Life in the age of oxymorons

The inane phrase “new normal” has become ubiquitous — and it’s a perversely apt term for this nonsensical period of pandemic. Author Steven Laffoley ponders these strange days

Every time I hear or read the now oft used ode to that collective mental contortion “the new normal,” I am reminded of comedian George Carlin’s stand-up routine about the inherent silliness of oxymorons: jumbo shrimp, original copy, friendly fire, non-dairy creamer, and so on.

In this interminable Age of COVID, the curious phrase the new normal has quickly become so ubiquitous that we routinely toss it off in meetings and in conversation without much thought, along with those wince-worthy fellow travellers “lockdown,” “pivot,” and “zoom.”

Yet, despite its linguistic incongruence, the uncertain meaning of the new normal appears to have grown smaller, enough so that I have embraced it as one of my Head of School goals: “Manage the COVID-19 plan, transitioning to a new normal.”

And why not? 

Oxymorons appear perversely apt in this nonsensical period of pandemic.

Consider that during certain phases of our Nova Scotia Reopening Plan, we gathered in the controlled chaos of small crowds to act naturally. The size of these crowds was always defined as an exact estimate though more often than not they seemed an organized mess. Still, when we gathered, we felt awfully good, though some, looking to be alone together, had a numb feeling about it all.

Along the way, the random order of the new normal kept us searching for the oddly familiar, which was always conspicuously absent. Instead, we were told, the new normal would be a genuine imitation or literal interpretation of, well, the old normal.

Or something like that.

In response, we rightly looked to laughter, for some meaningful mirth, to lift our spirits. From time to time, when there came yet another minor crisis, which almost always came at almost exactly the wrong moment, we climbed down from our heightened anxiety to find the seriously funny in the deafening silence of the absurd. 

This is all just one person’s unbiased opinion, mind you. In the end, I suppose I am almost certainly making a deliberate mistake about it all. Perhaps the new normal is already old news. I would likely be better off accepting the opinion of the larger half of those who thought the new normal made some bittersweet sense. And by accepting this, I could rightly turn my attention to those other linguistic curiosities of our age, such as how we might embrace the weirdly normal notion of virtual reality.

All this is to say that, given the even odds that a brighter tomorrow is a definite maybe, we should keep reminding ourselves of that old proverb, “Laughter is the best medicine.” 

Of course, a double dose of mRNA vaccine is pretty good, too.

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