Yes, I know April is Autism Awareness month. My 18-year-old son Nate has autism. So for me, every month is Autism Awareness Month. I will continue to write and blog about autism. But right now, online dating is on my radar because I came across several emails on my old Yahoo! address from my online dating days. I learned something really important on that journey which I'd like to share.
The online dating pool: Dipping one toe in
My prince of a husband Fred died suddenly in 1999. For many years, the only males in my life were my sons Nate, then 5, and our newly-adopted son Joey, 10 weeks old.
Around six years after Fred died, I was getting tired of just reading my daily Pisces horoscope in the tabloids. I missed reading Fred's Capricorn one also -- one of about a million things that changed after Fred died. One day I met a divorced woman at a party who suggested I try online dating. Online dating? I had met Fred at a party one enchanted evening near a fireplace on a dreamy night at Christmas time. Online dating? Where you post your photo and life story on the Internet for the immediate cyber world to see? Or worse, ignore?
But I took a deep breath and a few days later this not-so-merry widow joined one of the larger dating sites and filled in the requisite essay: "About Me & Who I'm Looking For"
Lesson #1: Truth in Advertising
"My name is Amy. And I'm an online dating fibber." ("Hi, Amy.") There are plenty of people in that room. When I filled in my application, on the line that asked, "age," it didn't say "now." So I just wrote my age from four years earlier. At least it wasn't as bad as one woman I know who, after fibbing about her age, weight, and even hair color wrote that what she's looking for in a man is "honesty." Probably the biggest fib I encountered were the photos some men posted of themselves. Photos taken during the Nixon administration. I remember looking around the bar for one dark-haired man I had corresponded with only to come face to face with a much older cue ball. Bald is fine, but photos from your bar mitzvah or confirmation? If I had it to do over again, I wouldn't have fibbed about my age. Fibbing begs the question, "What else isn't she/he not telling me?"
Lesson #2: What's In a Name? You name it!
I chose my screen name while multi-tasking and watching the Westminster dog show. Just as a German shorthaired pointer named Carlee was named Best in Show, I chose that name for my screen name (only I spelled it the less-affected way, Carly). Many years later when I was writing a magazine story on online dating, for the first time I perused women's profiles for my research. It was an "a-ha" moment. Reading some of those names, I realized that's why I hadn't met Mr. Right! I'll bet "Luv It Naughty" and "Salsa Sue" were getting far more hits than me, named after a dog.
Lesson #3 Patience is Key
The first line of my dating essay went like this: "I was blissfully married to a hey-honey-I'm-home kind of guy. To quote Anne Bancroft (who was married to Mel Brooks), 'I'd hear the key in the lock and think, now the fun starts.' I'd like to feel that way again."
The very first guy who emailed me listed his "turn-ons" as tattoos and body piercings. In his photo, he was seated on a Harley motorcycle the size of Utah. And his headline was, "Are you ready for me, baby?"
This was going to take some time.
But my patience paid off in that I actually met men who were interested in women old enough to remember when President Kennedy was shot. The list of guys mirrored the words sung by the great Nancy LaMott: "There were avant-garde composers, even 'dese and 'dems and 'dozers . . ."
But I was a package deal with younger kids than most of my friends have, including a son with autism. And some men were honest enough to admit that while they thought we may have had potential, my kids were too heavy a package to lift. They were a deal-breaker to some.
Nevertheless, I remained optimistic, perking up like Meg Ryan in You've Got Mail whenever I heard from a potential match. My next Fred just had to be out there somewhere in cyberspace.
Lesson #4: Opposities Can Attract (so be open!)
The most important thing I learned about online dating came after my friend Carla fixed me up with her colleague and friend, Rick. A blind double date. Remember those? All that was missing was a root beer float with two straws.
Carla, her husband, Rick and me met at a tavern. As soon as I saw Rick: tall, thick gray hair, cobalt-blue eyes, and heard him: deep, calm, non-Type-A Midwestern voice, so soothing to these native Brooklyn ears, my imagination went all the places I had so desperately tried to avoid since Fred died.
All four of us had been or were still journalists and we talked nonstop, usually simultaneously. And as the minutes turned into hours, every time Rick spoke, the reporter in me had hundreds of questions. But the once blissfully-married woman in me, the old me, had only one. What if?
