Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

My Superpower Is Being Alone Forever

It’s pretty hard to reverse engineer a meet-cute. These things either happen or they don’t. If you were really serious about it, you could probably arrange for, say, an errant shopping cart to go charging off in someone's direction and then you could rush up behind it saying, "Sorry, sorry!" and that’s how you'd meet, but then you’d have to live with yourself for the next 50 years or so, knowing that, basically, you're Elmer Fudd. Sometimes when a radiant single lady comes floating along the sidewalk like a dream, I think about stopping her. But I never would. It just seems as intrusive as a catcall—or an errant shopping cart. I might as well be passing out handbills for a shady-sounding sample sale. So instead I say nothing and then she’s gone. We won’t be accidental seatmates at a dinner party later. It’s a missed non-connection, a moment less significant than if we’d been on line together at Whole Foods buying the same artisanal sherbet. How-we-met stories are overrated, anyway.

When you’ve been single for longer than a pregnancy term, the people who love you start to get concerned. They begin to wonder whether you’ll ever impregnate anyone. Pretty soon they'll ask some pointed questions about online dating. It doesn’t matter whether you’re single by choice or if you just lie and say you are, some Good Samaritan will always nominate the Internet as the answer to your problems (because you definitely have problems). Any resistance you show might stem from a previous experience with online dating, or from a novice’s view that these websites constitute some sort of Matrix of Loneliness, connecting romantic undesirables and allowing them to mingle badly. Either way, no single answer will ever satisfy the person doing the persuading. The last time I had to explain my aversion to online dating, I surprised myself by agreeing to try it out (again). It seemed like the easiest way to end the conversation.

Putting together a dating profile means performing a self-autopsy and reassembling the pieces into Sexy Robocop. You save what’s worth salvaging and shield the damaged parts with reinforced metal. You strive to find the middle ground between showing you have nothing to hide, and just showing off. You carefully curate your interests as if they were co-op displays in a Barnes & Noble, reveling in the understated complexity of liking both Nicki Minaj and My Bloody Valentine. Your picture gallery broadcasts a series of defensive messages: “See? Other females aren’t afraid of me.” “See? I go to museums sometimes and mimic sculpture-poses because Culture.” “See? I’ve been to a Halloween party so obviously I don’t spend much time alone, crying to The Cure’s Disintegration LP and drinking wine from a can.” Dating profiles reveal more about how you see yourself than how you really are, and more about how you want to be seen than how you will be.

With infinite choice comes infinite opportunities to judge. The more options that exist, the pickier you become. Scrolling through profile after profile, I am transformed into an imperial king, surveying his goodly townsfolk from a balcony on high. Those with minor perceived flaws are summarily dismissed (“Next!”) because surely someone closer to the Hellenic ideal is just around the corner. Anyone cute might be cast aside for the smallest breach of taste: a penchant for saying things like “I love life and I love to laugh” or self-identifying as “witty." Yet even when I genuinely find myself attracted to someone, I'll still react with skepticism. What’s the catch? What dark and terrible secret causes her to resort to this thing I am also doing? After scanning closely for red flags and finally deigning her regally worthy, I dispatch a message. But then the truth reveals itself: the king is not her type and also he is not really a king.

Messaging strangers on a dating site is a great way to dabble in Glengarry Glen Ross-style competitive salesmanship. Every hot lead is sure to have already attracted a multitudinous horde of Al Pacinos and Jack Lemmons offering the same bill of goods. You’re all sharing space together in an overstuffed inbox, so words need to be chosen wisely. Asking questions about a prospect’s profile is one way to go—except she probably wrote it months ago and so mentioning her affinity for Frank’s Red Hot now seems as dopey as it probably should. Another option is asking nonsense questions, like who’d win in a fight between Matt Lauer and Brian Williams. (Advantage: Williams.) Since such questions aren’t specific to each lady, though, she’ll probably assume you’re cutting and pasting, and let’s face it—you probably are. When an opening salvo goes sour in person, you can always keep talking. Online, you just get ignored forever. You can send a follow-up later on (“Do you HATE having an awesome time with handsome gentlemen?”) but that smacks of Jack Lemmon-level desperation.

