I am in love with my friends. I mean this not in the if-you-love-them-why-don’t-you-marry-them sense, but as much as one can be enamored with the person who roasts Friday chicken just because you like it, or books the Stanley Park Christmas Train for the night you’re free to join, or checks in to see how you’re feeling since you sustained a minor yoga injury over the weekend, or picks up the tab for beer and charcuterie, or any other number of small but persistent kindnesses. I just adore them. And–whew–it’s a relief to get that all down, because I know it is uninteresting to praise one’s own friends, but I don’t care.
I just read this article in the New York Times: a challenge to live without the hipster irony that sometimes seems to define our era. My friend Erin says, “Who would want to live without irony?”and I think she’s right. Irony is fun. It’s funny. People who are wholly sincere (I’m referring to you, family in matching hand-sewn organic bamboo pants) tend to seem dull and out of touch. But, because I tend to drift from irony to sincerity, I’m excited about a potential shift toward earnestness. For example, there’s the time I interned for National Geographic Kids and started (ironically) e-mailing my friends links to stories of unlikely baby animal friendships (this stuff is NG Kids’ bread and butter), only to discover a few months later that I’d developed full-blown and mildly embarrassing baby animal infatuation. That and I think the joke “What did the zero say to the eight?” is genuinely funny*. And, yes, I really liked the new Footloose.
When I was sitting in a cafe last week, the guy sitting next to me–having spied this article on my computer screen–struck up a conversation about relationships. Was it something I was studying, he wanted to know, and what was the most interesting thing I had learned? (The latter question I tried and utterly failed to answer–something I should work on.) We talked about marriage and love and dating and, eventually, online dating and he said, “It always unnerved me how much it feels like shopping.” I thought of my own experiences with online dating. “That’s kind of what I like about it,” I said. “It seems so efficient.” There was something about clicking from profile to profile that always gave me this sense of control over my own destiny. But I’m beginning to think he’s right, that the problem of online dating–which sometimes seems like the only way to meet people in notoriously-unfriendly Vancouver–is its similarity to selecting a new pair of earbuds on Amazon. And what got me thinking about all this are those generous, smart, interesting friends of mine, but bear with me–I’m getting there.
When I started online dating I got exactly what I needed, which was to discover–after a decade committed to one person–that there were funny or interesting or attractive people who thought I was also funny or interesting or attractive. But I wonder if the reason online dating feels like shopping is that it is shopping, not for a product but for an idea, for someone who fits the narrative of who you imagine yourself to be. And the very format of online dating rewards irony over sincerity. Because the guy who opens with an intentionally-corny joke or the girl with the self-consciously-goofy photo will always scan better than the person who admits he’d like to get married soon and preferably to a woman who makes good lasagna.
“I feel like you tick all the boxes,” J said to me one day as we drove to the park. We had already moved apart but were failing in our efforts to start seeing new people. “You’re smart, you have a professional job, you like skiing and climbing, and of course you have this pooch.” He turned to Roscoe in the back seat whose black ears were flapping gently in the breeze, an expression of total canine contentment on his face. “Just look at this guy,” J reached back to scratch behind his ears, to pull him forward and kiss the crown of his head.
We were taking advantage of a crack in the cloud cover, an unexpected flash of sunlight at odds with the weekend forecast, hoping to squeeze in a game of tennis and a healthy run around the dog park. I knew he was trying to compliment me, but I was uncomfortable with the idea of ticking the boxes, though at that point I couldn’t imagine wanting to spend my day with anyone else.“Don’t you want more than that?” I asked. “I mean, don’t you want someone who does more than look good on paper?” He didn’t know what I meant, so I tried to clarify. “Take some random guy from the climbing gym. Chances are he and I would have a lot in common. If I were to see his profile on an online dating site and see that he’s attractive, fit, works for some environmental non-profit, has a master’s degree, I’d probably go on a date with him. But when I think of the guys I see at the gym, I’m not particularly interested in any of them.” I didn’t want our reasons for staying together to be that we both loved the dog and had a lot in common, especially considering that most of our shared interests had developed because we’d been together.
The thing is, I think the best relationships are built on sincerity. And when I think of the people whose company I most enjoy, I realize that my admiration and affection for them has grown slowly over months or years. And that affection isn’t predicated on their cleverness, but their generosity and good humor and thoughtful way of interacting with the world. Online dating doesn’t–can’t possibly–begin with friendship or mutual admiration, but rather hopeful expectation, which is a much more difficult thing to sustain. And the older you get, the more clear your narrative becomes (I am 31, writer, rock climber, Obama voter, Footloose fan) and, subsequently, the more dating becomes concerned with finding someone who fits into the life you’ve already established. When you come across someone who ticks most of the boxes, you think: this should work.
So maybe the narrative is the problem. Maybe instead of trying to find someone who’s into (let’s just say) rock climbing, you find someone who inspires you to be a braver climber because he pushes himself at whatever he loves to do. Maybe you don’t need someone who matches your friends in hobbies or demographics, but who, like your friends, likes going out for beer, and who makes you laugh in a way that occasionally involves spitting beer on yourself, and, like your friends, doesn’t judge you for spitting in public. Or maybe the problem with online dating is really just a problem of real estate. Maybe I am so in love with my friends–who have become my west coast family–that I can’t squeeze another person in. Dating gets in the way of spending time with the people I love, and in the end, that’s what I’d rather be doing.
* “Nice belt.”