meetup.com. It's an online tool with which people can form and organize clubs for just about any joint interest imaginable.
Without meetup.com, I might still be wondering how and whether I would swim in the open water. About this time last year, I had committed to swimming Alcatraz in the summer, but I fretted about ever getting open-water experience.
Then I stumbled upon the Sacramento Swimming Enthusiasts, a club on meetup.com, which promotes exactly what I was looking for. The guy running this club organized an "Intro to swimming San Francisco Bay" event at Aquatic Park in San Francisco, and I got a chance to swim with an instructor at the South End Rowing Club. Swimming in the chill ocean, without a wetsuit: I had begun a new addictive adventure.
(When I say anybody can form a club, I mean it: The only other Sacramento-area swim club on meetup.com is the River Dippers, who swim and do a bunch of other stuff, as long as it's in the nude.)
Since then, I've been swimming in open-water five to seven days a week (not with the River Dippers, though), having befriended and learned from people I never would have met otherwise, from newbies like me to hardened triathletes to elite swimmers who leave me in their wake.
Instead of swimming by myself at a gym pool at 4:30 in the morning, I'm out in the broad daylight on a clear lake ringed with sweetly scented sycamores and rolling hills. Ironically, I'm still by myself these days, since most of the Sacramento Swimming Enthusiasts have either retreated to their respective pools as the lake temperature has dropped, or fellow diehards live too far away to swim with me every day. But that's beside the point.
On the eve of 9/11's 10th anniversary, I got an email from Scott Heiferman, meetup.com's CEO and co-founder, who called meetup.com a "9/11 baby."
Before that date, Heiferman said he was an un-neighborly New Yorker, cocooned on his Internet.
"When the towers fell," he wrote, "I found myself talking to more neighbors in the days after 9/11 than ever before. People said 'Hello' to neighbors (next door and across the city) who they'd normally ignore. People were looking after each other, helping each other, and meeting up with each other. You know, being neighborly."
That got Heiferman thinking, "Could we use the Internet to get off the Internet — and grow local communities?"
The small startup has now helped spawn more than 100,000 meetup groups across the country, he said.
"9/11 didn't make us too scared to go outside or talk to strangers," he wrote. "9/11 didn't rip us apart. We're building new communities together. The towers fell, but we rise up."
If the narrative is true (I am nothing if not an indefatigable skeptic), it's a wonderful story, and I am deeply thankful for it during this season.