Monday, September 14, 2015

Fun and Joy

Last week I found myself--not for the first time--accused of not making time for fun.  In fact, accused of not "doing" fun very well.  Of course I objected to the judgment, though I was stunned to wordlessness.

"Okay.  What do you do that's fun?"

"I weed and deadhead.  I feed and watch birds.  I practice the fingerings in Mozart piano sonatas so that someday I'll be able to play them musically--I get better at them each time.  I knit lace and socks--though I've realized that I don't think of knitting sweaters as fun.  I make quilt blocks, though setting them together into a quilt isn't as much fun.  Too much can go wrong.  I don't walk as much as I should, but that's fun.  I spend time with wonderful friends and brush the cat.  I read Proust in the garden on long summer nights.  Oh, and napping, especially in a sunny room."  I decided not to go into the many ways I had fun with Bill:  taking walks, checking out the singing frogs in the spring, or driving out of town to study clouds.  Going to art galleries and talking about what we see, like, don't like.  Talking, talking, talking.  Going to parades in small prairie towns.  That's just some of the  G-rated fun.  Nor did I say that teaching was once fun, when it was valued by students and administrators alike.

Of course, my interlocutor felt that I'd proven his point.  "Define 'fun,'" I demanded.

He admitted that he couldn't define fun, but he could give me a definition of play:  "An activity that's very satisfying, has no economic significance, doesn't create social harm, and doesn't necessarily lead to praise or recognition."  He went on:  "Research shows that regularly having fun is a key factor in having a happy life; people who have fun are twenty times as likely to feel happy" (with thanks to Gretchen Rubin).

Argument ensued, during which time we recognized two things.  First, that I didn't, by any stretch of the imagination, "do" fun the way other people did.  I didn't buy anything; my fun didn't involve eating or drinking, particularly to excess.  It didn't resemble a party, in short.  Also, it was rather quiet, except for the Mozart piano sonatas.  There was no glue involved, and no glitter. 

Second, that ideas of fun were intensely personal.  During the years when I both queried and accepted some of the tenets of postmodernism, whose number one rule was that subjectivity was always "contradictory and in process"--in other words, that the unified human subject was a fiction--I secretly believed that people were their stories.  It was my way of reconciling our sense that we're one human being with our sense that we're also full of contradictions and change constantly.  

But our sense of what's fun might also define us. Is your fun quiet or noisy?  Crowded, sociable, or solitary?  Does it require a lot of other people or just one or two or even none?  Do you make something?  Do you appreciate, listen to, or watch something--going to hear Leonard Cohen or watching the latest superhero movie?  Is it best done or experienced with an altered state of consciousness, or after a cup of coffee? (Which in some cases is an altered state of consciousness.)  I'd hazard a guess that our idea of fun or play is some ineffable mixture of our temperament and what our lives too often lack.  Even in retirement, I don't have enough time, so fun for me involves liberating a few hours to spend in a way that balances how I normally pass my time.  I'm indoors, alone, writing on a computer or reading Woolf criticism, so walking provides a good antidote, or conversation.  If I'm writing about Woolf, thinking as hard as I possibly can about the aesthetics of one of the twentieth century's most challenging authors, then simply getting my fingers to do something--knit lace or get a a Mozart fingering right--changes the subject nicely.  Maybe part of our idea of fun or play is an antidote or a balance to the normal tenor of our lives.  If so, those hard party-ers must live boring lives.

Play also seems to me to come in two flavours:  escape or immersion.  Sometimes after an exhausting day, I simply want to "chill."  TV, Facebook, movies, reading (of a certain kind), or knitting lace are my standbys.  And I've even occasionally been caught playing game after game of solitaire--with a real deck of cards, for pete's sake!  I'm not entirely sure that I'd call any of these "fun."  I'm driven to escape by a brain whose engine is badly tuned, spluttering away without quite reaching the haven of sleep. 

For me, play implies immersion in something that gives me joy--hence working in the garden, having a great conversation, or piecing a quilt.  The one you see above is an antidote to the coral and turquoise quilt whose border treatment I crowd-sourced.  (That one is in a bag somewhere, because I'm seriously not happy with it.  Too much is going on:  it's visual chaos.  I'm going to break it back down into its blocks and start over.)  Oddly enough, "fun" in the quilt above involved cutting fabric into the very careful strips of eggs, each with its name underneath, meaning my cutting and sewing had to be really straight.  Not everybody's idea of play.

But when I think of play in this way, I have trouble telling the difference between "fun" and "joy," which probably aren't entirely different, but perhaps exist on a kind of continuum.  At one extreme, fun for me has a kind of whoopy-do quality about it:  walking in the rain and looking for puddles to splash in.  Going wild in a quilt shop and imagining creating something that is unlike anything I've ever made before.  There's an "in-the-moment" wildness about it that creates energy.  Joy for me  means connecting or creating; joy quietly resonates for hours afterwards.  Both, I suspect, are important to the good life:  the crazy whirling goofiness that explodes like fireworks, reminding us that we're alive, and the meditative immersive play that changes the whole world with creation and connection. 


  1. You have got me thinking. I kid that I haven't had fun for so long that I wouldn't know what to do with it if I found any. Is there truth to that? Not really. When I think of fun, I think of laughing. I do plenty of that. But other things play into my idea of fun: excitement, joy, pleasure. And those do come from simple things like my walks, listening to music, singing, reading, and creative activities. I hadn't been considering them "fun," but maybe it's time to start.

  2. I agree that there's a lot of pressure to have "fun," though we can't really define what this is. It reminds me of how much I hate the phrase "play hard," and how fun is often gendered in a way that's exhausting. When I was a graduate student, I did a lot of writing, and people would often joke that I was a machine--because writing isn't supposed to be fun. But, as this post illuminates, notions of fun and play are extremely personal, and it's tough to isolate Platonic Fun (my band name if I ever start one). I find translating to be relaxing and fun, but also frustrating. I don't find parties to be fun, unless there's a cat or dog to play with, or if it's possible to form a micro-party away from the main action (hopefully close to the cat or dog). I have a lot of fun at bookstores and museums--not everyone's idea of a ripping good time. Reading a story to a child can be fun--there's both interactivity and a lovely sense of peace that steals in as they're about to fall asleep--but I imagine that it's less fun when you're doing it every night. Maybe, for academics and writers especially, it's hard to separate fun from focus, or engrossment. But I don't think it has to be something that's entirely non-productive. You can have fun in a conversation, or while painting a deck (not quite as much), or reading with a cat on your lap.

  3. Dear Dr. September,

    I very much share your notion that a party is the most fun if you create a "microparty" near the dog or the cat. Or a micro-party in the kitchen helping with the cooking or the dishes. Bookstores and museums? Fun!!!! I'm not sure that productive/nonproductive is a good binary for me. Sometimes a conversation or a walk can be, at the time, "nonproductive," yet yield riches afterwards.

    Thanks for reading the blog and for your thoughtful comments.