Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Shopping Around

This entry is a little longer and more difficult to maneuver than most articles here, but in my opinion it lacks little in the richness of its content compared to other posts. First, I describe a budding friendship, one that is somewhat romantically-charged, and the wonderful person behind it. In the second part, I describe a phenomenon that seems to exist in the gay community (and undoubtedly also pervades the heterosexual world) that I take some level of offence to: shopping around. How is it possible to reconcile the formerly-mentioned, positive experience, with the latter, which can be an utterly impersonal, disappointing, and dehumanizing undergoing?

The other day, I had what could probably be considered my first real date. By that, I mean that it was the first time when I’ve been out with a guy where, despite our use of the euphemism ‘meeting’, it could hardly be considered anything other than what it was: a date. We met in a similar way as I met the young man who had rejected me several weeks previously. Before moving on to this describe my first ‘real’ date experience, I feel I should explain a little about how my previous encounter (described in my article “The First Date”) actually resolved itself.

In my prior posting, I discussed the process of a growing interest followed by a silent rejection. The person who rejected me and I ended up confronting each other again several weeks after our date at a professional venue. At that time, he learned about my appointment to a high-level service position, and that appeared to disconcert him. In fact, my very presence at the meeting seemed to be something of an unexpected surprised, one which apparently required that he put forth an ungraceful effort in marking his territory. Having been rejected by him was evidently not enough to make me feel like he wasn’t worth my time, attention, and contemplation, but his highly public reaction toward me in the meeting knocked me right back to my senses. I responded to his concerns about me in an even-tempered, political way. By the end of the meeting, he seemed to have warmed up to me; suddenly, I was pertinent and relevant to him. On the other hand, his confrontational style left me immune to his newfound, slightly-fawning overtures. I had finally come to peace with being rejected by him, having met the cut-throat, insecure, and arrogant personality hidden underneath intellectually relatable façade. What I now saw in him wasn’t the least bit attractive. Instead of incessantly questioning myself and looking back on the date, thinking “why? what was it about me?”, my new attitude was, “I’m not sure what he was looking for, but I’m just glad I wasn’t it.” I’d still work with him, but anything more than the most superficial of acquaintanceships would be a serious waste of my spare time. I figure that I was lucky; most of us don’t have the comfort of such an easy and acceptable resolution to these situations. Nothing probably illustrates the complicated gray-area more than the story I’m about to recount.

The new man that I met was in many ways refreshingly more mature, intimate, and open, lacking all of the antics and chest-pounding of my previous experience. He is 10 years older than me, which is just about where I draw the cut-off line as far as thinking about getting romantically involved (not out of appearances, but for simple, realistic, practical considerations regarding our respective stations in life). However, my first date and previous experiences trying to befriend younger folk (aka, people my own age) taught me that I would be happier with someone several years older than me, someone who was closer to my own attitudes and concerns and less brazen in trying to prove their own self-worth. Furthermore, someone careful and considerate, someone with less to prove and burned out on playing games. My attitude has generally been: the older, the better, up to a point. My ‘first date’ was intelligent and a few years older than me, and yet his youthful, out-of-touch arrogance was still enough to turn me off.

Thus, it was a relief, in fact, to be approached by a kind and gentle man, a thoughtful, intelligent, generous, strong individual, one who put much more effort into getting to know me than had the first date cited above. He approached me first with a simple “salut,” and I responded in a brief, interested message in which I commented on the positive points I saw in his profile and shared a short anecdote. Suddenly, I got a much longer response back, one full of pathos that demonstrated an interest in developing a real personal connection. I wrote back in a very long and comprehensive e-mail, and he took the time and effort not to just write back, but to write an even longer e-mail (considering the length of my posts, you can imagine that that would be quite the endeavor!). We had very early on established that, at least romantically, we were seeking similar things and had found many of those things in each other. At one point in our endearing and deep personal exchange, he asked me in an open-minded fashion if I had yet had a “chum” in my life. I had already told him I was relatively inexperienced in this area, and I was really hesitant in saying any more (that is, that I wasn’t experienced at all). Usually the romantic/sexual history talk is always the beginning of the end of anyone’s interest in me, probably because these people realize it’s going to take some serious, long-term effort to get into my pants (plus, I am unchartered territory). However, after brazenly admitting the truth and dumping a bit of my life story in the process (as if justifying the matter), I was touched when he responded demonstrating the utmost understanding of my situation and continued to proceed forward with our communication in a yet-even-longer e-mail. Astoundingly, he also couldn’t imagine sexual relations outside of an already loving and committed relationship.

