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Keeping in touch
I feel like I should say more about the thirty-year-old boyfriend. He had a lot more going for him than a roach-free apartment. He’d just wrecked his Mustang when we met, and was driving a car that his mechanic had sold him for (I think) $400, but the fact that he had a car, a job—I thought the world of him. He’d spent a few years in the navy and had traveled all over the globe, he’d once taken a class in Palm Beach taught by Mike Dukakis, and he was the first person to take me out for Thai food. He was very smart, and very tough—the protective kind of tough guy, not abusive—and had both the skill set and the mindset of a paramedic. Capable, alert. I was seventeen, a high school senior. We stayed together through my senior year of college.
My mother’s reaction to all of this—the age difference, my decision at age eighteen to move into his apartment, the subtle thuggishness of his appearance—was to hope that we’d get married. She is both very progressive (she was arrested in a Civil Rights protest when she was about eighteen) and uptight (the birds and bees are not discussed), so I can’t say for sure whether her marriage hopes stemmed from a backward reaction to the impropriety or if it was simply because she liked the guy. She did like him, and thought he was good for me, and sent us what can only be described as a wedding present—a set of expensive plates.
I still have the plates. I spent some time last week debating whether to pack them for the move or to finally get rid of them. A lot of them are missing—the platter and the serving bowl are gone, as are most of the teacups—and I never use them. But they’re Rosenthals. They’re still good plates.
I’m also still in touch with the ex-boyfriend. We’ve had, until this year, a mostly epistolary friendship, as in we send each other written letters. He’s been in prison since 2004. Collect calls are expensive, so letters are the way to go. He’ll turn fifty-three this month. Next month, he’ll be released. So I’ve been thinking a lot about our friendship, and what it means to stay connected to a person who has done a terrible thing. I’m not going to proclaim his innocence—he killed someone—or get into the hell that is the Florida Department of Corrections, or its routine use of solitary confinement. What’s on my mind is just—relationships. Why we keep people in our lives.
When Matt and I moved to DC from New York we were sad about all the friends that we were leaving. We’d both lived in New York City since our mid-twenties; almost all of the friendships of our adult lives were formed there. You don’t need me to put a bunch of links here telling you that friendships are crucial to our happiness, or to our health, or explaining things like the value of weak ties and social capital, because you already know: Friends matter.
So we stay in touch. We keep people. Matt and I both felt like we were just getting our social lives in shape here in DC when the pandemic started, and now that we’re moving to another city yet again it feels like all the pandemic acquaintances we formed in our neighborhood are on the verge of gelling into friendships just as we’re about to leave. It’s not going to be easy to say goodbye. Even all the neighbors who we barely know, who we just wave at on the street—we’re going to miss them too. Meanwhile, there’s been a seemingly endless number of articles about post-pandemic friendscapes, which must be “curated,” or whatever.
Anyway, I packed the plates. The ex-boyfriend is one of a very small number of people on this earth who knew my father. I don’t know whether I’ll be able to help him much when he gets out, or if he’ll even need help, or if the period of his transition from confinement to being on his own will prove more difficult than prison was. He has family members, and other friends. He also has a cell phone now, and sends me links to videos of cats sometimes—we had two cats before he went away. So maybe we’ll have a cat-video-based friendship.
Read, read, watch
The advantages of clan-based society may even tell us something about the disappearance of the Neanderthals. Neanderthals displayed low population densities and show no archaeological evidence for social units larger than the extended family. In face-to-face competition for territory, they probably stood little chance against archaic modern humans organized into clans. We find this likely because by the twentieth century, most hunter-gathering societies without clans had been relegated to the world’s most inhospitable environments. They were pushed there by groups with more complex social organization.
The popular press likes to suggest that Neaderhtals simply were not smart enough to compete with our more modern-looking ancestors, but that view sounds racist to us. The Neanderthals may simply have gone the way of most foragers who had no social units larger than the extended family. . . .
Which only serves to make me wish we lived much closer to our own extended families.
Also worth reading, if you want more deep history and informed speculation about the human transition from nomadism to settlement, is James C. Scott’s Against the Grain, which weirdly seems to be marketed toward the grain-free paleo devotees but is otherwise completely fascinating. (Forest gardening! The first instance of human-caused environmental degradation! A reinterpretation of the Fall!)
On a subject only tangentially related to social ties: Matt and I just finished watching a documentary, Philly D.A., to get us acquainted with our future city. Check it out if mass incarceration and cash bail bother you or if you feel like you need to absolve yourself for all those episodes of Cops you watched, and also if you liked The Wire, or if you think you might enjoy spending a lot of time with someone weirdly reminiscent of Al Franken. The subject matter is both sad and wonky—it’s about Philadelphia’s activist district attorney, Larry Krasner, and the deep problems the city faces with crime, incarceration, drug addiction, police violence, bail, parole—and it’s also weirdly funny, quietly punctuated with visual humor.
Matt has a new piece in Insider today about the “Blob,” aka the foreign policy establishment that he’s been circling for the past five years, outing them for being inexcusably pro-war. It’s paywalled, so here’s my favorite part:
Not much airtime is given to dissent from what’s often called “the rules-based order” or “the liberal international order.” These terms sound technical and boring and unobjectionable; perhaps that is by design. In plain English, “rules-based order” has effectively come to mean “war is good.” The foreign-policy establishment is ideologically committed to the faith-based proposition that America can use force against a country thousands of miles away and, if not remake it in our own image, then at least leave it better than we found it. “Liberal” and “rules” are strange words to apply to campaigns that rely so heavily on drone strikes and covert CIA operations. At one event hosted by the Blobosphere, I remember one of my peers raising his hand to ask how we could convince the American public that it was worth going to war to defend Montenegro, as we are obliged to under Article 5 of the NATO treaty. The room turned and looked at him as if he’d gone insane.
Lee Perry died last month. Here’s my favorite of his early recordings: