One of the first classes I took in college, long ago at North Texas State University in Denton, had something to do with Aesthetics. A philosophical look at Art. I can’t quite remember what the class was about. At the time, was known as a music school that focused on jazz, and was one of Playboy’s top ten party schools. Denton had produced more Miss Texases than any town in the state – but I always thought that being the setting of Rocky Horror Picture Show was infinitely more important that anything connected with Miss Texas. The blend of prissy sorority girls and music majors on acid made for a lively, entertaining environment, but I can hardly remember anything I learned as an undergrad, except I learned about Conceptual Art in that philosophy class. I remember it because I really liked to whole concept of conceptual art.
I liked the concept of Match dot com, too, but that was years later. By the time I first ventured onto Match dot com, I had run off to New York to marry a Yankee, learned from a neighbor that the child we produced was Jewish enough for Hitler, been medicated into a coma to survive suicidal depression and gone through a messy divorce during which my ex-husband, whom I fondly call Buzz Kill, claimed that I was an unfit mother due to my frivolous spending and serial infidelities. I can state confidently for the record that those infidelities and indiscretions occurred after I filed for divorce and Buzz Kill wouldn’t move out, so I don’t consider myself an adulteress. It took two years to convince Buzz Kill that I was serious about a divorce – it might have taken longer but after he went through the trash and found a copy of the story about the time I went to a by the hour hotel with a black man whose dick was the size of a Maglite, he finally went home to his mother. That’s all water under the bridge, though, and only relevant to this discussion because I had reached “a certain age,” and level of experience by the time I decided I liked the concept of Match dot com.
I got much of that experience on Ashley Madison, a dating site for married people. I was intrigued by the concept of ordering up an affair on the internet as easily as I could order Tee Shirts from Talbots. After the divorce was final, I left Ashley Madison behind and went in search of a more substantive relationship on Match dot com. Results were less than encouraging, but I liked the concept of internet dating so much that over the next couple of years, I signed up for the cheapest membership on four separate occasions. Each time I wound up getting an attitude about the check lists that members complete to define their criteria for prospective Dates. It was bad enough that guys with big beer guts called their own body type Average and invariably said their Match would be Slim or Athletic. Half the time, those same men posted photos of themselves sitting in convertibles as if they were driving the Viagramobile. It got worse once I turned 50 and discovered that men who were older than me thought I was too old to date. Within a few days, I wound up deleting over 1,200 men within 5 miles of my zip code who were pushing 60 and nixed dating women who were 49.
I finally lightened up about the age thing because I had to admit that I had some trivial preferences of my own. Besides, all of us were clicking little boxes on a checklist. Match dot com was like a quiz with multiple choice answers for religion, politics, kids, body type and income level. Ashley Madison asked about practices like anal sex, bondage and threesomes, foursomes or moresomes. A checklist is a checklist, however, and all the dating sites have them. It’s arbitrary and artificial in my mind because when you meet someone attractive at a party, you never take out a clipboard and run through the checklist before striking up a conversation. You don’t hand anyone a paragraph describing yourself in 2500 characters or less, either, as if you’re a travel brochure, real estate listing or trade school. As much as I enjoyed the creative challenge of developing a profile that was both accurate and attractive, it’s problematic when your opening line reads: In some parts of Texas, I’m known as The Cunt from Hell.
You’re not allowed to say Cunt on Match dot com.
The last time I ventured out into the wide world of internet dating, I was determined to keep an open mind and went out for coffee with the first guy who asked. I might have overlooked him being nearly 10 years older than he said in his profile, but his conversation suggested that he had not been himself since the Tet Offensive. It would have been nice to blame the aggravating nature of my mystery dates on the local dating pool, but I was ready to admit that all the unavailable, damaged men I met pointed straight to my own ambivalence about relationships. I wanted a man in my life, but I wasn’t so sure about letting a man in my house.
Plenty of people have found satisfying relationships from internet dating, but I suspect they looked at the people they met as human beings. I tended to view them as contestants on The Price is Right, and wound up dating resumes – people who looked great on paper, but rarely made it through the preliminary round of interviews. Like Abilene Steve, who also came from Texas and was one of the first camera men on MTV, or the Bartender from Boston who said he was the model for Woody Harrelson’s character on Cheers. Then there was a 60 year old with the Emmy Awards who was surprised that I wouldn’t have unprotected sex without a 90 day exclusive. I decided to forget internet dating once and for all and create a great life for myself as I prepared to enter The Grandma Zone.
