Date Lab 2.0

Date Lab 2.0

Four writers deconstruct what really happens on blind dates

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Published on August 10, 2017

Today we introduce a new format for Date Lab featuring four writers: Michelle Cottle, Neil Drumming, Rich Juzwiak and Vijai Nathan. Along with Date Lab’s editors, they will set up matches; then they’ll interview our daters and tell you what happened, while adding their own unique perspectives. To start, we have a Date Lab bonanza of four dates. Beginning next week, we’ll return to one column per week, with each of our writers contributing about once a month. As always, you can go to washingtonpost.com/datelab to apply.

There, you’ll also find a link to Date Lab’s new platonic sidekick: Friend Lab, which will appear occasionally alongside Date Lab in the coming months.

Sam Edwards, 31, fundraiser (left), and Joe Wenzinger, 31, lawyer.

Michelle Cottle is a contributing editor for the Atlantic in Washington. As a political-profile writer, she is one of the finest observers of the people who drive American politics and this city, and we thought her talent for D.C. anthropology would translate well into Date Lab.

These two are a lot alike. Maybe too much.

By Michelle Cottle

YOUR TYPE
Sam:
 Someone who can help push me out of my comfort zone; a guy who knows what he wants career-wise is a huge plus; the ability to carry a conversation.
Joe: Guys who have their lives together but are also curious and playful.

HOBBIES
Sam:
 Travel. I love all things history-related (particularly museums).
Joe: Family and friends, travel, food, movies, hiking and, to a lesser extent, golf.

DEALBREAKER
Sam:
 Jealousy and/or a Stage Five Clinger. Don’t break into my phone and text people pretending to be me. Yes, that actually happened.
Joe: Perpetually bored guys.

Joining the Date Lab team was an odd but perfect proposition for me. I write mostly about politics, which is pretty much the exact opposite of bringing good people together. Then again, I’ve spent two decades probing the quirkier aspects of human nature (looking at you, Anthony Weiner!). What could be more central to our ticking than who makes our stomachs flutter, who we fall for — and who repels us such that we instantly want to hurl a glass of cabernet in their face?

Such mysteries have long vexed poets, philosophers and armies of tech nerds generating complex algorithms for dating sites. I have no illusions that I can answer all of them — or, really, any of them. But who could resist exploring the magical possibilities (i.e., grilling strangers about their romantic lives)?

YOUR TYPE
Sam:
 Someone who can help push me out of my comfort zone; a guy who knows what he wants career-wise is a huge plus; the ability to carry a conversation.
Joe: Guys who have their lives together but are also curious and playful.

HOBBIES
Sam:
 Travel. I love all things history-related (particularly museums).
Joe: Family and friends, travel, food, movies, hiking and, to a lesser extent, golf.

DEALBREAKER
Sam:
 Jealousy and/or a Stage Five Clinger. Don’t break into my phone and text people pretending to be me. Yes, that actually happened.
Joe: Perpetually bored guys.

My first matchup did not disappoint, tossing some basic questions about compatibility in my lap. Could Sam Edwards — a 31-year-old fundraiser who grew up in Connecticut and Arizona, lives with an obese cat named Amber (“who has resting b—- face and hogs the sofa”) and digs ’90s alt-rock — make a love connection with Joe Wenzinger, a 31-year-old lawyer who grew up in an Ohio farm town of 136 people, does improv and loves Billy Joel? (You read that right: Billy Joel.)

Talking with the guys pre-date and reading their profiles, I did find basic similarities: Both are highly educated, non-religious fitness buffs. (Sam hits the gym five mornings a week!) Both are recovering workaholics craving better life balance.

But there were differences that gave me pause, like the fact that Joe’s favorite flicks are “Monster,” “Boyhood” and “Fargo,” while Sam insists “Spaceballs” is “the only movie that matters.” Or that Sam loves Italian food, while Joe has a sushi obsession. (His worst date ever was with a dude who “ate sushi with a fork and stared at me as he chewed it.”)

