24 February 2005

Online Dating and Your Entry Into It - Personal Ads - A Personal Perspective

"The power of accurate observation is frequently called cynicism by those who don't have it."
- George Bernard Shaw
I love statistics. No wait, can I amend that? I hated Statistics in college and worked more assiduously on trying to find reasons to skip the class, and I came up with some great reasons, than I ever devoted to my Statistics homework. In retrospect, I have a feeling that simply doing the homework would have involved much less effort. I don't have any hard and fast statistics on that claim, but...

I get E-mail reports from a couple of websites that track information with regard to how people find my website. According to Alta vista and Yahoo, my site pops up when people are searching the topics of "dating" and "relationships".

I sat here looking at that, sure there had to be a punch line, a joke, some kind of tease or maybe even a hidden camera watching my reaction at such a nonsensical notion, but no, apparently it is what it is. I have no vast vault of wisdom on the topic, but I have tons of personal experience and "too weird to be true" stories.

I've been divorced, officially, since October 1997. I've been single, unofficially, since January 1995. This is February 2005. In ten years and one month, I am still single - admittedly by choice. In the past ten years and one month, I wouldn't even begin to guestimate the number of first dates, fifth dates, or bad dates I have been on. It's much easier to estimate the number of outstanding dates I've been on because I'm pretty certain that figure would require no more than ten fingers. My toes wouldn't have to worry about being enlisted for the count.

Interesting dates? I've had quite a few of those, but one must be careful not to confuse "interesting" with "good", "outstanding" or "OH MY GOSH - WHAT A GUY!" dates. Interesting dates can still be disastrous, but at least they're never boring. Boring dates are the ones where you start thinking, ten minutes into it, that you would be having a lot more fun bathing the one cat you have that still has it's claws and hates water with the fire of a thousand suns, than sitting across from someone who makes Ronald McDonald look attractive and seem fascinating. Boring is bad. Very, very bad.

I have a lot of single friends of both the male and female persuasion. I don't know if it's because this time of year finds many of us still trying to get the taste of Valentine's Day out of our system, or maybe people are simply getting bored with winter and ready for an across the board change, or perhaps it's because we all feel the seductive promise of longer, warmer days. The adage that "In spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love", as Lord Tennyson observed, probably has a similar effect on females. I don't think such thoughts are gender specific in nature.

Who doesn't like to entertain the thought of falling in love? It's a great idea and it really doesn't sound like such an imposing proposition. I mean, how difficult can it be? Have you ever noticed how it feels as if everyone in the whole world is coupled up, how there seems to be some unspoken law of nature that there is someone for everyone and maybe even more than one for a few, but it never feels more apparent than when you are alone and without any kind of companionship? Never mind being in love, sometimes it's nearly impossible to be "in like". There are days when "in like" would feel like a huge step up.

There's no way around it. The very term "falling in love", by the inclusion of the verb "falling" tells you things are quite apt to get messy. Why else would they use a term that typically describes a negative event? Can you think of any other case where "falling" is a good thing? A misstep in the right direction? I don't know how YOU feel about it, but I have never looked forward to falling anywhere, or on anything, other than falling into bed when I'm really tired.

Falling implies that there is eventually going to be a "stop" - and those "stops", be it concrete, asphalt, or frozen ground, usually cause some bruising and sometimes even a little blood is spilled. Band-aids are almost always required. If there is an open flesh wound, the direct result of a nasty bump, it will have to be cleaned out and the stuff they use to clean out wounds, even if it's nothing more than benign peroxide, can burn to the point of inciting tears. Be even more afraid if someone tells you "now this won't hurt...much.". You know you're in for lip-biting pain if they feel a disclaimer is in order.

Falling in love is supposed to be a great and wonderful experience but, remembering Sir Newton's Third Law from basic chemistry that states, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, there is also the part of the "fall" associated with love where the invisible, but oh so painful, bruises and wounds can potentially come into play and all of the hydrogen peroxide and ibuprofen in the world won't dull that unique brand of searing, flame-broiled pain. It may be metaphorical, but it can truly bring you to your knees, usually surrounded by a puddle of your own tears.

