New Normal

We are driving through the ample forests of Gulf County, Florida, toward the beach. There are parts of this drive so serene and tree-laden that it will make you smile for no apparent reason.

The longleaf pines are still recovering from Hurricane Michael. Many are bent at diagonal angles like they’re ready for a nap.

You should have seen this place a few years ago. It was buried in a buffet of debris. They’ve made a lot of progress.

There was a time when all I did was drive. I lived on the road. Slept on the road. Ate on the road. It was the life of a writer. And I loved it because I’d always wanted to try the writer’s life on for size.

I had already lived the life of a sheet-rocker, a bar musician, a busboy, a telemarketer, an Elvis impersonating termite exterminator, etc. Being a real journalist was the stuff of dreams.

My first boyhood aspirations were to be a newspaperman, roaming the landscape with a steno pad, looking for stories and “hot leads.”

When my mother gave me my first typewriter, the die was cast. I started walking around wearing my father’s crumpled fedora with a white card in the band that read “PRESS.”

“Got any hot leads?” I would ask elderly Mrs. Simpson, who was watering her rose garden.

“I used to,” she’d say. “But after I started having kids, men quit noticing them.”

And as it turned out, being a writer on the road was great. I drifted like a feather caught in the gusts of I-65 traffic. Never touching the ground. Always floating from Alabama to Georgia to Tennessee to Wherever. Searching for hot leads.

You learn to live out of bags with wheels on them. You learn to hate airports. You do your laundry in hotel sinks and iron your pants by placing them beneath a hotel mattress. You live on food that comes from hotel kitchens which tastes like extra-firm hair gel.

You get pretty good at taking naps in the passenger seat while your wife drives the rental car to some podunk town where you’re supposed to give a speech for the Rotary Club. Or maybe it’s the Moose Lodge. Or the VFW. You can’t quite remember.

Maybe you’ve been roped into calling bingo numbers at the Sleepy Senile Retirement Facility. You’re good at calling bingo.

Either way, the pandemic ended all that. The old life is over now. The travel. The hotel gruel. The ceaseless nights of parties laced with loud music and casual bingo.

At first this new normal didn’t settle with me. It was like I’d lost my job. Which, of course, I had. I’d been fired. I was grounded. Wingless. Dead in the pond. Sorry, Charlie. No more hot leads.

Then life got a little sadder because over the following months I learned how nonessential my occupation truly was. Which turned out to be a good thing.

Every man learns he’s replaceable sooner or later. And it’s a valuable lesson. You can get so involved with your own tiny world that you start to think YOUR world is the most important. It’s not.

In your private delusional universe you’re the leading actor in your own made-for-TV drama. But it’s all a sham. In life’s proverbial made-for-TV drama you are in fact the guy who cleans the movie-set porta pots for Henry Winkler.

Once you learn how nonessential you really are, it’s actually a lot of fun. You feel less pressure. You realize that the Moose Lodge will survive without you. The elderly people at Bedpan Alley Retirement Villas can do bingo without you. Everything will be okay.

So something shifted inside me. Our lives took on a different pace. And after I pouted about it for months and months (and months) and months, I finally settled into its sluggish rhythms.

The first thing that happened was my wife and I quit watching so much TV, we started reading more, and exercising. We even started eating more vegetables, too. Which means I’m now consuming lots of fiber. Which has always been my mother’s highest aspiration for me.

When I was a boy, my mother used to have a morbid fascination with whether I was “going” regularly. She would often ask personal digestive questions in front of my friends. “How is your tummy?” she’d ask. “Do you need to ‘go-go?’” If my mother would have been born a superhero, she would have been the vigilante who crusades against constipation.

What I’m getting at here is that I slowed down when the pandemic hit. I finally realized how ragged I’d been running myself. I had no idea how hard I’d been going. How much I’d been traveling. How little sleep I’d been getting.

Why is it that we’re the last people to see what we’re doing to ourselves?

Ah, but it feels so nice to be in the warm lap of Gulf County once again. Traveling. Roaming like we used to. Just for leisure.

