On-line dating, it turns out, is not unlike ice fishing.
Ice fishing: Bundle up, venture into the biting cold in a location that may have fish. Act like it’s not terrible.
Internet dating: Dress up. Go out alone to meet a stranger. Act like it’s not terrible.
Ice fishing: drill a hole through several inches of ice, accidentally drop a mitten into bitter cold water, hope to catch a fish. Pretend this is a super fun lark, and you’re getting a huge kick out of it.
Internet dating: Conversationally drill through layers of protection and scar tissue; hope to connect with another human being. Pretend this is a super fun lark, and you’re getting a huge kick out of it.
Ice fishing: Hold the metal drill with a bare wet hand in wind chill that makes you wonder how much of your skin will remain with the drill.
Internet dating: (I won’t carry the metaphor here, that of holding a cold drill with a bare hand.)
Ice fishing: After the line is in the water, go into a cozy hut with good friends, drink beer, and tell stories about the weird thing that got snagged on your line.
Internet dating: After the date, gather with friends over a drink and trade stories about your weird experiences. This is that moment.
Here’s a date I went on. He arrived late, really late, allowing me wonder if I was in the correct location, if I’d been stood up, how long I should wait, and whether I should start out this potential new relationship by calling him on his tardiness. But he eventually arrived and I swallowed my irritation, although I resented that my timeliness gave him the advantage -- I was the eager one, the one who’d gotten there first, the one who had approached seven strangers, hoping each was him, and had to face the brush off every time, and then stand there with those same men who were waiting for wives and girlfriends, but now I’d been revealed as the woman on a blind date who was probably being stood up. He was the one who breezed in late.
We walked together to the hostess. “How many?” she asked us.
“Twelve. I mean two,” my date replied.
I assumed he was trying to be funny, and chuckled to be polite.
The hostess directed us to a different hostess for outdoor seating, so we approached her.
“How many?” she asked.
“Twelve. I mean two,” my date said again.
It definitely wasn’t funny the second time, but I tried not to hold it against him. Now there were two things I was trying not to burden our relationship with: his lame sense of humor, and his tardiness. I felt guilty that we hadn’t even talked yet, and it was already like that tired old marriage with built up, unspoken resentments. I reminded myself that most of us aren’t very witty on a first date, that lateness happens. As we sat down, I wondered what he could be thinking about my nervousness, quiet manner, and the massive sweat stains under my armpits from the half hour of anxiety I felt while waiting for him. He’s bound to be disappointed too. Forgive, I told myself. Show up. Be generous.
We sat down across from each other, and he stared at my hair.
“Wow,” he said, “you’re my kryptonite. I’m speechless. I can’t tell if it’s red or blond.”
I chuckled, in an effort to lighten things up while he stared at my hair, muttering “kryptonite. Total kryptonite.”
The space where a conversation belonged became filled with uncomfortable silence. His comment might suggest that my hair is an amazing color, or that we’re both twelve, or that it’s a meaningful factor in a relationship, hair color. But it’s dishwater blond heading towards gray, and we’re 50. I wondered if he used the kryptonite line a lot, and if it worked.
“How’s your summer been?” I asked.
“Have you done anything fun?”
“Anything you want to talk about?”
“Went to the Mensa Gathering.”
“Oh, what was that like?”
I felt like I had drilled, with great effort, through a thick block of ice and had gotten to something I was genuinely curious about. The Mensa Gathering. Here was a man who allies himself enough with his intelligence that his summer vacation was designed around a club that’s only criteria is that you have a high IQ. I was curious, but he offered nothing.
Although I was weary of the surgery required to extract a conversation, I was on a mission now. You don’t go ice fishing because it’s fun or comfortable. You go because you’re from hardy stock.
“What were some of the interesting talks you went to?” I persisted.
“Well, the one I didn’t go to but wished I did was about sex toys. All the women who attended got vibrators -- small purse-sized units with 5 speeds.”
I tried to imagine a vibrator that couldn’t fit into a purse, but was brought back to the present as he illustrated the five speeds with sound effects and hand motions.
