In praise of the humble hobby

Boy on hobbyhorse, illustration from Little Songs, 1889 (public domain)
Boy riding a hobbyhorse

 

bootcamp2015-small 2(This article is adapted from the original record of my Boot Camp for the Bonus Years.) In which I consider certain peripheral amusements and reject a paradoxical call to regard them all as significant vocations.

 

The fifth item on the agenda of my Boot Camp for the Bonus years was “Commit to hobbies.” Thus commanded my inner Sergeant Major. How strange, I thought, as I wrote it on the list of 12 tasks. Wasn’t that a contradiction in terms?

I struggled to perceive any logical reason for this task, but eventually conceded that the following might be true. As we gear up for the final decades of life, it seems sensible to have hobbies that demand our very best, because hobbies can provide so many of the essentials for a good (older) life. For example, a social life—endless learning—a sense of mastery—inner or outer travel—a weekly schedule—aesthetic or physical or mental satisfaction—self expression—a purpose in life, even. I could carry on all day about the theoretical benefits of hobbies.

Also, while spying on other retirees, I could see that the lack of hobbies could be a handicap. After leaving paid employment, your days and weeks can seem shapeless, lonely or bleak if you have to construct a schedule from scratch. A hobby is often much wider than a personal pursuit: it may involve regular meetings or rehearsals every week, and a role to replace the old one.

Mind you, starting a hobby after retirement is a bit on the late side for some people. Best have at least some hobby-habits set up in advance, I thought.

Hobby: the etymology belittles the passion

I have been rather puzzled about hobbies all my life. Stamp collecting was the archetypal hobby of the 1940s, and as a child I couldn’t see the appeal, not at all. I had no idea about the many pleasures of philately, including a potential income. One person’s hobby is another person’s job.

 

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Le Philateliste, Francois Barraud, public domain

Hobby is a peculiar word. It looks kind of silly on the page. This noun does not invite us to take it seriously. Two dictionary definitions:

  1. An activity done regularly in one’s leisure time for pleasure. Synonyms: pastime, amateur interest, sideline…
  2. Short for hobby horse.

Now, what’s a hobby horse?

  1. A child’s toy consisting of a stick with a model of a horse’s head at one end.
  2. A preoccupation or favourite topic.

With such a heritage, no wonder hobbies have a bad name. A crude toy, a cheap imitation, a childish, pointless substitute for a real occupation, an autodidact’s boring obsession… No wonder I was shocked to see this item on my own agenda: did I even have hobbies, and if so, why was I supposed to take them seriously?

Whenever I think I’ve got it sussed, I am so wrong.

For a retired person, which are leisure time activities?

I am still trying to figure this out. What is my work, now that I’ve stopped running a business, and what are my hobbies? Surely writing is still my job. Wait, I decided that keeping fit is my job. Then again, being the body corporate chair is certainly not something I do for pleasure, so is that an unpaid part-time job?

What’s a job, after retirement? Is it something you have to do whether you like it or not? Is it your top priority, something you were born to do? Is it simply work that you’re paid to do?

As for my own hobbies, should I include reading, watching TV, walking, socialising, Tai Chi, cooking,  travel — the list is endless, the list is life!

My two designated hobbies: singing and dancing

It took me until November of my boot camp year to even consider this particular challenge, but then suddenly, it became easy peasy. I was home and hosed, I’d passed before I even started examining my so-called (sarcastic quote marks) “hobbies”.

That’s because I cheated: I decided arbitrarily that dancing and singing should be my designated hobbies, because I was already fully committed to both.

By November 2015 I had been dancing in the Crows Feet Dance Collective for 9 years and singing in Wellington’s Capital Choir for 12 years. As for commitment — that year we danced a major new work The Armed Man five times in three venues, and the choir premiered a brilliant new work that I’d been heavily involved in creating: Shaky Places: a song cycle of New Zealand poems for mixed voices. Whew, what a year.

So you’d think I would just need to tick the boxes, wouldn’t you? Commit to hobbies?Pass!

The boot camp was a serious short-term hobby

However, my Boot Camp for the Bonus Years was never about ticking boxes. I undertook the boot camp in my leisure time, from choice, but it never felt like a hobby. It felt like a serious commitment that might cause me some pain, and would end after my year of being old.

