Too much fun? Still news to me

On escaping the trap of living too instrumentally…

Too much fun, well that’s news to me
Too much fun, there must be
A whole lotta things that I never done
I ain’t never had too much fun

— “Too Much Fun,” Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, 1974.

Having too much fun has never been a problem for me. No, really — I have almost no concept of what it’s like to have too much fun. It’s one of those things that “I never done,” as the song goes. My problem tends to be the opposite:  I run fun deficits routinely — deficits so large sometimes that the federal government has nothing on me, certainly not when it comes to spilling the red ink of not enough fun.  In my case, this is both a spending and a revenue problem: too much time spent on work and not enough time reaping the revenues of time spent having fun.

The last six weeks or so have been a perfect example. A solid period of nose-to-the-grindstone work with very few breaks was beginning to take its toll.  The home stretch of my work marathon was in sight — just a few more big tasks to get done, and then daylight — but I had run out of mental energy.  Semi-conscious rebellion — not unconscious because I was aware of it, but not entirely in my conscious control either — had broken out.  Eating discipline, disrupted by travel and a succession of client dinners, had become undisciplined. Minutes spent in TV veg mode had turned into hours. So much time had been spent in the web surf that my brain was getting wrinkly.  I was starting to get crankier and achier and unhappier.  My mind was, in more ways than one, grinding to a halt.

This came to a head this past Sunday. I made a list of all the things I needed to do, estimated how much time each task would take, quickly calculated that I needed not an entire day but more like an entire week to finish them, and then proceeded to ignore the to-do list except for one item: take a walk. So I took a walk on the National Mall in DC to be inspired, clear my mind, sort things out, get things straight. It wasn’t working, although I did manage to get to the point where I realized that my fun deficit had gotten too severe, and that I needed to have more fun. I know what, I thought: I’ll make a list of all the things I could do to have fun over the next few weeks. I tried making the list in my head while walking, but I had trouble thinking of anything; my mind seemed incapable of clearing or sorting that out.  The only thing that seemed to help clear my mind at all was recalling that old commercial where they sing the song “I need a vacation/like nobody’s business…” So I sang that song in my head over and over as I walked past the monuments through head wind and tail wind on a very blustery day.

Upon my return, list making with pencil and paper didn’t get anywhere either. So, back to wrinkling my brain some more by reading my Facebook news feed, during which I encountered a link to this article: The 5 Daily Rituals That Will Make You Happy.  Normally I’m dismissive of such articles, but in this case I felt like anything could be helpful. I only got as far as the first ritual: “Take Recess.”  That sounded like a good idea. This passage described an experiment by noted psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi which essentially confirmed the folk wisdom about all work and no play makes us dull, only far worse than that: 48 hours of all work and no play gives us clinical anxiety disorder.

But the word that struck me from this article — the one that provided me the nugget of insight I needed — was “instrumental.”  “Most of what we do all day is ‘instrumental.’” That hit the mark for me because  everything I’d been doing was instrumental. The Sunday walk on the Mall didn’t work because I’d framed it as instrumental, a walk with a purpose instead of a walk with no purpose. That’s what my semi-conscious mind had been trying to tell me: ‘if you won’t take the time to have some real fun, then we’ll just have to make do with proxy fun [all of which are definitely not examples of “too much fun”] — too much eating, drinking, watching TV, etc. Because I’m pretty much tapped out here…’   This even explains why the fun list went nowhere: as soon as I framed it as instrumental, my mind shut down — ‘nope, another task — no fun here.’

I needed more fun time, which is to say time distinctly defined as not instrumental: some time spent ‘off the clock,’ or even doing something which wasn’t near the top of my task list but which is fun to do. Like writing this blog post.

So this week I’ve been focusing on having regular fun time: an unexpected dinner with some friends, an unexpected stint in a pottery class at my son’s former school, and more on the way.  Maybe even going out looking for an armadillo or two. Recess is not just for kids, after all…


Mr. Davis’s Oak Tree

About the power of imagination when it has taken hold…

(No picture of Mr. Davis’s oak tree — you’ll have to imagine it also…)

This story is about neighbors, memories, and the power of imagination when it has taken hold.

