The Online Date that Wasn’t

Remember friendster?

I’m not much of a techie or apster or webie (are those last two things? Let’s pretend they are…), so I wouldn’t have known friendster, the pre-cursor to facebook, is now one of Asia’s largest gaming sites. In my day, where MySpace was for budding bands and arts-types to gain a following, friendster was the way for the Everyman to reconnect, to connect, and to meet. I was 19 and a sophomore in college when I made my frienster account. Prompted, I’m sure by one of my guy friends in the engineering/comp sci program who told me “social media is going to be huuuuge.”

I was old enough to remember AOL chatrooms and AIM profile pages (both of which got me into a fair amount of trouble), and so was just the right amount of skeptical about such public access to my avatar identity (I’m not sure privacy settings were really de rigeur yet.) But I also acknowledged that this “social media,” whateverthehellthatwas, could be a useful tool to expand my network of friends beyond my dormitory and lecture room walls.

I carefully curated my profile page, selecting pictures that played down more of my youthful features (those chubby cheeks and that slightly crocked front tooth), and emphasized an urban co-ed persona. An interest in arts and culture meant that it wasn’t long before I had new connections across NYC… who were mostly male, and reasonably eager for companionship.

And this is the point where I note that friendster was also the pre-cursor to OkCupid.

Jon friended me fairly soon after my profile went life. He was a 29 year old graduate student at NYU’s Tisch School, studying composition. Already, he had scored a musical adaptation of a play by Moliere that was having an off-Broadway debut. This seemed promising. Older, creative, and on his way. We began a short exchange that lead to sharing phone numbers. He lived on the Upper Westside, in fact, in an apartment on 96th and Amsterdam, not far from my college neighborhood of Morningside Heights.

He called me to make plans.

If you’re new to online dating, a valuable piece of advice I can share is: make sure you speak on the phone before you meet. The phone is the most awkward medium of communication — if you two can find a way to swap ideas without facial cues, you’re off to a good start. Also, if he has any irregularities in speech, a lisp or a stutter, perhaps, it’s better to know about it before you’re face to face.

Jon had a soft, effeminate voice that border-lined on creepy. But he took the lead — for our first date, we’d have coffee at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, a Columbia mainstay that was a stone’s throw from my dorm but also convenient for him — and that was appealing.

Confession: This date with Jon was not only my first internet-assisted date (even if it wasn’t a dating site that introduced us), it probably also qualified as my first real date. Like, as in, we’re not just friends or classmates going out and seeing what happens, but as in, here’s a guy promising to pay for my coffee because he’s shopping for a girlfriend.

I don’t know what was more intimidating — the fact that I had never actually seen this person in the flesh, or that I was going on my first first date.

To be on the safe side, I enlisted my then best friend and roommate Suki and our mutual friend Joanne. Their mission, which they chose to accept, was to be already stationed at the pastry shop. They were recon and undercover chaperons in case he was an ax murderer. We agreed on set hand signals that would relay “get me out!” or “I’m getting married!”

Amadeus Mozart, when he wasn’t in a wig, was pretty sexy with all that crazy hair

In person, Jon was as creepy as our phone conversation suggested. With nails longer and pointier than mine, and hair that looked like it hadn’t been washed in a week, he more closely resembled a bearded vampire than a future great composer (Amadeus was pretty sexy with that lion’s mane.) Conversation moved smoothly, but it wasn’t long before I was send my MAYDAY! signals across the room to my girls — the signal telling them to call me and fake an emergency.

There was a pillar. They never saw me.

2 hours later, he paid for my coffee and I bid him farewell…

When he called me the next day to offer to take me to dinner, I politely declined. A few hours later, I closed my friendster account… and my MySpace account. I was done with social media for a while (a few months later, Facebook spread to all the Ivy League schools and I was quick to hop on the bandwagon), and it would be years later before I trusted the internet to play matchmaker.

I never joined a social media site to meet a lover just as I never started blogging to find a (rich) husband. And while Jon might have been an overall fail, I owe him and that whole experience a certain degree of gratitude. It dared me to take a risk with my social life… and always have back-up in plain sight.

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Lessons I probably should have Learned in College but Didn’t Because I was Too Busy Doing Calculus Homework

Microwaves have been around for decades, and yet I've never been able to make one work.

