I’ve been thrust back into the world of dating. So has my wife. Being happily married we didn’t expect to have to deal with the pressures of institutionalized romance again. What we hadn’t counted on was being involved in our children’s dates.
It turns out that “dating” has gotten a lot more complicated in the more than two decades since we were actively in the game. What used to be a fairly simple and straight-forward transaction – the exchange of dinner and the cost of a movie ticket for some pleasant company and the possibility of a goodnight kiss – has become a negotiation as complex as any brokered by Donald Trump. Unwritten rules abound and whenever our sons talk about it my wife and I glaze over like octogenarians forced to watch Hip Hop videos.
A few dating factoids have managed to penetrate my increasingly thick skull. Let me share them with you.
My son’s current female friend is a girl named Angelina Jolie. (I’ve changed her name to protect her privacy.) At present they are “hanging out”, not dating.
Which is the first thing I had to learn about romance in the twenty-first century. Back in the buggy-whip days of my youth “dating” was a pretty binary term. You were either dating someone or you weren’t. Today the word “dating” is just one point on a continuum that runs from “interested in” through “talking to”, “texting” “hanging out with”, “dating”, “exclusive”, “committed” and…
Well, as a father, I don’t really want to contemplate what lies beyond “committed”.
Technology has changed all of the rules of the dating game. When I was a teen, my options for communicating with the fairer sex were limited to stammering incomprehensibly at them face-to-face or phoning and hanging up when I heard them answer. If I actually worked up the courage to stay on the line I had the comfort of knowing that any dumb thing I said could only be repeated by the girl in a series of calls her to dozen or so closest friends as soon as I hung up. Between all of the squealing and “he really said that?”s it could take a couple of hours for word of my record-setting goofiness to get around the community.
With text messaging, blogging, e-mail, MySpace, and Friendster a single stupid comment can be reproduced around the world in less time than it takes for Congress to vote itself a raise. Instead of being shared as gossip, dumb communications become front-page news in the blogosphere. And maintaining relationships becomes an exercise in perception management on par with the PR campaigns waged by the tobacco companies.
Before Angelina, my son had a relationship with a girl who lived in the southern part of the United States. To protect her identity, let’s say her name was Jennifer Anniston and she lived in Ottawa. It was a long-distance relationship conducted primarily by telephone, text message, e-mail and MySpace. My son was pleased to be listed on MySpace as Jennifer Anniston’s number one friend, but he knew trouble was brewing when he slipped to number four; behind Arnold Schwarteznegger, Telly Salvas and Tom.
Using the power of social networking technology, he avoided the direct approach and asked one of Jennifer’s friends if she knew what was up. The friend said no, but sent out a broadcast message to all of Jennifer’s friends to see if they knew anything. Then Jennifer’s profile changed from “in a relationship” to “single” and my son knew he’d been dumped. The “Dear John” e-mail that came a day later was merely an afterthought.
“Shake it off, son,” I counseled. “It’s not like the whole world knows.”
“Uh, Dad,” he said, “Yeah, the whole world does know.”
Which turned out to be a good thing because Angelina was also one of his friends and when she realized that he was no longer involved with Jennifer, she asked him to start hanging out with her.
That’s how my wife and I came back into the dating scene. We had planned a family brunch at a favorite restaurant when Angelina called and asked my son to hang out. Since we already had plans, we invited her along. She said “yes” and my son said “whatever”.
Before we could leave the house, my wife and I took a critical look at our clothes. We looked like casual middle-aged middle-Americans. Seemed okay to me, but my wife tsked and insisted that I change from jeans to slacks and would it kill me to put on a nice sweater?
I couldn’t see why it mattered to Angelina, but I knew it mattered to my wife. I changed, she changed (twice) and we set off to pick up my son’s friend.
The whole experience was exactly like a double-date with my younger son along as an unwilling fifth-wheel. Before we got to Angelina’s place my wife gave me a list of things to avoid.
“Don’t order the most expensive thing on the menu,” she said.
“But I’m the one paying.”
“We don’t want her to think we’re putting on airs. And don’t talk about religion or politics. You know how you get.”
“Oh? How do I get?”
“You know. And sit up straight, don’t slouch. We want her to think well of us.”
So I sat up straight, ordered from the middle of the menu, and avoided talking religion or politics. Instead we asked questions about Angelina’s background, where she grew up and what she planned for the future. She was polite and friendly, but I don’t think she’ll be asking us to hang out with her again.
And I think it pleases my son to have us out of the picture.
All I know for certain is I’m glad I’m only a supporting player. I couldn’t take the pressure if I had to get back in the game.