“Getting Back To Normalcy”

Athena ScalziFucking Christ on a cheese stick, I am so tired of that phrase.

If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard, “as the world opens back up”, “as we return to normality”, or “as things are getting back to normal,” I wouldn’t have to live with my parents.

Companies love something they can “relate” to their customers about. Companies love heartfelt concepts and wholesome ideas they can use to market to their demographics. And they love pretending like they care.

And what gives them a better excuse to pretend like they care than the biggest pandemic of our lifetime?

How many car commercials did you see during the pandemic that started with, “in times of uncertainty”? How many cereal commercials said, “we’ll get through this together?”

After writing that sentence, I Googled “commercials that said ‘in times of uncertainty” and it turns out there’s like actual articles about this phenomenon! Here’s the Wall Street Journal saying that these commercials have a “tragedy template”. This article is from one month into the pandemic. Over a year later, companies are still being as annoying as all hell, but now they’ve shifted from “we’re in this together during this uncertain time” to “as you start to go back outside and are now visiting businesses and spending money again.”

This is literally what they sound like:

Also posted over a year ago. But they just keep coming! Companies keep busting out these “heartfelt” and “compassionate” commercials even though nobody asked for them in the first place.

I don’t want companies to act like they care. It’s just embarrassing on their part. Everyone knows they’re only in it for the money. You know how it’s evident? Because they’re still trying to sell you shit during the pandemic. It doesn’t matter how they frame it, even if they say that times are hard and that they care, they still want you to give them money. If they really cared, would they even advertise?

This idea of “returning to normal” is even more problematic than the insincere, copy and paste, “sad” commercials that companies were doing for months.

This whole “returning to normal” thing isn’t just company and commercial related, though. It’s workplace and school-related, too. The “returning to normal” ideology is toxic for institutions to have, because we aren’t just “going back to normal”. We can’t just shrug it off and go back to how things were.

The problem with these institutions is that they think we’ll just get over it. The pandemic is over now, right? People are getting vaccinated, we don’t have to wear masks anymore, it’s all hunky dory, right? But what these institutions don’t understand is trauma. They can’t see the long-term effects.

The pandemic has changed everything, yet we are expected to return to how things were before. But how can we? These institutions, as well as companies, cannot understand how profoundly the pandemic has affected not just society, but people on the individual scale.

Part of that is because they don’t want things to change. Like I said, the pandemic has changed everything, but what do I mean by that? Because, from the looks of it, almost nothing has actually changed. For example, aside from the vaccine, did we get tax-supported no-cost healthcare? That would have helped. Did we get the institutional level of support that would have been equal to these “uncertain times”? No.

And why would these institutions allow any sort of change when things have been working so well for them up to this point? They’re not going to suddenly turn around and be like, “oh, we’ve realized our mistakes and now see the flaws in the systems we’ve created” because they’ve known all along. They know their systems are fucked up, but it makes them money so why would they stop?

Meanwhile, we as individuals, are completely changed. Maybe you’ve lost loved ones, or lost your job, maybe even lost your home, or got COVID and suffered serious effects. Or maybe nothing really happened to you personally, but you got a front row seat to watch the world around you burn, and that’s traumatizing enough on its own.

Most of us have known for a while that our society and our government are fucked up, but this pandemic really put the final nail in the coffin. It was eye-opening for a lot of people. It showed that we are not cared about, even if a Ford commercial says we are. It showed that our institutions would rather sacrifice us than lose money. And it showed that we would rather sacrifice each other than not go out to eat at Applebee’s.

Yes, things are returning to normal. But only after half a million people died, only after the unemployment rate skyrocketed to new heights, only after the homelessness rate increased, and only after we’ve all sustained trauma that we will carry with us for the rest of our lives.

But we aren’t feeling, thinking, human beings to these institutions. We are numbers on a graph, we are statistics in the making, we are cogs in the machine. They couldn’t care less if our mental health is less than fucking ideal after over a year of dealing with the pandemic. We are meant only to make them profit, traumatized or not. Depressed or not. Anxious or not. Burnt out or not.

