Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Date Me, I'm From Texas

Astute marketers know the value of a good name, one that captures an essence, provokes thought, and closes the sale. I grappled with the name issue when, post-divorce in 2003, I plunged into the chill waters of online dating. And what is online dating, other than the direct marketing of a single product (i.e., me, Me, ME)? To effectively brand myself, I needed cute pictures, a compelling profile, and a snappy screen name. With a unique selling proposition, I could tilt the odds in my favor in that split-second when a woman decides whether to respond to an email—or ignore me as one more short, bald, mid-40s guy.

Upon joining the now-defunct JCupid (catering to folks of the Hebraic persuasion), I tinkered with names like Van, VW, and even Tazio, the middle name I loathe. But nothing felt quite right, being either boring or bizarre. I got closer to the mark with Zev, a Hebrew name that sounds like Van and that I use at religious services. Zev worked well enough to remain the name on one profile, and it drew women who thought I was Israeli. Still, Zev lacked a certain Van-ness and emotional resonance.

So I doodled possibilities reflecting my upbringing amidst the balmy breezes and pastoral landscapes of the Rio Grande Valley, Mission, to be exact, Home of the Grapefruit and Tom Landry, first coach of the Dallas Cowboys. Some ideas:

• ValleyGuy: Too obscure, and the U.S. has lots of Valleys, including San Fernando, Red River, and Death.

• TexDude: Sounds lame, and I never think of myself as a “dude.”

• Missionary: This cleverly alludes to my hometown, but it could excessively appeal to Southern Baptists. Also, people might assume Missionary implies a limited erotic repertoire on my part. Come to think of it, that assumption might also get Baptists knocking on my digital door.

Then, clawing up from a reptilian pre-cognitive node in my brain, there emerged “TexasHoldEm.” The more I noodled, the better it sounded. Free associations clustered around it like lobbyists at the Texas Railroad Commission. It tells a short story in three syllables. Soon, TexasHoldEm became the screen name that I use on three sites.

You might ask, why make a big deal out of my Texas provenance? I left Texas for Princeton in 1976 and haven’t lived in the state since the summer of 1977. My returns for high school reunions and family visits are rare. I’ve lived in New York and Connecticut far longer than I lived in Texas. And yet, those early years forever are imprinted in me, through education, values, memories, even my way of talking (I joke that after a few Coronas I sound just like LBJ). I’ve made my peace with that influence—and I’ve discovered that Lone Star roots are a great marketing tactic, endlessly provocative at cocktail parties and singles sites. Reflecting those roots, I note in one profile, “I practice an archaic Southern chivalry; I hold open doors, stand up when a lady enters the room, write thank-you notes, and help you get your coat off (it's good practice.)”

My profiles carry a teasing line, “Now, who can guess the multiple meanings of my screen name?” That shameless come-on indeed attracts women to my fiesta of verbal playfulness. The name and line invite women to casually contact me without stooping to something as crass as, “U R so HOTTT!” A woman I’ll call YettaFromYonkers wrote the most memorable response. Her jaw-dropping first email, in its entirety, read, “Masturbation comes to mind, but far be it from this lady of Yonkers to admit to it . . .”

To which I quickly replied, “Very good! Obviously we think along the same lines. I was thinking about holding somebody else (TexasHoldEm, after all, not TexasHoldIt), but you've certainly got the right idea. Now, the other meanings: I really am from Texas originally, so it's got that connotation. TexasHoldEm is a form of poker, and card playing was very popular in my family when I was young—my mother enjoyed nothing better than playing poker late into the night with her aunts during family vacations to San Antonio.”

Photos on my profile gave visual clues to the meanings, some obvious, others indecipherable without explanation. One photo heavy with Texas atmosphere shows me at a Houston shooting range blasting away at targets with my brother’s Glock pistol. I tell women that I was “getting in touch with my inner NRA.” In another, I clutch two squirming Yorkshire Terrier puppies to my chest, with the caption, “Holding ‘Em.” In a picture from a high school reunion, I’m grinning impishly as I sit next to an adorable and hugely pregnant classmate from Mission; she points one hand at her stomach and another at me. Call that one a vision of chaste affection.

Just as I hope women respond to my pitch, I also notice women who use TX in their screen name. One woman with whom I’ve maintained steady contact, TexDG, says that the name generates curiosity from men. She wrote to me, “Guys from the east coast think Texas is ‘exotic.’” Many figure she supported Bush in the election; as she said, “They think the whole state voted for George—yes, a bunch a yahoos us'ns.”

“Did you get into any heated discussions? Could they get past their notions of Exotic Laurie to who you really are?” I asked.

“No heated discussions. I just don't go there. LOL-funny about that,” she wrote back. “A lot of the guys just want to know what color my undies are!”

Another woman, GoodListenerTX, commented, “I have received more emails with this name than either my first screen name of honestmom or afierytopaz. Most people couldn’t spell fiery let alone the meaning of topaz. (I know it is an obscure fact that topaz comes in other colors than blue.) I would have been a ruby but it would have been too cliché.”

These are women in Texas; plenty of men and women in the state throw TX onto their screen names. My all-time favorite is Texasbabydoll—aye caramba, who could resist that image? The contacts get even more interesting when folks (like me) fly the Texas identity like a battle flag when they live out of state. I particularly like the profile of YehuditTX, a woman I actually know apart from dating sites from our “liberal hawk” political interests. Her profile says, “I am a proud native Texan, currently a Manhattanite (lots more Jews here—including family—but the sunsets are smaller).” Then there’s my occasional correspondent TexanAtHeart, originally from Abilene and now living in the South.

