photo of cheese fries
Mmm… chili cheese fries” by jeffreyw is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

When the restaurants shut down, one of my favorite neighborhood bars shut down too. They were lucky—the bar was on a quiet street that was easy to pedestrianize. They opened back up with outdoor cafe seating a few weeks later. There were changes. Order at the window. Sanitize your own table. The menu got smaller. My favorite dish, a platter of fries, bacon, and jalapeños covered in cheese and served with a strawberry ketchup, was cut from the menu.

About 18 months later, I was back in the bar, and delighted to learn that the full menu was back. Once I ordered my fries, I discovered that though the dish was on the menu, it wasn’t quite back. Even a blunt combination of cheese and meat and potatoes demands delicate balances to approach greatness. When the oven is too hot or the dish warmed too long, the cheese gets hard and dries out. The cheese should smother the fries, not cement them together. The salt in the bacon and cheese requires under-salting the fries. If there is not enough strawberry jam mixed into the ketchup, it conflicts with the jalapeño brine.

Eighteen months is a long time. Most likely, the kitchen turned over while the dish was off the menu, and there was no one there to teach the new people how to make it. Or a change in vendors led to a different cheese blend or ketchup order. It’s possible that it’s just a bad dish and I no felt nostalgic for it.

Many of the things we value in our everyday world, things that make up the texture of ordinary living, are contingent on relationships. A bar that doesn’t maintain relationship with its staff, a kitchen manager that doesn’t maintain relationship with its vendors, even a patron that doesn’t maintain relationship with his favorite dish, all of these can cause a dish to unravel.

I met a contractor that specialized in home renovations in small, out of the way, wealthy Ojai, California. He explained why he ordered his hardware from a small, independent hardware store. “I can get 25-30% better prices ordering from Home Depot. That’s real money. But sometimes I make an ordering mistake. Sometimes things break. I can run out and back to Ojai Lumber in 30 minutes. If there’s no hardware store in Ojai, then I have to go to the Home Depot in Oxnard. That’s a round trip of two hours, and my guys are standing around until I get back. My time is much more expensive than materials. There’s a big difference between one local hardware store and no local hardware stores, so I try to make sure that I give them business when I can.”

That’s attending to relationships.

Elon Musk goes out of his way to show contempt for anyone he does business with. Nothing attracts his attention faster than letting slip that you have your own goals and financial interests. I am not enjoying seeing Twitter fall apart. But I am enjoying him fail. He assumed that everyone would eventually give up on having their own interests in the platform, and that nobody else would have any human reaction to his abuse. Twitter may be more complicated and less perfect than my favorite plate of cheese fries, but it has turned out to be no less vulnerable to falling apart when the people who make it stop cooperating.

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