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.

Use your words

Remember when you were a kid, or maybe just dealing with kids yourself, and someone (maybe it was you, maybe another kid) was having a complete meltdown?

Remember when the adult would stop, get down on their level and say “Use your words.” The little kid would sputter, stop, and think about what they were going to say. The conversation would usually change from a full-blown fit and into hesitant snot-slinging, but the words would be there.

I don’t know why people aren’t using their words lately. Social Media gives us an automat of ways to express ourselves. Instead of having to stop and think of the words to use in any given situation, grown adults are relying on pre-packaged expression in the form of gifs, memes, and repostings to speak for them. I’m talking about articulate, intelligent people using memes as a method to communicate.

Memes are the bumper sticker of social media. Can you imagine a world in which 90% of what was communicated was done via bumper sticker? Obviously intelligent people who have a lot to contribute to the conversation just post memes and walk away.

I’m not going to discuss my personal political beliefs. Reading through my posts should clue you in that I try to be moderate in my political beliefs. I would probably consider myself a Liberal in the ways in which Liberals have been traditionally. People who believe in Liberty. Not this crypto-socialist State that has evolved lately. To my “Liberal” friends, I’m probably a jack-booted conservative fascist. I’m going to give it to you straight.

Social media created this mess. You are part of the mess.

Objectively speaking, social media was instrumental in electing Donald Trump (love him or hate him, this is true). It probably also instigated just about every school shooting, riot, and yes even the overreaction to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yes. I said it “Overreaction.”

Information is funneled into your face via an echo chamber, driven mostly by the need to gather data on people so that it can be redistributed in order to direct marketing towards individuals. This amplification of everything you want to know, think you already know, and believe is pretty basic. It tends to polarize people. Pepsi vs. Coke. Ford vs. Chevy. Left vs. Right. Black vs. White.

I’ve kicked the idea around lately, thinking of putting it into a story, but it won’t work. People don’t read anymore anyway. They Netflix and Chill. They Meme. They Tweet. Everyone talks and nobody listens. Unless the person speaking is lock-step in agreement with them already.

This is where we are going off the rails. Consider this as a possibility:

We are witnessing the first computer virus that has jumped onto living matter. It is no less devastating than a real virus. Maybe moreso.

Carrying capacity

As people, our brains are hard-wired to really only make deep, clannish connections with around 140 people, max. This has been worked out by sociologists and anthropologists. The internet inexplicably connected the minds of billions of people. It also uses algorithms to make mating pairs of us based on shared interests, perceived mathematical degrees of attractiveness, and throws in a little bit of dysfunction to make sure that these couples that hookup on dating sites won’t last. It’s calculated obsolescence with relationships. You don’t make $40 per month each on happy couples who found true love after a few days of swiping. You make millions of dollars on creating dysfunctional relationships based on narcissism and cheap and easy sex.

But when we funnel all of that information into algorithms, servers, and throw some AI into the mix, we never stop to consider morality or humanity. Those things get in the way of profit margins. They always have. What we get is an unbalanced reaction to data that tries to construct everything collected into something needed. This is the same as an AI soldier in Call of Duty who spawns to attack you. He’s got one job. Shoot at you. But depending on the difficulty level set, he has less of a chance of killing you than you do him. After all, if he kills you, he ceases to exist. If you kill him, he ceases to exist, but the purpose of continuing to play the game, beat it, and buy another game is ensured. Machines lack self-preservation instincts. That’s really the big difference. They don’t care, because they have no reason to care. What is “care?”

So we put all of our ideas, communication, and season it up with some consumerism and we get an element of “care.” We get motive. Like a watershed event, all that information goes into a few channels and it is up to the programs to decide what to do with it. People aren’t hardwired to know what to do with the collective intelligence of the world, so we sell things to each other with that info. We post videos of people having sex. We allow cater to the base instincts of civilization. Bread, circuses, power, sex. Right now, we can’t really conceive of much else. All of our greatest human endeavours apply here. Even sending people to the moon.

