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Wanna Hang Out? 14 min read

Wanna Hang Out?

The lost art of the hang out, plus aloneness vs. solitude, The Village Voice, Truman Capote, killer warthogs, Bigfoot, scams, and more.

By Cary Littlejohn

I’m going back to Wyoming for the first time since I moved away in 2022. A lot has changed in my life since I left (not all for the good), and I know that a lot has changed there, too. 

The young bucks who were my contemporaries in the newsroom, chasing stories and trying to stay on the good side of our veteran editor/publisher, are now the bosses, after our mentor (who first recruited and brought all of us together in the first place) sold the paper and retired. I read in the paper that my favorite coffee shop is no longer located where I see it in my mind’s eye, though thankfully it’s still in business close by. 

Lots will undoubtedly have remained unchanged. Wyoming’s harsh weather, its incredible vistas and landscapes, the wildlife, and, for better and for worse, the people.

I’m excited by that last bit for a simple if unsexy reason: unstructured hanging out. I’m looking forward to a lack of definite plans but still getting to sit and talk with interesting people whom I love dearly. It used to be the backbone of my working and non-working life; my work group was my friend group, and my friends were my coworkers. It felt a great deal like The Office or Parks and Rec, the way those characters lives kind of lost the line distinguishing between work and play. It’s not a stretch to say that if I hadn’t loved my coworkers, I might have been completely alone out there. But instead of constantly seeking a break from them, I sought more and more time with them, but time just to be in their company, without the pressure of looming deadlines or interviews to conduct or click-clacking of keyboards. 

But as I was reading Derek Thompson’s recent piece in The Atlantic, I saw myself as its target audience.

Why Americans Suddenly Stopped Hanging Out
Too much aloneness is creating a crisis of social fitness.

It was, in short, about how we, as Americans, don’t do a great job of hanging out anymore. Social gatherings of friends seem a thing of the past, and the trend is even more troubling for younger demographics. 

When I think about whether I recognize those trends, I must confess that I do. And a large part of what I lost in the way of social hanging out sessions with friends was made real by moving away from them in the first place. 

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m neither alone nor friendless here. My girlfriend, whom I’d have never found had I not moved back, is a constant companion. And many of those I held dear from my previous life in Columbia were luckily still here when I returned.

But “hanging out” conjures a sense of the unstructured. That’s why the term used to be our go-to stand-in when our parents wondered what we’d been doing for the hours and hours we’d been away from the house: “Nothing. Just hanging out.” We weren’t being evasive or secretive; we simply hadn’t been doing anything that was so easily labeled. But we’d been doing it together and we’d enjoyed that part of it, you know?

That’s not my reality now. With my girlfriend, sure. We have as many date nights and actual plans as we do evenings on the couch, each reading our own book or watching a show together or getting lost in some totally random conversation, some deep and meaningful while others silly and absurd.

But with other friends, it’s almost exclusively planned. And painfully so. Short-notice meet-ups are rare. We need schedules, plans. Put me on your calendar and know this “event” (i.e., just dinner at a random spot) is coming up. I don’t know if I’ve ever worried about what it says about us or life in general; I’ve just come to accept it as the way things are now.

My time in Wyoming was one of the first since high school and college where my life reminded me of the sitcoms I grew up watching. Friends and How I Met Your Mother were staples of my high school memories; watching reruns and DVDs of the former and catching up on the latter in real time.

One of the things that I loved about both of those shows was how friend-centric they both were. It was intoxicating to think of life in a big city that was otherwise unknown and big and uncaring, but you made it through all that with a core group of friends. They were your life support. They were where you went every single day, without fail and without surprise. 

Think about it: You rarely saw the Friends characters alone at Central Perk, and if they were alone, the show would deliver at least one more of them walking through the door any minute. The same with the bar in How I Met Your Mother. Even though they had cell phones in that show, they still went to a place when looking for a person, fairly certain they’d find him or her there. 

