Sunday, March 13, 2011

First impressions

I sit, quietly, staring forward intently and unblinking. For all the world looking absorbed in what I am doing. Focused. Strategic. Like a hunter in a duck blind, waiting for the duck to land on the pond.

I hear footsteps down the hall, getting closer. That distinctive sound that I heard every weekday morning. Then in my office door, Wolf-pack Travis appears.

I swivel my chair to face the center of the office that I share with Wolf-pack Travis. "Good morning!" I say brightly.

Very, very brightly.

Travis winces. Unlike me, Travis isn't so much of a morning person. I bound cheerfully out of bed at 5 a.m. and get to work early. By the time he arrives, I'm about ready to explode if I can't share the stories of the evening before. I do my patient impression while he takes off his coat, opens a can of soda, and sits down. He takes a sip of the soda and a deep breath. He's ready.

"How was wolf pack last night?" I say. "Did you terrorize the hipster sheep?"
"Yes. Herded them into their bars for microbrews and their coffeeshops for lattes."
"That's hardly difficult. They were going there anyway."
"I guess we mostly just ran then. Next time is fartlek night," says Travis as he takes another sip.

Travis has a semiweekly run through his trendy Seattle neighborhood with a group of men all training for a marathon. The thought of them running together always made me think of Twilight, though I suppose the guys in his running club probably don't have an ancestral feud with vampires. I had nicknamed the group his "wolf pack", and made sure to ask about it every Wednesday and Friday. It's only polite. Once he is awake enough to handle it, I force him to listen to my long, overly-detailed, tangential, and sometimes interesting stories. The least I can do is give him a chance to say something before I launch into my latest comedy of errors.

"Excellent," I say, patiently. "What else is new with you?"
He takes another sip, and steels himself for the inevitable. "Nothing much. How about you?"

I take a big breath. "Well, since you asked… the usual horrific profiles. One guy had a picture of him in acid-washed jeans lying on the hood of a sports car."
"He did not."
"He did. AND with feathered hair," I say.
"Was this picture taken in 1982?" asks Travis.
"Does it matter? Either the only good picture of him was taken 20 years ago, or he's still lying on sports cars with feathered hair. Both possibilities are hideous."
"Did you send mail to Don Johnson?"
"Strangely enough, no," I say.

I should explain the mechanics of online dating sites to you, Internet, in case you are unfamiliar with how they work. There are lots of different sites, each targeting different demographics. In all of them, you enter some search criteria-- man, about 40 years old, lives near Seattle-- and write some kind of profile describing you and showing a picture of what you look like. Some sites also have you take a personality test. Then the site combines your search criteria and whatever data they have on you and match you up with people who resemble what you are looking for. You then read the profiles and decide yes, no, or maybe on each of them. Then you can send and email through a double-blind system that hides your real name and address from your potential date, just in case he turns out to be crazy.

Past that, there aren't any specific rules. I usually write e-mail back and forth two or three times, to figure out whether they can hold an appropriate and polite conversation. If yes, I meet them for coffee. In any case, back to our story.

"Did you send mail to Don Johnson?"
"Strangely enough, no" I say.
"Damn," says Travis. "I wanted to hear about him showing up for coffee in his speed boat, chased by a drug lord."
"What can I say? Clearly a missed opportunity on my part."
"Why do men put up old pictures anyway?" I ask. "Do they think I'm not going to notice when I meet them in person and they are 20 years older than they claimed?"
"Maybe they figure that once you are attracted to the person they are inside, you'll look past the walker and the oxygen tank."
"Wishful thinking. I'm much too shallow for that. Oh, speaking of wishful thinking, I got mail from two separate guys telling me, 'Don't worry, ladies. I have a job and a car.'"
"I was tempted to write back, "Way to go, slugger. Let me know when you move out of your mother's basement too."
"And recently there was a charming fellow who sent me a form letter," I say.
"A form letter? People do that?" asks Travis.
"Oh, yes. This one was particularly ridiculous because he clearly didn't match a single one of my criteria other than 'male'. There is no way he read my profile."
"Why do you think that?"
"He's 18 years old, dropped out of high school, wants a no-strings-attached hookup with a woman who appreciates caffeinated malt liquor and bowling."
"Got to respect a man who knows what he wants."
"True. Some guys just send a form letter saying, 'I read your profile. So, how about it?'"
"How many of those guys have you gone out with?"
"Strangely, none. Though in most of those cases I assume they aren't losers, just new at the online dating thing. When I first started, I wrote some letters that were about as lame."
"Did it work for you?"
"Strangely, no. But I figured out the secret rules soon enough."

