I spent a weekend in Manhattan back in the fall of 2018 with two old college friends: Leslie, a documentary filmmaker who’s lived in Paris for many years, and Bonnie, a recently-retired high school English teacher living on a cattle ranch in the Kansas Flint Hills and leading a bluegrass band. We had a good time time banging around the city as one could freely do in those pre-pandemic days–a few hours at the Met marvelling at the Renoirs and Van Goghs in the Impressionist galleries, the Tiffany stained glass windows in the American wing; lunch at a favorite Indian restaurant on east 63d street; dim sum at the jam-packed Golden Unicorn in Chinatown on Sunday morning; and, in between, just hanging out in my apartment on the Upper West Side. Our reunion was easy and warm. We talked a lot about the past and present (with the mandatory hand-wringing over Trump), and we laughed; it felt good, to me at least–and I think to them as well. With Leslie having spent several weeks in the States and about to fly back to Paris the next day, I asked her what I thought was a simple question:
“So, have you had some fun while you’ve been here?”
Her answer, delivered in a winsome tone, caught me up short:
“Gee, Richie, I don’t have fun any more. Fun is something from a long time ago.”
I was surprised and said nothing. I felt badly for my friend–worried that she’d led a sad, “funless” life for all these years; that she hadn’t had fun with us. Several months later I got an email from Bonnie, reflecting back on our November weekend with Leslie:
I treasure those few days we all had together in November. Was that fun or what!!
I responded quickly, reflexively: “Absolutely!”
But, in truth, Leslie’s somber declaration had stuck with me long after our weekend–which I thought we’d all really enjoyed. Having considered myself to be a pretty happy person, I found myself pondering the concept of “fun”: what does it actually mean? And can we (I) still have it at our advanced age? I do a lot of things that I enjoy; that give me pleasure. But do I still have fun or was I kidding myself and actually paddling along in the same boat as Leslie?
I next heard from Leslie in February of this year, in an email with the Subject line: Looking for Advice
If anyone can give me good advice, I’m sure it’s you.
When I was in New York, I had a pretty constant stomach ache. I thought it was nerves but unfortunately it was pancreatic cancer. ….
If you wouldn’t mind taking a few minutes to let me know how you got through each day, how you kept the faith, how to be a good fighter, I would incredibly appreciate it.
Much love and appreciation.
We spoke the next day, first about battling cancer. I told Leslie about a phone call I’d had with a good friend in New York who’d survived a near fatal case of cancer, and to whom I’d reached out for advice when I’d been diagnosed with MDS–a blood cancer. I told Leslie:
I called Audrey shortly after the diagnosis and told her I was really torn as to how to deal with it: “On the one hand,” I said, “I feel like I’ve been lucky to have had a wonderful life–I’ve had a great wife and kids; I’ve had an interesting career, lots of great friends, and I’ve gotten to do and see a lot of things. So if it all ends now, that won’t be so bad. On the other hand, I think maybe I should dig in and do everything I can to fight this”.
Audrey’s reply was immediate and blunt. She said: “Forget about the first hand.”
I had choked-up during my call with Audrey, both when I told her about my diagnosis and when I heard her advice. I welled-up again when I related Audrey’s advice to Leslie.
But my call with Leslie continued beyond cancer and the dark road ahead of her, because in the three months since Leslie had been in New York–and while her life was being turned on its head with the life-shattering diagnosis that was consuming her attention–I’d continued to cogitate over her having told me that fun was a thing of the past for her. So, somewhat sheepishly–and hoping it might temporarily take her mind off her current funless plight–I nudged ahead:
You know, Leslie, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about what you said in New York when you said you never had fun anymore. I know this is probably an awful time to ask, but what did you mean by that? Did you have a good time when we were all together with Bonnie in New York?
Leslie seemed game to talk about “fun” in the midst of her current life which, by any definition, was not fun. She said “I do a lot of things that I enjoy doing–that give me happiness. But I don’t think of that as ‘fun.’”
So we went on to talk about the meaning of “fun.” I wondered aloud “whether there’s a difference between pleasure– having a good time doing things you enjoy–and having ‘fun’? And is any such distinction merely just a matter of semantics, or is there something real that’s gone by the wayside, at least for some people?” Leslie came up with a word that seemed to capture perhaps the purest form of fun: “carefree.” As she explained in an email following our phone call:
I do think that it’s difficult to be carefree in the world we live in and somehow in my mind it’s a requisite for fun. But not for pleasure. Go figure!