The next thing you know, I had plane tickets to the west coast and a date at Burning Man. Right around my 54th birthday, the opportunity to go to Burning Man fell into my lap. I had been at loose ends for months because I had pretty much accomplished everything I set out to do back when I decided to get a divorce. I loved my job, and had settled in a cute little income-restricted coop with prewar details within walking distance of work. My kid had finally figured out how to go to college, and spent as much time at his father’s house as mine – so I had plenty of time and the resources to pursue my own interests. I had had my Mary Tyler Moore moment, and when tossed my hat into the air, it came back to my hands asking, “Now What?”
Going to Burning Man seemed like a sensible thing to do. I’d been fascinated by the event ever since I first heard about it back in the 90s, but never once considered going – not only because I was married and had to tend to my kid, but more to the point – there is no Black Rock Hilton or Room Service. I hadn’t thought about Burning Man in years. Then a fellow I’d known on Facebook ever since Occupy issued a blanket invitation to join his theme camp on the main drag, complete with private porta-potties and showers. There was a spot in his Air Conditioned RV. I figured it was as close to the Black Rock Hilton as a person could get, and as it happened, he was straight, single, about my age and unencumbered by little kids or ex-wives.
His resume could have been better. After a stint in Rehab for cocaine, he worked a series of meaningless jobs before a layoff became extended unemployment. He currently lived with his parents, driving a cab for beer money – but I was done dating resumes. Besides, he had been a DJ in Dallas back when Molly was legal and was pretty cute in a bear-ish sort of way. I liked idea of flying across the country to Burning Man to sleep in a tin can in the middle of the desert with some guy I hadn’t met in real life. The scenario was beautifully consistent with an event that may very well be the biggest conceptual art project in history.
Ever the good graduate student, I read the Burning Man Survival Guide, the First Timers’ Guide and began monitoring some Facebook groups to see what I was getting into before I started sending money on PayPal. One of the first things I discovered on the Burning Man website was a document outlining the Ten Principles. The founders and the organization, which everybody calls The Borg, developed the principles in 2004 to define and defend Burning Man culture. They feature concepts like Radical Self-Expression, Radical Inclusion, Leave No Trace, and Immediacy. However, Decommodification got my attention because there seemed to be an inherent disconnect between the cost of attending the event and the statement:
. . . our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation (burningman.com).
It seemed to me that the ticket price, as well as the associated expenses for travel, supplies and protective gear automatically turned Burning Man itself into a commodity. Everyone makes choices about how to spend discretionary income – assuming there is any discretionary income in the first. The process of making those decisions involves identifying how certain variables will meet specific individual needs.
Not so different from dating criteria on Match dot com. In both cases, a person looks at the variables to determine if the commodity satisfies personal criteria before buying into a concept – whether it’s a membership to a website or allocating resource for a vacation. Burning Man’s identity is well established, and while people have different perspectives on the experience, the literature is designed to inform rather than entice. Match profiles are definitely supposed to be attractive and inviting. So are resumes for that matter. Information is being presented to a reader who will determine whether to take the plunge or not. Through the act of making that presentation, the person commodifies his or her own self.
Stretching commodities out into the larger culture, we find that soldiers are commodities to the military, workers are disposable commodities to corporations and our elected officials are bought and sold by the United States Chamber of Commerce. Advertisements and Public Relations masquerading as TV news encourage us to consume at such an alarming rate that islands made from our plastic debris are swirling on the top of the oceans. The cost of doing business and has led to endless war and ecocide. We search for soul mates using checklists on Match dot com, but when jerks in viagramobiles want to date slender young women, it doesn’t mean I’m too old and too fat to date. It means we’re not a Match.
I’m not sure if me and this guy with the air conditioned RV are a match either, but I am sure that any time we use somebody else’s criteria to determine if we are successful or lovable or what it means to be old – it’s like eating genetically modified shit on a sandwich.
Looking around the world today, we see the old order passing as we step into a new paradigm. Instead of selling our hearts and thoughts like commodities, we have the power to turn to each other and work together as a community. For me, that means taking something Gloria Steinem said and adapting it to myself. This is what Old looks like. It’s exhilarating, liberating and a bit unpredictable – like an existential performance piece in the greatest conceptual art installation of our time.