PUMPING IRONY: The Perils of Normalcy

Six months into the current pandemic, I realize I’ve begun to forget the lessons it’s been trying to teach me.

Two cups on an outdoor table

I traveled half-heartedly across town last week to meet my old pal Leo for coffee. It’s typically an agreeable diversion I enjoy about once a month, but on this occasion deadlines were looming, and I fretted about taking an hour out of my morning for idle chit-chat.

Claiming a sidewalk table, I grabbed my phone to watch the emails flow into my inbox, silently considering my lengthening to-do list and rehearsing an excuse to curtail a conversation that hadn’t yet begun. Looking up, I spotted Leo shuffling slowly around the corner, his smile widening as he neared the table. “Boss,” he cried. “It’s so good to see you!”

“Good to see you, Leo,” I replied. “Do we have to order online? That’s so annoying.”

“No, no. We can go inside,” he explained.

Back at our table, I positioned myself on the edge of my chair to communicate a sense of urgency while we cycled through our usual litany of topics: politics, food, baseball, obscure South American poets, and the rest. Leo sipped his café con leche as though time had ceased to exist; I gulped my latte as though I had a bus to catch.

“Did I tell you about Mike Finley?” he ventured during a lull.

“What about him?”

“Died last week. Prostate cancer. Undiagnosed. He was just 70.”

Leo recalled that Mike had shown him around town 50 years ago, when Leo first arrived from out East, and they’d remained friends ever since. I remembered Mike as a gifted writer I’d hired for many stories at various magazines over the years. We both fell silent for a moment.

“People come and people go, Leo,” I said finally.

He nodded sadly. “We’re still here, Boss.”

I leaned back in my chair. My phone buzzed in my pocket. We chatted a while longer, reminiscing a bit wistfully, until it was time to head home. Leo reminded me that he’d left a stack of books at my office the last time we’d met, and I vowed that we’d collect them in a couple of weeks.

“No hurry, Boss,” he said as we parted.

We’re now a good six months into the current pandemic, enough time to establish new habits and expectations — a new normal. And while I understand the need to move beyond the uncertainty and trauma we suffered when COVID-19 first struck, my tortured chat with my old pal — and news of a former colleague’s sudden death — reminded me how quickly I’ve forgotten the lessons the virus offered last spring.

“To try to insulate ourselves from harm, from discomfort, from failure,” I wrote at the time, “simply produces suffering — because it’s impossible to control all we’re forced to confront every day. It’s only by embracing uncertainty and accepting that conditions arise and recede in each moment that we can feel truly alive.”

Normalcy seeks to douse uncertainty with a torrent of routine, but in the process it can also drown our appreciation of each small wonder we may encounter during the course of a day. I’d forgotten what a miracle it is that my frail septuagenarian friend can still shuffle uncertainly to his favorite café a block and a half from his apartment to share some stories with me. I’d overlooked the value of stepping away from an urgent project to breathe some fresh air. I’d neglected to embrace each moment as a gift.

I’m as anxious as the next geezer to see this particular existential crisis fade into a distant memory; I’d rather not have to lean on the pandemic’s threats to craft a more fulfilling life. But as long as the plague persists, I’d prefer to learn what it has to teach me rather than sink into a normalcy designed to mask its effects.

That’s the challenge, I guess. As Leo reminded me, we’re still here. The least I can do is try to be present, no matter what the moment brings.

is an Experience Life deputy editor who explore the joys and challenges of aging well.

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