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Episode Transcript: Pandemic Field Notes

LAURA STASSI:  This is “Dating While Gray: The grown-up’s guide to love, sex, and relationships.” I'm Laura Stassi.

When Season 1 of this podcast launched two years ago, who could have imagined that a contagious virus would basically shut down the entire world? With millions of people getting sick and dying, looking for a romantic partner seemed trivial, even dangerous. But as the year progressed, I started hearing from older daters who had decided to safely and cautiously look for new love. Many of them were lonely, tired of riding out the global health crisis on their own, and feeling like romance was so important to overall well-being that it was worth taking calculated risks.

When Season 2 launched last year, the coronavirus was still raging of course, but the vaccines were rolling out. So there was hope. The world started opening up again. And for a time there, it looked like the worst was behind us.

SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC

LAURA: That's from a summertime wedding I attended in Key Largo, Florida. A nice hotel room, glow-in-the dark beach balls, drinking and dancing with millennials … good times! But now here we are starting Season 3 of the podcast. It's 2022, and Covid variants are causing infection rates and hospitalizations to rise again. Yes, this news is discouraging. But I'm among about 84 percent of Americans 50 and older who are fully vaccinated. And I'm boostered! So I decided I could safely venture back out there. And on this episode, I'm sharing my field notes along the gray dating journey.

I live in the Washington, D.C., metro area. So I've come across a lot of lawyers and government contractors, retired military members … But never did I expect to meet someone like this guy.

SOUNDBITE OF OPERA SINGING

LAURA: That's Michael. Yes, the D.C.-area gray dating pool also has performers swimming in it. Michael is a retired opera singer. He's in his late 60s, has grown kids, and has been married and divorced twice. He's been single now for about a dozen years. And our paths crossed when we both signed up for a virtual speed dating event advertised for people 50 and older.

Each man met each woman one at a time in a private breakout room. And then we chatted for about six minutes before getting switched out. And then afterward, if someone had sparked our interest, we could email them securely through the speed dating website. And that's what happened with Michael and me. He emailed me after the event. I responded right away. And then we met over Zoom a couple of times. Then Michael and I decided to meet in real life for a socially distanced hike on the Virginia side of Great Falls. And that's when we learned we were not a match. But hey, at least we made an effort. And Michael agreed later to talk with me for the show. I wanted to find out more about his love search and how he felt about speed dating.

MICHAEL: 03:30 One of the biggest issues is the fact that I was an independent contractor all my life; I sang opera. And so I didn't acquire wealth or a really good retirement plan. You know, I get a little pension, I get Social Security, I do fine. But I'm never going to be able to just sit back in my rocking chair and relax. I'm always gonna have to work all my life -- which is fine, because I can always sing. I can always teach voice. I can always do something. But a lot of women of my age or a lot of women that are in the age group that I would date, especially on the dating sites -- it's all, you know, I'm free to travel. I'm ready to go, you know. And I'm still working. You know, I'm still -- I you know, in retirement, I'm still active. I have to pay my bills.

LAURA: 04:17

Yeah. So are you saying that they're not looking for, you know, sugar daddies necessarily, but they're looking for a partner to enjoy retirement and you are working, and you don't have the -- but you do have the, I guess the financial wherewithal to take care of yourself.

MICHAEL: Yeah, yeah.

LAURA: Yeah. So I want to talk a little bit, if you don't mind, about our communication online…

MICHAEL: No...

LAURA: Virtual speed dating in that, we did virtual speed dating and I remember, you thought I had blonde hair, and you did have gray hair. And then the first meeting we did after that virtual speed dating, I had better lighting so you could see my hair was gray. And meantime, what had you done? Do you remember?

MICHAEL: 05:08

I probably colored my hair. Yes, I color my hair. When I was singing frequently. I mean, I colored my hair all the time. I went gray real early like in my -- but, but not pretty gray. Like my daughters even say, you know, that you need to color your hair.

LAURA:   05:24

Was it -- that's what I was gonna -- I thought you had told me that your daughter told you you needed to color your hair after our -- so had you been coloring it before that virtual speed dating?

MICHAEL: Pretty much.

LAURA: Okay, okay. I thought it was a new thing.

MICHAEL: No, no, no. I – and I still - and I color you know, I still keep a color. And when I get it just, it's not a pretty gray. It's, you know, it's …

LAURA:   05:44

I’m not judging. Yeah, I can totally understand. It took me a long time before I decided, I'm gonna go gray. I'm gonna do it. And I think as long as I wear mascara and lipstick, I'm gonna be okay. So I totally --

MICHAEL: But your hair’s a pretty color gray.

