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Norm de Plume navigates the online dating scene

Last year, a correspondent we pen-named Nancy de Plume wrote a “soliloquy from a single lady” on the pitfalls and very occasional pleasures of the online dating scene. Norm de Plume responds…

My formative years of romancing were experienced overseas. I lived in London for a time, a city where there seemed to be a delicious equality between men and women. The relationships that worked were those where there was a true non-gender-based balance of power. Respect.

Returning to New Zealand proved to be a bit of a shock. I was surprised to find quite a difference in the meeting and mating protocols and rituals. Some things were familiar – women still camped down one end of social gatherings and men down the other. There didn’t seem to be a lot of chat between. A friend who had lived in Paris rolled her eyes. “Men in Europe know how to flirt.”

Kiwi women, it seemed to me, paid lip-service to being attracted to the caring-sharing metrosexual type. But secretly, I felt glinty eyes were still out for good old Tarz to come swinging out of the kauri. Not being the hirsute, chest-thumping type, I might be spending a bit of time on the sidelines, I thought.

Anyway, there I was, newly returned and single. I drew breath and entered the online dating fray – diving into the Findsomeone pool, while simultaneously dipping a nervy toe into the shallows of another, less “vanilla” site. Oh, what a fairground ride it all was, says he, wiping his brow. I came across a couple of certifiable “loops” rolling on the coasters. Yes, there are loops on both sides, I know! But I became familiar with the practice of “catfishing” – luring someone by adopting a fictional online persona. Expectation can be vastly different from reality. My radar was often on the blink.

On one memorable occasion, I went to an Italian restaurant with a sight-unseen, prospective date. A glass of chianti down the screech and I realised Ms X must have indulged in a bit of pre-loading. I watched in fascination as she (in full flight on relativity theory, for all I knew) toppled face forward into her carbonara.

Stunned, I sat there marvelling at the richness of life before the waiter said, “Signor, shall I lift the signorina’s head before she drowns?”

After that experience, I contemplated engaging a “wingman”, a friend who would sit at an adjoining table with an earpiece and dark glasses – a bit old-school SIS, I know – where I could be semaphored out of scrapes.

After a few months of Rainbow’s End-online, I connected with a woman who had posted no photograph and didn’t say she was looking for “that special man to share cuddles and sangria after long walks on West Coast beaches leashed to a Labrador”. In fact, she almost seemed to be trying to put suitors off. I was perversely attracted to that. I could tell she was deft with words (magazine editor, as it turned out) and that pressed my buttons. It still took six months of “wordly” manoeuvring before we said, “Okay, let’s give this a whirl.”

Even good relationships can run their course and, six years on, I was single again and totally shocked at how the game had changed. My single women friends were now extremely busy on Tinder, swiping away furiously. I asked one glamorous friend when she even had time to look on Tinder. She regarded me pityingly and, in a tone suggesting I was mildly retarded, said, “… at the traffic lights”. I was out of my depth. The attention of Tinder-users seemed to be measured in frenzied nano-seconds.

But, somehow I found myself on the dating whirly-go-round once more and ended up having a dalliance with a bit of a live-wire. It didn’t last. We went from 0-60 (old parlance) in five seconds and back down to nought in a nano. She pulled the plug while I was between blinks. “Hello… calling Planet Zog?” No signal. My doctor assured me he could find no evidence of alien growth or exotic deformity.

When I eventually managed to track Live-wire down and politely enquire about the abrupt ending, she said “short, sharp and sweet” was the best way to end things. Short and sharp is only “sweet” for one, I ventured. There were two people in the mix. No signal.

Detective work revealed this peremptory attitude was more common than I could have imagined, exposing a modern ruthlessness about “getting in and getting out”. “Ghosting” is now the modus when ending a liaison. One friend, I discovered, keeps a template of “rejecting” letters on her various devices for termination efficiency. How terrifying. So transactional. Find me another planet. Harden up, I was told.

I returned to my observation post on the sidelines. When a friend tangled with a man who she professed to be very keen on, but in an instant became bored or freaked-out and violently pulled the plug, I felt reasonably qualified to impart some advice. Were they talking? No, he was too hurt. Did she like him? Yes, he was a very good person. Then tell him you’re sorry, I counselled. Be brave, face the music, and talk to him properly. Show you value him on a friendship level, if not the horizontal. A couple of weeks later she phoned and thanked me. They were now the best of buddies.

Anything beyond an unplanned one-night stand deserves decent communication. Otherwise intimacy is devalued. Detachment comes at a cost. Is the modern reticence towards communication a hangover from the legacy of the “Silent Generation”? Good old Kiwi non-communicative stoicism?

Another aspect of current dating I find mystifying is the level of prescription. Like a job interview. Well it is, but… there can still be an element of finesse and charm about the selection process. A woman I was chatting to once about life and love had a checklist of dislikes she was firm and clamorous about – leather jackets, news and current events, sport, Scrabble, motorbikes and Shakespeare, to name but a few. Phew! We all have preferences, but they’re negotiable, aren’t they? Otherwise, where’s the fun, the spontaneity, the romance, the mystery, the sensuality? A bit of flexibility, paaleeze!

I remember one day feeling a little furrow-browed about the whole dating scene. So, I pulled on my leather jacket, jumped on my motorbike and took it for a squirt, came home, checked the latest Trump-farrago on CNN, switched to Sky Sport, then called some friends over and played Scrabble, reading a bit of Macbeth between moves. Happy as a pig in the proverbial. Scrabbling and Shakespearing… the perfect antidotes to Tinder. Sleep may once have been lost over the obscurities of virtual romancing, but Dr Bard provided shrewd advice: “Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care…”

I realised real-life encounter is way better than virtual. And that was proved to me recently. I’d been to a book launch where there was someone I’d noticed but hadn’t talked to. After the launch, we found ourselves on the same bus. She said I picked her up; I said she picked me up. We’re still arguing the point. Neither of us are catfish. All’s well that may end well…

This article was first published in the February 2019 issue of North & South.

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