It also turned out that he was starting a degree in a new field, the same degree (and same field) that I had already myself completed, so that was also the source of a lot of discussion. At that point, it seemed like I was dedicating a lot of my spare time in the evenings to talking with him, and by the end of the week we had had a couple of two-hour-long phone conversations and were MSN’ing each other (he turned on his webcam a couple of times as well to show me some things in his home, as well as his charming face with glasses on). Through our engaging interactions, I learned that he has an ebullient, jovial sense of humour, a keen intelligence and passion for learning, and our daily contact kept our budding relationship current and relevant. I didn’t realize that having another person like this in my life could require so much time and work! But I certainly don’t regret a single minute of it. Before long we were reciprocating slightly-endearing expressions like “mon cher CT.” Our conversations were a hodge-podge of French and English (and, oddly, I was speaking mostly French while he was speaking English). On days we didn’t call each other, we certainly MSN’ed each other enough, and I would often wish him goodnight before I went to bed (he’s even more of a night-owl than I am).

We set aside time to meet over the weekend, after one intense week of ‘courtship’ since that first ‘salut.’ We were planning to meet on Saturday evening, but he called me and asked if we could meet on Sunday afternoon (but he didn’t want to fix up an official time and place until Sunday, the day itself). Well, Sunday afternoon virtually came and went without any word from him (which I found a bit bothersome), although eventually he called in the later afternoon and asked if we could meet in the early evening. Early evening soon turned to 8pm, with me sitting in my downtown office catching up on work for quite some time, awaiting his arrival. Clearly he isn’t the most organized person in the world, especially in terms of time management, and perhaps I was also making myself too available.

However, once he arrived, we clicked almost immediately. Robert wanted something to eat, and although I had had a snack a couple of hours previously, I decided to have a light dinner with him. As it turns out, he really likes Subway, and I just happened to know a Subway nearby and had some good coupons in my wallet. While coupons may not be sexy, I’m glad I was armed with them; they ended up saving him money! When we were ordering, he jumped ahead of me in line and insisted on paying for my meal. I was flabbergasted and insisted on buying my own meal, but he just stood there with a huge grin on his face and shook his head at my protestations, and so I ceded in a gracious manner. Just as charmingly, he insisted on filling my drink and carrying my meal to the table, directing me to go ahead and sit down. I’m pretty sure I had an embarrassed, although undoubtedly rather large, smile on my face at that point. I honestly couldn’t believe that someone had actually paid for my meal. We had a great talk; it was clear that we had a lot in common and just as many diverse perspectives to share. After finishing our meal, he insisted on going to a nearby Tim Hortons to grab a coffee, also buying for me, upon further protestations on my part, a hot chocolate, before heading to my office. For some reason, he really preferred to go to my office rather than continue to talk in a public setting, which I didn’t quite understand (because I’m always trying to escape my office for a more open, public setting), but I was happy to oblige. We spent the rest of the evening in my workplace and were there until very late, and at the end of the evening I loaned him some books that would help him in his future studies.

We spent a couple of hours there, bonding over our respective fields and the intersections between them; we were never at a loss for things to say and laugh about (and I must admit that he provided most of the laughs). He asked me to teach him some things and showed interest in what I had to share, and he in turn demonstrated for me a little about what he knew after years of experience in his particular career. While this ‘date’ might have sounded boring for most people, it was fun for us. The very fact that we could find joy in what much of the world would find a drudge seemed to add to the meaning of our new relationship/friendship that we were building together. It was also turning out to be a distinctly slow and respectful relationship; no kissing or real touching to speak of, but whenever our legs or arms would brush up against each other, there certainly wasn’t any repulsion from either one of us. We ended the evening late, outside of his car, with a handshake. At the end of the date, I had concluded that he was a perfect match for me in many ways, that I certainly wouldn’t mind if our newfound friendship and interest in each other grew into something more. He is idiosyncratic in some respects; for example, his interest in the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and his sense of time was much more flexible and ill-defined than most northern Europeans I know. He is also intelligently passionate, intensely curious and interested in self-improvement through learning, and conversant on a wide variety of subjects.