“Vroom, vroom, vroom,” he said very slowly while he curled the fingers of his flattened hand toward his palm, in creepy slow motion, over and over, as if he were gathering something. He demonstrated the five different speeds by increasing the rhythmic hand motion while rocking back and forth.
I wanted to look away. I wanted to yell out, “Please, put your hand away. Stop.”
But I didn’t, partly because I was shocked. But, let’s face it, also curious. Where could he possibly go with this conversation? Is there really a person who thinks this is a good topic for a first date?
The waitress arrived and he ordered for both of us without consulting me. “We’ll each have an IPA, and we’ll share an order of nachos with chicken.”
I repeated my mantra. Forgive. Be generous. He’s doing the best he can. But the pile was getting bigger: lateness, lame jokes, vibrator talk, and now chicken, which absolutely doesn’t belong on nachos. I comforted myself with the thought that at least, if he were taking charge of the ordering, he would pay. That hope evaporated like the icy mitten falling into the lake when he later announced that he’d forgotten his wallet.
“The vibrator,” he continued, “looked just like a mag light.” “It wouldn’t arouse attention if someone saw it in your purse.” He laughed, and I wasn’t sure if his laughter was related to his use of the word, “arouse”, nervousness, or if he was suddenly reminded of a funny experience he’d had looking through a woman’s purse.
Ice fishing: It yields few fish.
Internet dating: Ditto.
One of my favorite dates was with the sausage maker. On the day of our date he wrote and said, “I’ll be bringing you some sausage tonight.”
I told this to a friend, who commented, “Ha! Are you sure he means actual sausage?”
The sausage maker spent the first 45 minutes of our outing clarifying that this wasn’t really a date, just a meet-up, something I’ve found to be common – a reluctance to name anything as a date. He seemed inordinately confused by the menu; it took him quite a while to understand that you could select three out of the five options for the appetizer platter.
I was relieved, at first, when he stopped talking about how we weren’t on a date and started talking about sausage. It turns out that my attention span for sausage-making is significantly shorter than the 60 minutes of our “this-is-not-a-date” that he spent on it. He talked about the recipe, the process, and so on, hardly pausing for a breath.
After a while, I was bored enough to stop ignoring my friend's barrage of text messages: “Did he give you his sausage yet?” “Why aren’t you answering me? Too busy with the sausage?” “Sheesh, are you actually eating sausage on a first date?”
But as we parted, he said, “You know, I was told that this would be really harsh, that women I meet online would be hard on me, judgmental, but you were really nice. So thank you. This was my first outing since my girlfriend died a year ago.” And I felt terrible about the texts, that I had been privately laughing at his expense. I was the mean girl he’d been warned about.
I went on a billion first dates, and found some common threads: men were usually quite late, often disheveled– not that I’m big fan of the GQ look either, but a number of times I wondered, wow, what happened to you? All that mud on your pants… Or other creepy things, like blatantly checking out 16-year old girls, or the guy who told me, within a few minutes of meeting, that he wishes he’d had more sex with his wife while he was married and “could have at her anytime.”
Another man told me his beloved wife had died and he was finally ready to move on and settle down with someone else, which appealed to me until I learned that his wife, the mother of his four-year-old twins, had died exactly 30 days before our date, which he spent talking about how easy it is to have sex with the women he meets online.
Another man, who, after we agreed to meet at the pig at the Pike Place Market, told me I’d be able to recognize him because he’d be holding a red balloon. I couldn’t understand why we’d need a red balloon to find each other in an area that’s the size of an actual pig. I wondered how it would work – would he carry the balloon with us on our date? Give it to me? If we entered a restaurant, would he tie it to the chair, or hold it?
One man I met started the conversation with, “I hope you don’t mind that I’m wearing six shirts. I couldn’t decide which one to wear, so I wore them all.” And indeed, stacked near his neck, were the collars of six different, not particularly color coordinated, button-down shirts. Like so many people I met, I couldn’t decide if he was charming or nuts. I later settled on creepy when I learned that one of his hobbies was attending rape trials. A rape trial enthusiast.
For a long time I was mystified by all of this. Is this truly your best foot forward, I wondered, after each of these encounters?
