Sometimes I think dating’s a lot like Calvinball.
You remember Calvinball, don’t you? It was a game invented by Calvin, the incorrigible gross-out kid artist in Bill Watterson’s cartoon strip “Calvin & Hobbes,” and it was “never the same….always bizarre.” You didn’t need a team or a referee, just two masked players and a ball. Whoever had the ball could make up whatever rules he/she felt like. Once, Rosalyn, Calvin’s much put-upon babysitter, complained (in a slow-motion voice because he had just decreed that everybody had to do everything in slow motion), “Thiisss gaaaame maakes noooo sennnse! It’ssss aasss iffff you’rrrre maaakinnngg iiiiit uuup aaas youuu gooo!”
“Hobbes!” Calvin shrieked to his stuffed-toy tiger sidekick. “She stumbled into the perimeter of wisdom! Run!”
I’m not altogether sure what the perimeter of wisdom in male-female relationships is. But in the years since I started dating again, it has definitely felt like Calvinball, and I’ve definitely been both running and stumbling.
For the first four years after my husband Tim’s death, I didn’t date. I chatted with men at parties, and people dangled the names and numbers of available men in front of me. But I made no attempt at follow-up. I wasn’t ready, and, in my heart of hearts, I knew it.
Then I finally agreed to let friends set me up with various men. I went to a few singles’ dances and even answered some personal ads. And I discovered that dating was a helluva lot different the second time around.
First, there was this code. For instance, “I’ll call you, and we’ll do something” didn’t necessarily mean that: it meant that the guy was bookmarking me for future reference. Second, the rules would change without notice. The guys would begin picking fault with me for the slightest reason – “do everything but kick the tires,” as one woman, a veteran of the dating wars, put it. I left the gathering where I met my first blind date after two hours – a respectable amount of time for an initial meeting, I thought – and the guy was incensed. I wrote another guy a friendly, flirty thank-you note for a gift he’d brought my son, Zeke, and he freaked. A third guy, whom I’d been dating for about a month, got into a huff because I answered the phone a couple of times while we were watching a video. Note: Zeke was staying overnight at my brother’s, and the guy owned the freakin’ video. I escorted him to the door after making a snarky comment. (Not my best but pretty damn good for the time.) Game over.
They were playing Calvinball. And I was feeling like I’d left “Bizarre” a few hundred miles down the road.
Now, I’m not saying I didn’t make my share of mistakes. But they were honest ones, the kind you make when the terrain’s uncertain, you know only a few words of the language, and there are landmines all around. I stuck it out for a time, though, even going out with some guys a second time despite that voice inside my head screaming, “Run, do NOT walk, to the nearest exit!” when we met.
I’ve just been starting to ease back into dating. Nothing major -- just a coffee date here, a movie or a dinner date there. But there’s a difference now. You see, I’ve come to believe that the right guy, like the teacher in the adage, comes to you when you’re ready. Very Zen. And here’s something else I’ve learned: there are very few hard-and-fast rules in this game. Someone who looks perfect on paper – could be all wrong for you. The guy who’s testy on the phone could actually turn out to be more considerate than the one who waited in the bar while you dealt with babysitter issues, invited you to a concert, and never bothered calling to let you know that the concert date had been switched.
No, the only thing you have to guide you is your gut because the game, as Rosalyn observed, makes no sense. Everybody’s wearing a mask – at least in the beginning – and everybody’s trying to get control of that damned ball. You have to make the rules up as you go along.
But the rules have to be fair. You do unto others as you would have them do unto you, not as you have been done unto. And, yes, we have to stop fighting for that ball sometime: the game’s supposed to be playful, not mean-spirited and petty, and relationships shouldn’t be about control, at any rate. And the masks do have to come off eventually if things are ever to become Real.
I may not be in the perimeter of wisdom yet, but I think I’m in what my cartoon friend called “the corollary zone.” Anybody up for a good, clean game of Calvinball? It’s never the same, but it doesn’t have to be bizarre.