OK. I agree with some of you right off the bat. What’s a 70-year-old guy doing giving advice about dating and courtship? In words made famous by the man we now call president, “Come on, man!”
Agreed in part. I am “old, and grey, and full of sleep,” as the poet Yeats once wrote of a former heartthrob, and though I’m not yet King Lear doddering through a wilderness of memories, I am well on my way.
On the other hand, I’ve been around the block a few times, I’ve got one foot in the past and one in the present, and like a lot of codgers my age, I’m always ready to shoot out suggestions to the younger set, though to be frank, they rarely ask me about anything of import.
Anyway, let’s look at the dating game.
It’s early March 1976, and I’m sitting in the Harvard Gardens, a pub and restaurant in Boston. It was nowhere near Harvard, and back then it was anything but a garden, but the beer was cheap, and the establishment was an easy walk from my fifth-floor walkup room.
I was working in The Old Corner Bookstore that year, managed then by Doubleday and now defunct, and in the evenings I was scribbling away on a novel. I wrote by hand because burglars had broken into my place and had stolen my typewriter. Many evenings I would then stroll down Beacon Hill to Harvard Gardens for a beer or a Black Russian. There the working class from the Back of the Hill mingled with medical personnel from Massachusetts General Hospital, which was across the street.
On this particular night, I was sitting with my acquaintance Jimmy J., a window washer, when I remarked that one of the three nurses at the next table was pretty. Jimmy sent a drink to her—he should have sent one to each nurse, but he was glassy-eyed with beer—and they invited us to join them. The nurse and I talked, and shortly after midnight, they got up to go home. “Go after her,” Jimmy J. told me, and I hurried out the door onto Cambridge Street, where the wind and cold were butcher knives on the flesh. I ran after her and said, “I don’t usually do this, but could I have your phone number?”
She replied, “I don’t usually do this, but here it is,” and she wrote it out on a piece of paper from her purse.
Just then a little old man—either a drunk or an angel, or both—appeared, put one arm over each of our shoulders, and said: “Give the guy a chance! Give the guy a chance!”
The next day, I called and asked her out on a date, and Kris gave me a chance. Within 18 months, we were married. Together we had four children, loved each other, quarreled, laughed a lot, and together faced hardships and experienced various adventures until her death 26 years later.
Times have changed.
Google “Is dating dead?” and numerous sites pop up declaring it so. Aspirations for marriage and a family have changed. Hanging out and hooking up have become the new norm.
In her insightful online article “The Two Biggest Reasons Dating Is Dead,” Suzanne Venker writes of today’s young people that they understand sex, “but how to communicate, how to date, and how to love, well, it’s all Greek to them.”
She blames the death of dating on lowered female sexual standards—“Women don’t gain power by being promiscuous—they lose it”—and the failure of both sexes to aspire to marriage, which is a primary purpose of dating.
To these, I would add the confusion today about sex and gender, particularly among college students and university graduates. A society that wants women to become more like men and men more like women throws dating out the window.
But suppose you want to revive dating? Suppose you like the idea of courtship? And suppose, as Venker writes, you really don’t understand how to go about it?
Here are some tips that might help.
Say No to Texting
The inspiration for this article came from a wife and mother whose single female friends meet men who seem unable or unwilling to ask them out. “None of the males make a move,” one of them said. Another woman, a former student of mine who graduated several years ago from Appalachian State University, bright and attractive, told me that in her first two years in college, several young men had asked her out by text, but never face to face.
Let’s say you meet the friend of a friend at a supper. You find her attractive and interesting and want to get to know her better. You get her phone number from your friend, and you text her, reintroducing yourself and asking her if she’d like to have a glass of wine together.
When you text to ask a woman out, you are sending a message that you’re either too intimidated or too cowardly to make a phone call. Either ask her out in person or if circumstances render that impossible, call her.
And for the ladies: Remember my angel on Cambridge Street. “Give the guy a chance,” he said, and you might consider following that advice. That young man you met at your friend’s dinner might have struck you as nerdy or shy, he might be a bumbler as I was, but he also might be the man who will make you happy, your white knight in disguise.
Two years after my wife’s death, I signed up with an online dating service. Over the next few years, I used that service from time to time, and met some nice women, others with whom I quickly proved incompatible, and one who was crazy.
Eventually, I developed a dislike for this electronic matchmaking and closed my account. Scrolling through pictures and profiles made me feel too much like a judge at a cattle show, and two of the women I dated told me they shared that same sentiment when looking at men.
Along the way, I did learn a few things about this modern method of dating. When you put together your profile, tell the truth. If you’re a smoker, say so. If you’re unemployed, admit it. Report your correct age, and don’t post 10-year-old photographs of yourself as if they were taken yesterday. Once you open a correspondence with a “match,” arrange to meet as soon as possible, otherwise you are avoiding the personal touch and wasting time.
So there you are, out on a first date, seated opposite each other at a table in a nice restaurant. Your date is easy on the eyes, has a pleasant demeanor and a lovely smile, and the evening looks promising.
And then you open your mouth and begin talking.
As you blather away about your work at the office, your education, your sessions with a counselor for your various neuroses, your trips to Europe, and so on, you fail to notice the glazed look creeping into the eyes of the person opposite you. You’re not only behaving like a narcissist, but you’re also missing the whole point of the evening.
You’re there to share with that other person. You’re there to find out about each other, to listen as well as speak. And I mean really listen. If your date says her father died two months ago, don’t ask her what sort of music she enjoys.
Another tip, especially for guys: Play the gentleman. Offer to pay for supper. Show some manners while you’re eating. If the sidewalks outside are slippery, offer her a hand. When you arrive at her car, open the door for her.
Yes, I know these gestures grate against today’s ideas of sexual equality, but I don’t care a fig for that. Most women—yes, even the young ones—appreciate a gentleman.
On the Dance Floor
In the movie “Kate & Leopold,” an Englishman from the 19th century is transported through time to modern-day New York City. There Leopold meets Kate, a woman disappointed in love, and her bumbling brother, Charlie.
Leopold’s etiquette, his antique views on love and courtship, his pursuit of Kate, and the advice he gives to Charlie about ways to win a woman’s heart might serve as a primer on dating, even in today’s cultural chaos. Leopold teaches Charlie, for example, what flowers to buy for Patrice, gets him her phone number, and schools him before he calls her on what he should say.
It’s an old dance, dating, a waltz of courtship, love, and romance. As Charlie and his sister discover, the manners, customs, and understood rules of that dance don’t inhibit relationships, but actually help build them. Robert Frost once said of writing free verse, it’s “like playing tennis with the net down.” The same is true of “free love.”
The immediate goal of dating as an adult is to get to know another person. If familiarity develops into affection, and if affection deepens into love, then marriage should be next on the agenda. Several people of my acquaintance, young and old, have often drifted in and out of relationships, have lived with a partner for months and years, broken up, repeated that same behavior, and eventually, as Suzanne Venker points out, they often ended up jaded and cynical about love.
Author Jefferson Bethke wrote: “Dating without the intent of marrying is like going to the grocery store with no money. You either leave unhappy or take something that isn’t yours.”
If you want marriage and a family, quit listening to the cultural gurus of our time, go retro, and try old-fashioned dating.
A final thought: Always bear in mind the words of songwriter Steve Forbert, “You cannot win if you do not play.”
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust on Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning as I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.