On Suitability

Now that I’m in the thick of things at work, I’m finding it harder and harder to write for fun. I said to someone recently that it’s like my work is a bunch of chaotic, slimy sticks damming up the stream of my clear liquid creativity. Followed by the thought: no kidding—I’ve read better similes on the side of cereal boxes. Sad.

So instead of writing the clever, profound, erudite meditation on Virtue and Propriety that is still only sluggishly working its way through the log jam of my brain—I figured, why not start cataloguing my dates over the last few years? Surely I can spare a few brief paragraphs for them…?

Because I’m me, I keep a scorecard. Don’t worry guys, I’m not objectifying you or reducing you to mere numbers. But when I hit the 20-date mark I realized that 1) I might want to write about the experience some day; 2) at the rate things were going, there was no way I’d remember my dates’ names, and allowing them to become one giant male blur in my mind would be a form of objectification I didn’t want to fall prey to; and 3) when I lament that I’ve dated everybody under the age of 60 in the Northeast, and still can’t find Prince Charming, and people say, oh Prof’s Progress, you’re just too picky, or you don’t know what you really want, I can, like a good administrator, produce my DATA, my evidence that, in point of objective, empirical fact, trying to establish a new relationship completely from scratch in one’s adulthood is a nightmare on multiple levels.
 
Since 2010, I’ve gone on dates with 43 different men (and for the reassurance of my friends, parents, and doctor, that’s just the number of dates, and nothing close to resembling my Number). Eleven have been men I’ve met the old fashioned way—in bars, at parties, at events, in my kitchen (my landlord, hitting on me while I signed my lease)—all the rest were shopped for and negotiated with through internet dating.

Because I was mercifully sheltered from a lot of dating for most of my adult life, I’ve learned things about the process—late, and occasionally the hard way— that any 25-year-old could tell you. From the start, I was struck by how crucial, and viscerally discernible, chemistry is. Like many women, I keep lists of desirable and undesirable criteria, and believe firmly in their theoretical validity. And I’m always bemused by how often those criteria go right out the window in actual practice. I’ve gone out with men who are great (like last weekend’s date)—attractive, personally and professionally well-put together—and have felt completely unmoved by them. I’ve ended up very attracted to men who don’t meet my physical criteria, but whose personalities and intellects have been very compelling. I’ve had to exert self-control not to gaze with foolish idolatry at guys who captivate me. I’ve watched other men fall for me in the course of one cup of coffee or one bowl of noodles—you really can see it happening—and have felt badly for not feeling the same in return. And I’ve been on the other end too—starting with my very first internet date, who sized me up, resignedly joined me for coffee, pointedly put his phone down within view so he could keep an eye on the time, and after exactly 30 minutes, leapt up, perfunctorily thanked me, and was out the door.

Having been treated badly a few times, I try to be much more polite than this with someone who’s taken the risk to meet someone new, no matter how quickly I conclude that he’s not the one for me. I’ve gone on more than one date with very sweet men, hoping that I’d warm to them, but then having to delicately excuse myself when it became obvious that it would take much more than time to light any fires there.

Sometimes I feel a little guilty, as though I should be more willing to settle. There’s this whole concept of one’s league—that is, one must know one’s place and quality as a date, and never have the temerity to pursue someone out of one’s league. But of course, until the day we all have chip implants where we can be assessed and ranked as we walk down the street (a prescient detail in Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story), one has no real idea of what one’s league is—so we all, rashly, irrationally, go after the people we’re attracted to, regardless of whether we’re worthy of them or not, cruelly overlooking those in the league below us, and always plagued by the worry that our own league is much lower than we like to think it is, and that we’re just consistently humiliating ourselves in this whole process.

Did I mention that adult dating is overwhelming nightmarish?

But since we’re on the subject of leagues, or suitability, or whatever it is that promotes matches in one case, and absolutely nixes them in others, here’s a short taxonomy of some of the men I’ve had to reject after 0-2 dates:

