Venus and Mars are Bored Tonight

By Cara Jepsen

Scattered among the tomes in my home library are some titles I’m not proud of: Barbara DeAngelis’s Are You the One for Me? sports a dust jacket of plain white paper. The Sistahs’ Rules: Secrets for Meeting, Getting and Keeping a Good Black Man is by the kitchen door, next to the recently excavated How to Make Love to a Man. Hiding among my CDs is My Mother/My Self. But the title I’m most ashamed of lies in the far corner of my bedroom, spine facing in. It was recommended to me by a friend who was in the midst of a relationship with a guy who often showed up several hours late for their dates, if at all. It’s John Gray’s best-seller Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.

Gray has made a fortune playing up the differences between the sexes and passing himself off as a relationship expert. Now 45, he was a monk for nine years in the 1970s with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in “creative intelligence” from Maharishi European Research University. After that he studied est and earned a correspondence-school PhD in psychology from Columbia Pacific University. In the 1980s he was briefly married to best-selling infomercial relationship-advice guru DeAngelis, with whom he led relationship seminars. (Indeed, his five stages of dating–attraction, uncertainty, exclusivity, intimacy, engagement–sound suspiciously like her four stages of commitment.) He went solo when they broke up and found his niche after Men Are From Mars came out in 1992. Since then, he has written five more books, made 12 videotapes, sponsored 30 weekend seminars a year, and has opened 22 counseling centers. He’s also started a magazine and performed on Broadway, and he’ll launch a Mars/Venus-themed TV show and movie in the next 12 months. There is even a new CD out called Mars & Venus: A Musical Portrait of Men and Women that includes “Mars, the Bringer of War” and “Venus, the Bringer of Peace” from Gustav Holst’s The Planets.

The cover of my copy of Men Are From Mars is dented from the time I flung it against the wall after discovering that every relationship problem I’d ever had was my own fault for being disapproving when I should have been validating. At least that’s the conclusion I reached after skimming through some of the book’s minichapters: “Men Don’t Want to Be Improved,” “How Women Unknowingly Start Arguments,” “How Women Pressure Men to Talk,” “What a Man Needs,” “The Secret Reasons Women Argue,” “What Makes Men Defensive,” “How to Communicate Support to a Martian,” and, of course, “Men Go to Their Caves and Women Talk.” But since I plan to go through at least one short-term relationship in the coming year, I reluctantly decided to attend a workshop based on Gray’s latest book, Mars and Venus on a Date, which offers such groundbreaking observations as “A man is actually much more motivated to say yes to a woman’s requests when she asks him for support with an attitude that is free of strings, expectations, and obligations” and “Neither men nor women should withhold their affections and responsiveness to each other, as long as they are appropriate to the stage of dating.” Other pronouncements provoke a more visceral, stomach-turning reaction, such as “On Venus, second to a wedding ceremony, the proposal is the most cherished memory of a lifetime,” “The more successful a woman is, the less inviting to a man she may become,” and “Men love a woman with a smile.”

Gray himself does not appear at these workshops, except on video. Instead, he sends two “facilitators” to push his books. This particular event was heavily promoted on New Age radio station WNUA, which packed the Borders in Lincoln Park with mostly white singles in their 30s.

Each attendee was given a preprinted name tag identifying each of us as one-half of a couple; my identity for the evening would be Maid Marian. I resisted the urge to write “old” in front of my new moniker and staked out a spot between the career guides and Weddings for Dummies and surveyed the scene.

On the couches and carpet beneath do-it-yourself legal kits and heart-shaped balloons were more Friends haircuts, mock turtlenecks, and Seinfeld-tight jeans than I have ever seen. The air was thick with CK One. There was a hair-plug Elvis with a Caesar haircut and tiny glasses and a petite Dorothy Boyd (looking for Jerry Maguire) who confessed that this was “the only way to meet someone in this world,” as well as Juan Peron, Marge Simpson, Al Bundy, Marie Antoinette, and a white Whitney Houston. People peeked out of the corners of their eyes at each other; when their eyes met both parties would look away. I found myself doing it with a tall bald man with a Buddha smile but stopped when I realized he was one of Gray’s workers. The place was too well lit to qualify as a meat market, though: the atmosphere was more akin to an all-night laundromat.

