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February 12th, 2014 DEBORAH KENNEDY | Cover Story
 

Bowling For Love

Match, Tinder and shiny balls: it’s tough to pick up a spare man in Portland.

lede_4015(scroller)ILLUSTRATION: Kristen Wright
Steve’s “tell” should have been his cedar-encased iPhone. Then again, I was never much of a poker player.

It’s an unseasonably warm Saturday and thanks to OkCupid, a free dating site wildly popular among Portlanders, we’re getting afternoon drinks at Gold Dust Meridian on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard.

Steve is thin, dark-haired and sarcastic. In less than an hour, he entertains me with wry anecdotes about his past as a classical-music promoter and his current career as the manager of a doggy daycare. After his second drink—rye on the rocks—we decamp for the Waffle Window. Steve checks his phone again. We cross the street. Another glance. I’m assuming we might move on to stage three—swinging by the nearby Powell’s—but he starts to mumble about “having an early day tomorrow.” Suddenly, he has to “jet.”

Later that night, I call my friend Jamie for post-date girl talk. Jamie is a veteran of online dating, whereas this was the first date I’d ever arranged online and, in fact, the first time I went out with someone new in four years.

Last year I left Indiana, and a man I loved—almost enough. Unfortunately, he came with an irreversible vasectomy that left me chasing the ticks of my biological clock all the way to my mother’s house in the 503 area code. This Valentine’s Day I find myself the embodiment of every single man’s worst nightmare: a woman on the rebound in search of sperm.

“It’s funny,” I told Jamie. “I didn’t even like him that much. He was a blowhard. Still, I feel dumb. I feel rejected.”

I swear I could hear her nodding sadly on the other end. “You’re the afternoon-date girl.”

“The afternoon-date girl?”

“The guy obviously had another date that night,” Jamie said. “He schedules your date for the afternoon so that if y’all don’t hit it off, he’s got another girl waiting.”

“OMG,” I said. “You’re right.”

“I know I’m right, right?” Jamie sighed. “And I’ll bet he didn’t take evening-date girl to the Waffle Window.”


This much I learned from my afternoon with Steve: When it comes to dating, a lot has changed in the last five years. I’ve never had a thick black book of gentlemen callers—in college I preferred huddling in my dorm room watching Bridget Jones’s Diary to collecting tales for my own—but at least then I understood the rules. And those rules have changed thanks to the fact that, as this month’s Singles in America study revealed, for the first time the majority of first dates are now arranged through online dating services rather than mutual friends. With the help of the Web, you can find basically anything you’re looking for in a date now—with almost frightening specificity.

You’ve heard of eHarmony, for the Christian set, but what about ChristianMingle, for the even more Christian set? There’s also JDate—Christians need not apply. For baby boomers, there’s OurTime.com. For country folk, there’s FarmersOnly.com.

One set of sites—Match.com, eHarmony, Zoosk and Chemistry.com—charges users to use unique algorithms that apply data about your favorite food and your favorite position to help you find a soulmate. A second class—Tinder, DateHookup and Craigslist—lead to (ahem) shorter-term relationships. Tinder, like its gay sibling Grindr, is a phone app that uses geolocation and Facebook photos. If you’re nearby and mutually attracted, Tinder pops you into a chat window so you can determine the nearest gas-station restroom.

Sites like OkCupid and PlentyofFish strike a balance between the two. Some folks are there for sex; others are hoping to find a partner. It’s up to you to figure out which, because most people’s profiles don’t really say.

My online profiles don’t come right out and announce what I’m looking for, either: that most elusive of males, the as-of-yet childless man in his late 30s or early 40s who wants nothing more than to fall in love and make babies. Whip-smart, a dark sense of humor, a fondness for beer and college basketball would be nice upgrades. Then again, I don’t have to have the leather seats.

In Portland, it’s not hard to find Overly Earnest Guy—the one in the kilt who out-feminists you at every turn and describes himself as “spiritual”—or Overly Active Guy—who bikes up Mount Hood, then ziplines down so he can kayak the Columbia out to the coast for an afternoon of surfing. They’re sitting at a bar made of reclaimed barnwood, drinking cider and eating gluten-free pretzels with Way Too Concerned With Where His Food Comes From Guy.

But those guys don’t bowl. So, I figured, in my quest to document some of my misadventures in online dating, why not set up my dates in bowling alleys? If a guy in Portland is comfortable on the lanes, my heart should be an easy-to-hit spare.