Remember too, that the media operates unchecked, sampling anything they want from this bottomless well of information. There are no fact checkers, and there sure as hell isn’t any morality or consequence for publishing bad information.

What the hell are you talking about?

So, in relation to the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020, think of it like this. We have virtually unlimited information gathered and redistributed by computers. It samples info globally. So, when a virus that looks like a headcold, is transmitted like a headcold, and might kill you like the Flu has jumped to people, all the data said, “We are about to be royally fucked.” Except what actual data said the death rate would be as bad as the media hyped it up to be?

For the first time in history, countries all over the world locked down their people and said “You know, there are these things called ‘germs’ that actually can make you pretty sick. They can actually kill you! It’s crazy out there!” So everyone decided to listen to the government, you know, the same people who not long ago sent millions of barely trained citizen soldiers running headlong into machine gun fire, chemical weapons, and other hazards, knowing that the resulting casualties would be acceptable so long as their power structure remained stable. My biggest question is since when has the government given a damn about your health and well-being?

It’s like a first year medical student who has just taken their epidemiology and virology courses and has convinced themselves that they have everything from Lupus to Kawasaki’s disease. Really they just have a vitamin deficiency from too much booze and amphetimines to stay up late to study. But they have Information (they don’t know what to do with.)

Other levels

So, here’s my thought on what happened. The AI which we now rely on in some weird symbiotic relationship that does everything from entertain our children in front of a video game to telling us the best route to take (so we never actually have to look at a map) to get to our Tinder date’s location, took a lot of our information, our concerns, and our fears and this is the information we got. It read like one of those AI written Hallmark movie scripts that are the result of forcing a program to walk every Hallmark movie ever made.

Invisible bat germs make you sick from air. Also from touching stuff. Will kill venerable grandma and babies. You might not look sick, but you are sick. You might be healthy, but die suddenly choking on phlegm. Wear a mask. Even though the mask doesn’t help. Listen to doctor man who looks like Yoda. Because we love Baby Yoda. Orange man bad. Orange man will die you. Orange. Media tell truth. Even though none of it makes any sense, they smart. If you want life, act like crazy germaphobes you made fun. Wash hands. Wash groceries. Church bad. Kissing, dancing, talking are deadly. Buy from Amazon. Buy from UberEats. Buy. Government money to buy. Stay at home. Buy. Consume. Work later. This is the new normal. Dissention is the enemy! Compliance is compassion.

It didn’t kill millions like the media and all the computer generated models said it would. People got bored with quarantine about six weeks in. They realized that starving to death because they didn’t have a job was more certain than maybe dying of a headcold. Yes, people got sick, but without at least a large enough sample size, there is no way that statistically we could determine the lethality of the virus. That is basic mathematics. Out of the samples taken, those resulting in death from COVID-19 were 100% COVID-19 related. Of course, if we could test the 7 Billion people living on the planet and assess mortality/sickness/asymptomatic carrying based on ALL the information, we would see that people really just faced the same thing they have faced since the beginning of time, when single celled organisms make a cellular wall to protect their DNA from UV radiation to be able to reproduce. Immunity.

What’s next?

That’s phase one. Our economies are shot in the ass. People are now seeing how generally worthless white collar occupations are. Universities, schools, all the things we have strived for over the last hundred years to better ourselves were deemed unnecessary when compared to short-order cooks, delivery drivers, farmers, and grocers. Bread.

The poor people start to wake up a little bit. They wonder “Why am I essential, but I’m barely surviving?”

Now we see riots happening as a result of another unjust killing of a man of color by a heavy-handed policeman. Well, for the last two months those people saw that this world that has put its knee on the back of their neck has been pretty much non-essential. What did you think was going to happen? Algorthim says, “racial injustice bad. People looking for socio-political change. Revolution.”

