The Excesses of Whiplash Normalcy

Overcorrection is a peculiarly human characteristic. As a strategy, or at least a physiological response, it is baked into our DNA, and, however technically unintentional it almost always is, a predictable hallmark of most all human endeavor. When a rotted tree falls across a stream in the woods and crushes a tragically mislaid beaver dam, aggrieved beavers don’t generally arise en masse and launch a comprehensive deforestation campaign to retaliate. No, they simply rebuild. Moreover, the notion that response to a given stimulus need not be measured or proportional to be effective seems to me not just inherently human reasoning but also strangely American. Certainly, we’ll be testing that theory to its breaking point in the coming weeks – with, as of press time, England set to remove its national Covid restrictions any minute now and the aborted 2020 Tokyo Olympics still scheduled by month’s end, despite haphazard and often terrifyingly inadequate vaccination numbers reported both world and, particularly in Africa and southeast Asia, region-wide – but the United States, as is its historical wont, seems poised to take the lead in the charge toward full-throated resumption of “a normal life”. A nebulous goal, to be sure, equally easy to promise and difficult to deliver given the state of conditions on our own shifting ground, but one undeniably well underway nevertheless. Where do we go from here? After sixteen months in shared exile, what does “normal” even look like? The only sure bet appears to be our collective will to do whatever is necessary to arrive, and then much, much more besides.

Remember life under lockdown? How endless, how interminable, how utterly intractable it seemed? Dreary, samey days that bled into weeks into months and on into figurative oblivion, until it became difficult at times to properly gauge your surroundings, seeing as you never left, or even reliably pinpoint the date on command? Remember summer, 2020? Those were the days. The life by definition of any respectable block party or world summit, America predictably bristled at widespread restrictions on social interaction recommended by its sober scientific community. Certain pockets bucked like rodeo bulls just before the chute opens, and most everywhere it seemed packs of free-range morons roamed the countryside – three feet away and unmasked – conflating counterproductive expressions of free choice with DIY resistance to governmental tyranny straight out of the fever dreams of a high schooler still tripping off his first viewing of V For Vendetta. Such retrograde thinking has, at once, not aged well, and yet somehow proven more popular than ever. Over 600,000 Americans died, you might remember, while we collectively sulked. That’s a significant chunk of the four million+ world fatality total, not to mention the countless additional lives – of survivors, widow(er)s, orphans, caregivers, front-line workers – irretrievably mangled beyond that. Covid lockdown lingered so long that some of us eventually stopped thinking about “normal” altogether, except in idealistic, patently unrealistic terms. In a country increasingly obsessed with hearing itself talk about the state of things, fewer and fewer saw “normal” as any sort of likely outcome.

Contrast that with today. How are things feeling lately by comparison? It was of course embarrassingly easy to beat my chest when I wrote back in March about how I was going to wait until the last minute possible before even considering a return to my well-established concert-going ways, to make good and damned sure that whatever solution cleared said path had sufficient time to take. Though animated as ever by that lingering glimmer of hope for the eventual return of frivolous travel and full-capacity shows, games, family gatherings, and happy hours, I certainly wasn’t expecting any quick turnaround when the word finally came, in equal parts because living in the pandemic cocoon for so long had dulled my imagination, understanding of how human beings operate in large herds, and appreciation of historical context. Then, in May, the Centers for Disease Control announced that fully vaccinated adult Americans no longer needed to wear masks in indoor public spaces, and everything just…changed…immediately. The slumbering world outside our doors awakened with a jolt, as if from a tangible collective nightmare, and summarily adopted a different flavor of insanity, albeit one we could all pretty much get behind. Overcorrection in extremis ensued, predictable yet striking nonetheless, much the same way a city bus occasionally strikes a distracted jaywalker. Deadly Covid variants now gain an increasing foothold in direct proportion to undervaccinated areas, blah blah blah…but, also, you know, they said! And no backsies! This genie may grant amazing wishes, but there’s no putting it back in the bottle.