I see the long patches of desolate highway and the tilted hurricane pines. I can’t get enough of these palmettos, the large-leaf grass, prairie foxgloves, lemon beebalms, and the goldenrod.

I’ve changed. I’m not the same guy I was last year. Something inside me is different. Something in my head has been altered. Maybe I’m better for it. I wasn’t sure I’d make it when this pandemic started. Now I see how silly that was. I’m making it. I can still call a mean bingo game. I’m still looking for hot leads.

And you wouldn’t believe how much fiber I’m eating.

36 comments

  1. Michael Reese - October 24, 2020 8:19 am

    Sean, I like your brain, and the way you write.

    Reply
  2. Steve Winfield (Lifer) - October 24, 2020 9:04 am

    If only I’d had a mom. It’s possible I wouldn’t have been constipated for the last 30 years.

    Reply
  3. Patricia Harris - October 24, 2020 9:21 am

    Sean, your words are music. I also had a reset from years of sales life, airplanes, dawn drives to places I’d never been and had no time to “see” in the crazy business I was in. The pandemic made me slow down and enjoy almost my childhood life. When you could throw on shorts snd a T shirt and run out and play in my cloistered backyard. Build a blanket fort over the picnic table. No phone, no pressure. It’s a beautiful life.

    Reply
  4. Pastor - October 24, 2020 11:14 am

    I wish I had your wisdom before all this pandemic hit. I have been running faster, doing more, and working harder than ever. It is difficult to keep a congregation together (when you can’t have in person worship or meetings) as a pastor, and as a NEW pastor with only 8 weeks under the belt before it all hit. I’m tired a lot of the time and grumpy — some might say that is nothing new but hey I try. Thanks for sharing your way through. It’s good to know others have this.

    Reply
  5. Suzanne - October 24, 2020 12:24 pm

    Actually, for many of us, you will never be nonessential. Thank you.

    Reply
  6. Margaret W Jones - October 24, 2020 12:46 pm

    Thank you for writing this daily “column.” Reading it has helped me get through this new “normal.”

    Reply
  7. Valerie - October 24, 2020 1:12 pm

    Haha, good one. Makes sense for a youngster like yourself. For an old retired lady (who finally lives in the hollers of the East Tennessee mountains) not much has changed. We still have lots of food stored up, and the garden is offering its last for the season. I am planning seedlings for the winter greenhouse, and little chores around the place crop up and are dispatched daily. Whoopi do, huh?

    Reply
  8. peggy hartley - October 24, 2020 1:32 pm

    Please don’t call any town a podunk town.

    Reply
  9. Steve - October 24, 2020 1:37 pm

    Everyone has changed from this period in our lives. But not all has been for naught. Last night I took a cheap, wood fired pizza oven, which I can’t seem to make work as a pizza oven, and put it on a landscaped wall, pulled up alongside a table and living room lamp. We grilled chicken, played upwards, and read our books until bedtime.
    My wife thanked me for a great evening, and I realized it probably wouldn’t have taken place under ‘ normal’ conditions. So if this Is the new normal, may we make it work to the best of our situation. Keep em coming, Sean!

    Reply
  10. Bo - October 24, 2020 1:40 pm

    After all the cake, biscuit and barbecue posts, I’m relieved to hear your eating your veggies. It helps with the “go-go”.
    And never stop writing… please.

    Reply
  11. Pat Green - October 24, 2020 1:51 pm

    You may not find it humorous when you live in Bedpan Alley or Sleepy Senile Retirement Community. I usually love your stories, but this one really rankled me.

    Reply
  12. Donna J. Masmar - October 24, 2020 2:16 pm

    I need a giggle to start my days and you have become my “second” daily devotional. The world is a much better place with your contributions so don’t retire for my sake. Donna in Iowa–October 24th 9 a.m.