Since our initial encounter, we have seen each other three other times within about a week and a half, always with him coming into the city from his home in an outer suburb. Suddenly, my office became the centrepoint of our interaction. However, it seemed like our conversations, although just as numerous as before, were becoming increasingly less personal and more intellectual. That first meal was the only meal I’ve actually had with him; the next few times he came directly to my office, once following a call to my office mate in which he claimed to have an “emergency” (we established later that in English the word ‘emergency’ and an urgent or time-sensitive matter/request are applied to different situations :) ). This second time he came into the city, after having loaned him the photocopies that I had made from a book long ago, we went to the library together and looked at books related to my field (his new field). Another time he came in to describe his thoughts on relativity, out of pure passion for teaching the subject (I couldn’t help but smile at his intensity), and the third and most recent visit we also spent quite a bit of time talking in my office and some time together in the library. On each of these subsequent visits he gave me rides in his jeep (which was a lot of fun!), once just a joy ride around the block, once back to my apartment, and once to the other side of downtown (where we just happened to both be heading). Each time we ended our evening together in the usual handshake and smile. He seems to have become a good friend, and together we’ve developed a rather tender amity, but this friendship is also a new and fast-evolving one (which always leaves room for concern and doubt). We kept, and do keep, in contact on a nearly daily basis, often through brief e-mails (my side) or MSN messages (he’s usually seemingly distracted by talking to other people at the same time). After each time we see each other, I always make sure to let him know that I appreciated our time together and his effort to come see me (which I do, very much), and he often seems touched by these overtures. Despite feeling something like his intellectual sounding-board, I also realize that this is the way men in our culture bond and forge meaningful relationships with each other--by sharing information, elucidating on their passions, and discussing what they know. However, I found the lack of a continuing personal exchange a little worrisome, even though the last time I saw him I ended the evening feeling warmer for him than I had ever felt before.

In fact, I had been worried about this experience with Robert from the start, particularly how I might eventually find myself hurt by it if I let my feelings evolve freely. Thus, despite my poetic waxing above, I’ve never let my guard down. Robert was, in a rather outright manner, seeking a romantic, long-term relationship online. His openness and frankness about his goal was refreshing, not daunting. However, when people launch such a mission, it’s relatively easy to for them to get carried away by a kind of serial-dating mentality, to always be in search of something new, that initial excitement and anticipation (and often the pursuit of a greater and greater rush of ‘chemistry’), while never following through on anyone at the end of the day. Quite frankly, I don’t have the time or energy to shop around in this way; one person to concentrate on at any given time is enough for my tastes!

During our initial phone conversations, I could hear people MSN’ing him in the background, that horrible bleeping sounding always going off. While I’m sure Robert has more friends than I do, I’ve learned over the course of this experience that frantic MSN’ing is a symptom of the type of communication that the website initially engenders. It didn’t seem like there was a spare moment when he wasn’t communicating with one of his new potential mates. While I found it annoying that this was going on while I was on the phone with him, I pretended like it wasn’t happening. One has to accept these things. While I never asked him outright about the matter, something tells me he wouldn’t have batted an eye in admitting it. During our second time together, he actually got a text message from a caller who’s name he didn’t know that said “What are you doing, my handsome man?” He showed it to me with a sense of pride, admitting he didn’t know the person behind the number (and apparently he never even figured out who sent it, or so he said later). The third time he had clearly come into town to have a date with a “friend,” whose description matched to a T one of his new online contacts that he had been publicly communicating with (and who was unabashedly seeking a boyfriend).

In addition to having numerous new men lined up, with whom I felt unwillingly engaged in a Darwinian-style competition, to make matters even more complicated he has unresolved feelings toward another man. He had agreed to allow his friend, recently divorced from his wife (with adult children) after coming out of the closet, to move in with him. He had had an “adventure” of some sort with this roommate a while back, and apparently, as a result, Robert felt that his roommate had a crush on him. I would have had to been entirely oblivious not to have noted the possessive nature of their relationship; they were in contact with each other a couple of times (at least) every time he came to see me (usually the roommate calling with some distracting drama to report to hasten Robert back home, which was never very successful). I know enough people who’ve had roommates to know that that’s not typical roommate behaviour (to be always in touch every hour of the day). When Robert reported that his roommate had an “eye” for him, I asked if him if he would like to develop a romantic relationship with him, and he responded “I don’t know.” Talk about a buzz-kill for a first date, even if it was admirably honest. As an outsider, I know that there’s no way to compete with a live-in source of sexual tension. I did learn the last time we got together that he was moving out, well away from his roommate and closer into the city. Also, the fact that he was seeking romance outside of his home when he and his roommate/friend (and probably past sexual partner) had lived together for a while, suggests a desire on his part to move on, and perhaps that would be finally confirmed upon Robert’s moving out. But the whole situation and Robert’s lack of resolution is, to say the least, highly disconcerting from the perspective of someone who might consider being romantically involved with him.

So while I feel like Robert has taken a real interest in me (in what way I cannot really be sure), it feels more at this point like a friendship than anything else, one that closely accommodates his intellectual interests. I am actually quite happy to have a new friend and leave it at that; I always have a lot of room in my heart for the relatively few friends I do have. And while I might eventually entertain the idea of developing something romantic with Robert, because friendships can often provide their own surprises with time, it would take some time and serious discussion before I would trust that he would see a relationship with me as a priority over dating other men. He would need to thoroughly convince me that I’m not just another guy he has lined up as some sort of backup plan.

