Thursday, July 30, 2009

Are we still having fun?

Home from the hospital, I tell you, taking a shower is great. Kids know this. They love to run through an oscillating sprinkler, stand under a waterfall, jump around through one of those computerized fountains that shoots water up erratically. They play in their bath, they splash each other in the pool and at the beach. Water is amazing.

So, why would a grownup not feel like taking a shower is a fantastic treat? Working from limited evidence, my own experience, I think it's because we think a shower is work, or a Shud, something you have to do that is keeping you from doing something else more important.

That something else might be work of many kinds, the tasks that keep accumulating in our overabundant lives. Or it might be that kind of heightened, risky play we call fun. Going to the neighborhood tavern to have fun wasting away. Or the casino, say, or the theme park, or an adventure vacation - going somewhere exciting and risky, to do an activity whose chief purpose is fun.

"To have fun" - isn't that an odd thing to say? Because fun is actually a personal, internal response. Like enlightenment, it isn't a thing you can "have." It is an activity, something you do inside yourself, where? In the mind. In the physical response when the rollercoaster starts down the 90 degree incline and you enjoy the terror of risk and helplessness.

Aren't we humans strange? There isn't a cat in the world that would willingly get on that coaster. In fact, if you once made it go through that, it would pack its bags and head out, looking for another home. A cat gets enough excitement when a hawk or eagle plummets down and tries to grab it for fast food - that seems to have happened to one of our neighborhood cats, a Mu who wore big wounds on his hindquarters for quite a while.

Years ago I was puzzled to read in a book by a Japanese Zen master that he never had fun. He seemed to be frowning as he held the word in his hands. I guessed that he found his daily life and work satisfying, enjoyable, and didn't understand the pleasure of excitement. Buddhists do get to enjoying calm.

The above video - for a break from your calm, you can chair dance to it. And darn it, it is fun. I had to laugh out loud, it is so last century. Something about the crowd gently rocking but staying in their seats, the black and white filming, not one single cellcam held high, not one Bic lighter. There's another video of this song from my own younger days, a time when cars were revered, that gives a montage of T-birds. Classic cars, another kind of Fun With Stuff.

I laughed watching this - I swear the lead singer is chewing gum. And look how conventional and un-surfer these Beach Boys look by the standards of the present, a day in which a performer (Michael Jackson) can accidentally get his hair caught on fire during a filming. There's a point - how the spirit of fun got loose around this time - in four more years Woodstock would record people using illegal drugs, having sex with strangers in the grass . . . and that risky freedom kept escalating until high-stakes gambling in the stock market was a way of life and Americans were determined to consume the world. In a way, we have, not without help from other nations.

We had some talks with the grandson on our last visit. He wants to visit a casino. I told him I did visit one in the early seventies, and made up my mind I could lose $20 and then quit. Back then that was money. I went to the blackjack table and lost that money so fast my cigarette didn't even burn down. It was depressing. All around me were people whose pockets seemed bottomless. I hadn't realized how many very rich there are in this world.

Otto knew how to play blackjack, so we three played. We taught him how to bet, how betting makes it more interesting, using colored glass dots for chips. You should have seen him work at this game, how kids do, how they work at their play like cats do. In blackjack you try to note the aces and face cards that have been played, you do math in your head all the time, counting hands, you assess the other players. It is the oddest thing, how we will do hard things for fun. If you like analytic detail work so much, why not just do stem-cell research in your leisure time? You can see this at casinos too, or at the local Bingo game, or playing bridge - people hellbent to win, concentrating as if they were deciphering Sanskrit.

Otto told us he only bets on 20 or 21, so we explained how that's a losing strategy, and told him how bluffing works. He got it, but seemed to have a hard time understanding it somehow. Nine years old. Maybe he was wondering if it isn't a form of lying. I told his mother I was afraid we turned him into a gambler, teaching him how to bluff. Cassie laughed and said, "He's a long way from having a poker face." He is. He has that bit of the Irish in him, an inner life and responsiveness that shows up in his face and body. He likes to do almost everything, it seems, as long as it isn't boring. I'm still trying to unravel that - what boring means. And what it has to do with the search for fun.

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