On Love and War in Cyberspace
By Cheryl Paley
Early on a Saturday morning last September my daughter jumped on my bed, put her chubby little fingers on both sides of my face (in order to insure my uncompromised attention) and stated, quite pointedly, “Mommy, it is time for you to have a boyfriend.” “But…” “No mommy, you have to get one. Now.”
Part of me was thrilled. I never feel she gets enough of my time as it is and here was a mandate – a directive. “Go and do this for yourself mommy. You need it.” Amen to that. Hallelujah! OK – here we go. First I canvassed every single married couple I knew who might actually fix me up with someone reasonably pleasant without a criminal record. Somebody with a connection to another human with whom I have a connection. Personalized. Someone I know actually knew someone else who “fixes people up.” None of it panned out – nobody knew anybody “worth my time” and the woman who “fixes people up” had closed shop. She didn’t have the time. It was just too much work.
My friend who just got married said: “Go online. Everybody goes online now. It’s no big deal. Nobody goes out anymore. It’s passé. And it takes too much time. Too hard, too expensive. You don’t have the time or the money to actually… meet people. This is much faster and if you don’t like them you just delete them. It’s easy.” I fought it and fought it and finally took the plunge. I entered the Twilight Zone, the great cyber-vortex, the black hole.
My first step: I had to invent my online persona – my marketing tool. Find a compelling handle, use just the right words to convey my aliveness, my up-fun-feisty-available-but-not-too-available-hot-but-not-too-hot… ME. A “me” much better than me. Perkier, less complicated, with no history, no baggage, no complications. A “me” I wasn’t even sure was me. My mom was concerned that nobody would write to a baby boomer with a small child: “You don’t have to tell them she’s little. Not right away. Just leave that out. Once they know you they’ll be fine with it.” My friend down the street, a single woman in her early 50s went on a popular online dating site and conducted a year-long unofficial survey. She went out with 80 men and asked them what they were looking for and what the “deal-breakers” were for them. She finally met someone she dated for 6 months who ended up having an addiction to prescription pain pills. According to her my odds of landing one of the men on that site at my age with a small child were like scaling the Matterhorn with one hand tied behind my back hopping on one foot. “Lie about your marital history… Lie about your daughter’s age. Lie about your work schedule – nobody wants a woman who is too busy.”
I compromised, took the high road and concocted the perkiest, most intolerably “up-beat” version of myself I could fathom, sans lies. I posted a posed, heavily made-up resume shot of myself from before I had my daughter. My mother and my best friend assured me it wasn’t a gross misrepresentation and owing to the fact that I hadn’t gained 50 lbs or lied about my daughter, I felt at least one small transgression was in order. I was off and running.
The first month was kind of a rush. In short order I became a junkie, running to the computer as my daughter finished her mac and cheese in the hopes of seeing that little blinking mailbox with a potential soul mate – my soul mate - just a click away. So many men, so little time.
I ploughed through email after email. Generally the pattern goes like this: 100 plus emails right away. A treasure trove of suitors. But scratch the surface and the dirt and grime begin to ooze. 20 are positively frightening. Freakishly odd, conjuring up television exposes of pedophiles and ticking time bomb postal clerks. 30 are under the age of 25 and I could be their mother. I know, I know, it’s a new world, what about Demi and Ashton, I know. One night there’s a sudden and unexpected popup screen – a visit from my first instant messenger: RUHotIM2. “Hey. How are you” the screen says. “Uh… fine I guess” (what do you say to that?) “So tell me, what are your guilty pleasures?” Uhhh, sleep, I like sleep… “So, R U hot?” (As my face lit up like a pinball machine I seriously considered telling him yes, I am actually experiencing a hot flash at this moment as my hormones are in constant flux at this stage of my life) I glance at his basic contact info above the text box – he’s 27. “Yeah, I’m very hot… Burning up. Buh bye.” And ZAP – he’s gone – ejected back into the ether like a Pac man.
Of the 50 or so left, most either never wanted children and didn’t pay much attention to what my profile actually said, or it’s “been there done that” and they vanish. It’s a numbers game that feels much more like a job interview or auditioning for a play. So easy to make contact and even easier still to just Zap someone who doesn’t add up on paper. A famous song from “A Chorus Line” keeps ringing in my head: “Who am I anyway, am I my resume, that is a picture of a person I don’t know.” In cyber world I am a profile. I am a black and white version of my best; most made up, and posed, perky self. I am words on a page reaching out through my mouse to other words on a page to find… love? Connection?
So, what’s the antidote? What’s the tonic in this world where we run from place to place, deleting each other when the going gets rough? I think it’s good, old fashioned face to face… conversation. Dare I say it, “community?” Gosh, in this context the bar scene has begun to look positively grass roots. As for me, I still dabble – hey, you never know. But I think I’d rather hang out in the park with my daughter. And if you know anyone fabulous, or even a great place to go where single people actually talk to one another, let me know. In all my baby boomer with a small child complexity, I’m really a very cool person.