8-Minute Dating

Published in Solano Magazine

Dating is difficult. Sure, you can peruse the magazine rack at Borders, hoping to strike up a conversation about the latest issue of “GQ” or “Nintendo Power.” Or maybe mill about in the produce department squeezing fruit until an attractive person asks you about tangelo ripeness. You could do those things, but they’re not likely to land you a date. You’ve got to be proactive. You’ve got to explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and dating services. Or at least you had to—until now. Today I’ve done it for you, endured three types of assisted courtship: speed dating, professional matchmaking and online dating. Admittedly, I haven’t conducted an exhaustive study of each, but I’ve done enough to help you decide which service is for you.

8-Minutes of Heaven

The bartender brings my beer. I take a sip, stare up at the kaleidoscope of projection TVs on the wall over the bar. Some guy sinks a three-pointer. Another guy makes an interception and gets sacked. I’m in Gillian’s Bar at the Sony Metreon in San Francisco, T-minus 15 minutes to tonight’s 8minuteDating extravaganza. The place reeks of frayed nerves and deodorant, a smell like fried wiring.

Somebody asks me a question. “You’re doing that too?” I turn, hoping the voice belongs to a woman. No luck, it’s another sap with a card. He looks like he just broke out of a cubicle at Oracle. His nametag says “Will.”

“Yeah.” I grab my card and stare at it. “You done this before?”

“No.” He tries to flag the bartender. “But I did four-minute dating once.”

“Wow. That’s rough.”

“Yeah, you’ve got time to ask where someone is from, what they do.” He gets the bartender’s attention and orders a Red Bull and vodka. “In the end it’s really just about physical attraction.”

Tonight we—all single professionals between the ages of 25 and 35—get eight minutes a date, an eternity. It’s enough time to microwave two TV dinners, endure 16 commercials or run a mile. In eight minutes, the space shuttle can reach orbit. All we’ve got to do is dupe somebody into believing we’re worth a second chance. Everybody is issued a serial number. I’m Dustin 102. Last names are strictly prohibited and phone numbers are contraband. It says so on everybody’s card: “Please do not ask anyone for their contact information or a date.” Every table in the joint also has a number. All the date cards have carefully randomized seating schedules. Every eight minutes you follow your schedule to the next table and, of course, your next date.

We get eight dates. After each one, we’ll jot down a few clues to remind us who’s who. If we like somebody, we’ll log into the 8minuteDating website and say so. If that somebody likes us, the website will dole out contact information. It’s devilishly simple and a complete steal for only $30.

8minuteDating is like a nice housewarming party crammed into a washing machine. Everyone is very polite, well dressed and just a little queasy. We stagger from date to date, chanting our mantra: “I’ve never done anything like this before!” It summons an instant camaraderie, a feeling of shared confusion. No one is in their element and everyone is in this together.

My first date is Kim 503. She markets canned and pre-packaged fruit. She went to school in Arizona. She has long dark hair and fingers like birch branches. We chat for an instant, then shake hands and charge ahead. Ann 502 is next. She sells pharmaceuticals. Once she got a tour of the really, really bad bits of San Quentin. She had to wear a protective mask and a vest. She’s followed by Anna 511, a banker with blue fingernails who really wants to be a jeweler or an art teacher. Then there’s Sarah 508, a building manager and poet. Kate 507 is tanned like a Brazilian beach bum. She studies Superfund sites and loves to be outdoors. Michelle 509 has a smile like a supernova. She’s a law student who loves roller coasters.

I bounce from table to table like a human pinball, racking up points in the form of clever notes on my date card. The evening leaves me stunned, the victim of a social bombardment of epic proportions.

When it’s over the room clears out in a matter of minutes, like somebody let an angry skunk out of their handbag. We’re scrambling for cover and comfort, running back to lives free of awkward first impressions and eight-minute interrogations. Despite the discomfort, I had a blast. I’m not sure I’d run the gauntlet again, but I wouldn’t mind watching others go trough the grinder. For more information, visit 8minutedating.com

Cheap Date

Finding the right people to date can be utterly frustrating and nearly impossible. Sometimes you need an agent, your very own human resources department to field applicants. Enter “It’s Just Lunch,” a dating service that pairs people based on interests and personality.

There are no extensive online personality tests, no profiles to create and no videotapes to make. It’s Just Lunch dating experts grill everybody over the phone and in person. They ask the important questions like “Do you like salsa music?” or “What is the capital of Mongolia?” After they get a good feel for your personality, they hook you up with a match.

Dates can be dinner, drinks or, of course, just lunch. All dates are Dutch.

The It’s Just Lunch experts, called “directors,” don’t send dates in blind. They offer a few tidbits of advice. Here’s some taken from the company’s official manifesto: “Keep the conversation light and fun! Stay away from talking about your ex. If your date should ask, politely say something positive, short and sweet then proceed to the next subject” and “Remember, anything that you say negatively about anyone else reflects badly on YOU!”

