissecting it here. I will share the things that struck me most strongly- the title, the beautiful, descriptive language others have commented on, the sly humor, and the description of political conventions as “the choir preaching to itself.” AMEN! You nailed it.

As a person with Attention Deficit Disorder, I very much relate to the way you felt being out of the city and in this small, isolated town and your “addiction” to email and other electronic communications, as well as most everything else you said : ). You speak my language.

This piece is wonderful without trying to find or build meaning into it, but I get the feeling you were almost perplexed by your experience of Glenboro, and writing about it allows you to review it more objectively. You seem to be wrestling with wanting to run from it, write it off as “boring,” but subconsciously it’s poking at you and implying there is valuable information to be gleaned, and that is creating the unfinished feeling. What I see as the “lesson” is for you to “mindfully” acknowledge your experience, and see what meaning there is for you in how you felt. To me, that would fall under the description of honoring your experience. Instead of thinking, whew, glad that’s over, wondering- what the hell was that?

“In small towns I feel aimless and self-conscious and disoriented, like I’m moving too fast and expecting too much. Maybe I am, and small towns make me confront that.” Do you want or need to confront that? Maybe you DO simply dislike small towns, but you don’t seem the type to leave it at that, brush it under the rug that simply. You don’t have to “interpret” your experience; I think the experience was the whole point.

It highlights a contradiction in you, as I see it. How can a man who can find joy in and be extremely mindful while walking across a parking lot be bored? Why are you able to have that type of experience in the city, but then lose that perspective in a rural area? I’m NOT judging, I’m saying that’s where my mind says it would explore. There is something operating that made you less open to the rural experiences. I wonder what it was, and I’ll just bet that you do, too, without being conscious of it.

I’d love to know if this resonates with you, or if I’m full of crap : ).

Ava James September 15, 2012 at 8:50 pm

I loved this post. The writing is exquisite. I was there with you the entire time. Thanks.

Reuse and Recycle, Cairns September 17, 2012 at 2:41 am

what a great place to be! you really missed out this time huh…?

~ Char

SV September 17, 2012 at 12:34 pm

‘My experience in Glenboro was so vividly dull, so consistently rich in everything I don’t like, that I knew I needed to write it down and that a clear moral would emerge by the end of it. But it didn’t. It was just a bizarre story with no apparent takeaway’

This line made me laugh. I don’t know how to explain it. I have experienced couple of moments that are just like this. Sometimes a moment seems to be just a moment and no ‘interesting’ story can be made out of it .I don’t know how to explain this. we are all story tellers so involved in our life story. These moments seems like a gap between us and our particular life story.

Greivin November 24, 2012 at 11:44 pm

Hi had difficulty fleeing normal in church~fellowship was kinda difficult for me~i just need healing i thought~i get drained~i feel tired when engaged in evangelism~sometimes i skip them~bt people would think tht i am not doing what christians are suppose to do~bt thank God he has enabled me to relate to bro n sis more~now tht i understand more bout my introvert personality~makes me really happy~its a blessing to be who i am~reading the Bible n discovering His secrets is just amazing~We can bring glory to His name by claiming His promises~strongly rooted in His word~strengthening others in the area of knowledge~zeal without knowledge is no use:)

Sandstorm November 17, 2012 at 10:07 am

Great post i just can say that few years ago we did ned no phones no nothing just letters,good word and much more i think that technology is going much better we are much aa how to say poor.

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