As a companion to my previous article about high standards, I submitted this article to the New York Times series on Modern Love; alas, I just receive their message that it didn’t quite suit their needs. It would have been a remarkable accomplishment as an inexperienced writer and soon after I sent it, I kind of felt like it may have been a little too snarky for their tastes. Perhaps one of my previous articles might have been a better choice, but it had to be previously unpublished and I couldn’t use any pseudonyms, so I had writing something new. Here’s a recap for the newbies and an inside look at part of the creative process of writing my book. I hope you enjoy it.
My story begins the year I turned forty and decided to seek out, by any means possible, the love I have always been craving. I read about a dozen self-help books and countless articles about dating. I was willing to try almost anything on the off chance it might align me with my “soulmate.” (FYI, I use that term lightly to describe any man I can connect with on a deeply emotional, spiritual and physical level. I do not prescribe to the notion there can be only one.) To keep myself motivated, I started documenting my progress in a series of articles called Leona’s Love Quest. Three years later I was still single, in between jobs and bored as hell, so I decided to turn those articles into a book.
Leona is a single, black female in her forties and all she ever wanted out of life was to get married and have a family. Yes, I know as a single woman my story is supposed to be about telling everyone how whole and complete and fabulous I am without a man. OK, well that part is true; nevertheless, I don’t see why the two ideas must be mutually exclusive. I’ve never been very content with being single, nor have I ever really wanted to be. No matter how fulfilling my life has been otherwise, nothing ever seems to fill the empty space created by the lack of a happy, intimate relationship with a member of the opposite sex and that’s my story. Sorry, not sorry.
I joined a writers’ group about a year ago so I could get some outside feedback and I had just submitted my fifth chapter for review. In this segment, Leona continues her adventures with online dating and, following the advice from one of her self-help books, she writes an email to some of her married friends requesting them to play matchmaker for her. When making the request, the book instructed her to describe in short detail the kind of man she was wanted without listing too many must-haves or deal breakers. She decides to skip the basics like kindness, honesty and loyalty as she assumed her friends would not intentionally set her up with a womanizing sociopath. And so her description reads as follows:
“The kind of man I’m looking for should be a person who actively seeks new experiences and not be a homebody. He should be politically liberal-minded and have a fun, playful sense of humor. He is someone who appears to take good care of his health and must be a non-smoker. I would prefer if he was 35 to 45ish, college educated, and at least 5’7”; however those aren’t necessarily deal-breakers. Please don’t limit your choices strictly to African-American men. I am open to interracial dating assuming that they are as well. I promise if you think he might be a good match for me then I will trust your judgment enough to make contact with him.”
Due to the personal nature of my story, instead of focusing on my writing skills like pacing, grammar, character or plot development, someone would always begin with their gut reaction to the content. The members in attendance at our meetings varied slightly from week to week, but on the whole our group was primarily male. On this occasion only one other woman was present.
“You know what I thought when I read this?” said the first bruised ego to volunteer his opinion. “I thought Leona’s standards were too high.”
“I agree,” another chimed in. “I think the anecdote about your ‘ho-hum dates with perfectly nice IT professionals is a little unfair. What does Leona have to offer? Maybe she’s just as ho-hum as the men on her dates.”
“There’s no doubt your dating stories are entertaining,” said the next, “but after reading a few of them, I just wish Leona would stop complaining. Does she ever learn anything from these dates? Does she experience any personal growth?”
I looked to the one sole female to come to my defense, but surprisingly she jumped on their bandwagon. “I want to be on Leona’s side, but I think you’ve listed too many things in your email. With these criteria, I think you’ve eliminated every guy at this table.”
It was true. In one paragraph I had single-handedly disqualified five of the six men in the group as possible dating options. Two of them were obese, the third was over 50 and a smoker, the fourth was under 5’7, and number five “technically” never graduated from college. Ironically, the sixth man disqualified himself because I wasn’t his type.
“You’re just a little too white bread for me,” said number six, not seeming to catch the irony in his description of a black woman, “I can tell you’re intelligent, creative and funny from your writing, but in person you seem very wholesome. That’s not the type I go for.”
“Maybe you need to get in touch with your inner ho,” the woman suggested. “You don’t actually have to sleep with a lot of men to find her; it’s more like a state of mind. You need to look seductively into a man’s eyes and casually touch them during conversations.”
“You just seem so normal. What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done? Say something shocking, right now,” number six commanded.
Oh for fuck’s sake. I wasn’t trying to write the next Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s a sad day when wholesomeness is considered to be a negative trait. What difference did it make if I wouldn’t date any of the men in our writing group? One of them was married, two of them had girlfriends, two others were staunchly confirmed bachelors and the last one, well, I think he was just short. This was my story and they had only read five chapters intermittently over the past few months. None of them even knew me well enough to be making all of these assumptions. Besides, they would find out I wasn’t all that wholesome once they read the rest of my book.
Of course, there are certainly worse things in life than having a wholesome image. In fact, I’ve often found ways to use it to my advantage. I’m pretty sure it was how I got away with skinny-dipping at my friend’s bachelor party without getting my ass kicked by his fiancée. On second thought, I’m not positive she knew I was there . . . and none of us were dumb enough to tell her we all went skinny-dipping . . . hmm, I may still have an ass-kicking coming my way.
Anyway, what aggravated me the most about my critique that night was I knew they had a point. I had created high standards for the men that I dated once I finally raised my standards for myself. I learned to stop chasing after that guy who didn’t want me at all. I learned to stop wasting time believing that guy who kind of wanted me would change his mind if I could just hang in there long enough. I learned my preferences for height, weight, age and level of education didn’t mean squat if he wasn’t equally and emotionally as invested as I was in the relationship. But I learned it all a little too late.
Still and all, at my current age of 44, I believe I am attractive and people regularly assume that I’m at least ten years younger based on my appearance. I work out regularly, (mostly because I am obsessed with food) I am well-educated, and by admission from man number six in my writers’ group, I am intelligent, creative, funny, and wholesome. I’m also an extrovert by nature, so I actively seek out new experiences that keep me engaged with other people. Just last summer I went on a 5-day retreat exclusively for women who wanted to improve their mindset for growth, empowerment and positivity. Considering all this, was I actually asking for so much in return?
Perhaps it’s not my standards, but my expectations that I need to adjust. I don’t look or feel like I’m forty, but whenever I try internet dating I never get much of a response from anyone under the age of fifty. I rarely find myself attracted to men that age given my life experience. If I had ever been married or had children, I might find it easier to bond with men in that age group over our bitter divorces or single parent issues. And yet I’m beyond the age coveted by most men in their late thirties and forties who are contemplating starting a family if they don’t already have one. Add those obstacles to my inclinations towards dating interracially, and it stands to reason why I often feel incompatible with the men that I meet.
I think my writers’ group believed the time had come for me to take what I could get if I was still unhappy being single. Leona’s Love Quest continues not only because I believe she deserves better, but because first and foremost, she is a dreamer. The moment she gives up on that dream is the moment it can no longer come true for her. Furthermore, she is whole and complete and fabulous without a man. She chooses to remain that way rather than exist in an unsatisfying, mediocre relationship she created from her fear of loneliness. If that seemed illogical to the group, then so be it.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.