In Defense of Fun
I’m looking through edits of an essay I've written, lit up green and purple with Track Changes— a new word here, a relocated sentence there, when I see it. Not once, but twice in as many paragraphs: the word “fun.” In the margin, two comments: “Careful not to overuse. Find more interesting language.”
I know, in my literary heart, that fun is up there with “good,” “interesting,” and “I liked it,” in the pantheon of Vague Language We Must Avoid. It’s reminiscent of essays about elementary school summer vacations, and the kind of lazy, inarticulate writing that all of us strive so desperately to remove from our internal dictionaries. I have highlighted this word in other people’s writing, demanded its immediate removal; I have cracked merciless jokes about fun’s appearance in the essays I’ve edited and revised over the years. But today, in the spirit of transparency and sticking to your guns, I’m taking a stand— a stand in Defense of Fun.
Sometimes, very rarely, fun is the right word. Fun is joy, but it’s more than that; it’s playful and blissed out and wild, it’s social and inclusive and explodes from the center of your ribcage like a bottle rocket, the way the sun looks when you glance at it head-on, the way a mountain creek feels when you jump in stark naked, and surface yelping from the cold. Fun is not your summer vacation to a muggy, crowded amusement park. Fun is skiing untracked powder, or powering up a jagged quartzite crag. Fun is the crisp crack of a half-frozen beer shared with a friend at the summit. Fun is something physical, all-encompassing, contagious and pure.
I never used to be a defender of fun. It wasn’t a word that recurred in my writing, and it wasn’t a strong theme in my life. That’s not to say that my past-tense self didn’t feel happiness, or excitement, or occasional flashes of playfulness and joy. But fun— that all-encompassing bodily sparkle that makes you laugh out loud, regardless of company or context— wasn’t something I experienced on a daily basis. Sure, I had health insurance and a great salary and a respectable, flexible job. I climbed and hiked on the weekends, traveled often, and dated a series of kind and uninteresting men. There were flashes of fun, and moments of intrigue, but nothing remarkable. When I wrote during the in-between times, 20 minutes on a random weekend, words flowed out of me unmetered. I wrote about work and about my relationships. During one particularly grim month, I composed a series of tortured, self-conscious essays on personal branding. Definitely not fun.
The change happened slowly. I started ducking out of work an hour early, heading up nearby Big Cottonwood Canyon to adventure with friends. I started cancelling dates so I could squeeze every last moment of daylight out of a weekend summit hike, and I stopped staying out past 10pm because that meant I couldn’t get an early start the next day. My social life shifted from bars to the climbing gym. For ten blissed-out days in the height of summer, I joined a friend to hike the John Muir Trail, stopping twice a day to strip off our clothes and leap into acid-blue plunge pools, cackling to each other and sunning ourselves on the rocks. On high mileage days, slogging along in my battered trail runners, I would take an hour of quiet to hike alone. Step after step, up and down mountain passes, I’d work hard to consider why we were there, to seek the pleasure in the struggle, to remember how to laugh at challenges instead of dreading them. The fun wasn’t always immediately at the surface, but with focus and force of will, we could always get it back— and soon enough, we’d be dropping our packs and sharing a Snickers bar and grinning like idiots in the sunshine.
This winter I quit my job, and the PhD program I had started alongside it. The quitting part felt impossible, like I was letting people down— I spent long hours on the phone with friends and family, processing why this transition mattered, finding the words to tell my colleagues and mentors that I was done. I remember walking to my car after I withdrew from my program and put in my notice at work. I opened the door, fell into the driver’s seat, and closed my eyes, just for a second. Hands on the steering wheel and keys still resting my lap, I let out a deep, swift sigh. The next day I filled a thermos with hot chocolate and whiskey and went for a hike up Millcreek Canyon with my friends. Perched on snow-covered boulders, sharing a steaming plastic cup and cracking jokes, things felt clearer.
It’s been two and a half months since I walked away from my office and from graduate school. I don’t miss it. I left nothing of myself behind at my fluorescent-lit standing desk, no key slice of my identity in the Brutalist halls of the statistics building. And instead of spending my hours sitting in roller chairs and at conference tables, instead of putting on mascara and black leather shoes each morning, I feel time stretch out in front of me like a new notebook, the binding yet to be cracked— untouched, a little intimidating, full of promise. I write, I ski, I climb, I travel; I’m always free to spend time with friends. I don’t feel any sort of long term clarity, but I’m not anxious— I’m figuring things out as I go along, and that’s okay. I’m learning. And I have faith that this risk and exploration will lead me somewhere true.
At the climbing gym this weekend, I ran into a former co-worker. I waved hello and walked over, and we exchanged pleasantries about a co-authored paper and our workout schedules, and shared a slightly awkward hug. I settled back, about to excuse myself— I was headed to meet a friend for tacos, and then scope out some used backcountry skis— when he smiled at me, a little crooked, and said, “Well. You seem like you’re having fun.”
And you know what? I am. Unapologetically.