July 15, 1999
Self-Help for Singles
"This is an amazing book," said my friend Lynn, solemnly handing me my birthday present, a paperback she handled as though it were the Holy Grail. "But rip off the cover right away."
When I looked down at my gift, I had the sudden urge to douse my hand in hydrogen peroxide. And then, of course, my fingerprints would need to be removed so that no evidence of my owning said book could ever come to light. The cover sported more pastel than a saleslady at Lane Bryant; there was a wash of banana yellow, a splash of minty hospital corridor green.
Cutting across the cover was a long rose with a simple gold ring around its stem. I stood still with a fake smile plastered on my face as I read the hideously desperate sounding title, "Getting to 'I Do.'" Subtitle: "The Secret to Doing Relationships Right!"
This book, according to Lynn, had been passed around among her friends and had reportedly resulted in more than one engagement. Many in her circle had even gone to see the author, Dr. Patricia Allen, for a dose of her no-nonsense wisdom on catching a man. I tucked the book into my purse like contraband and drove home very, very carefully. Ratty underwear would not be nearly as embarrassing as dying in a car wreck with this little gem on my person.
"You must nourish a man's self-esteem. Women who cannot allow themselves to feel 'little' next to their man are often afraid to be vulnerable and intimate. They believe they must feel 'equal to' or, worse, 'better than' their man," Allen writes.
Wouldn't the 1950s be proud. Did this thing make the Ralph Cramden memorial reading list, or what?
The feminist in me was a little horrified, but I couldn't stop reading, which was surprising, since the last self-help book I bought was a little piece entitled "Let's Get Off Our Butts and Do It!" which I never got off my butt and read. There was also "Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway," which scared me off with its vexing "Pain to Power" chart.
No such problems with this book. I was riveted.
"Does this sound like you?" Allen writes. "You're alone, successful and the clock is ticking. ... You have dated men who seem right in the beginning, but then it falls apart...usually within the first year."
Well, that kind of sounds like me. And buried under a lot of antiquated logic about how women are "feelers" and men "thinkers," were some concepts that smacked of reason. For one thing, she has a strict no-sex-until-commitment policy, which I strongly support.
My favorite chapter was called "Oxytocin, the Love Hormone," which describes how oxytocin, a sexually stimulated hormone, triggers a bonding response in women akin to physical addiction. It's not love. It's just a potent chemical that makes you think the guy you woke up with is the love of your life. Good to know.
The allure of this book, and dozens of others like it, is that it appeals to the human need to see patterns. There is only one man! This is how he behaves! Follow the rules, and you can predict his behavior!
Like a horoscope, it's tempting to project these grand notions onto our lives, especially because some of them have the breathtaking, page-turning, ring of truth.
Would a man be caught dead reading one of these books? No, according to author J.D. Smith, a 39-year-old from Los Angeles who recently published "Life Sentence: The Guy's Survival Guide to Getting Engaged and Married." No pastel, no admonitions to "love yourself;" just a humorous look at what his "comrades in arms" have in store after tying the knot.
There's the usual stuff: Your wife won't let you hang out with your friends; your in-laws will drive you nuts; women like to shop as opposed to watching sports; certain sexual practices will trickle off noticeably. He serves up obvious information but with a cleverness and brutal honesty that men might find more appealing than roses and flowery prose.
As in Allen's book, Smith delivers some poignant insights and comes out on the side of matrimony. Marriage, he concludes, is a good thing, if for no other reason than "you'll always have a New Year's date."
His real brilliance comes in the chapter "Meet Your Wife," in which he advises men: "Always put your wife on a pedestal. You don't even notice her pimples. If you do, don't flinch."
This is great advice even if it does lump all women into that one fictive "wife." Still, I wondered if any self-respecting man would buy this tongue-in-cheek but still relationship-oriented book.
I showed "Life Sentence" to my single friend Gary. He eyed it, flipped through it and at no point treated it like a rabid ferret to be dropped with haste.
"Would you pay 10 bucks for this thing?" I asked.
Not taking his eyes off the chapter entitled, "The Bachelor Party," he said, "I'd pay $20."
Teresa Strasser is a twentysomething contributing writer for The Jewish Journal.