MWD36 - On Redefining Normal

Or how the pandemic keeps making us answer hard questions

Welcome to Midweek Dinner. If this is your first time here, feel free to poke around and ask questions (actually, let’s just sit on the porch for now). Perhaps you’d be interested in seeing the very first edition? If you like the look of the place, stick around! You can sign up here to receive a new issue every Wednesday, delivered piping hot, right to your doorstep.

This Vox piece by Rachel Sugar asks some good questions (In this “new normal,” is fun possible?), but something about it set me slightly on edge. Somehow she manages to brush the truth but skirt any meaningful discussion on the subject. Maybe it’s that she wrote a lot of words on this subject of “fun,” and it feels like she started from the wrong spot? Either way, what I wanted was something about leisure and our wrong-headed approach to work, and I didn’t get it. Turns out, though, I’ve been writing that piece all year.

Here’s a question: Is Thanksgiving actually fun?

This year, with everything turned on its head, we have the chance to interrogate those things we’ve always just done because that’s what we do (Ex: “What if we made this the new first Thanksgiving”). For instance, turkey. Do we really want turkey? In these, our little Thanksgivings, we get to decide. And we have decided: nachos.

That’s right. We are having nachos for Thanksgiving. Later in the week we will have a dinner of sides we love — brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, white bean casserole — but we like them all the time, not just at Thanksgiving. We don’t care much for football or parades, but we will watch the Charlie Brown special and laugh as we always do when the chair consumes Snoopy. Our favorite Thanksgiving tradition (an early morning 5K fundraiser for a local family shelter, an event where it seems the whole dang city turns up in costume or with their dogs or sometimes both, and cars are irrelevant, and it is so joyous) has gone virtual this year, so we sent our money in and will take our family walk from home, and it may or may not be 3.2 miles before we head inside, and it will definitely be quiet, but for this year, that will be alright.

I’ve been thinking about the precarity of farming and the importance of limits. This is, in part, because of Dan Barber’s The Third Plate (review coming soon), which is the latest in a long line of books that have fed and watered and grown me over the years. In the section on seeds, he writes about selective breeding intended to create more disease-resistant cultivars. He describes a year when a fungal disease called late blight struck tomato plants across the country, one thousand heirloom plants on his farm gone before the first fruit was harvested. Like other farmers, he had to reckon with “the full weight of a tomato-less summer.”

To work the land, especially as an organic grower, is to submit to natural limits. There is not one thing you can do about it if you cut the hay and then it unexpectedly rains every day for a week. All you can do is wait inside, hoping it doesn’t spoil entirely. There is an intrinsic humility that comes from being a student of the soil, so much that you simply cannot know.

Perhaps we have struggled against this pandemic because most of us are unaccustomed to this kind of submission to things we cannot control? Perhaps we could more easily accept a year without gatherings if we had more connection to a summer without tomatoes? Or a lean year all-around that leaves you hoping there will be enough in the cellar to make it through winter? These things are not easy, but they are not altogether bad, I am convinced. Same with this season of deprivation. The losses are real and devastating, and we have much to learn from them and from our response to them.

Kelsey Piper, in this week’s Future Perfect newsletter, writes,

Most people have a sense that morality ought to be, well, reasonable. It might demand that we donate a little to charity, but it doesn't demand that we donate everything to charity. It might demand that we sacrifice for others, but it doesn’t propose boundless, unending, infinite sacrifices. That’s why some people conclude we ought to donate 10 percent of income to charity — that's enough to make a huge difference but not so onerous on one’s standard of living. And it feels like morality should be allowed to ask that of us, but not allowed to ask everything of us.

But sometimes it does ask everything of us.

I believe that if you were in Nazi Germany, morality would demand that you hide your Jewish neighbors — even though this might mean sacrificing everything. I believe that if you were in the rest of the world, morality might demand fighting Nazi Germany, even if that meant sacrificing your life. I believe in the moral urgency of abolitionism, of smallpox eradication, of a thousand triumphs won through the unreasonable sacrifices of people who should never have been asked to make them. I believe that the moral urgency that’s easy to see in the past is sometimes present in the present, too.

Sometimes you do lose ALL the tomatoes. Sometimes all that’s asked is that you stay home.

A few more things to think about:

— This essay from Garth Greenwell on “Making Meaning” is wonderful, full of such insights as this:

It seems to me that either we believe that all human experience is valuable, that any life has the potential to reveal something true for every life — a universality achieved not through the effacement of difference but through devotion to it — or we don’t.

— And this little video strikes just the right tone, somewhere in the neighborhood of both creepy and charming:

Unexpected Joy Department:

There is a Hedgehog Highway in the UK. Yes, please.

Published this Week (or so):

Charlotte McConaghy’s Migrations is in my Top Ten for the year, easily. A climate change novel, it is also a brilliant look at fear and choices and love and family. And there are birds, so, basically . . . yes.


For young(ish) readers: Christina Soontornvat’s All Thirteen. You might recall the horror and tension surrounding the Thai boys’ soccer team that got stuck in a flooded cave some years ago, but I doubt you will remember the details of this extraordinary (and true!) rescue story.

All Thirteen

PS: is offering free shipping, starting Friday! I’ve added a few titles to my recommendations lists, so do some holiday shopping and support independent bookstores across the country!

Thanks as always for reading and thinking with me. Have comments, suggestions, or questions? Reply to this email, and I promise a response.