The Age of Abundance

As hard as it is for me, as a straight male that came of age in the eighties, to admit, I’ve seen the movie Annie more times than I’ve seen every iteration of Star Wars combined. Having been raised both very poor and in a repressive fundamentalist religion, most of the movies that were the subject of endless discussion amongst my “worldly” friends were off limits to me, either because they contained “spiritism” (the force in star wars, Ouija board in E.T., any movie with witchcraft or ghosts, anything supernatural or that promoted life after death), were immoral, or violent. If a movie managed to somehow contain a small enough dose of these ingredients that they were deemed acceptable (the spiritism in Star Wars, for example, was overlooked by all but the most diehard Jehovah’s Witnesses, mainly because they really really wanted to see it), then it was still unlikely that we would spend any of the family’s limited resources on seeing a movie in the theater.

The one exception was Annie. My mother loved Annie. I bet we saw Annie in the theater five times, maybe more. Once it came out on VHS it played in our house seemingly on a constant loop. As much as I pretended to hate it, I secretly loved it every time. Partly I think it was because it’s a movie that treats going to the movies themselves as the magical experience that they were to me at the time. Exciting for their rarity, going to see a movie in a theater was an event to mark on the calendar and look forward to all week, even for a movie I’d already seen multiple times. I’d watch the “Let’s Go to the Movies” sequence in Annie and think “They get it. This is special.”

Annie resonated also because we were poor. The story of a poor kid that suddenly had everything that she ever needed or wanted was a fantasy that I could get behind. Although not an orphan, my family was abandoned by my father for reasons that I couldn’t fathom as a young child, but what I did understand was that his leaving meant, among other things, that we could no longer afford things that other families seemed to take for granted. Daddy Warbucks to seven year old me symbolized what it would be like when I finally got a new father that would come in and love us and save us all.

And the third reason that I loved Annie was that the women flashed their underwear in the dance numbers A LOT. For a young boy in the pre-internet eighties, outside of the “16 going on 17” number from The Sound of Music, the dance numbers from Annie were as good as it got.

We live in the age of abundance, and that is a wonder. Abundant information, abundant ways to connect with others, abundant goods and services, abundant everything. Not long ago I decided that cutting pizza with a knife was for chumps and that I needed to buy a pizza cutter. This used to mean driving to the grocery or department store and buying the one they had in stock. In the age of abundance, we choose between essentially every pizza cutter in existence. I spent half an hour online reading reviews of pizza cutters to make sure that I got, not just a pizza cutter, but the best pizza cutter. For something that I will use maybe four times a year. I didn’t do this because I’m a huge pizza enthusiast. This is just what we do now. Not because it’s necessary but because it’s easy, so why not? And it is ridiculously easy. I literally have three separate pieces of technology in my home that allow me to speak into the air and receive the answer to almost any question that comes to mind (four if I turned this capability on on my Windows laptop). This kind of abundance would have been unfathomable a few decades ago even to the infinitely wealthy Oliver Warbucks. Today it’s available to virtually anyone. And in a lot of ways, that sucks. Let me tell you why.

I’m a divorced 40 year old man, and I’ve started dating recently. Let me be clear: I’ve not started dating again, as you might infer. I’ve started dating for the first time. Raised, as I’ve said, in an insular religious community, dating was allowed only in groups and only as a way to find a perspective marriage mate. Absolutely no premarital sex and even kissing was only after you were close to being engaged. Unsurprisingly, those of us raised in this environment all got married very young. The criteria was essentially “Are you young, horny, and attractive? Me too! Let’s get married so we can have sex!” So, basically no real dating. I got married at 19, as was the norm, and had sex for the first time on my wedding night. For real.

Fast forward 20 years. Surprise surprise, the marriage didn’t last forever, although it did last longer than it should have. Neither of us were quitters, and so we tried to make it work for 13 years, even after I left the religion and therefore everything that the marriage was built upon. After the inevitable collapse, I spent the next few years trying to drink myself into oblivion, and a few after that trying to get sober. Eventually I was able to get my life under control enough to actually feel capable of having an adult relationship. So I’ve started dating.

And I am terrible at it.

In the age of abundance, even someone like me, with no dating experience and somewhat quiet by nature, can date regularly thanks to dating apps like Tinder. I’ve dated more women in the last three months than I have in the rest of my life. There have been weeks where I have had dates lined up with a different woman on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Which would be living the dream if you lived in an eighties sitcom. A different woman every night, and every day you come visit your neighbor Jack and tell him what a square he is for not banging Chrissy already. The reality is that virtually every date is awkward, lacking chemistry, a comedy (or tragedy) of forgotten names and boring conversation. I don’t line up multiple dates at a time because I’m just that much of a player. Most of them have ended with nothing more than an awkward hug at the end of the night. I’m not out trying to rack up notches on my bedpost. I do it because I realized very quickly that it’s a numbers game, that most of the women I meet I will not form a connection with, and so finding someone with whom their is real chemistry at the rate of one date per week would take ages.