After each date, the director conducts another interview to see whether the match was a hit or a dud. According to the “It’s Just Lunch” site, there are about 1,000 eligible women and men signed up for the service in the Sacramento area. That makes the odds of finding someone who knows Tito Puente from Tito Jackson pretty good.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch. The adage is especially true for It’s Just Lunch. A year costs $1,500. That seems like a lot because, well, it is. Still, the company guarantees 14 dates during the year of service and there’s no upper limit to the number of dates you can go on. One could, conceivably, date all 1,000 eligible women or men in the Sacramento area without violating the contract.

Table for Six offers a similar service, but in a group setting. Again, everybody is thoroughly interrogated and then sectioned off according to their likes and dislikes. Then Table for Six “dating advisors” get three men and three women together for dinner or drinks. Activities are not strictly limited to meals and libation, however. The Bay Area dating service organizes ski trips, nature walks, whale watching, trips to the circus and docent-led museum tours.

The service isn’t just for romance. “While I believe a busy professional finds the greatest satisfaction with meeting someone they can share a romantic relationships with, many of our members also join because they are interested in expanding their social lives, making new friends, and developing new business relationships,” writes Julie Paiva, founder and CEO of Table for Six on the company’s website.

Thirteen months of Table for Six service costs $1,595, nearly tying It’s Just Lunch in the sticker shock category. Still, if you’re a busy professional who doesn’t have time to wander the isles of the local megamart in search of the perfect date, It’s Just Lunch or Table for Six may be worth the money. For more information, visit itsjustlunch.com or tableforsix.com.

Internet Inkblot

I have a natural, outgoing style that some have labeled as the “natural salesperson.” I’m generally likable, talkative and socially assertive. My primary intent is convincing or persuading people.

Those are not my words. They are the words of a mind-boggling program that lives on the eHarmony supercomputer. Neither the computer nor its program has met me. The two calculated that keen bit of insight after compiling the results of an exhaustive personality test. The test was created in the laboratory of Dr. Neil Clark Warren, the de-facto father and mad psychologist of eHarmony. It can, according to Warren, wring all the wicked truths out of you in 20 minutes flat.

It certainly did a number on me. Here’s another computer-generated criticism from eHarmony’s Big Blue: “One of your great strengths is your ability to communicate and talk readily. Since all strengths may be overused at times, you may sometimes talk too much.” Can’t argue with that.

The test is easy; we’re not talking differential equations here. But it’s long. God is it long. Test takers are asked to plod through page after page of platitudes and mark how they feel about each one. Here’s an example of the sort of thing you’ll see: “I feel that communication is important in a relationship,” or “I enjoy socializing in groups” or “I believe orangutans make wonderful pets.” Next to each line, there’s a scale with “strongly agree” on one end and “strongly disagree” on the other. Every radio button on the scale plots a coordinate that shows exactly where you are in the eHarmony universe. It’s a good thing, because it’s easy to get lost in there. The eHarmony universe has 29 dimensions, each one tied to a personality trait. In the end, the computer follows those coordinates to your soul mate.

The computer served up a soul mate named “Elizabeth.” Elizabeth “tends to enjoy life and share that enjoyment with others.” She “is a dependable and caring partner.” If I want to know anything important about Elizabeth—like whether she likes orange marmalade and salsa music—I will have to pay. A year of eHarmony costs $249.95.

In addition to providing me with a short list of potential mates, the computer spat out a personality profile. Some of it was insightful, but most of it read like a horoscope—wonderfully profound yet vague statements that could be applied to anybody with a pulse. The results made me question exactly how much computation was going on behind the scenes. I decided, right then and there, to test the test.

Franklin Dupont took the test the second time around. Mr. Dupont is not a happy man. He loathes contact with the outside world. He’s devious, short-tempered and terrified of commitment. He hates puppies, children and old people. Regardless, he is a lonely man and hopes that eHarmony can help him find a companion.

Again, the computer whipped up a profile that could, under the right circumstances, be applied to anybody on my block. Mr. Dupont “does not prefer to seek quick personal relationships, but rather build relationships slowly. Once his relationships are formed, they tend to be lasting.” Mr. Dupont’s perfect personality match: Elizabeth. Curious, considering Mr. Dupont hates children and Elizabeth is a schoolteacher.

I am willing to concede that eHarmony may have exposed my ruse, may have gleaned Mr. Dupont’s true identity from his answers. It’s quite possible, though, that Elizabeth is the only inhabitant of the eHarmony universe who lives anywhere near Mr. Dupont and I (we’re neighbors).

I’m skeptical that eHarmony works any better than a million other free online dating services. At sites like MySpace (myspace.com) or Friendster (friendster.com) you can learn what kind of music a person likes, what they read and what their hobbies are without getting anywhere near your credit card. Those tidbits are usually as good a measure of compatibility as any personality test.

8-Minute Dating