Microwaves don’t work

In an attempt to be both healthful and economical, sometimes I bring leftover homemade soup to work. Like most offices, we have a kitchenette with a fridge, a dishwasher, and a microwave. The microwave has a variety of settings, none of which anyone in the office knows how to make work. I put my soup in the microwave and set the clock. 3 minutes later, I take my soup out and burn my hands. The bowl is untouchable, but the soup? Still refrigerated.  Expediency fail.

Fun tack doesn’t come off walls.

I’m not sure what it says about my youth, but I never hung a poster on my wall with that blue, sticky putty stuff called “fun tack.”Even my teenage pin-ups of JTT went in frames and were placed on my walls using picture hooks. The long term benefit of this? When it comes to installing an exhibition, I’m probably the fastest hammer in the tri-State. But for my last exhibition, I ran out of Velcro for my wall labels and had to resort to that blue, sticky putty. The blue, sticky putty is still stuck on my gallery walls. There’s nothing fun about Fun Tack.

I just don't have the stamina for all-nighter after all-nighter any more.

Sleep isn’t overrated and life begins before 10:15AM.

Between the ages of 18 and 23, I was built for pulling all-nighters. If I accumulated 12 hours of sleep over 3 days, I figured I was ahead of the game. Plus, if I was clever enough, I didn’t have to be in class before 10AM. And if I moved across campus quickly enough, I could easily grab an hour nap before my afternoon lecture. But in the real world, there’s no nap time to catch up on your zzzz’s. And what about pulling those all nighters? Well, I just don’t have the stamina anymore. Give me 8 hours or I’m a totally unproductive, man-eating zombie.

When a boy asks you to “hang-out,” he doesn’t mean “let’s make grilled cheese sandwiches and sit on the couch platonically to watch the Yankees game.”

In college, this sort of thing was platonic. But apparently, not so much in the real world.

In college, all my friends were guys. We’d play poker or guitar hero, order in BBQ or head out to the Gin Mill for beer and pool, talk politics or sling mud at Jane Austen heroes. In short, when a guy in college asked me to “hang-out” I always assumed it was in the platonic sense, because 9 times out of 10, it was. But as soon as I was outside the bubble of study groups and communal living, I realized “hanging out” is just another vague term for everything from “date” to “hook-up.”

hangovers hurt. I missed that memo.

Hangovers hurt.

I didn’t really drink in college — blame it on equal parts fear of getting caught,  fear of freshman 15, and fear of anything that wasn’t top-shelf. I’m not exactly making up for it now, but I do have a cocktail more frequently than I did in my student years. Sometimes, I have a cocktail too many and wake up with a headache to prove it.

 

Push-Up Bras are false advertising

…and can, therefore, be a real letdown when they come off.

No, I’m Not Engaged. It’s Just My Class Ring

My college class ring has gotten me into a fair amount of trouble. It was probably the most expensive pieces of jewelry I had ever bought for myself — I even had to pay for it in installments as if it was a refrigerator. But flat-lining my bank account is not the sort of trouble I mean.

Picking the right style is always a challenge. Old and signet? Modern and bejewled?

I’ll always remember my friend’s brother Tom, Tom’s class ring, and Tom’s first job out of college. When Tom graduated from Cornell, he ordered an old-school signet ring that rivaled an NFL player’s Superbowl “bling.” He wore it everywhere. One day, at the coffee shop, an older gentleman noticed the ring and launched into Cornell talk with Tom. Eventually, the man asked him if he had a job yet.

To cut a long story short,  Tom got a job offer from the man — a job way over his head at a major investment firm way above his aspirations with a salary and sign-on bonus way beyond his wildest dreams — and it was all because of his class ring.

The way I saw it, a good class ring was a great door opener.

A size too big, my feminine and apparently bridal class ring got me into trouble

Torn between something heavy and traditional and something small and modern, I settled on what I felt was an attractive compromise — a feminine piece suitable for day-to-day wear with a white gold band and Columbia’s crown strongly embedded in a blue stone. It was a fantastic conversation starter.

For a while, it was a guy-magnet. From close range, it was clearly a statement of my education, and it seemed to give suitors an excuse to touch my hand, to get a little closer, to cross that threshold. So while the ring wasn’t opening the door to high paying dream jobs, I can’t say I minded the attention it did bring. But there was a problem. A size too big, I could only wear it on the middle finger of my left hand.

It was all fun and games until someone assumed I was married… to my fencing coach.

When I graduated from college, my mother and I were both taking fencing lessons from the same tall, boyish American man who was quickly adopted into the family as a missing son/big brother. That year, my mother was on the Veterans World Championship team and the three of us spent a weekend in Bath, England. Mother was the child I was living vicariously through. I was the sport parent. He was the moral and tactical support.

