Notes on Normal

She typified normal.

I was eating lunch with a relative I’d never met before at a sun-soaked lunch spot in Santa Monica, listening to her describe another relative I never knew.

“She just…that’s what she was to me! Normal!”

The woman I sat across from–slender, youthful, with close-cropped hair–is an academic; she thinks more than most about the nuances of language and feeling.

So it surprised me to hear her use that word–normal: one I tend to think of as rather empty. There’s no such thing as an objective “normal,” I thought–the word often slips out without harm, but also without meaning.

I told her that, and, as you’d expect, she replied with great attention and thought: over the course of our conversation, she modified her choice of adjective–we settled on “healthy”: this woman (the one being described) was comfortable in her skin, she was well-adjusted, she knew who she was.

A few hours–and a couple miles of neck-cramping LA traffic later–I lay falling asleep in Culver City; I was staying the night with an old friend of my oldest brother’s, one whose name I’ve long punctuated with the nostalgically prideful phrase, “my first crush!”

He’s married now, to a woman whom–for a multitude of unrelated reasons–I greatly admire; they have a precocious daughter, a spacious, smartly decorated home, and lovely guest room to which I retired feeling distinctly content: in part, for the recognition that I didn’t occupy a totally un-special place in my host’s memory (“You were one of the first babies I knew!”), and, in part, for having spent time in the company of a couple that felt–it was the first word that came to mind–so wonderfully, captivatingly normal.

I knew theirs–like any relationship–falls short of perfect. But watching them laugh together across a table of tacos and and margaritas and pibil, I sensed a striking functionality, a satisfaction, an ease.

And as I lay in their luxuriously-sized guest bed, pondering how terrifically normal their interactions seemed, it occurred to me that such marriages seem anything but: they are, perhaps, as uncommon as people so universally percieved as posessing the poise and confidence my relative had earlier described.

Again, I had confused the word’s meaning: conflating “normal” with a vision of something healthy, desirable. Was that, I wondered, how we sometimes use the word–as a projection of whatever is our own, subjective ideal?

Back in New York a few days later, I was in bed again (this time, my own), absorbed in a third (yes, third) reading of my friend Emily’s (brilliant) new book. There was that word again, in the middle of one of my favorite passages:

Do more, be skinnier, get richer, be famous (and then be even more famous), get a bigger house and a bigger car and a hotter girlfriend and a better life. Be better. When did having a good life mean living one that other people envied? Behind this drive to achieve lurks a deeper desire to be transformed. The standards for what is “normal” have become so formalized and yet so restrictive that people need a break from that horrible feeling of never being able to measure up to whatever it is they think will make them acceptable to other people and therefore to themselves. People get sick with this idea of change. I have been sick with it. We search for transformation in retreats, juice fasts, drugs and alcohol, obsessive exercise, extreme sports, sex. We are all trying to escape our existence, hoping that a better version of us is waiting just behind that promotion, that perfect relationship, that award or accolade, that musical performance, that dress size, that raucous night at a party, that hot night with a new lover. Everyone needs to be pursuing something, right? Otherwise, who are we?


Absorbing that passage, I thought about the gulf that often exists between reality and perception, between the external and inside: how little my idea of that marriage probably has to do with the thing itself; how different that relative’s perception of the other’s disposition may have been from how she, herself, felt.

And how, when we define something or someone else as normal, it’s another way of reinforcing that persistent faith that who or what we are can’t ever be enough.

We often think that the negative connotation of normal is “ordinary” or “typical” or “dull.”┬áBut I wonder, too, if what we think of as the “positive” meaning isn’t toxic, too: if we often reach for it, as I did, to invoke an aspiration, an ideal, an image of a person or thing–one that says much less about what’s truly “normal” than it does about ourselves.