After resisting for years, I turned to the internet to find love.
I finally broke down and decided to join a dating website after meeting my one millionth attractive, intelligent, funny woman who turned out to be married. To me, going online to meet women felt like a final abdication of dignity, but my friend Ben dismissed this squeamishness. "You and I are old enough that we think of internet dating as a last resort, for losers. The young people have no such stigma about it, and they are online," he told me. "And they, my friend, are having sex."
This argument was persuasive to me. The site I joined encouraged me to answer a series of questions to narrow my range of preferences and find more ideally matched partners, questions that ranged in subject from personal values to sexual mores to factual knowledge. I dutifully answered all of them until I got to a simple arithmetic problem that, for me, might as well have been Fermat's last theorem. I was also asked to rate how I wanted prospective partners to answer the same questions, and to weight the relative importance of their answers. The only response I rated as "mandatory" among my partners was to the question: "Which is larger, the earth or the sun?"
If you spend enough time perusing online-dating profiles, patterns begin to emerge. These are all broad, unfair generalizations, since they're based on an unscientific sampling of astronomically literate women between the ages of twenty-eight and forty-five whom I happened to be attracted to, but they might still be interesting to bat around:
A lot of women's self-descriptions read like horoscopes, abstract and metaphorical, appearing to describe someone elusively unique, but in fact universally applicable: "I am a paradox: a centered seeker, a grounded vagabond," etc. This was mostly true of women still in their twenties, who haven't actually done enough yet for their selves to coalesce.
One of the blanks you're asked to fill in on your profile is, "The first thing people notice about me is: _____________." In answer to this question, a bizarrely high percentage of women make some self-deprecating reference to either how tall or how short they are. This seemed inexplicable to me until I noticed how many women had also laid down persnickety parameters for their desired partner's height. They were projecting their own preoccupations onto the men they imagined looking at their profiles.
This is a fallacy common to both genders: wrongly presuming that the opposite sex wants the same things you do. This is also why some men send unwelcome shirtless photos to women — because they'd be thrilled if women were to send them topless photos of themselves. There's a kind of lunkheaded innocence to it: How surprised and pleased she will be to receive this picture! My naked torso cannot fail to woo her. (A cynical genius of online dating would reverse-engineer his own profile based on a study of women's: "The first thing people notice about me is: How I tower over them. I am a lonesome Lothario, a gallant Goofus, etc.") Ladies, rest assured that your height is not the first thing any man has ever noticed about you.
Quite a lot of people of both sexes describe themselves as sarcastic, as though this were an appealing quality. To quote Inigo Montoya: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
To be fair, being asked to describe yourself concisely, attractively, and without sounding like an idiot is the kind of psychological personality test that sociologists would ban for ethical reasons, an insoluble series of double-binds. Speaking for myself, what's most tiresome about presenting oneself as potential partner at my age is having to maintain this pose that you are so happy and busy and fulfilled that you're only now, as an afterthought, getting around to finding someone to share your incredibly full busy happy life with.
Whereas if you are on an internet dating service, the self-evident fact is that you are not 100% happy. What you are, more likely, is lonely — sometimes so lonely it makes your throat close up on Saturday nights walking home from a movie by yourself past all the hateful couples, and you're starting to wonder whether there might not be something basically defective or broken about you. But you know from experience that desperation gives off a smell as repellent as gangrene, so it's imperative that you cover up one of the most basic facts about yourself and counterfeit the demeanor of some person you can't imagine being, who's just having so much fun it's taken him forty years to notice he's alone. The question you really want to ask everybody, and the one you know they're secretly wondering about you, is: So what's your problem? There is no blank for this.
Scanning profiles gets to be like channel surfing, driven by the anxiety that you might be missing out on something just a little bit better. The most depressing effect of this compulsive browsing was that everyone starts to seem interchangeable: they're all graphic designers/freelance writers/non-profit administrators who like ethnic cuisine/exploring the city/taking their dogs to the park. They all do yoga. Since I live in New York City, everyone was above average — smart, pretty, well-read and -traveled — and at some point, above average started to feel blandly average. The whole process reduced the primal challenge of finding a mate, which most of us still like to imagine involves some kind of unquantifiable human connection — romance or passion or at least pheromones — to something more like shopping.
Objectivists and other advocates of enlightened assholism would argue that all relationships are transactions, governed by the same market forces that govern business. And it's true that there is this aspect to the business of mating: there are buyer's and seller's markets, people trade up, etc. But this is the most bloodless and calculating, least human aspect of our sexuality. Isn't the whole reason we've rejected arranged marriages in this society so that we can make romantic decisions on an other than purely pragmatic basis — choosing people out of love rather than as property? And yet most people, given this freedom, make up impossible Christmas lists of frivolous criteria and then end up selecting mates who might just as well have been picked by the village elders or a world-governing computer for optimal socioeconomic compatibility.
I never did meet anyone through the dating site. In fact, I did something unprecedentedly rude: I stood someone up. What happened was that on my way to meet someone I'd met on the site, I stopped off for a drink with a friend, who not only introduced me to a colleague of hers who was attractive, intelligent, and fun, but also offered us two free tickets to see Willie Nelson that very night. So after some writhing vacillation I texted my internet date and canceled on her, on about an hour's notice. (I did write her later to apologize. She didn't reply. I wouldn't have either.)
This is not to excuse my behavior, which was undeniably caddish, but I do think that the fact that one of these women was real, drinking wine and eating tapas with me, and the other still virtual, must have played some part in my defection. It was easy for me to stand her up for the same reason otherwise sane people toss off cruel insults and threats at total strangers on message boards: not just because the anonymity of the internet enables cowardice and cruelty, but because it makes other people seem like electronic figments, characters in a game, imaginary.
Not long after standing that woman up, in one of the troughs of my confidence/despair cycle, I canceled my account. I don't blame the internet for my failure; I think the site I joined was a good one, as they go. The most sensible people on the site preemptively stressed that they didn't want to get involved in any extended correspondence, just exchange a few emails and arrange to meet out in real life as soon as possible. But I personally have had better results using the old analog approach of going up and talking to women I'm attracted to in cafes or museums. I suspect that the whole elaborate cultural apparatus of dating — coffee or cocktails, dinner and a movie, theater, opera, stargazing and picnics, all the small talk and jokes and stories and strategic revelations — is just an excuse to get close enough to someone to smell them. Depending on the pheromones, it's either a Yes or No. The whole process is effectively over in a few seconds; the rest is ritual.
Not long ago a friend introduced me to a friend of hers at brunch, a writer. I didn't recognize her when I met her, but when I looked up her work online later on, I found a photo of her that seemed uncannily familiar. Eventually I realized she was someone I'd corresponded with on the dating site a year before. She had been one of my more serious interests; her screen name had been an allusion to Salinger, and she had a lovely lopsided quirk to her smile. I was out of town at the time, and we'd talked about getting together when I got back, but somehow, through inertia, distraction, or forgetfulness, we'd dropped out of contact.
She looked a little older than in her photo (who doesn't?) but her face was also more interesting, with high cheekbones and Celtic almond eyes giving her an elfin aspect. And those online images failed to convey her frenetic intelligent energy — her expressions and gestures were wryly histrionic, a comedienne's. But her smile was the same. The whole warm complex animal gestalt of her was unlike anything I could've gleaned from emails or jpegs. The difficult love in her voice when she talked about her father contained a compressed terabyte of information. The things that happen online have some of the same quality as things that happen in dreams, feeling unreal and disconnected from real life, melding together and paling in memory, evaporating within moments after you wake up or sign off. It was strange to meet someone from the internet out in the world and realize that she'd been real all along.