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WashingtonPost - Come Together
Source: washingtonpost.com
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By: Ellen McCarthy

WashingtonPost.com - Come Together

Which is a tricky predicament. Tricky and kind of banal. And -- let's be honest -- a little sad.

By the time you're out there in the world, haven't there been enough opportunities -- in the sandbox and eighth-grade math class and the varsity tennis team and between dorm rooms and cubicle clusters -- to pick up a few good friends?

Obviously.

Unless, you know, there weren't. Or there were. There were all those opportunities, and buddies were met and made and then, somehow, lost. Binding ties came unbound.

Maybe there was a marriage. A baby. A transfer, a taxing project, an illness, a changing lifestyle, diverging hobbies, a new neighborhood, a gradual maturing, a big dramatic fight over a guy you were both interested in. Maybe your new medical sales job has you sleeping in Reston and creeping along Interstate 66, shaking hands with lots of doctors and nurses and not really getting to know anyone.

Maybe you're Dave Connolly, 29, athletic and outgoing and fun and successful, and everything was great and your social calendar was booming until one day it just wasn't.

Banal. A little sad. And common enough for this town to support a whole host of organizations designed to help people reach out and meet someone. Probably lots of someones. Probably in similar predicaments.

"People feel almost guilty that they need other people; Western civilization has taught us to be individuals," says Mark Leary, a social psychologist and professor at Duke University. But that emphasis on individuality, he adds, is a relatively recent cultural shift -- and it's at odds with thousands of years of evolutionary reliance on community. "People do need to be accepted by other people. It seems to be hard-wired. . . . It's an extremely strong motivation that they cannot escape."

Leary studied a group of college freshmen a couple of years back. Those who reported, a few months into their first semester, a decreased sense of belonging were more likely to develop depression. "One of the best predictors of quality of life is 'Do you feel like you have enough friends and supportive relationships and social activities?' " Leary says.

When people lived their whole lives in the same place, it was easier to maintain a stable set of friends, he says, but that just doesn't happen today, so "we're all having to reestablish our own relationships continuously."

Washington can be a tricky place to do that, unless half your graduating class ended up here or you're instantly enamored with a super-fun set of fellow law firm associates. There's the transience and the workaholism, the ladder-climbing and the I'm-only-gonna-be-here-a-few-years-so-I-don't-need-to-plant-roots mentality.

And then there's one too many lonely nights in an over-air-conditioned high-rise. Which maybe leads to the Internet -- Google or Craigslist or some neighborhood bulletin board -- and a few hundred notices of people looking for salsa partners. Fellow art lovers. Kickball enthusiasts. Book snobs. Outdoorsy women. Concertgoers.

Hey, anyone just want to go to dinner?

And like everything else, there's a club for that. Some of the groups are big and general, unabashedly focused on networking. Others are small, more select and specific, couched in a targeted interest or activity. But all of them, really, are about branching out. Getting out.

Maybe even finding, like Connolly did, "the best sphere of friends I've ever had in my life."

Seattle. That's what happened to Connolly's social life.

His best buddy, who drove most of their weekend plans and almost always was around for a good time, took a job in Seattle.

"I realized he was the core of my social life, and I was like, 'Huh. I need to break out,' " Connolly recalls, standing in front of an indoor rock-climbing gym in Alexandria. "I decided the best way to do that was to dive in a car with a bunch of people I didn't know."

And he means that.

A few years ago, after that friend moved, Connolly, who works as an environmental consultant, found a group on the Internet that was organizing a trip to an Oktoberfest celebration in Towson. He signed up and got in the car with a bunch of strangers, thinking that by the end of the day he would either have a new set of friends or be ready to book a one-way ticket to Seattle.

He has been a regular at MeetinDC events ever since.

"Once you realize that people are all the same, you can talk to anyone." That's what Mikey Herd thinks. The San Francisco transplant founded MeetinDC four years ago, because he wanted to find more non-work friends and to "create an environment where everyone's invited," he says. He could, he says now, write a book about how much people's social lives matter to them, how "when you're stuck in a box, stuck in a house, you go stir crazy."