The only way for me to do this without ending up in an existential tailspin is to not take it too seriously. If low expectations can elevate so-so movies, perhaps they can also upgrade one’s dating life from a graveyard to at least a fancy graveyard with picturesque views and atmosphere and motorized carts for the infirm. But even casual maintenance of an Internet dating presence requires sending out the odd message, responding to same, and internalizing the byzantine rules about which topics are off-limits and when to take things offline. It’s a hefty time-suck and it makes it hard to keep up the illusion that this is all just a lark. But if I never get my hopes up, nobody can accuse me of being too invested in the outcome. That way, when we actually do end up liking each other, it will feel more like something that just sort of happened—rather than the result of actively engaging in an organized simulacrum of human mating rituals. "Whoops, I seem to have tripped over my laptop and subsequently bumped into you on the Internet!”

Some dates wheeze to a quiet end the moment you encounter each other in person. Then there's still a whole night ahead to squirm through. A bad date, at least, leaves you with a fun new story about how everybody’s always a nightmare; a mediocre one offers just enough of a good time so that nobody face-plants the table. Going through the motions on a date feels like interviewing for a job you don’t want strictly to keep a parole officer off your back. The more such dates you go on, the more they echo each other and blend together into one amorphous person who’s into Wet Hot American Summer and brunch at Buttermilk Channel, but still incompatible with you somehow. Other times, it’s you who’s the problem. You say one dumb thing (“I would be incredibly easy to blackmail”) and it’s a deal breaker. The disappointment of not being chosen, however, is almost preferable to the Fellini-style ennui of manufacturing chemistry with someone whose interests map well to yours while every moment becoming less certain whether that’s what you even want.

Everyone has a friend who is so charismatic, brilliant or good-looking that the idea of him or her trolling OKCupid is mind-boggling. I am haunted by those friends. What is it that separates us? Is it gluten? I’m at peace with the fact that Drake sings about how jaded he is from being constantly propositioned by beautiful women—because Drake is crazy-famous. My friends who'd never be mistaken as online daters are not famous, but they also possess some ineffable quality that makes them forever F-able. As far as our social sphere is concerned, they might as well be Drake (or nearest female equivalent): They're stars, and finding them on a dating site would create cognitive dissonance of Orwellian proportions. Personally, I’ve never felt as spectacularly anonymous as I have as an online dater, united with everyone else on the site in that we all have a reason to be there. I can rationalize about Internet dating for days. I can think up reasons for why the way my grandparents met is outmoded. But I don’t want any woman to think she was my last resort, and I don’t want to imagine that I was hers. When we say, “I’m so glad we found each other,” I don’t want it to refer to the way we had to find each other like hidden files in a hard-drive search.

Sometimes a person of interest will disappear from your online dating correspondence, as if whisked away by the Rapture. You just notice they’re suddenly gone and you're left behind, exactly as Kirk Cameron predicted. The nature of online dating is ephemeral and temporary. It is designed to end and, one way or another, it will; either with a Mission Accomplished banner or an AWOL report. The longer your adventure goes on, the more you start rooting for every attractive person you meet to become the reason you will delete your profile. “I tried it for a while but then I met my lover on the subway,” is what you'd ideally say. Minus the word ‘lover.’ People always swear you only meet someone when you least expect it, which is not entirely true because you least expect it when you’re dead asleep and, personally, I’ve never been rustled out of bed by a stranger who became my new girlfriend. What if you always expect it when you’re supposed to least expect it? Relentlessly checking people out in the checkout aisle, walking down the street trying to force eye contact. Maybe then you gradually give up on Internet dating without canceling your account, and the most expected approach to meeting people somehow manages to surprise you. The person of your dreams reaches out to the profile you forgot you had, and it’s such a good fit that the way you met doesn’t even matter. It could totally happen! It just probably won’t! On the upside, I hear your grandmother has found someone perfect for you. She’s a Taurus with a soft spot for pugs, and she’s going back for her MBA.