Finally, she sent another missive from Paris a few days later:
I was watching The Good Wife yesterday and the wife goes to visit her husband who’s in jail for corruption and he asks her, « Are you having fun? » And she looks at him with this snide look and says:
« Fun is Disneyland »
I guess that kind of sums it up! I, for one, am not having fun!!!! But, one day at a time, I’m making it.
Lots of love,
I didn’t hear from Leslie for several weeks, as she soldiered through the debilitating rounds of chemotherapy–all in the hope that her tumor could be shrunk to a point where her doctors could perform the massive operation that might give her a chance of surviving the deadly disease. Although Leslie had been living alone near the Marais in Paris, throughout that period her friends enveloped her:
I’m fighting back every day. Breathing exercises, meditation, visualization, acupuncture…and surrounded by loving friends. Haven’t spent a night alone since it all started. Friends rotate. It’s almost “Fun” having friends here all the time.
Thinking about my own experience, I can say without reservation that we had a lot of fun in college at Tufts University, twenty minutes outside of Boston, in the early 70’s. As I always tell people: “I didn’t get a great education at Tufts–but it wasn’t the school’s fault.”
We had a large group of friends and had fun in many flavors: Playing music during afternoons on the hill overlooking the library and at off-campus apartments deep into the nights–with me on the alto recorder tagging along with Bonnie and others on guitars, singing such standards of the time as I shall be released, The Weight, Colours, and Sweet Baby James; frequent all night poker games with Bruce, Buddy and Portnoy keeping us in stitches, the winner often obligated to buy breakfast for all (you were better off coming in second); and, of course, we had lots of parties, often including continuous volleyball games, both in Boston and in the woods of Ossipee, New Hampshire where we were supposedly helping my budding engineer roommate build a log cabin on land he’d bought on the side of a mountain (the cabin didn’t get built until Tommy was rid of us after graduation). Needless to say, recreational aids were in abundance–mostly marijuana supplied by two friends who ran their dealing operation out of a dorm room they dubbed Floyd’s Hotel–replete with matches bearing their insignia. A lot of fun–often carefree.
Leslie, a year ahead of me at Tufts, was not in our gang. Short and trim, with striking auburn hair and freckles, she was attractive, as was Bonnie, in a different way, with long, thick, blond hair and blue eyes. They were both radical feminists, and politically active, as was I, in the widespread opposition to the Vietnam War. Life was hardly all carefree. The three of us had first bonded during a 1973 antiwar demonstration in Cambridge. It began as a peaceful march of a few thousand mostly kids, but was hijacked by some agitators, unknown to us, who, after an uneventful 45 minutes, suddenly diverted the march to some railroad tracks near Central Square that they proceeded to destroy. Violence erupted as police moved in with tear gas. Leslie, Bonnie and I, terrified, peeled away from the mess and, along with a few other friends who’d joined us, made our way back to Tufts, in Medford, where we huddled together in shock. So, not a fun day, however you define it.
Forty-five years later, living on the upper west side of Manhattan, I love to watch the young kids–especially the 3 and 4 year olds– who appear to be having carefree, unabashed fun, even now. I pause to watch them and smile as they rollick in Central Park on scooters and training bikes. Until the pandemic shut everything down, I marveled at the young kids’ school classes– excitedly bumping along on field trips to the Museum of Natural History, now shuttered, to see the dinosaurs and the great blue whale–often in pairs holding hands or hanging side-by-side onto a rope chain that kept the unruly herd together. Some skipping, most chatting away and laughing–seemingly without a care in the world. Other than an occasional child in tears and the grip of temporary despair, these children appeared–at least on the surface–to have nothing on their minds at that moment but the pure fun enveloping them, which might perhaps be described as unadulterated fun; unstained by the bruises and scars of adulthood. Indeed, I now have a new understanding and appreciation of this word even though some quick internet research indicates no linkage to the noun “adult,” which traces back to a different latin root than the adjective “adulterated.”
