What does fun even feel like?
A missive on the search for play and fun that feels good.
This idea that women (generally AFAB humans) lose their sense of play early, as mentioned in last week’s missive, concerns me. We see examples of it in every trope of a mother or wife in like every dude mid-life-crisis story, so like every Woody Allen film ever? The one that comes to mind is Carolyn Burnham (Annette Benning) in American Beauty (1999). She is the epitome of joylessness, in fact Lester (Kevin Spacey) asks her at some point, “Oh Carolyn, when did you become so…joyless?”
Carolyn spends her time chanting mantras while cleaning a house she’s selling in her slip so that she remains flawless. I WILL SELL THIS HOUSE TODAY. She keeps herself pristine while gardening. Hell, her garden is pristine. She’s more concerned about the expensive silk sofa than she is interested in getting dirty with Lester (though to be fair, if I were married to him I too might be more worried about the sofa).
There’s a clip of her from their early courtship, I’m sure you remember, laughing her ass off on the Ferris wheel or the tilt-a-whirl. That young, playful, joyful, delighted woman lost to #adulting. And given all that women tend to be responsible for and the humans we tend to have to take care of, this isn’t an illogical transition. I mean, we are raised to facilitate others’ play and fun.
I hated Carolyn. I was seventeen, full of self-hatred, internalizd misogyny, and I NEVER wanted to become her. I empathized with Lester, as I did many male leads in similar stories because these stories were at the time always from the butt-hurt male mid-life crisis perspective, we were meant to empathize with them, and their awful wives deserved all the shitty treatment they got.
I had not yet encountered Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” or Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” or Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinam. I had not, in other words, yet been educated on my anti-feminist, anti-woman, anti-mother, wrong-thinking attitude, and wrong it was.
But this play deprivation hurts us. It really hurts us. Play releases stress, lowers cortisol, increases warm fuzzy feelings, shifts our moods, and as Brigid Schulte found in her research for Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, nearly every species engages in it (family of bears playing on a playground, even mom, once she’s rested, gets up to rabble rowse a bit). And, probably more often than we realize, cross species folks play (deer and dog best friends and, erm, polar bears playing with sled dogs…).
But, what is play and what kind of play IS fun? Do we even know? I didn’t.
When Schulte finally meets up with a group called Mice at Play (now defunct) an organization supporting women to engage in play, which she put off until she absolutely has to, the only activity available is a meeting at a trapeze swinging place. Schulte climbs the platform, one hand holding the trapeze swing and the other gripping the railing so tight her knuckles are white and her fingers are cramping.
She’s afraid of heights. So am I. Even reading about her experience wasn’t fun for me. My stomach knots now thinking of it. But in this culture, that is my American culture, where extrovert ideas of fun rule and people go adventure traveling, re: paragliding, parachuting out of planes, bungee jumping, white water rafting, rock climbing, ziplining, downhill skiing, rollercoaster riding, etc., etc., etc., for FUN, there isn’t a good image of what fun looks like for a chill, introverted person who’s stomach is sensitive to high speeds and dead drops.
We spent a lot of time when I was small at the lakes. My Great Great Grandpa Joe bought a cabin on Big Floyd in Detroit Lakes, MN, hauled it across the lake in the middle of winter when the lake was frozen and planted it across an alley from his sister-in-law’s cabin.
We all spent most summer weekends there. Grandpa Joe taught me how to feed carrots and sugar cubes, which they always had out on the little table for coffee, to the horse across the street. Grandma Mary made runny eggs that made me shudder but I ate anyway. Uncle Duane took groups out around the lake on the pontoon at twilight. My aunt and uncle’s side of the lake was super shallow and we kids could go out some feet before the water was up to our chest. Most of the time it was pretty chill.
But my cousin, and when I say cousin I mean a man about 30 years older than me, had a speed boat and enjoyed swirling in circles to make large waves while pulling people on a tube. I suspect his main goal was to throw people off or, at minimum, challenge their dexterity.
This never looked like fun to me. The holding on for dear life, the going fast while clinging to a tube, the being flung into the water. I only mildly enjoyed riding along in the boat and only if I could sit in the back where the boat bounced less with the waves. And, only, I think, because I’d have been seen as anti-social or a downer if I didn’t go along.
Whenever asked if I wanted a turn on the tube, I declined. Inside it was a hearty NO THANK YOU NOT IN A MILLION YEARS THAT LOOKS FUCKING AWFUL. But outwardly, because I wasn’t taught that I was allowed to say no, especially to adults and especially to men (which you can see being a huge problem more broadly), it probably sounded more meek and tentative. Like maybe I might like to go, I am only just a bit scared.
One day, probably just into double digits, my younger sister and I both decided (or felt cajoled) into getting on a tube under the caveat that my cousin NOT go fast and that he stay straight and steady.
Our first mistake was trusting our cousin. Our second was slathering baby oil on our skin because we were told it would keep the swimmer’s itch away and not washing our hands.
So we’re out there, hands slick with baby oil, white-knuckling the handles of this tube, and our cousin, a man like many who just has no understanding of anyone NOT enjoying the things he enjoys and doesn’t respect or even hear the needs of those around him, especially if they’re women/girls/children. And if he thought it through at all, he just assumed we’d like the speed and waves once we experienced it.
We did not.
Just as he promised not to do, he increased the speed and started turning tight circles, weaving back and forth. And rationally, of course, though water accidents happen, I was wearing a life jacket and being flung into the water is pretty safe and low impact. And in fact, if I had intentionally done so, it might have ended the whole traumatizing experience much sooner, but I was too overstimulated to be that cunning. The monkey brain had kicked in and in order to stay alive I must not let go.
I don’t know who slipped off first. I have a vague memory of my sister telling me she thought of just letting go, but was wedged between myself and a cousin our age. But, my sister doesn’t remember any of this at all. She says every memory she has of tubing is sheer terror. She’s blocked it out.
I was trained from an early age to just go along with whatever everyone else was doing and never really had a choice about where I went or who I spent time with or what I did. My parents both played sports and my friends played sports, so I did sports. My friends were into football so I memorized all the team names and abbreviations. I also memorized lyrics to songs my friends liked.
I put a lot of effort into keeping up and trying to be what others’ needed me to be and never really had the opportunity to wonder if I actualy liked or enjoyed any of it. Until puberty, of course, when I ever so gradually over the course of many, many years began to look for myself in different people and places.
And eventually in myself.
Is it my AFAB (assigned female at birth) rearing that I was trained to be acquiescent and accommodating, and had no idea how to identify what my boundaries were, let alone how to set them? Or more specifically my situation?
Don’t misunderstand, I have had a number of pleasant experiences just tagging along with trusted friends. I’ve learned a lot about the world and about myself. I’ve had experiences I wouldn’t have had on my own, but I had a lot of experiences that were uncomfortable at best and scary at worst. And it’s taken me a helluva long time to decipher what for me IS fun. And what’s even allowed to be called fun and play in this culture that defines play at high speed.
What does fun feel like if it’s not that overstimulation of too much noise and too many people at a dance club or the sick feeling and knee-buckling experience of the downswing of the Pharaoh’s Fury? I’m still getting comfortable allowing the slow, mellow kinds of play I now know I enjoy and more assertive with my NO.
Are you able to engage in play without the to do list running through your head? Do you know what kinds of play you enjoy? Leave a comment if you’re so inclined.