Saturday Diary / Dipping into online dating

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This single man may have finally entered the 21st century, at least when it comes to love or a variation thereof. Recently I've engaged in my first relationship with a woman that started online.

Always leery of "introduction" services such as eHarmony, match.com, Zoosk or Christian Mingle, I haven't signed up for any of them. But ever since my first successful "fix-up" three years ago with a woman I met through my blues-rock band, I've become a little bit more open to the idea of a third-party connection, whether via human or computer.

Still, I wasn't entirely sure about corresponding intimately with someone I'd not met in person -- a caution vindicated this week by disclosures about former Notre Dame linebacker Manti T'eo's fake girlfriend.

Then Jo came along.

For the past six years I've frequented a social-networking website that alerts you when someone looks up your profile. While its founders don't consider it a matchmaking site, its culture and structure encourage flirting; in fact, these days it displays random women's profile pictures on my personal page.

A couple of months ago, Jo's profile came up on my feed and I decided to check it out. It said that she helps to lead the children's ministry at her church. This could be promising, I thought. And she's certainly cute enough.

The site allows you to earn "lunch money," which you can use to, among other things, buy and send virtual stickers and gifts. I sent her a few of each and she responded in kind. Detecting a hint of chemistry, I sent her a friend request, which she accepted.

Eventually Jo offered me her phone number; I called the next night and she returned the call the day after that. Now we talk at least once a week; our New Year's Day conversation lasted more than three hours.

Jo and I quickly discovered some compatibility. Recently on the site several women young enough to be my daughters if I had children sent me virtual thongs, which I immediately deleted and wrote in a status update that I would continue to do so because I don't appreciate such propositions. She "liked" that.

I was curious as to what about me caught her eye, and she said that she noticed the saxophone in my profile picture.

Jo, an empty-nester with four adult children and three grandchildren, lives near Knoxville, Tenn., where I've never set foot. By day she works for a health conglomerate, and she moonlights as a Mary Kay consultant. She has only one connection to Pennsylvania -- a son, a baker by trade, attended culinary school at Indiana University of Pennsylvania's branch campus in Punxsutawney.

The geographic distance has its good and bad points.

On the one hand, we can maintain appropriate physical boundaries, important to us, and focus on other things, such as our shared religious faith and values, that might make for a lasting relationship whenever the initial ardor cools. I confessed to her, however, that I would love to have taken her to my union's holiday party last month but wouldn't have expected her to make the eight-hour drive.

From far away you also can't witness the other person's quirks -- the little things that may either be endearing or drive you crazy. Even in the most honest correspondence, you reveal only what you choose to or, at most, are aware of. A lack of understanding of that principle is precisely why so many online relationships end up being artificial. Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson nailed it when they wrote, "Ain't nothin' like the real thing, baby."

There also exists uncertainty and insecurity -- Is he/she someone I really want? or Am I doing or saying anything to turn him/her off? -- in any new relationship anyway and, being in our 50s, we both carry baggage (including, in her case, from a divorce nearly six years ago). Those, of course, can be addressed only by time, effort and trust, which can be in short supply.

Also an issue: Letting our hearts get ahead of our heads. I may be taking a risk by even writing this piece due to a possible "jinx factor;" last year, more recently in August, I had two relationships that I thought might be going somewhere but were disintegrating even as I was telling people about them. She said that she's had similar experiences with other men and thus far has mentioned me to few people in her circle.

Once I made noise about driving with her down to Atlanta, a few hours from Knoxville, visiting my high-school church youth group leader who lives there now, and also Georgia Tech, where I spent a year right out of high school. Too much too soon, we agreed. (Remember, we haven't met -- yet.)

Jo recently told me that, whenever she asks her church kids for prayer requests, one girl for the last six months responds that "Miss Jo finds a boyfriend." Of course it remains to be seen whether I represent the answer to that prayer; whatever happens, I suspect I'll be grateful for the experience.

Weeks ago I sent her a message that I liked her, and she said the feeling is mutual. Maybe we both need to hear that because everyone wants to feel appreciated.

Even from eight hours away.

opinion_commentary

Rick Nowlin is a Post-Gazette news assistant (412-263-3871 or rnowlin@ post-gazette.com).


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