A Review of
Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time
Reviewed by Rachel Lonas
One of the last dress up parties I went to as an adult was right after college. My former roommate lived on our side of town in a house she rented from another college friend. They threw a Halloween costume party where my husband and I dressed up as an elderly couple. I put green curlers in my hair and donned my grandmother’s velour zip up housecoat while my husband sprayed his hair white and hiked up his pants. We were hanging out with all treats and no tricks. Our friends had that party annually for a few years after that, and then some of us had kids, other people got married (including my roommate) and eventually it died out. It was an enjoyable time where we had an excuse to be ridiculous and to reunite with college friends in ways our otherwise busy lives made impossible.
That kind of whimsical party is one I believe author and literature professor Sheila Liming would endorse.
Liming’s style in her newest book Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time, is like having the chance to read several long form articles from The Atlantic around different ways we socialize with others. Through anecdotes, literary analysis and reflection, each chapter focuses on a location (physical or non-physical) where one might hang out — at parties, on the job, on the internet, with total strangers, jam sessions, etc. In her introduction she says she is “interested in what it means to forge those very things—connection, intimacy, and meaning—in a world that feels increasingly hostile to all three” (xi). She categorizes herself “less as an expert…and more as something of a docent” (xvii). I agree with her self-assessment as each chapter has a museum-esque quality to it. Just as you would consider a piece of art, her broad chapter titles leave you wondering what stories will be woven into the concept she is presenting. Her role as a writer resembles more of a facilitator rather than an authority, which forges her meandering style into a path that is delightful for her readers.
In her chapter about parties she helps remind the reader that though parties can have the potential to create enormous anxiety, given the right conditions (often with people you trust and perhaps as a tradition) they also have the potential to be an anchor in an otherwise difficult season. She explains that parties are where we all have “practiced and performed our skills as fledgling adults” much like the protagonist, Mick, does in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (25). In other words, we learn crucial life lessons from having too high or too low of expectations about ourselves and others at parties.
Liming’s discussion about hanging out on the job was one of particular interest; she offers a necessary critique of who gets funding in higher education. She posits that education is one of those areas where hanging out is the lifeblood of the job if you want to avoid academic isolation. Yet oftentimes, the humanities are often given no funding to do so and chastisement for building connections with others on the company dime. However, “third spaces” like conferences, or libraries, parks, etc. can help build community, providing neither the constraints of home, nor the constraints of work but rather a place to think and do things differently. Liming points out that these locations help fend off the increasing cost of access to communal help. In the third space you can network, you can generate creative solutions, and consciously give pushback to a society that is becoming increasingly individualistic and consumeristic.
One of the themes that runs through Hanging Out is considering the seasonality of relationships and places. Liming shares many of her interesting adventures and wrestles with how the depth of hanging out was often tied to the places she resided for that period of time, making peace with the relationship serving its purpose. This is a concept I think we don’t talk about enough as adults: entering relationships based on seasonal pursuits like sports, school, a job, or common interests. On the other end of the spectrum is the pursuit of friendships where we hold onto the belief that the intensity or love will carry over into different phases of life. Yet sometimes it just doesn’t work, no matter how hard you try or desire it. Having times where there is premeditated closure can help fond memories to grow and leave much room for future reflection.
By the same token, Liming suggests that many friendships are able to be revisited as time permits, and for deeper friendships you have to fight for them with endurance. It’s inevitable you’ll have conflict, but dropping out as soon as there is discomfort means forfeiting the opportunity to unlock the disagreement by continuing the conversations which may resolve misunderstandings and lead to new insights. Liming’s suggestion here felt like a challenge to the all-too-common trend of ghosting, leaving a relationship and its memories unresolved.
In one of her later chapters she mentioned that she (like me) was born in the mid eighties and has a literature degree which helped me understand why her Xennial (the micro-generation that blurs the line between Gen X and Millennials) examples and wide variety of book references seemed so familiar. There is nothing I would rather do than sit around and discuss a novel with a group of people who don’t know they love the book yet, but whose experiences bring so much to bear on the text in the process of learning.
I especially resonated with how having to use the mediated internet environment to teach literature and writing makes a person really resistant to too much social media. As she points out, “the sublime does not and cannot exist on the internet” (181). I was reminded of this when I recently got together to hang out with two friends from high school and one of them said in a surprised tone,”We’ve been sitting here talking for 3 hours and haven’t looked at our phones once. I’m so glad we still have the ability to do that.”
Liming says that “when we set aside time and space for hanging out, we assert our right to be non-productive, in the economic sense, and likewise our right to produce differently, by focusing on the work that is required for the strengthening of social ties” (xx). She is not suggesting that we’re going to start a revolution, but she encourages us to see what can be gained when we allow and, perhaps ironically, hold boundaries for unstructured time in our lives – we begin moving toward a world that is more wide-awake to each other’s needs for the betterment of all.
Rachel Lonas is a writer and educator specializing in literature and composition. Several of her pieces can be found at Fathom Magazine. She lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with her husband,
Justin, and their four daughters. She enjoys all things creative—watercoloring, nature journaling, landscaping, and being inspired by botanical gardens.
Reading for the Common Good
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