"SJM, 37. Enjoys biking the road less traveled on cold winter nights. Never forgets to send in the mortgage check or put the seat down. Seeking dog-friendly SF sushi lover who smiles easily, looks hot in a pair of faded Levis and desperately wants to show Bush the door in 2004."
I hate being single. Most of my cousins and high school buddies have already tied the knot and are pumping out babies like Pez dispensers. Every new wedding invitation and baby picture that arrives in the mail is another sucker-punch in my chest. One whiff of the shampoo aisle in the supermarket and I fall in love with all my old girlfriends again.
Years of exposure to SUV commercials and airbrushed Maxim covers try to sell me the myth. Buck up, son! You're young! Footloose and fancy-free! Revel in your freedom! So why do I feel like a sailboat with a broken mast drifting farther and farther from shore? I can see my desired destination -- that gaggle of nubile bodies frolicking on the beach -- but I'm sure as hell not getting any closer to them just by using my hands.
Last year, I pulled up stakes and fled the barren dating wasteland of western Montana and moved 2900 miles east in search of more fertile terrain. Burlington seemed to hold a lot of promise -- Vermont's estrogen-to-testosterone ratio is definitely tipped in my favor. Here, I found the personal ads aren't the exclusive territory of thrice-divorced mothers with kids. The women in the coffeehouses aren't all married, gay or sporting vacant stares at the mention of "Iran-Contra." Well, not all of them, anyway.
But where could I dip my toe into the singles' gene pool? After nearly two decades of loitering in smoky bars on Saturday nights and large bills for a crucifying headache the next morning, all I had to show for my efforts was a crash-and-burn record worse than the Black Hawk helicopter. So, two weeks after my arrival, I succumbed to arm-twisting and agreed to give Seven Days' "speed dating" a whirl. Sounds self-serving? I hoped it would be. . .
I've never been much for organized mating rituals. Like most of us who are left standing when the music stops in the connubial game of musical chairs, I didn't want to admit I needed "professional" help. For the same reason, I'd avoided Match.com and Jdate.com, an online Jewish dating service. I've always believed dating is a contact sport that should remain as pure and unadulterated as the Olympics -- without corporate sponsors or performance-enhancing drugs. Once money starts changing hands, you're riding a Swiss bobsled down a slippery slope. Next thing you know, you're thumbing through glossy mail-order catalogs for a missus from the former Soviet republic of the month. But more on e-dating later.
I reluctantly agreed to check out speed dating, "but only as a spectator," I told Seven Days' in-house personals diva. She assured me plenty of attractive, straight, "normal" women sign up for speed dating. But if I chose to watch from the sidelines my first time out, it was fine with her. She coughed a muffled "wuss!" into her fist and gave me the 411 on the evening's festivities.
Initially, I envisioned speed dating as a public spectacle, like "The Newlywed Game" or "The Price is Right." Some helmet-haired MC with a microphone and index cards fires questions at me. When I can't remember which wedding anniversary is sapphire, I rotate offstage to join the rest of the loser contestants.
But speed dating turned out to be far less conspicuous. A casual observer would probably never know a singles event was underway -- except that it's been advertised in the paper for weeks, attracting speed-dating voyeurs of all stripes. I showed up at the bar slightly before game time, at which point I was informed that one of the men had chickened out at the last minute and another male participant was desperately needed. Suit up, son. You're starting tonight! Always the good sport, I grabbed my helmet and mouthpiece and trotted onto the field, praying I didn't get blitzed by a 400-pound lineman with facial-hair issues.
For the uninitiated, the concept of speed dating is simple. Ten women are seated at 10 different tables. Each woman is paired with a man -- assuming, that is, we're talking about straight speed dating. Gay speed dating is essentially the same game, except for some minor logistical and fashion differences. Everyone slaps on a "HELLO MY NAME IS..." ID with barely legible handwriting. Then, for the next seven minutes, the couples chit-chat, size each other up and swap dating horror stories. It's kind of a post-pubescent version of the game "Seven Minutes in Heaven," only without as much groping in the linen closet. A seven-minute speed date is just enough time to determine if there's chemistry, but not enough time to get too cozy or file for a restraining order.