Finally, the facilitators took the stage. The energetic, heavily cologned Jimmy Z and his equally pumped cohost Lynn gave a quick rundown of Dr. Gray’s five stages of dating. Then they let go with a few Grayisms: Making a Venusian happy makes her more attractive to the Martian. Venusians must be receptive and let Martians do things for them. Venusians must flirt, Martians must pursue. Ten minutes into it they made the first of the night’s numerous pitches for the daylong workshop–immerse yourself in the world of Dr. Gray for the special price of $99!

Next on our agenda was a video of Gray leading a workshop. He had a helium-tinged voice and the high forehead, sweeping arm movements, and too-short sleeves of a televangelist. He advised his enthusiastic audience to lower their standards and revealed that sex changes a relationship. He suggested that Venusians shouldn’t dress to attract Martians (it often leads to meeting unfavorable Martians) and explained that “these concepts are necessary if we want our dreams to come true.” It ended to applause and another workshop pitch.

Then it was time for the first game. Blank index cards were distributed to the Martians, and we were all advised to go to a section in the bookstore where we wouldn’t normally browse–that way we’d meet someone with whom we normally wouldn’t come into contact. Venusians were to flirt, Martians to pursue and ask questions. If things were going well, the Martian was supposed to request a phone number.

I walked over to the computer section and selected a book on ethics. Ten minutes into an essay by Neil Postman I was interrupted by a polite “Excuse me.” I turned to face a Clark Kent with watery blue eyes and pesto breath. He asked me about my lack of interest in computers, and we proceeded to have an awkward conversation in which I ended up asking all of the questions. Among other things, I found out that though he knew a lot of the old computer languages, he was not interested in offering his services to companies whose computers are programmed to go kaput at the turn of the century. When our time was up he politely asked my phone number. I responded with an ungracious “No.”

People were much chattier when they returned, many carrying books. Next up was the blind date game, in which we were to look for the mate indicated by our name tags. Martians again were advised to find out as much as they could about their Venusian counterpart. People moved in circles, as if they were at a roller rink, and scanned name tags to the strains of Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good.” I stood my ground for several minutes, until a passing Lucy Ricardo told me where I could find my Robin Hood. I covered my tag and did a quick reconnaissance–he was the guy with a full head of hair and tiny feet who had been staring at me ten minutes earlier. He was currently in deep conversation with a blond in a fur. I scurried back to base camp.

By that point nearly everyone had paired off neatly by race and gender. Juan and Eva Peron were both black, as were Blondie and Dagwood. My friend Clark had been paired with an even fairer Lois Lane. There were no Ellen and Anne.

After another pitch for Gray’s workshop (couples who registered now would receive a free video), four couples were selected to play a sort of Dating Game in which the Martian told what he knew about his “date.” Breath mints were passed out and questions asked about the Venusians’ earrings, occupation, and hair and eye color. Jimmy Z. and Lynn read off the names of several video winners, most of whom did not claim their prizes. After one last pitch for a half-priced workshop it was over. “Why don’t you just pay for it and we’ll both go?” suggested a woman to her partner. She must have been breaking one of Gray’s rules, because he flat out said no.

Most of the attendees exited as they had entered–by themselves. The floor was littered with index cards. While putting on my jacket I was interrupted by a dark-haired, pencil-necked Harry Morgan. He said he had been “so bummed” earlier when he saw me waiting for my missing Robin Hood and looked at me expectantly. It was the proverbial last-call pickup–in the middle of a bookstore. I considered my options. The workshop was officially over, and therefore I was no longer obliged to lower my standards. “I like being alone,” I said bluntly, dispatching Harry in less than 30 seconds and saving myself weeks of misery and hundreds of dollars in workshop fees.