Saturday, November 4th, 2006
Anna Lappé is a nationally recognized author, public speaker and cofounder of the Small Planet Institute and Small Planet Fund. Her most recent book is Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen. She has more ideas on food, sustainability, globalization, hunger, and social change than just about anyone, but she doesn’t have a clue how to squeeze a mango or sniff an orange. With no requirements for produce or lists for groceries, how is she supposed to enumerate the qualities she’s seeking in a mate?
Below, Lappé contemplates whether itemizing an imaginary partner is a date with destiny or a waste of time.
“Why don’t you make a list?” my friend asked.
He and I had just come back from a run along Provincetown’s coastline and were now curled up in the living room of an artists’ retreat. My friend had the residency; I was sofa crashing. During our jog, the conversation had eventually turned to relationships. Now my friend was suggesting that post-my most recent breakup I concoct a list of essential qualities for the next mate. It had to do with “manifesting my destiny,” or something, he said. But he believes in that stuff much more than I do, or at least than I did then.
“It would feel weird,” I said. “Like a cosmic personal ad. Plus, I don’t even make a list when I go grocery shopping, what makes you think I should do it to find love?”
In fact, the way I shop for food feels a lot like the way I look for love. There’s no set plan; I get inspired by what’s in season, what looks most compelling. I don’t even know how you’re supposed to select the good produce from the bad: Watermelon, is it supposed to sound hollow when you knock it? Be fragrant when you smell it? Heavy when you lift it? No idea, I pick produce on instinct.
“Anyway,” I said, still resisting the idea, “I don’t have a type. How would I even make a list?”
My former lovers seem as different as commuters on the subway at rush hour. My first love was a six-foot-four excommunicated Mormon with swimming-pool blue eyes whose beat-up station wagon had been spray painted to read: “Which way to Woodstock?” (What can I say? We grew up in Berkeley.) In college, I fell for a freckled Israeli raised in Houston. He was a serious academic, a mathematician who double-majored in math and “Modern Culture and Media.” After college, I fell in love with an African-American woman whose playwright mother had instilled in her a passion for art and politics. The summer we lived in San Francisco, we spent nights out dancing and days at rallies for affirmative action.
In my mid-twenties, I met a French filmmaker with whom I fell in love instantly. It’s cliche, I know, but he seduced me with his documentary. The fact that we loved (and laughed at) all the same installation art was an added bonus.
My last romance, the one that had just ended, leaving me duly single and discussing how to find my next love in the darkening Provincetown night, was a cinematographer two decades my senior, a red diaper baby with the blacked-out FBI files and wire tap to prove it.
“Sorry,” I said to my friend, “I don’t have a type. Even if I believed in manifesting my destiny with a list, I wouldn’t know what should be on it.”
“Just give it a try,” he said.
So later that night, deciding I had nothing to lose, that’s just what I did: Out came the notepad. I started with the simple stuff. After six years with filmmakers, I wanted to meet someone with their hands in something more, let’s just say, on-the-ground.
I wrote: Human-rights worker.
Second-guessing myself, I thought maybe that’s too specific, and crossed it out. But then, I looked at that first line of my list again. No, specific is good. I rewrote it.
“Someone who loves to cook.” That’s an easy one.
Then: “Someone who is funny.”
This line produced a sudden wave of panic. What if this is like those classic fables? You get three wishes, but careful what you wish for, a turn of phrase, a misspoken word, makes all the difference. So scratch that, I thought, and wrote: “Someone who makes me laugh.” After all, what’s worse than someone who is funny, but who you don’t find funny?
After a dozen or so items, I closed my notebook and didn’t think about the list again until four days later, on a bus.
Usually, I would have taken the train back to New York City, but after Provincetown I visited an old friend who was teaching at Wesleyan and to make life easier for him, I jumped on the Middletown bus.