When seven minutes are up, each guy rotates to the next gal. Then everyone writes down on a personal sheet of paper the name of the last person they spoke to and checks either the "yes" or "no" box. "Yes" means you would like to make contact with that person again. "No" means anything from "She's a total babe, but I'm light years out of her league," to "No way in hell I'm listing my address in the phone book next year." For the next hour or so, the speed daters polish their pleasantries and fine-tune their bullshit detectors. When the round robin is completed, the participants hand in their sheets, head home and hit the showers.
The next morning, the organizer sorts through the verdicts. If two people checked "yes" for each other, she gives them their respective phone numbers or email addresses. From there, it's in the hands of the Fates. Whether or not there's a match, you meet more potential dates in an hour than you'd likely talk to in a dozen nights at the bars -- without blowing your best lines on some drop-dead hottie whose boyfriend shows up 45 minutes later.
Speed dating was reportedly invented by a rabbi looking for a new way to hook up singles in his congregation. In the year and a half since Seven Days began offering it, the game has undergone only minor tweaking. Participants are now grouped into age categories, which prevents the frat boys from chatting up the social security recipients. Admittedly, this comes across as a bit "ageist" to fans of Harold and Maude, or Lolita, but it's definitely more egalitarian than sorting them by weight or tax brackets.
My experience with speed dating was a lot more fun than I'd expected. All the women I met were definitely dateable, and seven minutes wasn't nearly enough time for me to wedge both my feet into my mouth. The next day, I found out I'd scored three mutual hits, which helped accelerate my social life past the question, "Is this a new release or a three-day rental?" I ventured out on a few dates, checked out some Burlington restaurants and avoided acommunicable diseases. Though I never bagged the big one, I picked up the scent. Perhaps an excursion into the electronic dating frontier would improve my hunting skills.
For months a friend of mine in New York City has been urging me to sign up on Match.com, an online singles site that's been providing him with a steady supply of nookie. My friend, who wasn't exactly a Casanova in high school, is now getting more tail than the Humane Society. He kept reminding me of the "results" I got just by posting my bio on Class-mates.com, a high school reunion site -- yes, I reconnected with a couple of old girlfriends. Ever since, he's dubbed it "Assmates.com." Finally, after enduring the boasts of a Seven Days freelancer about his weekly cyber-flirting regimen, I caved in, busted out the credit card, scanned in a couple of old photos of myself and pounded out my personal profile.
Ah, yes, the personal profile. I brewed a pot of high-octane java, bellied up to an industrial-strength thesaurus and pounded the keyboard until my fingernails bled. But after poring over a few dozen other profiles for inspiration, I discovered that an adjective-intensive description of myself, though factually accurate, did jack to distinguish me from the rest of the herd. After all, what is an "active outdoor lifestyle," anyway? I could be Mel Gibson or Ted Bundy. "Good communication skills?" She won't know if she's courting Wolf Blitzer or Andy Rooney. My personal favorite among the women's profiles was "Loves life." Just for laughs, I emailed the "Despondent, svelte heroin addict with suicidal tendencies and a penchant for mumbling seeking same for mutual assured destruction." Trust me, she's a lot less interesting than she sounds.
I took notes on my online encounters. The last thing I wanted to do was ask "CarriefromBarre" how her dad's prostate surgery went, when actually it was "Sultry-in-Swanton" who teased me with that tantalizing tidbit. A fellow bachelor told me he felt awful when he couldn't make heads or tails of a deeply personal experience some woman had supposedly shared with him -- until they both realized she had confused him with someone else. This is when you're hit with a horrible realization: "My God! I've become someone else's Spam!"
One last caveat: Like extreme snowboarding, all these acceler-dating techniques can leave you with a few bumps and bruises. Even if you realize your new play-date partner isn't "The One," when she dumps you for a lower mileage ride it still feels like someone tapped your solar plexus with a ball-peen hammer. Recently, I got ditched twice in one weekend. I haven't stepped into that much carnage since I was an EMT.
Still, it beats having every employee at Waterfront Video know your name and phone number by heart. At least now I'm leaving the house on weeknights, making new friends and getting in the singles mix. No, I still haven't met my fiancee or even a current girlfriend -- I hope you weren't expecting an ending like When Harry Met Sally. But I'm making progress. Just last week I went shopping for shampoo and didn't cry once.