I turn 50 this week and I’ve been thinking a lot about what this means. After all, a half-century doing stuff feels like it should mean something, right? So I decided to do some little blog essays mostly to reflect on my professional (and occasional personal) life at 50. Yesterday I blogged about “Collaborating”, on Tuesday being “Slow at 50” and on Monday, “Not Full at 50”. Today I turn my attention to how I’ve been thinking about fun at 50.
I’ve been thinking a good bit about the things I do to unwind, relax, and even (GASP) have fun. To be honest, I’m not very good at having fun and even worse an unwinding and relaxing.
That said, I do recognize that finding a better balance between work and not-work is important for both my sanity and my health, and I have started to exercise more consistently and even take some time away from my laptop and phone. My effort to find ways to unwind has pushed me to think more about what it is that I actually like to do.
Reflecting on this kind of thing isn’t entirely natural for me. Part of the reason is that I get myself all twisted up when I thing about the what kinds of things are appropriate to enjoy in my sixth decade and what kinds of experiences are best left behind. For example, over the last four years or so, I’ve rediscovered my love for the sweet science. This restored interest has prompted a certain amount of soul searching, of course. I still do like sports — from college and professional football to the NBA and Phillies baseball, NASCAR and Formula 1, and, of course cricket — but I’m equally aware the sports are fraught and their entertainment value comes at a social and ethical cost.
I know many people love to travel, but over the last few years I’ve grown increasing anxious as a traveler and tourist. In fact, I’ve found that the stress of traveling has wrung a good bit of pleasure from seeing different places and having new experiences. To be honest, I find that my general anxiety about new experiences more broadly has made me pretty content to travel well trod paths. And absent any pressing professional or personal obligations, I’m generally happy to stay at home.
The COVID pandemic has, of course, cast a harsh light on the risks associated with traveling as well as various kinds of social gatherings. It is clear that COVID is with us for the long-haul despite a global eagerness to relax mask mandates and other policies designed to slow the spread of the disease. Thus, occasions that involve the gathering of people will remain fraught from individuals who have compromised immune systems or who feel constrained for political, religious, or cultural reasons to remain unvaccinated or unmasked. Air travel, for example, for anything but significant professional or personal reasons in these circumstances feels inappropriate or requires us to make compromises that involve jeopardizing the health and even lives of others. Of course, even something as simple as going to a restaurant or attending a ballgame or concert involves similar risks. This doesn’t even consider the environmental, economic, and political costs associated with travel and many forms of collective recreation. In short, we live in a world where our professional and personal lives are bound up with certain forms of privilege that find often expression in how we perform non-work activities.
I realize, of course, that not all forms of non-work activities necessarily involve invoking these forms of privilege. A quiet walk, watching the sun rise, a brisk bike ride, or even an afternoon on the front porch can provide an opportunity to slow down and recover from the hectic pace of life. But many of the popular examples of “experiences” that we are so eagerly sold in the media are ethically fraught on many levels.
I suppose as we get older, confronting this kind of moral and ethical calculus is unavoidable and it may just be that I’m being a contrarian, but I’ve become increasingly tired of the calls to celebrate experiences over other forms of dispersing capital in the name of relaxation or fun. In particular, there seems to be an argument that opposes experiences to things as the best way to realize our non-work aspirations.
Maybe it’s the archaeologist in me, but recently I have come to the conclusion that I simply prefer things to experiences. A nice mechanical watch, a piece of stereo equipment, a decent or interesting car, a reliable bike, and even something as anachronistic a compact disk, brings me far more joy than a trip, a live concert, or even a good meal. Things, of course, are not free from many similar moral hazards as experiences, but I feel like the persistent specter of COVID has pushed us to consider the privileges associated with collective and shared experiences.
For me, then, the aesthetic joy that comes from holding a well-designed and ethically-manufactured watch (which needn’t be particularly expensive) brings me greater pleasure than travel. Listening to music on my stereo with a beer at home relaxes me more than the unfamiliar bustle of a concert. Driving onto campus in my completely unnecessary diesel pick-em-up truck which a crime against the environment (but I’d contend more a misdemeanor than a felony) is more fun for me than navigating a crowded restaurant or bar.
More than that, many of the things which I’ve come to treasure will move on after I’m gone (well, probably not my diesel truck) and I like to think that they carry with them some of the joy that they brought me. While I don’t think this kind of sequential and diachronic community can entirely replace the synchronic experiences of collective experience, but the very idea of it does make me feel part of something with just a little less risk in these complicated and morally fraught times.