It was another first date headed for disaster.

He was a pediatrician, average-looking, anxious and uncomfortably shy. Her best friend said he was a "nice guy" when she set them up. But he'd been all thumbs at the restaurant. His balding head shone with perspiration.

She looked intently at her nails as he dabbed pumpkin soup from his tie with a napkin. How, she wondered, would she get this Palooka to take her home directly after dinner.

Both sighed with relief when his beeper went off. He had to make a house call immediately.

"It's a true story and it has a happy ending," says Melvyn Kinder, coauthor of Smart Women/Foolish Choices: Finding the Right Men and Avoiding the Wrong Ones (Clarkson N. Potter Inc., $13.95). "The best thing the guy did all night was to invite her to go along on the call."

At the bedside of a sick child, the bumbling date transformed into a confident and charming man -- a man with a commitment. The two drove to an all-night diner for coffee afterwards.

"Look for the diamond in the rough -- a lot of women secretly know that's good advice but they need someone to tell them it's okay," says Kinder, 46, a Beverly Hills, Calif., psychologist who has a lot of advice for women, especially the smart ones. With coauthor and partner Connell Cowan, 46, he wants America's women to recognize the errors of their mating ways.

"We see so many women whose lives are going along swimmingly," says Kinder, explaining that the book is based on complaints from the patients' couch. "They're accomplished and very successful, except in this murky area of personal relationships.

"The smarter the woman, the more likely she is to be frustrated and complaining about love. And the more likely she is to get involved with rotten guys."

It's a paradox, says Kinder, fueled by the go-for-it attitude that's constantly hammered into the minds of today's smart women. "You're going out for a man? Okay. Go for the very best. But sometimes what is construed as the best is illusion."

At the heart of their frustrations stands "Mr. Right." An evasive enigma, he exists only in longing, sometimes desperate dreams. Or, says Kinder, he is mistakenly seen as that dashing Casanova who inevitably slips like a greased pig from the grasp of mature commitment.

The critical problem, according to Cowan and Kinder: Smart women tend to repeat their mistakes in choosing men -- they repeatedly set their sights on men they can't have, or men who'll only hurt them.

"Women need to analyze their patterns of attraction, take stock and figure out where they've been messing up for the past few years," says Kinder. "Is there a pattern of being entranced by elusive men who offer no real promise of involvement? Are you always bored with the nice guys? Do you always choose men you want to 'save' from themselves?"

The next step, he says, is to take responsibility for the pattern of conduct. "You've got to say, 'I guess I'm drawn to thrills,' or 'I don't want to acknowledge it, but I guess I'm attracted to men who can't offer any future.' Then change the pattern."

Another problem: By trying to "have it all," some women end up with nothing.

"It's staggering the number of women who haven't been out on a date in months," says Kinder. "It's like a little private joke among therapists."

Therapists aren't the only ones laughing -- a sign Kinder calls encouraging.

*"Romance isn't everything. A single woman can, if she puts her mind to it, live quite nicely without it. Lack of romance is not, after all, fatal. It just feels that way," crack coauthors Martha Smith and Maureen Croteau in Shipwrecked in the Tunnel of Love (Recreation Publications, $4.95).

Smith, 35, and Croteau, 36, both single and willing to poke fun at the predicament of both men and women, prescribe laughter as the best medicine. Shipwrecked, they say, is a book that lists the kind of advice your mother should have given you, such as: No man worth knowing owns doilies. Forget him if his medicine cabinet has more cures for cramps than yours does. Avoid any guy who keeps The Joy of Sex on his coffee table, and asks you what you thought of page 67. Anybody who likes the smell of sweat is probably someone to avoid, especially in hot weather. Anyone who runs his finger across the top of your refrigerator isn't worth cleaning for.

But if the bad news of the '80s is that "single women over 30 need all the help they can get," as Smith and Croteau put it, they're not sure they want to hear it from a couple of men. The temptation is to kill the messenger.