    Reply
  13. Xan - October 24, 2020 2:20 pm

    Remember though (like Bear Bryant said), if you get out of the boat, you need to know where the stumps are. 😉

    Reply
  14. Celeste Sheppard - October 24, 2020 2:27 pm

    Sean I love you, but I was a little disappointed today. Maybe it’s because I’ve reached the age of praying not to become senile Or need a bedpan. Also maybe you didn’t mean it that way, but, podunk sounds disparaging especially to we who live in the country miles away from our little towns. Please don’t take this as harsh criticism, I really do love you. Don’t ever stop writing.

    Reply
  15. Harriet - October 24, 2020 2:47 pm

    I liked this one Sean. I controlled my anxiety and boredom through starch, sugar and caffeine!

    Reply
  16. Susan Sloan - October 24, 2020 3:03 pm

    Sean, I just learned about you during the pandemic. I look forward to your blog every day. I am a 72 year old lady from south Alabama so I know about many of the places you write about. I just want to thank you for “giving back” to your peeps everyday and giving us hope. I think this is what life is about. I try to do the same thing everyday myself. Not always easy but it is what we are called to do.

    Susan Sloan

    Reply
  17. DiAn - October 24, 2020 3:31 pm

    Sean – May your New Normal ALWAYS include Hot Leads! Thank you for sharing them – Always a pleasure to read your work. Amen! – DiAn

    Reply
  18. Leesa - October 24, 2020 3:31 pm

    Sitting here in the beautiful midwest I would give almost anything right now to be in wonderful Gulf, Bay or Franklin counties so close to the shore that I could be there in minutes. I so miss those lovely long leaf pines and the lap of the water. That is the biggest loss for me during this pandemic… the inability to visit my beloved shore. Enjoy, Sean! And, don’t quit writing; we need you. I just discovered you this year and am working my way through your books and enjoying your message each day. Thanks!

    Reply
  19. Linda Moon - October 24, 2020 4:13 pm

    Like beauty, “normal” is in the eye of the beholder. If I were a wonderful columnist like you, Sean, I would have chosen another name for this post. Your universe, whether beautiful or abnormal, is just about essential for me. If you spend about 20 minutes with my guy and me, we’ll give you some hot leads. But, think carefully before you title our story. We’re not normal, never have been, and proud of it!

    Reply
  20. MR - October 24, 2020 4:17 pm

    Sean, there are still ‘big things’ in your future. Your commercials ( which are great, by the way) are just the beginning. You won’t be run as ragged as you have been in the past and your fan base will continue to grow exponentially. You can ‘take that to the bank’. In the meantime, enjoy the beach!

    Reply
  21. Billy Lark - October 24, 2020 4:19 pm

    I love this one Sean—-Reminds me of my mother big time as she thought I needed to go go every single day—-Cheers my friend and love your stories.

    Reply
  22. Diane W. Bailey - October 24, 2020 4:43 pm

    I’m looking out at long needle pines asking myself if I’ve changed in the past 10 months. I liked myself then and now. So is there anything different, any epiphany, or any ”ah-ha” moments?

    Maybe The epiphany is the discovery that control is an illusion, change is inevitable and I am more of a Chamaeleon than I knew. I will adapt to a different world.

    Reply
  23. Jane - October 24, 2020 7:29 pm

    Covid has changed a lot of us. Some for the better….and some…well..let’s let that part go. We are adapting to a new way of life. And perhaps when this is over we will have learned a thing or two. Keep writing.

    Reply
  24. Diane H. Toney - October 24, 2020 8:06 pm

    Have really enjoyed your ” dailies ” since I discovered you a year or so ago. But I was disappointed in this one because I detected a touch of bitterness, not sadness as when you refer to your father’s death, but bitterness. Your references to ” Bedpan—-” when talking about nursing homes and your comment about ” podunk ” towns and civic clubs there were different and negative. You have written about negatives before, but they have been directed at injustices and hurt, not at people and institutions which are simply what they are. I hope you’ll move on from labels and continue your more insightful reflections.

    Reply
  25. Sue Rhodus - October 24, 2020 10:36 pm

    Good answer Mrs. Simpson !!!! My kind of gal !!