Herd, who also works full time as a computer technician, marked the group's anniversary recently with a house party for about 200 of his closest friends. Which is a sliver of the 75,000 who belong, at least technically, to Meetin chapters across 90 cities in the United States and abroad; there are 6,500 registered members in Washington.

His is among the broadest and most democratic of the social organizations around town. Anyone can join, anyone can plan a gathering and no one makes a profit.

That's how Romel Punsal found himself hosting the indoor rock-climbing event that Connolly -- and a dozen other friends and strangers -- attended last month.

"I'll tell you what -- it's weird when all you do is go from your job to your apartment and you do that all the time," says Punsal, a 27-year-old New York City native who moved to Washington three years ago. "Especially in a city with so much potential. You feel really isolated.

"You walk up Clarendon Boulevard or Dupont Circle and see everyone walking up the street with 10, 15 people, and you're like, 'How did you get all that?' " he says.

For a year, Punsal just kept his head down. He focused on the government contracting job he had come here for. He shot up to Baltimore to hang out with the couple of friends he had up there. And he just felt isolated.

When it got to be too much, he signed up for a MeetinDC ski trip -- a move that seemed risky at the time.

"You realize you're going to show up at something and potentially everyone else could know people and you'd be the new kid, and that's nerve-racking," he recalls thinking. "But we all have a common interest, so the atmosphere is more welcoming."

So he started going to more activities, even hosting some. Wine tastings. Happy hours. Jazz concerts. Laser tag excursions. MeetinDC's only real parameters are that someone has to be willing to plan an event and other people have to want to go. Even if it's just to dinner. And even if attendance totals only two.

There is a relative anonymity to the group, at least initially. Members usually go by first names only and aren't required to give out much personal information over the Web. Eventually, though, real friendships develop and people break off, maybe finding that they don't need the same structure anymore.

That has been the case for Punsal, but remaining involved has become almost a way of returning the favor, and a way to continue exploring the city.

"There are so many things that I would not have done in D.C. if I hadn't known about [the group]," Punsal says. "Somebody will bring us out to bars that I would never think of going to.

"D.C.'s not such a big city, but it's socially the type of place where you can become demoralized. . . . It's so easy to get cloistered into your office," he says. "But it's also really welcoming if you can find a group."

On a thick, gray Washington evening, there's a line outside the Embassy of Madagascar.

The people in the line have nothing more in common than having read the same Web posting and having decided it was worth their $50 to spend a Saturday night getting dressed up, drinking Madagascan sangria and, presumably, hanging out with one another.

"The word that means 'hi' or 'hello' is 'salama,' " the bandleader says. "Can you repeat after me? Salama."

"Salama," they echo.

It's awkward, at least at first, as the guests -- mostly in pairs or trios, but some on their own -- move quickly to occupy themselves with plates of fried bananas, yucca in coconut milk, puff pastry appetizers, looking busy and looking hesitantly at one another. It's an elegant house party where no one knows the host.

"We wanted to find some things to do here in D.C., to get us into the culture of the city, the atmosphere," says Allen Deneve, a 21-year-old who attends the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., but is in town visiting his girlfriend, Erinn Woodside, a fellow cadet interning here for the summer.

"Things to do in D.C." is probably what they Googled and how they came across Things to Do DC, the group hosting the Madagascan soiree. Like MeetinDC, Things to Do is an organization for generalists. People pick and choose, pop in and out and pay for only the events they attend. Unlike MeetinDC, it's a money-making venture for its proprietors.

"We come up with a different array of activities to facilitate meeting like-minded young professionals," explains Greg Bland, chief executive of Things to Do. He's a fast talker who rattles off his group's events, and the characteristics of his patrons, like a car dealer running through the inventory on his lot.

