Opinion | The Covid Guidelines That Don't Really Guide Us – The New York Times

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Frank Bruni

Mr. Bruni is a contributing Opinion writer who was on the staff of The Times for more than 25 years.
Anecdotally and scientifically, there’s reason to believe that the most successful dieters — the ones who truly change their habits and keep the most weight off for the longest time — don’t commit themselves to one of those faddish regimens that draw bold red lines through categories of food to be avoided entirely and bright green circles around categories to be embraced. They muddle through meal by meal. They make a series of smart, tailored judgment calls. They traffic in subtlety, nutritionwise.
But they’re not the majority of dieters, at least not in my experience. More of the people I know opt for exacting prescriptions with emphatic permissions and prohibitions. They like the orderliness of that, the clarity. Snack on A. Don’t drink B. No food after 6 p.m. Or no food for 16-hour stretches.
Whether they can actually follow such guidelines is another matter, measured in belt notches and dress sizes. But they want in their eating what so many of us want in all aspects of our lives: uncomplicated instructions, unchanging rules, assurances, predictability.
That’s precisely what the current chapter of the Covid pandemic denies us.
Should we mask or not? It depends on the geographic location, the physical setting, the number of people, the week.
Will the jabs we got save us? In the end, yes: They’ll make an exponentially greater difference than anything else. But for now, the answer has asterisks. There are breakthrough infections, which are mild or asymptomatic in most cases but not in every last one. There are people at greater risk. There are reasons for caution. And there’s a call for booster shots, but how often in the future and how far into it?
In logistical, social and economic terms, the first chapter of Covid was certainly the worst. We were totally shut down. We were utterly freaked out. People couldn’t work, couldn’t see loved ones, couldn’t comprehend how so much had changed so fast. There was a makeshift hospital in Central Park. There were ambulance sirens screaming, day and night, throughout cities from coast to coast.
But in a certain psychological sense, is the current chapter perhaps the most challenging of all? We thought we’d turned the corner, only to learn we hadn’t, and we’re neither isolated nor liberated. Our marching orders are fluid and feel less like orders than like caveats, nudging us not toward obedience but toward wisdom, which is even harder. We’re not being told to suspend all activities as usual, which is a digestible if dire command, but we’re being encouraged to suspend or alter many activities, maybe for the next week, maybe for this whole month, maybe not for the following one but maybe again in November, when the mercury dips, we head indoors and Thanksgiving waddles into view.
I take absolutely no issue with that. I agree with it. But I also recognize that this shifting, shapeless horizon is at war with a whole lot in human nature and a whole lot in the American psyche, and in this instance, I’m not talking about the individual-liberty part.
I’m talking about the impatience. I’m talking about the certitude and absolutism of the social-media age. We are increasingly a country of either/or, pro/con, virtuous/deplorable, all/nothing. And the pandemic right now can’t be squeezed into any dichotomy. Nor will it be hurried to its end.
It asks that we take fresh stock every few days. That we reshuffle our responses accordingly. It asks us not to be only one way or only the other but to make informed and enlightened decisions dependent on context and to accept that there won’t be a eureka moment, when the clouds lift, the waters part and we’re free. Instead, with an accretion of those informed and enlightened decisions, we’ll proceed, inch by inch, toward a much better but not perfect place.
There are no red and green lights here. There’s just a yellow that flashes … and flashes … and flashes. And that’s not a color that people generally — or Americans specifically — respond to all that well.
When the “Words Worth Scrutiny” feature last appeared, I analyzed and criticized the phrase “white trash,” which I called “a succinct, reflexive shorthand for white people in circumstances where joblessness, drug addiction, broken homes and crime are common.”
A reader who asked not to be identified took issue with that description. I’ll let her explain why: “My husband and I separated when my children were 7 and 10. With no college degree, I was still able to get a decent job and support them. They both went on to earn master’s degrees and now have lovely families. My home was far more broken when I was living with my alcoholic husband.”
She’s right. To describe a home reconfigured by separation or divorce as “broken” is presumptuous, simplistic and at least a little cruel, even if that adjective isn’t intended judgmentally. There aren’t two sides to “broken.” It’s never a compliment. Broken arm, broken heart, broken glass — none are functioning properly, and all need repair. But the shrinking of a family may be the repair. It may be all that kept the family going.
We live in a world that has, at its best, moved beyond the hasty, reductive and sometimes perverse moral verdicts of yesteryear, a world that supposedly understands that a household with two present parents is no paragon if one parent is miserable and routinely weeping in front of the children and the other is a closet addict who won’t get help. That home may be intact, but it’s also broken.
“Broken home” is defensible, I guess, if one or more of its members is incarcerated or if it’s a scene of domestic violence. Both of those situations signal and create enormous stress, and there’s no positive angle or read on either.
But “broken home” tends to be used more generally, more hastily, to communicate a split between two parents. And that’s wrong. Tossed-off terms of convenience can be sloppy tools of offense, even if their prevalence makes them seem innocuous. “Broken home” strikes me as a prime example.
“Words Worth Scrutiny” is a recurring feature. To suggest a term or phrase, please email me here, and please include your name and place of residence. You can also email me at that address with nominations for “For the Love of Sentences,” which will return next week.
The compendium of linguistically ambitious, phonetically mischievous, imaginative business names in last week’s newsletter inspired many of you to write in with more examples — or to invent names for businesses that don’t (but might someday!) exist. I could fill much and maybe all of this newsletter with your submissions.
But why not parcel them out instead? Include a few this week, maybe a few more next week and then some more two or three weeks after that? That way, the chuckles — and eye rolls and groans — will last longer. If you keep the submissions coming, I’ll keep citing and sharing them. Please include not only your name but also where you reside so that I can credit you properly.
Alan Forkosh of Oakland, Calif., told me something I didn’t know: “Of course, ‘The Good Place’ television show was famous for puns in naming the businesses seen in the background.” He pointed me to an article in Vulture that listed the show’s fictional restaurants, including From Schmear to Eternity, Ponzu Scheme, Cake Canaveral and Beignet and the Jets.
Scores of you flagged hair salons near you called Curl Up & Dye. That’s because that bit of wordplay has been widely used. But many of you also sent me names of past or present businesses that were revelations to me:
A Southeast Asian restaurant in Evergreen, Colo., called Beau Thai (Madelynn Coldiron, Frankfort, Ky.)

