Salon.com recently posted an excerpt from my new book, Highs in the Low Fifties: How I Stumbled Through the Joys of Single Living. It comes from the end of the book and describes the last date I went on before realizing that the manhunt was getting me nowhere. It was with a guy I call "William" who started the evening by telling me that he was jobless, homeless, penniless and living with his mom, and ended it by asking me, "How bout some touching?"
The post, headlined "Oh, yay, I'm single in my 50s," has 504 comments and counting, and many of these people are really angry at me. I have been called a "blindingly insensitive," "genuinely cruel," and a "heartless bitch" who "deserves to be alone and lonely." Many fault me for crass materialism, others for the act of writing humorously about a bad date. A part of the dialogue discusses whether I deserved to be date raped because I allowed him into my house on a first encounter.
One poster analyzes my actions step by step and gives a list of fourteen things I did wrong -- the gist of it is that I should have shut down the date immediately once I had any doubts about its success, rather than letting the night go on to its dismal conclusion. Another suggests that I "had already been calculating that this date would make a great Salon article, but only if she had the obligatory scene in it of her rebuffing the cloddish guy's pathetic moves on her. She ought to at least send the poor fellow a few bucks of the fee she was paid, sounds as if he could use it."
Actually, hon, there was no fee to share. The excerpt was a promotional thing for my book, which you often don't get paid for. Too bad for me, not one of the posters even seems to have noticed that this is a book excerpt -- nobody mentions any desire to read it.
Nonetheless, some have taken the time to do a little Googling (probably into the Amazon descriptions of my previous books), and offer up my backstory for their attacks: "Winik is a hot mess with bad judgment. Her first husband was gay, she knew and married him anyway. He died of AIDS after plowing his field of oats. I could care less about her dating clusterf*cks."
Occasionally the voice of sanity speaks. "It always amazes me how, in the area of interpersonal relations, people (men and women both) are so willing to extrapolate from a single data point. "
So... what to make of all this?
It's kind of cool to see the number 504 next to the word "Comments." But when the feedback is this negative, it's almost a little scary. The last time anything I wrote got a reaction like this, it was immediately after 9/11 when I wrote an editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer against bombing Afghanistan. Unfortunately they had published my e-mail with the piece, and the stream of hateful messages that poured into my Inbox was so intense that I have not felt comfortable speaking out on political topics since.
This time, I'm not as shocked by the tone of the comments. This off-the-charts style of discourse in comments is par for the course. Apparently the anonymity of the posting process inspires people to let loose their inner savage. They not only address their rage at the author, they go after each other with equal vehemence. My posters call each other things like "misogynist troll" and "screechy harridan." A very good article summarizing some of the research on disinhibition is "Comments Are The Radioactive Waste of the Web," by Irish journalist Mic Wright in The Telegraph. (The piece has 1660 comments.)
As for what the comments are actually saying, part of it is right and part of it is wrong.
Right? Well, yeah. Many people take me to task for making fun of my date in print -- and here I am not completely in disagreement with them. The dating stories in Highs in the Low Fifties are pretty funny -- if not to those angry Salon commenters -- but telling them involved writing quite intimately about people I'd met only once or twice. I still had their emails, however, and decided to contact them to solicit feedback. Hello, you may not remember me, but I've written a book about our relationship. Most of the guys were surprisingly nice, sheepish, apologetic, and impressed by my detailed memory. Their responses are included in a final chapter in the book called "Where Are They Now?"
So what did "William" think about his chapter? Confession: he was one of the few I didn't contact. Partly because I knew what I'd written was a little cruel, and I'd have to take out some of the funniest parts to show it to him. Also I was loath to re-open contact. Instead, I hoped all the hopes one does in this situation -- he'll never see it, he won't recognize himself, he won't mind. I continue to hope this. What's more, I hope he's gotten a job, a house, a girlfriend, and a book deal for his New Age novel. Let the universe make it up to him for me.
I consider posting this mea culpa on Salon, but thought better of pouring fuel on the fire. These people have lots of criticism for my dating etiquette, but they could use a refresher in manners themselves.
Almost all the other criticisms they lob at me are unfounded. I am absolutely not the type who is looking for a rich guy -- rather I am a cockeyed optimist and a connoisseur of odd ducks. This one just didn't have the tail feathers I go for.
When people are single at my age, there's often a reason for it. Marriage hasn't worked out for us, usually partly our own fault, and even tragedy in which one is blameless leaves its scars. Personality traits and circumstances that seem fixable or not much of a problem in one's youth, everything from anger issues to insolvency and joblessness to various habits and addictions, by now have dug in. We boomers tend to unpack our baggage early because really, it's been to the dry cleaners many times and that stain won't come out.
Instead of courtship, we have more of an anti-courtship process. It's not about creating seductive illusions, it's about seeing who will put up with what. We're a little jaded, we're running out of time, and if it doesn't work out, oh well. At least it's a funny story. I'd like to hear the one William tells about me.