The Dine Around – A Connectworking Success

As you may remember, I’m not much of a networker (my recent post about being terrible at networking).  I find it intimidating, uncomfortable and, mostly, uninteresting.  It could also be that, because I’m not good at it, I just make excuses so I can feel better about myself for avoiding it (the truth is somewhere in there – just not sure where exactly).  Anyway, this story is about a networking event I did enjoy.  It was a dinner party really, with a network twist.  Intimate while unknown.

We met at a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired house that our hosts, Norm and Mary Ellen, built on a pie-shaped property that resembles a nature preserve.  Before they’d come along, the property was undeveloped.  It had easement challenges that had kept others away.  Electrical, water, natural gas; you name it.  Norm and Mary Ellen embraced the challenges, designed around them, and ended up with a decidedly unchallenged-looking success. Their home for the last 27 years.

Its entrance is at the end of a cul-de-sac, the driveway bordered by stone walls.  Their neighbor’s homes are visible from the street.  Theirs is hidden.  Private.

Norm designed the home.  He and his Dad made the cabinets together in his Dad’s workshop.  The toilet and sink in the bathroom off the kitchen were a deep, dark green.  A color that reminded me of something you might have seen on a 60’s-era Pontiac GTO or my friend Mark’s Monte Carlo from high school.  The living room had two brown chairs that were low to the ground, with high backs, like they were made for very tall people with very short legs.  The dining room had pocket doors but was open to the living room and the table was the perfect size to comfortably fit eight people, the size of tonight’s group.

All of us belonged to the same organization, which splits its members into categories, by age.  Less than 50 is one category, greater than 50 the other.  In other words, once you turn 50, you’re out of the young group and into the older one.  We’re 51.

We’d signed up for this event, agreeing to be sent somewhere, with other group members for a catered dinner.  No one told us who would be coming, that’s a secret only the organizers and hosts know.  We were just told when and where to show up.

If you’re us, you go into these kinds of things thinking they could be awkward. What if we have nothing in common, don’t care for someone’s style, or feel inferior?  Maybe others go into these kinds of things thinking the same.  We’ve done enough of these to know that they rarely turn out that way, but we still go into each new one with the same kinds of reservations.

Jamy and I are the first to arrive which is unusual, and something I work hard to avoid whenever possible (too much pressure to be interesting right off the bat).  I’ve met Norm before, a few times, but he was never in the younger group with us at the same time. Jamy hasn’t.

His wife, Mary Ellen is a first-time meet for both of us.

Don and Sandy arrive next.  They know Mary Ellen and Norm and have vacationed together, we learned.  They’ve been in the older group for a while.  We don’t know them.

Scott and Jennifer, then Susan and Larry, both early older group couples we know, a little, arrive to round out the party of 8.

It wasn’t hard to get everyone talking to one another.  Maybe that was because we all belonged to the same group, or maybe it was just what you’re expected to do, and most people want to do what’s expected of them.  Near the end of the evening, as we were finishing the flourless cake sitting in a cherry sauce and topped with whipped cream and two life-like, but edible, flowers, the conversation turned to how we all met and became couples.

Sandy and Don met, and started dating, in High School at Whitefish Bay.  They’d go off to separate colleges.  She to the University of Denver, and he to Vanderbilt in Nashville. They stayed in touch, but explored “other opportunities” as well, or at least that’s how I remember them putting it.  After college, they married and have remained so for just shy of 58 years.  I’m guessing the other opportunities weren’t as interesting, but more would need to be known to be definitive about that.

Norm went to the University of Wisconsin – Madison, a giant school that everyone just calls UW, or Madison, and Mary Ellen went to Ripon College, a tiny school by comparison. They met on a blind date at a Green Bay Packers game played at County Stadium in Milwaukee.  For Mary Ellen, Norm was like, not love, at first site.  She’d evidently changed her mind sometime thereafter.

Scott and Jennifer met at Valparaiso University.  She grew up on the west coast, Washington State, I think. Scott is from Wisconsin.  I don’t remember much more.

Larry met Susan at a sports bar in Milwaukee called Luke’s on Water.  He grew up in Omaha, NE and went to school at Purdue, before landing a job that brought him to Milwaukee.  She grew up in Sheboygan, WI and went to the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, which everyone calls UWM.  Susan was the manager but was working as a server that night.  That’s just part of the deal.  Larry was engaged, but there were issues.  His buddies and he were bar-hopping.  Their last stop was Luke’s.  The rest, history.

Jamy and I first noticed each other at a Dickinson College fraternity rush party Freshman year but didn’t date.  She was from Connecticut and I was from Pennsylvania.  I dropped out second semester freshman year to pursue my own other opportunities, which included my high school girlfriend and a goal to transform my summer job at the cemetery into a full-time endeavor.  When I got my wits back about me and returned to school, Jamy and I started, and continued, dating for the next 6 years before we married on September 15, 1990.

The how-we-met conversation revealed several things.  All 4 couples have only been married once (rare, in a refreshing way).  Talking about how we’d met one another was comfortable and fun.  Everyone smiled and laughed.  They shared details they’d probably shared many times before with others, but it all seemed new and fresh, like it was the first time they were doing it.  Only Don and Sharon had been high school sweethearts.  The rest of us were college or later.

What was most interesting is that we all got to know something personal about each other. Not simply “hey, what do you do – here’s what I do” but something that really matters.  If we’d had more time (and the wine wasn’t limited), I suppose we could have gone much deeper with the discussion.  Maybe that will happen with one or two of the couples, if we stay in touch.  Then again, maybe we’ll never have an opportunity like we did this night again.  If it doesn’t, that’ll be fine.  We made the most of how we met that night.

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