A journalist friend of mine once said that going on dates with strangers is like interviewing a source. You show up, keep things light and breezy while delicately accumulating all the data points you need. I mean, ideally, along the way, you have fun, too.
Besides storytelling, the journalistic skill that came most instinctively to me was interviewing people. I know how to ask the right questions, and how to gently and unobtrusively steer a conversation in a way that delivers the goods. I know how to build trust, how to shut up and listen, how to encourage in the right moments, and stimulate if a conversation feels to be running dry.
I know how to shoot rapid fire, sharp questions with the intellectual fast talker types who seem to need that rhythm and tension to pay attention to me, but also, when to play ‘dumb’ enough to get eloquent quotes and not convoluted jargon. And I know when to start being that little bit difficult and annoying if someone who owes me an answer is being evasive. My mentor, Joyce, who used to be White House reporter, said that when she interviewed officials, she’d often deliberately ignore social cues.
“People would get so uncomfortable, they’d just say anything to get rid of me”.
Of course, the key difference between going on dates and interviewing sources is that only one of those activities is supposed to be in service of a story with your byline on it.
Recently, I was at a bar with some friends where I wound up talking to this guy for three hours. I got that look your friends give you when they think you think you’ve met someone pretty cool -- when actually what has happened is that you’ve discovered you’re talking to a recovering firebug and DIY napalm expert and you want to learn everything you can about their little hobby.
Through the course of that evening, I found out:
For the record, I had disclosed early on in our interaction that I was a journalist, and, in fact, he was the one who pushed for the interaction to be pursued at a later date with the aim of a story coming out of it. He said he felt like I really understood him.
At that point, I felt kind of guilty. I wondered: Did I really understand him, or was I just really good at making him feel understood so that I could satiate my own curiosity about him?
As I read this back I also think, what if I was the one who was actually getting duped that whole time and he’s not a firebug but a pathological liar who’ll say all sorts of stuff to pique and sustain a journalist’s interest?
For anyone who is interested in the power games often at play between journalist and subject, I’d recommend Janet Malcolm’s The Jounalist and the Murderer, a seminal work in the murky ethics of our game and a must read for anyone in our industry who wants to do what we do with something approaching a clear conscience.
Malcom interrogates the work of a journalist, Joe McGinniss, who covered the trial of Jeffrey MacDonald, a man accused of murdering his own family.
In putting together his book, McGinniss got the convicted murderer on side by lying to him that he believed he was innocent, when in fact what he published was a damning story of a ruthless psychopath.
Malcolm meticulously interrogates the trial and how it is reported. She interviews the documents McGinniss accumulated, studied, and transformed into the material he needed to support his thesis. She also interviewed the accused murderer -- who claimed innocence -- to gauge his character herself, and found what I love about her work: no definitive answers about who he was and whether the evidence against him stood up.
She observes rather a person “characterless” enough to serve as a canvas onto which McGinniss could paint the perfect murder story, and sell a lot of books. There’s a really nice passage she has about the work journalists do in interrogating our fellow humans as we commit their story to paper.
She writes that the truth is people aren’t characters in books -- they’re a lot harder to pin down than that. They change, surprise us, confuse us, bore us, behave in different ways with different people, contradict themselves. The rules we apply in trying to make sense of them are never that stable.
Fun, isn’t it? To be one tenth of one’s way through project 100 dates and already drawing parallels between your own ‘research’ and the study of an accused murderer. The thing is, I haven’t met with any murderers, yet, I don’t think.
But my approach so far has had similarities to how I’d report a survey-style story, mostly because I’ve set myself metrics that require efficiency, and I’ve tried to maintain an open mind about my sample set. The thing I like especially about the fact that this is all happening via apps (something I haven’t really done much of before because, well, Stranger Danger), is how easy and uncomplicated it is to back out graciously.
To keep myself stimulated, I’ve tried to gamify the process and make it feel like an adventure.
“Set me a challenge for a date to go on,” I asked one of my one of closest male friends.
