For months, he had been my anonymous online confidant. Shrouded behind the interwebs, he received the highly personal communiqués I entered each night before going to bed.
And then, one day, this faceless recipient of my most embarrassing diet confessionals was standing in front of me, shifting from foot to foot, as I ordered an ice coffee -- "unsweetened, please!" -- at the 39th street Starbucks.
"So this is what happens," I thought, "when your 'online coach' acquires a face..."
Let me begin at the beginning: This summer, as part of my Buns of Steal project, I hired an online fitness coach.
Adam's diet/exercise company, My Body Tutor, functions primarily through cyberspace. The concept is simple: we all know what we should be eating and how we should be exercising, but we don't have the motivation to actually execute. So, to keep themselves honest, Adam's clients submit nightly online reports listing everything they ate, why they ate it, and setting food/workout goals for the following day. The next morning they wake up to electronic feedback from Adam (or one of his staff coaches), assessing their previous day and offering suggestions and motivation for the next day.
The real genius of the program, I think, is that it plays into our increasing comfort with online communication (sometimes to the exclusion of "real" face to face interaction). Telling a stranger about all the crap we've eaten is embarrassing, and Adam taps into the demographic of people who use the internet buffer as a crutch for saying what they truly feel. As a blogger, I am certainly part of this group.
So here I was, about to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, and I needed to drop a few pounds before the hike. I had heard about Adam through a fellow fitness blogger, and decided to give him a go.
Over the next few months, Adam became my online confidant.
At first it was a little awkward: Did I really have to list the handful of tortilla chips I ate at the Mexican restaurant, and why the heck was I making note of the "things I was most grateful for" that day?
At first, I tried to keep things vague, but slowly, my daily submissions became a little less... well... stale. I started interjecting quips ("leave it to me to eat grasshopper tacos -- but at least they were sautéed and not fried!"), and elaborating on the challenges I'd be facing the following day ("So, my friend is dragging me to this restaurant opening, and she's a total foodie but damn it it's a pizza shop! FML Adam, what do I do?").
Sure enough, Adam's phantom responses became wittier as well. The feedback was still constructive, but there was more banter.
In fact, I'd say the feedback became more constructive once I started to open up, because now Adam wasn't just seeing what I was eating, but he was also seeing why I was eating it.
When I got back from my Kilimanjaro climb, I decided to continue with MBT. My life in New York is always full of surprises, so my daily submissions became even more bizarre. I wrote life as it happened, night by night, in my feedback logs. Hell, I could probably retrace my life through those things, meal by meal, drink by drink (and there were a lot of drinks, to Adam's chagrin).
As it sometimes happens in relationships that develop online, I found myself telling Adam pretty personal stuff: who I was meeting, when and why, about my eating neuroses, and at one point, a long confessional email pontificating on why I have a messed up body image (child gymnast, life in Miami, etc...).
Hell, I remember texting Adam once while I was on a date: "damnit I thought Cha-an Teahouse was a teahouse so I ate dinner, and now the guy's ordering us a bento box!"
Adam's response: "hahahaha!"
"That's not helpful! Shit, he's back from the bathroom, gtg."
The guy was becoming my BFF, and I had never even met him.
Then, I had a brilliant idea: Adam and I are both living in New York, so why don't we meet, face to face. I mean, after all, this guy has text supported me through hors d'œuvre-filled law firm functions, and has read my ridiculous 4 a.m. submissions, occasionally not written in the most sober of states. What I failed to account for in my flawless logic was that the precise reason my relationship with Adam was so successful was that he was a safe, faceless being who could just as easily have been typing me feedback from Mumbai as from Manhattan.
So, we set up a time to grab some coffee, and suddenly I was a bit nervous. From the press I had read about Adam, and through our conversations, I deduced that he was a fit, ex-finance alpha male in his late 20s or early 30s: pretty much the demographic that hits on me in bars, except that I've told this guy some of the most intimate, embarrassing details of my personal life. Suddenly the online filter would be gone, and I would be exposed.
Not that this is an isolated phenomenon: our society is increasingly dependent on online communication, and we haven't figured out yet what the boundaries are. We're getting to know each other as writers, not as speakers, which is pretty interesting. But at the same time, we're hidden behind a computer screen and feel we can take more liberties, be it through selectively ignoring incoming g-chat messages, or through confidently sending flirtatious or inappropriate communiqués which we would never allow ourselves in person or over the phone.
So then what happens when the faceless set of fingers on the other side of the interwebs is suddenly standing there, watching you order an ice coffee at the 39th street Starbucks?
The spoiler is that, no, I didn't fall madly in love with my online fitness coach, which would have been a hilarious and ironic end to the story. And no, it wasn't a horrifically uncomfortable scene straight out of a Steve Carell flick. What happened was about 2 minutes of semi-awkwardness, followed by 45 minutes of good conversation, mostly between Adam and my friend Epicuriosa, a nutrition blogger I'd brought along for the encounter. Adam was a little shyer than I expected, just as fit, and significantly less douchey (sorry, I have built-in preconceptions about finance guys, I know it's bad...). He didn't tease me about my eating habits (I was half expecting it, but he's a complete professional), and was eager to tell Epicuriosa about MBT.
I wonder what he thought of me? It made me curious -- how do I come across on paper, versus in person? I was relieved that we didn't crash and burn upon meeting, but aware of the precariousness of the situation.
That night, I submitted my feedback. One of the things I was grateful for that day: "meeting you."