And I really cannot stress this enough: Billy Joel.

From first contact, the men were struck by what Sam called their “unbelievable” similarities, starting with a physical likeness.

As it turned out, I was right to worry about commonalities. But I was wildly off base as to why. They met at Chaplin’s in Shaw. From first contact, the men were struck by what Sam called their “unbelievable” similarities, starting with a physical likeness. Recalled Sam: “He walked up and I was like, Oh my god! Shaved head. Reddish beard. We’re both wearing gray shirts.”

Happily, each told me he found the other attractive. And after a hello hug, the conversation flowed like smooth jazz. There were no awkward pauses or showboating or clashes about how to make America great again. “Usually on the first date, the red flags come out within half an hour,” Joe said. “But I didn’t spot anything.”

Far from it. As the night rolled on, more and more parallels surfaced, to the point that Sam could not stop laughing about it the next morning. “So we both moved to D.C. from the Midwest. We both went to Michigan to graduate school. He finished there a year before I started. He’s a lawyer. I work for a law school.” Marveled Sam, “It was one of those situations where he’d mention something, and I was like, ‘Yep! Done something similar.’ Or, ‘Been there!’ ”

Joe was sold: “It met my first date test. I found him attractive. Fun to talk to. We have things in common. He seems normal. … I definitely want to pursue it further.”

All golden, right? Except … “I don’t know if there’s anything romantic. But, at least on a first-date friendship level, there was a good connection,” Sam said.

Oof. The friendship level. That’s fraught. What’s the sticking point? No sparks. And his best guess as to why? “I did think, ‘This is kind of like dating myself!’ ” he laughed. That said, Sam would consider another date. “I need a second one to really kind of figure it out sometimes.”

At evening’s end, they swapped numbers. Separately, both guys told me they thought an outdoor excursion could be a nice follow-up. “Maybe a little hike,” Joe said, “where the focus is on an activity rather than normal first-date talk.”

Sounds perfect. Let’s just hope they don’t show up wearing identical hoodies and hiking boots.

RATE THE DATE

Joe: 4.5 [out of 5].

Sam: 3. “Overall, it really was a good date [except for] the fact that there were just so many similarities.”

UPDATE

Joe said they haven’t gotten together since. Sam “is on vacation for a while, and I’m not sure what will happen after that.”

Michelle Cottle is a contributing editor for the Atlantic in Washington. As a political-profile writer, she is one of the finest observers of the people who drive American politics and this city, and we thought her talent for D.C. anthropology would translate well into Date Lab.

Alex Johnson, 28, software engineer, and Nicole Williams, 28, public health higher education acceditor.

Rich Juzwiak is a senior writer at Jezebel.com in New York, where he has tackled Russia’s anti-gay laws, a network TV remake of “Dirty Dancing” and what hook-up culture is doing to us. We thought his sharp, funny and yet empathetic take on politics, pop culture and sex would suit Date Lab just fine, even if he can’t use some of his usual vocabulary in a family newspaper.

Risky move: He got down to the nitty-gritty

By Rich Juzwiak

YOUR TYPE
Alex:
 Power combined with grace.
Nicole: Confident, tall, kind, masculine, good sense of humor, motivated.

DREAM DATE
Alex:
 A nerdy but cute girl who is confident enough to be on her own.
Nicole: I’d love to go on a date where we do something fun near the water ... cap off the day with a bonfire on the beach.

DEALBREAKER
Alex:
 Drinks too much, insecure, insincere.
Nicole: Rude to others. I once had a date make fun of a guy across the room for wearing a pink shirt.

FUNNY?
Alex:
 Bone-dry sense of humor is my favorite.
Nicole: A dry, witty sense of humor.

