In winter darkness, can you close your eyes and remember the taste of a ripe apricot? Can you recall the bittersweet green scent left on your hand as you harvest a tomato an instant before the bursting-point?
I’ve reached the six-month point in my online dating experience, and it feels like a small milestone: no longer a novice, not yet jaded. When asked how it’s going, my invariable reply is that it’s been fun and interesting; and the nearly invariable response is surprise. Fairly frequently, I hear stories of disappointment and discouragement, bitterness and resignation.
If I’d started out with the goal of finding true love in 90 days, I’d probably feel the same. But in comparison with the ancient history of courtship—I was married in the late seventies and only resumed single status a year and a half ago—spending time in online dating world is so much like visiting a foreign country, I think my tendency to see the experience as virtual cultural anthropology has been an advantage. You know how that goes, right? You become fascinated with ordinary things—electrical outlets, the coffee, the colors of money—just because, being unfamiliar, they seem to encode the essence of difference.
I decided to mark the six months (and my birthday this weekend) by rewriting my profile. (For the uninitiated, this is a self-description embedded in a questionnaire, a companion to the photos most people post. Depending on the site, you are asked about work and pastimes, about favorite music and books, and given room to say whatever you wish.) One way or another, potential partners come across your profile, and what they see and read there determines whether they will click a link and get in touch. During the first phase of my sojourn in online dating world, I tweaked my profile now and then, but mostly it stood as it began, a somewhat general “here I am,” telegraphing my interest in art and ideas, in awareness and intelligence.
I suppose it worked, because in six months, I’ve had enough cups of coffee to fill a bathtub and as many convivial chats. The mere fact of that has been reassuring in terms of supply and demand: on the supply side, that there are so many nice men willing to risk vulnerability in pursuit of love; on the demand side, that they wanted to risk it with me.
But recently, I’ve decided it might be wise to trade abundance for refinement, fly-fishing, so to speak, instead of casting out a net. My friend advised me to start my new profile with a clear and complete statement of what I want. He helped me isolate my top five points. That was an interesting exercise, making me realize that in addition to learning something about online dating world, I’d learned a little more about myself in these six months. Here’s the first of the five points (I’ll write about the others in subsequent posts):
Vitality and chemistry. I am seeking a man who is also comfortable in his skin, who also enjoys living in his body, is vibrant and alive, who takes care of himself, and whose voice and mannerisms reflect that ease. Chemistry is important, but impossible to judge without meeting face-to-face.
I’m not sure what “chemistry” is, beyond a synonym for attraction; I think of it as receiving something I can feel. I made it the first point in my new profile because, for me, chemistry starts with the sense that a man is at home inhabiting his own body, taking up space and emanating energy. It’s hard, I think, to preserve throughout a long life the delicious feeling of ease in the body sometimes experienced in childhood, leaping through the sprinklers, pumping the legs to fly high on a swing, skipping along a stretch of wet sand. But it’s sad to see how often life’s journey has imprinted an apology for existence on a man’s bearing. A male friend of mine recently characterized online dating world in terms of “caution and slim but deathless hope.” Whatever else chemistry might be, beyond ordinary prudence, I don’t think the recipe includes a large helping of caution.
If I ever thought there was such a thing as “men”—a category of creatures having enough in common to warrant endless generalization—the online dating experience has taught me to no longer think it. Even the most basic assumptions about, say, self-assertion, ultimately give way to an avalanche of exceptions. Many young men seem forthright in pursuit of their desires. But just as many men of a certain age who share my progressive political values are cautious to a fault. From what some of them have told me, they are prey to overwhelming uncertainty: a voice tells them to hang back, to wait until it is safe to step out into the world, and that feeling of adequate safety never comes.
It’s sort of irresistible to generalize this to the big world, where the right wing is all self-assertion, and the left hesitates, often until the moment is lost. “Ripeness is all,” Shakespeare tells us in King Lear, and online dating world confirms it. “All your points come down to the same thing,” said a friend I asked to vet my new profile. “You’re looking for a ripe fruit, not a dried apricot.”
I was thinking about this yesterday as I traveled in time to my current soundtrack, an audiobook of Keith Richards’ memoir, Life. His sentences are crisp and to the point, narrating a long and fascinating trip on an exceptionally interesting cultural thoroughfare, acutely observed. Of the Rolling Stones, I’ve always liked him best: his slippery refusal to adhere to normative categories; his rakish, dissolute charm; a bruised, amused sexiness strong enough to survive epic drug and alcohol abuse.
Needless to say, I haven’t met anyone online who remotely resembles Keith Richards. No Captain Jack couture, no festoon of scarves and necklaces carefully arranged to seem not at all arranged, none of that attractively slurred diction that says “I know how to think, but I can’t be bothered to pronounce all those consonants.” Instead, along with the nice men with whom I’ve shared coffee, I’ve encountered some whose interest is in epistolary romance, with elaborate, extended exchanges of email; a surprisingly large cohort of very young men who are interested in women my age, which is astonishing (but not my thing); and some who long to recreate the texture of a bygone companionate marriage, who seek a partner who also wishes to soothe herself with wine-tasting tours and long, chatty conversations about nothing much.
