Heroes come in all circumstances and ages. The prophet tells us, "Your old will have visions; your young will dream dreams." Elderly women in a retirement community in Mill Valley protested the war in Iraq on a busy thoroughfare with placards every Friday for years. A man I know of 22, halfway to a medical degree, is pursuing ballet dreams in New York City. Some people my age -- extreme middle-age -- train for marathons, or paddle down the Amazon, skydive, or adopt. They publish for the first time.
Me? I may have done the most heroic thing of all. I went on Match.com for a year.
The thing was, I had just done something brave, which was to write a memoir with my son, tour the East Coast together, and appear on stages before hundreds of people at a time. But one dream coming true doesn't mean you give up on other lifelong dreams. You're not dream-greedy to want, say, a cool career and a mate. And having realized this one long-shot dream with my grown child gave me the confidence to try something even harder: to date.
I recoil even from the word "date," let alone the concept of possibly beginning a romantic relationship. Those woods are so spooky. I have an almost perfect life, even though I've been single since my last long-term boyfriend and I broke up four years ago. I really do, insofar as that is possible in this vale of tears -- a cherished family, a grandchild, church, career, sobriety, two dogs, daily hikes, naps, perfect friends. But sometimes I am lonely for a partner, a soul mate, a husband.
I had loved the sleeping alone part. I rarely missed sex: I had tiny boundary issues in all those years of drinking, and by my early 20s I had used up my lifelong allotment. I over-served myself. I do love what Wodehouse called the old oompus-boompus when it happens to be in progress, but wouldn't go out of my way. Additionally, I have spent approximately 1,736 hours of this one precious life waiting for the man to finish, and pretending that felt good. And I want a refund.
What I missed was checking in all day with my person, daydreaming about him, and watching TV together at night. There, I've said it: I wanted someone to text all day, and watch TV with.
I am skittish about relationships, as most of the marriages I've seen up close have been ruinous for one or both parties. In four-fifths of them, the men want to have sex way more often than the women do. I would say almost none of the women would care if they ever got laid again, even when they are in good marriages. They do it because the man wants to. They do it because it makes the men like them more, and feel close for a while, but mostly women love it because they get to check it off their to-do lists. It means they get a pass for a week or two, or a month.
It is not on the women's bucket lists. I'm sorry to have to tell you this.
Also, 91 percent of men snore loudly – badly, like very sick bears. I would say that CPAP machines are the greatest advance in marital joy since the vibrator. It transforms an experience similar to sleeping next to a dying silverback gorilla into sleeping next to an aquarium.
And the women are not crazy about the men's secret Internet porn lives. But perhaps we will discuss this at another time.
Yet union with a partner -- someone with whom to wake, whom you love, and talk with on and off all day, and sit with at dinner, and watch TV and movies, read together in bed, do hard tasks together, and to be loved by. That sounds really lovely.
I had experienced varying degrees of loneliness since my guy and I split up. After our breakup, I had just assumed there would be a bunch of kind, brilliant, liberal, funny guys my age to choose from. There always had been before. Surely my friends would set me up with their single friends, and besides, I am out in the public a lot doing events at bookstores and political gatherings, the ideal breeding ground for my type of guy. But I hadn't met anyone.
People don't know single guys my age who are looking for single women my age. A 60-year-old man does not fantasize about a 60-year-old woman. A 70-year-old man might. And an 80-year-old -- ooh-la-la.
Almost everyone wonderful that my friends know is in a relationship, or gay, or cuckoo.
I went onto Match.com with a clear knowledge that relationships are not the answer to lifelong problems. They're hard, after the first trimester. People are damaged and needy and narcissistic. I sure am. Also, most men a single woman meets have been separated or divorced for about 20 minutes.
The man of my most recent long-term relationship, whom I'd been with nearly seven years, was in a new, committed relationship about three weeks after we split up.
I am not kidding. You can ask him. We're very friendly.
So I signed up at Match.com. This – subscribing -- means you can communicate with people at the site, instead of just studying the profiles, questionnaires, preferences and photographs for free. I subscribed and answered the questions.
