February 06, 2006

Maybe Dying Alone Is Underrated

It gets a little lonely, folks, you know what I mean

I'm looking for a woman with low self-esteem

To lay me out and ease my worried mind

-Warren Zevon

This morning, the Washington Post produced the latest article in its ongoing series, "Hey, Fred! This Will Really Piss You Off":

It comes down to the deterrent power of a Phil Collins CD in a woman's car. Or, a guy who habitually sticks his tongue out while eating, like a lapping dog. His girlfriend returns him to his cage, permanently.

Centuries from now, scientists may point to this as the moment in time when the pickiness gene became dominant. In the end, it will come down to one really old, lonely guy and his list.

"She must have blue eyes. She should like animals, but not in a weird way. No thin lips. No lawyers," he'll be writing, just before he keels over and the human race comes to an end.

The article goes on to profile several people who have kicked their boyfriends or girlfriends to the curb for deep, meaningful reasons such as these:

"Some people are mayonnaise people, I completely understand it. But I. Hate. Mayonnaise," Peters says. He thinks it's a texture thing. "I just find it to be the most repulsive thing in the world. And she's just going on and on about how great mayonnaise is and how you can eat all these things and my stomach is just curdling."

There was one more incident. They went to grab a quick bite and she got a roast beef and brie sandwich, heated up. The brie was "oozing."

"I mean, when it's hot and running all over, it looked terrible, and in light of the taquito and mayonnaise stories, I was just like, I can't take it anymore," Peters says.

He stopped calling her. He knows this sounds really bad.

"Feel free to put in there what a shallow [bleep] I am," he says.

Others interviewed for the story include a man who breaks up with women who order salads for dinner, a woman who dumped her boyfriend because he didn't know what paella was, and a woman who walked out on her boyfriend at a restaurant because he didn't like the shoes she was wearing.

If that wasn't enough, check out this laundry list:

Dates with bad grammar. Yankees fans. Actors. Indecisive dates. ("Where do you want to go?" "I dunno, you?") A man who wears a backpack, or socks with his sandals. A woman who can't give good directions to her house. A man who likes pink drinks. A woman who drives a black Pontiac Grand Am with gold rims. A man who kisses you and says, "Yummy!" A woman who wears a tight leopard-print top.

Whew. As if I didn't have enough reasons to feel bad about my romantic future, I am now introduced to the possibility that the minutest quirk of my personality, no matter how picayune, might be cause for a break-up. Happy hunting, young lovers! (Where are Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice when I need them?)

If asked, all the picky people will claim that their seemingly absurd dumping grounds are in fact rooted in something more meaningful. The woman who walked out over her shoes claims that the shoes she was wearing "exemplify everything that I am. . . . They're so, like, fun and they're kinda dangerous." The man who won't date women who order salads for dinner says that such a woman is "very self-conscious about either how she looks or eating in front of other people." The man who didn't know what paella was wasn't cultured enough for the woman who dumped him. Even Taquito Boy, who admits to being a selfish [bleep], says that his date's bad food choices reflected the fact that she was too "small-town" and "old-fashioned and motherlike".

The writer of the article, Libby Copeland, does a good job encapsulating what this increasing pickiness says about our society (and encapsulating why I want to hit these people hard with a shovel):

There is something peculiarly modern about this phenomenon, something aligned with our dark privilege of too much, this consumeriffic culture in which jeans and houses and breasts and ring tones are customizable. Consider it all: geographical dislocation, cities filled with singles, extended childhoods and postponed childbearing, speed-dating, the growing sense that the dating pool is as vast as the 454 men-seeking-women between the ages of 29 and 31 within five miles of your Zip code on Yahoo Personals.

In a world of infinite possibilities, the notion of falling in love, of finding The One, seems itself like the taquito girl, small-town and old-fashioned. Once upon a time, The One would've lived in your village or another one like it. Now, she could be this sweet girl across from you at the dinner table, but she could also be someone you haven't yet met. What if there's another woman somewhere in the world, like this girl, but better? Someone who will snowboard with you, and doesn't do that strange throat-clearing thing?

As usual, modernity sucks the big one. Our affluent, trivial, atomized and self-serving culture has, if nothing else, produced the great glimmering myth: You can have everything exactly the way you want it. You can live in your spacious McMansion with a big lawn surrounded by other people who share your socioeconomic status and think, look and talk like you. You can flip through 700 TV channels until you find the one that's perfectly tailored to your narrow interests and worldviews. If the TV bores you, hop onto the Internet and
surf until you find that Web site or message board that's devoted to people who like what you like (or, at least as likely if not more so, hate what you hate). Go to the grocery store and browse through 600 varieties of olive oil until you find the one that's exactly suited to the dish you're cooking.

