Saturday, December 20, 2014

Why do anything?

I've never understood what people mean by a "hobby."

When I was a kid I did kid things, and when I got older I had activities--playing the flute, working on the literary magazine, competing in Quiz Bowl--but I wouldn't have called them hobbies; they were too structured and too connected to some plausible end, whether educational or professional. (I also did things just for fun, but they weren't explicable or sustained enough to be called hobbies: why did I write letters to friends under various fictional personae? Or dress up in weird outfits and wander around town in them?)

But I don't recall anyone asking me about my hobbies in high school or college, or if they did, I told them about what I did--either my classes or my extracurriculars--or what I liked: I managed the marching band and I wrote short stories and I was reading my way through Evelyn Waugh.

After college, though, people were always asking me about my hobbies. At that point I had even less to say: I was working 50 or 60 hours a week, and though I had lots of enthusiasms, I had virtually no recognizable hobbies. I didn't work out, bake, sing with a choir, knit, or paint watercolors. I didn't have pets and I didn't have the money to travel. I went to museums and movies and I read and I wrote--but I didn't feel knowledgeable enough about anything to claim that I was "into" film, or an art nerd, or whatever. And it seemed just too sad and delusional to declare myself "a writer."

So when someone asked me about my hobbies, the best I could come up with was, "I read." And the conversation usually ended there.

Looking back, I think part of what I resisted about hobby-talk was the implication that "hobbies" constituted a distinct category (unrelated to one's job or schooling, but more than just goofing off; serious and sustained, but also fun). I also resented what I felt was a cheap attempt to relate to me through whatever I did in my spare time--as if I'd automatically have something in common with someone else, just because we both played tennis.

At the same time, I think I bought into the idea that what one does in one's free time should be legible in some way, or directed toward some end. I didn't talk about most of the things I did, because they didn't add up to an identity or an expertise. And though I often thought about resuming flute lessons or French classes, I couldn't really see the point. Then I'd. . . what? Read Le Monde every day? Join a community orchestra? Why?

These days I feel differently. When asked why I'm studying Italian, I shrug. Sometimes I say I want to read Dante and Petrarch in the original. Sometimes I say that Cosimo and I hope to spend summers in Italy, once we're living together full-time. Sometimes I mention being half-Italian, and now a citizen. But those explanations are afterthoughts, attempts to imagine a reason rather than reasons in themselves. It's too late for me to be a fluent speaker; I have no plans for comparative work in the Italian Renaissance; neither travel nor research requires that I speak or read the language better than I do.

But really: why do anything?

If I once felt that there was no point in doing something if there wasn't a clear goal or outcome, I now find the lack of a point freeing. You do something. It's interesting enough to keep doing. And it leads to something else, or it doesn't. The doing is its own reward.

I don't think I'm the only one to have arrived at this realization as I enter early middle age: in the past few years a surprising number of my friends have suddenly picked up old passions or begun new ones; I know people who have resumed writing poetry or taking piano lessons, or who are studying photography or taking up mountain-climbing. Not to be experts, not to change career paths. Just because.

The thing is, we're all going to die. Nothing we do matters: having kids, not having kids; being successful at work or not; spending the weekend doing this or doing that. Or it all matters. Whichever. It amounts to the same thing.

But I still refuse to call anything I do a hobby.


Anonymous said...

My usual answer to the hobbies question is, "I work full time and have 2 small children, what do you think I do in my spare time. I sleep." Though I am considering changing my answer to "Lego". Anyway all our very best Australian wishes for a merry Christmas!!!! (And what is this about early middle age) -K

Miss Self-Important said...

I for one would really appreciate an adult version of Quiz Bowl. Pub Trivia is ok, but too sports- and movie-heavy, and NO BUZZERS.

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

The fundamental insight that I'm going to die, and the only question is when and how, has been dramatically freeing.

Flavia said...


And soon to be three, amirite?! So good to hear from you and merry merry to the whole fam. Love & miss.


Serious. I've never found an adequate substitute.



Susan said...

I have also found that doing something you cared about, but were *not* expert at a good counterpoint to the perfectionism that we face in academe. For many years I did pottery, and I always knew how far short of good work my pots were. But it was fun, and in contrast to much of our work, you saw immediate results - you threw a bowl, or you glazed one....

