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From Musings:

In Defense of Hobbies

Sunday, May 29 2011 UTC

I’ve been thinking about hobbies lately. Though “hobby” isn’t a word I hear much these days, when I was a kid I thought about my hobbies all the time. In fact, I can subdivide my youth into the various hobbies I was interested in:

  • Model trains
  • Model airplanes
  • Rock collecting
  • Shell collecting and study of fish and ocean life
  • Model rockets
  • Electronics
  • Science fiction
  • Skateboarding
  • Gaming (role playing, military, board games, ...)

The first two were big ones. Trains were a first love, and my grandfather had a beautiful old HO-gauge steam train set with which I was obsessed. During one family visit I was allowed to sleep with the engine and tender. They smelled faintly of multi-purpose electric motor oil and of the tablets which were placed in its smokestack which, when heated during normal operation, simulated smoke. I can also remember the smell of the HO-gauge green and white Burlington Northern diesel engine I had, and the excitement and frustrations involved with setting up my first layout in our basement.

My favorite store at the mall was called Hobby Horse [the etymology of hobby is late Middle English hobyn or hoby, from nicknames for the given name Robin, which also, along with Dobbin (aka Robert), denoted a small horse]. Hobby Horse had a glass case with N-scale train engines and cars in crystal boxes which you could shuffle or rotate like a heavenly train-jukebox by pressing green “forward” and “backwards” buttons.

When I was a little older I used to wander off on my own to spend my allowance at the Midvale Hobby Shop. This trip used to involve a several-mile trek on foot out the train tracks on the west side of Madison, Wisconsin (this was back in the days when parents used to let their kids wander around unattended as opposed to driving them everywhere in minivans). After buying gum at the nearby grocery store, I would wander the densely-packed aisles of the hobby shop, lusting after the model airplanes and occasionally buying the cheaper ones that were within my budget. These would get assembled by me and my friends, painted and decal-ed somewhat haphazardly, and then have bullet holes burned in the fuselage with magnifying glasses and sunlight (like plenty of boys of that era, we were obsessed with the Second World War and its aircraft in particular).

Long before it became its own focus of interest, drawing was a meta-hobby — all my childhood hobbies involved drawing. Drawing could be done just about anywhere, required very little hardware (a ball point pen on IBM punch cards worked just fine, thank you very much), and afforded the free ranging of the imagination over any aspect of one’s obsession, whether trains, sharks, or Curtiss P-40 “Flying Tiger” aircraft.

In High School, drawing metastasized into Art, including ceramics, sculpture, woodworking, painting, and graphic design. No longer hobby-like, since it was school, and therefore not leisure time (“hobby” is defined as an activity done regularly for pleasure during one’s leisure time), art was a social nucleus and a way to understand and define who I was — not a mere hobby, but a core of identity.

After childhood, I hardly thought about hobbies at all. A decade-long obsession with physics started (physics is a bit unforgiving to have hobbyists, though there are some); I also went to art school and spent some time growing an art career, and the fastest way to piss off an art student or fledgling “serious” artist is to suggest that he or she is doing it as a hobby.

Now it is another decade or two on and I hardly ever hear the word “hobby” anymore. This may be in part because people have less leisure time to begin with (particularly in the wake of the economic downturn and shrinking incomes in general). It may also be due to the enormous increase in variety and sophistication of entertainment, from video games to movies and television, to social media and other online distractions, any of which could I suppose could be called hobbies but which lack the sort of active creativity I associate with the word.

Last night over dinner with my mom and stepdad and friends of theirs, we were discussing hobbies. Ron’s brother simulates baseball games. He and his pals gather virtually over the Internet (and, from time to time, in the real world), accumulate deep wells of player-related statistics, trade actual real-world players back and forth on virtual teams, and slug out simulated National League games using intricate rule systems. Ron’s brother apparently thinks (and talks) a great deal about this activity despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that it provides absolutely no illusion that, if only one worked hard enough, one could eke out some sort of living as a “professional.”

The boundary between hobby and profession seems to be whether the activity is paying the bills (this distinction is especially important to the IRS, which essentially uses the profitability of one’s activity to determine whether expenses in support of that activity are tax deductible). Yet many of my friends in the visual or performing arts, myself probably included, will never support themselves and their families solely on their artistic activities (even art and dance professors still have to teach, and teaching is a profession in its own right). Nevertheless, they would not consider themselves hobbyists — a word that we associate with dilettantism or lack of seriousness.

I think it’s time to rehabilitate the word “hobby.” Unlike professions, hobbies can wax and wane without shame. To have a hobby is to be an amateur, meaning one who loves something. To have a craft, whether it’s needlework, growing orchids, or fixing your car. My dad’s hobby is making deep Web sites for family genealogy and media. I know guys who collect, fix and modify 1970s and ’80s era personal computers. Another friend restores prairies.

At the moment, I am, among other things, a professional programmer. I wonder what it would be like to be a hobbyist programmer. One who programs solely for the love of programming, who has the luxury of taking time to make things as beautiful and as clean as possible, to polish and craft code like a jeweler or a fine cabinetmaker. Instead of walking for hours on the railroad tracks to the hobby store (the store is long gone and the tracks have been replaced by a bike trail), I imagine a similar preparatory activity, walking outdoors among the trees, calming my head and refreshing my body, and then sitting down to engage with … my hobby.