09/04/2010 05:50 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Caffeine Wasn't the Eye-Opener on This Coffee Date

Not at all your typical coffee date.

Anyone who denies that dating is every bit as time-consuming and soul-sucking as a regular job is either married or has gotten incredibly lucky in the dating universe. Or he's in prison, where romantic relationships take on a whole new perspective.

For the rest of us, however, it's Dating Apocalypse Now -- and maybe forever -- travelling on a patrol boat up a river through a romantic jungle. It's a perilous mission, fraught with lions and tigers and Claires, oh my.

For years, I'd been giving my second job, dating, an overabundance of weight in my life, going all out to meet the right woman and make an impression, worrying about how she'd perceive my clothing, job, car, physical appearance, accomplishments, voice, ad dating infinitum.

Then, one day, I make e-mail and phone contact with Ann, a woman who seems far less concerned with any of those -- at least to her -- superficial things. She doesn't even exercise her option for me to buy her dinner, lunch, a glass of wine or a cup of coffee. What she does suggest, for our first meeting, is that I join her for her weekly Sunday morning activity: delivering bags of donated groceries to home-bound men who have AIDS. Immediately, the usual first-date dilemmas -- like which Frapuccino drink to order -- are rendered inconsequential.

We meet Sunday morning at a restaurant/soup kitchen on Fairfax Avenue, in Los Angeles, where we're given numerous bags of groceries and a sheet of six addresses in the Hollywood and Santa Monica areas. Ann and I bring the bags of groceries to the men's homes, where they meet us at the door. They appear to be in various stages of health, ranging from very weak, with lesions on their neck and face, to completely healthy-looking. We make awkward small-talk with them, trying to keep things positive, asking one about his cat we see behind him, another about the colorful flowers outside his door. Some are more talkative than others; all are polite and grateful.

As we drive from one home to another, I think about the things in life that are so much more pressing and important than my dating desires -- matters of actual life and death. Of course, they had always been there in the back of mind, but to meet them head-on was very powerful. How minute my personal dating checklist seemed in this scheme of things.

Yet at the same time, I'm almost embarrassed to admit that I was feeling even more attracted to Ann because of her humanitarian bent. She had revealed in herself a very good side, a perspective one could have only inferred over dinner or coffee. What other virtues might she have? Was I displaying a similarly virtuous side, and if so, did she feel the same way about me? Because if Starbucks is out and volunteering is in, if we're both truly the kind of people who see the value in doing something selfless, imagine the good we could do for each other.

Okay, so I'm not totally selfless. In fact, while Ann and I were discussing volunteering and charity, I'll admit I was imagining us having our way with each other below deck on a Greenpeace ship. But that's okay, because we saved the world a little first. And if you can save the world a little, and love somebody a little, perhaps merging whale mating sounds with your own, well, that's a pretty good day.

Of course, a successful romantic relationship requires more in common from two people than simply their agreement about the value of humanitarian work. That's what Ann and I discovered on our second date, at a Japanese restaurant. Over tempura and teriyaki, whatever chemistry and rapport we'd had during our first date dissipated for no particular reason, slowly, like smoke into the sky. We both saw it leave. That is not an unusual occurrence for a couple within the first few dates. In fact, it's probably more the norm. In the past, I might have been frustrated by the disappointing outcome. But the only thing on my mind as I drove home that night was that whatever happens, even if the next twelve Starbucks dates take me deeper into the jungle, each day is a gift. And I could not wait to get back on that patrol boat.