So, I’d really appreciate if companies stopped acting like we’re in this together. Because we aren’t, and we never were.


53 Comments on ““Getting Back To Normalcy””

  1. Exactly.

    Exactly this, Athena.

    I don’t want to go back to the old pre-Pandemic “normal” because that’s part of what made the Pandemic so awful. I fear the dismantling of several of the measures taken that made the Pandemic more endurable, because they might give me some of the means I need to build a better, post-Pandemic “normal”.

    I haven’t lost close friends or family to Pandemic, but some of my closer friends have. Strangers have lost friends and family to this…and I am duplicating much of what you’ve said yourself here.

    And we know there are people actively working to reshape our various countries’ societies for the worse, using Pandemic as their leverage to that end.


  2. here’s what I’m really pissed at and appalled with today: a 30 yo friend of mine who has done everything “right” – stayed employed, was frugal, saved her money – is literally unable to buy a house because investors have swarmed over our market and bought all the housing stock. They paid cash, so she or anyone with a mortgage doesn’t stand a chance.

    Apparently we usually have 1200 houses for sale, and now only have 300 – and that 300 isn’t the best stock.

    Also our rents are sky high.

    This is Kalamazoo MI, everyone – a great town but not exactly a magnet like LA or NYC or Boston.

    So, yeah: young people especially are getting super screwed.

    Athena is right: we are most definitely NOT all “in this together.”

  3. This is the best piece you’ve written yet. Very well said.

    My favorite “we care!” ads are the ones I see in WWII-era magazines like THE SATURDAY EVENING POST, which tend to say things on the order of “Hi, we’re [company], and we remember those days when we loved selling you washing machines and we loved making them for you. Sorry they’re hard to find now, but we’re making bombers right now instead. But we’ll see you when it’s all over!”

  4. Hear, hear! You nailed it right on the head. Things should not “get back to normal”. Things should be made better for the average citizen of this country so that an event of this size could be better endured. (This will not be the last pandemic). But I’ve read up on the 1918-1919 flu which killed the same number of people in a smaller population, and saw that the human beings who survived that one threw away their masks and had a big party while doing their best not to think about what just happened. So…..not hopeful for real change after this.

  5. After we have seen how many of our fellow humans are in complete denial of reality and can’t even bothered for simple measures like masks for the safety of others? “Going back to normal”, heck no.
    After witnessing how unprepared humanity in general is for a crisis, and with the climate crisis just picking up steam? “Back to normal”, there is no normal anymore.
    After those in economical and political power have demonstrated how much they care – for their personal grift and gain, but not at all for other humans. Back to normal? Count me out.

    Yes, Covid has radicalized me. I’m not alone with that.

  6. Bravo! So well said.

    This quote from Alice in Wonderland popped into my head: “I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.”

  7. My day job is talking to people who own restaurants and hopefully getting them to use my company’s software, and I never ever use that language. Some grim humor? Some shared compassion, sure. But never “we’re in this together”.

  8. Athena,
    This is a fantastic piece and so very well written.

    I am so far removed for ‘normal’ I am uncertain if I will ever return to it or if I want to.

    My wife and I came through the last year alright given all the ups and downs and sideways that happen, But I don’t feel anywhere near normal and I know the impact is long term.

    Too many of the companies don’t understand this and don’t want to (and the few that do are so rare). Clearly most of them are in it for themselves

    Thank you for writing what many are thinking

  9. Huh.
    I was beginning to wonder if you could write.
    No more wondering. Keep going.

    Oh, and I agree completely, though in my day it was “Jesus H. motherf@#$%&* Christ on a pogo-stick!” Not a cheese stick. The 70s were a simpler, earthier age. Though, technically, for a trinitarian, the swear word is theologically accurate.

  10. Having lived to see no lessons whatsoever of the Vietnam war applied to the war on drugs, (sorry Mom, those lives were wasted) I don’t expect to see any changes here either.

