Feb. 14, 2002

Adventures in Dating Hell
What Does A Guy Have to Do to Get a Date Before Feb. 14? You Have No Idea

By Roy Rivenburg
Los Angeles Times
I now have 71 potential wives, all scientifically selected to match my personality. If I lived in Utah or Saudi Arabia, this would be perfectly acceptable, but under existing federal law, I have to narrow it down to just one.

My fiancée collection started around Labor Day, when an on-again, off-again relationship of four years went permanently off. My girlfriend said she didn't want to get married, so I released her back into the wild.

To find a replacement, I decided to test some of the myriad dating "systems" available. And so, in the name of science, I subjected myself to five months' worth of seminars, tapes, computer matchmaking, "speed dating" and even a mass blind date aboard the Queen Mary. (Or was it the Titanic? I couldn't tell.)

The purpose was to see if a bachelor reporter could find true love before Valentine's Day. Sparing no expense, The Times authorized a $283 budget.

As a guy, I faced an immediate disadvantage because men don't have magazines like Cosmo to guide us with such articles as "Spanky Panky," "Majoring in Seduction" and "Tips to Manage a Man Monsoon."

So I had to seek courtship advice from another authoritative source: supermarket tabloids. Luckily, I hit the jackpot. The Weekly World News taught me how to "Get Any Gal You Want By Listening to Barry Manilow!" According to the article, "Men who favor the bland musical stylings of artists such as Barry Manilow, Kenny G, John Tesh and Yanni are
significantly more attractive to women, no matter how fat, ugly or stupid the guys are."

Elsewhere, I located the world's most effective pickup lines, including: "You must be Jamaican because Jamaican me crazy," "Here I am. What were your other two wishes?" and "Hi, the voices in my head told me to come talk with you."

To my astonishment, none of these techniques worked. Fortunately, I had backup plans. Next on my list was a $25 seminar on "What Women Want," hosted by an effervescent dating coach named Renée Piane.

Although I hoped for the best, I sensed doom as soon as the first panelist introduced herself. "I'm a vital energist," she said. Her co-panelists also marched to different drummers. They included a pair of "spiritual practitioners" from the New Age-ish Agape Church of Religious Science, a chiropractor, a cartoon coach and a mosaic artist.

By comparison, moderator Piane's background seemed almost normal. Well, maybe "normal" is too strong a word. In 1989, she flitted around town in an angel costume, "sprinkling blessings of love." She even accosted then-Mayor Tom Bradley at a black-tie function, asking him to name her "the official angel of L.A."

Despite such eccentricities, the seminar was entertaining and occasionally offered flashes of insight. But, overall, I'm not sure the panel represented a broad cross-section of women. For that, they would have needed more people from Planet Earth.

My next stop was a "rapid dating" event sponsored by "Queen of Fun" LeeAnn Webster, a lawyer who founded Single Solutions, a club that organizes mixers for "high-quality singles" in L.A., Newport Beach and Phoenix.

The idea of rapid dating originated with a Los Angeles rabbi. Others have adapted the gimmick.

Here's the drill: You talk with each "date" for five to seven minutes, then a bell rings. You jot down whether you liked the person and rotate to the next date. By evening's end, you've met 15 people, most of whom
are a blur, which is why you have to keep track of everyone on paper. Finally, you turn in your list of favorites. If any choose you too, the organizers forward contact information the next day.

Some liken the process to musical chairs, but I found it more akin to Russian roulette. For example, one date demanded to know how I would have handled the events of Sept. 11 if I were President Bush.

I'm sorry; I thought this was a dating event, not an interview for the State Department.

When I later joked about the Sept. 11 question to another date, a surfer named Heidi, she too grilled me on my national defense policies: "As as citizen in a democracy, don't you think you should know the answer to that question?"

Well, now that you mention it, Heidi, I do think it would enhance national security to imprison all surfers named after a certain Swiss orphan girl.

My other dates that night included a tennis fan who refused to ask any questions, a woman whose name tag said "Dog Bite" and a mother hoping to meet an adult version of her teenage son.

The mom was too Oedipal for my tastes, but I liked Ms. Bite. It turned out she had just attended a Notre Dame football game, where she was chomped on the lip by a puppy. She alluded to the incident on her name tag to keep guys from thinking the blemish on her mouth was a communicable disease.

I added "Dog Bite" to my list of favorites and was pleasantly surprised the next day when Single Solutions said we were a match. I sent her a short e-mail: "I'm not sure what the protocol is for a rapid-dating match. Do we advance from a five-minute conversation to 10 minutes? My vote is to meet for lunch."

She said that sounded great and asked me to call later in the week, which I did, but I never heard back. So I had to assume the wound on her lip developed into a fatal case of gangrene. Or maybe, because she was a
friend of Single Solutions owner Webster, she agreed to be my (only) match to avoid adverse publicity about rapid dating.