There have been a couple of standout experiences, good and bad, in this revolving door of first date purgatory. I have had some great conversations with very intelligent women that, although there was no real chemistry, I would have loved to become friends with. But that’s a hard and perhaps unfair transition to make when that isn’t really the reason that either of you are there. And then there was Laura.

I hit it off with Laura online right away. We texted for days before our date. She was smart and funny, an attractive thirty year old social worker. We seemed to have pretty good banter and I was excited about meeting her in person. We arranged to meet at a bar and then go to dinner. But the Laura that walked into that bar was nothing like the outgoing and charming person that I had been chatting with online.

She walked into the bar staring at the ground, looking like she was trying to smuggle cocaine onto an airplane. She glanced around, I waved from the bar and she made eye contact briefly and then walked over and melted into the barstool across from me. She didn’t say hello and couldn’t hold eye contact. She was making me so uncomfortable that I repeatedly told her that there was no reason to be nervous. In talking with her as we moved from the bar to a very nice restaurant, it came out that she had only just filed for divorce a few months prior and technically she was still married. He had left her. At that point the explanation for her odd behavior began to coalesce in my brain, but it wasn’t immediately apparent to me then, nor through the awkward dinner where her eyes constantly darted around as if she was afraid of being spotted, nor even through the abrupt goodbye hug when she turned down my offer to walk her to her car, did I realize the truth of the matter. So if you’re as clueless as I was until a sudden 3am realization the next morning, let me fill you in:

Tinder, as you almost certainly know, is an app that came to prominence as a “hookup app”, basically a straight version of Grindr. When it came out a few years ago it gained widespread media attention as a way for people to have casual sex based on nothing but mutual physical attraction. No doubt many people still use it this way, especially in the under 25 crowd. But in the years since it’s release it has evolved beyond that. Almost everyone, of any age, that is single and looking is on Tinder. If you’re looking for someone to date, it’s just silly not to be where all the single people are. It’s how people date in the age of abundance. Sure, there are some people just looking to hookup, but a lot fewer than you might think if you’ve never used it. In women’s profiles at least, the line “not here for a hookup” is so ubiquitous that I stopped noticing it and just assumed that unless the girl’s pictures were on the risque side, that they were all looking for a potential relationship and not a one night stand.

The sudden realization that I awoke to at 3am the next morning was this: Laura was brand new to dating on Tinder. She had said that she wanted to know what I was wearing because she didn’t want to walk around the bar asking random guys “Are you my Tinder date?” I remember thinking that she had phrased that question in an odd way, as if a Tinder date was something entirely different than an actual date. She had been married all through Tinder’s evolution from a way to hookup to just a general dating app. Her knowledge of it was from all those news stories that she saw when she was still married. She had one foot out the door of her marriage and she was looking for some anonymous fun to help her get passed an emotional divorce, and so she thought she’d give that hookup app a try. Who would know? She was embarrassed and confused as to why we were prolonging our public exposure, as if everyone in the world would know the nature of what we were doing. She was probably also worried about being recognized by people that knew her and her husband. And here some jackass took her on an actual date. In public. I opened her profile back up and read it a little more carefully, and sure enough, that ubiquitous phrase “not here for a hookup” was nowhere to be found. Another lesson learned. Read the fine print.

After this crash course in dating, packing a year or more worth of old world dating into a few weeks of turbo abundance age dating, I still hadn’t had any success in finding an actual relationship, but I was getting much better at the process. I was rarely nervous on dates any more. I was able to relax and be myself. This was largely because I was no longer going into the date with any expectation, or even hope, of a relationship. Just the opposite. I assumed that each one would be similar to the last. If there was the slightest spark then I would be pleasantly surprised. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the feedback I was getting from the women I dated got better. Much better. More and more of them wanted to go out again. But I didn’t. I just didn’t connect with anyone. Still, I felt like I would finally be ready when I did find someone that I connected with on an emotional and intellectual level.

I was wrong.

On my way to a Sunday brunch date, I got a notification on my phone from a woman named Carla. It wasn’t from Tinder this time but from a lesser known dating app that I had all but forgotten that I had even installed. The woman was striking in the pictures, with beautiful curly red hair and an eclectic mix of photographs on her profile from all over the world: Meditating with Buddhist monks, driving a classic convertible, hugging an elephant’s trunk. She was intriguing. Still I felt a little guilty messaging her on the way to a different date. Even for my “numbers game” philosophy of dating, this was a bit much. Then I laughed at myself for feeling guilty about “cheating” on a woman that I had never even met and messaged her back while I got my truck washed. She was fun to chat with. And then something wonderful happened: My brunch date stood me up.

