We were standing in Gimmie! Coffee for good reasons. As she can tell you at the drop of a hat, they use certified coffees including Fair Trade, Organic, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, and Rainforest Alliance. They feature local, hormone-free milk in their espresso bars, corn-based compostable cups instead of plastic, and local providers of other goods and services whenever possible. None of their products are cheap, of course. But the price of Gimmie! Coffee is part of the price you pay for feeling like a better person. Starbucks is the New Death Star, everyone knows that. You have to be a little dead inside to buy coffee there. You have to be one of those people. She knows who they are. Ask her and she’ll point them out on the street.
I didn’t ask any questions while we waited for her soy latte. It had been a calm morning so far, and I didn’t want to introduce any discord into what promised to be a nice day together. We’d been having problems in the relationship. The long-distance between Rochester and Ithaca, not to mention other complications, had pushed things to the brink more than once in less than three months. But today was to be a recovery day; we planned to take a long hike together to talk about what we could do differently. Both of us said we wanted to save the relationship, and the hike was billed as a kind of sustainability event to determine whether or not we could. All we needed was her soy latte and we’d be on our way.
Waiting alongside the other ethical customers, I thought it was a good time to tell her about the special lunch I made for our hike. First there was the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It was actually quite sophisticated. I started with two slices of Ezekiel 4:9 Sprouted Grain Bread, organic of course, toasted them lightly, then carefully applied Crofter’s Organic Just Fruit Blackberry Spread to the first slice. I thought of it as the luckier of the two before I moved on to the peanut butter. She’d voiced some misgivings about the mid-grade Smuckers I had in my cupboard the last time she visited, so I made a special point of buying a much more expensive organic brand for this particular sandwich. It was accompanied by organic sliced carrots and cucumbers, but the trail mix, I admitted, contained only organic peanuts. The raisins and walnuts I brought were, unfortunately, non-organic.
Knowing that she really prefers to eat everything organic, and that she takes her veganism very seriously, I half-jokingly apologized for this least decorous part of the menu thinking she’d still be impressed by my considerable efforts to please her. The meal was certifiably vegan-friendly as far as I could tell. But the raisins, she informed me, really were a problem.
It became an educative moment for me and anyone else who happened to be listening. Some foods have higher pesticide residue than others, so if you’re going to decide which to buy non-organic, she said, you should make sure they’re not tree fruits, berries, or leafy greens. These are all part of “the dirty dozen,” she explained. There is a hierarchy and we should observe it. Otherwise who knows what chemicals we’ll be exposed to. My failure to buy the right product at the right grocery store now culminated in a harsh look on her face as she enunciated the word “raisins.”
Some people have a way of doing everything just right. From the first conversations we had on OK Cupid, she appeared to be one of them. Her diet, her intensive exercise routines, including 90-minute Bikram Yoga classes sometimes twice a day, her former Buddhism, her gourmet cooking expertise, her precise knowledge of poetry, art, and music, her meticulous composting and recycling habits—nearly every choice this woman made seemed to conform to the most rigid dictates of physical, aesthetic, and ecological excellence. And yet something was missing.
On the walk back to my car from Gimmie! Coffee I couldn’t resist asking any longer. I’d noticed a hickey on her neck when we left her house and I knew it would drive me crazy if I didn’t ask if I had given it to her. This was conceivable since I had been in Ithaca two nights before. But the large dark mark on her neck looked fresh. Some part of me knew I hadn’t given it to her. So, after a few more minutes of light conversation during which I looked for an opportunity to change the subject, I asked, and she proceeded to tell me the story of what happened that morning while I was driving to Ithaca.
She and her fitness buddy used to date. I’d known that. She even told me early on that she still had feelings for him, and I chose to continue. It was only after our first month together when I asked if she’d told him about us that I began to worry. She hadn’t told him, and she didn’t plan to because she felt it might endanger their friendship. They were, after all, trying to rebuild a friendship after he’d ended the relationship several months earlier, and she felt like this effort was still somewhat fragile. She wanted to protect it from anything that might dampen their rapport, and she asked me to understand.
I was of course uncomfortable with such an awkward arrangement—her continuing to see this fitness buddy, whom she still had feelings for, almost daily for their various fitness-related activities without any open acknowledgement that she was in a long-distance relationship with me. But because I wanted to preserve our relationship at an earlier point of turmoil I eventually acceded to her wishes. I promised to trust her to do three things at once: to honor our relationship while sustaining her close friendship with her fitness buddy without making the two worlds collide. As far as she was concerned, she got the best of both of us. I was still uncomfortable, but I reconciled myself to keeping the faith. I believed her when she said she loved me and that she was in control.
It turned out she wasn’t. Even though we’d planned to start our long hike at 9am, she decided to go biking with her fitness buddy earlier that morning. At the end of their ride, she told me, he kissed her, and then he gave her the hickey. He’d been emotional lately, and it seemed to come out of nowhere.
As soon as I asked her the question—“did I give you that hickey?”—and she responded, coldly and flatly, with “nope,” I felt every ounce of feeling I had for her drop out of the pit of my stomach. But I wanted to hear more of her story.
“How did you feel about it?” I asked.
“Conflicted,” she answered.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I knew you were driving here when it happened, so it was weird.”
“But obviously you kissed him back?”
“So where do you think that leaves us?”
“Well I guess that’s up to you.”
I’d re-joined OK Cupid almost exactly three months earlier because I thought I had no argument against it. A friend made the case that the site and others like it are really just extensions of modernism and the city, and I was convinced. The neat moral injunction that emerged from our discussion one night at a bar—either embrace the bricolage of possible human interactions, meanings, and experiences, or face the consequences of rejecting this latest iteration of modernism—led me to decisive action.
The day I re-opened my account I received the first message from the woman I would doggedly pursue for three months until that fateful morning. In the beginning, I thought it was one of the most remarkable success stories of modernism in action I’d ever experienced. But driving home that day the panorama of my idiocy was undeniable. This is what you get when you participate in a medium that sorts people like commodities, I thought. Bricolage ends in the possibility that one can merge extreme ethical sensitivity on the one hand with extreme ethical impoverishment on the other. There are no rules in this new wild west. There are only aesthetic preferences, whether they be early morning bike rides, dates with six different people six nights in a row, or coffee that makes you feel like a better person.
The peculiar form of ethical bricolage I encountered in Ithaca was not invented by OK Cupid, nor was it likely conceived in the modern era. But one has to wonder how much the online format—particularly the primary node of the screen—reinforces a pattern of behavior that tends toward treating other people merely as means of personal satisfaction. The OK Cupid app available on most smart phones epitomizes this pattern by turning each individual profile into a mere face on a menu, not unlike a cup of soup or an arugula salad one evaluates on the basis of taste and appetite. At this extreme, “services” like OK Cupid and Grindr begin to look like data dumps of lost souls. Lost souls are of course nothing new, either. But this particular way of congregating and exchanging lostness (and loneliness) may be.
Whatever the truth about OK Cupid, I think I should have rejected this latest iteration of modernism. I should have abstained. Still, the seduction of experience lingers.