That broken-in sense of routine and regularity was appealing to a kid from a town so small that we didn’t have a place where that could be our reality. The rural version of that was a crew of people who’d sit in the Walmart parking lot, in a corner far away from the store and thereby unlikely to rankle any customers actually trying to park for their shopping, and just see who’d come by to join them. 

I saw this perhaps truly for the first time in law school. There was a common space in the law school, a sort of lounge with TVs and a small store, and most importantly, long tables where, in theory, students could get a lot of work done. I was incapable of letting that happen for long. If I joined, which I did every single day (sometimes leaving my place much earlier than I actually needed to just to sit at this table), I wouldn’t long be able to resist talking to my classmates: the absurdities of some case law’s facts, impromptu reviews of the latest show or movie or book I’d consumed, plans for later in the day or week, gossip, drama, job prospect chatter, you name it. 

Thompson, in his piece, spends a lot of time talking about the way screens and devices have ruined our desire and capacity for actual social interaction. I think there’s probably a lot of truth to that, especially those younger generations who’ve only known life with a phone and social media apps. That’s not to say those older of us aren’t susceptible and just as likely to be addicted to our screens; it’s just that we remember a time without them. That doesn’t make us better, but it gives me hope that, by remembering, we can snap out of it if we choose to.

I say that as if it’s so clearly a singular person’s “choice.” Like, if I put my phone down, then magically all problems are fixed; the reality is once I put my phone down I’m likely to see, more clearly, everyone else on their phones. It’s a societal and cultural impulse at this point (remember these viral moments, where the crazy thing you’ve just got to see was a person, I don’t know, being normal and not watching life through a phone screen?) Point being: It’s a bigger problem than just one person’s to solve; we’d all have to make a collective decision to get off our phones and re-engage a little more openly.

And to that, I say “Good luck.” It’s weird to be this old, to remember the excitement around something like Facebook, and how we convinced ourselves that it was actually going to deepen our friendships. The scene in The Social Network where the girls say “Facebook me” and it wows Eduardo and Mark because 1) they said “Facebook me” and 2) it was going to allow them to meet up with these girls in real life did capture the energy of college in the late 2000s, right after the social networks blew up; it felt additive to the college experience, not trying to replace it completely. But now, more and more, it seems like a destination all its own, not designed to foster real-life friendships or enrich them in any way. It’s a kind of tragic irony that this thing made to enhance friendships could be something that actually helped push us apart.

I don’t follow my Wyoming friends on social media, not really. In fact, I’m not even sure they have social media accounts that they update regularly, outside of those professional uses of something like Twitter. Social media is not the culprit in our lack of aimless hanging out; for us, it’s simply the distance now. 

I’m excited to erase that distance and, for a week, remember what it’s like to just hang out with the guys.