Watching humanity and dissecting its foibles are two of my most cherished hobbies, so Date Lab appeals to some of my fundamental interests. People’s attempts at finding love, their struggles to be themselves, the ensuing awkwardness when those functions overlap — all of this fascinates me, especially as it manifests in the world of heterosexuals. (We gay men have our own issues, but I find that our interactions tend to have a directness that eludes our more polite straight counterparts.)

In the case of Alex Johnson and Nicole Williams, both 28, one side might have been a bit too direct. He’s a software engineer; she works in public health higher education accreditation. They met at Le DeSales downtown. The date lasted about three hours, they enjoyed their food, and later both expressed a degree of attraction for the other (he called her “pretty” and she called him “cute”). All of the elements were there — or so it would seem.

YOUR TYPE
Alex:
 Power combined with grace.
Nicole: Confident, tall, kind, masculine, good sense of humor, motivated.

DREAM DATE
Alex:
 A nerdy but cute girl who is confident enough to be on her own.
Nicole: I’d love to go on a date where we do something fun near the water ... cap off the day with a bonfire on the beach.

DEALBREAKER
Alex:
 Drinks too much, insecure, insincere.
Nicole: Rude to others. I once had a date make fun of a guy across the room for wearing a pink shirt.

FUNNY?
Alex:
 Bone-dry sense of humor is my favorite.
Nicole: A dry, witty sense of humor.

Nicole has been on a few dates in the past two months, mostly via apps, while Alex describes himself as a “serial monogamist,” prone to the kind of relationships that last a year or two and then fizzle out “for whatever reason.” Both are open to finding a partner. However, they are thinking about this pursuit in different ways.

“I’m definitely not having sleepless nights wondering where my princess is,” said Alex. But if he were, he made clear to Nicole, by “princess” he does not mean someone fresh out of college. “He was worried I was gonna be some young 23-year-old thing,” said Nicole. “I honestly hadn’t given much thought to [those] sorts of concerns.”

“I was afraid she would be younger than she was and there’d be a gap in maturity,” explained Alex.

That was just one gap they hurdled. Over dinner that included shishito-like friggitelli peppers, an off-menu scallop dish, steak and a bottle of red zinfandel, Alex attempted to get to the nuts and bolts of his potential compatibility with the decidedly grown Nicole. “I think he asked me if I was a morning person or a night person, and I feel like those sorts of questions are more like, ‘Is this someone who’s gonna fit into my lifestyle?’ ” said Nicole. “I was not looking at it that way. I was more of like, ‘Is this someone that’s interesting that I want to talk to and continue to talk to?’ ”

“Maybe I treated it too pragmatically,” said Alex, a self-described “cut-and-dried kind of guy.” “If you’re the type of person that just wants to kind of go with the flow, then you would be really bothered by that, right?”

Nicole said a vote for Donald Trump was a dealbreaker. Alex tried to convince her that he had voted for him and that he was a good president. “I think she knows I was joking,” he said.

They also noticed a contrast in their humor. At one point, Nicole said a vote for Donald Trump was a dealbreaker. Alex tried to convince her that he had voted for him and that he was a good president. “I think she knows I was joking, and she was game,” he said.

Another disconnect: Both are English football fans — who support rival clubs. (Her team is Tottenham Hotspur; his is Arsenal.) “We both gave each other a hard time,” he said.

But even with different approaches to the date, Alex and Nicole had good things to say about the other. “She’s really smart, really a fast, quick thinker,” said Alex. “Great conversationalist. Affable.” Nicole repeatedly called Alex “really nice.”

Neither seemed convinced that there had to be instant sparks. “There is this notion of either you jibe or you don’t,” mused Alex. “I don’t know if I believe in that.”

“Sometimes first impressions and first dates can be a lot of pressure or stress for certain people, so you never know,” said Nicole. “I had an enjoyable night, so if he asked me out again, I would consider it.”

They had espresso and shared a chocolate tart for dessert before calling it a night. Outside the rain poured, and their umbrellas made their parting kiss-free hug “hard to navigate,” said Nicole. Time would tell if the storm was an omen or a cleanse. After all, there were things Nicole appreciated about Alex’s approach. On reflection, she allowed, “In thinking about it, preferred thermostat levels is actually not a bad question to ask.”