Oh well. Even if something had worked out, I still wouldn't recommend the Jiffy Lube approach to dating. As one woman at the mixer noted, five minutes is enough time to decide if you're not interested in someone
(based on looks), but it's too short to figure out if you are interested (based on emotional and intellectual compatibility, which takes longer to assess).

Nevertheless, the trend seems to be toward ever-shorter encounters. A Chicago company just introduced three-minute dating. And the next step is probably "police lineup dating," where single men and women are lined up like suspects and you identify which one(s) you'd like to date from behind a one-way windowpane.

Rapid dating probably works best for people who make great first impressions, which isn't my strong suit. Although my visage doesn't cause villagers to rise up with torches and pitchforks, neither does it
land me any modeling jobs. And I'm usually too tongue-tied around strangers (especially cute ones) to sweep anyone off her feet in five minutes. My personality is the kind that grows on people over time. Like moss.

Perhaps it was time to go digital. At first, I resisted. Even though I could justify an online personal as "journalistic research," in the back of my mind a big neon sign was flashing: "LOSER!" Curiously, several single women friends and co-workers--all gorgeous and intelligent--confided that they were envious because I had "a cover" for trying online matchmaking. But the "loser" stigma loomed large.

What tipped the balance for me was a London Times article that said even Mel Gibson hired a matchmaker to find the woman who later became his wife.

Online, there are reams of services to choose from, some catering to very specific clientele, including scientists, vegetarians, Stanford graduates, Goths, Iranians, transsexuals, bikini-clad Russians, millionaires, atheists, Christians, Italian Americans, soldiers, the overweight and "men and women from the Indian subcontinent."

I initially tried Match.com, one of the largest services, but it did a lousy job of tailoring matches to my criteria. So I chose a service geared to Catholic singles, called--what else--Catholicsingles.com.

Most online matchmakers are similar. You choose an alias (like Cahuenga, a street name that always cracks me up), embellish your vital statistics (age 43, height 5-foot-10, weight 150, eyes green, hair disappearing),
and list your favorite movies ("Groundhog Day," "Field of Dreams," "Amélie"), books ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"), music (no Manilow; just Sheryl Crow, Dylan, Beatles, REM, Shelby Lynne), foods (Italian and Mexican) and hobbies.

Posting photos is optional. I didn't because I never got around to buying a scanner--and because I feared someone I know would see it and make the "loser" label official. Pictures reportedly increase traffic to your profile, but even as a faceless knight in shining e-mail, I fared OK on the site, which cost $9.95 a month after a free 30-day trial. The essays and profiles provided a decent portrait of potential soul mates. And I managed to strike up a few e-mail exchanges and even go out to dinner with a TV producer. Had a fine time, but I'm not sure we clicked in person. Then again, I can be pretty clueless at interpreting females.

And so my search continued.

Author Philippa Courtney sent me her cassette tape seminar on "4 Steps to Bring the Right Person Into Your Life Right Now!" But I barely got into the second tape before pressing the eject button. I want no part of a system that requires me to chant, meditate or visualize my perfect mate into existence. If I thought that would work, I'd visualize a winning lottery ticket and marry Anna Nicole Smith.

I also attended a seminar by Alexander Avila, author of "Love Types," a dating method based on the Myers-Briggs personality test. His presentation was lively and fun--and he made some interesting points--but I've never put much stock in the Myers-Briggs test, which tries to lump all humans into just 16 personality types. And Avila's adaptation seems even shakier, since it relies on a skimpy 28-question test.

On the plus side, he also has a new program for shyness, which employs "a unique blend of improvisational acting, martial arts and cognitive-behavioral psychology." So if someone turns you down for a date, I guess you can karate chop them into submission.

In general, it's tough to take dating books and seminars very seriously. Although most contain at least a shred of wisdom, they're not gospel. Nobody has a magic formula for finding love. Or do they?

From the 11th floor of a Pasadena office tower, Neil Clark Warren oversees Eharmony.com, a strange hybrid of Pentium processors and pop psychology. Warren, 67, has been counseling singles and couples for 35 years. He's done "Oprah" and "Politically Incorrect." But unlike fellow relationship gurus John Gray and Barbara De Angelis, who have correspondence-school PhDs and multiple marriages (including to each other), Warren is Princeton-educated and has been wed 42 years.

In 1992, he wrote "How to Find the Love of Your Life," a modest bestseller. His thesis: Opposites attract at first, but over the long haul, they typically want to strangle each other. Better to marry someone a lot like yourself.

There was just one hitch. Where to find this doppelgänger? On the lecture circuit, people beseeched Warren for help. And that led to Eharmony. Before launching the site, Warren performed "autopsies" on 400 marriages--half miserable, half happy--to find out what made the difference between success or failure. He settled on 29 factors, such as intelligence, ambition, energy level and moral values. Then he devised a one-hour online test to measure for all 29 and match people accordingly.

