Desperately seeking simon

In New York, straight single men are thin on the ground. What's a single woman to do? Play it by 'The Rules', that's what. Liesl Schillinger reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
There is a human tendency, not to say a particularly American human tendency, to seek the answers to life's romantic predicaments from an authority who supposedly knows all. Among Manhattan's sages, Cynthia Heimel has long reigned as queen with her acerbic collections If You Can't Live Without Me, Why Aren't You Dead Yet?!, Sex Tips for Girls and Get Your Tongue Out Of My Mouth, I'm Kissing You Good-Bye! Her chief cohort is Sydney Biddle Barrows, a fortysomething, hardnosed, blue-blooded New York socialite who was busted in the Eighties for running a high-class call-girl ring. She now writes winking boudoir offerings such as Just Between Us Girls, which instructs anxious wives to keep their husbands panting via peek-a-boo lingerie and gymnastic bedroom antics. (Her words of wisdom include: "Men who see prostitutes aren't paying for sex; they're paying for the woman to go away afterwards.")

Now the court of Heimel and Barrows is under siege. A new book has New York by the throat, or rather by the tender nape of its perfumed neck. Utterly lacking in Heimel's sardonic artistry or Barrows' saucy artifice, the book, called The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr Right, is a beribboned husband-catching primer, a sort of Austen without plot or irony, written by two married New York "relationship experts" named Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider. Fein and Schneider's rules will steam no windows. Rather, they adjure women on the prowl to act "ladylike", to avoid meeting a male's gaze, and to never, ever call a man on the phone. (You are allowed to return calls, but "rarely".) "Men love a challenge - that's why they play sports, fight wars and raid corporations," the authors explain. "The worst thing you can do is make it easy for them." Of course you can talk to a man you like, but only if you don't want him to fancy you. "It's very simple. If he calls and asks you out, it's the Rules. Anything else is conversation." The Rules are retrograde, sexist, dispiriting, insulting and infuriating. Worst of all, they work. I know because I test-drove them last week.

After reading The Rules last Saturday, I went to a party where a desirable man of my acquaintance was going to be reading from his novel. Abiding by the Rules, I arrived late and avoided him. Following the Rules, he therefore came to me. I talked to him engagingly, attentively and briefly, then flitted elsewhere, per the Rules. When he followed me, as the Rules said he would, I again flitted elsewhere, finding a gay man with whom I discussed the musical The King and I. I used the Rules on the gay man just for practice (listen and react, draw them out, don't talk a lot) and when he began after a little time to discuss the possibility of having children, I flitted elsewhere again, marvelling at how immediately the Rules' results kicked in.

Usually, I stay at parties until the host has donned pyjamas, got out the breakfast cornflakes and begun to shake the box piteously in a desperate move to persuade revellers to push off. Per the Rules, this time I left early, although it was hard not to melt when the man I liked implored me not to go. Still, I remembered the Rules' stern warning: "You must experience some delayed gratification in the first few months of the relationship ... has wearing your heart on your sleeve ever gotten you anywhere?" and went to another party, where there was dancing and music, and a hundred or so friends. Following the Rules, I asked no one to dance, and was rewarded by being asked by the delectable one with whom I had wanted to dance in the first place.

Returning home, I found two phone messages from ex-boyfriends who never, ever call. Per the Rules, I did not return the calls on Sunday. The men called and left messages a day or two later. (Remember, these are men who never, ever call.) Again, I ignored the calls. They called again, asking for elaborate dinner-movie dates for the evening of the call. Per the Rules, I ignored them, then called a day later, informing them how glad I was they called, and how sorry I was to have been out when they phoned, having had plans. Per the Rules, they will soon figure out they have to call me for dates for a couple days ahead, rather than a couple of hours ahead; and offers of marriage will be forthcoming. I can hardly wait. Now, if only I wanted to marry them, I'd really be in business.

The problem with the Rules is, if you aren't a passive, demure Pamela type, you'll catch someone with whom you can't be the Shamela you really are, which may be a wee bit frustrating. And, in the words of any New York woman, to hell with that. I took The Rules out walking in the East Village, where it was met mostly with derision. Weeding out the cafe, coffee house and bookshop patrons who explained they would find the rules worthless even if they weren't gay, I was left with a large sampling of New York women who were willing to discuss the usefulness of playing hard to get with the Rules, and men who were willing to analyse the effect "Rules women" had on them.