RATE THE DATE

Alex: 4. “What happens will happen, but it was definitely nice meeting her anyway.”

Nicole: 3.5. “I had a really lovely evening, and it was really nice to get to know him.”

UPDATE

Alex reached out for another date. Nicole declined.

Rich Juzwiak is a senior writer at Jezebel.com in New York, where he has tackled Russia’s anti-gay laws, a network TV remake of “Dirty Dancing” and what hook-up culture is doing to us. We thought his sharp, funny and yet empathetic take on politics, pop culture and sex would suit Date Lab just fine, even if he can’t use some of his usual vocabulary in a family newspaper.

Elena Goukassian, 31, arts journalist, and Peter Pirotte, 31, classical musician.

Neil Drumming is a journalist, filmmaker and radio producer for “This American Life” in New York. In his work, he has explored the complicated emotional terrain of family and friendship with honesty, insight and humor — a great match for Date Lab.

If only she weren’t moving to New York …

By Neil Drumming

DREAM DATE
Peter:
 A dedicated professional who is passionate and ambitious about their work, a lover of the arts who likes cooking with food from the backyard garden.
Elena: I’m usually attracted to artist alcoholics, but that never works out, so let’s go polar opposite here and say a pot-smoking scientist?

DEALBREAKER
Peter:
Very religious, smoker, regular drug user.
Elena: I rule out most people, so let’s not go crazy here.

FUNNY?
Peter:
Quick-witted.
Elena: Something so off-the-wall, it makes no sense.

To be honest, I don’t claim to know anything reliable about matchmaking — or dating at all, really. Like most people, my own history is spotty. I accepted this gig because it sounded fun and easy and perhaps offered a chance to live vicariously through eager, less jaded others. But as soon as I received the profiles of the potential daters, I realized why we’ve worked so hard and tried and failed so often to develop algorithms to facilitate this process. People are so much more compelling than their one- or two-word answers to questions on a form. I should know that; as a radio producer, I interview people for a living.

I found that to be the case with classical musician Peter Pirotte and freelance arts journalist Elena Goukassian. They met at Pinea, the restaurant in the W Hotel downtown — not the kind of place either of them typically frequents. “It’s really fancy. I usually don’t go out to such fancy places,” Elena said. “I just don’t make that much money.” When Elena told the hostess she was meeting her date in the back, the hostess said: “Oh, he’s really cute. You’re lucky.” Peter also described the restaurant as “definitely upscale,” and Elena as “definitely pretty.” From the beginning, there was mutual attraction. But, as John Lennon famously said, “Life is what happens while you’re waiting to be set up on a blind date by a national news organization.”

DREAM DATE
Peter:
 A dedicated professional who is passionate and ambitious about their work, a lover of the arts who likes cooking with food from the backyard garden.
Elena: I’m usually attracted to artist alcoholics, but that never works out, so let’s go polar opposite here and say a pot-smoking scientist?

DEALBREAKER
Peter:
Very religious, smoker, regular drug user.
Elena: I rule out most people, so let’s not go crazy here.

FUNNY?
Peter:
Quick-witted.
Elena: Something so off-the-wall, it makes no sense.

Both had consented to place their romantic lives in the hands of Date Lab pretty much on a whim. Peter had grown tired of online dating. “I guess I was just curious how an old-school matchmaker would work out,” he said. Elena forgot she had signed up and, by the time she was matched with Peter, had plans to skip town in a week. “I’m moving to New York on Saturday, and I already knew that going in, so I wasn’t nervous,” she said. “I feel like I enjoyed myself more knowing that.”

She grew up with parents who were both professional violinists and found herself sitting across from a tall, handsome trumpet player with whom she could totally vibe.

