It was time to consider calling it a night. Sheila Liming and I had talked all day—at a taco joint for lunch, and walking around Burlington, Vermont, running errands, and at dinner at a restaurant in a former warehouse. I had no shortage of good quotes for the story I planned to write about Liming and her interesting new book. Now, at 9 p.m., as I hopped my way around frigid puddles in the parking lot, laughing with Liming and her husband, I considered my 5:45 a.m. flight. For sure, the healthiest thing for me to do would be to get dropped off at my airport La Quinta.
But it was not because I thought her book was interesting that I had reached out to Liming. It was because I passionately believed that her book was right. “I’ve become an accidental witness to a growing crisis,” she writes in Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time. “People struggling to hang out, or else voicing concern and anxiety about how to hang out.” I, too, see a crisis brewing, among not only people my age but among the peers of my teenage children and the college students I teach. Pushed further into isolation by the pandemic, we’re all losing the ability to engage in what I view as the pinnacle of human interaction: sitting around with friends and talking shit. I agree with Liming that no one is down to hang out anymore, and agree with her that it’s a “quiet catastrophe.”
I didn’t merely want to write about Hanging Out. I wanted to enact it—to meet the challenge Liming offers her readers. Take risks, she writes. Create opportunities to spend unproductive, unstructured time doing nothing with other people. That’s why I asked Liming, a complete stranger, if I could fly up to Vermont and hang out for a day. Because she is down to hang, she said sure. So, after dinner, when her husband, Dave Haeselin, asked if I wanted to come over to their house and continue the hang, I said, “Yeah, I can stay out a little later.”
Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time
By Sheila Liming. Melville House.
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I can’t be the only one for whom memories of ages 16 to, say, 25 consist mostly of sitting around bedrooms, crappy dorm rooms, and crappier apartments, doing nothing much at all. I had jobs that didn’t pay a lot, so I didn’t have a ton of money to go out to bars or clubs, which is why instead I hung out for hours with groups of friends: telling jokes, venting about life, talking earnestly about politics and sarcastically about art (or vice versa).
Those years, as Liming writes, were “almost effortlessly social.” But nowadays, though hanging out with friends still happens—around living rooms and fire pits, on scheduled and rescheduled college-friend weekends—it’s an effortful pastime that requires coordination of calendars and a flurry of planning texts. I remember once, when I was in college, wandering over to my friend Ehren’s apartment, letting myself in, and watching whatever he had going on the TV. I knew he was there; I could hear him peeing in the bathroom. When he came out, he exhibited zero surprise to find me on the couch. It’s impossible to imagine doing such a thing now, even with my closest friends.
And I’m lucky—I still do have friends who, with sufficient planning, are generally down to hang. That’s becoming more and more rare in the 21st century. In 1990, 63 percent of Americans reported having five or more close friends. In 2021, only 38 percent did. On an average day 20 years ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Time Use Survey, 38 percent of Americans socialized or communicated with friends. By 2021, that number was down to 28 percent.
Meanwhile, I see young people struggling every day with an inability to simply get together to do something—or even to do nothing. My daughters, both teenagers, yearn for outside-of-school socializing, yet often neither they nor their friends are willing to take the step of suggesting a get-together. When they do, often they find that the kids they ask are so overscheduled they simply have no downtime of the type that might profitably be filled with hanging out.
Liming, who teaches writing at Champlain College, worries that some combination of smartphones, the COVID pandemic, and changing social norms have rendered an entire generation incapable of casual socializing. “Have you been to a college classroom lately?” she asked. “In mine, where these kids have self-selected to be in the same writing class, they have so much in common—but I walk in the room and it’s dead silent.”
Liming told me this at lunch at a downtown taco restaurant whose charm was only increased by our waitress’ upfront admission, 20 minutes after we ordered our food, that she had just straight-up forgotten to put our order in. We had, that is to say, a lot of time to talk, and I could feel us both pushing hard to get past the awkwardness of a first meeting, one we’d engineered for the purposes of exploring ideas about unforced, natural socializing.