Every society has rules for social interactions. You know, like in Pride and Prejudice when Elizabeth Bennett complains that Mr. Darcy didn't dance at the ball when there were unmarried ladies who were wanting for partners. In their society, there was a rule about that. Also, rules about which daughter gets married first (the oldest first, then the second oldest), how to address the second unmarried daughter in the family (Miss Elizabeth, not Miss Bennett), and which class restrictions can be ignored (almost none of them).

I don't want to return to a time where all social interactions were that formal, but there are benefits to having clear rules to follow. My modern-day suitors would benefit from a little guidance on what not to say to a woman they wish to woo. As things stand, the online dating world does have rules…but they are secret rules that you have to figure out for yourself.

"Secret rules?" says Wolf-pack Travis.
"Sure. Like 'Don't send form letters' and 'Unless the site is specifically for arranging hookups, do not tell the entire Internet that you want to lick her.'"
"That is…sound advice," says Travis, sagely.
"Frankly, I'm getting a bit tired of all these losers. I spend hours on this site every week, and the best I can find is, 'So, how about it?'"

Travis takes another sip of his soda and looks pensive. "Do you ever think that maybe you aren't giving them a chance?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, most of these guys you are eliminating based on their profiles before you even meet them. What if the profiles give the wrong impression?"
"First impressions are important," I say, a little poutily.
"Sure, but what if he's a good guy with a lousy profile? You aren't giving them much of a shot."

Traitor, I thought as I looked at Travis with a squinty-eyed glare. Your role is to listen to me dis random men and then tell me that it is completely inconceivable that I'm still single. It's a secret rule! I dislike the implication that I'm a snobby harridan, whose bitterness drives eligible men away.

I dislike this, but secretly I acknowledge that it might be true.

"You are saying that I should give some of them a second chance?"
"It might lead to more dates," said Travis in a completely reasonable manner.
"Damn you and your completely reasonable suggestion," I say.

I had been hoping that my judgmental and derisory manner was one of my finer qualities, but it was possible that, like Elizabeth Bennett, a woman my age could possibly stand to be a little less picky. Maybe Travis had a point.

That evening I was online, once again, wading through profiles. Endless profiles.

"Ugly, stupid, clueless, mean," I say out loud at my monitor as the profiles flip past. Click, click, click.

"Hmmm." This next guy has some potential. Good picture, looks friendly and outgoing. And then I notice that his profile is listed as 'actor'. "Oh, good god. Entirely too much drama!" I say as my mouse moves towards the No button. But then a little angel appears on my shoulder, with running shoes and a can of soda. "Don't be so judgmental," says the miniature Travis. "Give him a second chance!"

Grrrr. He was right. I was prejudiced. Many years ago, in college, I had a bunch of friends who were actors. Actors are lovely people-- they are exciting, and fun, and tell great stories-- but they come with a side effect that I found hard to handle: their lives are very dramatic. I had this one friend who could go through an entire relationship (meet, fall in love, get engaged, break up, put a pagan impotence spell on his dorm room) in the space of a week. I'd eat lunch with her every day, and every day there was new drama. I felt like a minor character in a soap opera, and it was exhausting. Since then I've avoided drama whenever possible.

But this guy wasn't that friend, even if they are both actors. Damn Wolf-pack Travis and his completely accurate character assessment; I wasn't giving this guy a fair chance.

Sigh. This whole personal growth thing is no fun at all. I moved my mouse away from the No button and dragged my judgmental gaze back to the profile for a second chance.

(To be continued.)

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