I first noticed Eric in the station; it was hard not to. He had jet-black hair and eyes the color of a brown bear’s pelt. Despite his height—a few inches past six feet—his backpack’s frame dwarfed him. (I didn’t think about it at the time, but a few hours later “tall” was mentally marked off my list.)
When the 11 am to Grand Central pulled into the station, a half dozen of us boarded. There were lots of empty seats. Eric got on a few minutes after me and sat down in the row in front of mine. Before the driver had even started the engine, Eric turned around.
“Hi,” he said, smiling. “I’m Eric.” Through the opening between the two seats, he stuck out his hand.
He was visiting a friend at Wesleyan, too, but was in the country for just a few weeks. He was living in Costa Rica, he explained. With his muscles showing through his worn t-shirt, I thought: Surfer? Rock climber? When I asked what he did there, I guessed he’d tell me he spent a few hours a week working, and the rest of the time playing.
“Im not sure you would have heard of it, but I work for UNHCR,” he said.
I nearly spit out my iced tea. Of course I had heard of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Let’s just say it’s a far cry from serving ceviche to sunburnt gringos. I mentally crossed “human rights worker” off the list.
By the time we got to New Haven, he had moved to the seat next to mine. His neck was cramping from the craning, he said by way of explanation. By Stamford, my stomach was aching from laughing so hard. (Strikethrough: “Someone who makes me laugh.”
We were inching through upper Manhattan as he explained the circuitous path that brought him to his work with displaced Colombian refugees, and off came: “Must speak a foreign language,” including its sub-clause: “preferably Spanish.” (I had already learned French from my ex.)
By the time the bus was idling in Grand Central, I had also checked off: “Must be inquisitive about life and make me learn.”
It turned out the friend he was staying with, who happened to live two blocks from me, was stuck at work. I suggested he get a ride back to the neighborhood with me.
“You can hang out at my place until she gets home,” I said. So he called his friend back with the plan. Listening to his side of their banter, I checked off: “Must love his friends.”
In the cab on the way to Brooklyn, we crawled along the eastside avenues. Bush at the United Nations had tied up all the roads. Over the East River, he convinced me, among other things, to go out dancing with him that night.
Back in Brooklyn it was the day of our local primaries, and Eric came with me to the polls. We killed time walking around the neighborhood, talking about politics, and “must share my values,” was mentally checked off.
Later that night, freshened up from our long bus ride, Eric and I met up at a club near my place. A friend was DJing an eclectic mix of hip hop, salsa, and disco. Eric arrived, changed out of his jeans and t-shirt into funky pin-striped pants and a snug-fitting black shirt. He took my hand, then my waist, and we were dancing.
Over gin and tonics between sets he filled in more of his life story. Before moving to Costa Rica he had been in a dance company, but even before this tidbit of information, “Must love to dance” was already off the list.
During that night and the next day a few more items got crossed off, and at some point it dawned on me, they all were. (I also learned an additional twist to the story: Eric’s middle name was Paul, which meant that his first and middle names were the same as my last two boyfriends. Maybe a celestial sign of my destiny manifesting?)
Eric was in town for only 24 more hours, when he would be leaving for DC before catching a plane back to San Jose. He had another two years of his stint there. The next day, when he headed off to catch his bus, we made no promises to keep in touch, passed on no emails or phone numbers. We just said goodbye.
As his lanky frame bobbed down my street, I wondered at the fact that my heart wasn’t in my throat. Here was a man who had everything on the list, walking away from me, presumably for the rest of my life, and I wasn’t devastated. I felt fine.
Maybe this was the ultimate lesson of the list genies: You can’t pre-ordain who you will fall in love with. Sure, you can deduce the qualities you’re seeking, and which ones would be deal breakers, but lists are still just that: a set of words. And love is, well, love. And despite all of his charm, it was really quite simple: I wasn’t going to fall in love with Eric.
Or, maybe the list genies were just scolding me for being so careless. After all, it seems I had neglected the most critical item of all. I had forgotten to write, “Must live near me.”