I went to commiserate with my good friend Amanda and her family and contemplated giving up the online dating game for the foreseeable future. I was getting some much needed dating practice but seemed no closer to an actual connection. I sent out a last Hail Mary to Carla to see if she might like to get together. She agreed immediately. She said that she had been stood up before and that she just chose to believe that they died on the way to the date. I found that funny and charmingly dark. After spending some time with her, I now agree that this is the only logical explanation for any man standing her up.

From the moment she pulled up on her scooter, fiery red hair blowing behind her, she stood out in every way. Not just from the other women that I’d been dating. From everyone around her. Her pictures did not do her justice. She was stunning. And seemingly everything that she said stunned me into amazed silence: She had been to 55 countries. She lived with monks near the Himalayas for six weeks. Just when I was getting my mind wrapped around one amazing thing that she said I got socked with another one. She had been involved with four tech startups. She went on vacation to Brazil and decided to stay for two years. I was dumbstruck and I’m sure that my conversation was stilted and dull. I was not prepared for this human being to exist in my world. This was a woman that you met at charity art auctions or political fundraisers, if you were very rich and very lucky. Even at those places she would stand out as exceptional. This was not a woman that you met on a whim at Peter Pan mini-golf.

Afterwards we walked to get ice cream cones and completed our stereotypical 8th grade date. And it was fantastic. When we sat down at a picnic table I got another shock. She took off her sunglasses and I got to see her eyes for the first time. More grey than blue, against her pale skin and red hair, they took my breath away as much as her conversation had previously. I would not be surprised if there was a painting of her hanging in a gallery somewhere in Italy or Greece. As much as she’s travelled, I would almost be surprised if there weren’t. In truth, I remember nothing of what I said on that first date. I’m sure it consisted mostly of semi-coherent rambling. She had me entirely flummoxed. I was so sure that I had blown it with her on that first date that I was quite shocked when she agreed to a second.

The second date was the real thing. No casual Sunday afterthought was this. This was a Friday night dinner at one of her favorite Austin restaurants followed by a show at Esther’s Follies. And I was ready this time. I was prepared for her to offhandedly mention some amazing accomplishment without getting tripped up. I went over scenarios in my head: “You were the inspiration for the U2 song Mysterious Ways? How fascinating!”. “You coined the term ‘my bad’? Delightful!” “You were nominated for the Nobel prize in physics? That’s so interesting!” Nothing she could say could throw me this time. I wasn’t going to get sucker punched again. I was ready.

As she opened the door to reveal a beautifully simple but very sexy and very short flowy black cocktail dress, I took a beat and said “Hey we match! You look very cute. What a pretty dress.” Off to a great start. You got this. “Thanks!” she replied “It’s so windy out, I probably should have worn something under it…”

“Don’t worry, I don’t mind”… would have been a fun and flirty thing for me to have said in response. Even a chuckle would have been fine. Instead I stood in stunned silence as the blood left my brain and we were off to another night of stammering nonsense from me. But no! Goddamn it Joel, in the last year you’ve overcome massive alcoholism and dropped fifty pounds by shear force of will. You cashed in the World Series of Poker and the World Poker Tour in the same month. You have sat down at the same table as some of the greatest poker minds on the planet and held your own. You were on the front page of! You’re no lightweight! You’ve got this!

I rallied. Dinner conversation was great. We laughed, we bonded, we swapped stories about our shared experiences dealing with schizophrenic brothers. I didn’t balk at any of her amazing anecdotes.

“You write essays?” She asked.

“Occasionally” I replied. “Just really to clear my head. I don’t have any real aspiration of getting anything published. Do you write?”

“Yes, I’m a published author”... Of course she was. I would have expected nothing less.

Esther’s Follies was hilarious. She had a wonderful time and had a great laugh. At one point during the magic section I leaned over and made a joke to her, playing off one that she had made earlier, that made her laugh so hard that she snorted. It made me so happy.

Go back and reread that last paragraph again before we move on with the rest of the evening. It will soften what is about to happen if you go into it with a smile.