In offline life as in online dating world, appearances are not always a reliable guide to reality. Take Keith Richards: assumptions about his wicked ways with women can’t help adhering to his reputation, like barnacles to a rock. But as I listened to my audiobook, on the aural equivalent of page 214, the barnacles slid off:
I have never put the make on a girl in my life. I just don’t know how to do it. My instincts are always to leave it to the woman. Which is kind of weird, but I can’t pull the come-on bit: Hey, baby, how you doing? Come on, let’s get it on, and all of that. I’m tongue-tied. I suppose every woman I’ve been with, they’ve had to put the make on me. Meanwhile I’m putting the make on in another way by creating an aura of insufferable tension. Somebody has to do something. You either get the message or you don’t, but I could never make the first move. I knew how to operate among women, because most of my cousins were women, so I felt very comfortable in their company. If they’re interested, they’ll make the move. That’s what I found out.
It’s interesting, no, that this avator of sexual energy has been able to actualize his desires only by tying himself in a knot and waiting? Thank God he had the talent and luck to become a rock star! The same attitude in an auto mechanic or insurance salesman might have led to a lifetime of frustrations.
Off and online, attraction is a mystery, no matter how scientific the online dating sites claim to be. I’ve cast my new line into the mystery with a sense that I am likely to catch fewer fish in the next six months. I’m almost certain that the five points that start my new profile will discourage the vast majority of men who are window-shopping profiles. I’ll be interested to learn whether there are any who read the phrase “vitality and chemistry” and feel a yes coming on. But of course, the other four points also come into play, and you haven’t yet heard them yet. Stay tuned.
Somehow, summer in January rhymes with the mature search for love. In winter darkness, can you close your eyes and remember the taste of a ripe apricot? Can you recall the bittersweet green scent left on your hand as you harvest a tomato an instant before the bursting-point?
It can be summer again at your dinner-table with a rainbow platter of cooked salads offering the piquant sweetness of a Rolling Stones ballad—“Winter,” say, with this warming refrain: “Sometimes I wanna wrap my coat around you.”
Make the tomato and pepper salad I shared back in September. You’ll find it by scrolling down to the recipe for “Jelly” in my trompe-l’œil “Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches.” Instead of chopping the peppers, cut them into chunks, approximately a half-inch square. And instead of simmering the salad all the way to the jam stage, cook it just until the peppers are soft.
Then make the Moroccan carrot salad below. On a large platter or in separate bowls, arrange both salads along with a white cheese (goat cheese, feta, or if you prefer something milder, fresh mozzarella), and good Greek olives. Serve with coarse country bread, close your eyes and stroll through a summer garden in your mind.
Moroccan Carrot Salad
1 pound carrots
2-3 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
3/4 teaspoon cumin seeds, roasted and ground
1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
juice of one lemon
At the last moment: Chopped cilantro or Italian parsley to taste
Scrub the carrots and dice them. Simmer them in salted water (or cook them in the microwave) until tender but not mushy. Drain the carrots and run cold water over them to stop the cooking.
Meanwhile, mix the remaining ingredients in a bowl large enough to hold the carrots, tasting for a balance of oil and lemon and adjusting the salt. Dump the still-warm carrots into the dressing and mix well. Just before serving, add the chopped herbs to taste.
For dessert, bring dried apricots back to life. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Dried Apricots Resurrected
Whole dried apricots (not halves), 8 ounces
A carton of labneh (yogurt cheese) or Greek yogurt (preferably whole milk)
Chopped pistachios or other nuts, 2 ounces or so in all
Simmer dried apricots in water until they plump, about 15 minutes. For half a pound of dried apricots, save 3/4 cup of the cooking water and return it to the pan with 1/4 cup sugar and a couple of tablespoons of sweet white wine or a compatible liqueur. Bring to a boil and simmer the apricots till soft, 15-25 minutes, depending on how dry they were. Remove the apricots to a plate and save the syrup.
Either buy labneh (yogurt cheese) or drain thick Greek yogurt in a sieve lined with cheesecloth or paper towels. Sweeten it to taste with sugar. Fold in as many chopped nuts as you want—unsalted pistachios are best, but toasted almonds are nice too.
One-by-one, gently open the apricots and stuff with a spoonful of the sweetened yogurt cheese. Arrange on a platter and drizzle with the syrup. Garnish with more chopped nuts if you like.
While you cook, listen to the Stones’ bittersweet anthem of lost love, “Angie,” written by Keith Richards while he was in a clinic, kicking drugs, awaiting the birth of his first daughter. It’s hard to think of an expression of tragic romanticism that surpasses the wrenching beauty of these lines:
But Angie, I still love you, baby
Everywhere I look I see your eyes
There ain’t a woman that comes close to you
Come on baby dry your eyes
But Angie, Ain’t it…
Ain’t it good to be alive?
You can’t say we never tried