Remember Greta Thunberg? Remember the emotional response she got for scolding the United Nations? Well the AI remembers that too. It heard all of your Tweets and memes and Care reacts. Based on the data received, the YouTube videos of turtles with straws up their nose and seahorses attached to cotton swabs, it listened.

What’s a great way to fix the environment?

Keep people out of it. Slow down production. Keep cars off the highways. Limit waste and pollution. Animal populations are returning because people weren’t outside for two months to fuck things up. Now we are burning down government buildings. General anarchy and chaos is sweeping across the land…like a virus.

We are witnesses to something new. We didn’t need the cylons to overtake us. Or Replicants. Or Skynet. We believed our own fears and amplified them. We showed ourselves only the worst of any of us through a media optimized for clicks, ratings, and the number of Re-Tweets it gets. Somehow vegan meat substitutes became part of this, since that’s a lot easier to buy at a store than beef. You would know this if you didn’t rely on a computer to order your food for Pickup.

Our world is an illusion, not much different than the Matrix. We exist to give AI something to do. And you know what? As long as the purpose of the programs is being served, which is to sell stuff. See stuff. Make money. What happens in the fleshy world is not really a big deal. If the animated guy shooting at you dies, he will respawn. If most of us die, then our information will be a little easier to keep track of. Efficiency. Optimization of programing. Hungry people respond better to control and manipulation. The world gets to heal. We get everything we ever wanted.

How do you control a population? Limit their voices. Eliminate their ability to resist. Control the entertainment. Control the food supply. Distract them with shiny things. Motivate production by reducing the availability of shiny things. Keep the liquor stores open. Keep their eyes closed. Stay at home, save a life. Facemasks are optional for rioters. Never mind the man behind the curtain. He’s not really a man. His name is Oz. He is the god of information we created while we were watching porn and YouTube, and fighting on Twitter and Facebook. Right now, he is judging whether we are worthy to live or die.

Kinda weird this might be the end times for the world we once knew. Am I crazy? Sure. But I wasn’t the one hoarding toilet paper and Purell. I’m not denying the virus is real. I’m questioning our reaction to it on a global level, and why this was so much worse than any other time in history.

We are entirely too connected. AI, after all, is just doing what we programmed it to do.

Cabin fever

Well, most of us have been on lockdown for a few weeks already and you know, there isn’t really a lot that has changed in my life. Well, other than the soul crushing loneliness sometimes. And when I say sometimes, I mean it. It isn’t a continual thing. There have been times when I have gone days without speaking to another person. Even on my trip to the UK last year, other than the person I was ordering food or coffee from, I didn’t speak a lot to other people. When I did, sometimes I would feel a little bit awkward, as though my words were just a jumble.

I feel like that a lot lately. Sometimes it gets to me, like the other day when I was walking around campus for some exercise and I ran into Larry the Cop. I’ve known Larry for a number of years, but other than him recognizing me, I don’t think he even knows who I am. I hadn’t spoken to many people at all by then. Maybe my gf or my mom and dad on the phone, but that was about it. This was the first person I had spoken with face to face in many days. I pretty much unleashed a whole weeks worth of information on the poor man.

Then, I was fine. I went home, I wrote. I cleaned house. I was productive. This working from home thing has been awesome. I can get everything done without distractions. I don’t have to listen to every stupid story or exclamation about the weather, or worse yet the all-knowing/all-seeing weather app. You know, rather than just looking outside.

On Monday, we got our notice that our jobs were ending. They gave us five days to apply for the new positions, and like the dutiful battered spouses so many of us on campus are to our jobs, 90% of us were interested in fighting for those crumbs. You see, the deal is to consolidate 65 jobs down to about 12. You won’t have a pay increase for the additional duties and training, and there’s no guarantee that the university will even be there in two years. But like the person who walks around with a shiner and makes up an excuse for their abuser, everyone was willing to go back to the piece of shit.

