That’s an old chestnut of a question.  It comes from some faraway period of my life before real adulthood brought less theoretical problems to think about. Does its reappearance in my consciousness now mean real adulthood is over?

So here’s the story. One of the two periodicals I’ve subscribed to for a long time is The New York Review of Books. (“NYR” for short.) NYR is a large, classy intellectual publication that addresses such subjects as (from the latest issue) the art of Gerhard Richter, includes lengthy reviews of books about how Austrian economists fought the war of ideas and about Greenland’s buried past, and – more accessible, at least to me – a consideration of The Mirror and the Light, Hilary Mantel’s conclusion to her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, and a detailed account of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s astonishing performance as the nation’s emergency responder in chief in these difficult coronavirus times. In short, some stuff I skip, and some stuff I read. Which means there’s never an automatic yes when it’s time to renew. I have to do cost/benefit analysis.

What almost always tips the scale in favor of renewal is the Personals column on the last or next-to-last page.  During the long period of emotional draught after divorce from the father of my then nearly grown children I sporadically availed myself of its expensive services. (You pay by the word.) The results were interesting although not ultimately successful. But even if you’re not offeror or offeree, the ads are fun to read. Such as (again from the latest issue): “Slim, stunning blonde in her youthful 50s, accomplished, light-hearted, warm, seeks bright, successful gentleman 40s-60 for deeply loving partnership. Let’s laugh until our tummies hurt. Reply with bio/photo in confidence: Phoebe (and an email address).”  Or, from the opposite sex: “Semi-retired professional, slender, athletic man in NYC seeks elegant woman 47-60 with reciprocal qualities to discuss James (Henry), Strauss (Richard) and for cultural events, travel, and the rest. Photograph/note reciprocated. Dicorinemo (and an email address). “

“And the rest?”  “Tummies?” Who are these people? More to the point, who — if anyone — responds? There must be some results for some happy subscribers, else this feature would not have continued to bring in shekels to NYR for more decades than I can recollect.

Last January, NYR offered a contest to its readers. Submit a Personals ad suitable for Valentine’s Day and the winning entry would be published in the Valentine’s Day issue for free! Second and third place finishers could opt to publish at half-price.  It was nearly midnight, a time when – if still up — I can misplace my moral compass and lose my way. I soon dashed off a short submission which pretty much reflected how I was feeling at the moment.

My ad had many flaws as a real-life solicitation. It was silent as to age, geographic location, size or shape, education, tastes or interests of the desired respondent. Nonetheless, it implied literacy, some assets and preparations for the end. So let’s see what happens, I thought. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. And if I don’t win, it doesn’t run. A responsive email from a NYR person arrived two weeks later. I had tied for second place. Did I want them to publish what I’d written for $55?

$55 is a bargain for a NYR Personals ad. And I grew up in an era of pen pals.  Even if only one lonely heart in Arizona wrote back, wouldn’t that be worth carrying on with for a while.fullsizeoutput_10e0

Reader, my second-place ad showed up in mailboxes all over the NYR-reading world on or around February 3:  “F to M: Don’t want to go gentle into that good night?  How about we make a big ruckus together and startle all the heirs? NYR Box 68305.” 

Who do you think responded in the two and a half months since then?  What is the sound of one hand clapping? However, NYR forwards responses to its boxes for six months after ad placement. This crazy (old) lady therefore suggests to any crazy (old) man with a free hand that there’s still time.






It has been pointed out (by a male reader who lives with me) that yesterday’s piece on playing the personals contained nary a word of advice for men.

Although it often seems to women getting a bit long in the tooth that there are absolutely no available aging men, that appears to be wrong. It seems there are lonely and mostly unattached men in an appropriate age bracket who sometimes wonder if answering an ad might be the way to go.

I say “mostly” unattached, because avowed cheaters also play.  (And the unavowed?  Well, as Fats Waller used to say — one never knows, do one?)  As to what is an “appropriate” age bracket, I leave that to the ladies.  Do you really want a toy boy? How much are you willing to pay?  I also hope I have already made it perfectly clear in my last post on this subject that I have absolutely no advice for the young.  As if they’d take it if I had it.

With those caveats out of the way, let us try to level the playing field by proceeding as far as we can.  Which is not very far.  However, I do know some things:

  •   Men don’t really know what they want.  Besides hot sex.  Which they can’t ask for in a respectable publication, the only kind we will be considering today.  And which they might not be able to maintain in a long-term relationship. (Hereinafter “LTR.” If there is a “‘hereinafter” to the first date. Often there isn’t.)  Come on, guys.  Get real.  How much Viagra can you afford?
  •  Men of any age get many more responses to their ads than women do.  It therefore makes more sense, for both LTR-seekers and the other kind, that a man place an ad than answer one.  On the other hand, placement has its costs, how large depending on how many words you need to make yourself appealing.  Whereas answering is free!  No matter how many you answer! So you decide.
  • Men may not care about spelling, but most women do.  They also care about punctuation, and paragraphing, and vocabulary.  Answering an ad by e-mail is like sending in your CV for a job.  Women may be eager to give you a chance, but usually not if what you write looks as if you need to repeat third grade.  Unless you’re the reincarnation of Marlon Brando in Streetcar, and still have the torn white T-shirt, take care what you write.  Or use spell-check. Or only answer ads where you can telephone.
  • Men should not ever send out an e-mail like one of the following.  These were among the responses to an ad much like the one which ended my “Playing the Personals” post, but in which I described myself as possessing, among other desirable qualities, “warmth” and “a kind heart.”  Big mistake. (As you will see).  But did I really deserve what came back to me?  I have changed all the names, e-addresses and geographical locations, so that no public embarrassment or shame should ensue. Private embarrassment is between the authors and their maker.  I have not changed anything else.  I kid you not.