    As for “still selling,” and advertising, “costs of business” include utilities, overhead and “profit.” The concept of profit as a cost I got from business guru Peter Drucker, the fellow who linked the word “business” to “management” in the public mind.

    I don’t know if the American people are prepared to lead by example. In my boyhood we said, “A Scout is thrifty.” With a straight face. Now people go into debt easily, their government goes into debt to foreign governments, and the Japanese laugh that if we quit buying on credit for a single day our economy would halt.

    Sf factoid: Eleven of the twelve Apollo moonwalkers were Boy Scouts.

  11. Student debt, the great recession, never-ending war, unaffordable housing and healthcare, a pandemic, utter epistemological bankruptcy on the part of half the country resulting in an attempted fucking coup…

    and, above all, the runaway greenhouse effect.

    I sometimes joke that we should eat the boomers–they attacked first.

    My four year old has taken to asking if he or I will live till 90 (or 110, or 120) and I have to grit my teeth and tell him “maybe” and hope to God he makes it past 60 on whatever’s left of the planet by 2080.

    Things are not fine and I’m completely done with people and companies who pretend that they are.

  12. 2020 was messed up, but 2021 has been a personal shit-storm.

    I only knew one Covid victim, so the whole shut-down, shortage, mask and social isolation thing seemed surreal.

    This year, so far, 8 people I knew have died, and another has stage 4 cancer. One of those who passed was my best friend, and we managed to keep2020 fun and interesting.

    I realize that others suffered far greater losses from Covid, but if there is a ‘new normal it must be ’emptiness.’

  13. Very well said, and thank you for saying it:

    [ “So, I’d really appreciate if companies stopped acting like we’re in this together. Because we aren’t, and we never were.” ]

  14. Thank you for this excellent article. I really appreciate this – it’s hard to feel both relief and wariness/uncertainty at the same time. And I work for an institution that’s trying to go back to how it was before, and it’s just not going to happen. Thank you.

  15. What we’ve been though with the pandemic could be compared to the trauma of a war. Medical responders were our front line troops. The rest of us were substantially deprived of family & friends, community, work, education, etc. Corporations settled on an approach that sometime things would go “BACK” to normal. (Because really in our inner 4 year old we were all thinking “make it didn’t happen!) But as you point out, there is no “back.” That’s how time works, and the corporations are afraid that the conditions that allowed them to make large amounts of money will never exist again.

    We can only go forward and nobody knows what the new normal society will look like or who it will disadvantage. Plenty of people will have PTSD when they try to go to crowded venues. Many people have discovered that working from home is dandy, and won’t want to change.

    One thing that must not fall off the radar is that this is not the last pandemic of the century. Government oversight and management of resources to identify and prevent the spread or mutation of deadly diseases is mandatory, if we’re to survive the next one. Remember, under Obama, we HAD people stationed in China, and a written manual of emergency policies to follow. Guess who gutted and ignored both?

    The lesson we should take from this is that we must use the disruption of “these uncertain times” to root out government corruption, structural racism (and all the other isms) and discover our power as a united people. I’m skeptical this will happen, but I can hope that some things will change.

  16. As for why companies advertise during the pandemic, I think it’s just to keep their name & brand in front of people in the hopes that you won’t forget about them after the pandemic is over.

    The same thing happened during WWII. One of my hobbies is collecting antique radios & related memorabilia, and I have a binder full of magazine ads related to radio from the 20’s through the 40’s. During the WWII years, those companies were still advertising to the general public even though all the radio equipment being manufactured was for the military. Bragging about how they were supporting the war effort & the troops, encouraging people to buy war bonds, and so on. Even though they didn’t have anything to sell to the general public they were still advertising to them just to keep their name out there.

  17. You are so ridiculously intelligent and well spoken/written (if you’re like me, you have…questionable…interpersonal skills, but communicate reasonably well in writing). You are a credit to your parents, but also, they are a credit to you. I’m in the UK these days (decade…), but yes. Here, there, SSDD. The rich get richer, and everyone else can get bent.

