The Last Normal Day:
Part 1 by Samantha Irby
Part 2 Zaron Burnett III
Part 3 by Luke O’Neil
Parts 4-5 by Chris A. Smith and Shane Ferro
Part 6 by Kim Kelly
Part 7 by Julieanne Smolinski
Part 8 by Josh Gondelman
Part 9 by Jeb Lund
Part 10 Joe Keohane
Rising before dawn like a farmer or a Wahlberg
In 2016 when Donald Trump was elected, I was working as a writer at Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. In a scathing segment delivered the Sunday after the election, the titular Oliver affirmed: “This is not normal.” And he was right. It wasn’t. It wasn’t normal to have a president whose enthusiasm for racism bordered on sexual arousal, whose only previous experience in politics was to jerk forcefully on the levers of power until they spit out a result that pleased him. It’s true that Trump is a symptom of a flawed system, and that he himself is not the disease, but his ascent to the presidency felt like a new symptom, a mutation in the virus. It was scary, and it was bleak, and it was definitely not normal.
Until it was.
It’s not that Donald Trump became “more presidential,” as a bunch of dorks hypothesized he might, with the same detachment from reality it would take for me to posit that at age 35 I was on the precipice of growing eight inches, developing a killer jump shot, and signing with the Boston Celtics. (Although honestly there’s an outside chance I could scam a league minimum contract out of the Knicks at my current size and age.) Trump remained stupid and malicious, his presidency animated primarily by the joy of exercising his power to hurt his enemies (people of color, the poor, the Earth itself), and secondarily by his newfound ability to enrich himself, and a small enclave of other already-rich dicks. I understand if you quibble with my rankings here, but those are definitely his first and second priorities, in one order or the other.
What changed was that Trump’s avarice and incuriosity and a variety of the other seven deadly sins lost the ability to surprise. His actions kept hurting people, of course. I imagine that ability to inflict pain is what kept him showing up to work at all. But it was no longer weird to have a Commander in Chief who allegedly referred to dead troops as “losers” and “suckers.” It was horrifying but not shocking the way he downplayed a pandemic because he didn’t care if anyone with a different last name than he has lives or dies, and may not even believe those people continue to exist when he closes his eyes. It’s horrible, and at this point it’s completely quotidian.
Much like the Trump presidency, the COVID-19 pandemic itself at first felt terrible and jarring, and then felt terrible and regular. For a while it was weird to walk around my neighborhood in Brooklyn, with all or most of my neighbors wearing protective face masks. It was unsettling to work from home and socialize exclusively in small nervous groups outdoors. The covid-related death tolls printed in the newspaper felt unfathomable. But now they don’t. We have, through repetition, learned to fathom them. This is just how things will be for the foreseeable future. Trump and the coronavirus bring daily harm and death to countless people the world over, and it’s totally normal, and it sucks shit. Eventually, as terrible as a situation may be, it has to feel like the status quo, because the human body does not produce enough adrenaline to behave otherwise.
Several times, during April and May of this year, I went weeks in a row without going outside in daylight. Unsure of whether a trip to the corner store would put my life (and, even worse, my wife’s life) in jeopardy, I holed up at home, ordered groceries and takeout, and tipped like a dying man who had alienated his whole family by prioritizing his newspaper empire or oil refinery or whatever. My wife took daily walks to the Brooklyn waterfront for her physical and mental health, while I threw myself into working from home, lingering in bed until I needed to log into Zoom meetings, cooking dinner as soon as I finished work for the day, and spending the evenings watching Netflix.
Now it’s late October of 2020, and life is pretty much normal. That’s not to say it’s good; so much of living through this year has been scary and sad and painful. It’s just no longer weird. I’m used to staying in my apartment for 23-plus hours a day like some kind of eccentric poet and wearing a protective face mask on the rare occasions when I leave. I’ve grown acclimated to having a president who governs for the applause of people he’d rarely choose to get close enough to to spit on (even if it was safe for him), and for the financial benefit of several thousand wealthy old ghouls desperate to extract as much value from the working class as possible for as long as science can stop nature from flushing their screaming souls straight to hell.
These conditions still ruin large swaths of time every day of my life (which pales in comparison to the ways others have had to contend with the realities of contemporary existence), but I no longer find them unusual or disorienting.
The part of my day to day life that still feels surreal is my dog’s sleep schedule. Thanks to Bizzy, my elderly pug, the horror of reality is compounded by a dog-whim-based exhaustion, rendering the world even more incoherent. I can’t quite pinpoint it, but the last normal night’s sleep (and subsequent normal day) of my life specifically took place sometime around June 2019.
