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Learning Rules About Courtship: What's Wrong With Me
by Jim Sanderson

In conversations with certain women, when I, a middle-aged man, mention that I'm not married, that I've never been married, I get a look that asks, "What's wrong with you?"

Women often answer the unspoken question, proclaiming that I lack commitment. To that answer, though, I have two responses. First, I've been committed to being a mediocre writer for twenty-five years. Second, in the last twenty years, I have more often been the dumpee as opposed to the dumper. I had a bunch of Mrs. Rights, but my Mrs. Rights were usually getting rid of their old Mr. Right, and I was the means to finding a new one. So in a way I was committed to helping marriage, just not my own.

If it's true what many people say--that men and women have different attitudes about commitment, that men are dedicated to sex before committing to more, wanting a test run so to speak, and that women promise sex in exchange for commitment--then the causality and chronology of each gender's reasoning are at cross purposes. I'm surprised anybody gets married.

So to avoid the inquisitive (and accusative) looks from women and to cope with the different attitudes toward commitment, I tried Internet dating.

The sites designed for people to get dates are sort of like cattle auctions with a twist: cattle are both merchandise and customers. Mostly, the bulls look at the cows and then bid. In turn the cows accept the bids that they like. Not many of my bids got accepted, but through the questionnaires and profiles that I answered and read, I learned a lot about what is wrong with me.

I am too short, too old, and too bald. But because women say that they don't base their choice of men solely on looks and because I didn't want to suffer through cosmetic surgery, I dug deeper.

In the Internet questionnaires, most women list one-word nouns or adjectives telling what they want in a man. First and foremost women want "sensitivity." Everything else serves this quality. Most women say that they want an "intelligent" man, but they don't necessarily want an "educated" man. Evidently intelligence doesn't have anything to do with education, or vice versa. Women don't want an "intellectual" man. Intellect, I concluded, must be the display of irrelevant, empty ideas because it has no "sensitivity." Intelligence, then, is extreme sensitivity.

Likewise, as evidenced by the results of Internet questionnaires, women want men to have "values" and "religion," which are often appear interchangeable. When women respond to religious or spiritual questions on the Internet, they usually put short answers: "Catholic," "Christian," "spiritual" or "new age." "Catholic" for some fundamentalists, should not be confused with "Christian." For many, "Christian" might not include Episcopal, Methodist, or Lutheran. Some respondents list "new age" under music or reading. I take it that "spiritual" is sort of like "new age" only it is more personal, not to be shared. "Jewish" is listed under ethnicity or race, not under religion. Under "values," most people put "traditional" or "old-fashioned," though some again list "sensitive."

What I am able to discern is that intelligence, which is really sensitivity, and values, which are conservative and close to being religious but are mostly more sensitivity, teach you about rules. Therefore what is wrong with me is that I have little or no intelligence, sensitivity, or values because I can't figure out the rules.

On the Internet a lot of women say that they will not tolerate or can't or won't do this, that, or the other. There are a lot of "isms" out there. As one woman told me, "I don't play games. So I have these rules I follow." Of course, I asked, "Don't games have rules?" and in so doing broke a rule I hadn't known about.

Partially determining the rules and isms is what women wish for. If men, those hopeless puppets of testosterone, are driven to impregnate as many of the species as possible, most women, real or virtual, say that they want to be treated as a "princess," a "lady," and sometimes a "goddess." There is an implicit promise here: men must follow the princess, lady, goddess rules in order to get to the impregnating part. Perhaps that's why there are Valentines, flowers, and jewelry. Sex, of course, is still a reward for both the man and the woman for following the rules, but the woman is in charge of dispensing it. A man responding to Internet dating questionnaires dare not say that he wants to be treated like a "man," a "warrior prince," "a masculine god," or a "a tumbleweed rolling across the prairies of love dropping and spreading his seed." I suspect that in the cyber world and in the real world, a man not treating a woman like a lady, a goddess, or a princess probably accounts for as many dumpings and divorces as male philandering. I've grown nostalgic for my tender years in the early 70s when we thought "free love" was the answer.

Similarly, I sense that if a man dates many women, then he is a "player." If a woman does so, then she is showing discretion. She knows what she wants. She knows that she has to kiss a lot of frogs to find her prince. Women don't like it when I say that I've kissed several princesses and turned them into frogs or when I say that I find frogs more interesting than princes or princesses because of the warts. So either I have been victimized by the rules or (because I'm not sensitive, intelligent, spiritual or value-oriented) I don't understand the rules.

