For me, the New Year began with a post-breakup malaise. As the calendar advanced into March, however, I turned the corner. With some distance, I could fully acknowledge how unhealthy my failed romantic relationship had been. It was like playing point guard for Bobby Knight. There was passion, there was intensity, and there was the constant fear that at any moment the emotional equivalent of a folding chair could come sailing towards the back of my head.
My proverbial butt cheeks gradually released from a prolonged clench. I relaxed back into myself. I remembered that I kind of like myself. I started to feel free again. I was ready to get back out there. I bought a new nose hair trimmer, I dusted off the old 8-Minute Abs DVD, and I ramped up my attendance at social gatherings. I even stopped completely tuning out the unsolicited dating advice so freely bequeathed by my childless bachelor friends.
As I worked my way back towards lightness, however, a dark wave began to spread across the globe. Initially, the coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 illness impacted me in minor ways; for instance, I was forced to cancel an international vacation. But I could get on with life. If I couldn’t travel, I could still seek companionship. After all, the human heart doesn’t take vacations.
Truth is, though, that I’m an aging, introverted, half-time single dad who can no longer slough off a night out like a Labrador Retriever shaking dry at Hendry’s Beach. Let me not beat around the bush. I was going to need technological assistance. I opened a profile on one of those dating apps, and I waited for the fillies to line up. Turns out I wasn’t inundated, but I got some promising matches.
Then, just as I was ready to dip my toes in the water, the dark wave crested onto our shores. I was instructed to work from home. Within days, “social isolation” became part of the national lexicon. Finally, if there were any lingering questions about the wisdom of meeting strangers in person, Governor Newsom answered them by putting the state of California on lockdown.
Awesome timing, me.
Who had it worse, I wondered, as the doldrums of life under quarantine set in. Lonely single people or couples who can’t escape from each other while cooped up at home? I put that question to the Santa Barbara-based marriage and family therapist, Doyle Hollister. Before I tell you his answer, I’d like to describe Hollister’s facial features with intricate detail. Unfortunately, I can’t. I spoke with him on the phone because I was trapped in my apartment. And this isn’t the New Yorker anyway.
Couples, Hollister said, especially those with kids who are home from school, are still figuring out their routines. Who is going to work when, who is going to watch the children, where’s the toilet paper going to come from? They are in survival mode. Give them another month, though, and they may be ready to strangle each other. That verbiage is mine. As he put it, “The pressure and constant interaction is going to be interesting.”
Whether within relationships, or in isolation, Hollister told me, the disruption of our everyday routines gives us the opportunity to explore our inner worlds.
“I spend a lot of my therapy process trying to get people to slow down and not be so externally focused. That’s what therapy is about. Having to retreat from the fast-paced external world has broken that spell. Being creative in a creative life situation is pushing people to explore their introverted selves more. I think it’s generating a lot of anxiety because people haven’t done a bunch of that, but if people stick with that and explore, it could have an effect on creating a more imaginative world.”
This struck a chord with me. It reflected my personal life as well as the zeitgeist. I began to conceptualize new writing projects. I felt more present with my 8-year-old. We interacted in new ways. (We started writing a parody of the Prince Song, “1999.” We’re still working out the kinks but it has something to do with isolating like it’s COVID-1999.)
Also viral right now, along with COVID-19, are stories about Isaac Newton’s annus mirabilis (year of wonders) when he formulated his theory of gravity and Shakespeare’s most productive periods, for instance when he wrote King Lear. Both occurred during forced isolation because of outbreaks, or plagues, as they were called at the time.
So maybe it was time to focus on myself and put my mojo back in the drawer. I was going to need a second opinion, though. Therefore, I checked in with Lisa Amador who runs a Santa-Barbara based matchmaking and coaching company.
Amador’s business has come to a standstill as her clients have all put their contracts on hold and potential clients are waiting for the crisis to subside. Nor would she condone in-person dating right now.
Fortunately, she said, five of her eight current clients are in relationships that they are sticking with, and that they are grateful for. I rolled my eyes, but she couldn’t see because I spoke to her on the phone as well.
I told Amador about the one dating experience I was able to squeeze in before lockdown. The woman seemed like a great person, but she was understandably very anxious about the Coronavirus pandemic.
“I think that if somebody feels like that right now,” said Amador, “they shouldn’t be dating. Somebody should feel safe and secure to go on a date right now.”
“This is the time to self-love. This is the time to take care of yourself. Maybe it’s doing meditation or exercise – something to get your endorphins moving in a positive way. Maybe it’s taking a bath, listening to good music.”
She didn’t sound that different than the therapist.
Amador expects that she’ll see a surge in clientele when the economy reopens because the loneliness of distancing will make single professionals – banned from their offices – even more desirous of companionship.
My own interest in dating is motivated by personal circumstance but also a philosophical question. What is the province of pleasure in a time of tragedy?
As I write this lighthearted piece, I’m quite aware that people are suffering and dying without their families at their sides. The disruption to our economy is causing even more pain. Our children are missing half a year of formal education. Our leaders are unprepared. Our medical professionals are under-resourced. Our healthcare system is overwhelmed.
I’ve been struck by the discordance between my internal state and the external world. Despite the grim news, cabin fever, and bouts of loneliness, I’ve remained uncharacteristically buoyant so far. I’ve had multiple interactions where my conversational partners have pointed out my unexpected optimism.