Since then, every night, usually between 2 and 3, Bizzy awakens, stretches, and sneezes loudly to wake me and my wife up. At first I play dead, hoping that she will realize it’s still the middle of the night and fall back to sleep. Sometimes this gambit buys me another hour, but even then I often lie rigid and alert, too tense to pass out again myself. Most nights I fail to outsmart a thirteen-year-old animal with a brain the size of a gum ball, and she continues sneezing until I dump myself out of bed to do her bidding.
“Okay, fine,” I say, groping for a pair of socks. I get dressed in the living room to avoid waking up my wife and carry Bizzy down the stairs from our second floor walkup so she can relieve herself a few dozen yards from our front door. She then bolts back up the stairs under her own power and yips at me until I give her breakfast. My wife gets up to pee (indoors) and then deposits the pug back into bed, where they both fall back to sleep. On my best nights, I close my eyes right away too. On most nights, I scroll through my Twitter and Instagram timelines and exchange occasional texts with friends in different time zones. When it’s 3 am in New York it’s only midnight in LA, and it’s already 8 in the morning in London, after all.
“I will give you $100 if you sleep through the night,” I begged my dog on one desperate evening. I know that my money means nothing to her (because she’s a dog, not because she’s somehow independently wealthy), but I had to try something. After four years of assiduous and imperturbable slumber, her body has decided NO MORE OF THAT, THANK YOU VERY MUCH. And it’s my problem much more than it is hers.
Because my wife falls back to sleep faster than I do, and because she is nervous about walking alone with a dog late at night, the late/early walk has become one of my household chores. I’ve grown resigned to it, but not used to it. Bizzy doesn’t care if I was up until 1 in the morning watching a west coast basketball game or if I’m still drunk from the previous evening. She will demand breakfast at 3 regardless. And because I refuse to adjust to her schedule, implementing a 9 pm bedtime or rising before dawn like a farmer or a Wahlberg, every day is just kind of extra bad now.
This has been going on for more than a year. I wake up tired every morning now, bleary and unsatisfied with the previous night’s rest. Bizzy was 8 when we got her, and this issue started at age 12, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to get better. People with kids hate when childless people say their pet is like a baby. In this case though, no offense, but I think the comparison holds. Except it’s worse than having a baby actually, because babies grow up. Elderly pugs never get less elderly until…you know. And I don’t want to consider that reality. So I am cursed to shuffle the streets of Brooklyn into the indefinite and unthinkable future, subservient to a tiny master who eats her own shed hair.
When we go out that late, I carry a face mask in my pocket, but I only put it on when I encounter someone on the street, which rarely happens. On most of these walks, the shitty New York City nights don’t feel like 2020. My only immediate fear at that hour comes from the neighborhood’s small but ambitious rat population. Unsure of which daily interactions were safe and which were potentially lethal, I felt (and still feel) most secure leaving the apartment to spend time on the barren 3 am streets, grumbling encouragement while I waited for an adorable affront to evolution to poop. My sense of normalcy was made possible by becoming partially nocturnal, which is weird in and of itself.
There are, of course, many worse things in the world than having to walk a dog late at night, but I’ve gotten used to them by now. I am very fortunate that the worst things happening in America do not endanger me bodily on an average day. And because of that I have, for lack of a better word normalized them. I protest and I donate money and I fight with strangers on the internet, and all of that has been assimilated into how my brain understands how the world works on an average day.
Just because something is normal doesn’t mean that we should accept that it will always be that way. In fact I think sometimes the hardest work is to change the things we think of as regular. And sometimes the things that feel perpetually out of sync are the things we have to learn to live with.
So every day I try to make things a little better in the outside world, and every night I go to sleep quietly wishing, or vocally begging for things to improve within my home, for the iron paw with which my 24-pound dog rules my life to unclench from my throat. And every night I wake up freshly disoriented by a tiny, demanding sneeze. There’s nothing to be done to change things. No petition I can sign. No door-to-door canvassing operation I can volunteer for. Bizzy herself doesn’t listen to reason (because she’s a dog, not because she’s especially unreasonable), and as long as she lives, there will never be normal again. This is not normal. And I can’t believe it ever will be.
Josh Gondelman is a writer and producer for Desus & Mero on Showtime, an Emmy-winning writer for Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and the author of Nice Try: Stories of Best Intentions and Mixed Results.