Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Rating the Dating Game

I don’t date. I find the whole concept ludicrous and rather unsavory. Yet two weeks ago, I suddenly decided to put up a profile on OK Cupid. 

What precipitated this strange impulse was my shocked realization that it’s been nearly twenty years since I was last alone. And everything I used to do twenty years ago no longer exists. The new East Village doesn’t have any more second-hand bookstores and vintage shops to hang out in. That scene is long gone and I’m gone too – transplanted to Brooklyn, where I don’t know any shopkeepers by name, where I never run into people I know on the street. 

So it’s been lonely. And I sort of fell for a guy who isn’t available or that interested in me. Maybe so I could stop being so angry with the guy whom I had been with for ten years and also finally get over another ridiculous infatuation. For nearly a year, I’ve been trying to stamp out every pesky smoldering flame in my badly charred heart. I suppose OK Cupid was my next line of attack. 

Not that I'm sure that I am cut out for another long-term relationships or god forbid, marriage. For so many women, success in life is contingent upon landing a guy like a giant floppy six-foot fish. “Don’t worry, you’ll be married one day,” my friend’s mother said to her once, as if she was to be pitied for being single. And that’s the attitude of many women who are otherwise so independent. Researchers were surprised that in a national study of 1,000 female college students, 91% agreed to the statement, “Being married is a very important goal for me.” [1]

Of course it's not just women. Johns Hopkins sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin theorizes in his book The Marriage-Go-Round that Americans idealize marriage because of their deep-seated religious heritage, but they also have a contradictory belief in individual freedom and the right to self-fulfillment, which results in Americans getting married and divorced at twice the rate of other countries. [2]

I can’t think of anything more horrifying than a big church wedding with six women wearing the same dress. It always makes me think of the phrase “a fate worse than death.” I suppose I’m more European in this regard. The World Values Survey, a study of sixty countries in 2000, reported that 26% of the British and 36% of the French think that marriage is an outdated institution, compared with just 10% of Americans. [3]

But love? I can’t seem to help it. Love strikes me like lightning. I remember once being in an acting class and a guy whom I had known for three years and hardly ever noticed turned in my direction and BAM. We both made some lame excuse to leave early and once out on the street, we got as far the corner before making out by the mailbox.

He was my second big love (my first love also happened instantaneously) but he was weirded out by my lack of rules or expectations. “It feels like I could just walk all over you,” he once said to me in disgust. I had a nervous breakdown getting over him. Mysterious red blotches erupted on my face and I couldn’t get out of bed for weeks, not that I would have wanted to even if I could have, since I looked pretty mortifying. Maybe love doesn’t strike me like lightning; it's more like a recurring case of bubonic plague. 

The only time I had ever been on a date was when I was fifteen. Every time I pass by the 8th Street subway station, I see my teenage self leaning against the pizza shop in a way that I hoped would look nonchalant, wearing a slit satin skirt and slouchy grey sweater that I had borrowed from my best friend. But even that wasn’t really a date since we both knew perfectly well that we would find our way to some corner where we could make out. His message was clear – he had been flipping rubber bands at me in math class for weeks. 

I know I’m a pretty strange phenomenon, like a time traveler, or someone who came from an alien planet. I basically make up all my own rules, since I didn’t grow up with any. Or rather, shuttled in between New York City and Taiwan, I grew up with two sets of rules that sort of cancelled each other out. I learned social conduct not from my absentee immigrant workaholic parents or even from television and magazines, but from the classic novels that I devoured. Dating was consequently not part of my understanding of the world. Heathcliff and Cathy definitely did not go on dates. Daisy and Gatsby didn’t either. Not even the odiously plebian Elizabeth Bennet and stuffy Mr. Darcy went on dates. 

Dating is mostly a post-war American phenomenon. Teenagers in bobby socks sipping Coca Cola together at a soda fountain. Groping one another in a movie theater. Exchanging school rings. There is something very juvenile and Norman Rockwell about dating. 

For those who can't picture life otherwise, dating as we know it came about from the rise of both youth culture and the entertainment industry after the first World War. For the previous hundred or so years, courtship had taken place at home, with men coming over to have some tea and listen to women play piano. [4] That's what Tennessee Williams was writing about with the Gentleman Caller in The Glass Menagerie. But in the 1910s, courtship started to become a public event, relocated to movie theaters, dance halls, and restaurants. Dating became marked by competition and consumption, fueled by new magazines that advised sorority girls who didn’t have a date to turn off the lights in their rooms and pretend that they did.

