my friend Harriet, an intelligent, savvy adwoman living in New York, called me Monday morning. After some light-hearted introductory banter, she said, "Have you heard about this book called 'The Rules'? I've been following it with this new guy I've been seeing. And ... it's working."
I groaned. "No, Harriet. Don't tell me you've come to this."
Even I had heard about "The Rules," a horrifying little paperback that has parlayed an amazingly retro list of husband-hunting tips into bestseller status. It lists 30 or so rules that "girls" should follow when trying to catch a man, to wit: Never call him. Never talk about yourself. Always be the first to get off the phone, and within 10 minutes. Never ask a man out. Never look at him for a long period of time. Always appear happy and busy...and so on.
"Is this a joke? Is this one of your zany performance art pieces? Are you on the speaker phone?"
"I'm serious, Courtney. I didn't like the idea either. I thought, this will set women back about 25 years --"
"How about 125 years?"
"Men like a challenge," she said petulantly. "This book is step-by-step instructions for how to play hard-to-get. And it works. I'm telling you."
"Great, Harriet. " I thought about those verbs: "play," "catch," "hunt." What kind of guy would fall for that crap? Here was a smart, vivacious, sociable, beautiful 36-year-old woman, a Fulbright scholar, bilingual with, yes, her share of neuroses like us all. No more desperate than any other of my single friends.
"Okay," I said. "Tell me this. Do you really want the type of guy that would be turned on by manipulation? Water seeks its own level, you know. Whatever happened to two adults coming together over shared interests and values, with a vision of creating a partnership?"
I could hear Harriet thinking, "Seems like I've touched a nerve," but I continued. "Men aren't adversaries. They're not children. It's misogynistic to take this book seriously and what's more --" I sputtered, " it's misanthropic."
"I used to think like you do," Harriet said lightly. "But I grew up."
All this talk of ensnaring made me late to my weekly 10 a.m. coffee klatsch in cold, foggy North Beach. I was going to meet my friend Leonard, a man who, like many people in San Francisco, seemed to have endless amounts of time for chatter and no visible means of income. An ex-schoolteacher, he was a big-hearted, soulful man whom I knew would be as appalled as I was by my Harriet conversation.
I found him sitting benignly among foam-crusted espresso cups, beret-clad, talking to a man sitting across the table.
"Leonard," I began, "have you heard about the new Satanic Verses? It's called 'The
Rules' and I want to know how you, a 50-year-old divorced man, view this incredibly distressing backlash --"
Leonard held up his hand. "Courtney, this is Ben. He's a lawyer, and an old friend of mine." I shook Ben's hand impatiently. "Watch what you say to Courtney, Ben. She's a writer."
"Yes, yes. Leonard, listen to this--"
"What do you write about?" interrupted Ben smoothly.
I sighed. "Sex. Dating. Mating. Food, too. Now, Leonard, I talked to Harriet in New York and --"
"Really? Sex?" Ben said. "I was just telling this girl I date that sex used to be a very open, beautiful thing in San Francisco."
I sat down with my back to him. "This book," I continued, directing my speech to Leonard, "is not a good thing." Suddenly I looked at Ben. "Wait a minute. 'Girl,' did I just hear you say? Just how old is this girl?"
Ben scratched his grey head. "I don't know. 30?"
My ears pricked up. "And you are all of..."
"Fifty," he said helpfully. "All the girls I date are at least 20 years younger than me. Denny here --" pointing to a man sitting across the table who was talking loudly on a cellular phone -- "only dates girls who are about 24 or 25. He's 44."
Denny nodded to me, listening to his phone with a grave expression on his face.
"Well, congratulations," I said. Between Harriet's conversation, "The Rules" and these two aging Lotharios, I thought about just going home and going back to bed. "Would it be too far a leap to guess that there's no one steady girl in your life?"
Ben shook his head, wrinkling his nose as if I'd suddenly emitted a gross smell.
"I see. Okay. And why, may I ask, do you date such young women?"
"Why?" Ben repeated, as if the thought had never occurred to him. "I just like them. I don't know why. Older women don't do it for me."
Denny snapped his phone closed, but not before I heard him say "Well, she tried to do it once before, so up the dose to 60 milligrams and we'll see if that doesn't help."
He smiled at me. "Why do we go out with younger women, did I hear you ask? I'll tell you why. Because we can."
There was a pause. Leonard, who likes women within five years of his own age range, rolled his eyes and shrugged. "Do you want a latte, Courtney?" I shook my
head. "How about a martini?"
"How old are you?" asked Denny. "By the way?"
I gathered up my wool sweater. "Fifty. I've aged well," I said.
They both nodded. As far as I can tell, they actually believed me.
"But you two
better be very careful in the next few years," I said as I got up. "There's a book circulating
that's aimed precisely at that ring finger on your left hand."
As I trudged up the hills, mentally preparing my speech to Harriet, I realized that I had judged "The Rules" too hastily. I'd just met its future victims face to face -- I should be appreciative. Oh, of course it was degrading. Of course it was cynical beyond our wildest expectations. It encouraged women to become feline con artistes and depicted men as oafish lab rats willing to do anything to avoid the C-word. But hell, if it helped pluck Denny, Ben and their ilk from the cafes of North Beach and into matrimonial obscurity, I for one would be happy. They deserve "The Rules."
And as a final aside to "Rules"-toting girls: Thank you for getting those guys out of the dating pool.