ILLUSTRATION: Kristen Wright
I met Ryan, an engineer, on a Wednesday night in January at Rainbow Lanes in Forest Grove. We’d found each other through Match.com, which, in my experience, has cuter, cleaner-cut guys than its competitors. 

Intel has single-Fab-edly made sure it’s next to impossible to date actively in the Pacific Northwest without meeting a few engineers. And nothing against them—as a group (speaking in unforgivable generalities), they are intelligent and practical, and what they often lack in social skills they more than make up for in gainful employment and an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Star Trek. Ryan and I both noted an affinity for the show on our profiles, which led to him messaging me.

He cut right to the chase.

“Jean Luc or Kirk?” he asked as we strapped on our shoes.

“Kirk,” I said.

“Ah.” He nodded, brow furrowed. I had the feeling he was sizing me up, but I couldn’t tell if I’d answered well or red-shirted myself. “Tiberius...”

Despite his enthusiasm for all things Enterprise, Ryan was an atypical engineer—his company builds a better bulldozer. So far so cool. He reminded me of my high-school boyfriend: funny, cute and possessing a contagious love of  ’80s butt rock. 

“I love Poison,” I told him, halfway through our first game.

“Most girls hate Star Trek, and they hate Poison even more,” he said. 

“I am not most girls.”

The first game ended with Ryan at 92 pins and Bubbles (that’s my bowling name, and I should note that all the gentlemen in this story have been given a proverbial bowling name of their own) at 132. We were having a marvelous time. 

I found out that Ryan, an Oregon State University grad and former Marine, was a recently separated father of three. So much for finding a childless man. He showed me pictures of his kids—adorable—and a photo of some hooch/punch he’d made that Halloween—adorable—and we took turns tossing balls and stretching out on lucky lane 13’s black pleather couch while the alley, empty at first, began to fill with upwardly mobile young families and truck-driving dudes in flat-billed ball caps.

The second game ended with Ryan at 94 and Bubbles at 134. Ryan didn’t seem bothered by his lackluster performance or my superior scores, and I took both as encouraging signs. Here was a man who was not only attractive—bright blue eyes, great smile, nice arms—but secure in his masculinity. I pinched myself under the hand-drying unit.

“So, do you think you might want to have more kids someday?” I ventured, just as we’d decided to head to the Grand Lodge for pool and beer. I thought I’d better ask before I started to like him. My face hurt from so much smiling.

He dropped his ball back into the rack and laughed.

“Hell, no,” he said. “Are you kidding me?”


PlentyofFish is free, and the main competitor to OkCupid, where I met Afternoon Steve. It’s also Canadian and, despite that, a bit braggy. It claims to “have more dates, more relationships, more visits than any other online dating site.”

I thought that was eHarmony. “eHarmony makes the most marriages,” my mother informed me, oblivious to the fact that I’m an underemployed freelance writer without the disposable income to sign up for several paid sites at once. “You should get on that one.”

My second day on PoF, I met Paul, a bookstore manager. After we’d exchanged a few flirty messages about our mutual love of Moby Dick and our ambivalence toward our native Hoosier state, he agreed to join me at Southeast Morrison Street’s Grand Central Restaurant and Bowling Lounge on a Saturday afternoon.

Grand Central is the best of all possible bowling alleys. It embraces the tackiness of the sport—there’s a mirror ball hanging over the center lanes and a lot of neon—while at the same time offering up a great beer selection and one hell of a burger. It’s also family-friendly. Paul and I were surrounded on all sides by children’s birthday parties.

Paul smiled vaguely at the chaos. He also smiled vaguely at me. Tall and thin and sporting a stylishly shaved head, Paul had ridden to Grand Central on his Jamis road bike, which he said was pretty much the only way he got around now that he’d escaped Indiana, where bike lanes are about as rare as ready access to abortion. 

“Carbon footprint?” I joked awkwardly. “In Indiana it’s more like Carbon Bigfoot.”

“Yeah.” Paul leaned back against our lane’s black leather couch. He had forgotten to unroll his left pant leg, hiked up for the ride over. “Sasquatch isn’t real.”

Oh, dear. Paul was Overly Earnest Guy. How did I not sense this earlier?

We bowled a second game and, in between throws, discussed everything from the Keystone Pipeline, Hillary’s running mate, Philip Roth and quinoa. Gradually, I grew a little weary of trying to sound smart, and with each new subject, my game got worse.