“It’s so wonderful your husband is your mother’s coach! Is he your coach too?” One of her teammates said as we sipped cocktails at the Assembly Rooms. You could hear the clunk as my jaw hit the floor.

“We’re not married.”

“Sorry, your fiancé.”

“We’re not engaged. We’re not sleeping together. We’re not dating. He’s my mother’s coach. He’s my coach.”

“Oh! Sorry! I saw you two together… I saw the ring…”

“It’s a class ring.”

It’s a flaw of social convention that a white band with a light stone on the left hand implies marriage. It’s a bigger flaw of social convention that when a man and a woman are seen together, having fun with a clearly close connection, the assumption is “couple.”

The ring didn’t go back on my finger for the remainder of the trip. In all likelihood, I won’t be wearing out again until I get it resized… if I get it resized. When it was time for my grad school class ring, small, feminine and bridal just weren’t viable options. I ordered a man’s ring. Bigger, bolder, and shinier, it’s luckily turned out to be the better dude-magnet.

This time, there would be no mistaking it -- this IS a class ring. Luckily, it's still a guy magnet.

Becoming a Horse of a Different Color

Sometimes when you’re expecting bad news, the best thing to do is run away.

That’s exactly what I did in March of 2009 when I was in the thick of writing my masters thesis and awaiting responses from a handful of PhD programs. Given that the recent economic downturn had significantly reduced university endowments, I wasn’t optimistic that I’d be a paid student come September. I thought bad news would sound much better when received on a beach with a margarita in my hand. Inspired, I threw a polka-dot bikini and flip-flops into my car and drove 1,200 miles from New York to South Beach, FL for an early spring break.

sometimes bad news sounds much better when you hear it on a beach, with a margarita in your hand

It was a good thing I had such foresight.

While I was in South Beach, every PhD program I applied to sent me a rejection letter. Needless to say, I consumed a lot of margaritas that week.

Spending 7 days in the Florida sun, replenishing my vitamin D stores while getting to know the bartenders at my hotel may have temporarily raised the spirits and enlivened the soul, but once I was back home in a gray and slushy city, holed up in my smaller-than-a-dollhouse studio, the debilitating sting of the rejections set in.

100 pages of writing sat between me and my MA and for the first time in my life, I faced an uncertain future. I felt useless. I had no power to go back and change anything — not the topic I had spent 18 months researching, not the character of my fellow applicants, not the shape economy — yet I felt the need to change or exert power over something.

transforming into a horse of a different color is one way of asserting we're in control of our life... maybe

And so, in an attempt to gain temporary control in my life, I booked an appointment with my hairstylist.

Ladies, we’ve all done it before — broken up with a guy or had some traumatic experience that compelled us to bee-line to the salon for a makeover. Redefining our appearance is a way of asserting a new take on life and exercising power over our future. Sometimes we add bangs, sometimes we go platinum, sometimes we get botox, sometimes we get bangs, go platinum AND get botox.

I went orange.

I walked into a salon on Madison Avenue with long brown locks and hoped to walk out with spunky curls spiked with scarlet. Instead, I hit the pavement with short tendrils the color of pumpkin pie.

I walked into the salon with long brown locks and walked out with short pumpkin-colored tendrils. So much for taking control...

Under the warm lights of the salon, I thought this was exactly what I wanted — a total overhaul, a brand-new, “in your face, future!” me. It wasn’t until I met a friend for lunch that I realized the irony: at the end of the day, my little act of self-empowerment didn’t empower me at all — I asked for red highlights and got a florescent carrot top.

“Your hair is orange!” she cried, knocking over her iced tea in a visible state of shock.

“I know. I thought I needed a change.”

“Don’t you think it’s a little… err…. extreme?”

“It was only supposed to have highlights.”

“It’s a lot more than highlights… and it’s orange. And you’re orange. Where have you been all week?”

“Florida.”

As I sat there, munching on a biscotti, recounting the reasons behind this sudden transformation into a horse of a different color, reality set it. I may have mitigated the rejections by running away for a week. I may have tried, in vein, to assert a sense of control by changing my appearance. But at the end of the day, I stood at a cross roads, and orange hair and a margarita-spiked tan wasn’t going to make it go away.

It was time to go back to my apartment and get writing…

And maybe, en route, pick up a box of Clariol Nice n’ Easy in Chestnut.