LAURA: So -- thank you. Are you -- is there any part of you that is coloring your hair to attract younger women?

MICHAEL: 06:09

Oh, no, not really. I think I've given up giving up on -- I mean, younger. I don't know what younger. I think sometimes that women in their, their 50s or late 40s is not too young for me. But I think that they think that I'm too old for them. But I feel I'm, I'm younger than my 68 years. I'm just not attracted to women who -- not let themselves go. But as women age, they get a little heavier, they don't stay in shape. And I don't want a bodybuilder but it's just somebody that likes to be active and is younger than their years. You know, it's totally mental, because you get online and I see some women that are 63, 62, 65. And they look like my grandmother.

You know, I'm not shallow, but I keep myself in shape. Because I still want love, I still want passion. I still want sex, you know, and there are a lot of women out there that are very attractive, that are older. But for some reason that you know, the ones that I'm interested in just sometimes just aren’t interested in me. So I envy guys that are married for a long time or with somebody for a long time. And they've grown old together and maybe you know they've both gained weight, or maybe she just has gained weight and he still loves her as much as he ever did and his passion – I envy that.

LAURA:   07:42

Growing old with someone, whether they've gained weight or not. Sometimes it's -- how do I say this? Okay, sometimes when I look at a bunch of pictures, I feel like Oh god, I'm looking at a bunch of old men. Because in my mind, I don't look that old.

MICHAEL: Yeah, you feel exact same way.

LAURA: Yeah. And so I'm thinking oh, what are they gonna look at me thinking, oh, look at that old lady. I think a lot of us do feel like we, you know, like, I just turned 61. It's like, that sounds so much older than I feel.

MICHAEL: Oh, yeah.

LAURA: But maybe somebody does look at me and go, oh, there's a woman in her 60s. But sometimes I think maybe it's -- maybe the problem is people don't understand what age looks like. You know what I mean?

MICHAEL: Oh, yeah.

LAURA: Like I, I saw the movie “Mrs. Doubtfire,” which was in the early ‘90s. I saw that, you know, back then, and I saw it for the second time just recently. And do you know Mrs. Doubtfire? They made her --she was supposed to be 60 years old. And you know what? I'm older than Mrs. Doubtfire!

Back again to something that kind of struck me. So we met and then we had a conversation after that. And you said something like, let's just get the deal-breakers off the table. Now that I do think about it, I think I wouldn't want to be with a smoker. Because that's like bad for your health. You know, your breath, your clothes. And you asked me, do you mean tobacco or …

MICHAEL: Or pot?

LAURA: Yeah.

MICHAEL: 09:12

You know, everybody's got skeletons and deal-breakers but there are things that you know, when you all of a sudden like somebody you know, then you start to worry. And I like to get stoned. I like to smoke pot.

LAURA:   09:28

Because you talked about having sex while stoned.

MICHAEL: Yeah.

LAURA: I'm wondering the wisdom of revealing to a virtual stranger, that you like to have sex while you're stoned?

MICHAEL: 09:40

Yeah, that was probably a mistake.

LAURA:   09:43

And let's also say you have a medical marijuana card. Right? You're not doing anything illegal?

MICHAEL: 09:48

No. Sometimes I get a little insecure about the fact that an attractive woman on these dating sites has so many more options at her disposal than a man does. It's just hard to find that initial spark.

LAURA: Yeah.

MICHAEL: It's very difficult, especially in this atmosphere. I mean, it's clearing up a little bit. They used to have these, you know, singles dances for, you know, the older crowd, you know, and that was fun. It was fun to go to that. And every now and then, you know, you look around, you know, anybody here? No. But it's just, it's more difficult. I try to use all my tools to impress a woman as far as I can impress her. You know, you know, opera singers, not like rock stars don't have groupies. But there are some, you know, that are influenced by your - you know, they see you on stage and that type of thing. Well, now the only women to see me on stage are about 75 years old.

LAURA: Older women!

MICHAEL: Like I said, I don’t mind older women. I don't mind. I like women my age. I like, you know, and I like strong women. It's just a matter of, you know, it's just, it's got to be, you know, it's got to be the right situation.

LAURA:   11:13

Okay, some of what Michael said may have been difficult to hear. Maybe it was just an awkward way of trying to define chemistry. I mean, I don't think I've let myself go. And Michael didn't feel a spark for me, which is fine, because I didn't feel a spark for him either. Chemistry, it can be elusive. I do appreciate Michael’s candor, and I appreciate his singing talent. I love to sing in the shower. And I love to dance. Could venturing out to dance solo lead to meeting a romantic partner? That's next.

