On High Energy Activation Barriers (in which I daringly and rashly mix metaphors and analogies to try to make sense of the date I had yesterday)

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I’ve been condo-shopping in a desultory way for almost two years, with no luck. Aside from the fact that there’s very little inventory right now—all the good ones are taken, everything else either costs way too much or is “charming” and “original” and “just needs a little TLC”—I’m also aware of a certain amount of inertia (or inertness) on my part. While my present situation is sometimes frustrating, even oppressive and confined, there are also plenty of good things about it (convenience, simplicity, comfort)—enough that I just don’t have sufficient motivation to expend the time, energy, and resources to make a change.

I realized yesterday that you could take out “condo-shopping” in the above paragraph and insert “dating,” and the meaning would remain exactly the same.

Over the weekend, I went on a couple of dates with someone who should have been Mr. Right—good looking, apparently well-adjusted, conversable, courteous, attentive, well-educated, and—so important—not living in a squat with his ex-girlfriend and a couple of bats (yes, that happened). This fellow and I both think about retiring to the South of France; we value education and agree that the youth don’t know enough about literature and history; he’s actually heard of, and likes, one of my favorite Canadian bands from the 80s (Platinum Blonde, very awfulicious if you’re curious). There’s absolutely nothing wrong with him, or with me. Each of us should have been so carried away by the absolute suitability of the other that we’d’ve eloped, or something, before the weekend was over. And yet, by the end of the afternoon yesterday we agreed to have our assistants email one another a couple of articles we’d been discussing, hugged goodbye, and went our separate ways.

My first impulse was to feel rather slighted—shouldn’t he have been more enthusiastic about me? But then I reflected that, set aside my expectations about how he ought to feel—maybe I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about him either. And that’s when the condo-shopping analogy came to mind. Both of us might really like to be in a new situation, but neither of us needs to be—each of us has a pleasant, rewarding life; we’re self-sufficient; we have plenty of wonderful people around us; everything is currently convenient, simple, and comfortable enough that there’s no incentive, no necessity, no exigency to expend the time, energy, or resources to make a change.

Well, I thought, that’s kind of a drag. Whatever.

What the man thought of this experience, I can’t say. (The mind of any given date is just one giant black box which may or may not contain Schrodinger’s Cat, for all I know.) But for my part, what provokes a near-paralyzing torpor and ennui is the effort it takes to get to know someone in our current dating culture.

The process of searching for matches using complex databases and algorithms fosters an uncomfortably materialistic, consumeristic, and dehumanizing mindset. When you are flipping through profiles in the same way that you flip through shoes on Zappos or real estate listings on MLS, you forget that those profiles are meant to represent human beings, and the people on the other end forget that about you. You’re shopping for them; they’re shopping for you. You’re looking for the thing, the object, the property that will gratify you, as long as the price and delivery terms are reasonable (only without the customer reviews—I’d at least like to know what other users have thought of something before I order one for myself. Or, to work the condo analogy, I’d like the dating equivalent of a building inspection before signing the P+S). And of course, all the while you’re selling yourself, creating glowing, but careful marketing copy which appeals to everyone (yoga! surfing!) and puts off no-one (don’t mention karaoke or multiple cats). Once you’ve sorted through the available inventory, you make the necessary arrangements to spend your weekends trooping through one another’s open houses, all the rooms cunningly staged, and see what kind of offers you get (this is giving me the idea that dating would be a lot more efficient if we had the equivalent of realtors nudging us through the process…).

The set of transactions that now constitute meeting people has become artificial, often strained, and dispiritingly unromantic. Moreover, while online dating services do make it possible to meet greater numbers of people than you might do in the course of your day, research has found that 1) there’s no way to really anticipate attraction or compatibility—you just have to meet the other person—which means that the dating apps’ algorithms really don’t help much beyond putting you in contact with people you’d otherwise be too busy or backward to meet; but 2) the time you spend sitting on the couch in ratty pyjamas sorting through online catalogues of pictures, profiles, and messages, is time that you’re NOT out in the world doing the things that make you happy, let alone putting yourself in the way of other happy human beings. Online dating can be fun, of course (she insists with forced and brittle positivity), but it’s fun dependent on a lot of luck, patience, and a certain amount of risk-taking—all of which consumes what turns out to be a finite amount of psychic energy. By the time you end up on a date with someone who might be really wonderful, you’re both so tired and jaded by the experience of getting there that the actual encounter seems like more trouble than it’s worth. 

Remember how when we used to meet people that meant that we were in the same place because of shared interests, shared values, shared friends and family? These conditions came in with built-in filters (you wouldn’t both be at the university pub unless you both had roughly comparable life skills; you wouldn’t meet at the peace rally unless you both cared about social issues). Seeing someone regularly in a socially-defined space, for particular reasons that might have nothing to do with dating, would allow you to observe the other person a bit. Not only were you seeing that person and not a photoshopped 10-year old avatar, but you were also able to get a glimpse of their character, personality, social skills, intellect, manners—you know: all the things that actually make a person attractive or not.

When I told my mother about the weekend’s date, she asked, very reasonably, if this guy is so great, why does he need to do this internet dating business? (that this question indicts me as well, I left alone). I told her, honestly, that I don’t know: I don’t know why the paths of two supposedly great people, who know lots of other great people, just don’t cross in contemporary urban life.

Maybe we’re too lazy, or too selfish. Maybe we’re just too busy running around on our hamster wheels of jobs and gyms. Maybe there’s a nefarious conspiracy to make human mating rituals dependent on algorithms as some kind of prelude to our becoming enslaved by the machines when they take over the planet (I need to think that one through a bit more carefully). Or—I could go on at length about my theory that heterosexual women, acting under orders from every source of advice in popular culture to get out there! be your best self! do what makes you happy! —are so energized and improved by our immersion in activities that heterosexual men (wrongly) shun, that we’re going to evolve into a new, enlightened zumba-dancing species of human that propagates through asexual reproduction. (I’ll think that one through a bit more too…)

Really, I think the simplest answer is that we’ve all just been deeply, traumatically conditioned by middle school dances to be utterly terrified of being rejected, of looking desperate, or weird (or, poor guys, menacing)—of taking a chance and being badly, badly hurt. Much easier to endure the comfort and familiarity of single-hood than risk the alternatives. Faced with a choice between 1) yet another date where the two of you carefully interview one another, watching vigilantly for any signs of maladjustment issues, listening attentively for the slightest hint that the other person is living in his car, or just got out of jail (yeah, that happened too); or 2) spending time with your friends at one of those ghastly, gynocentric, but wine-fueled, painting parties before going home to watch House of Cards in your ratty pyjamas while consuming medicinal cake…it’s a tough call, but (2) is looking pretty tempting today.

Unless you happen to know a nice single law professor who likes to cook, and travel, and has a really cute chocolate lab…Arrange a showing, and I’ll take a quick look.

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