On the eighth frame of the second game, Paul decided to intervene. “Your form could use some work,” he man-splained. “Aim for the arrows. See the arrows?” I saw the arrows. “And don’t forget to follow through.”

Final score: Paul 144, Bubbles 87.

Outside, we exchanged the clichéd, pelvises-apart “let’s do this again,” hug, both of us clearly not meaning it. “Take care,” Paul said. I nodded, watching him ride away. Unlike Ryan, Paul didn’t have any children, and his profile said he might want them someday. It wouldn’t be with me—it was time to try a new dating site.


The newest, hottest thing in online dating makes this modest claim: “It’s like real life, but better.” Um, I guess so, if in real life everyone judged each other by the depth of their cleavage or size of their biceps rather than the content of their character. 

Oh, wait.

Tinder, which is less than 2 years old and has been adding users by the millions in recent months, uses geolocation to pair people already near each other, reasoning that sorting people who find themselves in the same place is more natural than matching people from Forest Grove and Gresham who both like Star Trek. The app boasts 500 million swipes per day, most by 18-to-24-year-olds, which means I’m outside the target demographic. On a Thursday night, I made my way to Punch Bowl Social, a grown-up Chuck E. Cheese’s that recently took over the space that housed a massive Asian restaurant on the top floor of Pioneer Place mall.

Punch Bowl Social is not the kind of place you’d expect the Dude or Donnie or the unfuckwithable Jesus to frequent. It’s nouveau-’60s swank— the suits from Mad Men would fit right in—the drink selection is decidedly snobby, and the lanes are dark and flanked with gold and black couches. The pins are on strings. They look and act like puppets. They also provide a challenge to the unseasoned.

“Our lanes are 6 feet shorter than regulation, so you’d think you’d be set,” the bartender tells me, “but the string thing can throw people off. The trick is not to hit them dead on. You’ve got to finesse them.”

Finesse. Subtlety. Mystery.

Everything that Tinder is not.

Tinder links to your Facebook account, randomly selecting a handful of pics and putting those in front of anyone who has the app and happens to be nearby. The geolocation software lets you know who’s in your ’hood, so, if you’re game, you can hook up and hook up quickly. When two people “like” each other, they have the opportunity to message. I figured I would use the opportunity to ask a guy to come bowl with me. I also secretly hoped no one would “like” me back, because I was a bit trepidatious about meeting a complete stranger on such short notice, even in the security of a bowling alley.

When you pass on someone, the word “NOPE” appears across his or her picture in bright red letters. This is also the kind of app that allows you to learn a lot about yourself in a short amount of time, and let me tell you, unlike a lot of the people you’ll see as you flip, it’s not pretty. Apparently, I dismiss, out of hand, any dude who chooses to have his picture taken next to heavy machinery. Also anyone who’s bald (for shame, for shame), overweight (shame again) or has a selfie as his main profile pic. “Shallow,” I thought, flicking right on by, “selfies are so shallow.”

In the span of two hours I must have flipped by at least 200 guys, and it was easy. Almost too easy. Since I’m pushing 40, I automatically eliminated anyone under 30, which sadly put “Armando,” 22, out of the running. Why, I wondered, would Armando choose the first page of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis as his profile pic? (This question still bugs me.) My system also deep-sixed “Jake,” 21, whose headless picture showed a bare, sculpted chest and a pair of bulging Calvin Klein boxer briefs—very Marty McFly meets Carlos Danger. Tinder is a hookup site, plain and simple. My California friend and I agreed prostitutes would do brisk business on it.

Against all odds, I found a dude in his 40s, who looked, dare I say it, normal. He was about three miles away. His profile pic showed him sitting on a boat—lots of Tinder dudes’ pics showed them looking pensive near water. I “liked” him, and in a few seconds found out that he “liked” me, too. I was shocked. I got sweaty. I got over it. I sent him a hurried message, asking if he had the time or inclination to meet me for a few pints and pins.

He would love to, he wrote, but sadly he already had plans. “Maybe another time.” Sure. Another time. Over the course of the next two hours, I liked and was liked back by two more dudes. Once I told them I wanted to go bowling, they were all too busy, but would love to meet up in a day or two.

Perhaps it’s a function of my age or the age of the guys I liked, but I wonder if Tinder ever really results in the kind of fast and dirty Last Tango in Paris hookups I’d imagined, or if most users have my experience: delayed gratification or no gratification at all. Then again, is that so bad? One thing I’ve discovered from my days as the Afternoon Date Girl is that anticipating the date is often better than the date itself.

