Here in the U.S., we have, just now, the oddest relationship with the word “normal.” In the spring, we’d type promises to each other, to have dinner or a beer “when things are back to normal.” At some point everyone started adding scare quotes to “normal.” Now we say things like, “I’d love to see you when things get, you know, not back to ‘normal,’ but …” We invoke the word only to place it immediately under erasure, as though we were still, in spite of ourselves, hoping it would return anyway, as though normalcy were a cat that we pointedly ignore in the hope that it will allow us to pet it again.
Our longing for normalcy expresses itself in every area of culture. The likely, though far from certain, winner of the Presidential election is a man whose attraction rests mainly on the unspoken and impossible promise that he will restore the world of, say, 2014 or so. (I, too, am voting for Biden; if your options are a 70 percent likelihood of death and the certainty of it, you pick the first thing and then try very hard to change your next set of options.)
Back to School
The university where I work is pretending that it’s a normal fall. The dorms are open – which is to say, the dorms are mostly closed, but they have people in them. A student told me yesterday (we met for office hours, outdoors, at six feet distance, both masked) that she hasn’t sat on a couch in two months: the only places she can go are her tiny dorm room, and various campus lawns, and (if you want to take your life into your own hands) a restaurant. All the common areas and study rooms are blocked off – rightly, of course. The students are simultaneously dangerously concentrated together and horribly alone. Most of their classes take place online. Mine certainly do, as I have no wish either to cause or experience death.
The proximate cause for this grim parody of normalcy was, most likely, the fact that one of our regents and donors is also among the largest owners of rental properties in the city. That, at least, is my cynical reading of the situation, and it’s hard to go wrong when banking on the venality of the American elite. But I think our situation has other causes. Even college presidents long for the recurrence of the seasons, the playing-out of predictable patterns. Some parents want their kids to have something as close to their own long-falsified memories of being 20 as possible. And even those of us who are trying to be sober and responsible – often to the point of becoming grotesquely passive-aggressive parodies of ourselves, savoring and sharing the hatred that wells up in us at every viral photo of unmasked restaurant patrons or beachgoers – even we don’t really like thinking about any of this.
Reality and Routine
At the beginning of the year, the graduate students went on strike. Both because the focus of the strike was public health – we went about chanting things like “What do we want? / Randomized testing! / When do we want it? / Last week!” – and because, like all strikes, it reminded everyone that workers are the real engine of any institution, it felt like an acknowledgment of reality in a season when every person in authority seems intent on evading it. The grad students inspired further demonstrations of worker power from the university’s dining hall workers and residential assistants. I was proud of all of them, and hopeful for them, and I marched and picketed alongside them, and I canceled my own classes in solidarity, and told other people to do so. And I hated every second. I wanted my routine back. I wanted to stop needing news all the time. I wanted – wanted! – to grade papers.
In time, the university made some concessions. Negotiations succeeded. We went back to our already-abnormal normal. In the larger scheme of things, of course, there is no getting back to anything. The hurricane season has been unprecedented, like the last several hurricane seasons. A million acres of the state of California have burned, and we are assured that such megafires will be common events over the next century. We are ruled, locally and nationally and internationally, by greedy and silly people, to such an extent that the planet itself is altered, on a massive scale, from year to year, in accordance with their whims. There is no future in normalcy. In courage, honesty, and solidarity, there may be.