Opinion: Was last year fun?

The writer looks back on 2023. Picture: Pixabay

The writer looks back on 2023. Picture: Pixabay

Published Jan 1, 2024


By Monica Hesse

At a wedding I attended a few years ago, another guest told me about a theory that someone else had told him about how there are two kinds of fun: Type 1, which is fun that you recognise as fun while it's happening - dance parties, date nights. And Type 2, which you only recognise as fun long after the fact - something hard that turns into something rewarding, or something that seems awful in the moment but that becomes more hilarious each time you tell the story.

The man explained this while we were on an hours-long hike that was organised by the exceptionally fit bride and groom. I'd thought I was also fairly fit until I was halfway up a mountain, at which point I realised I wasn't fit, I was Jell-O, and I had worn the wrong shoes. The mountain wasn't fun then, but it's definitely fun now. Comedy = tragedy + time and all that.

I don't know about the rest of you, but as the working parent of a 2-year-old, my life right now is a lot of Type 2 fun: encroaching deadlines, sock-finding, Are you sure you don't want to try the potty again? Parenting in general is like this. The math of it never makes sense. On a day-to-day basis it's composed mostly of tasks you'd rather not be doing, only for you to later sit down, add up all the things you didn't want to do, and realise that in summation, actually you did want to do all of those things. They were great. They were meaningful. You survived them.

There's a reason my family of origin still talks about the New Year's we spent in a lodge on Lake Okoboji, two dozen siblings and cousins all felled by stomach flu. Because those are the moments when you test your mettle and figure out what kind of person you're going to be. With all the toilets occupied, you're gonna puke in the shower stall anyway. So are you going to be the kind of person who pukes in the shower stall and then spends a decade thinking about the year the holidays were ruined? Or the kind of person who pukes in the shower stall and then eventually understands it as the golden year that you were all together, before people died, divorced, grew up, moved away.

What I'm talking about is a kind of magic trick, really. The ability to see how something looks in the future when you're stuck in your own messy present. The ability to know you will be okay.

In 2023, almost more than any other year, I found myself wishing for the ability to perform that trick.

How would I look back on a year in which dozens of my colleagues - my professional heroes - reluctantly left our company in a massive downsizing buyout? How would I feel about my own decision to stay? How would a wildly anxious America rudder itself, and how would we feel about who we were while we did it?

In 2023, the country experienced more mass killings by gun than it had since 2006. In 2023, women begged hospitals and courts for the permission to end pregnancies that were considered nonviable or that were endangering their own lives - and they were told, No, they must carry those pregnancies instead. "Pro-life" compassion was something that existed in theory but turned out not to exist in post-Dobbs America, where actual women arrive at hospitals bleeding and terrified.

In 2023, we were still dealing with the aftermath of our last presidential election - an election that prompted violent rioting from citizens who refused to accept the validity of the results - and meanwhile, we're gearing up for our next presidential election that some experts are warning could result in the literal end of democracy.

It's truly hard to imagine we'll look back on any of this as the best years of our lives.

There was also a Type 3 fun. I'm only remembering this now. The guy at the wedding said there were three categories of fun, but the last one was a misnomer, really. Type 3 isn't ever fun, no matter how much time passes or how many different ways you try to tell the story. Some events can't be recast, they can only be survived. Some weights don't make you strong, they only make you tired.

When you're going through something like that, the best you can hope for is that the future isn't even worse.

So here is what I'm practising for the new year. I am practising knowing the difference between the things that only seem awful now and the things that will still seem awful later, sometime in the future. Between the things that end up sharpening us and the things that grind us down.

For the new year I am practising shortening the time it takes to get to Type 2 fun. I am trying to shortcut the time between when I think I am miserable and when I realise I was happy. In parenting, in my country, in my minuscule time on the planet.

A few weeks ago, I found myself on another hike, this time not up a mountain in a foreign country but in a forest a few miles from my house. My family had started late in the afternoon. The trail was longer than we'd remembered. It was getting dark. The clouds were sprinkling, then pouring. We'd forgotten the snacks and the toddler carrier. My husband and I passed our daughter back and forth, trying to stay upbeat, gritting our teeth.

But I tried, even as it was happening, to remember it happening.

Years from now, when my daughter doesn't need to be carried and doesn't want to go hiking with her parents - how would this moment look to me then? When I remembered the hike, would I remember the mud? Or would I remember the way that the sound of cars on the freeway gave way to the sound of rain in the forest. The way that the pouring water felt warmer than the air. The 28-pound weight in my arms, against my chest, which once seemed so heavy and which I would give anything to carry again.

Monica Hesse is a columnist for The Washington Post's Style section, who frequently writes about gender and its impact on society. In 2022 she was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in the field of commentary. She's the author of several novels, most recently, "They Went Left."