SOUNDBITE OF BACKGROUND NOISE

LAURA: I'm in the ballroom backroom at Glen Echo Park, an arts and cultural Center in Maryland, just over the D.C. line. And I'm waiting for a swing dance lesson to start. I've heard from a lot of people that Glen Echo is the place to go for people who like to dance. You pay about 20 bucks for an hour lesson in swing or waltz or maybe salsa, and then stay for the social dance. You don't need prior experience. And most important, you don't need a partner. Everyone who comes gets the opportunity to dance with everyone else.

This particular swing dance session was one of the first events that started back up again at Glen Echo after the COVID-19 vaccines rolled out. Attendance was limited and when we signed up, we had to show proof of vaccination. You know, I started out really excited about this event, even went online and bought cute red dance sneakers. But by the time I arrived, I was having second thoughts. Glen Echo is huge. A lot of buildings, acres of green space. It took me a while to find the right parking lot. And then I had no idea where to go. Thankfully, I didn't spend too much time wandering around before I met Ellen.

ELLEN: 13:23 I was married for 20 plus years, and my husband passed away about 10 years ago.

LAURA:   13:29

Sorry. And we ran into each other at the parking lot at Glen Echo. And I have to say, I was already feeling very -- what's the word?

ELLEN: Nervous?

LAURA: More like …

ELLEN: Apprehensive.

LAURA: Apprehensive. That's a good word. And I probably would have left if I hadn't run into you. So tell me about your experiences with dancing.

ELLEN: 13:53

I started dancing -- I mean, I've always been a dancer and I've always loved to dance and have danced in college and danced throughout -- when I could get an opportunity to dance. But after my husband died, I decided I was going to take swing dance lessons. And I had heard about Glen Echo as a place to go to dance. But I wasn't ready yet. I figured I should take some lessons first, which was very smart. And I took a beginning class and really got into it, and then made my debut at Glen Echo. It was fun. It was a lot of fun.

LAURA:   14:30

So did you -- you took the classes unpartnered?

ELLEN: 14:33 Yes, yes. You don't need a partner. You don't need a partner. That's what's so great about it because you come and you line up. The women and the men, or the leaders and the followers. And of course you could switch if you want to be a leader versus a follower. And then you pair up for a little bit of dancing and then you rotate, one of the leaders or the followers rotate. So you're always switching partners, which is great.

LAURA:   14:58

Okay, I did notice but I thought it was great. They were people of all ages, all kinds of couples. So I thought that was really good. Because one thing I thought was, even though we switched off partners, I thought it would have been more fun if I had gone with a man, with a friend. I don't know, it just felt a little -- so have you ever felt odd about it?

ELLEN: 15:24 I started dating someone that I met at the class. And so I think initially, when I went to Glen Echo, I went with him. But I wanted to dance with other partners, I didn't just only want to want to dance with him. And that was great, because there were some incredible dancers. So that was more fun.

LAURA:   15:48

So tell me about this class. You took this class, and he just happened to be also taking the class?

ELLEN: 15:52

Yeah, it was a little rocky at first. It wasn't clear what was going on with his marriage. And then, and he moved here from -- he wasn't here. He moved here from somewhere else. And then yeah, then we started dating. Uh, huh.

LAURA: 16:06

Uh, huh. It sounds like it's you're no longer dating.

ELLEN: 16:10

We're no longer dating. No.

LAURA :  16:12

But so it's funny, because swing dancing, and actually any kind of dancing, I would always think that's -- I put that in the category of like, going to a winery, that you don't do that thinking you're going to meet someone because it kind of seems like a couples activity to me. But you're saying no.

ELLEN: 16:33

No, no, no, no. Not at a place like Glen Echo because so many people come that are not coupled. So I mean, there's, there's hundreds of people that will show up. Again, this is pre COVID, when it was open dancing at the Spanish ballroom. Hundreds of people would show up, of all ages. And most, I would say, most were not coupled.

LAURA:  16:53

So there's an opportunity to perhaps meet a romantic partner.

ELLEN: 16:59 Yeah, there was an opportunity to do that. Actually, now that I think about it, I did meet somebody else at the dance. I forgot about him. It didn't last very long. But anyway, we met during that initial class. And he was having some issues and some problems, and I was just being a gentle follower slash leader to give him some pointers. And then we just started talking and, and then we, we dated just for a short period of time.

LAURA:   17:32

So I was telling you earlier, I was -- I felt very uncomfortable for many reasons. You seemed very much at ease, and it wasn't the footwork that made me uncomfortable. It was just kind of the whole thing. It was warm. These were sweaty strangers, but you seemed very lively. I turned around, you were like spinning and laughing and smiling. You seemed very comfortable.

