Normalcy is an Ugly Word

“Normalcy” is that elusive quality that Pres. Reagan promised us a return to. If you’re old enough, and reasonably literate, you may recall how the term was decried by contemporary writers and pundits as a squishily semi-literate, hacked-up stand-in for the perfectly adequate (not to mention dictionarily correct) apropism, “normality.”

No doubt Pres. Warren G. Harding got the same treatment from the MLA of his time.

All ancient history now, of course, just as writing in full sentences (there’s a joke beyond these parentheses, and you probably got). Normalcy has come to represent that gentle stability and warm sense of harmony which we publicly claim, as a society, to seek — no matter our private, perhaps more epicurean tastes. Discussions of broad social interests revolve around “the new normal,” normies, “this is not normal,” and of course, as a repeated theme, Pres. Reagan’s gentle entreaty to “return to normalcy.”

Gentle, that is, if you were a real, red-blooded, heterosexual, Caucasian, tall, axe-swinging movie cowboy (or could play one on TV), but I digress. It’s been a day for digressions.

An eager pursuit of normalcy (if not its definition, which remains in dispute) has become the last truly bipartisan message of our fractious, serial governance. I’m sure I’ve heard Mr. Biden promise it on several occasions. “Return to normalcy” has a lot less blood and guts and veins between its teeth than “Make America Great Again,” even if the underlying sentiment retains the same Happy Days, restore-the-fallen-world vibe.

And that’s where today started. Last night, on the seventh of November, 2020, the doomsday clock managed not to tick past midnight for tens of millions of us, but struck 13 o’clock for tens of millions more. The normalcy of imagining a clean, clear center answering only the simplest questions gave way to the normality of boisterous plurality, and some rejoiced while others mourned.

No matter where you fall along the spectrum between Marxist and Movement Conservative, however, no one of serious mind believes Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are going to tear away at the binding institutions of our society.

They’re not businessmen running the government; surely not defiant outsiders draining the swamp. Biden and Harris have spent the past few months drawing a map of restoration, for good (stability) or ill (Big Gummint, large and in charge). They’ve spent too much time building guardrails to start blowing through them like some careening, drunken teen.

A lot of us celebrated that, mostly quietly and in our homes because COVID-19 still stalks the land and that’s meant that most of us drink up the family reserve, these days, if we drink at all. I mostly avoid it. Booze is entirely too convenient a habit for shut-ins — er, that is… “socially isolated” folk — but I’ll confess to pouring a golden shot of single malt last evening to toast our newfound stability.

Normality! L’chaim!

But the year of 2020, like its patron saint Pres. D.J. Trump, had no intentions of slinking off quietly without generating further vortices of damage. This year and this administration each were born in the pimply fires of adolescent pique, neither caring what harm was caused but only how much attention they could draw.

We began this morning in our normalitous way, with good coffee and good food for ourselves and for our dogs (note: they skipped the java). We looked at the news with relative bonhomie, delving into discursive loops of political possibility, and walked the dogs around the neighborhood while we finished that talk. We welcomed our builders onto the premises on a Sunday, so they could take advantage of the cold, clear winter sun and make progress on our shop siding.

I spent a few pleasant minutes in the tattered, beloved leftovers of my old shop to cut out light placards for the exterior shop lights, shook out a half-can of old spar vanish, cooked and stirred and thinned it, and daubed up the plaques on our kitchen table, next to an open window. Pretty Wife did some billing and advising. We snacked, conversed, ran a couple of errands — normality.

Nearing the afternoon darkness of impending winter, we leashed up the hounds again for one more quick sniff break around the neighborhood. Four blocks from home, we walked past a front yard wherein a big, black Labrador barked and whined and lunged while his mistress restrained him with all the force her small body could muster. She was trying to haul him indoors, but he wasn’t having it. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the corner of her yard.

The gate was open.

We were fifty yards or so past their house when I heard him go, when I heard her shriek. I should have yelled for Pretty Wife to scoop up her Keeshond, but by the time I’d turned to track the Lab was he was already tossing her little guy around like a cheerleader’s pompon. My tottery old Dane started for the Lab but stopped cold when I yelled at her because she’s a good old bitch, after all.

Then the Lab spun and went after Viki. The old girl is thin-skinned and arthritic. In or out of a fight, she’s purely decorative.

She’s tall, though, and I couldn’t clamber over her to get to the scrum. Pretty Wife yelled, “Throw me Viki’s leash!” I tossed the end to her and she backed both our hounds up the street while I kicked the black dog off as gently as I could.

The Labrador, blood in his eye, wasn’t about to stop. Happily, they’re not very good at biting. When I got an angle on him, I just dropped like a Neanderthal out of tree, driving him hard into the blacktop and wrapping a leg over to stop him flailing. His mistress came and clipped his leash on as fast as she could with shaking hands while I just kept him squeezed up tight. Big, young Labs are pretty strong. I remember being big and young and strong, once, but I didn’t really know it at the time.

