It’s only when normal takes a holiday that we get an intuitive glimpse of the vast, unseen social and environmental forces that sustain normal.
THANK GOD, things are getting back to normal!
You remember normal, don’t you? You can see signs of its return all around: more people on the streets, more shops with “open” signs, more job-resumed rush hour traffic. Why, the way things are going, it shouldn’t be too long before you’re back complaining about how nothing exciting or out of the ordinary ever happens here.
But below that, closer to the bone, how to explain the feeling that things aren’t normal, that you’re struggling with memory—Was it like this? Was it like that?—and can’t entirely shake the sense that normal is never coming back, that this virus gave the entire sno-globe a shake and things won’t settle quite the same way as before?
Pre-pandemic normalcy at the Bay Centre Food Court
Suddenly, you have the novel insight (who ever had to think about this stuff before now?) that normal is not just social practice and a certain degree of things just sitting still—predictability, in other words—but also something qualitative, a state of mind; and that discontinuity and interruption damage the experience of normal and leave a scar. We’re operating—or trying to operate, as best we can—in a state of emergency, and panic places demands on behaviour and sensibility that normal does not. This has been a fact of life for every society that has experienced a geophysical cataclysm, a military invasion, a cultural or religious transformation, a social revolution, social oppression (a social revolution-in- the-waiting), extermination or ethnic cleansing, an economic upheaval: maybe you survive, but you don’t survive intact. History, someone observed, consists of all the places where the corners didn’t meet.
Long years ago, I was in a relationship where the mutuality of love was assumed: “I love you.” “And I love you.” And once, in such an exchange, Michelle said “I don’t love you.” She wasn’t joking in that moment, and it passed…she re-loved me. But nothing after that declaration was ever the same. Normal was never normal again.
Seems to me we’re all in one of those moments, where meaning itself—that pyramid of assumptions with us celebrating on top—judders. These are not perfect words for what I’m trying to frame, but in my defence, who ever needed a precise vocabulary before now to describe such an experience? Someone, last week, attempting to illuminate the way things now feel, called it “feathers on a cow.”
Normal, or its absence, raises interesting questions about ideology, the entire body of theoretical positions about human purpose and social practice, those vast idealizations of how our happier, better, more constructive life together might be undertaken. Much in the way that an earth tremor challenges the idea of solid, this virus invites provocative questions about the difference between should and is; and you think: “The hell with the perfected life. I’d settle without a complaint if each of my footfalls just met the ground, and I could shake this sense of uncertainty and danger.”
Isn’t that just what our neighbours in the US are going through at the moment: a shit sandwich filled with the terrors of COVID-19 infection and death; the eruption of long-simmering racial angers; challenges to conventional police culture and the prescriptions of authority; broad-based and, for many, almost apocalyptic economic anxiety; and horrible damage to the country’s identity and national purpose, its social momentum—much of it authored or aggravated by that emotionally damaged boy in a man-suit in the White House? Actually, normal took a powder when the 2016 US presidential election outcome gave the world “a creature” whose “instinct is base and animalistic, survival-centered, without core conviction of a prevailing character,” in New York Times columnist Charles Blow’s nearly Shakespearean imagery.
(Oh, and memo to all of us up here: the idea that “what happens in the US stays in the US” is a fantasy. If the US blows, we will quickly learn the meaning of the phrase “porous border.”)
Tie a string around all of this and ask if the itchy feeling, this movie you’re powerless to stop watching, isn’t exactly what you would expect or imagine in End Times—Eschaton, the biblical climax of world events. At its heart, normal’s vanishing act asks you to consider just how history happens, and whether history is a progress line on a growth chart, or just mud, sadness and cyclicality.