Mr. Davis was a neighbor who lived around the corner from us when we lived on Glaizewood Avenue. He was a widower, in his early 80s or so, a charming gentleman who was not above a little occasional flirting with my much-younger wife.  He got a free pass on that partly because he was clearly harmless and also because he clearly missed his wife so.  We suspected he was lonely and maybe a bit bored, so we were rather more neighborly with him than we might have been otherwise. Martha took the lead on this, of course; between her abundant gregariousness and her experience growing up on Beechwood Avenue where most of the neighbors had known each other for many decades, this came naturally to her (much more so than it did or does to me).  So we’d had plenty of chats with Mr. Davis in the yard and went over to his house a time or two. One time we even accompanied him to some event at a local VFW or someplace like that. I don’t remember what the event was — maybe a spaghetti dinner? or why we went — but apparently he had invited Martha and she’d agreed, and we had a perfectly fine time.

Of course, we also suspected he was bored and lonely because he was a bit of a busybody at times.  As was my usual oblivious custom, I tended to tune this out for the most part, except when it came to landscaping and lawn care. Mr. Davis was a stickler for both; he spent a lot of time in his yard, mowing and weeding and the other usual stuff. His back yard was farther up a hill at a higher elevation than ours, and our back yard was buttressed by a stone wall which was technically his property.  This wall was naturally a magnet for English ivy, and at least once Mr. Davis came down to talk with us about the importance of regular maintenance to uproot the ivy so that it wouldn’t damage and eventually bring down his wall.  I’m pretty sure he came down and did the work himself sometimes if we were not being diligent enough for his standards.  Martha and I, both working and almost always on the go, were similarly not quite so conscientious about keeping up with our lawn. One day, we came home to find out that our lawn had been cut for us. After the initial surprise and puzzlement, we figured out what had happened, but we never mentioned it to him, and neither did he.

Maybe it’s partly because I associate Mr. Davis so much with his back yard, but when I think of him, the first thing I usually think about is something I never saw and never will see. One time he told us a story about an oak tree that used to be in his back yard. I don’t remember any of the particulars about his story or about the tree itself. What I do remember is how he transported himself back in time as he told the story: he was clearly seeing his past, his life, as embodied in his memories of the tree as he reminisced about it. And after a while I was seeing the oak tree too, to the point where that is the only thing I remembered about the story. Occasionally after he told the story, I would look out the kitchen window or from our side deck out onto Mr. Davis’s back yard and imagine that tree, which soon became more real to me than the story itself.  Eventually, Mr. Davis’s oak tree became a symbol for me of how things we imagine can become real to us, even if they are long gone or if we never even experienced them as a physical reality.  I’ve found myself wondering how much that oak tree helped keep Mr. Davis going, how the power of imagination and memory extended his life in the face of loss.

Mr. Davis has been gone for some time now too, but I did see him one more time after we’d moved.  Many years later and some time after Martha had died, I was out on a bicycle ride by myself and in the general neighborhood. I decided I could handle a trip down that particular memory lane, so I rode by the old house. It had changed a lot in the intervening years — new landscaping, paint job and a new walkway, and more changes were going on: some new roofing and maybe another cosmetic change or two. I watched for a short while; then as I was turning to go, I saw a familiar-looking car parked on the street at the corner. In the car was Mr. Davis doing what struck me as a very Mr. Davis-like thing: he had driven his car a grand total of maybe 200 feet from his driveway so that he had a better view of the construction and could watch from the comfort of his car. He had the car parked on the other side of the street, facing the wrong way (it wasn’t possible or safe to park on the closer side), and he was sitting on the passenger’s side so that he could get the best view of the construction in process.

Strangely, I am unable to remember for sure what happened next. I don’t know whether I went over to say hello, or whether I avoided doing so because I didn’t want to tell him the painful news about Martha’s tragic death.  It’s funny what we remember and don’t remember sometimes.  For example, sometimes I think I remember having seen Mr. Davis park his car there before, while we lived there even, as a way of getting out of his house to entertain himself by watching what was going on in the neighborhood.  Which if true, would be a bit creepy in a way, because our house would be the main attraction in his line of sight. So maybe that memory is not so clear and even a total fiction. But I do remember that oak tree — a different kind of fiction which has clearly taken hold in my imagination…