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I would have guessed that blogging was a hobby for you. :)

I always tell my students that, despite popular belief, their educations should not be teleologically driven. Learning should be its own reward. (A rose-colored view to be sure, since college is so pricy.) But they put pressure on themselves and their families pressure them, and suddenly everything is a task enslaved to obtaining the almighty job. I get it. Five years on the job market here. But at the same time, I think our culture is completely wrong headed in thinking that everything has to have a goal or a visible reward in order for it to be valuable. It doesn't. Sometimes the purposeless pursuit is the most fulfilling.

Andrew Stevens said...

I also resented what I felt was a cheap attempt to relate to me through whatever I did in my spare time--as if I'd automatically have something in common with someone else, just because we both played tennis.

I'm not sure I understand this. Of course you would automatically have something in common with that person; you'd both play tennis. People enjoy talking to each other about shared hobbies.

Flavia said...


I guess there are two answers to that. The first is that I was a bit of a jerk in my early twenties, and disliked most forms of what I regarded as superficial small-talk, not understanding that it could be an opening to more substantive conversation (or just be pleasant in its own right, as a form of human connection).

The other, which I still believe, is that what one does as a hobby is not inherently any more interesting than what one does as a job; an interesting person has interesting things to say about anything, however mundane. I'd rather hear about some people's toddlers (though I don't have children, and plenty of people are boring when they talk about their kids) or house remodeling or whatever, than hear others talk about their exotic travel or competitive alligator wrestling or charity work. What I resisted then, and still do resist, is the ides that one's hobbies are some kind of status chip: I do this interesting (or unusual, or impressive) thing, therefore I am interesting (or unusual, or impressive).

Andrew Stevens said...

That's all fair enough. I don't know if I've ever asked someone "what are your hobbies?" but I do try to find out other people's interests, which can certainly include hobbies, so I can talk to them about those.

I have a colleague I talk with about genealogy, which is his hobby and which I have a fairly deep interest in and knowledge of.

I have another colleague with whom I never discuss anything but movies from the 1940s and 1950s, which is his obsessive interest. (Actually, we sometimes discuss politics.) I am not nearly so interested in movies from the period, but I'm one of the few people he can talk to about them at all and I've watched some good films on his recommendation.

I have another colleague, who is a saxophonist, who I talk music with. Again, I'm not nearly as interested as he is, but I can discuss the subject, though with some shallowness.

Another colleague I talk about golf with. I've only been golfing a handful of times so I'm even more shallow here, but I have enough knowledge to understand his stories and comment on them. And so on.

With other colleagues, we might talk about children or house remodeling or exotic travel (not sure I'd call that one a hobby), but to be honest I'm much less interested in that since it's so specific to the individuals involved. In those other conversations, I might learn something with much more general applicability to other conversations I might have.

Having said all that, when having conversations with people outside of my own field, I tend to talk about their jobs. (Though I don't think I ever discuss my own.) But when discussing things with people in a very similar field, it's pleasant to talk about hobbies and such instead.

I must say that I have no interest whatsoever in "superficial small talk," but we seem to define it differently. If all someone wants to talk about is the weather or weekend plans, that doesn't interest me at all. But I wouldn't put hobbies in that category. And I'm happy to discuss my own hobbies and not at all embarrassed to admit that I have both highbrow ones (philosophy, Wagnerian opera), middlebrow ones (baseball), and lowbrow ones (classic Doctor Who and Survivor).

i said...

I like hobbies because they're a way either of getting to know people who otherwise would never step into my life, or of discovering sides of people I didn't know before. In other words, they create communities. Maybe that's why I'm in a hobby-heavy period of my life. In the last two years I took a lot of dance classes, and so got to know lots of locals in my new city whom I wouldn't have met through the university. I connected with food writers over facebook, again, a group of people I might have only known through their books otherwise. And I've taken up crochet and a bit of knitting, and am constantly amazed by the people I know who do those too.

At the same time, I can see that all these hobbies are attempts to express some kind of creativity... and I'm really not sure if I'm making up for the creativity I currently lack in my scholarly work, deflecting from it in some sense, or if I'm giving my scholarly work a boost by staying creative in other parts of my life. So this is where my reservations about hobbies come in.