I’m advised that Sweden might beg to differ, but I’m toying with the idea of placing large, conspicuous signs at all of our city’s entry points: “Welcome to Victoria: The Last Rational Place.” In my defence is Tom Edsell’s recent New York Times column, “The Whole of Liberal Democracy Is in Grave Danger at This Moment.” Edsell writes: “In the continuing debate over whether liberals or conservatives are more open-minded, whether those on the left or the right are more rigid in their thinking, a team of four Canadian psychologists studied patterns of ‘cognitive reflection’ among Americans. They found that a willingness to change one’s convictions in the face of new evidence ‘was robustly associated with political liberalism, the rejection of traditional moral values, the acceptance of science, and skepticism about religious, paranormal, and conspiratorial claims.’”
I mean, sure, you had to order your sashimi through a sheet of plastic; and true enough, a blue face mask went with nothing in your wardrobe; and the endlessly-relocated homeless folks playing musical campsites in Beacon Hill Park forgot occasionally to say “have a nice day;” and the noticeably, shockingly merchandise-thin shelves and racks at Winners were a foretaste of retail apocalypse; and if you had to brake to a stop one more time to allow a dozen peacocks or unpredictable and nervous deer to slowly and meanderingly cross Dallas Road, you were going to lose it and lean on the horn. But, on balance, what a gift Fate has given this place. The gift? Just check the municipal or regional stats on identified local COVID-19 infections, recoveries, deaths to-date, while the rest of the world heaves and groans, braced against the downdraft at the edge of the void.
According to Wiktionary, “normal” as a noun means “the usual, average, or typical state or condition.” And it’s only when normal takes a holiday that we get an intuitive glimpse of the vast, unseen social and environmental forces that sustain normal. How does the song go?
But now that you left me
Good lord, good lord, how I cried
You don’t miss your water, you don’t miss your water
‘Til your well runs dry.
Still, normal as a social definition gets little respect. Said Carl Jung: “Normality is a fine ideal for those who have no imagination.” And online, you can find a lot of noise and graffiti asserting that normal is boring and the opposite of creative and original.
Nowhere have I encountered the helpful insight that normal is the condition that permits the exceptional, the platform, so to speak, on which the statue sits. Poor, uncelebrated normal: the very clockwork of the universe, but, still, can’t get no respect.
In a recent review of Frank Wilderson III’s Afropessimism, Vinson Cunningham highlights the book’s insistence that “the spectacle of Black death is essential to the mental health of the world.” Cunningham continues: “For Wilderson, the state of slavery, for Black people, is permanent: every Black person is always a slave and, therefore, a perpetual corpse, buried beneath the world and stinking it up.”
It’s roughly in this sense, I believe, that most people form an opinion about normal, not very different from the way they think of gravity: something to hate (culturally if not personally) and fight against, something to escape, something which, if un-conquered, will remain an enemy of accomplishment and release—as if gravity had, or embodied, a will of its own. And in our collective imagination, the society that perfected normal, turned regularity into cultural expression, into a folksy, nutty art form (care for a yodel?), has lent its name to something approaching a curse or a joke: “Swiss.”
“Scriabin’s music,” Donald Garvelmann comments in some CD liner notes, “embraces the past and the future, formality and freedom.” That’s what we ask of normal: just enough leash, just enough play.
All of this raises a locally relevant question: Will Victoria forever be “a little bit of Olde England?” Would we be that even if we demolished the Empress Hotel and put up a cluster of shitty, copycat condo towers in its place? (What do you think: “Empress Place” or “Harbour Landing?”) Or if we de-cute-ified and de-sweet shoppe-ed Government Street? Or is it more culturally-pervasive, more normal and embedded, than a few bits of architecture? Is it the please-and-thank-you reek of the place, rising from every proper residential street and trimmed lawn? Do we need to replace nice with hard and rude to be more contemporary, more exceptional, less English, less…normal?
Founder of Open Space, founding publisher of Monday Magazine, originator of the seven Gaining Ground urban sustainability conferences, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an innovative affordable housing concept, and writing “Futurecide,” a book that argues that catastrophe is ecological.