“I can’t. If something happened to you, I couldn’t forgive myself,” was his reply.
“I mean, don’t say “date a serial killer!” I replied.
I realised I might be being a bit too gungho about all this when I was chatting to someone about prospective cool abandoned spots to explore with only a cursory scan of their profile, which as it turned out had one of those weird contrarian rants about pronouns and vaccinations on it. Imagine that. Wandering around a decaying swimming pool with a stranger convinced that having asshole opinions makes him cool. I’d rather date a recovering firebug.
I think, the thing is, part of me feels like I am peering through my “research” with the same inconclusive interrogation Malcolm applied to her study of the “characterless” MacDonald. I.e. You can apply all sorts of forensics to the romantic realm. You can interrogate your back story, scrutinize your past traumas or whatever, talk to your friend about a date in that way that they say “oh, wow, SUCH a libra”, mull over attachment theories, write a list of pros and cons of everyone you meet: “Says he likes my brain!”, “feels like I’m at a lecture”, “agrees that Tool is more complex and interesting than Rammstein”, “sends ‘wakey, wakey!’ 7am text messages that make me want to throw my phone at the wall”.
But the reality is that there are some -- many -- questions, and some -- many -- mysteries that investigative processes just can’t resolve. And again, dating, unlike journalism, involves your having, also, to wind in the interrogation chair and face someone else’s scrutiny and investigative processes. And that, well. Maybe I should just assign myself a story about the DIY Napalm kids instead…
*I know I said I’d write something helpful about stress management. I haven’t really done that. What I will say is that one of the best lessons I’ve learnt is developing the skill of learning to distinguish between the wrong and the right discomforts and acting responsibly with regards to my own safety, despite certain “gonzo” journalistic inclinations otherwise. Might not bring the best stories, but life can’t always be about that, unfortunately.
Recently I’ve been wondering about why I've been carrying on with this blog. For sure, It helps me organise my thoughts and feel a bit like a character in an ongoing story, which I guess is nice. But surely there must be a purpose beyond that?
I thought back to why I started writing and working as a journalist in the first place. Ultimately, you want to share the things you’ve discovered and learnt in a way that helps people. I wonder, how can I make my work more helpful?
This blog began on my return to Europe from Hong Kong. In that time, I’ve lived like everyone else has through a seemingly unending pandemic. I navigated the ups and downs of a career path here that has involved trying to make comprehensible dense computer science topics, alongside a lot of other things.
I’ve studied Europe’s media landscape and tried to process the highs, lows, and frustrations and despair that came with covering one of the world’s most fascinating and maddening places in the five years that preceded my time here. And I took pains to ground myself in a city I had childhood memories of that I might be able to call “home.“ I swam in the frosty Norwegian fjord of my mother's home town, ran my first half-marathon, said goodbye to my battle-axe Mormor my brainy grandmother, and my lovely uncle Paul, and tried and failed to master a confident armbar.
I also persisted in what has been probably my most comprehensive research project to date: trying to find a way to live in harmony with my own story and all the complexities, challenges and joys that have come with that.
So what are the key learnings that I’ve uncovered since this work began? Here’s a list:
Rat’s all, folks.
Another one of those quirky dreams struck the other other night. I was wandering around a dimly lit Norwayville-style toytown without teeth. There was an operation I was meant to be at to get my face fixed that for some reason had been missed. Rather than resolve the problem I had instead chosen to wander the streets forlorn and despondent. Quite sure there’s no symbolism to be gleaned here at all.
If life is about choices, a lot of them still seem to be made entirely by my body’s visceral reactions to how I’ve been treating it. After a relatively heady but also stressful month, my body revolted in its favourite way. My “moon cycle” as the hippies call it, announced itself with a level of brutality that had me vomiting up painkillers all over my balcony after a night of agony I’d gladly swap with being pummeled by a muay thai fiend. Time to clean up my act, apparently, and clean out my system.