Who in the world would sign on for such a possibility? The odds are highly in favor, or so it seems, that we're all going to wind up in that puddle - sometimes more than once or twice. (But I'm not bitter!) If you're divorced, you KNOW that pain and you've been swimming in that pool and it can take a very long time to find the strength, or even the desire, to come up for air. Eventually, most all of us do. We shake off the water, we nurse those wounds and the recovery time can take anywhere from five minutes to fifty years, but most of us march right back into the ring and see if we can finally get it right.

The fact that any of us would be resilient enough to subject ourselves to the potential for such heartache again and again, never fails to render me in awe of the dynamic power of the human spirit in all of us. It's pretty amazing when you think about it. By some invisible, but potent, spiritual magic, we climb up from the lowest bottom any human can hit and, just like childbirth, we seem able to forget the pain, the tears, the grief, the keen and palpable sense of loss, and we determine and steel ourselves to give it another chance. Most of us want so desperately to get it right.

In my estimation, nothing speaks more of the power of love, than the fact that those of us out of it keep trying to get back into it. It is undeniably magnetic and it is, without question, a mystery.

After we make a decision to get back in the game, that's when we have to give some thought to our portal of entry. Most of us know what we're likely to find hanging out in bars, and it's not the kind of material you really want to bring home to meet the family. When you look in low places, you find low things and the idea, as far as I can tell, is to make higher choices, this time around. So what does that leave in terms of choice venues to meet the first, second or next, hopefully last, love of your life? The workplace? Frowned upon and not usually a good idea. Church? That might be a possibility. Joining civic organizations simply for the opportunity to meet someone isn't generally a good idea, but it definitely beats hanging around bars. Self-help or recovery groups just naturally seem to breed a little pairing up, but not without potential risk. As a good friend of mine recently remarked on the subject of dating within such a group, "one of the big reasons I haven't dated anyone in _____ (other than not wanting to see a collection of exes in the room) is that the guys I meet come across as needy, clingy- whatever." She makes a great point, but still it happens all the time and the results aren't always negative, but when they don't pan out, there is a stilted awkwardness attached.

And then God, or was it Al Gore, created the Internet...

...and with it, personal ads took on a whole new meaning. I remember when I used to consider anyone who advertised for dates as being the very epitome of a desperate loser. And even if you did have the raw courage to actually post an ad, and the remote possibility of it ever panning out, how no one in their right mind would ever own up to it. I know I wouldn't have! How did we meet? Oh, ummm...a mutual friend. Yeah, that was it. So the mutual friend had an organ called a modem and spoke and kept announcing that "You've Got Mail!". Anything was better than the truth.

How things have changed. Online dating sites are not only a convenient place to look for Mr./Ms. Right, or something close to it, but it's now widely accepted and doesn't even seem strange or unseemly and hardly unique. It's so successful that people have met, fallen in love, fallen out of love, divorced and met their next mate all courtesy of the Internet.

Those who still protest that it's not the best place to shop, are probably still trying to push their grocery carts into attractive people in the frozen food section of the more upscale markets, but I have yet to hear a "happily ever after" story that started in Harris-Teeter, Publix, Kroger or Safe-way. I'm not saying it doesn't happen, I just haven't seen any hard evidence. I can't even imagine going to the store with "potential mate" on my shopping list. I don't even make a shopping list. I hate shopping and, for me, it's usually something I do ONLY when there is absolutely nothing edible in my pantry and I am sick of eating Chinese take-out or they start recognizing my voice at Pizza Hut. That a guy could be loitering by the lettuce feels a bit implausible to me. Maybe I'm missing something...

Match.com. Yahoo Personals. E-harmony. American Singles. Heart Detectives. Great Expectations. (and no, not the one written by Dickens). Senior Friendfinder. iMatchup. Web Date. And that's just a few of the online services that provide a way to meet someone new. And it doesn't have to be a service catering to the mainstream. Men seeking Women. Women seeking Men. Men seeking Men. Women seeking Women. Men seeking Women seeking Women. Geek seeking Geek. Loser seeking Loser. Whatever your persuasion, they've got you covered and it usually comes with an acronym attached along with a netiquette all it's own. There's even a website that reviews all of the online dating sites.