I spent the 2020 lockdown’s bewildering early days transforming myself into something of an amateur archivist, already convinced on a not particularly buried level that the times we were then living through would leave us as a people irrevocably changed, even beyond the obvious, that the present should thus be annotated with extra attention to detail and the past – whose memory faded incrementally with every fresh sunset – preserved. I can be forgiven such amateur dramatics, I hope. Nervous and bored is a potent combination of symptoms. Work was, to put it charitably, erratic, social life necessarily non-existent, and my daily routine was fast becoming stultifying to a degree that came as a shock even for an inveterate introvert such as myself. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s 2PM press conference became appointment viewing, and I filled in certain other blanks – time during which I might’ve instinctively toiled on this blog in happier times – with various little weird projects and intermittent periods of dwelling on, if not outright living in, the past. It’s how, for example, I can inform you via simple consultation of a certain Google Sheet I once maintained the difference in death total for any state in the union between 4/22/20 and 8/4, their respective populations, various closure dates (if applicable), and party affiliation of the governors left holding each individual bag. Morbid work, admittedly, but fascinating, and there’s nothing quite like developing/nursing a grudge – even an irrational, directionless, pointless one at a moment when pretty much everyone was suffering to one degree or other – to keep one’s mind sharp.   

Chief among my notable Covid artifacts was the latest iteration of “Events”, a living spreadsheet of upcoming concerts I’d cultivated in one form or other since first moving to big city Ohio at the turn of the millennium. It contains a list of every concert on my current radar, with events of particular interest called out in bold font and those for which I already had tickets color-coded green. “Events” has always been more than a mere document to me; it was practically a lifeline back in the days when concert-going was an indispensable part of my identity. How were things feeling lately by comparison? I had to wonder. I call this version an artifact because on April 4, 2020 I stopped researching and appending it altogether. That had always been such a big part of the fun – the discovery, the possibilities, the anticipation. For almost a year, “Events” sat just as dormant as its patron/administrator. As whispers,rumors, and murmurs picked up that would eventually congeal into that monumental announcement in May, pinpricks of light began to be visible in the depths of the inky blackness that lay ahead. Shows that I still had tickets for – shows I’d forgotten I still had tickets for – announced their official, though tentative at the time, rescheduling. It all seemed so far off. Particularly brave souls began to announce new limited touring cycles, usually in Florida or some other state that had not traditionally championed Covid safety over the realities of commerce. I shook my head in dismay, not even really wondering whether they were jumping the gun, but, rather, convinced that they were. So intense had and has been the need to get back to normal, I reasoned, that people were finally, officially ready to jump at the slightest provocation. 

Full disclosure: I mostly lived in a bubble during Covid, but not exclusively. For months, I stayed inside as if living in an active fallout shelter. I worked from home, and had my groceries delivered. I wore a mask when I took the trash out. I wrestled with a weird kind of survivor’s guilt as the news got progressively worse while I was yet able to count my lucky stars. I called my mother every evening, and began talking to my dad every other day besides. Five months of this later, I took my first Covid test, and after coming back clean, finally drove 360 miles south to see my parents in Tennessee. While there, I never left my mom’s house, except to visit drive-thrus. My dad and I ordered sub sandwiches and ate them in his car. Such was the case at Labor Day, and Thanksgiving, and Christmas. I tried so hard to be careful, but couldn’t stand feeling like I was in any way abandoning them, especially my mom, who has faced acute health issues for years. By the same token, I couldn’t bear the thought that I might inadvertently contribute to getting them sick. Every trip was therefore a choice, and a struggle, and a small victory. Back at home, I began venturing outdoors every few weeks to share a distanced happy hour with my best friend on the patio of our favorite biergarten. Otherwise, I kept almost entirely to myself. Wash, rinse, repeat. We all have a variation on this tale, of course. I don’t ask you to humor mine because it is so emotionally rich or eloquently told, but just to help demonstrate that I took the lockdown and its consequences as seriously as I could, that any choices I made were done with care and deliberation, and that, just like you, I both wanted it to be over and was somehow convinced it never would be. 

Those were strange days indeed. 