My preferences are smart, funny, kind, into nature, God, reading, movies, pets, family, liberal politics, hiking; I prefer sober, or sober-ish.
So the first morning, eight profiles of men varying in age from 54 to 63 arrived by email. Most seemed pretty normal, with college degrees, which I don't have, but certainly meant to; some attractive, mostly divorced but some like me, never married, some witty, some dull, sort of like real life.
Curiously, almost without exception, they were "spiritual but not religious." I thought for a while that this meant ecumenical, drawn to Rumi, Thomas Merton, Mary Oliver. But I have come to learn that this means they think of themselves as friendly. They are "glass half-full kind of people." That's very nice. They like to think that they are "closest to Buddhism," and "open to the magic that is all around us." They are "people-people." They are "open-minded and welcome all viewpoints." They are rarely seeking religious nuts like myself -- rather, they are seeking open, non-judgmental women. (The frequent reference to wanting a non-judgmental woman makes a girl worry: What if you're pretty non-judgmental, but then Larry Craig asks you out for coffee, or Buzz Bissinger, and little by little, more is revealed?) A strangely high number of them mention that they hope you've left your baggage at the airport -- because, I guess, they are all well! I love this so much.
Eight new guys arrived every day, along with a remnants section of men who lived pretty far away. Some of my eight guys were handsome, if you could believe their profiles, and in my case the profiles tended to be pretty legitimate. They mentioned that they drank moderately, or never, or socially (the most you can admit to. There is no way to check for "drinks alcoholically").
For my maiden voyage, I had coffee with an accomplished local man, who said his last girlfriend had been religious, a devout Jew, and this had driven him crazy. I said I was probably worse. We parted with a hug.
I selected a nice-looking Englishman with grown children for my second date. He said he had a good sense of humor, loved movies. He was, perhaps, the tiniest bit fat. I don't care much about weight, or hair loss. I emailed, and we arranged to meet at a Starbucks halfway between our homes, on a Sunday morning before my church.
This is a true story: He was 10 minutes late, and shaken, because he had just seen a fatal motorcycle accident on the Richmond San Rafael Bridge. He had stopped to inspect the body, because he was worried that it was his son, although his son rode a dramatically different brand of motorcycle. He had gotten out, talked to the police, and gotten a peek at the corpse. This sort of put the kibosh on things for me. I recommended that we reschedule to a day when he hadn't seen any dead people. He wanted to proceed. I got him a nice cup of tea.
I liked him, though, and we exchanged adorable and kicky emails, arranging another date, for sushi, and he was lively, cultured and sort of charming. But at lunch, he accidentally forgot to ask me anything about my life during the first 45 minutes of the conversation. It was fascinating, that we did not get around to me until that one question. Then I got cut off.
My pointing this out politely in an email the next day did not sit well.
The next guy was also highly cultured, a creative venture capitalist, who was familiar with my work, and turned out to be a truly excellent conversationalist. We had a coffee date, a long walk on the beach, a candlelit dinner, texts and emails in between, definite chemistry, and then I didn't hear from him for five days.
If I wanted to go for five days without hearing from a man with whom I had chemistry and three almost perfect dates, I would repeat junior high.
My friends were great. They turned on the man immediately. (Of course, I mostly talked to my single friends and to Sam about Match.) They knew how brave it was of me to go on dates. I was their role model.
This pattern repeated -- a flurry of dates, followed by radio silence on the man's part -- and made me mourn the old days, when you met someone with whom you shared interests, chemistry, a sense of humor, and you started going out. After a while -- OK, who am I kidding, sometimes later that day -- you went to bed with him, and then woke up together, maybe shyly, and had a morning date. Then you made plans to get together that night, or the next, or over the weekend.
But that is the old paradigm. Now, if you have a connection with a Match.com man, he might have nice connections with two or three other Match.com women, too, and so each date and new dating level -- coffee, a walk, lunch, and then dinner -- is like being on a board game, different colored game pieces being moved along the home path in Parcheesi.
