Barbara Ehrenreich was promoting her book Natural Causes on The Ezra Klein show back in 2018 when they detoured into talking about one of her earlier books, called Dancing in the Streets, which is about different things people do around the world, little festivals and rituals and stuff, where they can get together and just enjoy each other’s company. Rituals or customs in which fun is the point; not commerce, not politics, not raising awareness for anything. Just fun.
Carnival was one example. Burning Man.
Ehrenreich talks about the former, Carnival in Trinidad, where society basically comes to a full stop so that everybody can have fun for a couple days.
Klein riffs about Burning Man for a little bit, saying that part of what’s so magical about it is that you interact with people and make friends without ever having to mention what you do professionally (which then makes you think real hard about the extent to which your sense of self is tied up with your profession), but then segues into talking about America’s obsession with productivity, and with self-improvement, and how we here in the States feel pressured to take advantage of every moment, to have something to show for our labors each day, to be constantly at work tryna strengthen our bodies, our minds, our wallets.
That it might be a distinctly American attribute that we’re always plagued with a feeling that aren’t doing enough.
I’m guilty of this. Obsessively hopping from one task to the next, trying to read a chapter from each of these two books each, five or six articles, maybe watch a video off Masterclass during lunch—it even transcends my reading and viewing habits. I try to make sure I’m consuming something educational even when I’m being completely passive. So I’ll go on a two-hour walk through Little Havana and listen to one podcast about Beethoven, another about Katherine Hepburn, a third about the history of Juneteenth and a fourth from The New Yorker—and it’s cool! I like to learn new shit.
But my headspace does feel a bit cluttered at the end of it all. And I do feel stressed about, like, all of the books I’ve tasked myself with reading, all of the writing I’ve tasked myself with doing, all of the correspondence and chores..
All of it feels like a task and so I always feel busy. I enjoy those books, those articles, those movies and videos and podcasts—but I also feel a bit like I’m punching a clock whenever I tune into one. And I’m alternately enchanted and terrified by the idea that there’s always more to study, more to write, more places to go and things to experience and people to meet with and talk to. I feel sometimes like I’m on a full-throttle drive in the direction of something…but it’s kinda just that, a direction, with nothing at the end of it where I can say, “OK, that thing is the goal.” Whether it’s a job or a house or a car.
I think the thing I’m chasing is more abstract. It’s like…a state of being. I’m chasing professional fulfillment (which I think means being a full-time writer and making a decent living in the process) and I want a partner I can have fun and talk with, a good home, leisure money. I wanna get out of this financial situation where it feels like a bit of a crisis to find that I need a new belt.
And also maybe a lifestyle where “fun” isn’t had by appointment.