ELLEN: 17:58

Because I love swing dancing and it had been, what, 16 months since I last went to a swing dance. So I was ready. I was ready to dance. I didn't care who I danced with.

LAURA:   18:10

If I just wanted to -- if I'm going to dance to have fun, but also see what's out there: from a romantic standpoint, is there one type of dancing I should be looking at?

ELLEN: 18:23

I think Glen Echo used to have Sunday afternoon ballroom dancing. And then there's also contra dancing. So that appeals to multi ages. I've done that a bunch of times.

LAURA: And what is contra dancing?

ELLEN: Contra dancing is like square dancing.

LAURA:  18:39

So yeah, I want to try that.

ELLEN: 18:43 Okay, Okay. Contra dancing, is –so they call up the call out the moves. And people are very … you go through the same thing, there's a class beforehand, and they explain everything, at least at Glen Echo. You find a partner, you know, you just grab someone and then you get into a square.

LAURA: Oh, yeah.

ELLEN: Or you could -- or you could be in a line. They just line up and then they call out the moves. And people are very helpful if you get lost.

LAURA:   19:08

I remember when I was much younger, my family was in a camping club. And we would have -- there would be square dances. And as a little kid, I loved it. I thought it was so fun because -- I guess I wasn't that little because I was interested in boys already. But you know, they line up so you never know who's opposite.

ELLEN: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, absolutely.

LAURA: Yeah, contra dancing. That's on my list.

ELLEN: 19:31

Just call me. I mean, Laura, just let me know or I'll let you know when I'm going. We can -- you could do that.

LAURA:   19:44

I checked in with Ellen recently. She's keeping an eye out for contra dancing. And I am going to give Glen Echo another go. As Ellen proved, you can meet a romantic partner by going dancing. You know, I think anything that involves physical activity is a good way to meet people, which brings me to pickleball. That's next.

SOUNDBITE OF BACKGROUND NOISE

LAURA: That's the sound of people playing pickleball, a mashup of tennis, badminton and ping pong. It's reportedly the fastest growing sport in the US and not just among older people. I think it's because it's easy to learn and a lot of fun. I mean, even the name pickleball. I got hooked after taking lessons with four other women and one man. Let's call him Clyde. Now, we were all over 50 and four of the five women were single, as was Clyde. So clearly the romantic odds were in his favor. However, that was the furthest thing from Clyde's mind.

CLYDE: 21:02

I had no expectations of meeting anyone. I was just wanting to learn how to play pickleball and see what all the fuss was about.

LAURA:   21:10

Clyde had a long first marriage and a short second marriage. Both had ended in divorce. And after that second divorce …

CLYDE: 21:17

I was like a hermit. Oh, yeah, I didn't date in that time at all. In fact, even after that, after the court battle and the divorce, I didn't, I didn't date at all. I just, that was when I was looking at the end of my career, and trying to figure out, you know, what am I going to do? And it's, it's all about me, and I can do whatever I want. And then I was talking to the financial advisor in 2017 and retired in 2018.

When I retired, I sold the house, the big house that we were in when I was married the second time, and I didn't buy anything right away. I just rented. So I decided to travel. I always wanted to see the United States. So I bought a minivan. Put my golf clubs in there and some clothes and stuff for all seasons, and I hit the road.

LAURA   22:12

Wow. So you were in a minivan by yourself traveling the United States for how long?

CLYDE: 22:19

For a couple of years. Oh, till the pandemic.

LAURA   22:24

Oh my goodness.

CLYDE: 22:26

My plan was to play golf in all 50 states. I ended up going to Tucson fairly early in that spring of 2018. I decided you know, Tucson was pretty nice. So I found a furnished rental for six months and stayed the winter in Tucson, which was fabulous.

LAURA   22:46

Were you ever lonely?

CLYDE: 22:48

Not really, no. I, I decided in that time that what I really wanted and, you know, going forward was a companion. Like especially a travel companion.

LAURA: Not a wife.

CLYDE: And if she liked to play golf or like to go on walks, that was another part of my whole thing. I go on walks almost every day. And it's like it's my job for an hour and a half to do …

LAURA: Long walks.

CLYDE: And then of course the second winter in Tucson, the pandemic came, yeah, February, March, I decided I better get back East. I probably had had enough of visiting. I'd been to all the states at that point. So I decided, you know, my girls are all in that general area. My family, my siblings, I’ve got extended family all over Virginia and Southern Maryland. This is where I need to be. So I was at peace with where I was and thinking you know, if I'm single the rest of my life, it's all good.