But I eventually came to realize something else. Single people at this age are beleaguered, lonely, discouraged. This most basic human instinct and need, to love and be loved, has eluded us, separating us from the rest of the species. Maybe this behavior, of showing their worst card first, is a strategy built on a foundation of disappointment. Hope has been dashed so many times that they don’t want to even pretend it has a solid launching place. “Look,” these men seem to be saying, “I’m chronically late, I’m unkempt, and all I have to talk about is sex. I’m basically pretty weird. Are you still interested? Because this is what it will come down to eventually. If you’re not up for it, let’s not even get started.
You know that game you play the first time you’re hopelessly head over heels in love, but still deeply insecure, the game of, “would you love me if I lost a leg? How about two legs? How about two legs and a hand? How about two legs, a hand, a disfiguring facial scar, and I get really mean?” Etc. It’s like that, but minus the part where you’re hopelessly in love. Just random people wandering around, saying, “look, could you love me like this?”
Dating requires that we’re vulnerable and forgiving, that we show up, put our whole selves out there in the face of rejection after rejection, with people sizing us up, over and over, and saying, no, I could never love you. And still, we wear our six shirts and carry our red balloon if that’s who we are, and doggedly hope to find our person, the one who thinks its charming not tiresome that we speak of vibrators and sausage. We hope to find the one who can see through all that to something tender and worthy of love in spite of our abundant and obvious flaws.
Maybe there’s more honesty in their approach than I bring on a date, even though I claim to value authenticity and strive for it. I try to dress up a little and be interesting. I try to be normal, when it might be more truthful for me to say, look, this is it. I’m quirky. I nap a lot. I’m messy, and I have a million incomplete projects and the attention span of a gnat. I need tons of time alone and I use some of it to do math problems. I take the water temperature before I pour it over the coffee grounds nearly every day, for no apparent reason. I have an imaginary pet rabbit named Geoffrey, and its spelled with a G. I wear clothes from a dumpster. I probably drink too much, and I don’t do the dishes after dinner. Sometimes I leave food out overnight and eat it the next day anyway. Penpal might be my highest and best use on the planet, because I usually write back. I’m better on paper than in real. I take a pottery class and never touch the clay; instead, I sit on the sidelines and draw bugs. I’ve never been to Las Vegas or the Space Needle and I don’t know the first thing about actors and actresses or tv or sports. I wouldn’t recognize Tom Hanks if he walked into the room. In fact, I hardly recognize anyone. We could sleep together for six months, and two years later, I wouldn’t know you if I saw you in the store. I’d clean my house the first few times you came over, but eventually, there would be clothes on the floor, dirty dishes, clutter. I’m demanding in some weird ways that you won’t notice at first, but at some point, you’ll find me tiring, because I have to get to the bottom of everything. I expect emotional courage and fully showing up 100 percent of the time. I get disappointed easily, I’m painfully direct, and I’d break up with you if you said Happy Monday in a non-ironic way, or if I think you’ve underestimated me. If I get a whiff of you being insincere, I’ll be gone in a flash, even if it’s the best you can do. I’ll try to communicate when you just want to hide. I’ll probably get fat and bitter, and eventually see everything as half empty, and you’ll find me depressing and cynical. We’ll have a fight and you’ll hide behind flowers and chocolate and I’ll hate you for it, because I’ll want your words, and you’ll hate me back for not taking the damn flowers and moving on.
But I’m here because I imagine I have something to offer, and if you could bear with me through all of that, it might turn out good. Contrary to what you’d guess from the life I’m living, which we’ll call “100 Years of Solitude” I love people, and I can be unbearably loyal and forgiving, and, to those I care about, their biggest fan ever. I’ll try to figure you out, and you might find that intrusive but I’ll mean it, I’ll want to understand you, what you care about, what makes you tick, where it hurts, and why. I’ll try to be gentle and generous with you, and I’ll encourage you to do your best all the time, even though you might experience that as nagging and wish I’d leave you alone. But I’ll believe in you, maybe more than you believe in yourself, and I’ll be right.
The best thing about ice fishing, as I’ve said, is hanging out inside the cozy hut with your friends, thinking optimistic thoughts about what might be on the line, and what a great fisherperson you might be. Thanks for being in the hut with me.