At 68, I consider myself to be a pretty happy person. By no means devoid of things to worry about, and with aches and pains scattered among an increasing assortment of body parts, I’ve nevertheless had a lot of good times–fun, by most definitions. I’ve had fun with Melissa–recently, for example, in Botswana watching wide-eyed as a pair of lions twenty feet from us mated (every 10 minutes, at most!), and leopards gracefully stalked their prey; but also just laughing a lot as we’ve ridden the roller coaster together through family life and my various medical sagas. I’ve had fun at our place on Thompson Lake in Maine, cooking with our son Harris, playing basketball or backgammon with his brother, Tommy, or just whiling away summer evenings with our best friends of forty years. And I’ve had fun with my legal teammates at sundown on the outdoor rooftop of a Mexican restaurant in Fort Worth, Texas celebrating the sudden conclusion that afternoon of a high stakes antitrust trial after an all-consuming, stressful three-year odyssey together.
On rare occasions, I’ve even had the kind of pure un-adult-erated fun Leslie and I have noodled over: Glamping with Melissa under the stars in the dunes of the Moroccan Sahara and playing the drums with a group of nomads; or my annual fly fishing trips with friends to such far-flung places as Argentina and Alaska. While I usually enjoy the fishing, the real fun for me comes at the lodge or campsite at the end of the day–frivolously hacking around over bourbon, wine and dinner; irreverently roasting each other– many miles removed from the stresses and concerns of everyday life. We have fun and, in fact, that’s why I continue to go—as I’ve explained to my friend Gary who talks me into re-enlisting each year.
Or the annual Rod & Reel dinners in December of each year, attended by about twenty old friends from college days. Held in what I gather is an exclusive club in Boston’s Back Bay that dates back to the 1700’s, the “Rat” is accessed through an unmarked door in an alley and several winding flights of rickety old wooden stairs. There is nothing remotely fancy or plush about the Rat, which consists of two rooms with rough-hewn, wide-board, unvarnished wooden floors and old red brick walls, adorned with occasional old maritime pictures.
All invitees are provided with black aprons bearing the official Ritz Rod & Reel insignia. After cocktails and dinner, the three leaders of the group, I believe self-proclaimed, call the proceedings to order. Going around the table, the attendees are summoned to tell their “fish stories”–very few of which involve fishing (a sport that’s foreign to most of the attendees), and virtually none of which are true. The comedians in the group–the same as during our college days–emerge and set the affair on fire, mocking not only the stories being told, but also our peerless leaders, who, undaunted, confer the story-telling awards and brush off the inevitable griping over their selections. Detached from our present lives and thrown back four decades to when this kind of frivolous revelry was a nightly affair, I’ve had pure, unadulterated fun, amazed at how different we all look and how little we’ve changed in the ways we had fun together so long ago.
So I’ve had quite a bit of fun, and perhaps I do part company with Leslie, although I suspect that she’s had some fun too, including when we were together in Manhattan. But regardless, she does have a point worth pondering because there is a difference in my mind between doing things that give me pleasure and enjoyment, even if I call it fun, and the exuberant feeling of having pure, unadulterated fun. And while the line between the two can be blurry, looking back on those times when I’ve experienced such carefree fun, there seem to be some common threads, at least for me: often a place far removed from home, where the worries of the present are forgotten and the layers of adulthood built up over the decades that clutter the path to carefree fun can be temporarily shed. An un-adulterated place, often among good friends who are able to let loose with each other, often reaching back in time; often acting silly.
My friend and fishing buddy Henry had a different (and typically insightful) perspective on this search for the meaning of “fun,” wearing the grandparent’s hat that I’ve not yet donned: “Fun requires some ability to transcend the reality of context and time and simply dwell on the joy of a moment– whether it derives from where you are or who you are with or both. Since I’ve had grandsons, I’ve more opportunities for spontaneous, unadulterated fun than I have in a long time.” I have no doubt that many, if not most grandparents would concur with Henry.
The Coronavirus tsunami may have placed carefree fun out of reach for many adults for a while. We can’t get away from home; we’re cautious and anxious; and most forms of entertainment and social engagement that ordinarily help distract us from worries have been shut down. Even for those of us fortunate enough to be secure economically, it’s much harder than usual to escape the stresses of everyday life. But even before COVID-19, and after moving on from the chronic stress associated with the life of a full-time litigator, everyday adult life hardly ever seemed care-free. Concerns about my health, my kids, Trump, and/or the fate of our country have rarely been out of mind.
Triggered by my dialogue with Leslie, I’ve wondered whether it’s essential to have the idealized and longed-for carefree kind of fun in order to have a rich, happy life. Probably not: How we experience fun changes as life moves along. Although we’re not–or, at least I’m not–often completely carefree, in ordinary times I can still have more than my share of fun, albeit adulterated, doing things I enjoy with people I love being with. And every now and then I get lucky and experience the kind of old-fashioned kid-like carefree exuberance that’s fun by any definition.