LAURA:  23:55

Another person in the class was a woman I'm calling Trish. She had recently ended her long marriage after discovering her husband had been wildly unfaithful. And when Trish signed up for pickleball, she didn't have romance on her mind either.

TRISH: 24:10

My friend Joan, who I was playing tennis with, suggested that we play -- we take an intro to pickleball because she was having shoulder problems and she wanted to switch and she heard that pickleball is a great sport for ex tennis players. And I was actually not that interested in pickleball itself because I'd never even played it before. I didn't even know what a paddle was or you know what it looked like or what the ball looked like or anything. But I thought, what a nice way for me to meet people -- not really looking for dating; just women would be fine. I was at the point where I was, you know very bitter about men at the time.

LAURA:   24:56

But sometimes when we least expect it, love comes knocking on the door, or pinging across the pickleball court. And that's what happened with Clyde and Trish. I'm going to let them explain how they went from classmates to something more. And I want to note, I spoke with them individually. So it will quickly become apparent that they did not rehearse what they were going to say ahead of time.

CLYDE: 25:22

She introduced herself to me the first day at class and shook my hand, it was like magical.

TRISH: 25:28

I think I felt this attraction to him.

CLYDE: 25:31

It was like the universe put really strong magnets in each of us. And we were like, really attracted to each other. And we could both sense it.

TRISH: 25:41

It was the first day. The instructor said, Hey, if you guys want to see what pickleball looks like, come over to this other drop-in location. It was after class, I was helping her with this other person in the class, put her pickleball bag and cart away in the shed. And I went over there. And he was already there. We got on a discussion about where we lived. And he said, Oh, I live right around the corner from you. Do you like to take walks?

CLYDE: 26:12

She sort of asked me out, kind of, after the second class. She was hanging around. And we were talking to our instructor and helping her put the equipment away. So on the way to our cars, it's the three of us. And she says, would anyone like to go for coffee? And I said, No, I don't drink coffee -- and got in my car and left. I got home, I had nothing to do the rest of the day. And I was thinking, did she just ask me out? And what kind of idiot are you?

But then I thought about it for a couple of days. And we had shared contact information via the instructor at that point. So I emailed her and said, I really fumbled your question the other day, I would love to take a walk with you or I'll go with you. You have coffee and I’ll drink water or something else. And she responded, a walk sounds great. And it turns out, we live less than half a mile from each other.

TRISH: 27:08

So we started talking, and we started realizing that we had a lot of things in common.

27:15

CLYDE: The compatibility is off the charts in terms of what we like, and what we like to do. Even our diets are very similar. We both try to do keto, but we both cheat -- and it's okay. And the musical tastes are very similar.

TRISH: 27:35

Ninety percent of the things that either he said to me or I said to him, we both had these incredible a-ha moments. Like, that's me. Oh, I just went to Zion. And I have three daughters and, and we have identical, almost identical musical interests. He plays golf, and I have always wanted to play golf. And it was just like this meshing of our interests. And it was really that, I guess we just started feeling really comfortable with each other. And I think it just kind of grew out of taking these walks together. We just started becoming really comfortable with each other and I started looking forward to walks, but it was just this, this feeling of, well, you know, I deserve someone else. I do. And I deserve to be happy.

CLYDE: 28:27

I was pretty happy before our pickleball class started. I'm really really happy now. And I feel like one of the luckiest guys in the world and, like, better than if I hit the lottery. And I think at our age, I think the excitement is compounded. She might be exactly what I've been looking for all this time in my entire life.

LAURA   28:56

You know, I love stories like Clyde and Trish’s because it reiterates my philosophy of, if it's meant to be it will be. Trish and Clyde might not have been looking for romance, but they found it. Plus, they learned a new sport, met other people who become friends and had a lot of fun. So did I. So I can report that no, I did not personally make a lasting love connection. But yes, it is possible, even though the pandemic is still with us. Opportunities are all around us. And we'll be talking more about these opportunities, and sharing more stories of seeking and finding love, as Season 3 unfolds.

Dating While Gray is produced in partnership with WUNC North Carolina Public Radio. Our producer is Julia Karron. Charlie Shelton-Ormond is our editor. Lindsay Foster Thomas is WUNC’s director of content, and Jenni Lawson is our audio engineer. I'm Laura Stassi. For more on the show, check out datingwhilegray.com If you have a question or a comment, I'd love to hear from you. Send an email to datingwhile gray@wunc.org. Thanks for listening