Kayaking. Pub crawls. Cooking classes. Scavenger hunts. Vineyard tours.

Lawyers. Teachers. Doctors. People who have just moved here. People who grew up here but need new outlets. People who have been so entrenched in their careers that they have forgotten what it's like to have fun.

People like Latonya Nichols, who just want to do something different.

"I like nontraditional things, things that are cultural," says Nichols, a Fort Washington event planner. "I'm tired of just going out to the restaurants, movies, bowling. I'm tired of all that."

It's her birthday -- she's 31 -- so today she'll do what she wants, and she makes her friend and sister come along. But don't get her wrong: If they weren't game, she would come alone. She has before.

"A lot of my friends are not into cultural things. I have the mind-set now that I can't wait around for someone to go with; I'd be preventing myself from enjoying things I want to enjoy," she says.

People, Nichols says, are almost always friendly when she's friendly first. She doesn't really need new friends, but it'd be nice to find a few who share her interests, "who are into the same things I am so I can say, 'Hey, do you want to go do this?' "

And men? Well, sure, that might be nice. Nichols is single, as are about 65 percent of the people who come to Things to Do events, according to its executives. And there was one guy there her sister kept promoting all night. Nichols knows you never know.

Two hours and probably a couple of glasses of sangria in, the embassy crowd loosens. They've ditched their plates and begun to mingle. They sing "Happy Birthday" to Nichols, who beams.

The reasons people hike are interesting, Mano Malayanur muses after a four-mile urban trek through Arlington.

Some people want the exercise, sure, but others . . .

Well, let's just say the Northern Virginia Hiking Club leader has been to his share of hiking-inspired weddings.

And do the happy couples continue hiking after their big day?

"Not really," he says.

The Maryland Outdoor Club isn't singles-centric either, but, you know, things happen.

It just takes some people more time to connect, says Colin Babb, president of the Maryland Outdoor Club. Not everyone can walk into a bar or a party like the one at the embassy and have the ability to make an impression. "The rest of us," he says, need a longer, slower, more natural period of exposure.

That's part of the reason he thinks people are drawn to clubs like his.

"A large number of people around here are from someplace else. It sort of forms an expatriate community," he says. "It's a way for people to meet people and connect around something that has nothing to do with their jobs."

Name a hobby, an interest or an activity and there's likely to be a corresponding group of enthusiasts to match it in the Washington area. Unlike more general organizations, such as MeetinDC and Things to Do, these clubs (film societies, vegan networks, art leagues) are, by definition, self-selecting.

Meaning that there is a common connection among members, but also a guise. People aren't looking for friends, necessarily, just hoping to get in a good hike. Or refine their technique with the pros who run the photography club. Or do some good while volunteering with a conservation group.

Or support the arts -- as the couple of hundred finely dressed minglers who filled the main hall last month at the Corcoran Gallery of Art were ostensibly there to do.

Of course, the martinis and canapes seemed a much bigger focus than the modernist works lining the walls. That's the way it is sometimes with the 1869 Society, an organization of young, professional (often preppy) types that raises money to support the gallery.

So happy hours like this -- where most in attendance looked as if they had shot home to doll up and slip into summer cocktail attire rather than show up in drab office clothes -- do lure some art zealots, but also more casual art appreciators for whom the draw, really, is the crowd.

"I don't at all think that I'm at all an art expert. And I know how hard it is to be an expert," says Robert Dyer, a member of the society's steering committee. But it's a good way to learn, he adds, and more than that, "it's totally social. These people just come to meet new friends, to have a really good time."

"The alternative," he says, "is being a hermit."

Leary, the Duke psychologist, had a colleague who tried to study hermits once. The project never really got off the ground. Turns out hermits are hard to find, not so eager to become the focus of academic research.

They got far enough, Leary says, to conclude that people who live in the absence of others end up deeply disturbed.

"There is no evidence you can find that people who have no relationships or group memberships are happy about it," he says. "People do need to belong."

06/15/07