Ten Worth Your Time

  1. I can already hear some of you reflexively saying, “But, but, but…my alone time is good for me!” I don’t doubt it, don’t dispute it. Not one bit. As a person who could probably be mistaken for an extrovert at times, it should be clear that I view myself, first and foremost, as an introvert. I get the desire of alone time. But this essay from Anne Helen Petersen talks about the difference between aloneness and solitude. In short, being alone can be simply a physical designation–“There are no people around me, therefore I am alone.” But solitude is something much more. It’s the time and freedom to work on ourselves. It’s a freedom from other people’s inputs, she says, quoting Cal Newport. It’s such a minor difference but with a huge effect. Solitude is what allows us to know ourselves, to know what we need, and, in short, be better friends to those around us as a result.
  2. I love to think of my alone time (and that of others, honestly) as this deeply enriching time, as if we’re all watching arthouse cinema from the Criterion Collection or reading something interesting. I love the concept of quiet alone-time (and even quite together-time) spent reading, even when I do a terrible job of it myself sometimes. As a result, I found myself nodding along with this piece in Slate from a college humanities professor lamenting that students don’t seem to have the tools to do reading assignments anymore. I like how it acknowledges the long line of intergenerational squabbles, where the older ones think the younger ones don’t know anything and are incapable of doing things the way they were “back in our days.” And then it tries to offer theories of why, and it’s notable that the first topic discussed (smartphones) sounds like it could be ripped from Thompson’s article on hanging out.
  3. For those who still like to read, here’s a forthcoming book I’m excited about. Dwight Garner’s review of The Freaks Come Out to Write by Tricia Romano is a delight to read, as most of Garner’s work is, but the book, admittedly, was tailor-made for me. It’s an oral history of The Village Voice, the most famous alt-weekly paper in history. The Voice cultivated many a great writer, journalist, and critic, and the story of its rise and fall harkens back to a time before all this media and journalism doomsaying was the norm.
  4. When I was digging into Clare Malone’s New Yorker story about an impending extinction-level event, I found that I’d already read a lot of the sources she quoted. One that I hadn’t was a interview with former New Yorker editor Tina Brown in Print is Dead. (Long Live Print.) podcast. It’s a treat for magazine fans, as she talks about her different jobs throughout the publishing world. (From there, I was pointed to Brown’s own podcast, and a great episode where she interviews the editor that took over The New Yorker after she left, David Remnick. It’s a treat for fans of The New Yorker.)
  5. I’ve been down a bit of a Truman Capote hole lately. The author has been all over the place lately, owing this resurgence to Feud: Capote vs. The Swans on FX/Hulu. To take the same crash course I’ve taken over the past week, check out the following: A 2012 piece from Vanity Fair that summarizes the feud; an Airmail piece about the one swan who avoided Capote’s pen, Kay Graham, then-publisher of The Washington Post; the actual story that ran in the November 1975 Esquire, “La Côte Basque, 1965”; and finally, the trailer for the FX/Hulu show (I’m only just now dipping my toe into the show, but one of my dear friends, who, along with her husband, are perhaps the most consistent Real Housewives of (insert literally any of the locations here) described it as the blending of “housewives meets literati.” FX/Hulu seem to know this connection is a logical one as well, deeming these “the original housewives.”
  6. From swans to swine: This tragic tale from Texas Monthly— His Best Friend Was a 250-Pound Warthog. One Day, It Decided to Kill Him. — has a lot going on in it, but at its core, there’s a quality of “Well, yeah, no shit that happened.” That’s not to make light of the situation: When a person nearly loses his life, it’s quite serious. But attempts to domesticate wild animals always teeter on the precipice of disaster. (Consider this old post where, in talking about the early pandemic craze that was Netflix’s Tiger King, I recalled two of the greatest wild-animals-in-captivity-gone-wrong stories ever written.)
  7. If we’re wise to be leery of attempts to domesticate wild animals (since they remain wild no matter how docile they may seem or for how long), it’s only fitting that we should turn to that wildest of animals (?) never yet caught; in fact, it’s barely been seen. Maybe it’s never been seen. Maybe it doesn’t even exist. I’m talking, of course, about Bigfoot. Or a Squatch, to those in the know. This piece from Oxford American is a little bit crazy but undeniably sweet in its earnestness. Thompson, in his piece about hanging out, quoted de Tocqueville’s comments on Americans’ penchant for associations “of a thousand different types … religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute.” Naturally, organizations that revolve around Bigfoot-seeking excursions would have been next on his list. Follow along with this bit of a trip from an outing into Kentucky’s Bigfoot country.
  8. Speaking of the unbelievable, here’s the story that seemed to capture everyone’s (fleeting) attention for a minute: "How I Got Scammed Out of $50,000," published in New York magazine by none other than the person on staff tasked with handing out financial advice. If you want a reading experience that mimics watching a horror movie where you scream “Don’t do it! Not that way! How could you be so dumb?” this is the story for you.
  9. More scam-related content coming your way: Here’s a recommendation for a podcast discussing not one but TWO films I have not watched. The first is the latest Jason Statham action flick The Beekeeper, which I’m not averse to but simply haven’t gone out to watch yet. It’s a revenge movie of the sort Statham excels at and apparently his motivation is when the woman for whom he works is scammed so badly that she takes her own life. (It was probably for a lot of money, because as I understand it, she was well-off enough to employ Statham as an actual beekeeper. Not like a gardener who, as part of his duties, tends to the bees. Just a full-time man of combs and honey.) More interesting to the wider movie-going culture is their discussion of the much-maligned Madam Web, which I don’t think I’ll see (unless it’s to revel in how bad a movie can be). It’s an entertaining look at a movie that’s definitely not essential viewing and wondering how we ended up at this place in the movie business. If there’s any scam-related wisdom to be tied to this portion of the podcast, I’d say it’s this: Save your $15 bucks, skip the movie, and just listen to this episode of The Big Picture, context-free. It’s more than enough.
  10. From films I haven’t seen to films I haven’t seen YET: When I return from my trip next week, it will be one of my most favorite times of the year in Columbia, Missouri: the True/False Film Fest. I was able to reserve my tickets on Saturday and here’s a quick overview of the films I’ll be seeing:
  • Spermworld: The desire to procreate, and the complications that arise, inform this incisive look into the online world of private sperm donation.
  • Seeking Mavis Beacon: Two DIY investigators examine the disappearance and legacy of one of the most influential Black women in technology, Mavis Beacon.
  • Daughters: Four young girls prepare for a Daddy-Daughter Dance in a DC jail, a rare opportunity for physical connection with their incarcerated fathers.
  • Yintah: Wet’suwet’en leaders unite in a battle against the Canadian government, corporations, and militarized law enforcement to safeguard their territory from gas and oil pipelines.
  • Look Into My Eyes: A group of psychics in New York City conduct sessions with their clients while revealing their own personal struggles, setbacks, and desires.
  • Ibelin: A young man with a degenerative disease finds community and companionship in the online realm of World of Warcraft.
  • Union: A David vs. Goliath story following the formation of the Amazon Labor Union, as Amazon workers unite to fight for their rights.
  • Girls State: Missouri teen girls spend a week building a government from the ground up, but as they start to notice differences with their male counterparts, discontent emerges.
  • As The Tide Comes In: A Danish island’s community of 27 residents face climate change’s fury, holding tight to their normal lives despite harsh weather and rising tides.
  • The Other Profile: After a French filmmaker discovers a duplicate Facebook profile of someone masquerading as him online, he ends up on a thrilling journey across DR Congo to search for the culprit.