1.  From:  “devbanerjee” <booridev@frontier.net>

Dear Kind.

Although your message was for a 60+ man, I thought I might be apologized if I tried to reach you out with something that has to do with the basics of the values you carry, especially warmth and kindness.  Based on my own progression through life, I do hope that the experiences you have had in line with maturity and love will make you accept my offer of friendship based on understanding , honesty, integrity, understanding and mutuality.

I am a male, 26, currently a MBA student here in Washington, from Pakistan.  I value a friendship with someone on a higher scale of maturity and wisdom and am envisioning of our friendship building up to a height exceeding that of Mt. Everest and of our breathing in the beauty and spirituality around the unsurpassed grandeur of the natural beauty in the “hanging” valleys, “flowing” meadows, and “static” rivers and waterfalls there.

I recognize your hectic professional life; yet, something in the depth of my mind and values guide me to the waiting point until you show up at least briefly with your message.  I will more than appreciate that and will tell a lot more of myself soon afterward.

Sincerely, Dev Banerjee

At first I thought all that about Mt. Everest and the natural beauty of valleys and rivers and waterfalls — “hanging” and “flowing” and “static” — was code.  (I know, I have a dirty mind.)  But then I decided he was just lonely and got carried away.  After all, he was only 26, younger than my younger child.  Or maybe that’s the way they begin courtships in Pakistan.

2. From:  amvetserv@mindspring.com

Hi Boston.  A strange thing happened to me today I was reading The NY Review I saw your note and thought how perfect, is it possible what are the odds no way? maybe so. I had to respond so hear I am what next?  I must be the person you are looking for because you are exactly the type person I am looking for.  It is like I wrote the same add for someone like you.  It is crazy does any one really find someone like this.  I am an eternal opponents, so hear goes. I am a 48 yr. Old Ret. Major from the US Army.  I am working for a PUBLICATION as investigate reporter and travel all over.  But here is my secrete my true passion is writing, I think I may have a book or two in me. When I am not on the rode, my base is in Houston. I also like the good life and I am looking for A kind WARM leading Lady in my life to share it with.  If there is a interest drop me a note. I am looking forward to hearing from you.  Best Regards, George

You may be surprised to learn I told myself not to be a snob and answered George.  (It’s true about the kind heart.  Not a good thing to mention in an ad, though.)  George never wrote back.  Maybe his work as investigate reporter for a PUBLICATION kept him too busy. But I think it was my spelling and punctuation and paragraphing that put him off.

3.  From:  <Migueldr00@hotmail.com

A long “HELLO!”  Great-looking, kind-hearted Bostonian, Is your meaning of a “long hurrah” an exclamation of deep joy or a hint at commotion?  Is it the second tender movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth or the turbulent first of Mahler’s Sixth?  What a pleasant exciting surprise to find you!  I have to close my eyes…and believe…from what you write…that you are not only charming but smart, clever, playful and…passionate (in a controlled, witty way).  The good, passionate kind, the one with the smooth layer of chocolate mousse covering the volcanic rush of fantasy.  I want to steal your attention with inquiring looks and searching words.  Knowing a woman, for the first time, is to pin the eyes on her face and savor the honey of her smile, as she averts her face in a feminine gesture of divine shyness.  Hurrah to you, my kind-hearted darling…a long Hurrah that is a cry of joy, longer than a sigh, deeper than a tear, prettier than a kiss, as when a man meets a woman and feels the flesh quiver with the anticipated thrill of dreaming he is touching her tenderly…on her lips.

With friendly tenderness…and all the comparable qualities…and more.  Miguel in Delaware

See?  Hot sex.

 4. From: Calvin P. Kimberly <CPK4445556@isd.net

Dear Nina, my name is Cal Kimberly, I live on Gardiner’s Island and have a son in Boston named Dirk who has a son of his own.  I’m 82, though friends tell me I can pass for someone of 60.  I am married to Dirk’s mother, Penny.  She is totally quadriplegic after surviving a car crash eight years ago.  An excellent practical nurse and i provide care for her. Her condition can only be described as “complete invalidism.”  To be honest, I have written to several females who placed “personals” in TNYROB and sounded kind-hearted enough to listen to my angst.  Most were in New York, but if you know Long Island you will realize that I could easily take the ferry to Greenport on the North Fork, and then another ferry to Connecticut and come to Boston to see you.  I might also put my wife in a constant care facility and then locate in Providence which is cheaper than where you live but still only a quick journey to the larger city to the north.  I will see if I can arrange a visit to my son for some time later this month, which will give us a chance to meet and see how our chemistries mix at that point.  Cheers, Cal


Men, think twice before clicking “send.”

