A Relationship Month Coda

My friend Dirk asked me once why the eternal lament of the American single man/woman was that it was so hard to find anyone.

My flip answer was that it's because dating sucks.

That's also my non-flip answer.

It's a totally artificial way to find a mate (or at the least, someone to have sex with). There's nothing natural about it. Between the strained conversation (gee, that's, uh, fascinating), the flailing, futile attempts to find common ground (so, do you prefer oysters or snails?), the gnawing personal insecurities (is she looking at my bald spot?), the inevitable awkward pauses (umm.... ahhh... err...), and the impossibility of reading a total stranger's body language (is he leaning forward for a kiss or does he always lean forward slightly?), it's a wonder that anyone ever makes it to a second date, let alone procreate.

Dating is a system predicated on the utterly implausible notion that a chance meeting with a stranger will successfully result in a happy relationship; and then there's the even more absurd notion that the unavoidable rejection that is the result of the first premise (s/he is gay/straight/married/not looking/finds you unattractive/repulsive/would rather mate with a half-blind tuberculosis-ridden bacterian camel with psoriasis/all of the above) won't emotionally scar you to the point where contact with the rest of humanity is so painful that you are forced to retreat into Kaczynskiesque hermithood.

Maybe it's just me, but that's just plain stupid. I'm not even going to go into (OK, just a little) the rules (not The Rules) and regulations that cover these sorts of things. The Three-Day-Call rule in particular I always have trouble with. I can never remember if you aren't supposed to call until three days are up or if you have to call before three days are up. In any event, who decided that three days was the threshold? Is there a committee for these sorts of things? An ANSI/ISO standard? Are you going get into trouble if the date isn't ISO-9000-compliant?

Personal ads seem to offer a way around the problem of trying to hook up with a total stranger. The logic is simple and irrefutable: describe who you are and what you want, and let the market do the rest. This is simple and irrefutable, save one simple fact: the person that you read about in the ad is not who you're going to meet. The person described in the ad is the writer's own idea of who they are, which is inevitably wildly inaccurate (at best). Even seemingly immutable properties are subject to stretching (4'11" stretches to 5'2"; 230 pounds magically melts into 205 pounds; "intelligent" means they can find the spell-check button; almost bald turns into "sandy blond hair"; "well-read" refers to either comic books or Vogue; and so on). And even if you can survive the fun-house mirror self-portraits, expectations are so high that they're laughable (geek ISO 98 lbs, 5'10" blonde with comic-book boobies or bubblehead ISO billionaire sugar daddy, must be 24-27, 6'4", 120 lbs, lotsa muscles).

Each personals provider has their own house style. Everyone who advertises on nerve.com (or its affiliate sites, like Salon, The Onion, and so on) is a humorous hipster (and they often fail totally in their attempts to be irritatingly highbrow; "My most embarrassing moment? I'm not telling, but it involved a This American Life transcript, 3 quarts of tequila, and a Wesley Crusher action figure"), while posters on craigslist are unusually specific and often just plain nuts ("I'm looking for a petite South Asian woman. NO TRANNIES PLEASE!"). Match.com (which is owned by Ticketmaster, which leads one to wonder if they levy a 15% "service charge" on dates, but that's another story) petitioners are whitebread (regardless of their actual ethnicity) and painfully earnest ("I'm a 32-year-old SWM who likes sailing and white wine. Looking for SWF with similar interests. I have a wild side, though; I've got a small tattoo on my ankle!"). The New York Review of Books has personals populated almost entirely with academic/professional women of a certain age (and up) who are inevitably "slim, active, and funny", with the occasional plea for an adulterous affair; and loveisadogfromhell.com seems to draw depressed last-resorters.

The only sure thing about personal ads are the hours of entertainment they provide.

Another problem with dating is the "over-the-shoulder" phenomenon (I suspect that this is primarily a big city thing, but I could be wrong). Let's say that you meet someone who's fairly interesting. And, miracle of miracles, they seem to find you interesting as well (at least they tolerate your presence, or they don't actively object to you). But there's something about them that bugs you. Just a little. Maybe it's their laugh. Maybe it's a gap in their teeth that reminds you of your sophomore English teacher, the one who was fired for sleeping with a 16-year-old student. Maybe it's the fact that they're stoned 24/7 (that would explain the don't actively object thing, wouldn't it?). Whatever it is, it's something. And then you start looking over your shoulder. Maybe there's something better out there. Someone who doesn't have that annoying little something. Maybe there's someone who's nice who doesn't have SuperFund-strength BO all the time. So poof, there goes another promising relationship down the drain.

And then there are the Checklist Corps. I know them, you know them, we've all seem them. These are those people who draw up every possible feature that they're looking for in a mate. You name it, they've got it on their list. Didn't go to the right school? Too bad. Hair the wrong color? You're outta luck, buddy. Don't hold your fork the right way? The exit's thataway, pal. Buy your chinos at an inappropriate store? Those boots were made for walkin', and you'll be walkin' out that door. I think that the nicest thing I can say about the Checklist Corps is that they lack imagination and daring. I certainly won't be dating them anytime soon. Not that I would want to. Unless she was really hot (I would, of course, have to lie like Nixon facing a microphone to fit the checklist, but that's another story).

Is there a better system? I think that the fact that there's a system at all is not a good sign. Maybe we should just let the eagle fly with the dove and love the one we're with. Of course, eagles have a bad habit of eating doves, so maybe that's not such a good idea.

Is it all worth it? I can't answer that question. It's different for different people. I don't think that there's a better feeling than being loved by someone you love. But maybe that's just me.

For more on Relationship Month, visit the August 2002 archive, available at all the links in the paragraph or over there on the right.