Well, sure, that’s great for her, but how did Peter feel about it? Fortunately, she broke the news early on. “I don’t think it detracted from how much fun we had for the evening,” he said. “Although it definitely put a damper on the possibility of future dates.”

Elena and Peter found their rhythm pretty quickly. “It actually took us a while to order because we were talking so much that the waiter had to come back a couple of times,” she said. They had decided to sit outside and soak up the remaining daylight. “As the evening went on, it cooled off a little and it was really perfect,” Peter said. They ordered wine and, eventually, settled on what to eat. Over pasta with crab and saffron, they talked about all the instruments they had tried — and sometimes failed — to learn to play as children. They bonded over ballet; Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” was a favorite for both of them.

I was a little surprised the pair synced up so well, but it made more sense once we talked the next day. Peter wasn’t nearly as pretentious as he sounded on paper. (Sorry, Peter!) And Elena had an infectious giggle that bubbles up into her sentences in wonderful ways. She grew up with parents who were both professional violinists and found herself sitting across from a tall, handsome trumpet player with whom she could totally vibe. “We nerded out about classical music, which I don’t often get to do because not a lot of people are into it,” she said. “By the end, we were like old friends.”

When I asked them to rate the date, the results were bittersweet. Peter gave it a near-perfect rating. “I definitely really enjoyed hanging out with her,” he said. “And I would have wanted to see her again. In fact, we exchanged phone numbers and we talked about, when she’s back, maybe catching a concert or something.” Elena also gave the date top marks. “We did get along really well,” she said. “I dunno. Because I know I’m moving away, I did treat it more like a friendly situation.” That said, she did seem to give it a lot of thought. She continued, “Actually, if I weren’t moving away, I would definitely go on another date with him. It would be stupid to start something long distance the week before I leave.”

Stupid, sure. But maybe not completely out of the question.

RATE THE DATE

Peter: 4.5 [out of 5].

Elena: 5.

UPDATE

Elena invited Peter to her going-away party after their date. He was sad he couldn’t make it.

Neil Drumming is a journalist, filmmaker and radio producer for “This American Life” in New York. In his work, he has explored the complicated emotional terrain of family and friendship with honesty, insight and humor — a great match for Date Lab.

Emily Lama, 23, staffing manager, and Joe Terpstra, 30, tech start-up co-founder.

Vijai Nathan is a comedian who has appeared on WNYC’s “Snap Judgment.” She is also a senior storytelling trainer for Story District in Washington. Her ability to plumb the depths of her love life for stand-up material and her skill at getting others to open up made her a perfect addition to Date Lab.

She bowled him over. Can he keep his cool?

By Vijai Nathan

YOUR TYPE
Emily:
 I like guys that aren’t overly concerned with what other people think about them.
Joe: Short, athletic, ambitious, well educated, artsy, brunettes.

DEALBREAKER
Emily:
 Bad teeth, poor grammar, doesn’t know how to appropriately tip a server.
Joe: Negative nature, wallflowers, being too introverted.

FUNNY?
Emily:
 I love dumb funny humor, like “Family Guy,” and I also love dry sarcastic humor, like Chelsea Handler.
Joe: Someone that’s comfortable in their own skin and not afraid to be self-deprecating.

When I was asked to be a writer for Date Lab, I said yes, more please and thank you. I assume they asked because of some of the stories I’ve told as a stand-up comedian about love and dating. (I’m a daughter of Indian immigrants who told me I’d get an arranged marriage — but they haven’t come through yet.) In my day job, I also teach people how to tell stories about themselves to audiences of strangers, which means I have to get people to answer unabashedly personal questions. Luckily for my employers — and for you faithful Date Lab readers — I am really freakin’ nosy. So let me introduce you to my first set of daters.

Joe Terpstra, 30, is co-founder of a tech start-up. He was born and lives in Arlington. The self-proclaimed “recovering party bro” digs Michael Jackson, singing falsetto out his car window, and a confident, short brunette who can laugh at herself. His date is Emily Lama, 23, a staffing manager from the Eastern Shore and a recent graduate of West Virginia University who lives in the District. She sees “no life without bacon,” and digs all “Madea” movies and laughing until she cries.