Every few weeks, I went out with a new man and practiced my dating skills – i.e., listening, staying open, and bringing the date to a friendly close. My son has "We don't give up" tattooed on his forearm, which is sort of our family crest. So I didn't give up, even when that day's date had an unbuttoned tropical shirt, or explained that there is no real difference between Republicans or Democrats.
Sam told me not to give up, that I would meet a guy who was worthy of me, quote unquote. That made the whole year worthwhile.
One of the bad coffee dates was a kingly little man who bore an unfortunate resemblance to Antonin Scalia, complete with tasseled loafers, who was snotty and disappointed until he figured out that I was a real writer. Then he wanted to be my BFF.
I saw the profile of a handsome religious man, who had graduate degrees, a great sense of humor, and did not look like Antonin Scalia. He said he believed in courtesy and friendliness. OK, I'll bite. The only iffy answer on his questionnaire was that he was "middle of the road."
I dropped him a line.
He wrote back 15 minutes later. "Your politics are abhorrent to me."
I loved that. "Middle of the road" almost always means conservative, I promise. It means the person is Tea Party but would consent to getting laid by a not-hysterical liberal, which rules me out.
A man with a graduate degree, great sense of humor, spiritual but not religious, wrote to say he loved my work and felt we were kindred souls. We met at Starbucks. He was very sweet and open, but had a compulsive Beavis and Butt-head laugh. After 10 minutes of this, my neck went out on me, like one of the Three Stooges.
Then I met a man who was as far to the left as I am, in the weeks before the presidential election! Heaven. He was English also. I am powerless in the face of foreign accents.
Or rather, I used to be.
We went out four times in rapid succession, for coffee, lunches, a hike. We had chemistry, laughed a lot, sent lots of emails. But we didn't touch. I thought, in my mature and/or delusional way, that this would come, but it didn't. I made a few practice casual touches, but he didn't respond.
My consultants said that I should pay attention to this. Part of me didn't believe them -- this guy knew we weren't on hikingpals.com. We both wanted mates. But then I got it, that my horrible friends were right, and he didn't feel physical with me. I felt teary and surprised. I wrote to him, with my email voice high in my throat, saying that maybe it wasn't going to happen, and maybe we should take a break while I went out of town.
He said he wanted to pursue this and for me not to throw in the towel.
Hooray. My heart soared like an eagle. We stayed in touch by email while I was gone, for a couple of weeks.
I got home. He asked me out to lunch, and we had an easy, entertaining time. He wrote that he had really enjoyed it. I asked him if he wanted to go for a hike Thanksgiving morning, before the hordes and riff-raff arrived at my house. We had coffee in the kitchen with my son and younger brother, and then we had the most beautiful walk. We hiked the next morning, too. Then in a feat of derring-do, I invited him to the movies that night, and kept my adorable little starfish hand on the space where the arm rest would have been, if I hadn't stealthily raised it when he went to get popcorn. But he didn't reach for my hand; and to make a long story short, we haven't seen each other since that night. After four days of silence, I wrote to say that I guessed it wasn't going to happen. He wrote back that yes, this was probably true; it had felt friendly but not romantic.
Now he is my mortal enemy.
That was four months ago. There have been some smart, sweet guys since, even one recently. And today, I had coffee with the first guy, from almost exactly one year ago. We compared notes; he loved "your politics are abhorrent," and commiserated about the second Englishman. He and I don't have huge chemistry, but he's a good guy, and it was pleasant.
You could say that my year on Match was not successful, since I'm still single, have been reduced to recycling my Starbucks companions, and am pleased with “pleasant.” To have gone out so many times took almost everything I had, and then I didn't even meet the right man. You start to wonder if there's something wrong with you.
But I have two weeks left till my membership expires. Anything could happen. God is such a show-off, and I never give up on my dreams. Plus, amazingly, I have learned how to date. I can meet guys for coffee, and hang out with them for an hour, and either not have to see them again, or keep my heart open, hoping I do. Talk about awesome. I did it.