The Normals

The United States of America has often been called “the melting pot.” Our population tends to end up blended into one swirling mass, not quite homogeneous (like Sweden) but still mostly American, mostly English-speaking. In that pot we find over thirty-seven significant ancestry groups, with five making up most of the country. While English is the common language, there are well over thirty languages spoken routinely (if you count Alaskan Native languages).

So what is normal?

The other night we hosted a pair of couples, good friends, for a pot of fifteen-bean soup (talk about a melting pot!) to welcome in the new year. One couple was from way up north, Yankees as we say around here, and the other couple was from way down south. As for us, I am from California and Diana is from right here. Our education varied dramatically, from just high school to multiple college degrees. As for careers: engineering, teaching, sales, administration, made up the lot. Faith ranged from Protestant to Catholic to agnostic. I would have called us a typical gathering of middle-class Americans. Normal, even.

And then the stories started flowing.

I was stunned to find out how different childhood was for each of us. As stories of abuse, neglect, divorce, lack, single parenting, and all sorts of other challenges surfaced (remember, we all grew up a half-century or more ago) I realized how outside the mainstream, at least in this little group, I was. Or at least my perception of my childhood.

I was a normal.

I saw my life in black & white, with Ward and June Cleaver as my role models. A dad in a suit with briefcase headed to work every day, a mom at home to make sure my belly was full, hair combed, clothes washed. A street with sidewalks and white picket fences, where we ran and rode bikes and played ball, with our jeans rolled up and our sneakers scuffed. Thanksgiving at grandma’s house, Christmas with all the trimmings, church on Sunday. The television’s wholesome programs, the neighbors all waving, the newspaper thrown to the porch by a boy on a bike.

Of course, that isn’t all true. I grew up as an Army brat, traveling to and fro, always living either on base in government quarters or in a rental house in town. I ended up tallying eighteen street addresses by my eighteenth birthday, ranging from my birthplace in California to Germany, where I spent nearly half of my childhood. But still, wherever I went I saw normal, I expected normal, I was normal.

Until my dad retired from the Army and we settled down in the civilian world. Oh, I still had my dad going to work and my mom at home making sure I was cared for. But I finally started to see that things weren’t so black & white as I had thought. Suddenly I knew kids from single parent homes, amazingly I knew latch-key kids who seemed to live life free of parental influence. I found out that some kids were poor, and others were quite well-off. For the first time in my young life I saw racial disparity and found out that everybody didn’t shine their little black shoes, slick back their hair, and head off to church on Sunday. As a matter of fact, our family no longer did that either.

I discovered that not only was I not normal, but that maybe there was no such thing as The Normals.

A slight detour – I own a pair of expensive speakers made by the famous American company JBL. Except they are a Korean owned company now, and the speakers were made in Indonesia. Which sent me off to find out just what this little country was all about.

I found out that Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world – who knew? It is comprised of an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands, basically a series of little volcanic dots on a map of the Pacific Ocean. But here’s where it gets interesting. Indonesia is made up of well over 1,300 ethnic groups, speaking over 700 languages! Most of them go to Mosque, not church, most of them earn a living. I’m not sure how many have picket fences are there, but I think if ever there was a “melting pot” this must be it. Somehow a country with hundreds of cultures has become prosperous, an economic power so reliable that they build exotic speakers for this American audiophile.

I think we are going to need a bigger normal.

My high school social studies teacher, Mr. O’Shea, a retired Marine, was a good teacher because he made his subject interesting and real. He said one of the most profound things I ever heard in school: “If you don’t make a conscious effort to change, you will raise your kids exactly as you were raised.” I didn’t understand that maybe he was speaking to a poor upbringing or addressing the abuse and neglect that surely existed in his class, but being a Normal, I took this as good news. I liked my life, so I would just duplicate it.

So I did.

Without going into all the ways my life did not mirror my parents, the fruit of my pursuit of normal is four children, all normal as they can be.

There’s our oldest, Jeremy, who was six when I married his mother. I adopted him so he would fit the mold, and he had all the advantages of my childhood. He could have been a Cleaver. He joined the Air Force, got married, had a kid, got divorced, got married again (to a fine woman from Ecuador), had two more kids. He goes to work every day to support his blended family. That’s his normal.

Our oldest daughter Jennifer had the benefit of Mr. O’Shea and his parenting advice too. She left high school, headed to college, graduated, got married to a good man, went back to college. Had a child, who she takes care of while working from home. Her husband carries a briefcase to work. They go to church. That’s her normal.

Jamie was third in line and, as my mom used to say, she “marched to the beat of a different drummer.” As soon as high school was done, she headed off to the Navy, did interesting and crazy things, got out and went to college, ultimately earning the honor of Doctor of Physical Therapy. Oh, and she married a lovely woman from Canada, a doctor herself. Maybe not quite the Cleavers, but that’s her normal.

The baby of the family, John, stumbled through college, finally finding his way in the culinary world. He does not carry a briefcase, and his wonderful wife goes to work with him (literally, to the same company). They just bought a house in a nice little neighborhood and are expecting their first child who, in true Cleaver fashion, is going to be called June. That’s his normal.

Lots of variations on normal, for sure.

As we wrapped up our evening with our not-so-normal but oh-so-normal friends, I was challenged once again to review my view of normal. My idyllic normal is not their normal, it’s not my kid’s normal, it’s not the average (if there is such a thing) Indonesian’s normal. To paraphrase Forrest Gump, “Normal is as normal does.”

I guess what I’m trying to say is there are lots of normal. My normal can never be your normal, and yours cannot be mine. As long as your normal doesn’t interfere with my normal, we can all get together and eat, drink, laugh. And be normal.

I intend to keep on being normal – it has worked well for me all these years. But I will allow room in my black & white, picket-fence, Wally and the Beave normal for you. And your normal.

Because, as it turns out, we are all The Normals.

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