But then the news became as official as it could be. The CDC announced their revised guidance in May, and the floodgates were immediately obliterated in the process of being thrown open. Behold overcorrection, ye mortals, and tremble. I’m still a relatively solitary creature, and yet so much heretofore unfathomable has happened to me in just the last two months. I attended a large, crowded outdoor gathering that had the decided feel of an open air festival in the cordoned off downtown of a nearby suburb and saw amongst the assembled throng a half dozen people I hadn’t glimpsed in well over a year. I’ve resumed our dormant trivia nights at the aforementioned biergarten, except indoors and already pushing seating capacity. I returned to my office for the sixth time in sixteen months yesterday to give a presentation to my new manager and a fellow team member, then joined them for an exquisite dinner out at an upscale restaurant where reservations were not just suggested but mandatory. I’m planning this weekend to see my first movie in the theater since Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island last February and host my first overnight visitor since last March. This weekend will also bring my first official concert since I saw The New Pornographers in Texas last February*…and above all else, our current state of what I’ll call “whiplash normalcy” is evidenced via the dramatic resurrection of my “Events” spreadsheet, since christened “Events (post-Covid)”, which has repopulated with the haste of a colony of wild rabbits and stands in stark and eerie similarity to its forebear. 

*How beautiful that trip was, by the way – the last (to date) of my series of weekend excursions to exotic (to me) ports of call for no other reason than to check out a new city solo and see a cool concert – and how foolishly I thought even then that it was just the beginning of something magical and sustainable. How reflexive the thought that the two people I saw on my flight wearing facemasks were insane. Now I see news of Covid variants running roughshod through undervaccinated areas, begin subconsciously removing destinations like Missouri and Florida and, sad to say, Texas from my checklist of available options, and wonder when I’ll ever travel for fun again. My American human sense of entitlement is at war with common sense, and eventually sense gets left out of the equation entirely. Traveling at all is a privilege, not a right. Pretty sure I’ll know when the proper time comes ‘round again.

Whiplash normalcy has boomeranged into a permanence I can feel in both my gut and my soul via the mass proliferation of line items in that spreadsheet – two new shows in bold font for every four in regular, and one in bold painted green on top of them all. Wash, rinse, repeat. So comically full is my calendar for the upcoming months – especially as late August bleeds into a September for the ages, followed by an early October formidable in its own right – that not only is it already as choked or more with above line activity as my archival “Events” spreadsheet ever was, including at the moment I preserved it in amber last April, but I’ve also subconsciously stopped taking new submissions. In realistic terms, there’s simply nowhere to put them. Sometimes I think of the man that quarantine helped me become – shuttered, tentative, less than healthy – and worry that I might already have overextended myself. Or it’s possible the real me has simply lain dormant lo these past seventeen months and requires a baptismal of righteous flame to fully awake and arise. I traveled to Brooklyn to see Bad Religion in 2019; I’m certainly not going to miss them in my hometown. Primus is performing Rush’s A Farewell to Kings in tribute to my fallen idol Neil Peart. I finagled a way to turn seeing The Dave Matthews Band for the literal umpteenth time into a weekend in Pittsburgh with a dear friend I haven’t seen in years. I never miss Southern Culture on the Skids when I have the chance, or Testament, or The Black Dahlia Murder, and, frankly, I’m not about to now either. I couldn’t let the chance to see my first live Steelers game since 2008 with my favorite two Steelers fans in tow pass me by. And getting a second chance after that horror show in crumbling, cramp-inducing downtown Detroit to see all-time top ten favorite band Faith No More for the first time feels like such a miracle that I’m motoring all the way to the state line on a school night for the privilege, without giving it a second thought.

All the hemming and the hawing, the wondering and the worrying, the agita and the anger, whether misplaced or sadly not (get your shot get your shot get your shot PLEASE if you’ve not), it falls away from and for me in the face of music. As it always has, and as I sincerely hope it always will. This Saturday, I see my most consistent partner in concert-going ever for the first time in sixteen months, and, appropriately enough, my first show as well…together. What a happy occasion; what a sunshine-soaked slice of sublimity. What an undeserved reward for merely keeping myself alive and intact as the world soured outside my bunker. But I know how lucky I am, and I’ll take it with humility and gratitude. Life will never quite be “normal” again. “Normal” life for me was pre-9/11; “New normal” life was pre-Covid. This is something else entirely. However much we might want it to be the same across the board, we’re chasing a moving target, and revering a memory with only a partial basis in reality. Vaccinated people can, until further notice, gather with people they love and trust with only a modicum of fear, and fear shrinks away to nothing in the face of music. Trust me. Nothing in my life has ever meant or likely will ever mean as much to me as music. It centers me, it enriches me, it renews me. Life may have changed, but some things never do. This is the hand I’ve been dealt, and, excessive or not, I’m going to play the hell out of it.  

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