At this point I need to tell you that I had had my wisdom teeth removed a week before this date and it took much longer to heal then I had anticipated. I had thought that it was virtually healed, but virtually healed is not entirely healed. Perhaps it was all the walking. Or the laughing. Or the accidental drinking through a straw. But whatever it was, my face was beginning to swell as we walked home. I could feel it. And then it was all I could think about. I had plans for how the rest of the evening was supposed to play out. We had briefly held hands during the show and I put my arm around her a couple of times. On the way home I would playfully lead her by the hand, perhaps put out my elbow to walk arm and arm across the street, etc. Build up to walking her to her door and giving her a goodnight kiss, just see where things go from there. If this seems entirely too premeditated, it probably was. But I am not by nature an extremely outgoing person. I have worked hard to overcome this and it’s only with forethought that I am able to be on this date at all, so please cut me some slack here. With time and familiarity these types of things would genuinely be spontaneous, but in the beginning it’s going to take effort and planning.

Unfortunately, she was right about the windiness and the dress. She was forced to walk all the way home with both arms locked down at her sides to keep it from flying up. None of my planned “spontaneous” physical gestures would work, so I would be going in for the kiss cold, and, oh god, is that blood?! I surreptitiously slip my index finger to my gum and pull it back out. It’s covered in blood. How long had my socket been bleeding? She offered me gum at the beginning of the date. Did my breath already smell bad then? What must it smell like now? Would there be any chance of a third date if her first experience kissing me was with corpse breath? My face was swelling worse now. I was sure that if we got in the light she would see it. I should have just said something. But in my mind we had had a great evening and I didn’t want her memory of it to be of me with a swollen face and a mouth that smelled like death. I was still hopeful that if I got home and rinsed it with saltwater the wound would heal and the swelling would go away by morning. Perhaps we could get brunch on Sunday after my face got back to normal.

Being entirely preoccupied with trying to nonchalantly hide my mouth wound, the meaning of some of the events that followed only became clear to me after the fact. As in, immediately after the fact. Before I left her parking lot. One: she invited me in for a glass of water. Twice. Now maybe she was just being thoughtful, or maybe she was inviting me in to continue the evening. If it was the latter, I stupidly missed that signal until it was too late. Had I picked up on it I would have fessed up as to what the problem was. Instead, all I could think about was that if I went inside for a glass of water, under the lights she would surely notice my by now very swollen jaw. The second thing that I missed until too late was, when I said no, she seemed very interested in discussing my truck. Again, how I missed the fact that she was surely stalling for time so that I would just kiss her already, I don’t know. It was what I had wanted very badly since the moment I first saw her, but when my opportunity arose, I had a mouth full of blood. I don’t believe in any god, but if there is one, as Depeche Mode once quipped, he’s got a sick sense of humor.

Seeing things from her perspective, I’m a man who took her on a first date of mini-golf and ice cream. On the second date we held hands briefly in a theater and then hugged goodnight. She’s probably still wondering if I’m actually a man at all or two ten year olds standing on each other’s shoulders under these clothes. It certainly is not a surprise that she’s stopped responding to my texts. Unlike the other women that I’ve met lately, she was not a woman in need of saving. She was not a woman with few options. She was a woman with every option in the world, and for a brief moment, she chose to spend her time with me. And it was wonderful. She gave me hope that there are interesting and brilliant women out there. Women that don’t need a savior. They may be hard to find, but definitely worth the search. So thank you Carla. It was magic.

Soon there will be another first date with another woman, and another after that. I haven’t actively participated in Tinder in over a week, but still I have at least 15 new matches that I haven’t yet responded too on that app alone. Lining up dates is easy. It’s too easy. It’s forming connections that is hard. In a previous age, with fewer options, I would have gotten to know a few of these other women better. I would have given them more time. Maybe we’d have even fallen in love. The girl that showed up to a high end bar in running shorts with her hair in a bun might just have had a bad read of the situation and thought punctuality was more important than fashion. Maybe Laura wasn’t just looking for a hookup after all but suffered from occasional social anxiety, and given enough time would be able to be as charming in person as she was online. They might not have been Carlas, but hell, neither am I.

Or maybe Laura wanted to get me drunk and steal my kidney. That’s also a possibility.

Carla told me on our first date that when she gets stood up, she chooses to believe that the person died on the way there. Well here’s what I choose to believe about Carla: She seems too good to be true for one reason: she was never real. She was an FBI profiler with a cover custom tailored to make me fall for her. But the one thing that she wasn’t trained for…was falling in love.

Look at the evidence: She has had exactly the type of career that, had my situation growing up been different, I like to think I would have had. In my “coming out” (as a nonbeliever) piece that I wrote in January, I mentioned as a hypothetical that had I not been forbidden higher education as a child, I might be on my fourth tech startup. She’s had tech startups. Four tech startups. I like to write. She’s a published author. But here’s the kicker: Carla is an orphan. She’s an orphan with bright red hair that was born with nothing and is now very successful. And that is just too on the nose. There is no way that this amazing red haired orphan just happened to cross paths with the guy for whom that musical was the touchstone of his childhood. That’s the sort of coincidence that only happens in the movies.

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