I reflected on my own difficulty making friends when I reached my 30s, and how it took years for my wife and me to find friends who shared with us not only a desire to hang out but a willingness to open themselves up that we felt able to match. Had Liming made friends in Burlington, a town she’d come to in the middle of the pandemic? Real friends? The friends of her heart? “I don’t know yet,” she said. “They could be.” She told me that she had recently gone to a neighbor’s house and, after they’d been sitting on the couch for a while, the neighbor said, “Oh! I was about to put my feet up on the couch and tuck them under your legs!”
“Oh, man, I wish she had,” I said. “Wouldn’t it have been easier if she’d just done it?”
“She said she didn’t know if we were at that point yet,” Liming said. “But it means something that she almost felt like she could.”
Hanging Out is rich with illuminating stories with that same surprising vibe, from a hair-raising tale of a wild night spent with a group of strangers in Scotland to a bridge-burning chronicle of the university chancellor who stuck her with a $200 tab. It reads like a book written by someone who goes out intending to make some new memories as often as possible, and then saves them up for the perfect moment to retell them. Real hanging out, Liming writes, is about stories, indeed consists mostly of stories. “It’s a process that sees old stories getting launched into recirculation at the same time that new ones are brought into being.”
Over an afternoon spent running errands through downtown Burlington, we fell into an easy exchange of stories, the best ones we could come up with. The story of the graduate student who flooded Liming’s basement and filled it with frogs while housesitting. The time my daughter and I ended up staying at a hotel that was hosting a bodybuilding convention, and all the furniture in the lobby was covered with protective white sheets imprinted with spray-tanned butts. Her long-running annual job as a bagpiper accompanying Pittsburgh’s “Miller Lite girls” from bar to bar, encouraging revelry on St. Patrick’s Day. “Once, I was in the middle of playing a song, and someone just lifted me up and set me onto the bar,” she marveled. “How did he do that?”
We talked about big nights out, and the way that a prolonged hang creates a kind of intimacy through shared experience. In an age of shortened attention spans, to go through hours of anything together with someone else is so unusual that it can throw our brains into a kind of joyful crisis state. Liming said that many years ago, she and her husband, attending a conference in Kansas City, had gone out for dinner with a bunch of strangers they’d met at the last panel of the day. They ended up at a jazz club where the musicians continued playing as long as people kept ordering drinks. “We got out of there at 5 in the morning,” she remembered, “and called one of those minivan cabs back to the hotel. And I have all these pictures of that night of us with our arms around each other, you know, like—” Here she made the face you make in those kinds of photographs, a face of oversize happiness and adoration. Then she laughed. “We have never spoken to any of those people ever again.”
At a glass shop, Liming picked up a framed print of Bruegel’s grotesque Big Fish Eat Little Fish. “We hang this in the bathroom,” she said. “It’s a real conversation starter.”
“Do you have a story where, when you hang out with someone new, you’re looking for a time to tell it?” I asked. “Like, you know, This is a great new-friend story. This story kills.”
“I have a bunch of them,” she said. “They require certain kinds of situations. We’ll see if we get there.”
In the spirit of Jenny Odell’s bestselling How to Do Nothing, which it frequently cites and with which it shares the small-press publisher Melville House, Hanging Out is meant to be not only diagnostic but instructive. Liming offers some practical tips to encourage readers to hang out more: separating from devices, carving out time in your life that is unscheduled and unproductive. Most of all, she writes, it’s important to “take heart”—to remember that we are always building a better future, even when things are hard. “Hanging out requires the repeated exertion and application of one’s social capacities,” she writes. “That can feel exhausting.” But for the future we all want—we all need—it is crucial to use the energy we’ve drawn from all our previous hangings-out, the memories of those good times, to push ourselves to commit, and recommit, to lives of sociability and mutual affection.
Her advice is sprinkled across chapters addressing all kinds of hanging out: hanging out at parties, hanging out on the internet, hanging out while jamming. (In addition to the bagpipes, Liming plays guitar and accordion.) There’s even a chapter on pretending to hang out for the benefit of reality TV. But now, at 9:30, as we made our way up the wet back steps of their cozy house, I felt a great wave of happiness, because we were embarking on the kind of hanging out I care most about: hanging out on the couch, listening to music and talking.
