The thing about full-blown online dating—OKCupid, eHarmony, the in-depth sites, not the rapid-fire apps like Tinder or Hinge—is that everyone lies in the details. Men add inches to their height and everyone shaves off pounds, years, divorces. And what about the spin and outright dishonesty in interests and hobbies? While Tinder might let you get away with three photos, a throwaway line about your love of electronic music, and some pseudointellectual Nietzsche quote that doesn’t sound creepy at all, these more traditional dating sites require you to provide extensive personal details about your interests, your activities, passions, and pleasures.
Are we to honestly believe no one has misrepresented themselves, their palms sweating as the About Me box loomed before them, listing tennis when they haven’t owned a racket in years, art when they enjoy the gift shop more than the museum, typing in three Kurosawa movies they saw in college as their favorites when they’ve seen nothing but sports and police procedurals since Obama took office?
I said nothing about the Viking lectures I’d recently enjoyed or my inexplicable obsession with anyone over 100.
When I signed up for OKCupid, I know I gave considerable thought to how my answers would be received, and though I didn’t lie, I certainly curated my list. I said nothing about the Viking lectures I’d recently enjoyed or my inexplicable obsession with anyone over 100. I stayed mum about my extensive personal library on Nazi-related topics. I focused on areas that might be considered interesting and yet weren’t quirky enough to raise any red flags. I played poker. I maintained an environmental website. I had recently learned how to make hot toddies. Look at me! I cared about things, but not too much! I was still fun, dammit. Sure, I played card games for money, but I was obviously still solvent, as evidenced by my ability to buy whiskey.
I needn’t have bothered. The fact that I didn’t list “travel” in that section—that I couldn’t—made me pretty much D.O.A. for online dating.
Like a psychological test in which you’re told there are no wrong answers, but you know if you confess to your uncontrollable rage and your general misanthropy it will not be well-received, there are always wrong answers. On OKCupid, the wrong answer for income is below $75,000/year. The wrong answer for age is over 40. And the wrong answer for interests is any list that doesn’t include travel. It was so customary to mention it, along with hiking and at least one critically-acclaimed HBO show, that leaving it off was suspicious, like writing “not applicable” under What I Do For A Living.
It was so customary that some of those people had to be lying.
Maybe I was bitter now that my ability to travel was cruelly restricted—as a result of an ear condition, I haven’t flown on an airplane since 2001—but I knew most of these people were home nearly as much as I was, medical condition or not.
The wrong answer for interests is any list that doesn’t include travel.
I mean, I’m not saying you photoshopped that picture of you and your friends in Cabo. I’m sure it happened. The question is, how relevant is it? More than half of Americans didn’t take a vacation of any kind last year. Wasn’t it verging on dishonest to feature your jaunt through the streets of Kyoto so prominently when we both knew your average day consisted of going to work, ordering something ill-considered from Amazon Prime, and lamenting the poor performance of your fantasy sports team? If photos were a one-to-one reflection of people’s actual activities you could safely conclude that the average American male aged 30-55 spent 15% of his time in a pair of cargo shorts loitering by the Great Wall of China.
As I clicked through page after page after both potential mates and potential rivals, the message was clear: better that you’ve folded your laundry on Easter Island than been presented with a Fields Medal, saved a litter of drowning puppies, or performed a one-person show to critical acclaim a distance from your house that could be reached by the city bus line.
Even if I was willing to fudge things a little, it wouldn’t help me. It was too much of a stretch. I couldn’t refer to the eclipse I saw in Chile with my friend Denise in 1994, or my visit to see the Pyramids of Giza with my friends Moira and Ross a few years before that. In both instances, I’d ended up stranded for over a week, under the supervision of local doctors, my ears too filled with blood to fly home.
Don’t let me stop you, though, I thought, my annoyance growing. Upload that slideshow of yourself buying a banana at a whimsical floating market in Thailand, communing with a llama in Machu Picchu, posing in front of a snake charmer in Marrakesh. Showcase something you spent .001% of your time doing and we’ll all pretend it’s different than taking a hundred selfies of yourself from every imaginable angle and finally settling on the one that, through a quirk of backlighting and facial expression, makes you look like George Clooney in Ocean’s Eleven.