Joe Berkowitz (text) edits books and writes stuff. He also has a tumblr.

Joanna Neborsky (art) is an illustrator living in Brooklyn. She makes books and animations about books.

90 Comments / Post A Comment

The Real JR (#34)

This entire article is the male version of me.

Except add in being chastised on Eharmony for not wanting to talk about marriage during the first round of emails. Yes, this happened and he tried to make me feel bad about it.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@The Real JR And he was right to do so. What the fuck are you doing there wasting the crazies' time?

The Real JR (#34)

@The Real JR You're totally right. I should have offered up my dowry at the first nudge WHICH IS PRACTICALLY SEXING.

sunnyciegos (#551)

Thank you for writing about online dating in a non-hysterical way. Love the illustrations, too! yay!

Bittersweet (#765)

@sunnyciegos: YES. I've never dealt with online dating, having been attached to my husband since the first Bush administration, but found this really compelling. The illustrations were perfect.

"AROUND THE WEB" suggests "Newly Discovered Giant Ant," which YESSSSSS.

deepomega (#1,720)

@Gef the Talking Mongoose MARRY HER

laurel (#4,035)

I don't need a date, I have those shopping cart wheels to love.

katherine (#10,025)

The Fellini-Style Ennui Of Dating A Magic: The Gathering Champion

oxla (#12,069)

@katherine ahhhhh. are you, perhaps, referencing that story about the lady who went on a blind date with a MAGIC:THEGATHERING champ (though MAGIC:THEGATHERING champ is like, a mega oxymoron amirite?)

katherine (#10,025)

@oxla No, I'm a Magic: The Gathering champion, and I'm dating Fellini.

oxla (#12,069)

@katherine i suppose, then, you are a master of the "chump blocking" strategy.

When crawling out of the constant drunk/no-pants phase of a bad breakup by creating an online dating profile (Renewed Purpose! Vigor!), the worst thing that can happen is:
A) being immediately matched with the queen of the harpies who broke your heart.
B) fifteen minutes after creating your profile, you are poked by an unhinged character known to have booked a wedding two years in advance with a guy who barely knew her, and she has blatantly tailored her profile to be much too compatible with yours.
C) All of the above.

lbf (#2,343)

@Shoot first, quip later
The might of your entire comment is making me regret getting married. I never even HAD a drunk/no-pants period!

whizz_dumb (#10,650)

How great would it be to be rustled out of bed by a stranger who becomes your girlfriend? Really great.

dumdum (#10,055)

@whizz_dumb … at knifepoint I presume.

muddgirl (#79,126)

@whizz_dumb I was thinking something along the lines of "there's a fire in your apartment building and a firefighter rustles you out of bed to evacuate the building." Talk about a meet cute!

Danzig! (#5,318)

@muddgirl What about falling in love with your nurse when you're in the hospital for some typically embarrassing ailment?

sevanetta (#14,222)

@whizz_dumb Putting my hand up to be a stranger-girl who rustles a likely dude out of bed to be my boyfriend…

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

My superpower is entering an elevator and stepping to the side where the buttons aren't.

deepomega (#1,720)

@boyofdestiny Mine is being unable to walk a straight line down a hallway without bumping into a wall.

Lolagranola (#78,879)

@boyofdestiny I can't tell if this is the same or not the same as the superpower of those who walk on a bus and then stop, in the middle of the door, despite people behind or space ahead.

Not the same.

Mine is having my eyes closed in 98% of photos taken. I drove the passport guy at Wolf's Camera to drink after 18 tries.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

@Lolagranola That's not a superpower. That's just being an asshole. Which might be a superpower in itself.

pristine (#84,718)

@boyofdestiny WHY aren't elevators button on the right? Or why don't all elevators just have them on both sides?! I don't spend time thinking about this at all, what are you talking about?

