Zen and the Art of Cougar Hunting 

Zen Kern's cougar class: life-coaching an evolving dating paradigm

Wednesday, Jul 2 2008

They practice picking up young men at the grocery store, these older women who have never been married, or whose husbands have left them for younger stock, or whose soul mates have died of heart attacks or in car accidents. On a balmy Thursday at a hotel in Pasadena, life coach Zen Kern, simply Zen to his clients, instructs the ladies in his Cougar Class to pretend they’ve just spotted a cute guy contemplating the cereal at Ralphs.

From left, Sue "Kitty" Kreidler, Diane Lewis and Dian Van Patten Singh

Approach, he says, by finding common ground: “Have you tried these mini bagels?” Or, “Oh, you like Raisin Bran too?”

click to flip through (2) JENNIE WARREN
  • Jennie Warren

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Also read Matthew Fleischer's "Confessions of an Aspiring Kept Man."

A woman in the class tentatively hefts her shopping basket (Zen brought props). She remembers how she used to look, back in her 20s and 30s. She does not look like that anymore. She has wrinkles now. She has gained weight. She feels ugly.

“You can put on a big old fanny pack and rock it in sweats and tennies,” Zen assures her, a mischievous glint in his eye. “Being a cougar is about confidence.”

The Cougar Defined

A cougar is an older woman who seeks the pleasure of younger men. The precise age at which a woman reaches cougardom varies depending on whom you ask, but the 45-year-old woman to 25-year-old guy is a typical age differential. Beyond age, there are as many cougar species as there are women’s personalities. The unofficial clearing-house for cougar taxonomy info, Urbancougar.com, identifies a “Snow Cougar” who frequents après-ski lounges and mountain-resort town bars. She is a subspecies of Felinae generalus, who seduces as many “game young men as she can possibly handle.” Still, all must pay homage to Anne Bancroft’s portrayal of cougar prototype Mrs. Robinson, who, with those stockinged legs and that deep, sexy laugh, seduced Dustin Hoffman’s young Benjamin in The Graduate.

Zen understands that most cougar-related Web sites and cougar references in movies and on TV are derogatory. But, he points out, the definition has expanded to include women who desire the confidence of the cougar, if not her proclivity for young meat. In 1999, two women artists, Elspeth Sage and Elizabeth Vander Zaag, decided to embrace the term that had long been used by Canadian louts and created the Web site CougarDate.com — the site’s manifesto emphasizes a cougar’s financial independence and describes predatory women in their 30s as pumas. Another Canadian woman, Valerie Gibson, cemented the cougar-empowerment wing of the trend with her 2001 book Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men and can be seen on YouTube giving crisp, no-nonsense advice (“Never say, ‘I’m too old’; never say, ‘I love you’ first”) as host of last year’s Comcast reality show Cougar Camp. Other cougar reality shows are in the works.

In Zen’s two-hour class, they don’t ask the questions the latest cougar buzz raises: Is it right for older women to pursue younger men? Is it any different from 50-year-old men dating 30-year-old women? Are cougars pathetic or powerful? Are they the next great thing, representing an entirely new dating paradigm, or are they the proverbial mutton dressed as lamb? At a time when advances in beauty technology mean that women in their 40s routinely look like they’re in their 20s, when the Sex and the City girls can’t get enough of being sexy in the city, and Demi and Ashton are poking fun at their own May-December relationship, why shouldn’t an older woman compete in a game dominated by the young? Are the power dynamics of the cougar lifestyle — the predatory older woman stalking her innocent, naive young prey — necessarily more screwed up than any other kind of romantic liaison?

Zen’s students don’t want to dwell on the answers such questions elicit; they simply want to maneuver through an ever-shifting dating scene. And all of them feel the crushing judgment of a coupled-up world that wants to put them out to pasture.

Zen asks his students to stand and close their eyes. “Picture a time when you felt beautiful,” he intones. “Where were you? What were you wearing? Imagine what it’s like to be in that body. Now, hold on to that feeling.”

Methods of the Hunt

Zen’s is a strategy-driven course.

Strategy: Be approachable. Sometimes the women he works with come across as too confident, as if they are about to rein terror in a boardroom. He feels that these women, so effective in business, need to tone things down for their dating lives. “The classic cougar scares most guys,” Zen says. “[She’s] very aggressive. It’s a little bit scary. They’ll just give you this look of rarrr!

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