Friday, January 18, 2013

Abby Normal

What's normal?

Ask anyone who's lived or traveled away from home for a spell and, as much as she may have enjoyed her time, she'll probably admit that there is something very comforting about returning to one's own culture where the rules and language are a given. This can be true for cultures in distant lands, and it can be equally true for a culture a mere fifty miles away from your front doorstep. Ryan and I trek to Pennsylvania each December and I love our time there. But there is an undeniable thrill in seeing the familiar green Massachusetts Turnpike signs and other visual markers announce that we are almost home. My favorite stations reemerge on the radio. Even the obnoxious Boston drivers are somehow endearing. Our wonderful known world comes back into focus.

Life has so many forced surprises in store for each of us, that framing our lives in "normal" gives us a wonderful sense of stability. It's an anchor that keeps us safely tethered in a world that manages to occasionally make us feel blown off course.

Like everyone, I have my normal, and I love it. It might be a bit bland for some, but it makes me happy. One example: I can read all day. Get me hooked on a good author, and I'll snuggle in bed with a tank of coffee and some salted dark chocolate, completely content. (The Sookie Stackhouse series is my current drug of choice.) That might be torture to someone else whose normal is training for a triathalon. But it makes my little world lovely.

Another cornerstone of my normal is going to the movies. I can go by myself, with one friend, or with eight. Just as long as I have my homemade berbere popcorn and a cherry Coke (it's my one naughty movie allowance and one of the few occasions when I crave soda.) I'm completely sold into the movie producer's vision. You know the AMC thing they show after the trailers with the two gals and the guy watching the movie? The one where all the seats start turning into plants and stuff as they stare at the movie screen, smiling as only models can and sipping their sodas in a sweet yet sexy way? That's me, minus the sexy part. (I'm the one enveloped in cozy clothes with spilled pieces of popcorn in her lap.) I disappear blissfully into the movie's world. It's heaven.

Occasionally we all veer off slightly from our normal and try something different. A new restaurant. An undiscovered road to walk or run on. I recently started taking art classes again, which was initially intimidating. But like all small changes, it quickly got absorbed into my slow evolution of normal. Small changes to our normal are whimsical and nonthreatening.

Normal has its dark side, though. It can hypnotize us from seeing what we'd rather not see. We get so wrapped up in our view of the world, that we often fail to connect the dots because our normal creates a rather comfortable haze around us.

For years I viewed veganism as decidedly "abby normal," to quote Mel Brooks. It was extreme. It didn't jive with what I'd been taught. Vegetarianism was cute and acceptable. But veganism? Egads.

Besides, the animal cruelty couldn't be that bad, could it? After all, my parents ate animal products and they taught me so much about being kind and fair to everyone. I have a vivid memory of my father trying to dissuade my younger brother from buying Nike sneakers because he'd heard the company used child labor to make the shoes. He lost that particular battle, but his words stayed with me. My paternal grandparents were phenomenal humanitarians and early environmentalists. When I'd sleep over, we'd take early morning walks in the woods behind their house, always with a plastic bag in hand to pick up trash. Gramma taught me to cut the plastic 6-pack soda and beer holders into small pieces, lest a creature get strangled in the plastic rings. She also scolded me once when I was nine or so when I shared with her how I'd learned to fish during a camping trip. "But I throw them back in the water!" I explained. She emphatically asked, "Well how would you like it if someone stuck a long hook through your mouth?" And yet she enjoyed the occasional dinner of fish, a thought that did not enter my mind until recently. My mother would care for wounded animals that got hurt in our yard, as did my father. And friends and family were equally thoughtful and kind. I was surrounded by wonderful examples of compassion.

But we all ate meat and eggs, wore leather, and drank milk. It was never presented as a choice, really. We all just did this. It was normal.

Flip that coin, though, and see the results of this normal from the animals' perspective? Quite a different story. And though I may be wrong about this, I believe that if these same lovely people saw and heard what happens to the animals used for these products, their reactions would be similar to my own. If they actually saw the journey of the cattle in India and China and what workers will do to a collapsed animal to get it back on its feet on its way to slaughter. If they saw the harvesting of the leather and realized that, dear God, that animal is still alive. If they saw what people did to those cute male chicks in hatcheries, the same ones we go gaga over in Easter commercials. If they saw animals destined for "humane slaughter," legs roped together and their bodies shaking from fear so badly that the sides of the pickup truck they are lying in rattle. How could any of us possibly support it once we knew? Once we saw? Once we heard?

And this is why we resist learning what happens. Why so many of us (me included) have said, "I can't bear to know," as we eat our bacon. We know, deep inside, that we couldn't support it. And that we'd have to divorce ourselves from our normal and be cast adrift from our beloved anchor.

The initial challenges of such break from normal are twofold.

One: The people in your life your hold dear may try to coax you back to normal, no matter how diplomatic you try to be. They may try to reason with you, debate with you, scare you, even roll their eyes at you. But, most fascinating, all but a rare few will not want to hear a word of what happens to the animals. Because it will threaten their normal. And nobody wants their normal threatened. I speak from experience because, while I never disagreed with people about animal rights, I was your classic example of "don't tell me." I knew that knowing the truth would be a game changer.

Two: While small changes are fun and playful, a large paradigm shift in one's normal is very intimidating. Cooking without animal products seems loony at first. It's a complete upheaval of so many dimensions of our lives. We worry about the health consequences. Losing our anchor is unsettling to say the least.

But here's what I discovered. I didn't go adrift. I still had the anchor. I had just pulled it up into the boat and then cast the sails to explore new ports. It was, in fact, actually kind of fun! The food I was trying out was surprisingly tasty. Sure there were some culinary disasters, but that had happened plenty of times when I ate animal products. We used WAY less trash, as most of our refuse went into the compost. And what did go into the trash didn't rot or smell. After a while and some experimentation the food got -- damn -- really good.

The salty old harbor I had long anchored in paled in comparison to the new places I was exploring. And there was an unexpected beauty to creating a new normal. A normal that finally matched the Golden Rule touted by so many.  Only a month after going vegan, I found it laughable that I'd ever considered it a big deal. My old normal seemed kind of pathetic and out of date. It smelled of mothballs. I loved my new normal.

In Young Frankenstein, Igor picked the abnormal (abby normal) brain by accident. But the resulting person ended up being a pretty cool guy. (And pretty good in the sack, if you remember Madeline Kahn's reaction to his overtures ...)

Because when you get down to it, normal is not all it's cracked up to be. Abby normal can be cooler. Healthier. More fun. And way more in line with your own ideas of what kindness and empathy really mean. 

Pull up the anchor. See what happens.

I triple dog dare you.


What are some fun sides of your normal?

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