Melissa and I went to visit Leslie in early August. She’d made it through the months of chemotherapy, as well as radiation, and was staying with a friend in the south of France to get herself ready for the massive operation that awaited her in September. So we ventured to the tiny mountain village of Saint Jeanette, about 15 miles from Cap D’Antibes, where our friends Tom and Maarit have a house and generously offered to not only put us up but lend us their car.
Based on everything I knew about pancreatic cancer– not much other than that everyone else we knew who’d been diagnosed had died quickly–we assumed Leslie would be on death’s doorstep. We were pleasantly stunned. Wearing a headscarf–the badge of women survivors– Leslie looked healthy and strong, as she offered to race me up the long, steep steps from the public parking area to the small cafe where we had lunch overlooking the hills and out to the Cap. When I got around to hesitantly asking about her prospects, Leslie said “my doctors say I’m something of a miracle,” and that her chances of long term survival were excellent. We spent a great afternoon riding through Vence to the charming town of Tourrettes-sur-Loup. And the following afternoon we basked together in luxury, courtesy of Maarit and Tom, at the Belle Rives Hotel beach club in Juan de Pin, where F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote Tender is the Night. We began with a two-hour seaside lunch, consuming multiple bottles of rosé, before retreating to beach chairs and the Mediteranean. It was a special afternoon. Although grappling with pancreatic cancer is quite possibly the polar opposite of unadulterated fun–one can’t possibly be carefree–we had a good time.
Amazingly, Leslie has now come through her surgery and the ensuing rounds of chemo–by all indications with flying colours. She, Bonnie, Melissa, and I have plans to get together at our place on the lake in Maine at the end of June. In light of the pandemic, so many plans for June have been dashed, but I suspect we’ll have some real fun if we can somehow make the timing work any time this summer or fall. Fingers crossed–for all of us who long to get back to having fun with one another.
To read about the adventures I had in Europe in less complicated times, click here.
To be candid, during this shut-in time I find myself reading all sorts of things that I usually don’t, including novels and this column….
And I am glad! Really enjoyed the latter. Had a smile plastered on my face throughout. While I didn’t have a single belly laugh, it was, nevertheless, an extremely fun read! I admire your style and your substance. Will have to go back and read other parts of your oeuvre!
Not the Henry in this story.
I adore this. You are such an engaging writer. Thanks for this. I needed to start my day with something uplifting and this was perfect. I guess I have a low bar for fun. I feel it pretty regularly doing pretty mundane activities. Or maybe I just see the joy in lots of aspects of life.
A thoughtful and beautifully written piece, as always. But I wonder if perhaps the query would be better framed in terms of “joy” rather than “fun.” While fun connotes a shared experience involving some form of action and has temporal limits, joy is a feeling, a passive, solitary experience that nonetheless also evokes great pleasure and happiness. In these Coronavirus days, when opportunities for companionship and “fun” is limited, I try to find joy everyday. As an example, I often walk on the beach early in the morning and pause to watch the accomplished surfers (who no doubt are having fun)….and feel such joy as the beauties of nature and the dancing on the waves mesmerize me. Joy and gratitude to me are the hallmarks of a happy life. With a bit of fun thrown in now and then! Just a thought….🏄🏼🌴🌞😍
Again, your words and thoughts so beautifully capture what I can’t express but often think about at this time in our lives. It made me think of Tufts and how I so wished that I wasn’t always on the periphery with you and your friends. I’m sure I missed some fun. I didn’t have much confidence in myself then. I agree that having grandchildren and watching them play, explore, wonder, and discover brings me great joy. Thank you Richie…and hope to catch up with you one day.
Fun is real if you know you had it but cannot exactly recall or repeat it because you lost yourself in it at the time.Thar is why it was fun.
Rich, another beautifully crafted post to this blog, thank you for our cameo appearance. You have obviously given a lot of thought to the question of what is the life well lived – is it all about stitching together episodes of fun or is there a deeper happiness, perhaps with an ethical dimension? The Socratic School spoke of “eudaemonia” — a concept of happiness and well-being that included an element of virtue.
I believe that during extended periods of cancer or MDS it is more realistic to aspire to eudaemonia than belly-aching fun. But, unfortunately, you would know better.