Of course the part of my brain my therapist works on was already asking myself, "What could this fabulous guy possibly see in me? He could easily have his pick of women, especially younger women. Younger, beautiful women." So now I was hoping Rick would just say something to make the inevitable rejection easier to take. Something like, he hates kids, or large dogs or football. No such luck. He adores his three kids, his Siberian Husky and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
After dinner, our friends had to get back to New Jersey. Carla whispered to me, "What should I do?" I told her I'd follow Rick's lead and just go home if he left. She turned to Rick and asked if he wanted a ride. I steeled myself, dreading his response. It would have been a good time to silently recite the Transcendental Meditation mantra I had learned back in my Peace Corps days. But I don't have a Zen bone in my body and all I could silently say was, "Please don't go, please don't go." Rick looked at me and then said to our friends, "I'm in no hurry." "Neither am I," my words gushing at about twice the speed of his. "Shall we retire to the bar?" I asked, finally exhaling.
And we did that.
We talked for hours and hours on everything from our days as cub reporters, politics, my Boston Red Sox and his Pittsburgh Steelers. He was more than a little impressed that I could name most of the players on the Steel Curtain. He knew nothing about pop culture and everything about history and politics. And we laughed. A lot.
And then we talked about kids. His were 20, 19, and 15. Then mine. "My younger son Joey is ten," I said casually. Ten, as in, I'm-on-homework-patrol-most-weeknights-and-he-still-needs-six-kisses-on-each-cheek-at-bedtime. Ten. Rick didn't flinch. "And my Nate. He's 16. And he has autism." "Really?" said Rick. "My cousin Dave has autism. We've always been very close." No deal-breaker in sight.
And when it was time to leave the bar, Rick said the one thing every divorced/single/widowed woman on the planet wants to hear after what she feels has been a perfectly splendid evening. "This was fun!" he said. " Shall we do it again?"
During the next two weeks, because we lived in different states and had kids and crazy work schedules, Rick and I couldn't get together, but we texted like teens, and began talking nightly. The one thing neither of us had discussed that first evening was that we both had been doing online dating. And that we both had lined up a few dates before we met. That was revealed during one of our phone calls.
I suggested maybe a pre-second-date hiatus would be a good idea until we had both honored those dates. But a day after my suggestion I emailed, "I've had a change of heart. I'd miss our talks so let's not stop those, okay? I'm going to go out with Joe and you're going to see Ms. eHarmony and if Joe chews tobacco and Ms. e. has the class of Britney Spears, we can fix them up. After all, you and I have had only one date. And yet..."
Rick texted right back, "THANK GOD... let's not kill the momentum. You're right, we've had only one date, haven't we? And yet..."
Several texts and phone calls later, our second date was approaching, as was my insecurity. What if we were wrong? Who falls in love after one date? Well, Fred and I had. But what are the odds of that happening twice in a lifetime? "Twice in a Lifetime" had been my online headline.
We had planned to meet in the lobby of the theater showing Our Town. Rick emailed me a few hours before our date. "Since we've only met once, I'll be the guy from Jersey wearing scuffed cordovan shoes and a dorky green shirt without collar buttons. I have a Fabio faux leather jacket that I will wear over it for camouflage. Will I be cleared for entry?"
I advised him, "Keep the jacket on until after they give you the ticket. It's the hip West Village, remember."
I arrived at the theater early. The lobby was nearly empty. Rick walked in. I jumped up and reached to touch his button-less collar to assure him it looked fine. What I wanted to do was throw my arms around him. Because the moment I saw him, I knew.
The reason I can quote our conversations verbatim is because I once texted him, "These texts are our love letters! I want to save them all!" And several months later for Christmas/Hanukkah, Rick handed me a book: The Story of Us. He had transcribed every email and text into a chapter book which included a cast of characters and even understudies. It was the most romantic gift I have ever received.
The most important lesson of all
My online essay had words like "poker," "billiards" and "boxing reporter." Rick's had words like "kayaking" and the dreaded C-word: "Camping." My own essay contained the word camping, but the sentence read: "If my enemies want to torture me they will take me camping." So had Rick and I met online and had I read about his love affair with hiking and camping, I could easily have passed him by in a New York minute.
Or, if I had read that Rick was part of the Amtrak communications team that invented The Quiet Car, I may have even sent him a scathing email asking, "Do you have any idea what it's like to inadvertently walk into the Quiet Car with a very unquiet autistic child? I do! Why isn't there a "noisy" car for kids like mine?"
So the lesson I learned is, forget about your "type" or common interests when you read someone's profile. Open your mind, and your heart. Had I passed Rick's online profile by, I would not have written a message that contained these words on my Facebook wall 14 months ago: "Nate just did something he has not done since his dad died 11 years ago: he put his arm around another adult male and patted his back. That male is Rick, who will become Nate's step-dad tomorrow."
And had I passed Rick's profile by, I would still be longing to hear the words, "Hey honey, I'm home." The words I once again hear every night.