Daily Life Observations

Down and Out on Reality Road

Living with the new normal

My impressions of living the “new normal” were quite favorable in the beginning. After all, hanging out alone, reading, painting, gardening, and writing to my heart’s content is an introvert’s idyllic lifestyle. It’s not that I don’t like interesting people, but I definitely don’t like reality TV, sports shows, game shows, dance shows, articles about stranger’s ex-partners, and so on — you get the picture. Unfortunately, these are precisely the subjects people seem anxious to discuss. When I worked in big offices, I was always careful to view a five-minute summary of the Superbowl game before showing up to work the next morning. It was my feeble attempt to not appear like a complete loser.

Over the years, I developed considerable expertise in avoiding these mundane conversations. One of my martial arts teachers once commented that the first step in winning a street fight was to not put yourself into a situation where fighting may be necessary. I took this advice to heart and developed uncanny skills around not getting into situations where I must engage in shallow conversations on subjects I dislike. I find it efficient, but my wife believes it makes me boring. I’m okay with boring.

Now, a good discussion on science, philosophy, religion, economic trends, and such, is much more to my liking. This fact, of course, explains why I had a favorable impression of the new-normal world — I already trended toward having very few daily conversations.

True to expectations, the brave new world of social distancing provided me with ample time to pursue my projects. I had COVID before the virus was in the daily news — aches but no fever, loss of taste and smell, zero energy, 22 hours a day sleeping, and a spot of pneumonia. I commented at the time that it was the weirdest flu I ever had. Still, I was cautious about straying out because I didn’t want to bring the virus home to my wife and daughters. So, I was glad to throw myself into my projects. The first one I tackled was a four-foot by four-foot greyscale painting called “Ice Lake.”

Segment of Ice World (Source ArcheanWeb: Public Domain)

I finished the painting one morning, near lunchtime, and thought I might drop by the Lark Café for a Moroccan chicken salad. It was one of my favorite lunchtime haunts. Suddenly I realized my attention to the new-norm had slipped, and I was reverting to old habits. Oh well, I fixed a peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwich. Not quite as exciting as the salad. Despite my aversion to conversations, I did sometimes like hanging out in the general vicinity of other people. No lunch out this time, but the new-norm was still okay.

For the next month or two, I turned my attention to the garden — digging up large portions of lawn, wheeling in 15 tons of rock, and delivering several truckloads of plants to the back of the house. Ironically, under the old-norm, my original plan was to take the summer off from massive gardening projects. Clearly, the new-norm was changing my priorities.

We wound down the big garden renovation in late June. I say we since I am the construction crew, and my wife is the master gardener and planner responsible for aesthetics. The sweat and muscle aches all seemed worth the effort, and we transformed a big chunk of soggy lawn into a respectable garden. I sat on the back patio one evening, sipping a pFriem IPA and enjoying the newly minted landscape. My wife joined me. After a while, I suggested we should have some people over to see the fruits of our labor. The new-norm smacked me on the side of my head, bringing me back to reality. It was a little depressing, and I did miss evening conversations in the back gardens with friends and relatives.

Lawn to Garden (Source ArcheanWeb: Public Domain)

The dog days of summer set in during July and August. As the heat built, I spent more time inside and discovered Medium as an outlet for my writing, creative and otherwise. I first published a string of earth science and climate change themed articles and was thrilled to have a few readers check-out my latest. Rejections from the curators provided learning experiences, and I worked on improving my delivery.

It was with great enthusiasm I discovered I could develop my own publication, giving a home to both my accepted and orphaned stories — EarthSphere (by the way, thank you to my seven followers)

Time was weighing heavily on my hands by late August, and I ventured into new territory with some flash fiction, philosophy, and other odds-and-ins. It was probably a needed change and sparked new challenges. The new direction was not met with much enthusiasm from the curators, but the pieces were fun to write, and I’m generally not discouraged by vigorous rejection. I simply started another publication to provide a home for my wilder ramblings — DropStone.

EarthSphere (Source: ArcheanWeb: Public Domain)

It was September when one of the vicious downsides of the new-norm reared its ugly head. Time — I had too much of it available for reading the news. A mind-boggling volume of truly depressing news was at my fingertips, a single swipe away from appearing on my iPhone. One day I found myself rereading the same news twice in one morning. The cycle was endless and only exacerbated by the mindless wittering that passes for intelligent discussion and news in an election year.

Either the new-norm was losing its allure, or I was suffering a mild form of cognitive dysfunction. I started to wonder if an inane, shallow conversation would be a welcome relief. It had all started with such promise, and now I found myself down-and-out in this brave new world. Maybe I wasn’t the introvert I imagined. Perhaps I had under rated conversations with other people. There were no clear answers, so I threw caution into the wind and opened a Zoom account — the license where after 40 minutes of conversation, you don’t get booted out.

With WIFI extending to the back patio and my MacBook flipped open, happy hour magically reappeared into our dreary life. Evening conversations extended until the sun dropped low on the western horizon, with delightful meetings stretching across multiple time zones — Calgary, San Diego, Chicago, Atlanta, and more. I kept the patio fridge stocked with cold pFriem IPAs and bottles of buttery, chardonnay. We were ready for any occasion. I started dropping in on birthday celebrations for distant relatives and casual conversations with strangers about equity, inclusion, the environment, and life in general.

After a little more investigation, I revived a stalled collaborative book effort with an author across the country. The new-norm blues started fading as things got hopping again. I found I could attend formal meetings in my pajamas. Sometimes when I popped back in from working outside in the heat, I jumped straight into a discussion since no one could smell me. I could have a beer before dinner, even if I had an evening meeting — no driving necessary. The whole new-norm lifestyle suddenly seemed dangerously laissez-faire. A combination of intelligent conversation and lax personal hygiene could be merged together with no discomfort or distress.

It is unclear whether I am currently in a temporary updraft of optimism, or I have entered into a higher level of existence. The new-norm is tricky, and only time will tell. But I feel permanent change in the air. Perhaps I should make the most of it. Maybe the next curve on the new-norm road will cause another crisis, but for now, I can see down-and-out in the rear-view mirror.

William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.