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Self-identified single nerds find love in geeky places
CHICAGO -- The nerds of the world have finally met their match: each other.
Thanks to nerd-themed dating Web sites, museum parties, steamily intellectual lectures, meetups at comic book conventions and yes, even a matchmaking company called Nerds at Heart, self-identified nerds are finding that smart is the new sexy.
Carrie Dahlby, 29, of Chicago sought out Nerds at Heart after becoming disappointed with the more conventional ways of connecting.
"As a shy teetotaler who attends 10-20 science-fiction fandom conventions per year, I knew I needed a place other than a regular bar or club to meet people," she said.
The one person she met online and dated wasn't a good match, and the results were equally fruitless on a singles phone line.
She struck gold at the first Nerds at Heart event she attended, meeting boyfriend Josh Rasey. Organizers pride themselves on providing a casual, low-pressure atmosphere for nerdy mingling, complete with board games, trivia and giveaways of items such as Princess Leia Pez dispensers.
Dating and relationship experts say the nerd dating trend makes sense.
"People are looking for fresh social spaces," said Cary Tennis, relationship/advice columnist for Salon.com. "There's too much heaviness in the traditional candlelit dinner, walk on the river. All those things are too heavily freighted ... with gender expectations and cliche."
Held at a bar on the North Side of Chicago, Nerds at Heart events cost $20 to $25 and include one free drink. Bathsheba Birman said she and business partner Julia Borcherts founded the company as an alternative to traditional singles events.
"The bar scene is very meat market" with no opportunities for real interaction, she said. "You're making snap judgments. I call it the '30-second' once-over."
The nerds who attend their events are looking for something deeper, someone with whom they can hold a conversation and who shares the same interests, she said.
And they aren't just for heteronerds; there's also a monthly "Queer Nerds" event.
Steve Hickson, 41, discovered Nerds at Heart and its trove of smart -- and cute -- guys after years of being single and refusing to post a profile online.
"I'm probably the only gay man I know who's never done the online thing," he said. "It just seems like so much work."
But playing Clue with a bunch of eligible bachelors was fun, and he said for once he didn't feel like he had to dumb things down.
At "Live from the New York Public Library," dumbing down isn't really an option. Not when guests such as author Christopher Hitchens and the Rev. Al Sharpton are debating heady topics such as "God is Not Great."
The library's event featuring Norman Mailer sold out its 800 tickets in just under four minutes. While Paul Holdengraber, the library's director of public programs, said he didn't set out to attract Manhattan's young, single intellectuals, he isn't surprised they're turning up.
"I really think that thinking is exciting," he said. "I think it's really quite marvelous when you hear something that has the power of transforming yourself."
And the library provides the ultimate balance of a low-key environment with intellectual stimulation.
"There are very few ... places where you can meet people that isn't a dating setting per se," he said. "Libraries are quite neutral spaces, though highly charged."
Angelique Power, marketing director for Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, echoed those sentiments in explaining why her First Friday events have become so popular with singles.
"People are longing to interact with other humans and not to do it in bars ... to do it in other environments," she said.
With a DJ, martinis and free Wolfgang Puck appetizers, the First Fridays parties draw about 1,800 people each month, though Power notes that not all of them are young or single.
Tennis said the explanation for the event's popularity is simple.
"Art is sexy," he said. "When I go to an art museum, women look, like, 20 percent better."
Many of the event organizers noted that the solitary nature of modern life -- with its cubicles, takeout dinners and the ability to create second "lives" online -- has left people hungering for real connections. Hickson, of Chicago, said that's one reason he's resisted online dating.
"I'm a romantic enough to want to meet someone and feel that electric spark in person," he said.
These nerdy/intellectual events all also carry less expectation than traditional dating scenes, organizers said. If people attending meet someone they want to date, great, but if not, at least they've gotten to beat someone at Scattergories, hear a great lecture or see some powerful modern art.
And as nerds become hipper by pop culture standards -- think Ira Glass on Showtime -- the stigma around identifying as a nerd lifts.
Managers of nerdpassions.com, Trek Passions.com and GamingPassions.com report that the sites' memberships have doubled year to year. And participants couldn't wait for a singles event at the recent Comic-Con in San Diego, said organizer Jason Essex, 37.
Back in Chicago, Nerds at Heart recently invited all nerds -- gay, straight and coupled -- to its first anniversary party.
Dahlby planned to go back to thank the group for bringing she and her boyfriend together. It's the kind of story that Birman and her co-founder live for. "We think we're on a nerdy mission," she said. "Our job is to make the uncool cool."
On the Net:
Nerds at Heart: www.nerdsatheart.com
"Live from the New York Public Library": www.nypl.org/live
Museum of Contemporary Art: www.mcachicago.org