YOUR TYPE
Emily:
 I like guys that aren’t overly concerned with what other people think about them.
Joe: Short, athletic, ambitious, well educated, artsy, brunettes.

DEALBREAKER
Emily:
 Bad teeth, poor grammar, doesn’t know how to appropriately tip a server.
Joe: Negative nature, wallflowers, being too introverted.

FUNNY?
Emily:
 I love dumb funny humor, like “Family Guy,” and I also love dry sarcastic humor, like Chelsea Handler.
Joe: Someone that’s comfortable in their own skin and not afraid to be self-deprecating.

In her Date Lab questionnaire, Emily came off as bold, confident and funny — she said she’d be “Tinderella,” if her dating life was a TV show — but over the phone she sounded more reserved than I expected. She said she has been focused on her new job more than on dating. “I’m not looking for marriage anytime soon. I’m looking for fun and casual right now.”

Joe, meanwhile, ended a long-term relationship two years ago that he thought was headed for the altar. “What I’ve realized is that there are a lot of people in relationships looking for someone to make them whole or make them interesting. That is completely the wrong way to go about it,” he said. At this point, he is looking for someone who “wants to date me just to share the experience.”

As for the conversation, “it felt very natural, like I knew her before,” Joe said. “We really talked about our lives. She shared a lot with me.”

He was the first to show up at Teddy & the Bully Bar near Dupont Circle and ordered strawberry mojitos for both of them. Emily was a few minutes late. At some point in the night, Joe texted me “Date is 100% Hot.” (When we spoke the next day, he started describing her as “very professional looking.” So I asked, “Why are you describing her like she’s dressed for court?” When he admitted a friend told him to play it cool, I told him to knock it off. “Okay,” he said. “She was smoking hot!”)

I was curious about Emily’s reaction because she usually dates dark-haired guys, and Joe looks more like Liesl’s boyfriend in “The Sound of Music.” “He was cute!” she said. “And he was really nice to the waiter.”

After the mojitos, they ordered some custom artisanal cocktails and grilled asparagus. Joe, in particular, gushed over the salmon poke bowl with barbecue kimchi. It was “awesome and delicious,” he said, while I silently questioned whether those choices were make-out-friendly.

As for the conversation, “it felt very natural, like I knew her before,” Joe said. “We really talked about our lives. She shared a lot with me.” And she laughed at his jokes. “I did a really lame Trump and Obama impression,” he said. “His Donald Trump impression was really good,” Emily said. “He has to work on his Obama, though.”

Even though The Washington Post paid for dinner, Joe still left a $20 tip, which impressed Emily. She lives near the restaurant, so Joe offered to walk her home. Emily gave him a quick tour of her place, hoping he didn’t notice a couple of mousetraps. Joe’s mind was on the mints on her table, not on mice. “I thought about joking, ‘Hey, maybe I should get a mint in case we … ?’ But I said to myself, ‘Dude just relax, better to play it safe.’ ”

Later, they hugged and he gave her a kiss on the cheek. This turned out to be a good call. Emily is more of a Date Two or Date Three Kisser. Clearly, Joe is a gentleman who knows how to read a situation, and Emily is more of a lady than I am.

RATE THE DATE

Joe: 5. I’d rate it higher if I could.

Emily: 5. He was someone I really got along with, and I felt comfortable and good about it.

UPDATE

For a second date, Joe took Emily on a Boomerang party cruise. Although the two had fun, there were no sparks this time and no plans for more dates.

Vijai Nathan is a comedian who has appeared on WNYC’s “Snap Judgment.” She is also a senior storytelling trainer for Story District in Washington. Her ability to plumb the depths of her love life for stand-up material and her skill at getting others to open up made her a perfect addition to Date Lab.

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