The New Normal

I wrote this two months ago, shortly after receiving some bad news. I decided then not to publish it. The pain was still too raw. Today I’m publishing it because I liked the writing and the voice.

I shaved my face again today. It had been a couple months since the last time. Every time I do this, I drag the razor across my face, filling the sink with the clumps of beard hair that fall. A proud salt and pepper beard, this time more salt than pepper. It gets whiter each time. A little while back, I saw a picture of myself with two of my kids at a swimming pool. How long ago was that? Three, four summers past?

Tonight is the kind of night that reflects my mood. It’s the second day of May, 2020, and much of the world is still on lockdown. A reflection of the hysteria that hasn’t happened since the days of mutually assured nuclear annihilation. Very little has changed in the last several weeks except people can’t eat at restaurants anymore. All around town, you see people walking, riding their bikes, roaming the neighborhoods with their dogs or kids, wearing surgical masks. The masks don’t do much, so they are mandatory. I’m going to go more with “suggested” since I don’t wear one, and so far, nobody has hauled me off to Coronavirus prison for breach of social contract. The small businesses were hit hard by the lockdown, but people who have their hearts in the right place are reminding us to stay at home to save a life. No mention of the lives of the people who rely on those small businesses to live. No mention of these masks everyone is supposed to wear being more of an annoyance.

The barrista adjusts the mask on her face no fewer than nine times when I roll up to the drive thru window. I recognize her by her eyes. My thoughts take me to fundamentalist Islamic countries. I think about how beautiful eyes must become when that is all you see. You notice little differences. A small freckle in the iris of her left eye. I take my coffee, I answer a few questions about my day. Chit chat.

I was never good at chit chat.

She comps my coffee, even though I already paid. The news is bad enough to get me a free Americano. For that sixty second window, she takes on my pain. She’s saddened by the news. I thank her and decide to tip double the next time to make up for it. It was my bad news. I figure the going rate for a sad story is $3.50. Good for an Americano, hot, three sugars and one cream.

I spend the day trying to think through the sludge of my thoughts. This go around I haven’t been playing and replaying my mistakes like some feel-good Disney sports movie so the coach can figure out how to win the big game. Everything was perfect. It would be like watching a highlight reel of an undefeated season. But here we are. Gathering up things and putting them in a box.

My thoughts are more on the way things had been playing out in my head for the last ten months. The moments that hadn’t happened yet. Snippets of conversation. Jokes. That special way she would look at me and even her eyes were smiling.

Today with my mood reflected in the grey skies and thunder that you can feel in your chest.

The why of it is understood. And I agreed. It was the best thing to do considering the situation. How much easier it had been if there had ever been mind games, arguments, fundamental disagreements. We never even got to have our first fight. I never knew it could be this good.

For the last several years, I have put in the work. I have survived a divorce, a non-committal relationship of convenience, a few dating experiences which bordered on the absurd, a friend who thought we were much more than that, and now this. Tonight I’m not in agony. I’m not blaming her, I’m not even blaming myself. I just…hurt.

When you try to fine tune yourself, you start to recognize all the ways that you are messing up your own life. It’s like we are hard-wired to do it. You recognize the drama and missteps and self-destruction in those around you. You get cocky. You start to feel immune to it. That is something that happens to other people.

When you feel yourself grow, you begin to feel what therapists used to call “well-adjusted.” You respond instead of react. You breathe through a problem instead of feeling that punch of adrenaline in your gut. Until you don’t. Until you are lying awake by yourself one night with your mind running non-stop and you decide to have a drink to slow the hamster wheel from spinning and spinning. Something has changed. You blame it on the lockdown. You blame it on the layoff. The weather. Instead what has happened is when you set out to make good boundaries in a relationship, those boundaries apply to yourself too. You get to stop and ask yourself questions instead of rushing headlong into a burning building over and over like you have seen on TV. Or you have seen with your parents. Or you have seen with your friends and family, brothers and sisters, or anyone else who dared to navigate this world with someone else.

It’s not as easy as it looks. Those adorable old couples celebrating their 60th, only to pass away within hours of each other in a hospital room with one propped up in a chair with the book they were reading aloud open in their lap. Those boundaries you both set up to protect yourselves and each other are important. Throw the brakes before the train runs off the tracks. Being emotionally healthy can also keep you very single. It’s not bad company if you try it.

