Personal writing: “30 dates in 52 weeks” (National Post, May 31, 2003)

30 dates in 52 weeks

by Gillian Burnett

If someone had told me, during my last serious breakup, that I would still be single seven years on, I wouldn’t have believed it.

Since leaving home I’d been a serial monogamist, leaping from one comfortable relationship to the next.

Then, everything changed. At 26, two things conspired to take me out of the path of single men: I got a job that demanded more time and energy, and my friends started to couple up. Instead of crowded bars and house parties, I increasingly found myself at dinners where I was the lone loner, forever throwing off the seating arrangements.

Let me be clear: I do not ask for your pity. I am no Bridget Jones-style box of neuroses, bingeing and purging my way through the hell of manlessness. I have, mostly, revelled in my singledom, knowing I’ve risked more and developed differently because of it. And I have dated a few good men along the way. Still, when I hit 32, I decided it was time to take matters into my own hands. Literally.

Enter online dating. I had heard good things from friends about their friends who had met men — interesting, attractive men — on the Internet. Curious, I browsed the “Relationships” streams on Lavalife and Nerve.com. This up-front declaration of intentions appealed to my sense of efficiency: At least you wouldn’t have to stick around for three months to find out that he put the “omit” in commitment. Each site attracted its own range of men, Lavalife a kind of jock-filled Wal-Mart next to Nerve’s over-educated library of acid-jazz-listening computer geniuses.

The next, surprisingly difficult step was composing a profile. It’s one thing to write about yourself; It’s another to sell yourself on an e-Bay for humans. So I browsed the men’s ads for tips, and quickly figured out how not to make an impression. Don’t describe yourself as a paradox; don’t use phrases like “the whole package”; don’t write your ad in the form of a poem; don’t insist that you won’t reply unless someone has posted a photo.

A photo: That gave me pause. I was determined not to put up a picture, horrified at the thought that any creep could see it, not to mention an ex-boyfriend. Plus, I rationalized, the kind of men I liked would be drawn to my winning e-personality. But traffic was slow, and when I finally checked out my competition I could see why. I had vaguely envisaged a virtual dating universe with two planets: Men and Me. But there were multitudes — hordes, even — of women vying for attention, women with an obvious lack of concern for all forms of modesty, physical and otherwise. I gave in, posted a photo, and, gratifyingly, my response rate soared.

Over the next 12 months I went on 30 dates with 24 men — teachers, lawyers, artists, students, programmers, journalists, stockbrokers, a doctor, a fireman and an ethnomusicologist who made me listen to the worst Elvis cover tune in history. None was insane. Most were decent and interesting, and some were fun to be with. In the process, I accumulated the following pearls of Internet-dating wisdom.

1. Get over your embarrassment. If you find this hard, just think of the guy who, having suffered an unrequited crush on me years before, unwittingly replied to my ad. Remember, too, that if someone saw you online it was because they were online too.

2. Accept that you will run into people you know, or at the very least people who know people you know. I was recognized by (and spent a lovely afternoon with) a man I’d last seen in Grade 4 homeroom. Another guy was a childhood friend of a former co-worker with whom I’d lost touch.

3. Don’t lie. I was astonished to discover that some men are as vain about their height as some women are purported to be about their age. Please note: five-foot-seven is not the same as five-foot-four, and most women can spot the difference immediately.

4. Limit your initial contact, then meet as soon as possible. Your potential for disappointed expectations is directly proportionate to how much time you’ve invested. You will avoid a lot of awkward silences by meeting while you’re still corresponding as strangers — which, no matter how protracted and intimate your exchanges, is what you are.

5. Don’t discuss past online experiences, especially if they’re negative. One man described how he’d cruelly confronted a woman who hadn’t indicated beforehand that she was “unbelievably fat.” Check, please.

6. In a similar vein, do not bring up medical oddities or past surgical procedures on the first date, especially when they involve such body parts as the scrotum. And if you feel you must describe in graphic detail how you accidentally severed certain extremities, then had them surgically reattached, at least wait until the plates have been cleared.

7. Lastly, err on the side of generosity. I’m all for paying my share — heck, I’ll happily foot the bill — but there’s nothing more unattractive than being told you owe $2.75 plus tip for that half-pint of beer. Unless it’s being told you owe $50 for dinner at a place you would never have chosen on a date you were led to believe was the other person’s treat. Enough said.

So was the experiment a success? If meeting someone is the true measure, then I suppose not. But I don’t see it as a failure; if anything, I’ve come out of the experience with a better understanding of what I want and what I have to offer. I stopped because I began to feel like I had a part-time job, but I haven’t ruled out trying it again. And aside from the man who compared my neighbourhood to a trailer park, I can happily confirm that there are good single men out there.

Most importantly, though, being single has ceased to feel like a label I’ve unwillingly been branded with. Instead, it feels overwhelmingly like a choice.

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