Croteau, head of the journalism department at the University of Connecticut, cringes that she has come "to the point of writing about the same things two Beverly Hills psychologists write about."

Adds Smith, a syndicated columnist who describes herself as the likely offspring, were Andy Rooney and Erma Bombeck to have an affair in the complaint department at Bloomingdale's: "I think it's offensive that two psychologists with blow-dry hair styles, agonizing each weekend at their Acapulco condos over Muffie with her $8 million who still wants to seduce the gardener, should tell the rest of us what to do.

"There are a lot of books out now seizing on the topic that women have priced themselves out of the market. If you're really a smart woman, you wouldn't be buying this book for $13.95.

"But this is exactly what you'd expect from two women over 30 living in the cold confines of New England where men wear leisure suits and three or four gold chains around their necks, right?"

Wrong, says Kinder, who calls the spirited barbs and willingness to laugh at one's self in books like Shipwrecked and Stephanie Brush's Men: An Owner's Manual (Simon and Schuster, $11.95) a welcome contrast to the "most extreme polemics" of the women's movement.

"What I like about these books," he says, "is that they reflect a developing sense of humor about the dilemma. I think it is a portent of good things."

Growing optimism about a de'tente in the battle of the sexes seems to override arguments over who should be giving what advice to whom.

"The basis for our optimism," says Kinder, "is that most people today, men and women, want to get married. They're disenchanted with the single life. They want to be together . . . they want to be in a warm, secure, loving relationship with somebody of the opposite sex. Hey, we love smart women. We think a lot of men do. We're married to real strong, smart women."

Brush, 30, a barb-tongued humorist who is single and living in New York, sees similar signs. "Men want love and acceptance just as much as women do," she writes. "Yes, it is hard to believe sometimes, when the greatest compliment a man can muster is that you're a vast improvement over the years he spent in the dark watching midget wrestling on VHF. But it's true."

Kinder says the cure for the lovelorn is "just a matter of saying 'We want it. They want it. So what is it that we have to do to clear out some of the misconceptions that prevent us from getting together?' "

Smart women, he says, are becoming less reluctant to date men they previously would never have given a second look -- and that's good. "The desire for marriage in our society is so strong right now that it's not hard to suggest to women that it's okay to go out with different kinds of guys. Embarrassment of what their friends might think is becoming less of an issue.

"When I work with female patients, I push them to go out with anyone that asks them out. If you don't care about someone, you can be comfortable and relaxed and learn more about men and yourself.

"When people ask me on a personal level to fix them up on a date , the first thing I say is, 'You must go out with whomever I set you up with, because I'm not going to get caught up in that 'Is-he-good-enough-for-her' stuff."

In general, says Kinder, women need to look at the whole situation out there with new vision -- and not be frustrated and pessimistic. "They need to learn that a lot of what they see out there is the surface manifestations of male behavior, and underneath, men are struggling with a whole set of issues and dreams that are very similar to women's."

Counters Smith, "These psychologists think they have to tell us that there's a lot to be said for a guy who knows how to paint the house and fix the washing machine? We're too stupid to figure that out? They seem to think that if women go out with more kinds of men, that'll solve the problem. That's never been the problem. The problem is getting men to call back. I would go out with a guy who could fix my car before I would go out with these two."

Despite the venom at times, Smith and Croteau agree Kinder and Cowan's advice is basically sound -- especially when directed at both sexes. "I don't think Kinder and I are so far apart," admits Croteau. "It would be nice if the perfect man would come along, but I'd be happy to find just a comfortable mensh -- a real person, someone who if a friend needs 10 bucks, he doesn't have to ask why."

Smith's idea of a charming man? Anyone who can put up with her for more than 15 minutes. "The perfect man is someone who will bring you breakfast in bed, caress your body and tell you how lucky he is. Any man who likes my dog. Any man who will take you to the movies and get up at the most important moment to buy you Raisinets -- this is a guy I could marry.

"I have the same theory about men as I do about dogs -- you can find a lot of nice ones at the pound. They don't have to have pedigrees."