Monday, March 9, 2020

In Defense of Normalcy

"I survived a shark attack."

Those were the five words that kept me off of a game show.

Let me back up here.  The reason I was trying to get on a game show is because it would make a good story and seemed like a neat thing to do.  You know how every week, Homer gets a new job?  Astronaut, carnival barker, restaurant critic, Olympic athlete, professional Easter Bunny, whatever?  I like that.  I like the idea of living my life in a wildly non-linear but always fascinating way, and that's why I've taken many of the jobs I have (including, and this is all true, horse jockey, wildlife rehabilitator, and orderly at an insane asylum).  I like to imagine my life as a cheeky sitcom, and I strive to live up to cheeky sitcom standards.

You know, living a life free of consequence where everything wraps itself up neatly within 30 minutes.

So when I saw there was an open call for game show contestants, my immediate thought was, "This will make a nice episode."

I don't remember the name of the show but that doesn't really matter.  It was a word-guessing game, similar to Taboo, a game where you had to use a short number of words to parse out a phrase.  I'm generally great at such games.  I felt like this was an easy, easy sell.
I'm a very stable genius.

I arrived to a studio among about a hundred people, all game show contestants hopefuls living out their own personal sitcommy fantasies.  We were told that the first step was simply a round of introductions, designed to narrow down the candidates.  This was a chance for us to demonstrate that we were personable, screen-ready, and most importantly, interesting.

I have my whole life been interesting, if not downright weird, and have taken pride in this.  In fact, when I was three or four, I was "interesting" for Halloween.  (The costume for "interesting" was, frustratingly, often confused for a clown.  In fairness I was wearing a lot of mismatched and brightly colored clothes and had done my own makeup.)

Beetlejuice was unironically one of my FAVORITE movies as a kid.

We were separated into groups of about ten and told that we had to, in ten words or less, say the most interesting thing about ourselves.  This isn't a small task, even if you're an interesting person.  Distilling your interesting-ness into ten words is a hell of a task.  But still, I wasn't worried.

Not until the jackass who went first said those five fateful words.

"I survived a shark attack."

Panic hit me, like a hammerhead assailing a life raft floating alone in the ocean.  It was over, and I knew it.  How do you beat that?

 By staying on land, where the only thing you have to worry about are bears, serial killers, and Africanized bees.

The guy who had been attacked by a shark was an incredibly affable guy, and the lady interviewing our group of ten took immediate interest in him.  She wanted to know the details of his shark attack story, and he was more than happy to oblige.  As he told us about the shark biting his leg, he ate up the group's time, like a shark eating up the flesh from his tender, unarmed leg.  But it didn't matter; we knew we were beat.  The rest of us had mere seconds and we mumbled out our pathetic items of interest, hyper-aware that nothing was as interesting as surviving a shark attack.

I was so angry at this man for surviving a shark attack, and it haunts me to this day.  I keep replaying it in my head.  Is there something I could say something as interesting and succinctly as "I survived a shark attack?"  No.  This guy nailed it.

This all came back to me recently when a friend of mine stepped on a jellyfish.  My immediate reaction was disappointment.  Why couldn't I be so lucky as to step on a jellyfish?  It was the aftershock of the shark attack disappointment, a moment in my life that I realize affected me on a deep and personal level.  It shook me and challenged me and, frankly, worried me.  Not unlike a goddamn shark attack.

Since that day I've found myself periodically circling back to the topic of being interesting, like a group of sharks circling a future game show contestant.

Am I interesting?  I like to think so, but doesn't everyone?

Recently I found myself strolling through a residential neighborhood in Los Angeles on a beautiful spring day, pushing a baby stroller, on my way to the post office.  I had an out-of-body experience, looking at myself.  I was normal.  I was possibly even boring.  When had that happened?  Yet - and this is key - I was happy.

All too often, normalcy is equating with stagnation.  People who are normal and boring are people who aren't growing, who are pathetic because of what feels like complacency for a mediocre life.

 Exhibit A.

In fact, I recently told this shark story to someone in one of my classes, and it prompted a second existential crisis in my classmate, who, like me, immediately began grabbing wildly for a response.  The statement "I survived a shark attack" begs the question: has anything so interesting ever happened to me?  If not, why not?  Is there something wrong with me?  Am I not good enough to be attacked by a shark?  Even if something remarkable has happened to me, is it something I am capable of distilling into five titillating words?

Hearing someone else announce that they have survived a shark attack creates a terrible anguish in people like me, people who want to be interesting.  It makes you feel small, and normal, like your best shark-attack years are behind you.  Like you've peaked.

But does normalcy have to be mutually exclusive with growth?  I feel that I have, in my life of weirdness, subscribed to a false binary: that one is either normal and tedious and dull, or they are wild and interesting.  But perhaps there are other options here, ones less common but nonetheless accessible: to be normal while also being interesting, to be grounded without stagnation, to be mature without ending up in a rut.

And isn't it a terrible burden to suggest that one must either live their life hard and fast and unrestrained, or fall into dull, depressing obscurity?

People are complex and so are our lives.  Perhaps not everything need be interesting to be worthwhile.  Perhaps there's a balance, and in the course of our lifetimes, a fully realized human being can take some enjoyment both from strolling to the post office on a fine spring day and also from getting attacked by a shark.  Perhaps we should be less disparaging of the people who live quiet lives, people who may never be attacked by sharks or get on game shows, but who still manage not to make the world a worse place.  There's something there, something good, if not necessarily bold or remarkable.  "Normal" need not be "shallow," and we shouldn't be so dismissive of it.

I didn't get on the game show.  And... that's okay.  I still might be attacked by a shark some day, Inshallah, but if I don't, I'm not going to lose sleep over it.  What I am is enough.

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