You’ll notice a pattern here. TexDG, GoodListenerTX, and TexanAtHeart all responded to me, Women from the South and Latin America also have the fine grace to pen a polite reply. Some decline further contact, pointing to the distance between us, and I can understand their concerns. Others, however, have become dear and enduring friends. Whatever the future holds—as friends, lovers, or strangers whose yearnings touched for an instant—I can say to all of them zol zein mit mazel,Yiddish for “you should be with luck.”

Their behavior supports Wallach’s Global Theory of Online Dating: the probability of a reply to an initial email or instant-message invitation increases in direct proportion to the distance from Times Square. In sharp contrast to Texettes, women in New York City and even my home territory of Fairfield County, Connecticut almost never write back, even to tell me to go jump in a lake. Granted, they may be overwhelmed by male suitors, with me being just one more irritant living too far from Manhattan, but couldn’t a gal at least take 15 seconds to write a “thanks but no thanks” letter? Shoot me if you’d like, but don’t leave me to limp around neying piteously waiting for a response. A good Yiddish retort for this silent sisterhood might be, "May the only thing anyone ever writes you be a prescription."

The Texas and East Coast sides merge when I meet Texettes in New York. I can always sniff them out using “texdar,” my variation on the concept of “gaydar.” Like their counterparts back home, these urban cowgirls almost always reply to me and we sometimes meet. We’ve had great conversations about hometowns, educations, and bloodlines. One woman even had family members named Michelson, as I do, so we are probably related from way back in the 1860s, when the first Michelsons vamoosed out of Germany to settle in Marshall, Gonzales, and other places.

The Texas identity does carry risks. One on one, women are curious about the place and keep any prejudices in check, but in public somebody always feels compelled to spout off. I once attended a Friday night singles event where an Orthodox rabbi (!) said, “Oh, you’re the guy from that hick town!” Going to a Westport (Conn.) Singles Hiking event, I was trapped in a car with people who assured me that Republicans would never go on a hike because they hate the environment. Later, a man said, “You’re from Texas, so you must really hate Bush.”

I thought, What a pinche pendejo cabron, as we used to say in Hidalgo County. To this perfect specimen of BDS (Bush Derangement Syndrome), I replied, “I like what President Bush says and does, and I definitely approve of the War on Terror.” That shut him up pronto.

I am ready to talk when women ask about Texas. My whole brand positioning depends on delivering the goods about that unique upbringing. Without some colorful anecdotes and family stories, I’d get an “all hat, no cattle” reputation. Fortunately, I remember everything, as the readers of Back Word will discover. Some of my favorite informational crunchies:

• “My family has been in Texas for a long, long time. There are little kids down there that are seventh-generation Texans. My great-great-grandfather, Chayim Schwarz, was the first ordained rabbi in Texas. He moved to Hempstead in 1873, from Prussia. He’s the guy on the cover of the book Jewish Stars in Texas, which you can see at www.jewishstarsintexas.com.”

• “I graduated from the same high school that my mother did, exactly 40 years later. Talk about continuity.”

• “When I was a kid, the family story I heard was that relatives passed through San Antonio in the 1870s and they could still see blood on the walls of the Alamo. The spookiest Texas stories always involve the Alamo.”

• “Texas always breeds wacky politics. I had a high school typing teacher who argued that motorcycle-helmet laws were a form of communism. At my 10th reunion in 1986, a classmate was certain that the Sandinistas were going to march up from Nicaragua and invade Harlingen. The wife of another friend used to talk earnestly about the black helicopters.”

• “Growing up in Texas and then moving to the Northeast scrambled my politics. People down there think I’m a commie-hippie-pinko-treehugger. Folks in the Northeast think I’m a crypto-fascist Texas gun nut. The truth is actually in the middle. I’m a free thinker, and that drives people crazy.”

• “Heard of Kinky Friedman? Heck, I interviewed Ol’ Kinky once for a magazine article I wrote about the Lone Star Roadhouse in New York. We had a real nice visit, too.”

• “A college roommate thought my mother sounded exactly like Lady Bird Johnson.”

After two years, what does it all mean? I’m still unattached, and still flogging TexasHoldEm© brand boyfriend in the marketplace of romance. I now know that a thin and erasable line separates amor from amoral. I have gained some great friends, slurped enough Starbucks coffee on first dates to float the Battleship Texas at San Jacinto, collected passport stamps on jaunts to Canada and Brazil, endured a few sleepless nights staring at my bedroom ceiling, and was given a kabbalistic key chain from Israel, a gift wrapped in bittersweet memories (don’t ask why). I’ve learned the gut meaning of B.B. King’s song “There Must Be a Better World Somewhere” with the lyric, “Every woman's got a license to break my heart, every love affair is over before it gets a chance to start.” What would I do differently? Almost nothing.

However, like a good salesman, I do fine-tune my message based on market feedback and experience. Sometimes I’ll even micro-market to a target demographic of one. Musing on my “perfect first date,” I wrote in a profile, “If we're really clicking, then we can share glasses of Agavot, my favorite kosher tequila, and that can give the encounter a special glow and, well, momentum.” Tequila Agavot is, in fact, a product that mi amiga in Mexico, Ana Gilda, has developed. As her unofficial jefe de communicacions, I’ve helped Ana Gilda revise her marketing and media plans, and that includes talking up Agavot on websites . . .

The biggest refinement? I’m moving away from TexasHoldEm. Even the best marketing can benefit from a fresh approach, so I tested a new name on MSN chat. As with TexasHoldEm, it emerged full blown from my churning synapses: El Van Van. It intrigued chat buddies, so the name has potential as a conversation starter. I like El Van Van because it puts a bright spin on my prosaic first name. On a less obvious level, it reflects my evolving interests in languages and music. Now, who can decipher some of its other meanings?

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