Next, he did something unheard of in online matchmaking. He rigged the communication process to have matches get acquainted "from the inside out." That means not starting with photos and favorite-movie lists.
Those come later. Looks and chemistry are important, Warren said, but too often they cloud people's judgment.

As one Eharmony client from Canada confessed to me: "I would not have chosen [my fiancé] if I had seen his photo right away. But when you get to know someone from the inside first, they look different to you." In March, she and her match will become Eharmony's 46th marriage in its 18 months.

Impressed, I decided to give it a shot. Although the six-month plan set me back $149, in no time flat I racked up dozens of potential wives. Alas, most have spurned my advances. Although anyone can take the personality test and receive free matches, they can't correspond with those matches until they pay. Of the 205,000 singles registered in Eharmony's database, only 35,000 are paid members.

The progression from match to matrimony begins with a round of multiple-choice questions that range from the innocuous (Would you rather meet Thomas Jefferson or Frank Sinatra?) to the intense (How do you feel about living together before marriage?). After that, you trade lists of "must haves" and "can't stands," although the choices are so universal (must have chemistry, can't stand lying) that the exercise is
somewhat meaningless. From there, things heat up with essay questions. In the final phase, you can e-mail back and forth without restraint--and swap photos.

Eharmony is the most intriguing concept I ran across, but I do see flaws. Some of my matches seemed so out of sync with me that I eventually retook the personality test, a step that Eharmony allows when clients feel mismatched. But even after that, I'm not sure the test has me pegged quite right.

Warren has heard this before. "You may start to think, 'I thought these people were supposed to be compatible with me!'" says an Eharmony advisory. "They are compatible with you. They match your organization, creativity . . . political values and verbal intimacy skills. But your job is to determine if they match your hobbies and interests [and] whether there is chemistry."

OK, that eliminates the woman who said the most influential person in her life was "the songs of John Denver."

Warren insists the personality test is 90% reliable, but admits compromises were made to keep it breezy enough for the notoriously short attention span of most Internet surfers. For example, intelligence is measured with only four questions, all self-rated. I sympathize with the attention-span dilemma, but I'd wager people would gladly spend several hours on a questionnaire if they knew it would truly help find a soul mate.

On the positive side, at least for dudes, Eharmony is the "Surf City" of matchmakers. Like the Jan & Dean song, it has "two girls for every boy." And the psychological test is designed to weed out people who are "not emotionally ready," which further improves the gene pool. I was also pleased that most of my matches were Catholic, even though the denomination accounts for just 14% of Eharmony's membership.

But I can't say I found a valentine. I'm in negotiation stages with several promising prospects, but I have yet to ink any deals.

Which brings me to the final dating experiment. On Friday, in a last-ditch effort to find a valentine, I boarded the Queen Mary for a mass blind date sponsored by the Grunion Gazette, a Long Beach newspaper. Now in its 14th year, the event attracts about 2,000 singles at $30 apiece, with proceeds going to cardiac programs at three hospitals.

I must say it was everything I dreamed it would be. And by "dream," I mean "nightmare." That's not a slam on the event itself, which was fine. I'm simply not good at mingling in crowds. However, in the interest of science, I dutifully affixed a match number to my lapel--No. 294--and aimlessly wandered the tri-level hall.

The matchmaking process was somewhat haphazard. Advance registrants filled out a short questionnaire (vital stats, hobbies, smoking preference, religion) and then a team of volunteers sifted through the info before the event to assign matches. "We see some of the same people year after year," said organizer Simon Grieves.

Once aboard the Love Boat, there were big boards with all the match numbers, so you could see if your "date" had arrived. And volunteer cupids roamed the hall to help matches find each other. One poor soul was taking no chances. He spent most of the evening sitting at a table by the boards, anxiously waiting for his match to check in. "Last year, I couldn't find the person because I did too much walking around," he explained.

Elsewhere, guests bought drinks, danced to live music and placed silent-auction bids on handcrafted his and hers golf putters ("a $440 value"), Cirque du Soleil tickets, a dog-grooming session and a trip to New York.

Despite the long odds, some people do disembark with a successful match.

Alas, I wasn't one of them. At least not that night. While I sat at a table, commiserating with a Times photographer, a woman approached and said her friend had my match number: "But she's not here. She had a family emergency. But she's really great." So I pulled out a business card and asked her to have the friend call.

On Sunday, the mystery date left a message at work. A slight drawl and pleasant manner. But at press time, we were still playing phone tag. That doesn't bode well for this Valentine's Day, but who knows about the next.

-- From the Feb. 14, 2002 edition of the Los Angeles Times