While conducting my Tinder search, I flicked by three guys I recognized from my OkCupid days and one I’d seen that morning on PlentyofFish. I mentioned this fact to the bartender, who wasn’t at all surprised.

“It’s the shotgun approach to dating,” he said. “You basically spray yourself in as many directions as you can, hoping to hit something.” He filled me in on a bit of his own romantic history: His marriage ended when his ex-wife cheated on him. “I was on tour in Iraq,” he said. “She couldn’t handle deployment.” Now he’s in a long-term relationship with a woman six years his senior, whom he admired for her maturity and the kindness she showed his young daughter. 

“Love is a conscious choice,” he said. “Lust? That fades. But when you’re in a relationship, you wake up every morning and you make the choice to make things work.”


ILLUSTRATION: Kristen Wright


Scholars have reason to believe that Jane Austen, author of some of the best love stories of all time, died a virgin at 41. English gentlewomen like Austen, living and trying to love in early 19th-century England, were fated to wait in stiff drawing rooms for Mr. Darcy to discover them. They did not have the power to seek their own happiness. 

In contrast, we live in an era of endless options. You can fill out a personality test that will allow a computer to tell you whom you should love or post this question on the Internet (“Want 2 Fuk?”) and almost instantly get an answer in the affirmative (“Where U at?”). You might think the ready availability of instantaneous communication, of cyber connection that often results in in-the-flesh meetings, would result in fewer lonely people. But then you might spend some time on Craigslist personals, and you might think again. Want to give or receive a blow job? Head here. Hoping to “Explore life’s possibilities...with herpes?” Craigslist is your site. Just don’t log on looking for love. 

After all of my romantic misadventures, I was starting to doubt if love—the love Carrie Bradshaw describes as “ridiculous, inconvenient, can’t-live-without-each-other kind of love”—is really what anyone is after anymore. Are we victims of the illusion of infinite choice? I couldn’t help but wonder if I would even recognize Mr. Darcy if he walked right into my virtual drawing room in a wet, white puffy shirt. Would I sigh dismissively over his sideburns (NOPE) and flick on to the next guy?

Just as I was finishing up this article and feeling lonely, discouraged and disillusioned, Ryan the mechanical engineer with the beautiful eyes and three cute kids sent me a text.

“Want to come over and watch The Big Lebowski?” he asked.

Ryan lives just around the corner from me, but without Match.com I probably would never have met him. I wouldn’t know that we share the same taste in movies, beer and bad jokes.

Perhaps I should take this whole online-dating thing less seriously. Maybe it’s less about connecting with one’s soulmate and more about expanding one’s world.

“Dude,” I texted back, ignoring for the moment the ache of my throbbing womb, the constant tick-tock of my biological clock. “Hell, yes.”  


“You Look Pretty Niece”

In six months of online dating, I’ve accumulated a mountain of messages. Some are texts, some are onsite messages, others are emails. All are cherished—especially the one from the dude who sent me an unsolicited dick pic, then asked, “how many of these have you seen since you got here?”

“I’ve lost count,” I wrote back.

“Whoa. That is seriously fucked up. I am no longer interested,” he said.

My loss.


25-year-old firefighter: You look pretty niece.

34-year-old program manager: Hey what’s up beautiful, how you doing? How was your weekend? What you doing up so late? 

38-year-old hippie dude in do-rag: Were you at OktoberFest?

36-year-old pipe fitter: I bet u taste good.

37-year-old chef: Hello im Robert...andwow your beautiful. How was your weekend?

39-year-old welder: I’m looking for the same thing you are looking I’m from Vancouver if your interested hit me back

46-year-old investor: I’ve found that people with Masters are generally very good at having too many interests and we all know Scorpio’s are umm well you know........... 

50-year-old long-haul truck driver: Want 2 rid with me?

36-year-old pipe fitter: What’d I do wrong?

43-year-old master gardener: Good luck with your search.

32-year-old dude on ATV: Lets get in some truble.

46-year-old civil engineer: Nice kitty in your pictures. Thanks for being a proud cat parent.

30-something metalhead: hello and good evening to you,lovly smile and great personality you have.kinf of funny being online to these dating web sites can honesty be a pain in the but.i love life and enjoy for the good times it brings.you seem like a very nice lady,so i thought i would say hello.have a nice evening,and a great week ahead. 

40-something carpenter: Hey pretty girl. I find you fascinatingly intriguing.

36-year-old pipe fitter: Wow. Yur a bitch.

 
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