Whatever became of the Age of Me?

A wise journalist makes a point of neither supporting nor denying a trend -- any trend. Let the flow flow, he will say, laying way back. Historians can sort it all out about a hundred trends later -- if trends are still the trend.

But for those competitive souls who, metaphorically speaking, have to be the first on their block to spot the early crocus every spring, we break the rule once a year and pass on a hot tip. 1980's tip goes like this:

Solitude is out, socibility is in.

Hang up your jogging shoes or else convert them for square dancing.

Dust off that old John Donne quote: "No man is an island, entire of itself." And this time get it straight!

While we're at it, we may as well all memorize one of Francis Bacon's favorite quotes too: "Whatsoever is delighted in solitude is either a wild beast or a god.

How do we know, you ask, that the era of gimme-more-space!m is coming to an end?

Alas, when an ethic is changing, people do not argue, as they once did, from the point of view of morality. They argue nowadays from the point of view of health. In Mother Jones magazine Dr. Hugh Drummond contends that those frisky legends celebrating three-figured birthdays in the mountains of the Caucasus, Ecuador, and Pakistan are not achieving longevity by diet alone. "Collective lie-style," a "mutual-support system," and "high solidarity" have a lot to do with it too, he contends. Those jolly old patriarchs and matriarchs are full of family, full of tribe.

Meanwhile, in the pages of psychology Today, Ramon Oldenburg and Dennis Bisset are insisting that "hanging out" -- belonging to an informal social group -- is "essential to our mental health."

All this, we feel, makes sociability litle clinical, as if friendship were about to replace fiber in everybody's fad regimen. But Oldenburg and Bissett are doubtless correct to presume that the human being profoundly needs something beside the home, the office, plus 20 minutes of jogging and 15 minutes in the lotus position.

"Hanging out," in fact, used to be an old American tradition. What else was a cracker barrel for? And in the good weather there were those benches out in front of the country store for the "sunshine club" -- the American equivalent of the sidewalk cafe.

What are the rules for hanging out? First and foremost, there must be no rules. If one convenes for a purpose, the whole purpose of hanging out has been defeated. Hanging out is the day's mini-vacatin -- an unorganized body of time during which a hanger-out discards all the normal measures of profit, usefulness , and achievement, as in Eden.

"Friendship is nourished by communication" -- that's Montaigne speaking for the era of sociability to come. And communication -- conversation -- is what hanging out is mostly about, only you would never, never say so.

For hanging-out conversation there are actuall a few unwritten rules:

1. Confession is forbidden. Indeed, discussing personal matters of any sort is considered bad taste. One expresses one's frustrations obliquely -- by complaining of the mayor, the price of unleaded gasoline, or the local baseball team.

2. Nobody is allowed to dominate -- to conduct a monologue.

3. On the other hand, anybody can remain silent without being bullied or losing the privilege of hanging out.

4. Games, such as checkers, or even horseshoes, may be permitted, but only if they serve the rhythms of conversation. Silent, grim contests are antagonistic to hanging out.

5. When the time comes to leave, the sad fact must not be acknowledged. A member simply stirs on his bench or chair and says, "Well . . ." It is poor form to peek at one's watch. Time -- the tick-tock of efficiency in the rest of daily life -- is the enemy one defeats by hanging out.

Hanging out, clearly, is low-key sociability, lacking in a certain intensity. No inspired psalms will arise from this congregation. No Declaration of Independence will emerge from the relaxed forum f those who hang out. A boffo guffaw is more like it.

Still, no complaints.When you're getting off Donne's deserted island, a nice friendly archipelago will do for a start.

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