For reasons I don’t even want to delve into, lately I’ve had this urge to listen to boy bands while I grade. Normally I favor dark ambient melodies that evoke haunted castles in Romania, so this is very unlike me.
A few nights ago, the five-part harmony suddenly got me waxing all nostalgic, so I messaged an old friend. Instead of falling down a hole of reminiscences, I came to this unpleasant realization (which my friend kindly contradicted, but still):
I am not a fun person.
I am too serious too much of the time, even before COVID-19. I’ve forgotten how to lighten up, if I ever knew. And yes, I’ve tangled with personal demons over the past few years, and 2020 is dark and difficult for many people. Fun seems frivolous in the face of everything happening. But maybe at times like these, we need to look for opportunities to laugh — deep, healing, belly laughs — and relax and savor joyful moments. Even with people we disagree with. Maybe especially with people we disagree with.
And I don’t want to keep being the downer in every group, the sad eyes at every table, the person so eaten by my own misery that I can’t enjoy sunshine or a joke.
In fairness, it’s only around adults that I seem to have a fun deficit. Kids are a blast; my nephews and niece have been responsible for more hilarity than I can recount. Animals have brought moments of pure, unfettered joy. And I have students so clever, witty, and incisive — and with such impeccable comic timing — that I have literally put my head on the desk and howled in class.
But I can’t remember the last time I let loose and just had fun like that with someone my own age.
This isn’t to criticize my wonderful friends. It’s my deficiency, not theirs. I am blessed with people I enjoy spending time with, who challenge and listen to me, share their lives, even invite me to mountain cabins and beach houses and family holidays.
But I doubt any of them would describe me as fun.
If there was ever a time when I did have fun, it would be the three years I spent in central PA. It wasn’t that I loved grad school — I didn’t. At all. But for the first and last time in my life, I felt like I belonged. A variety of fascinating people moved through the same circles I did. I met folks who shared my weirdest and most esoteric interests, but I also got to try being “normal.” As dark and sinister and depressed as I often felt, there were people in my close orbit who somehow realized I had a lighter side and made sure I didn’t lose touch with it.
Marianne and I once took a road trip to Clearfield, where we were chased out of a diner by what felt like half the town, and Beccaria, where we saw such creepy figurines that we had to stop for photos. When I hear “When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin, I still remember Erin singing “Summer in the City” to the intro riff as we drove back from an ice cream shop in Bellefonte, past sun-limned dandelion fields. C. Scott took me swimming in an old rock quarry up in the hills. One night a boy shattered my heart under a stone arch in the rain, and weeks later, after mourning and grieving and playing the same songs over and over, I realized I felt joyful for no reason except that the sun was shining and I’d had a relaxing afternoon with my friends. When I shared this, Erin said, “That’s what happiness feels like. You don’t need a reason; it just is.”
What else? Concerts at the Crowbar, usually followed with a chance to meet the bands. An elegant garden party where the hostess handed me a rose, saying, “It’s like love. Be careful of the thorns.” Haunted roads and half-crumbled stone churches and a deep, dank tunnel that ran under the interstate. Reclining on cushions as we drank home-brewed absinthe. House of Dazzle galas, as gaudy and glam as they sound. A Tarot reading while I waited for my first tattoo, and later a zany, wide-ranging conversation with the Tarot reader, who showed up on my doorstep at midnight, high on heroin and insisting he was Pan incarnate. The last St. Patrick’s Day I spent in State College, when I looked up from the scarred table at Zeno’s and realized that I knew literally every person in view and felt like part of something warm and wonderful.
So what changed? When and why did I stop having fun with people my age?
Well, one reason is that adulting in general sucks. I assumed there would be some payoffs for growing up, but I’m still waiting for them to materialize. Meanwhile it’s a pretty soul-sucking proposition. I’m not sure where to go with that, but there it is. Plus…
- Responsibility — I was always available for adventure in grad school partly because I didn’t take the school part seriously. In fact, I spent a semester on academic probation and almost didn’t graduate at the 11th hour. Also, I suppose there’s a maturity factor: Tarot readers who hang out at tattoo studios lose their appeal, even if their eyes are a shade of turquoise you’ve never seen on anyone before or since.
- Awkwardness — I’m often uncomfortable with people my own age. As a teenager I had adult friends and a regular cast of kids I babysat, but school felt like navigating a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language or understand the customs. Most of my work environments have been the same way. I don’t do parties well unless I’m on the planning committee or attach myself to the most voluble guest.
- Different interests — I’m independent enough to try a lot of things alone, which is what I usually wind up doing. But I’d rather share experiences with someone else who enjoys them, too.
- Unhappiness — It’s tough to have fun, or be fun, when you’re miserable. For at least three years, I’ve known I don’t have a future in my career, but I couldn’t figure out what to do instead. I felt trapped and increasingly frantic. That’s made it tough to relax around other people who felt fulfilled in their careers and contented with their lives, because I keep wondering what’s wrong with me.
- Shame and inadequacy — This stems from the unhappiness. I feel like I’m worse at adulting than virtually everyone else I know. My life doesn’t seem real and valid, not in the way other people’s are. And there are a lot of topics I can’t relate to: I’ve never been married or even in a relationship that didn’t have an expiration date flashing in neon lights. I don’t have kids. I don’t own a house or run a business. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about those aspects of my friends’ lives, because I do. But when I meet new people, I’m constantly on guard, either smiling and nodding because I have nothing to contribute, or apologizing for what my life looks like and, by extension, who I am. And maybe I feel like I can’t lighten up; I have to stay “deep” because depth is all I offer, since I’m clearly not fun, and if I don’t contribute something, people might only tolerate my company out of pity — or not at all.
I grew up in an environment populated by dour neo-Puritan types who thought fun was sinful, or at best inexcusably immature. I’ve spent years trying to uproot all the vestiges of their misery and hatred that have twined their way into my psyche, but I realized the other night that ongoing sadness is a legacy they would have been pleased to leave me with. The best way I can rebel is to consciously choose joy. Have fun. Laugh. Relax without feeling guilty.
And to look for people who contribute to my happiness. Stop grieving those who have chosen to leave my life, and value the ones who have stayed. I thought I had forgiven, because I longed for reconciliation and truth-telling conversations, but now I think part of forgiveness might instead be letting them go, opening my hands and heart, watching them drift away and fade into memories and mist.