    Fuck ’em all.

    I’m by no means in the 1%–is that still a thing?–but I’m definitely a beneficiary of intergenerational wealth and I’m still terrified by our upcoming international move back to the US. No socialized medicine, no maternity leave (thankfully that’s done with), no retirement other than whatever the intergenerational wealth I get. Oh, and guns. A lot of guns.

    But it’s home. I miss it, and my partner (a Brit) wants a change. Damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

    And now to end with some words of Green Day:

    I don’t need your authority
    Down with the moral majority

    A free for all, fuck ’em all…

  18. Well said, Athena.

    We have a saying in our house: marketing departments are evil. Also, besides wanting to make money for themselves, big publicly traded companies must answer to the shareholders. So, yes, it’s all about the profits.

  19. This is a charmingly heartfelt and eloquent post. However…

    Meanwhile, we as individuals, are completely changed.

    Well, no. It’s certainly been a major event and perhaps the first one that’s affected you much. Life still goes on and I am not planning to harbor PTSD over it. It’s not been the first such excitement and it will not be the last.

  20. This was a very well-timed post, as I’ve spent today communicating with my (new!) boss about going back to my job in September. I love what I do — working with young people — and I know it’s a good and important job, but I’m already dreading the long hours and gradual attrition of resources as we’re forced back into a version of “normal.” We already had several staff members who took early retirement, as well as people who couldn’t afford to live on a partial salary and found other jobs. Many of our students are from families that have lost breadwinners and caretakers; I don’t know how to tally up their trauma. Behavioral problems stemming from stress and lack of support were a challenge before, and I have to assume they will be worse this year.

    I’ve been asked to take a long term position that I won’t be taking, because I have other commitments this year, but I am sitting here wracked with guilt because the positions I haven’t taken in the past have ended up not being filled, or being filled inadequately. And I’m aware this isn’t my fault! Or even my current administration’s fault; you can not put higher education behind an outrageously high paywall and then underpay the people who do get advanced degrees and expect the whole system not to collapse at the first sign of stress.

    The biggest casualty of 2020 was probably people’s faith in the goodness of their friends and fellow citizens. The biggest casualty of 2021 may be the incentive to strive for something better.

  21. Tom Hanlin well bully for you, for your sake I hope you are correct, but no one chooses to have PTSD.

    As for this being Athena’s first big trauma so it isn’t that significant for older people speak for your self, I am 60 (it was a very quiet birthday), I have had plenty of trauma in my life, but this past year and more has been bad. What’s worse is it hasn’t stopped, all the people talking about “getting back to normal” have missed the fact that until we vaccinate not only 80% or more of the populations of the wealthy nations, but the same percentage of the populations of every nation we are at risk of more variants. The Delta variant now makes up 90% of the infections n the UK, it is estimated to be around 60% more infectious than the Alpha variant which was itself more infectious than the original three variants. Vaccinations may well not give as good prrotecton against the Delta variant, but even if they do it’s only a matter of evolution doing it’s thing while we don’t vaccinate and we’ll have a variant that can evade all of the current vaccines. So yeah, I don’t think we’ve got through this yet and I am still worried and angry about what is likely to happen because opening up so we can spend money is more important than people’s lives.

    Good expressive writing Athena.

  22. All of this, yes, including Ryan George :)
    I remember after 9/11 the overused catch phrase was “Now, more than ever…” – and apparently it’s still going strong.

  23. Follow on to my previous post – I listened to Ryan George’s video and laughed when – sure enough – there was “now, more than ever.” No escaping it.

  24. Love this!

    One of the people in my office recently sent around a video about upcoming good times. What was it? A gum commercial. Why do I have to watch a freakin’ gum commercial? What’s supposed to be touching and special about a bit of advertising? Excuse me while I grapple with the temptation to throw up. Most advertising strikes me as a tragic waste of human creativity.

