So Normal, Yet So Very Different yet so very different

Wednesday, March 20, 2002

We had stopped noticing that our wall decorations were still on the floor three years after moving in, much the way one stops noticing a chronic rumble in a car engine.

But something happened last fall, the kind of subtle shift you recognize only in retrospect.

The mirror went up in November, quickly followed by the two African spears, the flat oversized clock purchased last summer and the Ansel Adams photograph of a cemetery. We bought ficus plants for the living room and cyclamen for the outdoor pots. We draped chenille throws over the couch.

I took a sudden and unprecedented interest in cooking magazines, tearing out recipes for fried chicken and stew and marinara sauce, picturing myself at the stove as the windows darken and my son sets the table.

When the experts say America hasn't changed in the six months since Sept. 11, I know they're wrong. They're looking through a wide-angle lens. They see we're traveling again, that we have returned to silly television shows (Tonya Harding versus Paula Jones, as one example), that we again are avoiding our churches and flipping off slow drivers in the fast lane. We have, in other words, returned to our pre-Sept. 11 routine.

"Nobody can live in a crisis state forever," a historian was quoted in the local paper. "The pressure to live life normally reasserts itself pretty quickly."

But it isn't normalcy that has been reasserted - at least, not exactly. It is uber-normalcy, an "Ozzie and Harriet" normalcy, a normalcy almost abnormal in its zeal.

The new big thing to do on Sundays isn't visiting museums or going to movie matinees. It's strolling through real estate open houses, picking up decorating tips and imagining oneself curled up in the window seat with a book.

Despite a recession, home-improvement companies are flourishing. Home Depot's fourth-quarter earnings are up 53 percent from last year. And professional remodelers say business is up about 20 percent from last year.

Women, who are cutting back on spas and other indulgences, are splurging instead on aromatherapy kitchen products. There is a burgeoning market for green-tea patchouli countertop cleanser and lavender-pine window wash. One can choose dish soap in either citrus mint ylang-ylang or jasmine lily.

"People are back to cocooning and to spending on their homes," the president of one boutique products company says. As I watched the powerful CBS documentary "9/11" on Sunday night, I was most deeply struck by the fear and chaos. Carrying 60 pounds of gear, the firefighters could climb each floor of the World Trade Center in one minute. So they knew they couldn't reach the stranded workers on the top floors in less than an hour. In the meantime, they're hearing bodies crash to the pavement. They're blinded by swirling debris and panicked by radio cries of "Mayday! Mayday!" They can't save people.

We might have returned to normal during these past six months, as the experts say, but the fear and chaos of that day shifted something within us, something delicate and unacknowledged and, for now, unresolved.

Like the New York firefighters on "9/11," we can't get control of what's happening in the world. Osama bin Laden is still on the loose. Our soldiers are dying in Afghanistan. Our president is talking about nuclear weapons. Friends have lost jobs, and we wonder if we're next.

But in our homes, we can create order. As the world goes crazy, at home we can be aggressively normal, tightly holding to daily rituals, fixing the loose banister upstairs, planting bulbs for spring, sitting down to pot roast at 6:30 p.m. and watching "Everybody Loves Raymond" at 9.

Yes, we are who we have always been, only much more so.