Okay, I was a little bitter.
Because now, in addition to being single, and unable to go to all the places I’d hoped to go without having my ears bleed and my hearing impaired, I got to see endless photos of all the places I’d never see along with all the men I’d never see them with.
I admit there are practical limitations to dating someone who’s permanently grounded. I might not be the greatest match for someone whose job requires constant travel, like the Secretary of State, say, or Adele. Was it fair for the average Joe to pass me over because I couldn’t attend a once-a-year vacation or destination wedding? I needed someone willing to concede the point.
One profile caught my eye. Under What I’m Doing With My Life he wrote ‘watching TV and hanging out.’ Finally, I thought, a little honesty. This guy who didn’t claim to be constantly cross-country skiing through the Alps, or tracking wild horses in Mongolia. He was a real person, who, when home after a hard day’s work – I assumed, though he didn’t say – made himself a sandwich, sat down in front of the TV, put his feet up on the coffee table, and fired up the Tuesday night CBS lineup, whatever that was. Good for you, I thought.
I have to admit, though, I didn’t message him.
We are almost all ordinary people. We have not registered a handful of life-changing patents. We don’t speak five languages. Strangers, rendered speechless by our good looks, don’t gawk at us. We’re decent at golf. We’re good for the occasional wisecrack. Dogs like us. Yet we all have a vision of a more glamorous and successful version of ourselves, the one that could have happened. The one who got crowned Miss Rhode Island instead of third runner up because we blew our dance routine, the one who really did start that self-help empire, the one who stuck to their no carbs regimen even during the holidays. Years ago I remember a friend talking about an acquaintance who had graduated from law school but hadn’t yet passed the bar exam. “Aren’t we all just lawyers,” he’d said, “who haven’t passed the bar?”
When we post photos that are younger or thinner and hide our eczema, enjoying a glass of wine in the Italian Alps, we are being strategic, of course. We are also showing our other selves, our best selves, and asking someone else to see us like that, too.
we all have a vision of a more glamorous and successful version of ourselves, the one that could have happened
What I miss most about traveling isn’t seeing the world’s sights, or experiencing other cultures. Sure, I’d like to see Papua New Guinea’s birds of paradise or the Taj Mahal. It would be fun to brush up on my Arabic and shoot the shit with some Bedouins. The greater loss is of the feeling I used to get of possibility and freedom, the palpable understanding that there was a whole world out there that I could partake in, the reminder I wasn’t restricted to the artificial limits of my life at home. I could quit my job and open a coffee shop/surf rental place in Thailand, I could start a non-profit to spay and neuter the stray dogs of Russia. When you see a woman stepping on a bus in Detroit to go to her job in medical records you know she’s thinking about nothing but lunch. Show that same woman emerging from the Paris metro and it’s a whole different story. Sure, she’ll probably end up getting lost and overpaying for some crepes and then going home, but at that moment, anything could happen.
It’s not that bad not being able to fly. I still manage to get around. I’ve been to Vegas many times. I’ve traveled by bus and ferry to mainland Mexico. When I take the train from Los Angeles to Boston, which I’ve done half a dozen times, I still get that feeling sometimes. I could get off in Alpine, Texas, and open a diner with the world’s tastiest hash browns. I could disembark in New Orleans and launch a Kickstarter for my sleepaway camp for dogs. If I was still on OKCupid, maybe I’d post a picture of myself as the train passed over Lake Pontchartrain, and it would be good enough to pass muster.
Despite my misgivings about the process, I met my boyfriend online a few years ago. He never said a word about my lack of travel photos. My transportation limitations haven’t presented any problems for us yet. If any come up, I don’t think they’ll be insurmountable.
Now that he knows me, there’s no point in trying to look younger or more glamorous. There’s no way I can claim I’m anything more than the ordinary person I am. I hope, though, that sometimes, when he looks over at me, even though I’m not wading into the Volga or strolling by the Sydney Opera House, he can see it: the other me. The one I still believe in. The one, if everything from here on out goes right, I still could be.
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