I couldn’t really see the look on her face, what with her double mask and protective face shield required to administer a root canal in 2021. But there was a long pause. Finally, she said, “That’s a hard question.”
As a new post-pandemic reality begins to shimmer on the horizon, I’m wondering whether I know how to have fun anymore. And do I, in fact, even know what fun is? Which is how I came to pose the question to my endodontist, and a bunch of other people, too.
The past 12 months haven’t been a picnic for any of us, unless you’re one of the geniuses who invented sweatpants, weight gain or Zoom — or your parents looked the other way while you increased your screen time by 3,000 percent. But I suspect I was losing my sense of joy long before the pandemic began, and now I may never find my way back after a year of, among other things, avoiding interactions with all other humans. (Aside from my husband and three sons, who apparently I must talk to from time to time, mostly to discuss whether or not I can con one of them into making dinner or walking the dogs.)
It was North Carolina that got me worrying about fun. I recently read an article about the beaches in an Outer Banks town and how they are eroding. When I was in my 20s and 30s, I vacationed there every summer, first as a woman with a boyfriend, then a woman with a husband, then a woman with a husband and young kids. I would spend a week with friends in a rented house; the size of the rental expanded with our families, but the friend group remained the same. We devoured refined carbs and drank cheap beer while monitoring the shoreline for jellyfish and sand-eating children; the fun seemed effortless. But life got too busy and our vacation time got too short and we stopped going. The intensely fun period of my life appears to be over, and rising sea levels mean the Outer Banks are disappearing, too. I fear we won’t get either back.
In youth, we take fun for granted; it’s destiny’s way of tricking us into thinking that all of adulthood will be great. But as the decades pass, we learn that fun is more like an electron: fast-moving and impossible to catch. And the instant we poke at it, touch it to see if it’s real, we’ve ruined it.
When did fun become so much work? We all know middle-aged overachievers who pursue fun like it’s an assignment they are not allowed to fail. These efforts turn fun into something terribly serious and usually involve spending money to compete in some kind of midlife sports league or master the banjo in under a year. I should know: I once took three semesters of a local pottery class, only to discover that the possibility of fun was canceled out by the shapes (ludicrous) and hues (sad) that emerged from the kiln. I will never reclaim what I invested in that class — money and time that obviously should have been spent, instead, on my teeth.
Fun is one of life’s delicious add-ons, like a pat of butter on top of the steak. But we need it too, to mitigate all the things that happen in a day that aren’t fun. To make us human in an increasingly dehumanizing world, and allow us to stop worrying, if briefly, about disappearing coastlines and the latest coronavirus variant and whether all that screen time will have a lasting negative effect on the kids.
If summer 2021 lives up to its billing (by some, anyway) as the ultimate post-pandemic rager, people of all ages will emerge from their coronavirus cocoons to test vaccine efficacy as quickly as they can. These folks will pursue big-time fun with intensity. Others, like me, will tiptoe out, grateful perhaps that expectations have fallen a notch. Because even in fun-free, cloistered pandemic life, there have been moments of transcendence — moments of true pleasure. Like the other night. I was out for a walk with my 14-year-old son, Mom on foot and boy on his scooter. It was dusk, and I watched his bright shirt fade into the dark in front of me. I called out to him, “How would you define fun?” Without hesitation, he called back, “Losing track of time.”
That’s the best answer I’ve heard so far.