You see, usually, I’m the curmudgeon. I’m a moody, broody East Coaster who was named after two Holocaust victims, so I walk with the weight of wickedness every day. Thanks mom and dad!
Often, when one is dating, friends will advise them to have fun. I think this is a euphemism for having sex. Is that what Cyndi Lauper meant? And don’t get me wrong. I totally felt like the world was taunting me when I read about the impending global shortage of condoms. But I actually literally just want to have fun. Laugh. Be goofy.
A 31-year old Santa Barbara woman that I interviewed for this story – I’ll call her Svetlana even though she isn’t Russian, because I think it’s a funny pseudonym – said she had been made to feel shame about dating right now. For a while, she communicated with a guy she met online, but eventually gave it up because he lives in the UK. He had been visiting Santa Barbara when they matched, but he cut his trip short because, you know, Coronavirus.
“I think it’s a hard time,” Svetlana responded to the criticism, “especially for people who are single and live alone. It was a nice distraction that made me happy every day and it made me forget everything is so messed up right now. It was nice to have somebody to lean on.”
I was poking around in a book about the neurobiology of human emotions, as one does, because it addresses the social and cognitive importance of both physical and non-physical play, for instance the banter one might engage in with a potential romantic partner. Less nerdy people than myself refer to this activity as flirtation.
I was struck when I came across this line: “Social deprivation is another factor that increases the desire to play, which suggests that it should be possible to artificially increase the desire to play.”
In other words, my desire to have fun was not discordant; it was normal. Perhaps it was even appropriate.
Yes, we are living through a somber ordeal. Hollister, the therapist, said that “a world of complete lack of predictability and uncertainty … generates for everybody some degree of fear.”
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We can react to that fear in multiple ways, often simultaneously. These aren’t either/or choices. Seeking pleasure is just as natural a response as any other.
I can’t believe I’m going to quote Maya Angelou right now, but she wrote in a short introduction to the version of the Langston Hughes novel, Not Without Laughter, that I own, “It is dangerous to believe a declaration of seriousness if the declarant has no sense of humor.”
Like Svetlana, I’ve kept up a correspondence with someone that I “met” online. I’ve enjoyed the humor in our exchanges. When she asked me if any zombies got me when I braved the outside world to buy a coffee, I told her that one touched my forearm, but I amputated and cauterized the wound with a half-smoked joint.
“[The kingdom of humor,” wrote Sigmund Freud, “is constantly being enlarged whenever an artist or writer succeeds in submitting some hitherto unconquered emotions to the control of humor.” The father of psychoanalysis got a lot wrong, but I’m with him on this one. The only amendment I would make is that everybody, not just artists and writers, uses humor to conquer, and to express, their emotions.
If it’s in the context of dating or elsewhere, we are all finding creative ways to manage in a world we can’t control. In conversations I’ve had, people often refer to acts of creativity during this Coronavirus outbreak as silver linings. I catch myself doing it as well, as if the human spirit is a byproduct of life. The human spirit is life.
That’s probably why online dating sites are seeing increased usage. To confirm, I checked in with the publicists at the popular online dating site, Tinder. Daily messages are up 10-15 percent from February to mid-March. Not surprisingly, conversation lengths are longer, and top bio terms include “stay home,” “be safe,” “wash your hands.” Scroll through profiles, and you’ll see that many users are including jokes about the irony of dating during social isolation, posting photos of themselves in surgical masks, or asking for toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Memes about social distancing pickup lines are circulating (If COVID-19 doesn’t take you out, can I?).
Lisa Amador, the matchmaker, told me that so far in the professional matchmaking world, virtual dates aren’t that popular, though some matchmakers are specializing in them. Among my peers, however, it seems to be a thing. Just as people are holding virtual meetings, happy hours and birthday parties, they are planning virtual dates. I even went on one myself. For research purposes, of course.
Amador gave me some tips, and although our conversation happened after my Zoom date, I was pleased that I had proactively followed some of her advice. I showered and wore a clean shirt! I didn’t include anything of value – or a huge mess – in the camera frame.
That was actually crucial because Svetlana told me the homes of her virtual dates made a big impression on her, both positive and negative. She was not a fan of the 32-year-old dude who had anime posters in his bedroom.
Svetlana’s been on five virtual dates so far, more in a couple weeks than real dates she’s been on in a couple months. She said she’s been quicker to video chat with men because it’s more convenient and the stakes are lower.
They’ve all been okay, she said, except for one with a “dumb guy who couldn’t complete a sentence.” Weirdly, he challenged her to a game of Words With Friends. I asked her if she won.
“I effing demolished him,” she boasted, wryly noting that “dashing good looks” aren’t enough to cut it in this era of physical distancing. I knew that being a nerd would pay off one day.
“You obviously have to carry a conversation,” said Svetlana about potential suitors that one can’t meet in person. If you have good banter, that’s a plus. Good jokes. Things like that.”
Sure, the ultimate goal of dating is to create connection, but it also serves as a venue for the exercise of creativity.
As for my own quarantine buddy, neither of us are that interested in conducting a cyber-romance, and the end of physical distancing is nowhere in sight. So, we’ll just have to see what happens when we get to the other side of the curve.
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