Ladies, remember it’s a long long road.  Yes, there might be a Bill at the other end of it.

But I do have something to confess. He didn’t write.  He telephoned.  And he had such a nice voice.  I only found out later he can’t spell for beans.



[Caution: The advice dispensed below is not meant for persons in the full bloom of youth.  If you’re part of the hook-up generation, other rules will apply, of which I am entirely ignorant.  Persons of an age between hooking up and giving up should proceed only when no better option presents itself.  Persons who’ve already given up should change their minds.  Where there’s life, there’s hope.  Also a few laughs.]

I once had a plumpish friend who wanted to meet another Bill.  Whether another Bill would have wanted to meet another her is another question entirely. One I cannot answer.

She meant, of course, that I should give her some tips on the use of personals ads to produce a dear companion of her very own.  [It is true that Bill and I found each other in the back pages of Boston Magazine.]

This was four years ago, when she was sixty-nine — my very age when I ran that fateful Boston Magazine ad.  She may have felt I would have some expertise in this area because she knew I had been advertising, and answering personal ads, on and off, for nearly thirteen years before the lightning bolt from the heavens that put an end to all that.  (Although I do admit to sometimes still taking a peek at the back of The New York Review of Books — the gold standard for this kind of thing — where you can find ads from some really weird guys over which to chortle in the bathroom.)

I promised to consult my files in the basement and get back to her with sample ads, and the responses.  In the meanwhile, I urged warming up copywriting skills and adopting a proper frame of mind. I even wrote it all out for her, at considerable length:

“You must be clear about the demographic to which you are marketing yourself.  It is exactly like advertising.  Forget  truth as you know it.   The ad can’t lie, but it doesn’t have to lay everything out, either.  And it must seem to offer what the customer may be hoping for, without use of words like “luscious” and “lovely,” which nobody believes anyway.

“Actually, I’m pretty sure by now that men who do personals have no idea of what they’re looking for.  The ones under seventy usually say they want “thin” or “fit” — and “sweet” or “understanding.” But what they’re really hoping for is someone they can talk to (meaning someone who will listen, not argue), who is presentable and  — please God! — exciting.

“Maybe the ones over seventy are hoping for the same thing, and keeping their fingers crossed that everything will work the way it used to if “exciting” does come along.  But I have less experience with this age group, other than Bill.

“Be that as it may, I will in due time send what I can find.  In the meanwhile, you might study the personals run by women in The New York Review of Books.  Not the long, fulsome ones that sound as if they’ve been drafted by professional matchmakers, but the three-liners from older women who don’t sound needy.  I don’t know how successful these ads are, but some of them strike me as the right approach.

“Be warned that once you embark on this project, it will be hard work, and often discouraging  You have to keep up appearances.  Which means staying away from strudel and chocolate and investing in a full-length mirror and hand mirror, so you can see what your butt looks like and do something about it if necessary. You might even consider  acquiring a few new outfits somewhat less reminiscent of Woodstock than what you wear whenever I see you.  (Think Mrs. Exeter, if you ever looked at Vogue in the old days.)

“You also have to be tough, while staying not tough — meaning you have to not care too much or get too discouraged or hurt too soon.  Remember:  it’s a numbers game, you never can tell, and even if it comes to nothing for a long time it can be more interesting than staying home and waiting for Mr. Wonderful to wander in off the street, get past your doorman, and make his way up to your apartment to discover you hanging out in front of the screen in a scruffy bathrobe — clutching a fork and a whole Sara Lee cheesecake.

“You will not get many answers.  Not if you are specifying a man aged 65-75.  (Some who reply may even be older.)  Don’t be too quick to send them packing, even if they sound grumpy or whiny or full of braggadocio.  Let each one have a chance — at least a little chance.  You will learn something from each one, about yourself as well as about the man.

“Don’t give your last name or address when you answer.  Pesterers can be persistent.  Meet for the first time at a cafe or other public place, carrying a red rose between your teeth for identification purposes if you must.

“You invite e-mails from me at your peril.

“P.S.  I used to be very shy.  But one does what one must.  First baby steps.  Then cautious jogging.  Then tall mountains in a single leap!  Pace.”

As for the rest of you, that should be enough for starters.  However —  not to leave you cliff-hanging — I just happen to have with me right here the last ad I ever ran.  I was 69 3/4 years old.  It appeared in the special “Valentines” section of (you guessed it) The New York Review of Books.  I also ran it in Boston Magazine, where twenty-four words or less were free:

“BOSTON/CAMBRIDGE.  Great-looking professional woman with intelligence, class, culture, charm, pizazz seeks 60+ man of comparable qualities as partner in long hurrah!”

I must have finally figured it out.  I never had to run another.