To give him credit, in his own way I think Robert may be respecting me, my feelings, and my philosophies by not leading me on, by keeping physical and personal intimacy at bay, while he explores the fun side of single life. It is also possible that Robert will make his way through many guys and find that I’m the only one left at his side at the end of the day. However, from a romantic perspective (if I should even be thinking along those lines), I don’t particularly appreciate having to wait for that day to come, nor do I think I should be expected to. As far as potential romances are concerned, I am willing to compromise with, listen to, and encourage a man’s interests, give him a comfortable degree of independence and space, embrace his idiosyncrasies, and unflinchingly accommodate his flaws (to a point, obviously). However, I am not willing to invest a lot in a dating relationship when I am, for the other person, one of many. While Robert may be open to exploring himself with many different people at the same time, polyamory and serial dating are not my games.

Out of respect for the other person, and in order to best get to know him, I focus on one guy at a time. If I date a man and wish to develop a relationship with him, and he with me, I expect ours to be the only relationship with romantic connotations that both of us are involved in at that time. Some might think this is overly demanding in today’s poly-sexual, poly-romantic, crash-dating culture (which seems to express itself, like many contemporary phenomena, as a new extreme in the gay community). Many would argue that, in order to efficiently obtain what we ourselves want or need out of human relationships, we have to have several people on-call for us until we weed through them all and figure out who we want. On the opposite side of this spectrum, I think it’s selfish to develop incipient relationships with many different people, however efficient and personally advantageous it is to do so. In engaging in this behaviour, we lose sight of those we touch along the way, and how we touch them. We forget that these people also look to us with hope for a meaningful bond, and the more people we balance in this difficult juggling act, the more that get hurt when we grab that one pin we want and let the rest fall to the ground. One might counter, “yes, but it’s a vast wasteland out there, and we often have to go through as many people as possible before meeting that person who is really appropriate for us.” I would respond by suggesting that the ‘wasteland’ also has some good, the ‘good’ being what most of us are seeking in the end, and as much as possible we need to cultivate that ‘good’ in ourselves. I believe one way we do that is by being passionate and considerate and treating everyone we come across with the same human interest and tenderness we would like ourselves to receive. Along this line of thought, when we engage with people in the dating world, we should make a concerted effort to understand them, to concentrate on them more exclusively, to see their beautiful qualities as much as their human failings (and we all have them), and after doing so make a decision about how to proceed with that relationship. No matter what the choice, however, the individual of concern and their feelings should be addressed with the utmost respect and dignity. While the practicalities of dating suggest that such an attitude may seem backward and rather inefficient, by thus cultivating ‘the good’ in ourselves, those that we come across are likely to think more highly of us, and, more importantly (and partly as a consequence of others’ attitudes toward us), we’re likely to think more favorably of ourselves.

In closing, I remember being personally quite shocked once when reading an online article (a long time ago) about how to ask someone you’ve been dating for a while that you want to see that person exclusively. Why would people even assume that someone they go out on a date with is also dating other people? So naïve, I know; apparently it’s quite common. However, I would argue that this kind of uninhibited and self-centered approach toward dating is more of a hindrance to obtaining what many of us do want in the end, the development of real, deep, exclusive relationships, than it is personally liberating.

Having officially relegated Robert as a friend, I’ve decided I’m not waiting for him to figure out if he wants anything more from me. A friendship suits me fine, as it seems to suit him. I gave him a few weeks of exclusive attention, and given the nature of our interactions during that time (and particularly lately), I think that’s fair. I myself have moved on to considering a new contact, one from the website who I had not responded to until I had accepted Robert’s lack of resolution (until then, out of respect for Robert I hadn’t even checked the website, despite his frequent and continuing reliance on it for entertainment). My new contact, Pietro, is a thoughtful Italian man a couple of years younger than Robert, also very caring, filled with a zeal for life, and appropriately mature in mindset. We’ve already had many engaging exchanges online (frequent and engrossing MSN conversations again, and through e-mails). It’s way too early to comment on how our online friendship will evolve, if it evolves at all. I have the feeling he’s also shopping around, and I may very well already be on his backup list (he also has stopped contacting me with his previous rigour). Out of necessity, I’m willing to adapt to how the world works in this way. However, Pietro being an exclusive interest for me in this regard (and at this time), I hope that I’m abiding by my own moral standards. Adhering to such a seemingly rigid code of honour probably means a more discouraging outcome for me compared to most people when it comes to dating. But I recognize that it's not all about me, and from my own perspective I will at least have a personal sense of dignity to accompany my disappointment.

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