Out with the late nights and enraptured conversations with people I’ll probably never see again, in with the nerdy focus on health protocols, energy systems, cortisol levels, early mornings and exceptional sleep. Along the lines of saying “yes/no” to a variety of things, I experimented with a fast that lasted four days, per the suggestion of date #6 of project 100 dates. He (staunch fasting advocate who has shown temperate enthusiasm for my rats) actually suggested I shoot for seven days, but I’m still pleased with the four days that I did manage, and through which I enjoyed the best sleep I’ve had in years.
“And what about your performance?” asked my training buddy who had scheduled a hefty mix of hack squats and trap bar deadlifts alongside all sorts of uncomfortable lat-building exercises. This was a few days after the fast ended. Well, I guess I had lost some strength. But what is apparent is an improvement in cardiovascular endurance (or maybe just a lighter-footedness?), which I think is something I value in a way that she’s not so concerned with. I think this is because I associate it with giving me a greater resilience in bouncing back from stressors that might otherwise have floored me. And amazing sleep.
Still, if I truly wanted the engine back that I had in some points of Corona-- when I wasn’t smoking at all and when I was out running most days, had a limited social circle and lived comfortably with my nose in a lot of books-- I’d have to go all in and throw my cigarettes out of the window.
During the week, this is mostly feasible if my recovery and stress-relief protocols are on point and if I’m not calming myself down from having just sprinted up and down a very long street like a crazy person looking for the guy who has kindly found my phone and promised to hold onto it (there are some good people out there…). Or if I’ve not been triggered too much.
The logic obviously goes that in order to do away with a bad habit, you have to find a replacement for it.
Meditation or breath-work, or even punching Nigel, could work. (Nigel is the heavy bag that lies on my floor wearing a jumper with arms I’d stuffed a few months back so as to practice submissions). But sometimes this isn’t really enough. Especially when trying to put yourself through your own regimen of exposure therapy so as to refrain from doing a Hermann whenever life hits you: I.e. running away and finding a hole under a kitchen cabinet replete with all your favourite shreds of toilet paper with the aim of living there forever.
(By the way, somebody recently suggested I struggled with an avoidant attachment style (the one that has anxiety at its gooey neurotic center.) I was so annoyed I started Googling one way tickets to Timbuktu worrying about who would stay in touch if I actually did pull another disappearing act. That was a joke. Kind of.)
So I’m instead being a little bit bendy with my health protocols at least in the early stages of project 100 dates, during which I allow myself the mushroom cloud of cigarette smoke to hide behind as I am starting to “normalize the emotional intensity that comes with dating” as someone else put it.
“Project 100 dates! Love it,” said a writer friend. “What does it entail and are you writing about it?” Well, so far, it involves meeting people at basically the same turnaround rate and with the same time investment most of my single female friends have committed themselves to anyway. Compulsive note taker that I am, I am amassing the qualitative data points about myself within this context that I just haven’t gathered enough of so far, discovering that things like developing checklists are actually quite helpful.
I never really saw myself as the kind of woman who had checklists. More the kind of woman who shows up to dates with sunny, sporty types dressed like Morticia Addams and responds to the question of “hey girl, what do you like to do for fun?” from guys on the U-Bahn with the line “strangling puppies”.
But actually, romantic compatibility is a pretty complex thing to figure out when you’re trying to approach it from the position of “who would actually fit in my life” as opposed to “who kind of makes me feel bad about myself in a way that would make me feel obliged to fix them and ignore my own needs?”
So these are the questions I’m working towards answering on the field. Will I write about it? Well, not for cheap laughs and not in a way that intrudes on mine or anyone else’s privacy or dignity. Life is far too short for any of that kind of drama. However, I will caution that anyone who doesn’t articulate the utmost admiration for the two true loves of my life -- my pet rats -- will get exposed faster than you can say “Watergate”.
A Berlin-based writer engages in the study of belonging and in-between places after years spent faraway from 'home'.