I was thinking the other day how much I enjoy the various meetups and discussion groups I belong to. Most weeks I have one or two get-togethers with friends and acquaintances who share some of my diverse interests. It’s a real joy of city life.
The news media confirm that more and more of us are getting tangled up in our technology. We’re not having as much human interaction as we used to—or as much as we should have for our mental and emotional health.
Serious highway accidents are caused by texting while driving, pedestrian tumbles are caused by texting while walking. Actually, while I’m a major tech geek, I don’t understand either of those phenomena. When I’m sedentary or at least stationary, I’ll use whatever device I have in hand for most any purpose. Reading, listening, talking, texting, getting directions, taking photos, finding a coffee shop. When I’m walking (or driving), I want to know that I’m not going to crash or tumble. In motion, I’m paying attention to where I’m going. (This is only partly because, with age, you’re more likely to fall, and some of your senses are in decline. Or so I’m told.)
Casual chat. I read a New York Times article recently in which social scientists studied the value of casual conversations. A chat with the coffee barista, the store cashier, the pharmacist, the doorman, the person sitting next to you on the bus. These interactions make us more cheerful, the social scientists found, and may ease the anomie of living in a modern metropolis.
I enjoy those interactions. And I especially enjoy long conversations on interesting and sometimes provocative topics—with friends, relatives, members of my discussion groups. Right now, I belong to four discussion groups. I really value them as ways to expand my circle of friends and acquaintances, and to keep my brain in constant activity, mulling over new ideas and churning out concepts for discussion and writing.
Two of my groups are fairly traditional discussion groups—one political, one focused on books. They were formed by friends inviting friends inviting friends. Each meeting is at someone’s home and focuses on one topic.
We discuss one book, either fiction or nonfiction, at each meeting, agreed on by members in advance. It’s very rare that a member doesn’t finish a book. Everyone really takes the reading seriously. (There was one occasion when the book choice—Henry James’ The Ambassadors—brought about a near-unanimous revolt. We changed books midstream.) Sometimes we have a professional moderator but usually one of our members leads the discussion. And if we spend a little time chatting about family, work and travel, that tends to knit the group more firmly together.
The political/policy group discusses one topic, usually chosen from articles in The Nation, a political magazine we all value. Yes, we too often agree on everything but we really do try to bring in topics and members that will generate disagreement.
Meetups are a newer kind of group. They bridge the technological and the personal relationship world by bringing together total strangers who have common interests for in-person meetings.
I belong to an excellent film meetup. It has hundreds of members, but the meetups at a local tea shop, bar or cinema are rarely more than 12 or 15 people. The cast shifts for each meetup, but there’s a core group of about 30. Very diverse group. All ages, races, genders, film interests, areas of expertise. I have never had such good discussions at which I also learned so much about a topic. This group has an excellent and creative organizer, which is the basis for its success.
Our regular film discussions are planned to discuss one or two (related) films that we all see in advance. Other events are held to view a film together and then discuss it afterwards. In the last week, I hosted two such meetups at the Gene Siskel Film Center. We saw Orson Welles’ Othello and a few nights later, a different group joined me for the new Sam Mendes/Kevin Spacey documentary about their Richard III production—NOW in the Wings on a World Stage. After both films, we stayed at the Siskel Center or found a cafe nearby to talk about the films. Both discussions lasted more than an hour.
I also belong to a couple of WordPress meetups, which focus on WordPress usage questions and practices. (WordPress is the tech platform on which this blog is built; it’s a user-friendly and widely used platform.) I always meet new people and get answers to my questions and new ideas at these meetups. You can probably find a meetup for virtually any techy project you’re working on.
A sidebar on Meetups
Meetups run on a social networking portal that facilitates offline, in-person local meetings. Meetup was founded after the 2001 attack showed the founders how the internet could help connect people in a crisis. Today, Meetup says it has almost 16 million members in 196 countries. Meetup organizers pay a small fee each month to meeetup.com and members are usually asked to chip in.
If you want to try out Meetup, go to meetup.com and put in your zip code. Check the topics you’re interested in and you’ll be offered a menu of meetups in your categories. You create an account to join and then you’ll receive email announcements about coming meetups on your topics.
Yes, some meetups are lame and never do much while others are vibrant and active. If you find one of the former, just try out another. You’ll meet new people and learn new things. And most important, you’ll find you are creating new human interactions (i.e., friendships) in this complex and tendentious technological age.
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