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Life as Performance Art

   I knew there had been a radical shift in the universe the day I was walking down the street and three women were coming in my direction. They were not talking with each other.  Rather, all of them were on their flip phones talking to someone else. They were not   experiencing the moment together, perhaps creating memories for the future, perhaps for a time when they got together again and conversations started with, “Do you remember when….?” They were on the phone.  A few years later I had another suspicion about the universe being out of alignment came when a table of four had the best table in a restaurant the over-looked Notre Dame in Paris. All four were on their telephones, looking down to text, instead of enjoying the moment.
    A decade and a half later came the Great Shut Down because of Covid-19.  You’ll probably remember the messages such as “mask up” and “social distancing.”  No opportunities for old geezers to get together to solve the problems of the world over coffee, no opportunities for ladies who lunch, and no lingering over dinner and drinks with friends.  Everything non-essential was brought to a halt.
    A year after the end of the Great Shut Down it almost seems like the distant memory of a bad dream. What we sometimes don’t realize is that those electronic devices and the restrictions earlier this decade have had a long-lasting impact on us.  In short,  we have forgotten how to have fun by being together for no purpose other than “hanging out.”
     As much as some people try to do it, not everything can be blamed on Covid.  If anything, the pandemic merely speeded up an unhealthy and growing reliance upon our electronic devices as a replacement for people connections.
     It wasn’t that long ago that if we needed to do some research we went to the library, worked our way through the card catalogue or talked with a librarian, and perhaps did some work at one of the tables. It led to conversations. Today, we can do much of our work from the oft mentioned, “privacy and comfort of our own home.”  Sure, it works better and is more efficient, but it is alone,  and I am not certain it really is better or more efficient.
    During the pandemic when we could not travel for leisure, we could use our devices and take advantage of travel companies showing us the world, or at least the parts of the world where they wanted to take us once the Great Shut Down was over. Vicarious experiences are not the same as real life, in part because they  too solitary.
    Earlier this year I read an article from a woman from Paris who was visiting the United States. She noted one major difference.  Compared to France, there is no sense of what she called “café culture”  where people would meet for coffee and a pastry,  then talk for hours. In other words, “hang out.”  It led to an exchange of ideas and experiences.  She mentioned that politicians from all parties would hang out at the Lipp, newspaper writers at the Flore, and artists, writers, and philosophers at the Deux Maggot. Other cafes had a reputation for the somewhat specific interests of their patrons.
     I have looked at a few of the ‘city view’ videos of Paris on social media. Compared to the English and Americans, it doesn’t appear that nearly as many of the French are devoted to their mobile devices.  They just might be on to something that brings more happiness to life.
    Sheila Liming address this situation in her new book, Hanging Out:  The Radical Power of Killing Time.”   In the past, writers for the New York magazines like Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, would hang out at the fabled Round Table at the Algonquin Hotel for a very liquid three hour lunch, and stagger back to their typewriters with new ideas.  They built tremendous relationships, and when the publisher of Vanity Fair became too much of a scold of their method of working, most of the group quit en masse and jumped ship to the New Yorker.  Two of them, Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley set up their own writing studio they named “Park Bench.”   Now, try  building those sorts of relationships today in an era of texting, e-mail, and Chat GPT.  It won’t happen.  We need the personal connection, the water cooler,  and the break room to cross pollinate good ideas.
    Liming believes that thanks to the Great Shut Down and the on-going trend of Working From Home, many of us have forgotten the importance of hanging out.  To return to the benefits of Hanging Out takes a bit of creativity that might border on gentle anarchy.  During the Great Shut Down when Pat’s oldest son had the option of working in the office or from home, he was one of three who continued working – one on each floor which puts the exclamation point on social distancing.
      Then, after the restrictions were lifted, he persuaded the handful of fellow employees who had already come back to the office to have a chili contest. The one rule was that their chili peppers had to be grown on the balcony of the office building.  It started small, but they had so much fun that others started working back in the offices.  That’s the Radical Power of Killing Time in motion because it organically leads to people being together and sharing ideas.  Most of them are back, if for no other reason that they fear missing out on some fun and work.
    To experience the benefits of hanging out takes a bit of creativity and being intention. It is true for all of us. We have to decide to do it, and for those who haven’t done it for a few years,  that can be spooky,  at least the first time.  It means making ourselves vulnerable by removing the headphones and ear buds because no one wants to approach someone wearing them.  And then it means finding some common interests.
    My sister and her husband figured out the last part in a hurry when they retired. He was an engineer with GE who installed the big magnetic imaging machines for Mayo Clinic; she had the nation’s largest privately owned piano studio. They retired, their boys were gone, and they had each other. They knew they needed more and started keeping bees. Before long they were involved with the bee club in their area, and gradually worked their way to the top of the hive.  She is now the president, or as I reminder her, the “Queen Bee.”  Local history and genealogy were other interests, and they ended up becoming very involved with the local historical society, and when she discovered she was eligible, was inducted into the Daughters of the American Revolution.  And that meant more connections and hanging out with people.
     The alterative is loneliness,  and according to physicians, acute loneliness is the leading underlying cause of death.  Lonely people feel they are left out and perhaps not wanted. For young people, that often leads to stopping the pain via dangerous chemicals. Worse, it can lead to permanently stopping the pain via suicide.  That is true for all age groups. For the older, it often leads to all of those other medical problems such as cancer, stroke, heart attack, and more.
     Go forth and be radical, take back the power in your life,  and go hang out.

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