A Voracious VCR Is a Reminder of Real Fun

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The North Atlantic bangs outside in heavy rhythms, under a full moon.

A houseguest asks, "What does it mean when there's blood on the moon?"

It doesn't look like blood really, more like a syrup of mandarin orange.

No one can make the VCR work. It swallows the tape in a businesslike way — so far, so good; it shows promising bright preliminary fuzz and static, like an orchestra tuning up... and then it goes abruptly black.

At dinner, we cannot remember the name of the sculptor who did the Statue of Liberty. I tell a story about Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, and about their creator, the great animator Chuck Jones, who has a cartoon on his office wall, captioned "Agnostic Fleas," showing two fleas standing perplexedly in a wasteland filled with enormous stalks that turn out to be huge hairs; one flea says disconsolately to the other, "Sometimes I wonder if there really is a dog."

My wife recites Emma Lazarus' poem in its entirety, an unexpected feat that is rather moving. The hostess conducts an intense internal seance, diving deep, canvassing her unconscious. With a blink of triumph, she fetches up the sculptor's name: "Bartholdi!"

Applause. Sighs of wonder. Sleepy with sun and water, I cannot remember why we were talking about the Statue of Liberty in the first place.

Time surges noisily in, and recedes, rustling the round stones on the shore below us. The first summer vacation of the new millennium, the first mid-July's night's dream.

I have been rereading Scott Fitzgerald's "Tender Is the Night," an awful book in many ways, but with an interesting haunted quality: Nicole Diver's insanity darkens the pages like a cloud passing overhead, or like the rumor of a shark in summer waters.

The book makes me think offhandedly about the bright, mysterious word "fun." Fitzgerald modeled Dick and Nicole Diver upon Gerald and Sarah Murphy, a wealthy and charming American couple who like the fictional Divers kept a villa on the Riviera in the 1920s and, in Fitzgerald's myth-making, had an exquisite genius for fun.

Poor Fitzgerald was not much fun. He got drunk at the Murphys' villa and made scenes and smashed their expensive crystal wine glasses. He repaid their hospitality by writing a novel that made out his hostess, Sarah Murphy, to be a mental case who had been incestuously abused by her own father. Some bread-and-butter note.

Why should a midsummer night on vacation put me in this mood? It's not gloom, but a sense of dislocation and otherworldliness brought on, perhaps, by the full moon. Nights like this I hold my own skull up to my ear, so to speak, and hear the sound of the ocean.

I was, as I say, thinking about "fun," which is after all midsummer's mandate. But what is fun? The word is subjective, difficult to define. Of course, if you are sitting around worrying what the word "fun" means, you are not having any. A minute ago, I looked it up, coming first to its unpleasant neighbors on the dictionary page, "fungus," and "funest," which means "portending death or evil." (The root: funus, funeral or destruction.) Then, Fun: n. 1) a practical joke, a hoax; 2) sport, merriment, frolicsome amusement, playful action or speech; 3) a source of amusement, an object of ridicule.

Well, midsummer hopes for fun in the second sense; but sometimes fun deteriorates into the first or third, into hoax or ridicule.

The new economy aspires to abolish the old distinction between work and fun. Once, the idea was that you worked away grimly for the allotted hours, weeks, months; and then you went on vacation and had fun for a little while.

Now businesspeople ask each other with wolfish grins: "Are you having fun at it?" They don't mean vacations but vocations: the frolicsome amusements of their work. Cell phones, computers, Palm Pilots, etc., have abolished the old seaside isolations and immunities. Work has colonized leisure. It is harder to escape from the wiring — to go truly away and consult the original mysteries.

To do so, in any case, a change of geography is no longer enough; it requires an act of will, of deliberate withdrawal. Fun may be overrated, evanescent — a vacation should be, at minimum, a true, if temporary, escape. A refreshment.

So it is reassuring tonight to have the VCR malfunction. We pay a price for constant global electronic access. Paradoxically, such access closes our routes of escape.