“The guest always gets to pick out the first record,” Sheila told me, so after I left my shoes by the door, I browsed their collection, conscious of the responsibility I was shouldering. Contemporary indie rock? The Dead? Maybe Fleetwood Mac, America’s most universally appreciated band? From the kitchen, I heard the clank of bottles as Sheila and Dave mixed drinks. Dave returned to the living room, took the record I’d chosen, and called to Sheila, “You’re going to be happy!” When she came in, bearing three tiki mugs, she stopped short to hear the opening notes of Fairport Convention’s Liege & Lief. “Are you kidding me?” she yelled. “I love this album!”
Sheila invited me to sit on the big tan couch. “It’s brand new!” she said. They used to have a love seat, but it was uncomfortably small for three people. Dave noted that I would be the first person ever to hang out on their new couch with them. We toasted to that.
Dave had turned the music up so loud we really had to talk right at one another to be heard. Sheila told me about her love of tiki bars. I asked about the framed Labyrinth soundtrack on the wall. Dave filled a bowl with single-serving bags of chips he’d gotten for free at the software company where he works, and we debated: Nacho Cheese or Cool Ranch? I got up to inquire about specific books on the bookshelves. Sheila got up to play a song that had been important to her in conceptualizing her book. Dave got up to go to the bathroom, and Sheila and I discussed how, at a certain point in hanging out, you’re going to end up listening to someone stridently pee just steps away from you.
Dave chose the next record, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, by Richard and Linda Thompson. My tiki drink, which apparently contained three different types of rum, was really doing me in. I wanted to know if Sheila worried that so much of her advice was about withdrawing from technology, talking in person, even listening to records. “You’re advising readers to retreat from contemporary modes of being,” I asked, more or less. “Do you worry that you’re just becoming a fogy?”
“Look, I’m a progressive,” she said. “I have to be optimistic for the future. I know that loving old things, recommending them to young people—that’s a trap. I know delving too deeply into nostalgia is problematic.” I was writing furiously and illegibly in my notebook. “But when the future feels bleak, you have to develop survival structures to make it through. Mine aren’t all things from the past, but they’ve worked before, and they can work now.”
We asked one another searching questions. How do you deal with the fact that nostalgia is a trap? OK, but what was the first concert you ever attended? Where would you want to live if money were no object? Can you fucking believe this sexy photo of the founder of the 1980s new-age record label Windham Hill? We were halted into silence by the husband-and-wife duo singing in unison, her voice a clarinet, his a mournful baritone sax. I didn’t slip my stocking feet under Dave’s legs, because I’m not a weirdo, but I would have liked to.
“A person does not excel or fail at hanging out so much as they do it or they don’t,” Sheila writes, but after spending a day with her, I don’t think I agree. Sheila excels at hanging out, and that’s not purely a matter of extroversion—it’s not only about the accident of personality. Despite the drinks we’d consumed, it’s not about the lowering of inhibitions either. She works at it—she puts effort into this seemingly effortless phenomenon. Sheila and Dave have constructed a schedule, a way of viewing the world, and even a home that’s conducive to hanging out, because to be a person who cares about hanging out means building a life that nurtures this passion. It means making space in your day to day for hanging out, sometimes at the expense of productivity. It means having rules about who picks out the first record, to make guests feel at home, and it means expressing loud enthusiasm about their pick, no matter what. It means hanging interesting art in your bathroom to give people something to talk about! It means having something to say, and knowing how to listen.
And it means being free with your stories. Late, late in the evening, Sheila told me about a catalyzing moment in her artistic life, a performance by a cabaret ensemble called Circus Contraption, which gave her direction and inspiration when she needed it. Two members of the troupe were later killed in a mass shooting at a Seattle cafe, and as Richard Thompson’s guitar rang through the living room, Sheila told us she often longed to revisit that night. She wished that she could feel that specific creative fire once more. She felt piercingly the sorrow that the troupe’s future was foreclosed by tragedy. I don’t think this was one of the stories she was talking about when I’d asked her, earlier, about new friend stories. It was the kind of story that wasn’t exactly a story, that didn’t have a neat beginning or end, that felt more like an offering. You are here with me, right now, she was saying, and here I am.
When I left, the temperature had finally dropped below freezing. I precariously made my way to my Lyft, on a sidewalk now glazed with ice. My flight was in precisely five hours. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had more drinks in a night than hours of sleep. We might never speak to one another ever again. But I took heart. I was full to bursting.