• Paul D. Wilke

My Little Manifesto on Hobbies

I overheard a conversation the other day at work that went something like this. Two guys are making chit chat and one asks the other what kind of hobbies he has. The other guy pauses and finally replies, "I guess I don't really have any hobbies. Work and kids are my hobbies."

That was the saddest thing I've heard in a long time.

Merriam-Webster defines a hobby as "a pursuit outside one's regular occupation engaged in especially for relaxation." I like this broad definition because it means just about anything can be a hobby. My own definition would be to engage in an activity that requires some skill or expertise just for the enjoyable hell of it. Advanced proficiency is optional.

Writing on this blog is my most recent hobby and one that's been far more enjoyable and enduring than I had first anticipated. Even so, I'm under no illusions that The New Yorker will be calling anytime soon to have me write for them. So what? The joy I get putting creative thoughts into words is real enough. 

Hobbies come, and hobbies go. For example, a few years after getting my pilot's license, I flew all over Georgia and South Carolina in a rented Cessna 172. That is until the money ran out and the credit card bills came due.

Until online gaming dried up the player pool, I was an avid board gamer. I'm not talking about light and fluffy games like Settlers of Catan, but the detail-saturated strategy games put out by Avalon Hill in the 70s and 80s.

Some (mostly) Avalon Hill Board Game Classics from my Collection

Later, when I lived in the Arizona desert, I bought an 8-inch Dobsonian reflector telescope and explored the cosmos from home. I'm not going to lie; seeing the cloud bands of Jupiter or the ice caps of Mars from my back yard was a sublime experience.

Sometimes life changes kill hobbies. Lack of funding killed my flying hobby as well as a job switch that permanently took me overseas. A lack of players killed my board gaming; big city living far from any dark skies slowly killed my astronomy hobby. That said, they were terrific pastimes while they lasted.

However, that's not always the case. Sometimes we have to break up with our hobbies because they are bad for us.

Case in point: Years ago, I decided I wanted to ride horses. I'm not sure why, but it seemed like a good idea at the time, probably because it was cheaper than renting Cessnas. So I volunteered to be a cavalry trooper with B Troop at Fort Huachuca. Historically, B Troop was the cavalry unit that operated out of Fort Huachuca during the nineteenth century. They patrolled the southern Arizona border with Mexico and mixed it up with the nearby Apaches.

Today's B Troop is meant to keep those traditions alive with public re-enactments, parades, and riding demonstrations—no experience required to join. One only had to go to riding school every Wednesday night after work for a couple of hours, plus an hour or so each day tending to the horses. When the instructors thought you were ready, they gave you a riding exam. If you passed, you were in. If not, then back to Wednesday night training until you were ready. Each person was different, and some zipped through the training.

Others didn't.

Unfortunately, I struggled mightily to get through the bare-back riding phase of the training, especially riding an ill-tempered former Mexican racehorse named Charlie. Charlie was my assigned horse. He also became my nemesis, with a spine like a Stegosaurus and the disposition of a honey badger. We never really bonded, he and I, and I'm pretty sure he could sense my fear. Galloping around on Charlie with no saddle and stir-ups meant more than a few nasty falls and even a couple of concussions.

But I was stubborn, and even though the novelty of riding horses had long worn off, I was going to finish what I started, goddammit. And I did, finally. After a long year of perseverance, I made it into the Troop. That was a proud moment, but after that, I only lasted six months. You see, after reaching my goal, it wasn't a hobby anymore, but more of a chore, and when hobbies become chores, it's time to move on.

You win, Charlie, you bastard.

That debacle taught me a lesson about hobbies. Don't do something just because you like the idea of doing it. If you do, it ends up not being a hobby for you, but more of a pose to impress others. Eventually, that wears off and then you're just going through the motions, secretly looking for an exit ramp. No, do a hobby because you genuinely enjoy it, even if there's not going to be much social capital in it. Either way, you'll learn early on what your true motivations are.

I see this all the time when people out of the blue decide to study a foreign language. They've seen someone else do it well and think, "Geez, man! I could do that! I will do that! I'll look like a genius!" So off they go. They download language apps, buy a couple of phrasebooks from Barnes & Noble, and sometimes even hire a tutor. So far, so good, but learning a language is hard, and sooner or later, the reality sets in. 

Usually, six weeks and $300 later, when they're hopelessly lost in verb conjugations and noun declensions, well, then it's not a hobby anymore, but a chore. Only the crazy few who actually find this hobby pleasurable and intellectually relaxing continue any further. I'm one of them. For everyone else, it's time to reassess. Time for a new hobby. Time to take the next exit ramp and leave Charlie behind.

Personal Photo

Take it from a pro: sometimes it's okay to quit.

Take my B Troop experience, for example. You see, I liked the idea of riding horses, looking all badass or whatever in my ill-fitting cowboy boots and my 100% cotton cavalry trooper uniform that also doubled as a portable sweat lodge. But the reality is I didn't enjoy riding a cantankerous horse for hours on end in the southern Arizona sun, especially when no one was around to be impressed. All I got out of it was a sore ass. Not surprisingly, I came to loathe Charlie, and I'm pretty sure he hated me back.

I did like the idea of being a cavalry re-enactor, though, and telling people with a calculated nonchalance that I rode with B Troop felt kind of good. So I persevered, partly out of pride, partly ego, but mostly because at some point, my idea of a hobby had become a kind of sunk cost trap. I had spent so much time getting to where I was, how could I quit now? What a waste! I did, however, do just that. I quit, and it felt pretty damn good.

What's your hobby? If you don't have one, or you just lamely say "my kids" or "my job" like the sad sack I heard the other day, I'd ask you to reconsider. Again, what's your hobby for you? If you say you don't have time for a hobby, I'd tell you that's rubbish. After all, when we say we don't have time for something (or someone), we're really just saying that it's not a priority. Remember that and be honest about what it means.

Not to get too philosophical (another hobby!), but if you don't carve out time for yourself to engage in some kind of hobby, and one that's just for you alone, you'll risk eventually losing that self. Life will end up a predictable pendulum swinging back and forth between the false choice of work and home and back again. It's the life equivalent of mashed potatoes.

Trust me, there's more, so much more, if only you look up from your screen and look around.

So get a hobby, something you want to do! Try cooking, photography, gaming, model trains, stamps, weight lifting, reading, judo, racquetball, knitting, something, anything! Hobbies are the little ways we create our own personalized space in a world where our time is mostly not our own. We have jobs that command our time and families that demand our attention. Of course, both are important, don't get me wrong, but a hobby gets us away from that routine, if only for a little while. 

And when that hobby no longer gives you the pleasure you need to re-center yourself, choose again.

Personal Photo - Telescope Next to the Debris of Other Past Hobbies

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