@boyofdestiny My superpower is always picking the wrong line. My uncle told me it's genetic.

Joey Camire (#6,325)

Really enjoyed this. Thanks.

heb (#23,764)

So online dating is the same amount of effort and self induced paranoia that offline dating is? Cool.

GailPink (#9,712)

I have the same superpower!

Tuna Surprise (#573)

@GailPink – Mine too! The last guy who dumped me told me he wasn't worried about my future, because I have the ability to be alone forever.

clydemaxwell (#80,045)

@GailPink last chick who dumped me said pretty much the same thing — 'youre already so good at being alone'.

Murgatroid (#2,904)

I enjoyed this catalog of thoughts. (Just ribbing, but seriously, this is great.)

Dave Carrigan (#7,743)

This is exactly what I would have written. If I actually had the ability to write.

Maxine (#1,795)

I am rooting for you to meet The One in the comments of this post.

Clare (#516)

How I Met Your Mother reference in paragraph 8? NEXT.

(Just kidding, this is awesome, and my superpower too.)

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

I've done this game so fucking match, that at one point I had trouble meeting a woman in public without running into one of the previous ones. This one time, an ex jumped in to give me a hug just as I was about to say the first "hello" to a (shocked) fresh date. I thought this was supposed to be a big city, but whatever. I guess not so much if you are of the "I don't go higher than 13th or lower than Canal" type. Thankfully, I've cut that down to "I don't venture out farther than the laundry room" now.

laurel (#4,035)

@Niko Bellic: If that's a typo, it's the best one ever.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@laurel Just goes to show.

ignerd (#9,456)

Having spent the entirety of my teenage life in the 1990's I think I'm from a generation that's young enough that we can only really connect with other people via online communication but old enough to have a deeply held belief online dating is unacceptably creepy.

Also, OK Cupid's "profile" system has suggested (on numerous occasions, mind you) that I'm not a good match for online dating and/or substantive human contact.

xee (#8,831)

@ignerd "young enough that we can only really connect with other people via online communication but old enough to have a deeply held belief online dating is unacceptably creepy"

not quite so bad as 'unacceptably creepy' but yeah, the same way i'm excessively jumpy about the security of online shopping or online information or real names even (because when i first learnt the internet i learnt it was a place where things weren't as safe as they made out to be), i still can't get my head around the idea of specifically looking for dates on the internet.

clydemaxwell (#80,045)

@ignerd elaborate.

"People always swear you only meet someone when you least expect it, which is not entirely true because you least expect it when you’re dead asleep and, personally, I’ve never been rustled out of bed by a stranger who became my new girlfriend." This part made me bust out laughing in a completely silent library. Marry me, Joe.

I'm the same camp with the whole, eharmony thing. I don't like dating sites and I'm unattached–I have been for a while, I refuse to say how long though. one's business. Anyway, the whole "party of one" concept applies to many people, more than they would like to admit. There were times in which I've entered a room but I felt no one actually "saw" me. I mean, the saw me with there eyes, but they looked right through me as if I were transparent.

WaityKatie (#79,377)

@Deborah Ekenezar@facebook I've felt the invisibility thing many times too. I'm also extremely pale, though, so maybe I actually am transparent?

SeanP (#4,058)

@Deborah Ekenezar@facebook Maybe you're a ninja?

Jamie Peck (#7,309)

It's all going to be okay.

rivetingrosie (#18,232)

AHHHH story of my life except more eloquently written than I could ever put it

MSD_DC (#79,143)

Man, if I were still single I would TOTALLY date this guy. Smart, funny, good writer and HAS FEELINGS? Sign me up….

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@MSD_DC Oh, yeah? Did ever occur to you that if all smart, funny, good writers with feelings were happy in their lives they wouldn't be able to write these awesome stories about human misery? Back off, we need this guy to use his staying alone super powers for as long as possible.