    I heard that even as of a few years ago, a majority of Gen-Y and Gen-Z folks didn’t like capitalism. Why should we? Wild inequality, runaway consumption, false meritocracy, and people mistreating/blaming the poor until they get poorer.

    Times of upheaval alter things irrevocably. I’m astonished by how quickly humans started talking about universal basic income, and that was before all this happened. We need to get off our collective butts and figure out a few things, but we’re capable of it. Massive changes lie ahead.

  25. I know damn well my office is going to decide to be “business as usual!” I don’t trust them worth a lick. (Even worse, our leader quit this year and we have no idea when we get an official new one or what the hell that person is going to do to us.) Hybrid is a complete lie to my unit in particular because I know damn well they will end up making us all come back in person full time, like it or not, because we have to go EXACTLY the way we were before with in person walk in services all day long. Kill me now. We managed just fine without it for over a year, but then they’re going to act like it never happened.

    I never thought I’d get to work from home and it’s been great, I don’t look forward to losing it again forever. I’ll note that a lot of my giant org is actually going to try to let people work from home–but my office, hell no. Sigh.

  26. Athena, this is just the best thing you’ve written on Whatever so far. Well said, and please keep it up.

  27. Thanks, and well said! One saying did make sense to be: ‘we are in the same storm, but not in the same boat’. Some are in leaky, rickety, dinghies while the big yachts go by :(

  28. Yup, what she said.
    Interesting note here. You said you would love to be a writer of your father’s caliber at some point in your life. Well, your getting there. I am not always interested in what you write about (although this shit is spot on) but I have found it fascinating watching your writing skills accelerate to professional.
    Keep it up, It is the only way to get to the Met.

  29. I ditched my last TV 17 years ago, so I was spared most of this. I can’t remember the last time I saw any commercial at all, except Sara Silverman plugging her sponsor on youtube. That said, the preoccupation with identical, nonsensical platitudes pervades evertything today. You are absolutely correct. The dumbing down of America is complete.

  30. You are very young to be so cynical.
    And by “cynical” I mean “absolutely correct”.

  31. Great essay, very much on point.

    Anyone who thinks we can “go back to normal” much less SHOULD go back to normal is an ass. Keep up the good work.

    I did the weekly trip to town for provisions yesterday, dashing between the thunderstorms. People are no longer wearing masks for the most part. Some still do.

    I wore my 3M industrial respirator, which makes me look like I fell overboard from the flying saucer. One guy, maskless, mumbled about “Things aren’t that bad any more!” which was so stupid. The virus is evolving to be more transmissible and more dangerous.

    So this pandemic is not only not over, it’s getting worse in a race between stalled vaccination rates and increasing evolutionary pressure on the virus.

    And the next pandemic, which may well be much worse than this one, which is actually mild compared to Ebola for just one example, will have all new and different information, rules and advice.

    Which the ignorant will claim makes all the new info and requirements fake, because the newest pandemic is a completely new organism… I can’t wait for all the new fake science and misinformation the next pandemic will create in its wake!

  32. “Fucking Christ on a cheese stick”. I’ve actually never heard that one before. It’s providing me with the most entertaining visuals. Just how big is that cheese stick?

  33. A lot of pessimism here and I am somewhat shocked. I presume most got inoculated and resumed life. But seems not. Maybe pop. density has something to do with it. As for advertising, so what. Companies will say anything to get business. They are no better or worse than politicians. Stay skeptical.

  34. Great post, and spot on.

    So many great lines here, and I absolutely love the expression, “If I had a dime for each time I’ve heard [those bland marketing quotes], I wouldn’t have to live with my parents.”

  35. All true, and as Mr. Natural said, “Twas ever thus”. I’m 72 (yup, I’m a Boomer, and you don’t want to eat me; I’m tough and stringy) and I’ve watched for decades as a few get massively richer while the rest of us pay more and more for less and less, and an alarming number can’t afford to live at all. THAT is the “normal” we’re going back to, and I’m against it.