A bakery in Hartford, Conn., called Yeast of Eden (Rik Albani, Jackson Township, N.J.)

A bookstore in a New Mexican town used for the television western “Longmire” called Tome on the Range (David Wing, Cape Elizabeth, Maine)

A food shop in Glendora, Calif., called Praise Cheeses (Tom Scarborough, St. Francisville, La.)
As for business names that could have been or might yet be, Peter Strupp of Middleton, Wis., suggested a great one. “A decade ago,” he wrote, “I lived in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood, a couple of streets over from Pontius Avenue, and constantly wondered how someone didn’t open a Pilates studio there.”
Imagine if someone had done exactly that, just a few doors down from a second outpost of that Glendora food shop. Then you’d have Praise Cheeses near Pontius Pilates.
The first time it happened, I thought it was a mistake.
I’d moved into the neighborhood all of six hours earlier. I’d met only the woman who lives alone in one of the two houses bracketing mine. And she wasn’t the one driving the car that passed Regan and me on our afternoon walk. A man was behind the wheel — and that man was waving hello.
Had he confused me with someone else? Clearly. You don’t wave at a stranger. At least not back in Manhattan you didn’t. Not in the Westchester County suburbs of New York City, either. I’d spent plenty of time there, helping my father, over the previous 18 months, and random motorists never gesticulated a greeting.
But on my next walk with Regan through our new neighborhood: more waving. And again on the walk after that. In our corner of Chapel Hill, N.C. — and maybe, for all I know, in all of Chapel Hill — you wave at people you presume to be neighbors. You do that if you drive by them. You do that if you walk past them. If you’ve never met them. If you never will.
They’re part of your community. They get a wave.
It’s totally odd. And completely endearing.
A prior version of me would have deemed it phony and disparaged it as such. What does all this waving really add up to? It requires no significant effort. No sacrifice. It makes no discernment.
I’ve no idea whether one of those wavers would be at my doorstep if I was in need; they’ve no idea whether I’d be at theirs. They don’t even know which doorstep is mine.
But with each new round of waves, I found myself warming to them, even craving them a little. They were like a favorite melody heard faintly in the distance or a trill of birdsong where I hadn’t expected birds — little grace notes challenging the din or dirge of a given day. They were a statement, however shallow, about how life is ideally lived, with courtesy and projections of warmth. They were a recognition of connectedness and, in that sense, an embrace of the truth: We all are connected. Why not wave?
On perhaps my fifth day and 12th walk through the neighborhood, something more surprising than that first wave happened. A car came up behind Regan and me and — before I consciously formed the intent — I turned slightly around, raised my right arm and moved my hand from side to side. I wondered for a cynical second if I’d been indoctrinated.
Nah. Just inspired.
Have feedback? If you want to share your thoughts on an item in this week’s newsletter or on the newsletter in general, please email me at bruni-newsletter@nytimes.com.


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