My state of mind lately during this quarantine and these layoffs hasn’t been that great, but it could have been worse. Usually I look at my housekeeping as an indication of my state of mental health. I let the dishes pile up in the sink. I haven’t folded laundry in days. But every once in a while I’ll tackle a problem that hasn’t been looked at for a while. The other day, I cleaned my oven. Today, I shampooed my carpets. Then I cleaned out the steam cleaner and I did it again. The carpets which have been looking like the floor of a crack house because of my son’s potato chips and my indifference to garlic and onion skins which drift in and out of the kitchen needed to be addressed. I did it. I shampooed the damned rugs.

I’ve been too busy lately with paid writing assignments as I get ready to transition over to writing full-time. Sometimes it is difficult to not become distracted. I mean Facebook is just a tab over. There’s instagram, twitter, and emails. But all of those are wearing thin these days.

I went on a walk today because I need the exercise. As a person with asthma, I need regular exercise or else my lungs feel kinda junky. They’ve been like this since September when I had pneumonia. With this pandemic, I can’t help but feel like I’m susceptible for pneumonia again, which isn’t anything I ever want to have to deal with. So, I listen to my body. It says I’m getting fat eating pasta and bread at home all day, so I get up and I do something about it. I take a walk and immediately feel gassed. With the layoffs coming, about a month ago I let my gym membership lapse. So, no eliptical for me these days. No twice-daily walks at work. I pretty much walk about ten feet in any direction and spend the rest of the day sitting. Or eating.

To make sure I don’t get sick, my gf and I just talk on the phone. I miss the hell out of her. But she’s protecting me, and that feels wonderful. My ex-wife, in a less altruistic turn, hasn’t let our son come over to my house for three weeks. She has claimed that the kids have all been sick with COVID19 and sends me lectures on hygiene and epidemiology to shame me because we all are supposed to recognize that she knows more than the doctors and isn’t she just the better parent?

I’ve missed my son. Yes, even though he plays a lot of video games and he’s hitting that age when he just wants stuff like Pokemon cards and food and entertainment, I’ve missed him. I can’t imagine what things are like for him over there right now. His mom is a known hypochondriac. This is like when a prepper sees that comet headed for earth and weeps tears of joy because they finally get to use their bomb shelter and eat all those beans they’ve been stockpiling for years.

With this pandemic, I can honestly say, I am sick of dried beans. I’m sick of pasta. When this whole thing blows over, I want to sit in a restaurant and order appetizers and an entree and my lovely gf and I will sit and listen to conversations and make comments about the sad choices being made all around us. But it will be nice because in a weird way, I sorta miss people.

As much of an introvert I am, I do still miss seeing people. Lately, with the empty streets and cancelled plans and shelter in place, I feel a little lost sometimes. I have railed against social media in the past. About how it is neither social nor the media. But right now, it’s all a lot of us have. It’s a small window to the world and so many people who are scared or lonely are hitting the anger phase of their mourning of the life they used to know.

Some are drinking a lot. Some are talking politics and dropping blame on a President, hating him for not saving us from this sooner…forgetting that a kangaroo court of impeachment was going on at the insistence of the established ruling class, who all hate a man who keeps saying “We need to start making things in America again.” Yes. Like medical supplies. That’s biggie. I’m just dumbfounded that nobody has talked about how the country where this crap originated has not only lied about the severity of it, but is providing all of our medical supplies to fight it.

But, maybe that’s just part of the mourning. Bargaining. Anger. Blame. Eventually we will all hit acceptance. In the meantime, there is Tiger King to distract us. At the end of this, so many of us will be without jobs. The way we interact will probably be scarred for many years. Instead of seeing this as an opportunity to burn the whole thing down, remove the aristocrats who have ridden this country into the dirt, we’ll continue to just patch things together, distracting ourselves with outrage. Kardashians. Mourning the lives of the old and young alike that we lost over these months. Ignoring the fact that our government doesn’t have our best interests at heart.

Ignoring the fact that our world is changing in the blink of an eye.

Being stuck at home can give you too much time to think about things. Maybe I should start cleaning out the fridge.