I’ve always had a flair for the overdramatic. I shaved my beard as a sign of mourning. I watched the man I was underneath emerge. No longer was that sharp-toothed smile a flash of light in that mess of black and white. A younger man came forward. Smooth-faced. A smaller chin than I remember. Sadness in his eyes. This mask is off and I can no longer hide.

I think about this phrase that I’ve heard lately about the quarantine. “The New Normal.” This isn’t normal. That’s a euphemism to gaslight people. It’s telling people something might look, feel, smell, taste, and just be wrong, but calling it a different variety of “normal” makes it okay. I can’t watch the news anymore, and I sure as hell can’t read it online. Contradictory reports, very few facts, emotional manipulation, bias, fear mongering, obtuse rules. Wear the mask, don’t wear it, flatten the curve, shelter in place, stay home, unless it is to get outside, wash your groceries, don’t talk to others, stay with your family. Wait for the pyroclastic flow to engulf you like those citizens of Herculaneum who became statues overnight. You would have thought Medusa herself was walking the streets

The new normal might save our lives, but it’s killing our spirits. In my estimation, our monkey brains haven’t evolved yet to handle the information we are given. Remember than not long ago, a Library at Alexandria, Egypt was burned many times over the course of 1,000 years. With it was lost the wisdom of the ancients. Physics, art and drama, philosophy, astronomy. People have never been able to handle their liquor or their knowledge.

In the last 25 years, we have connected the dots on all the libraries of the world. We have allowed anyone with a smartphone to walk around with the known expanse of human knowledge in their pocket. Like a first year medical student, we learned too much too quickly. We stood in our own echo chambers and became enamored by the sounds of our own voices. FaceBook, Instagram, Twitter, Porn, and emails, each of us feeding the constant dopamine drip of instant gratification to our brains with likes and smileys and sexting pics and little chirps and chimes and pings to alert us that we aren’t alone. Constant connection. Constant information. Affirmation. Addiction.

How many first year med students wash out because of their first semester of studying infectious diseases? Some become hypochondriacs. They get too much information. Their brains can’t handle it. The have to fight or run. The press told us to do both. They made us aware of something that would have followed its course pretty much the same without the widespread panic. Yes, people would have died. Just like they do every day. Smoking, car accidents, malaria, bad drinking water, alcoholism, and opioids all kill more people than Coronovirus. But we killed the patient to save the patient.

The world we wake up to once the delirium of shelter in place leaves us and we just say “fuck it” is not the place we once knew. It’s a place where we lost ourselves along the way. The world is not the “new normal.” It has changed. A little bit of the magic we once knew before is gone. Like the end of the 1930s when the world entered into a war between good and evil. These are the end times. The end of what used to be. When you could still meet someone and chat them up for an evening, fall in love, and then just get to sit there in our own thoughts, or worse, stewing our brains gradually with spirits to numb the solitude. The plans we once made canceled, no longer a possiblility.

It was nice that it rained today.

The air feels clean. The birds still sing, oblivious to the torment we are all putting ourselves through. A bird’s life is frightening, and very short. But they still sing. I got to sing with someone for nearly a year. Now that voice is silent.

Tonight I said goodbye to my best friend, and other than already missing her and feeling the pain of it all, glacial, carving channels and valleys and gorges into my heart, I’m fine. She had clear reasons. We chatted and laughed and loved until the very end when we said goodnight.

In the end, it was not either of us, but a no-win situation. A disease that has plagued me for most of my adult life, which has hurt my children, caused me immeasurable suffering. And at this crossroads, it was the last moment we could decide whether or not it was going to cause suffering onto yet another innocent bystander.

It was her choice to make. Either pretend the conflict didn’t bother her and wear a mask and let it eat her up, or leave before things got bad and we lost sight of each other.

So many emotions right now, but this end was for good reasons. The right reasons. A hard decision. Tonight I’m mourning the loss of possibilities. So many perfect moments, and many yet to come we had both hoped. We parted as people perfect for each other in a situation that would have eventually destroyed us.

Part of me thinks that this is a continuation of my past keeping me from finding happiness. How do I process this without giving those sad choices the satisfaction? How do I not fall into bitterness because “nice guys don’t finish last?” That would be making it about me. Making me a victim.

I’m not. I was a participant in this, and though I am in mourning over the loss of what was possible, I also know that this was one of those things that was all for the best too.

I get to work on myself, my upcoming career, and my son.