Why a return to “normal” is the last thing we need

As a child, one of the many secrets I trusted adulthood would eventually reveal was what it meant to be “regular.”

In “Father Knows Best”, “Leave it to Beaver”, and “The Donna Reed Show”, I saw advertisements for a product which I do not remember (possibly milk of magnesia, with its implication that a laxative was as ordinary and wholesome as a glass of frothy milk?) and I wonder how this promised “regularity” was different from the life my parents, brother and I were already living.

The shows themselves raised similar questions. The suburban homes the action took place in didn’t look too different from our split-level home in Montreal. The dads on both shows went to work in suits and ties every day. Mothers did not work outside the home. The neighborhood children played, bickered and had adventures together. Check, check, check – at first glance, these half-hour family comedies reflected the norms of my family’s social circle in 1960.

And yet, there was little about them that I recognized. Dads were uniformly stern or ignorant, nothing like the embarrassing, loving, and sometimes distracted dads that have populated my life. The mothers wore aprons, baked cakes, and were perfectly happy all the time. No, not mine. And even then, the moral crises that have anchored each show — picking up the icing on the cake with fingertips, telling a lie about how the dog escaped the house, even skipping school — paled next to those discussed at our cakeless table. There was no civil rights movement, no sickness, no death, no divorce, no genocide, no poverty, no sadness at all on these shows, just an occasional bout of dismay or disappointment. In the on-screen world, life was ordinary and mostly predictable.

Yet, as a TV-loving kid, I assumed what I was seeing was real, that one day, when I grew up, our family would become like The Beav’s, magically regular.

What happens again and again is the blind belief that unbridled repression cannot happen here, even though we see it happening every night in Ukraine.

Now, as governments repeal their mask mandates, offices reopen and politicians and pundits prepare for midterm elections in an increasingly crazed environment, and the horror unfolding in Ukraine takes even Momentarily on the news of Tom Brady’s return to the Buccaneers, I’m once again wondering what “regular” means.

Definitions abound.

Oxford describes it as “something standard, orderly”, much like the transfer of political power is supposed to be. According to Dictionary.com, regular means “evenly or uniformly arranged”, perhaps like the original view versus the gerrymandered view of congressional districts. Yourdictionary.com says it’s “something that’s usually done” – routine behavior, such as hoping that kindness and civility will prevail. Merriam-Webster describes it as “happening again and again at the same time or in the same way”, much like the disappointment that sadly often follows hope.

Like everyone I know, I long for a return to the structure and rhythm of my days and a routine that I (not a pandemic) can disrupt in dizzying fashion. But perhaps it’s best to acknowledge that the stability of a “normal life” has always been elusive, no more real than the happiness that Donna Reed and Mrs. Cleaver have seemingly been pulling from the dust all day. The poor, working and non-working, have always lived a precarious day-to-day life. People of color have always been subject to different rules than white people. Judges and courts have never completely refrained from legislating from the bench. The greed and self-interest of a small elite has usually succeeded in suppressing big changes for the greater good.

My childhood faith in achieving what is “regular” was misinformed. And I’m starting to accept the idea that it can also be undesirable.

If it’s normal, I don’t want it.

After all, what has been the norm has been more talk than action on climate change, gun violence and income inequality. What is predictable is always more lies and extremism, especially from the right. What happens again and again is the blind belief that unbridled repression cannot happen here, even though we see it happening every night in Ukraine.

If it’s normal, I don’t want it. I don’t want either to be a regular – someone who repeats their usual behaviors, whether that means going out to the same restaurant every Sunday night, reading the same handful of authors over and over again, or writing 50 postcards to potential voters , and then let someone else do it with democracy intact.

If The Beav can learn responsibility by having a diary route, if Mary, the daughter of The Donna Reed Show could learn how to catch a boyfriend by acting like an idiot, then maybe I can learn – or more precisely, remember – how to disrupt the status quo long enough to effect the change we need.

But I won’t learn that by watching TV, not even MSNBC. It will be by joining my grandchildren’s generation in climate protest, aligning with my generational peers to relentlessly counter voter suppression. It will be by fiercely, joyfully abandoning regularity.

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About Mildred B.

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