The year without friends

Pandemic living has stripped out a whole layer of vital social information. What should we call it?

My friends are expecting eight babies. Three friends, all mothers of young children, have decided to divorce their husbands; one has separated from a wife; one finalized her divorce and bought her dream house. Three couples got engaged. One friend has cancer. A number of friends had Covid and are still suffering the health fallout. Several lost parents, some to COVID and some not, and more lost a grandparent. Two people I can think of are in new relationships. Most are just hunkered down with whoever they were with one year ago, when the troubles began. 

This may seem like a lot of news. Certainly it reflects a year in which momentum was everything in domestic life. Marital dissatisfaction, often supercharged by pandemic underemployment and/or depression, became intolerable. Happy partnerships seemed more than ever to merit recognition—or reproduction. Static situations stayed still.

To me, though, this collective inventory of the year’s rites of passage reflects something else: my own ignorance. It feels thin. For many of us, it is almost a full year since our retreat from social life, and from the get-togethers and meetings and trips and coffees and outings that used to fill our calendars. It’s winter on top of that, making it harder than ever to safely meet up with those outside our pandemic pods for more than a few minutes. (Some of us upped the ante further by moving, leaving or losing our jobs, and being home a lot with kids, ahem.) As a result, though I’ve always been pretty good at staying in touch, I have only the most skeletal knowledge of most of my friends’ important life events, having gleaned them from one Instagram post, some texts or emails, perhaps a few deep phone conversations in the case of people I normally spend many days with a year. These days, I see few people outside of my immediate family. Hardly anyone in my circle is on Facebook much anymore. The markets of information are temporarily shut down.

What is gone? Serendipity: We are less likely to run into each other at a party or even on the street and tell each other notable new facts about ourselves and our mutual friends. Situational proximity: Unless we’re in essential roles, we zoom in for meetings but don’t overhear our coworkers reacting to good or bad news and lean over to make sure they’re okay, nor do we spill out of a class and decide to go have a drink and a chat with a classmate. And physical intimacy: We rarely have one of those long walks or late-night hangouts with friends where at a certain point we feel comfortable enough to move from the superficial to what’s really on our minds. For many of us, those face-to-face encounters are where the important work of friendship is done. 

We don’t really have a name for what I’m talking about. It’s not gossip, which is a pejorative term for salacious or trivial talk; it’s acknowledging the major life events of everyone you care about outside your immediate household. Even in their sketchiest form, some of my friends’ revelations have filled me with emotion—knowing that someone who has longed for a child now has one on the way, or learning that an old friend living far from home suddenly lost her mom. There ought to be a name for information like that. But we don’t dramatize these relationships the way we do romantic ones, and we don’t attach much language to them. There is no Valentine’s Day for friendship or community.

So let’s coin a non-insulting term for exchanging vital information about our lives with other people—gossip’s serious big sister. Do we reclaim “personal news” from its current internet usage as ironic for professional news? The stuff of life? Rites of passage? Good dirt? All these terms sound dumb, and I recognize the perhaps laughable sincerity of this whole thing. But I miss my friends terribly, and I’m tired of the implication that the high-minded thing is not to care about how anyone else is doing or assuming that you could only want to know for some lurid, transactional reason. Sometimes you want to know so that you can bring over lasagna. In that spirit of openness, I’m going to experiment with opening up the comments for this entry. Tell us what (and whom) you miss and what we should call this layer of social information that’s missing.

What to read

Things are a mess in Texas, where a storm has caused the power grid to fail, leaving many residents without electricity, heat, water, or food. Grim stories are emerging as pipes burst and people run unsafe heating devices indoors. The Texas Tribune is a good place to start for some insight into how the state ended up in this awful place. Hint: it involves “a history of isolating Texas from federal oversight.” Here is a list of resources (including warming shelters) and how to help. Here is BuzzFeed collecting some of the worst anecdotes and roasting Senator Ted Cruz for responding to the crisis by…jetting off to Cancun. (After briefly becoming the main character on Twitter, Cruz quickly turned around and headed home, blaming his daughters for the trip. Thanks, Dad.)

Georgia’s transformation from red to purple state did not happen overnight. It took two women, Stacey Abrams and Lauren Groh-Wargo, working doggedly to lead a team of organizers and strategists over the course of ten years. This long practical New York Times op-ed account they wrote of how they did it is fascinating; it’s like the flipside of all those “shadowy far-right white dude pulling all the strings” New Yorker profiles. It’s also probably servicey if you’re thinking of flipping your state from red to blue, or back again.

You know who does have a vocabulary for friendship is writer and podcaster Aminatou Sow, who with her friend Ann Friedman wrote a whole book about it (Big Friendship, published last summer). She is also writing a Substack, Crème de la Crème, and her list of weird Wikipedia rabbit holes she has tumbled down recently is an excellent advertisement for both her particular mind and Wikipedia in general. (I finally succumbed to Wikipedia’s ads hectoring readers for cash last year and gave them ten bucks, and I have no regrets—let’s be honest, I use it every day.)

What to consume

Speaking of friendship…when you live in a city, there are few places more useful to cultivating relationships than a giant, centrally located restaurant/bar that almost always has space to squeeze in and that has delicious cocktails, grilled cheese, and some of the best oysters in town. Boston’s Kenmore Square, a transit hub that sits amidst Boston University and next to Fenway Park, has been anchored for sixteen years by Eastern Standard Kitchen, a sprawling hotel brasserie that should not be a fun place to hang out but is. (It probably helped that there is almost nothing else fun in Kenmore Square anymore. RIP, the Rat.) Eastern Standard has been more or less closed for almost a year, but word came this week that this restaurant and its neighbors, airy Island Creek Oyster Bar and dark little charming cocktail lounge the Hawthorne, are transferring their liquor licenses to the company that owns the hotel after what is reportedly a rent dispute, and will not reopen. (Liquor licenses in Boston are rare, coveted, and prohibitively expensive because the Puritanical state of Massachusetts sharply caps the number, and a proposed expansion is now facing additional pushback because of coronavirus’s economic hit to the industry, but that’s another story.) Anyway, this news is just dismaying—my former colleague Kara Baskin at the Boston Globe records some initial details, with I’m sure more to come. A place you can go for a breakfast meeting or a date or to meet up with all your friends, smushing all your heavy winter coats onto one barstool, or to chitchat after a conference, or to get something filling before a concert or a ballgame, and a place that is actually good—I don’t know how easily a city can replace that, and that’s even before you get started on the huge number of lost jobs associated with these venues. When I think of how much is closing, it seems like post-Covid we will have to begin the whole horrible evolutionary process again of restaurants being born and then being ruthlessly weeded out because they are bad or just can’t make ends meet, while others survive and shine and start the long process of accumulating memories. Tabula rasa, where the tabula is a two-top with a chair flipped over on it.

What should we do in the meantime? If you’re feeling splurgy, you could order Island Creek oysters to come to you (or to a grateful friend). They’re briny and meaty and about as delicious as the Eastern oyster gets. Or mix your own audio bar ambience at http://imissmybar.com/. It’s free, but you have to BYO drinks and company.  

On another note: The National Zoo is closed for now, too. But it’s nice to know that the DC giant pandas went sledding (or, okay, sliding and rolling downhill) on the same snowy day we took the DC baby out for her first sled ride. Everyone loved it.

Call your friends and ask them what’s really going on. I’ll see you next week.