Friday, March 09, 2007

The Pursuit of Dating

One afternoon, across a crowded coffee shop, The Professional Dater saw a man she liked. Uncomfortably aware of herself, she grew still, losing her train of thought. She pulled at her sweater, perspiration breaking fast.

"I'm so nervous," said this woman who makes a living teaching others how to find love.

Because The Professional Dater, despite all her years of know-how and experience, is not impervious. Because The Professional Dater, for better and worse, is currently single. And because she has already decided what she is going to do next.

She wrote her phone number on a scrap of paper. Just her number. No name. No explanation. And when the man in the blue shirt walked by her table, she abruptly turned in her seat and without a word or as much as a lingering gaze awkwardly planted the paper in his hand.

"You have to try," she said. "You have to take chances. That's what I tell my clients."

Her name is Alma Rubenstein. She is 37 years old and the founder of The Professional Dater, a local company that offers personal romance consulting; she is a dating coach, matchmaker and adviser on matters of the heart, wardrobe and grooming.

She is a former actress who occasionally finds work doing television commercials, the latest being an online ad for Norton, the antivirus software firm. Once in a while, she receives small royalty checks for a movie in which she had a bit role.

But if you recognize her, it probably is from one of the many reality dating shows she has appeared in, including "The Bachelor," "Blind Date," "Chains of Love and "Single in L.A." -- "every cheesy reality dating show known to mankind," she said, "and I'm still single."

She is, to those who really know her, more vulnerable than she appears. In her own love life -- her own quest for a mate -- her judgment isn't flawless, and she doesn't always practice what she preaches. So, how does she qualify to coach the lovelorn?

She can cite no formal credentials beyond the fact that she studied psychology in college. She is, however, always the romantic and willing to take risks others are not. Her informal credentials seem to be a finely tuned sense of empathy, and a thousand-mile journey of her own tests and failures. And she is persistent.

"Being an actress for 10 years, all the world was rejection. I don't even hear the word 'no' anymore," she said.

As an industry, her line of work is small and discreet, although anecdotally such services seem to be growing, in spite of -- or perhaps because of -- the proliferation of online dating services like, which Rubenstein herself has used.

"I noticed there are tons of online dating services yet everyone is still staying single," Rubenstein said. "There was no one to bridge the gap between the people and the services. I provide the education."

It is not cheap. She charges clients upward of $2,000 to counsel them for five weeks, less if they want a one-day consultation and makeover, what she calls a "kamikaze" session. The work can be intensive and deeply personal. It is not uncommon for tears to be shed, and secrets revealed. Bad habits might be broken. New shoes might be purchased. Taking risks is encouraged.

Being single and being The Professional Dater "goes both ways," said Nawell Huff, another dating coach who works with Rubenstein. "People think, 'Is she really going to teach me what I need to know?' But they also think it's better because we'll be able to understand what they're going through."

Rubenstein hosts speed-dating nights, and mixers, and generally leads a life that can be described as a form of hard-line, militant, singles activism: "Always be flirt-ready. Is your car clean? ... Get rid of your ugly clothes. All your clothes should be your good clothes. People are starving to make a connection! Women want men to be direct! Don't run away from that weird feeling in your stomach, run toward it!"

Besides Huff, she employs three other coaches of various ages and an office assistant, and has a business partner.

Brian Ford is, in many ways, a typical client. He is 39, recently divorced, a software designer for Microsoft, where he has worked for more than 10 years -- which is why money "was not an issue" in hiring Rubenstein. He didn't date much before he met his wife, to whom he was married for six years, and hasn't dated much since.

Ford met Rubenstein at a singles event held in a casino called "Leap for Love." She had a booth there. He was sold within minutes. "She talked about her own vulnerabilities," Ford said. "She seemed very down to earth and understanding."

During their second session, she dissected his personal life, sorting out the unhealthy relationships she thinks he has with his ex-wife, mother, and brother. She nudged him to tap into his passions beyond work. Within months, he quit his job. It is a fine line between therapist and date coach.

"A therapist is not going to tell you to cut your nose hairs," she said, "or be your wing woman, or fix you up with somebody, or go shopping with you."

To hire her is to hire someone to be your very honest, very proactive best friend for five weeks. She will groom you and dress you and compliment you, criticize you, and repair you. She will teach you, in a sense, how to be her. She is very good at being single. And, as she points out, she is not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing.

She has been in love twice but has never been married. She has made good decisions and bad ones. But luck can change in a Seattle minute, and a few days after she encountered the blue-shirted man in the coffee shop, her phone rang and he asked her out. A week later he was "awesome," and shortly thereafter she reported in another e-mail, "Typical Seattle man. Needs help pushing the envelope. I am in a constant struggle with passive men. Help!"

Rubenstein found herself embracing a familiar consolation: It had been a learning experience, something she could take forward, perhaps use in counseling clients. As for herself ... well, The Professional Dater is still single. But she has hope.

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