  36. Thank you for putting so clearly what my general anxiety has been feeling and thinking

  37. Some good points and mostly, sadly, all too true.

    We’re home (retired) so no worries about going back to work or school, but yes, despite not being worried so much about personally being at risk of getting sick and dying of Covid, plenty anxious still. Yes, we have ditched the masks in the street on daily walks and in our building, but still wear them in stores and restaurants. We are slowly getting more “back to normal” as far as eating out, etc. goes, but… we haven’t been on the subway or a bus in a year and a half (we spent the previous winter in Florida, so it’s been 15 months at home), we’ve barely been out of the neighborhood (again, a year and a half since we’ve been to Manhattan), and when I think of “getting back on the horse” my answer is, “No, thank you.”

    We do have our first out of town trip planned with cousins at the end of the month (car trip) but neither of us wants to even think about getting on the subway, let alone on a plane, considering the daily headlines. We are eating in restaurants again – mostly outdoors – but I am not ready for the theater or movies on an indoor concert (we have tickets for late Fall, so we’ll see). I just don’t see this ending any time soon, if at all, especially given the anti-vaxxers joining with the Trump and QAnon crowd.

    So yeah, I agree we are pretty much f#cked, which makes it a lot easier to bear when you are over 70 like us than in your early 20s like you are.

  38. I truly enjoyed this post. Thanks.

    Good ideas I expect to disappear:

    Socialized Medicine in the US. Yep, vaccines are working, but it’s because of a massive bit of SOCIALISM OMG LOCK THE DOORS!!

    Working from home. This is pretty awesome for a lot of people (less so for others). I’m seeing remote workers ordered back to the office with the exact same work-product expectations, with added bonus commute from the boonies (’cause that’s where they can afford to live).

    Support for better internet in rural communities. Online school made this a priority, and that will slip.

    I’m missing some biggies. What else??

  39. In my humble, undocumented opinion:
    The reason US medicine is so disgraceful compared to the rest of the developed world isn’t fear of socialism. It’s because you can’t keep a man down in the mud unless you stay down there with him.

  40. There seems to be an intense need to politicize healthcare (certainly happens here in Canuckistan too) and I don’t know precisely why. Helping pay to keep each other healthy seems fairly natural. I think having a ‘checkout’ line at vaccination clinics would seem pretty unnatural to most folks.

  41. Athena,

    I agree with many other posters: this is, head and shoulders, the best of your writing I’ve ever seen here. It seems to come from quite a different pen–OK, keyboard–from the one describing snack boxes or critiquing the donuts of Chicago. Many thanks for this essay, and I look forward to more in this vein (not that I don’t enjoy the snack box and donut critiques–all the fun without the damage to my waistline).

    As far as “back to normal” is concerned–has that ever been possible? Every time the narrative bifurcates–and if you subscribe to the “many worlds” interpretation, that happens constantly–there may be a whole sheaf of new timelines, on some of which there may be some degree of the former “normal,” while others diverge anywhere from slightly to wildly, but none of them are (or could be) exactly the same. Between that and the idea that “normal” is subject to very individual interpretation–what’s normal for you is almost certainly not what’s normal for me–the whole idea of “normal” becomes very hazy.

    That said, these are, and will be, very challenging times for everyone. I’m becoming increasingly aware of the differences between how your generation and mine (Boomer, vintage 1947) perceives the world, and how you manage to assimilate the overwhelming flow of information with which we’re all presented. (Insert “you kids don’t know how good you have it, in my day we had to walk 10 miles barefoot through the snow to school, uphill both ways, etc.” here.) It saddens me to have to think that, in fact, those of my generation had it easier, and in many ways the world was, if not a better, at least a simpler place. (I happen to think it was better, too). I’m grateful that I’m now much nearer the end of my life than the beginning, which isn’t the happiest thing one could say; I can only hope that your generation, and the ones to follow, will have not only the skills, but also the courage, to deal with the mess that we’ve left you.

    I can only wish you happiness and the best of luck–and please, please keep writing! Even about donuts!

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