What else is wrong with me in terms of cyber-dating is that I am lousy at "communication" and "humor." Women, judging from rules of cyber-dating, want someone who will listen to them and make them laugh. I find it hard to make someone laugh while listening unless I make insensitive, funny faces. When I do talk, many women find my humor and my "outlook on life" "pessimistic" and "cynical," two attributes that give further evidence of insensitivity. Worse, I display my lack of communication skills when I try to explain my insufficient spirituality, which I in my foolishness I mistake for theology, philosophy, or psychology. Mine is either not the right spirituality, or it is "pessimism" (or worse "sarcasm") masquerading as spirituality.

What is wrong with me is that, like a frog, I'm not "confident." I have drawers bulging with rejection letters from editors and agents. Sometimes I get student evaluations that tell me what a dismal failure I am as a teacher. I've gotten bad book reviews. And on a personal side, I've gotten my share of romantic rejection. So confidence is a little hard to come by, and honestly, I don't trust it. Confident and sure people have "isms" and rules. They push buttons, blow up things, or lead campaigns. Perhaps being unsure and unconfident keeps us from hurting ourselves and others.

I prefer wisdom to confidence or conviction. You are wise when you constantly test your convictions so that you know which ones cause you and others as little harm as possible and which ones aid or keep you from growing. Consequently wisdom is a lot harder to come by than convictions or confidence, and you never really know if you have any wisdom. Thus wisdom cannot be popular in the dating world.

So I have some advice for men who want to please women on the Internet questionnaires. In his answers, a man must prove his intelligence, sensitivity, values, humor, communication (and thus proving his knowledge of the rules) by saying outright that he has these qualities. Above all, he should not try to show that he has them. If he tries to exhibit intelligence, values, confidence and sensitivity in written form, he risks appearing silly, or worse arrogant, or worse intellectual, or worse insincere.

I now suspect that which is wrong with me isn't what I am not but what I am. I am boring. Women want romance, cuddling, nights on the town, or walks on the beach. What I want is the quotidian. I want the little moments, the details that you don't even notice but that late at night or early in the morning suddenly make you grateful. What I want are those epiphanies or moments of grace when you suddenly realize that paradoxically, because of and in spite of your work and effort, this other person is inextricably a part of your life. What I want are those transcendental moments that are beyond space and time, that embed themselves in your mind and then haunt and torture you when you lose her.

On the Internet questionnaires, I don't list anything under "hobbies," and I have no pets. What I like to do, what I have to do, is write and work out. I also genuinely like to sit at a bar. I also find myself reading a lot and going to the movies alone. All of these activities I can do by myself. So I am essentially boring

What is wrong with me is that I am obsessive. My obsessiveness started when I made a bargain with the devil. In graduate school I knew what I wanted: a book of fiction and a job teaching college as a writer. Both are incredibly hard to get. Mephistopheles sensed my yearning and wishing and got me a job and much, much later the books. But in return I had to give up luck with women. A writer friend of mine has a character based on me in her fictionalized memoirs. He's referred to as they guy who is the unluckiest guy with the women that the narrator knows.

But I knew that the devil doesn't live up to his side of the bargain. I knew better than to count completely on him. So in order to be a college teacher and a writer, I felt that I needed to be disciplined to the point of obsession. In turn, I have become disciplined and obsessive about working out. And to a lesser degree, I'm a disciplined, though not quite obsessed, bar stool sitter.

What I write about is obsession. I have all sort of obsessive and lovelorn characters and a few drunks. But then most of literature is about thee obsessive or lovelorn. Sometimes I fear that I am like Jake Barnes or J. Alfred Prufrock. Sometimes I fear that I have been trapped in a Texas version of one of Woody Allen's semi-serious movies about a middle-age man.

My mistake is that I try to use my obsessive professional traits and literary bearing in attempting to find or hold on to a woman. What women want is a man who has had "closure" with his past relationships, who has no baggage. But since I'm obsessive, my mind won't let me close the past; I'm always dragging it around and hoping to honor it. But alas, given the rules about communication, intelligence, humor, and spirituality, my vision of discipline and obsession and literary bearings mark me as a failure.

So what is wrong with me, given what I learned from the cyber-dating sites? I have no intelligence, sensitivity, values, confidence, humor, or communication skills. I am boring and obsessive. I have yet to seek professional help for what is wrong with me because I don't know how peculiar or severe a case I am. Learning the rules of courtship from cyber dating, then, affords some insight but little comfort, for I'm still stuck with being me. But I hope that maybe a few readers who have read this far are thinking that maybe what is wrong with me is what is wrong with them too.

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