Books and Boots
Nikolas got me interested in a dating site. Or maybe matchmaking site might be more accurate. It uses the answers to hundreds of questions to generate possible matches for you among the registered members, who have also answered the same or similar questions. The questions are less oblique than those of Hunch, and instead of producing a taste profile prepares a personality mosaic. To find your match it uses a branching algorithm that starts with questions you have marked as “mandatory”, questions for which you will accept only certain answers from potential matches. These are your non-negotiable items. For example, reject if: he deals drugs, doesn’t brush his teeth, wants kids, watches Fox News, and would lie—or is it wouldn’t lie?—to you if he cheated on you. Then it refines the search for things you’re a bit more flexible on but would still find desirable in a mate (like, he’s relatively fit and maybe he reads a book now and then) and finally to the frivolous but not entirely indifferent (as in, no, it’s not ok to fart while we’re watching a DVD at home without saying, excuse me).
I registered with the site and duly answered about 150 questions and it gave me a first bunch of matches. Nikolas was at the top of the list. A few days later it sent me a breakdown with the Americans states and foreign countries with the greatest concentration of best matches. Mine was Vermont and Iceland. It made me think that perhaps starting Dutch was a mistake.
Answering the questions was just the first step. I needed to fill out a profile if I really wanted anyone to take me seriously. But this was a whole different kind of profile than the ones I had filled out on sites like Worldskins. That was easy, just a string of gear fetishes and sexual practices. The only challenge there was striking that fine line between comprehensiveness and misrepresentation. I quickly learned you put nothing in your profile that you were not earnest about. Dabbling didn’t count.
No, these questions reminded me of essay questions on college applications. Tell us who you are. Oh, really. And the six things you can’t do without? I assumed they didn’t mean things like my kidneys or my younger brother. I’m still not happy with my profile. It’s honest enough and throws a certain dim and partial light on who I am.
Writing a profile is a curatorial act. It always involves a conscious selection of works to support the main themes of the particular exhibition. What do I include? Do I mention successful past relationships? It shows I’m husband material, yes, but on the other hand, I don’t want him to think I’m mired in the past. What about those misunderstood pieces that are really you but never got any critical acclaim, or indeed, got bombed? I decided there was no need for brutal honesty. Some things need a context—like six months into the relationship—before they can be said.
The trouble is, I don’t really exactly know what the overarching themes should be. Whatever possessed me to write, “modest, decent, affectionate, down-to-earth hedonist”? Other than the fact that it’s true. The “modest” part was a risk. Wouldn’t want him to think I’m a wuss. That said, all things considered, I probably am more a wuss than the average guy. Not in things that matter, I suppose (I’m too Kantian for my that), but a wuss all the same.
I was writing ad copy. And I knew the most memorable ads, the most persuasive ideas, the ones that really stand out in your memory, what Chip and Dan Heath called “sticky messages”, whether they be urban legends, proverbs,marketing messages or profiles are the ones with simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, emotion and… a story. I couldn’t work a story in, though.
In the end, though, I realized the messages were less important than the experience of reading the profile and the photos. There wasn’t much I could do about the latter, even if now and then someone says I look a bit like Bruce Willis. An older Bruce Willis. I had found a picture that Jörg had taken of us during our trip to Patmos and I looked like me and I had a natural smile—a rarity for me—so I cropped it and attached to the profile. But I also figured, well, if someone actually took the trouble to click on my profile, at least it should be halfway enjoyable to read. Of course, making it entertaining runs the risk of creating the impression of subterfuge or shallowness, so I didn’t make it as much as fun as I could have. Ah, decisions, decisions, maybe Worldskins had it right after all.
One of the questions had to do with my favorite books. That was hard. You can’t have a favorite book. Favorite implies repetition. You can have a favorite ice cream flavor, the flavor you pick when you’re at a gelateria in Rome and the shack on the beach. You can have a favorite director but probably not a favorite film, unless you’re a romantic that needs a comfort film to get through the rough spots of a relationship. Favorite means coming back. Your favorite color is the one you keep picking clothes out in. But how many times do you read the same book?
It would have made sense to ask what the most influential books in your life were or, better, the most significant (not the same thing). The literary way-markers of your life.
What I said was Alain Sulzer’s beautifully poignant little gem, A Perfect Waiter, Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, Gravity’s Rainbow, Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life, for the sheer pleasure of the prose and the delightful illustrations, even if the science has been discredited. Books by Oliver Sacks and Richard Dawkins. Oh, and Hans-Ulrich Obrist’s Interviews.
But these are not my milestone books. Those would have been other books. Like The Brothers Karamazov, the first book that my grand-uncle lent me from his library—what an honor that felt like for me and how I treasured the book! (It was also a book that showed me there were worse fathers than mine). And George Eliot’s Middlemarch, one of the greatest novels of friendship ever written. It was the first book that I read with another man. I remember long conversations over Indian Pudding in the Faculty Club at the university where we both worked, talking late into the afternoon about the book, long after most of the guests had left. And Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled, because my therapist had recommended it and I was in love with him and thought he was the wisest man on earth. And Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, not only because it was the first gay novel I had read, but also because I read it during my first relationship with another man, a man I was wildly in love with and a relationship that would continue after the expiration of passion had turned it into a friendship that lasted until he died. And W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, one of the very few occasions on which Nikolas and I have quarreled, and certainly the only book I’ve fought with anyone about.
I realize the books I see as way-markers were all associated with a man. Maybe it does belong on the site, after all.