Pity the modern male.
Since Sept. 11, men have read story after story about women chasing Ground Zero rubble-clearers and cat-calling construction workers. But just when single guys are all set to strap on a tool belt and adopt that tousled, unpolished look, they encounter articles about how women want chivalrous men, a la Meg Ryan in the new movie, "Kate & Leopold."
To make their dating woes worse, they're seeing this alarming news: The number of available women is reportedly shrinking.
Little wonder men are losing their hair.
For both men and women, the formula for finding and keeping a mate has become, in recent years, a topic of fascination in books, movies, and the media - even more than usual, as the number of single Americans has grown. But all the analysis - such as using gender ratios to predict marriage possibilities - is starting to make some guys rethink their own dating lives and how single men are portrayed in the media.
"There just seems to be this surge of coverage.... If you're single, it can mess with you," says Jeff Martinez, a 30-something professional in Aurora, Colo. "I think the singles reading these stories - myself included - might be inclined to jump in as soon as they can, believing they'll be alone unless they connect immediately."
It's not just the reported rush toward couplehood, but men's prospects, too, that is making news. The Wall Street Journal recently used birth rates and census figures to predict a shortage of marriage-age women in the next 10 years for guys who are in their 30s and 40s. Currently, it said, numbers of single men and single women ages 30 to 44 are about the same.
That story caught the eye of many men - some of whom say they don't believe it. "There's [already] a shortage of marriage-age women who are not completely psychotic," quips Peter Shankman, a public-relations consultant in New York, who jokingly says the story was probably the result of a slow news day.
But professionals who study or counsel single people are giving heed to the report, trying to present the single man's side of things and help flesh out the statistics.
Predicting ratios of single men and women is complicated, say researchers, and includes marriage rates and environmental factors as well as raw numbers. It's difficult to predict what will happen with gender ratios in the future, but for now, they say, men shouldn't worry.
"There are still plenty of women for the men at the young end of the baby-boom generation," says Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, codirector of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University in New Jersey. The pool of single, college-educated women, in particular, "isn't shrinking," she says. "It's getting larger each year, albeit at a slower rate than 10 years ago."
Still, pairing off single men and women isn't without its difficulties. While some men are content as singles, others complain of feeling invisible - not invited to social or family activities with married couples, for example, unless it's to be fixed up with one of their single friends, says Helene Stein, a psychologist who writes a column for The Boston Globe. She also confirms what others say: that men network less than women do, and, like their female counterparts, find it difficult to meet single, likeable people as they get older.
Men report, too, that they feel left out of public discussions about singles. "It's a very difficult topic, because guys don't like to talk about this," says Ms. Stein.
It doesn't help that popular men's magazines bombard men with images and articles about their bodies, sex, and how to win a mate, Stein writes in her Dec. 13 column.
What single men say they'd like to see in the media is more coverage about average guys just making their way in the world. That might not sell papers, but it would present a wider spectrum of men's lives, now that Maxim magazine sets the tone, they say. That, they add, might give women a better idea of what modern men are really like.
Not that today's men have got women figured out, either. In the recent movie "What Women Want," Mel Gibson had to resort to mind-reading to understand the opposite sex. Today's guys just want to know if they are supposed to hold the door open or not.
If the trend stories are true, women today want hunks in hard hats who also pull out the chair. A November poll of 5,000 single women by the online dating service Match.com found that 30 percent of women said a firefighter was "the most eligible and desirable date," followed by a teacher at 24 percent, and a CEO at 21 percent.
News that chivalrous men are all the rage is not such a bad thing, say some men.
For the average guy, "it can give them some encouragement.... Even in small ways, guys have been dissuaded from being gallant to women," says Marc Kusinitz, co-author of the book "Celebrating Single and Getting Love Right: From Stalemate to Soulmate."
He says there are ways to reconcile women's seemingly conflicting priorities.
"I don't think being macho excludes being chivalrous, especially if there is going to be a shortage of marriageable women." Under such conditions, he adds, men will figure it out.