May 23, 2015 4:13:00 PM
Socrates told us that an unexamined life was not worth living - so pay attention! For forty days in 2013, a couple of longtime friends paid close attention to themselves. Timothy Goodman and Jessica Walsh were graphic designer friends in New York City, and they were not satisfied with their dating lives. So they decided to try an experiment. They would date each other for a for a fixed period for the purpose of examining themselves, their friendship, and the dating life. After the experiment was done, they made it into a blog that got a huge worldwide response, and now they have made a book, 40 Days of Dating, An Experiment: One Girl, One Guy, Two Sides of a Love Story (Abrams). It is a unique look at how a couple of intelligent millennials shook things up in their lives, did quite a bit of self-examination and other-examination, had some fun and frustration, and became a media sensation whose wave has yet to crest. It is fun to read, and the book, as befits their careers, benefits from bright and entertaining graphics.
It was an experiment, and so it had to have rules. They decided on forty days because of an old adage that it takes forty days to change a habit. In their preface, they write, "At the beginning of the experiment, we established six rules designed to enforce this emotional and physical investment in each other during the forty days." And here are the six rules:
We will see each other every day for forty days.
We will go on at least three dates a week.
We will see a couples therapist once a week.
We will go on one weekend trip together.
We will fill out the daily questionnaire and document everything.
We will not see, date, hook up or have sex with anyone else.
It sounds a little like the plot of When Harry Met Sally (and there are lots of movie references in their reporting), and it is a little like the film would be if it were updated for the age of blogs, smartphones, and texting. The two of them recognized that they had opposite problems in dating, rather archetypal male and female relationship stances. Jessica writes in day one, "We discussed Tim's relationship patterns, and how he's in a constant cycle between three women. There is always one girl he's really excited about that he's trying to go out with, a second girl he's been seeing for a few weeks and is getting tired of, and a third girl he's been seeing a while and is getting ready to break up with." Jessica, on the other hand, may not be interested in marriage or kids, but she is interested in finding that one special someone and is rather quick to latch on, fall in love too quickly, and then have the relationship end amicably or otherwise. Part of the fun in reading the book is seeing whether these dynamics will play out during the experiment.
The main part of the book is 160 pages of double columns, one side Jessie's and one side Tim's, laid out sideways so you have to hold the book with the spine horizontal to read the dual accounts. These are the responses to the daily questionnaire, with regular questions like the initial "Did you see Jessica today?" (almost always answered with some form of yes), "Did anything interesting happen?" "Did you learn anything new about Tim?" "Did you learn anything about yourself?" This is where we learn about daily ups and downs: Jessica's cluster headaches and almost withdrawal from the experiment, what they like about each other, what they don't, what they did on dates, how to fit work into a dating schedule, their trip to Disney World. They bother each other sometimes, and the artificiality of the experiment is a constant theme, with each wondering how many days they would have spent with each other if there were no enforced rule of doing forty. They do have sex eventually toward the end, and that seems to have been entirely satisfactory, but there is a lot more written before that about the initial hand-holding and the lead up to it. They wonder what is going to happen when forty days is up; Tim writes, "Can't we just keep going and not talk about this stuff all the time?" They constantly analyze, and overanalyze, what is going on between them. It's not a romantic fantasy, but it is quite enjoyable reading the thoughts of two people doing their best to figure themselves out.
As you would expect from a couple of graphic designers, their book is imaginatively illustrated, and they called upon their graphic design pals to contribute, so that, for instance, the illustration after day ten is a gorgeous, psychedelic layout of the quoted words "Get comfortable with uncomfortable." There are pictures of the result of their session in a photo booth, Jessie's prescription bottles, the chocolate egg Tim gave her, their texting sessions, and more. The book is of large format, and it is all colorful and expertly laid out, with very few pages being mere text.
They did not get married and live happily ever after. Sorry for the spoiler, but what happens is more interesting. The experiment turned out to be a step in Jessica's finding the love of her life and eventually marrying him; Tim, it seems, will continue to enjoy playing around. They remain close friends, and all the closer for the experiment and what grew out of it. They did not blog their experiences in real time, and after the forty days were over, when they began putting up sequential days, they were astounded that it caught on with so many fans.
They appeared on TV talk shows, and people all over the world have written to say that their experiment has inspired them to take a closer look at relationships, and maybe even date that best friend they had not previously gone out with. Tim and Jessie have become famous. Tim writes that he has been stopped on the street by strangers to get opinions about their current relationships. "I find this particularly funny, because the very reason Jessie and I did this experiment was because we're bad at relationships." He also got propositions via text: "If you don't wind up with Jessie, and I have a shot?"
The final section of the book details the post-blog fame. "We're also about to land a book deal with Abrams very soon," they exult, and here it is. And if there is a book, isn't it inevitable that there will be a movie? Yes, and they will consult for it and maybe get to do the graphics. They are bemused but grateful. They have no regrets about anything that happened, even if they didn't work out romantically. "We went for it despite the huge risk to us both personally and professionally," writes Tim toward the end. "We went for it because we wanted to learn more about ourselves and because we had each other as friends, first, and I believe we always will." Good for them both. And I am grateful to have read their entertaining book, and to be an old married guy who can forgo such experimentation.