The Kids are All Right
by Violetta dei’Contorni

Kids aren’t always the most alluring fashion accessory, not right away. Unless, of course, you’re Meg Ryan, and Nora Ephron created you; in that case, your smartass kid will probably find you a new mate, and he’ll probably look like Tom Hanks. But here in mascaraspace, where we live from paycheck to paycheck, children frequently aren’t allowed in bars, because they smoke, and it’s hard to pick up a guy in the cafeteria line at Fresh Choice. ’Round here, if you sidle up to some Dad-like dude and ask if he knows if the beets are pickled, he’ll scurry right on over to the potato-decorating station and shelter himself under the skirts of his bacon-bit-sprinkling partner and their three tuber-bearing offspring.

Waaay back when I was married, I used to envy my single girlfriends—dating seemed like fun! All my single mom friends were seeking partners online, and I figured I’d be pretty good at it: I’m attracted to nice men, I write well, I have a bunch of deceptively fabulous pictures of myself that were taken when I was madly in love and hadn’t eaten for eight months. What were they all kvetching about? Well, wouldn’t you know, I found myself single again before you could figure out how to pronounce Raif Fiennes. Ralpf. Raiff. Whatever. Single, with a little tax deduction. Like single, but not.

One chilly night, my comrade-in-single-parenting Suzy and I hunkered down at her nice warm iMac to do some serious cyber-cruisin.’ Nearby, a pair of precocious 10-year-old boys that looked vaguely familiar gathered ’round a crackling video game. Are you two shopping for boyfriends again? they chimed.

Suzy and I looked at one another and shrugged: Who are these kids? They weren’t here a minute ago.

The people you meet at online venues—and often the venues themselves—generally come in two flavors. Not men and woman. Not gay and straight. Not married and unmarried. As far as I’m concerned, there are (1) those who disguise themselves, and (2) those who reveal themselves. With an eye for someone that might potentially hang out with me and my son, I want to meet a man who is pret-a-porter as soon as the relationship starts to sizzle. I don’t want him to have to lose 60 pounds, get a divorce, or have a face transplant. I want him NOW. If he says he has three cats, I want to sneeze as soon as I meet him. (I’m getting that itchy-inner-ear-thing just thinking about it.) It may happen after eighteen months of slow, deliciously deepening affection or the very night we discover one anothers’ profiles. But what I am looking for is an actual human being whose true self—whose truer self, in fact—is represented by the words in his profile, enriched by his email, and deepened by his instant messaging. The realer the better.

It has long been my contention that meeting online can be significantly more intimate that meeting someone in a public setting like a bar or even a large party. When you meet someone at a bar, they are on their best—or worst—behavior. They are dressed by their ex-wives, or their ex-boyfriend who turned out to be gay. In any case, they are festive. Consider this: They may be like that only three days a year; the rest of the time they lie around their messy brown-shag-carpeted apartment with their T-shirts tucked into their underpants drinking tepid wine coolers from the bottle, talking to hairballs, and watching Paint Your Wagon over and over. How would you know this from meeting them in a bar?

Of course, separating the sweet from the crass is always a risky business. People appear one way in their profile, and another in their email. And if you chat with them online, their personality is again wildly skewed by their typing speed. I typed:

The central motif of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, along with that distinctive Hornby-esque atmosphere that brilliantly reflects the sensibilities of modern working-class London, was lost in the film version. They couldn’t possibly achieve that kind of irony in Chicago.

Lol came the reply. For a guy, that’s often the long answer. Initially, I was put off by these inappropriately merry, seemingly lazy and uncaring replies, but guys, and sometimes gals, often just don’t know how to tickle the plastics. If your typing speed is 140 words a minute, and theirs is 5, they may still be quite worthwhile, but you must be patient. Waiting for them to locate the ampersand might be a perfect time to help your kids with their homework. Go wash a few dishes. Eventually you should get a sense of whether they’re on the level or not.

Or maybe you should just talk on the phone.

The phone, of course, is something else again. The hunky he-man that IMs like he wants to bop you over the head and drag you off to his cave sounds just like Judy Holiday in Born Yesterday. The sultry blonde who punctuates her email with exotic manga-esque emoticons probably barks like Danny DeVito. Unless anyone’s voice is really a total turnoff, hang in there, and wait ’til you meet them in person; that’s the fun part. Then you can finally put the pieces together, and run like the house is on fire.

Just kidding.

If you have kids, this is crucial. One dad I know was all excited about his impending meeting with his online goth-gal. She not only had a spectacular cleavage but she was interesting: she was a forensic crime investigator. He was so enchanted with her, he talked about nothing else—even to his two kids!—for weeks. He felt he was preparing them to meet someone who might be their new Stepmommy. Of course, about 12 hours before her ETA, he learned that she wasn’t a forensic anything, she didn’t live in Florida, she had no lower back tattoo and she’d even invented the flight number. The whole family was devastated. I’d hate to have to explain this to my kids.

This is not to dissuade you from trusting anyone you meet online. Quite the contrary. What I am saying is that when kids are involved, focus on folks who are more likely to tell too much of the truth than those who use the screen to, er, use as a screen. Fantasy has its place online, but IMHO, truth is not only stranger but sexier than fiction, almost every time. With that kind of detail, I bet that ersatz forensic vixenette was actually more interesting than the fanciful TV character she created. Fatter, perhaps, but certainly more interesting. So she was married. Have you ever noticed how people that seem the most ordinary are often the weirdest? In a good way.

In Return to Love, Yenta-Guru Marianne Williamson talks about enjoying the process of dating. Wait! Don’t touch that mouse. She says that everyone essentially just wants to be loved and listened to. Try it. Love the one you’re with—for, like, half an hour. Some really great people take a while to know. Interview them; make it fun. Everyone has a story to tell; find out what theirs is. If you can tolerate that awful elliptical machine for 20 minutes you can certainly listen to an explanation of Cascading Style Sheets for 45 seconds. OK, 30 seconds. Maybe 10 seconds.

Above all, remember what your mother told you: be interested not interesting.

If you approach it this way, you’ll be much more able to tell if a person online is telling the truth or not. Why would anyone pose as a geologist from Edmonton, Alberta who has insomnia, imminent gall bladder surgery, 60 extra pounds, and is secretly in love with his postal carrier? Or a sweet young woman from Minnesota who makes mushroom-shaped candles studded with sparkly sugar-spun fairies, who produces The Mushroom-shaped Candles with Sparkly Sugar-spun Fairies Podcast while her young twins are taking their nap? As comedians who are fond of saying you can’t make this stuff up are fond of saying, you can’t make this stuff up.

Violetta dei’Contorni, aka Aunt Violet, is a graphic artist, cartoonist and writer. She lives in San Francisco with her son, and is most known for her cartoon advice column, Ask Aunt Violet. She is addicted to the truth. And chocolate.