Getting back to normal

BOSTON-There was a Catskill comedian who used to tell a story about his first time away from home and home cooking. After a week in Army boot camp his stomach started to feel funny. He was convinced that something was terribly wrong with his digestive system, maybe his entire body.

Well, after much medical consultation, the problem was diagnosed. For the first time in his life, he wasn’t suffering from heart burn.

I think about him every summer during the dangerous season of vacation. People, even presidents, get away from the office for a week or two, and if they’re not careful, they lose their disequilibrium.

They wake up in the morning and feel funny. They realize that something’s missing. Where has the stiffness in the neck gone? What happened to that old familiar stress lurking in the right quadrant of the brain?

They go through the checklist of personal items that are lost. The ironclad hinges that hold the jaw tight have let go and their teeth aren’t doing the midnight shift of grinding. The tension band around the eyebrows has released its death grip on their mental outlook.

It becomes clear that the medicine cabinet of over-the-counter items advertised on evening news shows has stayed untouched for days. The symptoms have disappeared. The symptom-bearers are feeling abnormal.

Abnormally well.

Suddenly, the bio is feeding back subversive messages that say that unwork may be good for them. It begins to seep around the edges of their consciousness that maybe the work ethic is not the same as the pleasure principle. It occurs to them that if labor was all it’s cracked up to be, we wouldn’t celebrate Labor Day with a day off. We’d celebrate with overtime.

At this point in the season, any sensible adult with a decent job, a refinanced house, a non-vested pension plan, and a primal fear of ending up on a sidewalk with a shopping cart begins to panic. They begin to suffer from a re-entry phobia.

For this reason, as a public service, I have assembled a handy reference sheet to grasp all during vacation. Lest we forget, lest we fear, this is to help us remember what is normal in the everyday workaday world.

Normal is… being woken up in the digital dawn by a radio playing a reveille of murder, mayhem, rock, roll and news of the latest failed foreign policy.

Normal is… saying the same six words to your children before the 7:30 a.m. school bus: Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up.

Normal is… getting dressed in clothes, car and, especially, the house that you leave empty all day in order to afford to live in it.

Normal is… following a time plan that requires you eat breakfast before you want it because otherwise you might be hungry for lunch before you can break for it.

Normal is… spending all day in a sick building with windows that don’t open and a thermostat that is seasonally dysfunctional, in order to make the environment consistently comfy and user-friendly for the mainframe computer.

Normal is… solving complex emotional problems of sibling rivalry and adolescent moral dilemmas of right and wrong, in three-minute telephone segments in midafternoon under the disapproving eye of a supervisor who lives alone with a parakeet for which he has health insurance.

Normal is… socializing by E-mail with friends who work no more than 30 feet away.

Normal is… being required to wear a beeper so that your boss can call you out of an important meeting at the critical point in order to find out how it’s going.

Normal is… sitting at a desk all day, under artificial light, eating machine food, hemmed in by four walls, with a plastic plant, a telephone, a Rolodex, a sense of deja vu and a manager who says you better start “thinking outside the envelope.”

And of course, normal is… being grateful for your job because in two more years, if they don’t downsize or move the office to Singapore, if the company isn’t bought out, the technology hasn’t become obsolete, and the entire work force hasn’t been put on part-time, you’ll be entitled to three weeks off.

Now, there, don’t you feel it? That old burning sensation creeping up the digestive tract. This vacation too shall pass. Pretty soon everything will be back to normal.