That’s probably for the best.

I might have squeezed him a little too hard because, by the time she got him strapped up and I could let him scramble back onto his paws, he’d panic-pooped all over the street. Or Kodi the Keeshond had. Or Viki, who’s no longer allowed inside the house without, er, “sport pants.”

Turns out, it doesn’t strictly matter who pooped where, once you’ve rolled around in it some (note: not a political reference).

The neighbor gal was scared, apologetic, and relentlessly ethical. All in the world she wanted to know was how she could make it right for us. After a quick check it turned out that we were all just fine. Those woolly long johns and wolfen overjas that Keeshonden grow had served our chunky little fella in good stead. Not so much as a whimper, let alone a limp, and no blood to be found anywhere except a scraped patch on my hand.

I was a wee bit odoriferous, though. We excused ourselves to wander on home, hoping not to converse with any well-known neighbors along the way. As a side note, I now know the experience of stripping buck naked on our back deck in 36-degree weather before jumping into a shower, followed by a bath, followed by another shower.

Just in case, y’know?

A little Neosporin for the back of my hand, supper chow and extra treats for the hounds and a dinner snack for us, and we were all back to feeling pretty good about the world. No harm. No foul. Maybe a stiff back in the morning for one or two dogs and definitely one for me, but that’s just another aspect of the new nor–

“Jack.” I looked up. “Did you hear anything about…”

And that’s how I ended up pouring a shot for the second evening in a row, but not for me. Not for Pretty Wife.

And not for celebration.

Tonight’s shot was poured out for the dear lady whose name now appears on the candle in our window, greatly beloved friend and a force to be reckoned with, a woman whose saturation with horror and death early in her life never embittered her but taught her, instead, to gather joy wherever she found it, and to spread it wherever she went.

Because that’s our new goddamn normalcy. That’s what 2020 endlessly is. It’s built on Jahrzeits and street fights, a year of angry dogs and the quenching of possibility, of wanton destruction of norms; a year where decency and kindness were constantly put to flight by parades of pickups and our shared national ardor for the triumph of our will (and just pick one). Through murder hornets and epochal plague, continent-scorching forest holocausts, public corruption and private sin, through the deaths of those personally beloved and publicly revered we’ve held on, with our shaking grip, to the shared vision of a condition beyond this damnable, bubbling fire pit of a year.

I do not like this “normalcy.” I would like a return to normality, time now, but this Year of Fenrir drives its teeth in relentlessly, repeatedly, with no quarter given. The black dog of 2020 won’t stop snarling and snapping until we fall on it with our entire weight and squeeze the shit out of it until finally, breathless but defiant, it submits to being leashed and dragged away.

Anno Domini 2020 constantly growls that it won’t leave us without a fight. It may have to be hauled off in irons. It will certainly not be calmed with gentle tones of persuasion, and it absolutely will overstay its welcome if allowed. At the very minimum, 2020’s dark legacy won’t end before my next birthday, which is to say on January 20, 2021, more or less splitting the difference between the Gregorian and lunar nouvelles années.

In the interest of our shared and long overdue, national nor-MAL-ity, I’d like to wish you — and I mean this sincerely — a deeply joyous birthday on the turning of the state, of the calendar, and (it is to be hoped) of our hearts. Our joy is the least we owe to those who, we may pray, can hear this loving toast from wherever they may listen, at the place where if G-d merits praise we may one day hug them again:

“To absent friends.”

“Normalcy” has plumb worn out its tawdry welcome. In our best seeking after our better selves, may we rekindle the memory both of friends and of dear, humane normality once again.

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  1. Brad Renton says

    First read this morning and it was just what I needed. Thank you Jack.

  2. My world still is seen through a warping layer. An alternate version. A cloudy haze.
    My world has not lost this light.
    My world is dead.

  3. It’s been a tough year, but a remedy exists. Joy is a excellent tool for that. Thanks for digging it out of the stiffly opening drawer of humanity’s rollaway.

  4. As this year comes to a close…well, it’s not coming to a close. Just when we think we can cruise to January, we hear the name of someone we know, who we will not see again. Whether it’s Covid, cancer, an accident, a divorce, whatever…it does not matter. We will have to drown this year in the bathtub, before it will be safe for the new young year to make its entry.
    Thank you, Jack, for your always-eloquent words, for your shared thoughts. May the hands heal, and may the drink go down smoothly, but with a bit of sting, to match the year.

  5. Jean E Maybell says

    Thank you Jack!!
    We also drank a toast to another absent Friend, and (again) I can’t see the keyboard through the tears.

  6. Dustin Kassman says

    From diagnoses of fatal diseases, to new mothers succumbing to cancer at the age of 27, to longtime friends being taken unannounced, this year continues to deal the low blows, but if we refuse to give in then it hasn’t won. I tip my glass first to Deb, and then to you.

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