    Reply
  26. Nancy M - October 24, 2020 11:12 pm

    No one else can write like you do. I’m glad you kept writing even though you weren’t traveling. I look forward to your column every day. Many do.

    By the way, the person who cleans the portapotties is more essential than the actors.

    Reply
  27. elizabethroosje - October 25, 2020 2:01 am

    I really liked this Sean! And I agree, there are blessings in the midst of the hard time and I really appreciated your articulation of them on your end. Your blog and new posts every day are always something I look forward to reading. Thanks so much! All the best to you and your wonderful wife!

    Reply
  28. jstephenw - October 25, 2020 5:44 am

    Thank you Sean. Once again you point out what is really important in this world, and that is the people who we need to check on and help through this rough spot in our history. God Bless you. “Hey” to Jamie.

    Reply
  29. Christina - October 25, 2020 6:09 am

    Glad you are enjoying traveling by leisure and packing on those fibers… until the next Bbq feast or fried chicken potluck! 😂

    Reply
  30. Nancy Swider - October 25, 2020 2:43 pm

    Next time you head south through our beautiful Gulf County plan to stop at the Sand Dollar Cafe in Port St. Joe where you can eat outdoors and look at the bay. You won’t be disappointed — and you can get in your daily vegetable count!

    Reply
  31. Larry Ratliff - October 25, 2020 6:32 pm

    Podunk: by definition is a hypothetical small town regarded as typically dull or insignificant to the inhabitants. I believe the key word here is “hypothetical”, I don’t feel this word is disparate in any form but a colloquial term used by us “Southerners” to describe small sleepy little towns. As a kid my Dad and I would travel back and forth from Mobile to Pensacola, looking for old tractor parts, but not on I-10 but on the back roads where you could stop at a Mom an Pop store and get a Moon Pie or pickled eggs and wash it all down with a cold RC cola. Keep up those good stories from “podunk” towns because that’s where the heart and soul of America are.

    Reply
  32. Mickey deLaup - October 27, 2020 9:08 am

    Love your writing and perspective. And yes, we all have or should have learned something from all of this.

    Reply
  33. Robert Chiles - October 28, 2020 4:23 pm

    This is essentially the message of the book of Ecclesiastes- “You are going to die, and the world will go on spinning after you, so enjoy your life now, your work, your spouse, do everything to the Glory of God.”

    Reply
  34. DiAn - October 28, 2020 4:25 pm

    Sean, this is Refreshingly Normal.

    And, yes, I too needed a “Reset Button” – but mine took the form of an 2015 auto collision w/a huge (read “dually” commercial truck, 2 brain surgeries, a year of rehab). Along with the incredible loving support of family and friends to literally get me back on my feet. And this all happened Before the Pandemic hit! I’ve come to call these my “Lazarus Years!”

    So, yes, I feel very blessed to be alive and able to see our gorgeous world, to be able to read & comprehend your hilarious column. You always make me laugh, and that is a Good Thing. Also, I deeply appreciate you, your grit and your honest determination to record our daily journies, realizations, and insights. Keep it going!

    Reply
  35. Melissa Mikkelsen - November 22, 2020 2:57 pm

    Since day one of this mess I have gone to work. I work in telecommunications so in the world of Zoom we are probably the most essential people anyone interacts with daily. Which is a good thing because bills don’t stop coming. And being a single mom with a half grown kid means senior dues and cap and gowns and class ring bills. I have travelled empty streets and taken my own temperature more times than the intake at icu. While people have been going through How not to gain the Covid-19 20lbs I have been running like Rudolph for 9 solid months. This isn’t normal and I won’t accept it as such. Ever. My kid is going to school and she will put on that cap and gown if I have to run like Rudolph for the next 9 months. I can’t laze about and while I want to be bitter about the fact, the truth is this is my normal and I like actually being a productive member of whatever weakened society just fine.

    Reply
  36. Beverly McTurk - November 22, 2020 4:04 pm

    Maybe you will return to painting too. Still looking for your painting of a coffee cup!

    Reply

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