Unless of course, your current man is any good at writing about heartbreak. Then maybe you should jump into that mess all out.

kitchenwitchin (#32,069)

Hey, thanks for writing the truest thing ever. I seriously don't know why I keep coming back to online dating like a sucker, since this whole thing is what happens every time exactly. Like, every guy is too attractive and that's mad intimidating, and then you reject them for that because they seem too good to be true. Or they only like skinny girls (which is cool for them but doesn't work out for me so much). Blah.

sevanetta (#14,222)

@kitchenwitchin Or, you want someone smart, so all the dudes who write 'Im jus a funlovin guy loking for a funlonving easygoing girl' email you because they thought you had a nice picture. Meanwhile, you are too scared to contact almost any guy, ever, except the dudes who actually read books and wrote an interesting profile and you have so much in common with it's insane… and then all of them send you back the 'I'm flattered but I don't think it would work out.' What??? Why??? Are you looking for a leggy blonde who only reads magazines after all, smart dudes???

Jeff211 (#79,288)

That's interesting artwork. Thank you for sharing.

Danzig! (#5,318)

Hey! Hey. Ask next time you steal thoughts from my mind.

tsm-10 (#79,366)

I live the female version of this story. Thanks for explaining it a million times better than I ever could.

hypnosifl (#9,470)

A great and all-too-true piece, but I mainly just want to comment on how awesome the artwork is…kinda reminds me of William Steig. I especially love the fat robocop and the compilation of headshots and usernames…

@hypnosifl I am so deeply ashamed to admit that I have used RainyDayJenn as my username many a time :( Figures.

MissMushkila (#42,100)

This totally described how I felt about online dating, but I just kept doing it because all of the single people I knew were doing it? (even the ones the author described as the kind of people who effortlessly meet people elsewhere)

And then I met my boyfriend who I love via OkCupid. But I usually forget that's how we met, because we have a lot of friends in common, and am kind of embarrassed when I remember. Maybe I have somehow internalized the 90s mentality described by ignerd above, except that I spent my teens in the decade after the millennium change.

But seriously, oh god, would someone find a way to make online dating BECOME a meet-cute story, so that when I sort of hesitantly reveal the truth I don't sound like a TV commercial?

@MissMushkila My SO and I technically met online, but when she came over to my apartment for the first time I had her business card on my fridge! She runs my favorite restaurant and we'd probably met at least a few times before dating, and her restaurant was the first one I was taken to when I moved here. I think it's a cute met-online story :)

Danzig! (#5,318)

You know what's worse? Having friends who are constantly pursued by attractive suitors.

WaityKatie (#79,377)

@John Thompson Surely not worse than having suitors who are constantly pursued by attractive friends.

brad (#1,678)

i hope my wife kills me so i never have to date again. i probably won't have to wait too long.

…and then there's the hoped-for meet-cute of meeting someone not by online dating but by writing about online dating in a fashion that charmingly mentions both Disintegration and canned wine. (we writers being the original curators-of-our-written-personae.)

mrschem (#1,757)

@Anonymous Date@twitter wait, does wine in a can really exist?

NFK (#8,747)

@mrschem Indeed it does. Wine In A Can.

SeanP (#4,058)

@mrschem I had the same question. You learn something new every day.

melis (#1,854)

@SeanP That is literally the most important thing I took away from this article. Is it any good?

lorenzojojo (#79,708)

I met my husband through EHarmony. He was the first person I met from the website. I truly lucked out and feel guilty telling my online-dating friends my experience because it's definitely not the norm. Up to that point, I had nearly given up hope that I could find someone. I can relate to much of what is written here. It's funny thinking back as I remember my mom actually commanding me not to tell my relatives that I met my boyfriend online because they might not "approve" or "understand." We actually concocted a meet-cute story to tell them! Ultimately, it doesn't really matter how we met. We are soul mates and that's more important than any meet-cute scenario :)

stlucy (#79,798)

Is it bad that I would never date a man who would use an online-dating service

Awl writers, Hairpin writers, please be less truthful because it hurts. Love you all tho.

