As a kid, one of the many secrets I trusted that adulthood would eventually reveal was what it meant to be “regular.”
On “Father Knows Best,” “Leave it to Beaver,” and “The Donna Reed Show” I’d see commercials for a product I can’t recall (perhaps Milk of Magnesia, with its implication that a laxative was as ordinary and wholesome as a frothy glass of milk?) and wonder how this promised “regularity” was different from the life that my parents and brother and I were already living.
The shows themselves raised similar questions. The suburban homes in which the action unfolded didn’t look too different from our split-level in Montreal. The fathers in both shows went to work in a suit and tie every day. The mothers didn’t work outside the home. The kids in the neighborhood played and squabbled and had adventures together. Check, check, check — at first glance, these half-hour family comedies reflected the norms in my family’s 1960 social circle.
And yet there was little in them that I recognized. The fathers were uniformly stern or clueless, nothing like the embarrassing, loving, and sometimes distracted dads who populated my life. The mothers wore aprons, baked cakes and were perfectly happy all the time. Nope, not mine. And even then, the moral crises that anchored every show — scooping the icing off the cake with a fingertip, telling a fib about how the dog escaped the house, even playing hooky from school — paled next to those discussed at our cakeless dinner table. There was no Civil Rights movement, no illness, no death, no divorce, no genocide, no poverty, no unhappiness at all on these shows, just the occasional bout of consternation or disappointment. In the on-screen world, life was ordinary and above all, predictable.
Still, as a television-loving child, I just assumed that what I saw was real, that one day when I was older, our family would become like The Beav’s, would magically turn regular.
What happens over and over again is the self-deluding belief that unbridled repression can’t happen here, even though we’re seeing it unfold nightly in Ukraine.
Now, as governments repeal their mask mandates, offices re-open, and politicians and pundits alike gear up for the midterm elections within an increasingly lunatic environment, and the horror unfolding in Ukraine is even momentarily taking a back seat to news of Tom Brady’s return to the Buccaneers, I’m once again wondering about the meaning of “regular.”
Oxford describes it as “something that is standard, orderly,” kind of like the transfer of political power is supposed to be. According to dictionary.com, regular means “evenly or uniformly arranged,” perhaps like the original versus the gerrymandered vision of Congressional districts. Yourdictionary.com says that it is “something that is done habitually” — a routinized behavior, like, for example, hoping that kindness and civility will prevail. Merriam-Webster describes it as “happening over and over again at the same time or in the same way,” much like the disappointment that sadly often follows the hoping.
Like everyone I know, I’m nostalgic for a resumption of structure and rhythm to my days and a routine that I (and not a pandemic) can giddily disrupt. But perhaps it’s better to acknowledge that the stability of a “regular life” has always been elusive, no more real than the bliss Donna Reed and Mrs. Cleaver apparently derived from dusting all day. The working and nonworking poor have always lived a precarious, hand-to-mouth life. People of color have always been subject to different rules than white people. Judges and courts never wholly refrained from legislating from the bench. Greed and the self-interest of a tiny elite have usually succeeded in suppressing large changes for the greater good.
My childhood faith in achieving what’s “regular” was ill-informed. And I’m starting to embrace the notion that it may also be undesirable.
If that’s regular, I don’t want it.
After all, what has been standard is more talk than action about climate change, gun violence, and income inequality. What’s predictable is ever more mendacity and extremism, particularly from the right. What happens over and over again is the self-deluding belief that unbridled repression can’t happen here, even though we’re seeing it unfold nightly in Ukraine.
If that’s regular, I don’t want it. Nor do I want to be a regular — someone who repeats her customary behaviors, whether that’s getting takeout from the same restaurant every Sunday night, reading the same handful of authors over and over again, or writing 50 postcards to prospective voters, then leaving it to someone else to keep democracy intact.
If The Beav can learn responsibility by having a newspaper route, if Mary, the daughter on The Donna Reed Show could learn how to nab a boyfriend by acting dumb, then maybe I can learn — or more accurately, remember — how to disrupt the status quo long enough to effect the change we need.
But I won’t learn it by watching television — not even MSNBC. It’ll be by joining my grandchildren’s generation in climate protest, in aligning with my generational peers in relentlessly countering voter suppression. It will be by fiercely, joyfully abandoning the regular.