Two months after I published an essay in The Washington Post, I read the comments. Here’s my response.
On January 18th, I published an essay in The Washington Post titled “I’m not an extrovert—and that makes it harder to find love.” It was an ideal publishing experience. I pitched the essay. The editor accepted it the next day. The essay was published the day after that. Plus, the editor did a superb job of cutting a 1,700-word essay to fewer than 1,000 words without changing my original intent. I was impressed.
I’d published essays before, but never on a highly visible site that included a comments section. I was tempted to read the 47 comments that followed, but after reading the first one accidentally, I heeded the advice of authors everywhere who say the number one rule of self-preservation in publishing is “don’t read the comments.”
I waited two months, long after my standard publishing anxiety dissipated. The way I saw it, if I had Internet trolls, I’d made it.
Then I read the comments.
Those who understood what I was trying to convey validated my work, and the ones who bashed me fascinated me. The part of me that’s intrigued by online trolls is the same part that took abnormal psych in college for fun. Trolls project their own adverse experiences onto strangers without appreciating a flesh-and-blood human sits on the other side of the screen. A lack of empathy accompanies blistering online arguments because anonymity makes it safe.
I don’t understand why people bother. How often have people’s minds been changed after a heated social media exchange?
Hell, I’ve only ever written one Yelp review.
But after reading the WaPo comments, my first inclination was to react immediately to each unfavorable post. I didn’t.
One sentence in the essay riled readers most: “I can tell within five minutes of meeting someone if there’s a chance we’ll fit together.”
Key word: “chance.”
I have written more personal essays with grittier details than this one. I hadn’t anticipated these 16 words would touch so many nerve endings. Besides, the editor revised this sentence, which first read, “I know within five minutes of meeting someone if there’s a distant chance we’ll fit together.”
If the word “distant” had been left in, would this declaration have angered people less? Maybe, but I doubt it.
Readers complained I “judge” men within five minutes of meeting them. They presumed I “audition” prospective romantic partners with a quick “evaluation” and subsequent dismissal. (Isn’t that “speed dating?”) Part of my problem is I don’t audition people at all. I don’t date. I don’t remember how.
Readers ascertained my persona based on 992 words without knowing anything else about my life or meeting me face-to-face—equivalent to the swift individual assessment for which they criticized me.
Here’s what I meant by the gut reaction I have when I first meet someone new: I have fallen in this-may-be-love at first sight more than once. In my experience, the cosmic connection—or whatever you want to call it—has often been immediate. And my intuition turns out to be correct 98% of the time. I’m usually a decent arbiter of character early on. Where I go wrong is when I employ logic to negate my instincts.
Case in point: When I met the man I married, I didn’t feel an instantaneous magnetic pull in his direction, but after six months of friendly interaction, I gave it a shot—just like the readers of my WaPo essay advised I should do. Four years later when I signed divorce papers, I thought back to my first impression: He’s not really my type. I kicked myself for not sticking to the “let’s be friends” talk I had with him after the first night he stayed at my apartment.
Second, I made a friend playing Yahoo! Hearts online the night before I turned 26. I slid him into the friend zone after meeting him and kept him there until nine years later when we finally became romantically involved. He disappeared shortly thereafter. If I’d kept him in the friend zone, we might still be in contact. As it stands, I’m flummoxed by his vanishing act.
This is not to say experiencing that swift spark in the beginning means two people are a long-term match, but, for me, it works best if I at least start with attraction. When I meet someone I really like, there tends to be a twinkle of “perhaps” from the get-go, accompanied by reverberating thoughts of, “I must know this person”; “Where has he been all my life?”; “There you are. What took you so long?”; “That guy. Is he single?”
In my experience, these fervor-at-first-sight observations almost always end up substantiated with an easy flow of conversation. And if a guy I’m drawn to is smarter than me or makes me laugh—or both—I’m toast. So, that’s why I said it only takes five minutes to have an inkling of the possibilities.
We are, after all, an amalgam of our past experiences.
Other reactions to the essay focused on my aversion to online dating. People encouraged me not to dismiss the process entirely and advised ways to make it work. I get why they made suggestions, and I value the guidance, but, if they knew me, they’d know it’s not going to happen. I’ve scrolled through hundreds of profiles; they terrify me. While I’m adept at conversing with new people I meet casually in person, the thought of forcing an encounter with someone I don’t know under the guise of potential romance freaks me out.
Recently, I met an acquaintance for coffee so she and I could get to know each other better. While I waited for her in the coffee shop, it dawned on me how I would feel if I was anticipating an online date. My heart started pounding. All I could think was thank God this isn’t a Bumble date. (We had a fantastic time.)
Here’s a further example that was cut from my WaPo essay:
“Not too long ago, I listened to a story on The Moth podcast in which a mathematician working on his Ph.D. optimized his OKCupid profile while fiddling with a supercomputer by cracking the website’s algorithms. He treated 88 coffee dates as an experiment until he met his future wife. While the story was compelling and amusing, the idea of 88 brief coffee dates filled with awkward, fidgety chitchat with strangers is right up there with listening to the dulcet sounds of a neighbor’s tile saw outside my window. I don’t have it in me to treat dating like a job hunt. There’s not enough Xanax in Los Angeles.”
As one like-minded commenter wrote, for people like us, it’s about “self-preservation.”
One commenter advocated I join a community theater group; another said I should go to church. Those are the last two places you’d find me, right behind a Coldplay concert and a monster truck jam. I’d rather join Tinder. I’m more apt to whisper “hello” to a future mate in a hushed library where no one is mingling, and everyone’s faces are buried in books.
To the person who instructed me to “get off [my] couch,” I say this: Last weekend I hiked Sedona and wine tasted in Jerome and Cottonwood by myself. I made the effort to talk to new people. I talk to new people all the time. There’s a great restaurant a few blocks from my apartment I’ve dined in alone quite often. One night there I interacted with a friendly, normal, responsible, age-appropriate man. We got along well, but I wasn’t attracted to him. When he handed me his card at the end of the evening, I thought I will never sleep with you.
Believe me, I wish meeting a prospective partner was as simple as bellying up to a neighborhood bar for some gourmet fish and chips. As I mentioned in the essay I wrote for The Manifest-Station, having the pieces align for a lasting partnership sometimes requires good old fashioned luck.
But if I had all the answers to my relationship struggles, I wouldn’t have written a whole book about them. Wait until that more comprehensive remnant of my blunders is available. The online rabble-rousers haven’t seen anything yet.
Thank you to everyone who read my Washington Post essay and took the time to comment or private message me, even acrimonious cyber-goblins. If you had an emotional reaction of any kind, I did my job.
Except for the guy who said he wished the essay had been written by a man and that I’d fail any man’s five-minute test; he can jump naked into a rushing, icy river.