A NORMAL LIFE
by Melodie Johnson Howe
The last two weeks I have spent some time waiting in doctors’ waiting rooms. Waiting rooms are the equivalent of purgatory on earth. The most you can hope for while waiting is a magazine not dated earlier than 2002 and that you are not sitting next to some bozo that sneezes all over you or wants to tell you his life story. I don’t mean to be brutal but people in medical waiting rooms are not that interesting. There always seems to be a man who must show the rest of us how sick he is by coughing very loudly, and the woman who prevents the other patients from letting the receptionist know they have arrived for their appointment by spilling the contents of her purse onto the counter in a mad search for insurance cards she never finds. I could go on but it’s too dreary. In fact of all us who were waiting looked so drab that we could have been prisoners in some eternal Russian holding cell.
In one of these rooms I discovered a magazine called Details. A man’s version of Oprah’s O magazine for the upwardly mobile male. It told me how men should dress. Pared Down is the theme for this season. A photo of a young man in jeans, his plaid shirt hanging out, and a khaki-colored sport jacket gave me an example of “the look”. I wished women’s magazines could get so real. I had picked this particular magazine because of an article in it: “Are You Becoming the Man your Mother Divorced”. Wow! Did I love that.
But before I could flip my way to the page, I was stopped by a piece by Michael Chabon called “Time Bandits”. He writes, “I’ve been sitting here trying to figure out how long it has been since the days around here have been normal.” Since I have often cried out for a normal life, I decided I could identify far better with Chabon than becoming the man my mother divorced.
Moving away from the overly-dramatic cougher I begin to read. Chabon lists the traumas and experiences of his daily life making it clear that he knows it’s not unlike other people’s lives. But to him this is not a normal life. As I read on I begin to understand that Chabon is more interested in controlling time. Wanting life to calm and slow so he is not moved so far from the memory of this “planet of his childhood”, and that he can return to it when he desires. “But even that delusion pales beside this mad hankering, this utopian or millenarian yearning for the coming days of Normal Time. Of time to spare, of time in Plenty … time to write the short stories I used to fling like Frisbees out into the blue.”
Only a writer could wish for such a thing. Only a writer could cry out for a “normal life” and at the same time demand that life slow so he can partake of it, get it right. How many times have I wailed for a normal life? I’ve heard my other writer friends, mostly women, say the same thing. My friends who are not writers don’t wail about this. They may want a less hectic life. A cop who is friend of a friend said he wanted a normal life because he worked at night and not in the day. But this cop didn’t say he wanted to stop dealing with violence and death, he just wanted to work “normal” hours like “normal” people.
So what do writers want? The question sounds too much like Freud’s exasperated question, “What do women want?” It is so condescending and bullying that there is no way to answer it. Most writers I know live normal lives. William Styron said he lived the bourgeois life in order to write. And yet many writers still long for a life they are not living.
Maybe the reason that many writers long for “normal” is that we are not happy with reality. Our job is to take reality and change it, revise it, embellish it, lie about it, make it something it’s not. Sometimes we make reality bitter. Or funny. Sometimes we make it dark, even deadly. Reality to us is like a piece of clay we mould into our own truth.
I think we writers will always long for a normal life because we don’t feel normal. And guess what? We’re not. We are destined to yearn and to long. I sometimes feel like I have one foot in the norm and one in the creative world. I trudge along trying to keep an equal pace so I don’t trip and fall on my face. I don’t always succeed.
Personally, I think that dysfunctional — a word I hate — is the norm. My friend Lenore who is constantly reminding me about life, says, “Melodie, it’s just the way it is.” To a writer those words can be very irritating. I want to say, “No it’s not.” Because in my mind it can be so many things. But please not this minutia filled lump of existence that explodes in your face every now and then. No, I want normal. I don’t want to be waiting in a Russian holding cell. I want … I want to be….