Choices, choices, everywhere we look there are choices. And since our capitalist culture has encouraged us to think of everything as a consumer good, why not love? And if we can get our TV channels, Internet sites, houses, cars, neighborhoods, and olive oils tailored to our specific preferences, why not look for the same in a mate?

Online dating sites only encourage this fantasy. I don't like online dating because it feels too much like a shopping list. When it comes to qualities I look for in a girlfriend, things such as a bright and active mind, caring warmth, buoyant optimism, an ability to roll with life's punches, and a willingness to explore new interest and ideas matter much more than hair color, height, occupation, or preferred number of theoretical future children. Unfortunately, none of the things I'm looking for come across in an online profile (not even in the 200-words-or-less "in your own words" featurette). Apart from enabling me to weed out the bad spellers, online profiles tell me nothing useful.

(And for all the potential varieties, there's a depressing sameness after a while. If I read of one more woman who is desperately seeking "an honest man who loves life and is funny but knows when to be serious," I may strangle someone.)

The point here is that online dating sites are the ultimate consumer's wet dream: Enter in your list of desired attributes, and bammo! here's a list of 1,000 people of your desired gender and sexual preference who meet your criteria, or most of them, anyway.

When faced with such a plethora of choices, the natural tendency is to find ways to pare down the list. Rather than looking for commonalities, you start looking for differences, excuses to knock people off the list.

And so, enter Taquito Boy. Obviously, he's convinced that he can afford to be picky and reject women on the basis of mayonnaise love. And, in a world of The Golf Channel, iPods and cosmetic surgery on demand, why wouldn't he think so? Every impulse in our popular culture encourages him to believe it. Just ask the author of the charmingly-titled Hook-Up Handbook quoted in this article about dating in your 20s: "At this point, dating is more about you than it is about the other person." Fantastic.

If the consumer culture hasn't destroyed love, then the hazy definition of the role of love and marriage in our society has. It's increasingly unclear in America what marriage is for. Women don't need men to support them economically or for child-bearing (since they can do both on their own), and while men might well benefit from a woman's help around the house (my apartment could serve as Exhibit 1 of this point), they don't need to be married either.

Since the functions of marriage are (theoretically) no longer a requirement for survival in society, young people are left adrift in the romantic universe with no clear guideposts. If they haven't seen their parents divorce (maybe more than once), they've seen their friends' parents divorce, and a once-bitten-twice-shy mentality has taken root. With no clear idea what marriage is supposed to do for them, young people shrug their shoulders at the whole thing. They delay it as long as possible -- because sleeping around with no strings is more fun, dammit -- and then, if it's not everything they hoped it would be, they don't hesitate to return the old model to the store for an exchange.

While I don't share the cultural conservatives' desire to turn marriage into a celebration of heterosexuality, I understand their anxiousness about the institution. Not only are people conditioned to believe that they can treat relationships with fellow human beings as a flip through the old Sears Wishbook, it's possible that our society is so selfish and narrowcasted that we can't deal with people with different viewpoints and life experiences. (It defies understanding how a society so well-educated can be so narrow-minded, but so be it.)

Perhaps this is the price of affluence: When we're awash in goods, we lose the bonds of common humanity. Isn't it revealing that the woman above equates her shoes with herself? We've learned to embrace our possessions so tightly that we've forgotten how to embrace each other. Now that we believe we don't need each other, we can't stand each other.

(On a related subject, I highly recommend this article from Sunday's Post Magazine. It's about evolution, but it gets at the same idea: Does modernity [in this case, belief in evolution] tear away the bonds that hold society together?)

In the meantime, I suppose all a Luddite like me can do is steer clear of the people quoted in the article and hope that somewhere, someone who still believes in our common humanity is out there, searching, and some day we'll run into each other in a nice taquito-free setting and have a nice old-timey happily ever after. Maybe. Or maybe I should shrug my shoulders and prepare for a life as the male equivalent of a crazy cat lady. I don't know.

P.S. Valentine's Day is coming up. There's still time to buy that special someone chocolates, flowers, or diamonds. Something that will prove you really care. Have a good time.

So God bless the goods we was given

And God bless the U.S. of A.

And God bless our standard of living

Let's keep it that way

And we'll all have a good time

- Paul Simon

Posted by Mediocre Fred at February 6, 2006 12:10 PM | TrackBack

I knew a guy who had a major conflict with his wife as to whether toilet paper in the bathroom should be put on overhand or underhand. Really. People will find the oddest reasons to shoot each other down, and I worry about that.

Posted by: J at February 6, 2006 08:39 PM
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