Chances are you are NOT alone and there's someone just as strange and odd and weird out there in cyberland waiting for an E-mail from you or giddy at the possibility of writing you one after reading your dazzling, detailed personal ad.

Hard to believe, but even in the year 2005, some of my friends still think it the oddest notion to join an online dating service. I know people who toy with the idea and then shelve it, unable to imagine what might pop into their E-mail box. These folks just can't imagine how anyone could "connect" over the Internet. What I find hard to believe is that anyone would find it hard to believe that it can, and many times does, actually work. Why wouldn't it? Then again, I love computers...and I'm a completely detached Aquarian. In every sense of the word.

This is an area that I have more than a little experience with and I have no problem admitting it. I have posted ads on Match.com, Yahoo, and American Singles and I have corresponded, chatted online with, had phone conversations, and yes, even met lots of people using these services. The fact that I'm not married doesn't mean it isn't successful. It simply means that I am a little skittish and I still have "runaway" tendencies and, what my son delicately describes as "commitment issues". Some people are so quick to label others. Simply because I've been engaged a few times and backed out, broken dates without a courtesy call, stopped answering my phone for a few weeks, he draws the conclusion that I have problems committing. Whatever. Besides, if my Aquarius profile is to be believed, "the ideal Aquarius soulmate is an Einstein with lots of soul." Do you have any idea how hard it is to find an Einstein with lots of soul? The odds are disproportionately stacked against me by sheer virtue of my SIGN! Talk about a tall order...

I have actually met some amazing people courtesy of online personals and a few of them have even remained friends following an unfortunate break-up. Most all of them have been extremely interesting, of above average intelligence, professionals in almost all disciplines including writers, computer software designers, business owners, physicians of several specialties, university professors, researchers, bank presidents, attorneys and artists, just to name a few. None of them could ever be accurately labeled desperate or loser, even if they did want to date me! Questionable judgment? Perhaps... :-)

I've learned a lot about human nature, different regions of the country and have visited England and France, courtesy of computer generated encounters. I honestly can think of only two or three I would have preferred just skipping the experience of meeting.

Of course, there is a vetting process and this is very important. What does one look for when considering a potential online match-up? That's what profiles are for! This is an area that can cover as little or as much as you deem appropriate. In my opinion, the more detailed, the better. If it looks long, that's OK. It only means that whoever contacts you obviously has the ability to read. If they contact you - this usually tells you that they can write, as well. I generally look for people who I have quite a bit in common with but I've never been out to find my clone. Important areas of compatibility, for me at least, have always included religion, education, some degree of success, as few failed marriages as possible - and I've never honestly been interested in correspondence with anyone with more than two divorces under their belt. A love for the ocean is pretty important and someone who enjoys books and reading is nice and provides instant and pleasant common ground. A great smile and nice eyes doesn't hurt.

That's just for starters. Online matching has evolved with it's popularity and you can actually hone in on very specific likes and dislikes. If you're a cat person and someone who despises the idea of ever being within 50 feet of a feline answers your ad, it's probably a good bet that this is not worth pursuing. You can detail all manner of likes, dislikes, hobbies, pursuits, proclivities and desires. There's no such thing as TMI (too much information) when examining an online personal profile. If the mere idea of spending 3 hours every night with a take-out pizza and a remote control drives you crazy, skip that profile. That's what the delete button is for and if this Pizza-bingeing, television addict continues to write, simply utilize the "block this profile" function that most online services conveniently provide.