  • The Hapless, whose dating profiles and messages are illiterate, improbably unflattering, and, in some cases menacing. I’d been looking forward to dating the pastry chef at the Capitol Grille—until he ordered me to show up wearing black stiletto heels and, when I demurred, accused me of being a few unprintable things (I blocked and reported him). I’m trying to decide if I want to accept a date from a journalist who can’t figure out that the basic concept of the dating site “How About We…?” is that you complete the sentence grammatically (“How about we….food? How about we…Red Sox?”)
  • The Landlord, for so many, many reasons, not the least of which is that I won’t go out with someone who already has keys to my apartment and doesn’t know what a sump pump is for.
  • The Low-Talker. I smiled and laughed, and nodded encouragement throughout our conversation in the courtyard of the Public Library, even though I heard about 30% of what he murmured wanly about himself. Every once in a while the wind would shift, and his voice would carry better—when I’d discover he’d been talking about slow-cooker recipes the whole time.
  • The Newly Divorced Dads, completely surprised and traumatized by the experience, trying to “get out there” because their friends or sisters prodded them into it, having no clue how to talk to a woman not their wife, beyond confessing their utter exhaustion working 12 hour days in some tech job while trying to adapt to an unsatisfactory custody schedule. Too terrified.
  • The Unfortunates, hit hard by the economic downturn. It might not have been their fault, it might just have been a temporary setback, but being 40, unemployed, and living with their parents makes men feel too badly about themselves, too helpless to be dating.
  • The Chiropractor with the skin condition, who also had a finger-picking habit—which I’m in no position to judge harshly, except that if I were him, before the date I’d wash the blood off and bandage some of that damage up, for fear of invoking the cuticle-tearing scene from Black Swan (Then the Chiropractor offered to give me an adjustment. “I can fix you right up!” he insisted. I replied, “I bet you can, but perhaps you can refer me to a colleague instead?”)
  • The Defeated Politician, who had given up his job with the state to run for office, lost badly, got divorced, and was now living with his parents, but taking turns with his ex to stay with their four children in the shared family home.
  • The Talking-Heads guy. I was on the sidewalk looking out for my date, when instead I saw an apparition flapping and lurching towards me. This fellow, it turned out, was extremely bright, and after inventing something really important and profitable for aviation 20 years ago, had apparently left the house about 4 times since, and was getting his dating clothes from a deceased relative who had left behind a closet full of zoot suits, several sizes too large. He was one of the very sweet ones, very solicitous, insisting on getting me some soup, but whose social awkwardness made it impossible for me to feel at ease with him.
  • The Belgian who, when I mentioned a slight affection for Star Wars, said he’d never seen it. I took a deep breath, for patience, and said, I beg your pardon? Yeah, he replied, I don’t really like those movies. I don’t really like stories with characters.
  • The Spaniard, in Boston on a banking contract, who was clearly bright, and cultured, whose profile was full of poetry and song lyrics, who pursued me energetically—and who was very obviously homesick, suffering from what seemed like manic-depression, and self-medicating with large quantities of marijuana (which I wouldn’t have a problem with except it really wasn’t helping).
  • The Body-Worker—health conscious and fit, he worked for some kind of therapeutic stretching studio in the Back Bay. He seemed fine, for the first half hour. Then he confessed to being a raw-foodist; then he started to enthuse about his boss, his mentor, who was not only brilliant on the subject of exercise physiology, but was in fact a rare example of the next stage in human evolution, a superman who would lead the rest of us ordinary folk into a brighter tomorrow.
  • The Sound Engineer who is cute and kind, likes to hike, plays guitar—but whose mind works at a much, much slower pace than mine. I’m no genius, but I’ve got a lot going on in here (clear liquid and log jams, remember?), and need someone who can keep up. Plus, throughout our date, he worked his way through a giant plate of nachos, opening his mouth wide to pop in one salsa-cheese-and-bean-dipped-chip after another and kept it open, smiling like a contented but uncivilized 4 year old…is this making me sound horrible and snobbish? Too bad, it was a ghastly sight.
  • The Salsa Dancer who smelled like the grave. Turns out I have an extremely keen sense of smell (maybe I’m a member of the more evolved overlord species too…?) and I’m easily put off by indifferent dental hygiene. Some men smell like hours-old coffee, which to me smells like sewage. Some men smell like spoiled milk (why?? what are they doing to smell like spoiled milk??) Some well-intentioned colognes are so strong and cloying they make my airway seize up. And sometimes people can’t or won’t go to a dentist, and this guy was one of them. After what I confess was a somewhat tipsy evening of rather familiar latin dancing—but in a well-ventilated club—I ended up with the smell of death, decay, and corruption about me for hours. I still shudder at the thought (and yes, have learned several lessons from that encounter)

Then there were a couple of guys with control issues; the sociopath; the appallingly flaky drama professor; the adorable but elusive Pocket Square; the museum curator; the other salsa teacher; the union organizer; the guy who ended up in jail; and Apollo at the dive shop on Grand Cayman…but I can save those stories for future posts.

Why so many dates? you might very well ask. Believe me, I ask the same question often. Sooner or later, we single people invariably receive advice from our coupled friends, suggesting either that we’re just too picky, or that there must be something off in our selection criteria—as though we have some unresolved emotional issues that drive us to go out with unsuitable people, or, ever-so-much-more-consolingly, that we somehow exude unsuitability ourselves and drive away all reasonable prospects. To which we single people think to ourselves, thank you for suggesting that the person you are currently choosing to hang out with is crazy and horrible. And then say out loud, ooh, that must be it! Thank you for that insight! 

The real reasons are, as I’ve described elsewhere, that adult life just makes it hard to meet new people in a natural, gradual, way that allows you to get to know and like someone before you complicate and intensify things by dating. Plus, when it comes to online “match-making,” many—if not most—people (men and women) lie to varying degrees: about their height, their age, their appearance, their overall ability to look after themselves, their biases and prejudices—and you just don’t know how they’ll really be until you meet them face to face (begging the question—what do they think will happen when they show up and are very obviously shorter, older, less fit, and/or less sane than they marketed themselves as?).  Finally, you can have the most optimal match in the world with someone, on paper, and yet just feel nothing for them in person—and at a certain stage in one’s life, you don’t need to make yourself feel anything either.

On top of all that, what accounts for my personally…impressive? …daunting? …alarming? dating stats is an unfortunate synergy of characteristics: 1) I’m genuinely curious about people—the variety of human nature that I’ve crossed paths with really captivates me. 2) I have friends who have been single as long as I am (and are all just fine, thanks) but who have neither the energy, nor patience, nor mulish, compulsive stubbornness—that keeps me investigating every option that presents himself. I, however, get just a wee bit obsessive about problem-solving, and comparison-shopping. It’s not just dates—if I’m planning a vacation, I have to look at every flight itinerary, or bed and breakfast, or restaurant review. If I’m buying shoes or a sofa or soap, I have to look at all the options. Yes, it’s all as exhausting as it sounds. 3) I’m either vain, or irrationally optimistic. I can’t help believing that since I’m not living in a box in an alley, or obsessed with my slow cooker; since I can chew with my mouth closed (and floss religiously); since I can feed, clothe, and dress myself and occasionally find time to read stories with characters—that I deserve someone with a similarly modest set of accomplishments.

Plus, my mother has been saying, since I was in middle school, that all the boys are just intimidated by my beauty and intelligence. That’s the explanation I like the best.

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