More From Me

Over on my blog, I’ve been writing about various topics of interest to me.

Wistful For a Time I Never Even Knew

Media vs. Meteor

Two NYT Valentine's Day Stories To Love

How Do We Feel About a Future With No Carry-On Bags?

Revisiting 'Navalny’

Culture Diary

Here’s a collection of what I’ve been consuming in the past week.

The legend for my list was stolen from Steven Soderbergh, where ALL CAPS represents a movie, Sentence Case is a TV show, ALL CAPS ITALICS is a short film,  Italics is a book, and bold is a live performance or show. A number in parentheses after a TV show highlights how many episodes I watched. An asterisk after an entry means it’s a rewatch. The source of the movie or show, whether streaming service, physical media, or in theaters, is shown in parentheses as well.

2/12: Top Chef, S16 (Peacock); The Canceling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott
2/13: Top Chef, S16 (2) (Peacock); True Detective: Night Country (Max)
2/14: Top Chef, S16 (3) (Peacock)
2/16: MR. AND MRS. SMITH (Hulu); EVEREST* (Max)
2/17: Mr. And Mrs. Smith (2) (Amazon Prime); Arctic Ascent with Alex Honnold* (1) (Disney+)
2/18: Arctic Ascent with Alex Honnold* (2) (Disney+); Epic Adventures with Bertie Gregory (1) (Disney+); THE TASTE OF THINGS (Theater); True Detective: Night Country (Max)