I know what you're thinking - "But can't some people be dishonest with their profiles? What if that photo they have posted is ten years old or, even worse, their next door neighbor? What if the person isn't really best friends with Bill Gates and hasn't read a book since 11th grade, which he repeated 3 times before attempting 12th? What if he doesn't simply hate cats but actually juggles them? What if he embellished his annual income by a couple of importantly placed zeroes and, rather than earning $700,000, actually takes in $7,000 a year? What if he professes to have brown hair but fails to mention it's all on his back, rather than on top of his head? What if his stated height of 6'2" is actually in heels because he forgot to mention he has a shoe fetish and, in reality, is only 5'8"? What if says he's been married twice but has children with 7 different women, none of whom were ever his wife? What if he counts taco bell as international cuisine and thinks of "making a run for the border" as satisfying his passion for world travel? What if he brags of being a private pilot and declares that he has several planes in his hangar, but fails to disclose these are only models and a few of them aren't even remote control? What if he doesn't believe that "The Jerk" is Steve Martin's best piece of work and a comedy for the ages?

Believe me, you will eventually figure all of these things out and if someone is bent on that much dishonesty, they will trip up long before you ever take it to the next level which may be a phone call, an online chat or an actual visit. Some people argue that the Internet Dating scene is filled with nothing but nutcases and liars? I won't argue there are more than a few of them out there, but I don't have to log onto a computer to meet a nut or a liar. Real life offers ample opportunity to meet all kinds of them. At least the nuts and liars online have the wherewithal to know how to turn on a computer and understand that a mouse can involve a cursor, can be used to point and click and isn't always a rodent with a long tail and beady eyes. At the very least, you have to respect that, right?

I've been out with a few crazy people and online dating doesn't have the market cornered on eccentrics. Real-life, the "in person" sort of real life, is just as saturated with low-lifes and folks best left on locked units. If you're going to try online dating, first and foremost, you have to ditch the preconceptions and give it a fair chance. You don't have to be stupid to be open. It's perfectly fine to be cautious and maybe even a little wary, and it's never a good idea to meet someone after a few e-mails and a handful of chats. Be prudent. If things get to the point of an actual in person, real time, real life meeting, make it in a very public place and even take a friend along with you, if it makes you feel safer. If this person protests, you don't need to meet him or her. That's a huge red flag and understand it for what it is. Never allow yourself to be talked into something that gives you a negative or uneasy feeling. Trust your gut instincts. Listen to that voice of reason that is telling you that something about this isn't quite right. If it feels wrong, it most probably is. You don't even owe the person an explanation.

Having said that, if you have exchanged several e-mails with someone who reads and writes well, have yet to catch him or her in the tiniest lie, doesn't come across as pushy or makes wild claims of being one of the founders Simon and Schuster Publishing or swears that President Bush often calls for advice before every big decision he makes, and if there aren't an inordinate number of misspellings, no desperate push to meet in a secret location under a bridge down by the river, and if s/he sounds genuine and knowledgeable on the telephone, doesn't find any of your questions too probing or personal and, finally, if you have GOOGLED this person, who's full name should be given, and no extended FBI profile has surfaced or you haven't seen them as a featured "guest" on "America's Most Wanted", it's OK to consider the possibility of a very public meeting. Check and recheck your gut. If you lose your nerve and this person, though disappointed, understands your angst and is willing to try again, that's a good sign.

In what has to be too many to count dates that were spawned by online encounters, I can honestly say that, though a few people have been misleading in their appearance and underestimated their weight by 20 - 30 lbs., I have never met anyone who truly scared me and appeared downright dangerous. That doesn't mean I never will. However, though there are few things I can claim to having done a lot of thorough research on and collected a vast volume of data, I do consider this to be something I have more than a little experience with and, after so many dates with so many different people, none of which have yet to have turned out to be "the one", I wouldn't hesitate to recommend online dating as a perfectly acceptable, reasonable means of meeting people and, though whoever you find may not turn out to be the love of your life, there's a very good chance you could make a nice friend. As far as I can tell, you can't have too many of those.

If you are reading this and you have had some interesting online dating experiences, I would LOVE to hear about them. I still find this medium fascinating and it's always interesting to hear other perspectives and I love it when people share.

If you happen to be someone I have dated and it didn't end all that well, again, I'm so sorry. :-) Better luck next time!