At Cafe Orlin, blonde, pony-tailed Susan sat with Shawon, who was Asian- American, feline and trendy, with miniature, naked kewpie-doll buttons on her low-cut pullover. "I don't think the men we know respond well to Rules," Shawon said. "Let's start with the basics," Susan agreed. "They need rules like to take showers, to keep their jobs, and not to steal." Do you agree things work better when you don't call men, but wait for them to call you, I ask. "I don't call them anyway," Susan said.

At Kastro Bar, a couple of blocks away, Lisette said drily that she "stays away from the phone," and complained: "Five guys have asked me out in the past 10 days. This always happens in New York just before summer. Everyone's looking for someone to hang out with while the weather's good. You buy a coffee, and the guy says, 'Want to go out?' You can't be too nice, or too friendly to them."

Fein and Schneider would say that Susan, Shawon and Lisette are "Rules girls" whether they know it or not. But Michael, a friend of Lisette and live-in boyfriend of her friend Maya, read something extra into The Rules. "What the book says to me is, this is the best kind of woman to marry, but if you're looking for an affair, go out and get the exact opposite," he said, prompting the overwhelming question - why make any effort to hunt a man down in the first place, much less please one in self-abnegating ways for all time?

The cornerstone of Fein and Schneider's book is that, alas, most women, once they achieve their careers and some of their goals, do conclude that a cat is not enough. When they turn their attention to finding a mate, they fail miserably because they treat would-be suitors as they treat the other projects in their life: energetically, straightforwardly and wholeheartedly. In other words, unsubtly and without mystery. "They feel their diplomas and pay cheques entitle them to do more in life than wait for the phone to ring," Fein and Schneider chide. "These women always end up heartbroken when their forwardness is rebuffed."

They illustrate every tenet with a ghastly cautionary tale of some woman who did not follow the Rules and lived to rue it, rather like the sadistic Struwwelpeter of German folklore, or like some cult that warns its carbo- stunned new members against the perils of straying from the doctrine.

New Yorkers are strangely drawn by such fare; stories of the stray dog that turned out to be a river rat and ate a woman's kitten; stories of the man who accepted the drink from a beguiling miss in a pub, then woke up in a hotel room, with an IV in his arm and a kidney missing. In the end, it may be as much out of fear as love that copies of The Rules have sold out and been back-ordered in Manhattan bookstores from the Upper West Side to Battery Park City to the East Village.

New York, the city that never sleeps, and the city in which the largest number of unmarried women in the world sleep alone, has found a new nightmare to terrify itself with: the dating game on paper. At Starbucks, Jennifer, sipping her cappuccino, seemed reconciled to the horror of it all. "Men play games and women play games," she sighed. "Let's face it, guys have their own set of rules." Clearly, a sequel is in order.

"The Rules" by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider is published by Warner Books in New York, $14.95.


1 Be a "Creature Unlike Any Other"

2 Don't talk to a man first (and never ask him dance)

3 Don't stare or talk too much

4 Don't go Dutch on a date

5 Don't call him and rarely return his calls

6 Always end phone calls first

7 Don't accept a Saturday night date after Wednesday

8 Fill in time before the date

9 On dates 1 to 3, relax, be cool and let him make the running.

10 From date 4, be warm, but don't open up to him until he's said he loves you

11 Always end the date first

12 Stop dating him if he doesn't buy you a romantic gift for your birthday

13 Don't see him more than once or twice a week

14 No more than casual kissing on the first date

15 Don't rush into sex

16 Don't tell him what to do

17 Let him take the lead

18 Don't expect a man to change or try to change him

19 Don't open up too fast

20 Be honest but mysterious

21 Accentuate the positive and other rules for personal ads

22 Don't date a married man

23 Don't live with a man (or leave things in his apartment)

24 If you have children, slowly

involve him in your family

25 Practice, practice, practice! 26 Even if you're married, you still need the rules

27 Do the rules, even when your friends and parents think it's nuts

28 If you're in high school, zap that acne

29 Wear clothes to attract men, not to copy them

30 Don't let rejection get you down. Get back out there

31 Don't discuss the rules with your therapist

32 Don't break the rules

33 Do the rules and you'll live happily ever after!

34 Love only those who love you

35 Be easy to live with