The new online dating scene also taps into latent voyeurism. I confess that I rather like being able to secretly check out what people are interested in, how they write about themselves, what they think is hip and sexy and hot. But with the shoe on the other foot, I'm not so comfortable. I guess having been exposed to the public for half of my life, I'm pretty cagey about what I am ready to reveal to perfect strangers. I tried to write something about my age and the kid, but I finally just ended up saying, maybe I'll tell you if we meet in person. 

But privacy issue of online profiles aside, what really bothers me about dating itself is that it's intrinsically calculating.  Underneath dating culture, sociologist Martin Whyte sees a “marketplace learning scenario,” in which “people date a large number and variety of others to acquire experience that will enable them, it is hoped, to make prudent choices.”  Paul Hollander notes in his book Extravagant Expectations: New Ways to Find Love in America, “American-style dating … incorporates two not entirely consonant goals: the pursuit of romance and intense emotional involvement on the one hand, and on the other a deliberate, self-conscious rational, trial-and-error procedure of sampling potentially available partners.”[5]

It’s very strange to me, this notion of being so prosaic about forming a partnership. One sociologist said in a July 1953 New York Times Magazine article that ideally, everyone should date 25 to 50 people before deciding who to marry. That kind of assembly-line dating sounds like another fate worse than death.

But I’ve given it a go and so far, I’ve been on four dates. The first was a jazz musician. We ate at a Thai restaurant, after which we went back to the jazz club where he was tuning a piano. The second was to a bicyclist and photographer recovering from his own ten-year relationship. We had dinner and walked around a little. I brought the third guy, a writer who teaches creative writing at NYU, to a party where he knew a few people. I met the fourth guy for tapas and we talked about his animal rescue work. 

They're all quite nice and maybe in other situations, if we had met at a party or on the subway, we would be friends. But with the OK Cupid set-up, this seems somewhat unlikely.  And I don't know if I like the position it puts me in. Maybe other people who are used to this sort of set-up know what to say or do, but it just feels like I'm inviting random guys to hit on me over drinks or dinner. This already happens to me plenty enough without me needing to go looking for it. Do other women like this? I find it rather uncomfortable and I never know how to react to it.  I would much rather be struck by lightning. Or wait around for the next bout of the plague. 

But maybe my attitude is rather childish. Maybe I would be more likely to aggressively pursue a relationship if I wasn’t so ambivalent about it all. But what is this need to have a mate? Why isn't it a group of friends enough? I mean besides the sex issue, which does get pretty difficult at times.  Maybe I am from some other planet after all.

The whole thing is making me feel that it's not fair of me to have a profile up on OK Cupid since everyone on it has a set of expectations that I don't know if I share. So I’ve been thinking I will shut down my profile after this brief sociological experiment. But, just to keep an open mind, I'll finish go on dates with the guys I've already been corresponding with: an actor, two artists, a random guy from Kentucky whose picture I like, and an Italian doctor who wrote me twice, the second time in Italian begging me to write him back, so I did. While we don't have much in common, he did mention that in the Italian language, there is no equivalent to the word “dating” – it’s not a concept they have there. 

Hilariously, the day after I set up my profile, OK Cupid sent me an exultant message about a great match. It turned out to be my ex-boyfriend of ten years, who unbeknownst to me had also put up a profile on OK Cupid a few months previously.  “We're a 96% match!" he messaged me, "Will you go out on a date with me?” I laughed until I cried. 

Maybe I should move to Europe.

[1] Norval Glenn and Elizabeth Marquardt. “Hooking Up, Hanging Out, and Hoping for Mr. Right: College Women on Dating and Mating Today.” Institute for American Values, 2001.
[2] Andrew J. Cherlin. The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today (New York: Knopf, 2009).
[3] Ronald Inglehart, Human Beliefs and Values: A Cross Cultureal Sourcebook Based on the 1999-2002 Values Surveys (Mexico: Siglo XXI, 2004), 158.
[4] Beth L. Bailey. From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1989).
[5] Paul Hollander. Extravagant Expectations: New Ways to Find Romantic Love in America (United Kingdom: Ivan R. Dee, 2011), 25.

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