WaityKatie (#79,377)

@stlucy So, you're just constantly recycling significant others from college, or you meet them all at church, or what?

stlucy (#79,798)

@WaityKatie hahaaha nope, just alone

kate327 (#3,814)

For me, the "is it gluten?" line rang for centuries.

clydemaxwell (#80,045)

@Katie Cataldo i had a hard time figuring out.. is the author gluten-intolerant? i am.

carpetblogger (#306)

Louis CK said being married, then divorced, is like doing a long jail term then getting released and dropped at a bus station with your old clothes and whatever was your pockets. Now, there's this.

skahammer (#587)

If low expectations can elevate so-so movies, perhaps they can also upgrade one’s dating life from a graveyard to at least a fancy graveyard with picturesque views and atmosphere and motorized carts for the infirm.

This sentence is magical.

sevanetta (#14,222)

Thankyou for this post. THANKYOU. Thankyou for summarising my life. Next time someone says in that sing-song, patronising voice, 'You'll meet someone when you least expect it', I will just send them to this post.

WaityKatie (#79,377)

@sevanetta I've been not-expecting it for pretty much my entire life, so I think my "someone" got lost somewhere.

Corvid (#238,292)

@sevanetta Then try expecting it and see what happens

Meaux (#81,163)

The ability to be alone for long periods of time IS a superpower. Think of all those wretches who NEED to be in a romantic relationship at all times, no matter how revolting their partners are or what kind of hell they endure just so they can drop "we" into their weekend activity descriptions. I'm deeply grateful to have this superpower, I tell you.

WaityKatie (#79,377)

@Meaux Plus, you get to enjoy all the awestruck "that is so BRAVE" comments from relationship-people every time you announce that you just got back from vacationing by yourself overseas, and whatnot. Some might say those remarks are intended as pitying rather than awestruck, but I'm sticking with awestruck, dammit.

I met my husband on FB but that doesn't mean anything because we are both crazy. I wouldn't recommend online dating for normal people. HEY JOE- I like the addressing strangers as you walk by or the shopping cart idea. Can you do an experiment for your "art" and test these techniques? I would like to know the outcome. I think it would make a great story…. Love Story.

sosambulance (#81,612)

I love this article. It makes me wonder what i'm going to do if im all alone.

TimChuma (#9,158)

You left out the part about online dating sites being a huge sausage party to the point that any female members get perks like free messaging/profile upgrades that some unscrupulous users take a licence to rip people off.

You are still a youngster, 29? Meh! Try another eight years on top of that.

ohpioneer (#90,432)

I enjoyed every single sentence of this. Also, I signed up for an account just to say that.

e-lysium (#10,476)

I met my boyfriend of three years on OKCupid. However, we did have to get through a week-long hospitalization (his) and a random desire to watch every Biggie/Tupac conspiracy video on YouTube (mine) before reaching a point of stability. Totally worth it!

sefa (#178,747)

I found my SO on OKC but our first IRL meeting was at a pool-hall so that's our story.

Three acronyms in one sentence. Drink!

, (#196,079)

Love the artwork!

Yandymung (#231,267)

Joe, don't hesitate! Hurl that shopping cart. As a gal whose received more than her fair share of sleazy cat calls from passing cars and construction sites, I can tell you with great aplomb that any girl in her right mind with the right amount of humor will sincerely appreciate a respectful (and quirky?) approach from a gentleman. So, don't hold back because you never know if that sweet thang perusing the overpriced kumquats at Whole Foods is your meet-cute. Secondly, anyone: if there a site for becoming single and getting a few moments alone, sign me up. Much as I love the kid, after 6+ years of getting dressed in the dark because he gets up later, commuting 3 hours a day because he prefers to live outside the city, making elaborate dinners that I never would make for just myself (You need protein AND veggies? Ugh.), and wasting perfectly good craft beer money laundering his gym shorts I wouldn't mind a little time deflecting my concerned friends worried looks. And yes, I met him online. Friendster, anyone?

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