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Here & Now

Click ... and Meet 

Since i returned home from my winter in the Everglades, I’ve noticed some new faces in the neighborhood. Back in the Dark Ages, that was a cue to deliver a plate of home-baked brownies. But apparently, thanks to the Internet, that form of social networking is embarrassingly archaic. Brownies are out. Meetups are in.

Want a new friend this afternoon? Something to do next Thursday? Wish you knew some fellow sailors, foodies, Nordic pole walkers? I’m not kidding. Just go to www.meetup.com, enter "Naples, Florida," and you’ll find 79 serious beach-trekkers with ski poles anxious to welcome you into the fold. If that’s not compelling enough, just scroll down and see all the instant friends you can have with some other interest in common.

The Photography Naples Meetup, with 665 members, goes on birding and nature shoots and hosts regular studio model shoots. The Artist’s Way Meetup had 73 artists when I first checked, and two more joined the next day. The Naples Activities Network lists 506 members.

Interested in UFOs and paranormal goings on? Fort Myers has a Meetup for you. Poker? Food and wine? Snowboarding? Intellectual conversations? Check, check, check and check.

Dog Meetups are big. There’s a pug-owners group with 36 members and a Chihuahua Meetup (with four members more, but who’s counting?), and a boxer Meetup with 54 members. Where else but Naples would you find a Meetup group of highbrow dogs and their people? The Faux Sandy Paws & Posh People Meetup, as of this writing, has 132 members.

If you can’t find a single intriguing Meetup in Southwest Florida, I’m sure my colleague Judge Judy would have one word for you: "Baloney."

Did you catch that? I said my colleague, Judge Judy.

If you’re left-handed as I am, and flip your magazine pages from back to front, you already know that Her Honor has joined Gulfshore Life as our back-page columnist for May and June. I myself am a somewhere-in-the-middle Gulfshore Life columnist. As in, "oh yes, Judge Judy and I are fellow magazine columnists."

Serendipitously, we also live in the same community, which offers optional membership in its private club. Theoretically, I could soon be starting cocktail party conversations with something like, "When my colleague Judge Judy and I were lunching together at The Club..."

But wait. After a quick call to our club’s membership office, I remember why regional magazine columnists who do not also have insanely popular syndicated TV shows may not exactly be in The Club’s membership bracket.

Nevertheless, Your Honor, even if I don’t see you around the ’hood, I’m proud to be your neighbor. And welcome to the pages of Gulfshore Life. I still feel bad about the brownies. As you like to tell clueless parents, habits taught at a young age tend to stick.

Case in point, here’s a semi-true story:

This guy shows up in the Everglades for a backcountry adventure with the wife and two teenage grandkids, each with a friend. It’s a big celebration, the man tells the guide. He sold his business to an international company and is treating the family to this dream vacation, which also included a Caribbean cruise.

The guide loads up six kayaks, paddles, life vests and various gear (which he will unload, clean and store upon return), gives a brief lesson to the first-time paddlers, and leads the family upon a half-day excursion through an ecosystem that takes their breath away. He shows them rare orchids and a nest with baby ospreys. They have thrilling, close-up looks at a seven-foot alligator, plumed snowy egrets and a raccoon foraging on the oyster beds. He takes family pictures with their four cameras. At the end of the morning, they gush that it’s been the best day of their vacation.

You know how this story ends? The granddaughter’s 18-year-old boyfriend gives the guide a $10 tip. The others tip nothing.

So here’s the single-question, pass-fail quiz. Please use a No. 2 pencil and take your time:

Which member of this group also sends thank-you notes for birthday presents, brings a hostess gift to house parties and never fails to drop a couple of dollars in the musician’s jar?

(1) the 18-year-old boy, (2) the grandfather, (3) the grandmother, (4) all of the above.

If you answered 1, you pass. Because somebody obviously taught this kid some basic etiquette. But if you answered 2, 3 or 4, you also pass. Because all of these nice people probably do these socially correct things. They just don’t get it about guide tipping.

As I said, this is a semi-true story. The family is a composite of what I witnessed repeatedly during my winter on Chokoloskee Island, where practically everyone except the postmistress is out of work by May 1.

James G. Lewis, who runs a website called www.tipguide.org, says a possible excuse might be, "Hey, I just paid $600 for this. That’s expensive enough." Lewis isn’t buying it. If you can’t afford a 15 percent gratuity, he says, you can’t afford the tour.

My own eyes have been opened, so I’m assuming that my fake family truly didn’t know that it’s customary to tip leisure-activity guides. That goes for fly-fishing guides, crewed yacht charters, safari guides, heli-ski guides and, yes, sherpas.

How much, then? "If I’m climbing Machu Picchu," one guru says, "I’d tip the sherpa one yak for getting me to the top of the mountain, and an additional yak for each time he saved me from falling off." Sherpas aside, the customary guide tip ranges from 10 percent to 20 percent.

So, where are you headed this summer? Salmon fishing in Alaska? Hot air ballooning in Albuquerque? Maybe you’ve signed up for a helicopter tour in Hawaii, a Windjammer sail in Maine, or a whitewater rafting trip on the Snake River with your new Meetup group. May you have wonderful adventures, meet up with some fascinating people and experience the exhilaration of trying something new. And don’t forget to tip your guide. As my colleague, Judge Judy, might say, it’s the right thing to do.

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