Which is a bit like what my inner Sergeant Major was calling for. I think she wants me to give my best to every activity that I choose to do for my own amusement. To do each one to the best of my ability, or not at all. It’s about a professional commitment to do my best at leisure activities that I love, even though they are not my life work, and may seem trivial to others.

Tough titties, Sergeant Major! I’m not going overboard just because you say so. I’m not a perfectionist: I’m a very very-goodist, which is better. I’m right, you’re wrong, suck it up!

Aiming for perfection is counterproductive

As I said, commitment is natural for me with dancing and singing. But how about my other possibly-hobbies, like reading and gardening and Tai Chi? To heck with it— I’m letting myself off the hook.

  • I love reading, and I do it all the time; but I don’t write reviews or join book groups or read scholarly journals.
  • I like gardening, and I like to do this about four times a year.
  • I love Tai Chi, and I do it for 7 minutes every morning.

Enough. If I gave the same level of dedication to every hobby, what a mess my life would be. First to suffer would be dancing and choir.

A modified version of the boot camp task

Commit to one or two leisure activities, and enjoy others without commitment or guilt. And blob out whenever you need to, OK?

What are your thoughts? I’ve got a lot to learn and I hope you’ll help me!


Please feel free to share this article and any others! 

Joy of Gantt charts: documenting a Summer Writing School as a project

 

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Gantt chart of tasks for the Summer Writing School project, 2018

Why did I get such delight out of creating my very first Gantt chart — let alone admit that I’m proud of it?

  • If you use Gantt charts (made by someone else), it’s a big “ho hum” from you.
  • If you make them, I see an indulgent head-shake, because you know this is the simplest Gantt chart in the world, using a template from Someka.net (bless them).
  • If you don’t use them, I caught you rolling your eyes.

A Summer Writing School: analysing the project

About my summer writing school, January 2018, in Wellington

I wanted to break down the jobs involved in running a summer writing school in accordance with the principles of project management. The thinking took most of the time required to construct the Gantt chart, of course. After I succeeded, I spent the next week in a glow of self-satisfaction. And I think that’s fair enough.

  1. I found a template that worked — what an achievement.
  2. It’s something I have admired for years.
  3. I don’t have an IT department to help me.
  4. It took a week: long enough to require perseverance, short enough to avoid frustration.
  5. It certainly helped me to analyse what I need to do to make the summer writing school a success.
  6. It also showed me what a massive project this is going to be.
  7. Mastering a new skill is a pleasure: end of story.

Now I just have to do all those jobs, untouched since I created the Gantt chart! The danger is, half of me now believes that I am ready, all those tasks done and dusted. Not so fast, lady…

 

 

Great times for old feet

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All Rachel’s usable shoes plus one antique

What a glorious time for old feet, especially of the female variety! Remember the days when nothing but heels would do for a social or semi-formal occasion? If you were into heels, that was fun, for sure. Well into my fifties I was a fan of naughty schoolmarm laceups, otherwise known as witchy heels.

But came the day when good fat, defying gravity, migrated from the soles to the belly. When the bunions stuck out like elbows. When a shoe salesperson announced that your feet were one size bigger, literally. When despite those monstrous insoles, you noticed every pebble underfoot.

‘Bye, heels. Stilettos, kitten heels, even platform soles— take ’em away. Wipe away the tears and face the fact: your feet will from now on be an embarrassment, graceless, styleless, ugly. They will never look pretty again.

Put your best foot forward

Not so fast. That was not a fact. For years now, alongside impossibly frivolous modern shoes, manufacturers have been designing flat footwear that young people love. That make people of any age look good and feel good below the ankles. Trainers that keep you steady at the gym and on walks. Boots you can wear with your best dress to a wedding. It’s a revolution.

I’m enjoying this. Are you? And can you pick the shoe that I keep for purely nostalgic/aesthetic reasons?

 

Trump’s ageism: not an aberration

lunatic-asylum-pd

OK, so President D.T. was called an old lunatic by Kim Jong-un. He was deeply hurt, and who can blame him? Not by the label of lunatic: that’s not a new accusation, so it is easily overlooked. But by the awful implication that at 71 he falls into that untouchable class of—oh no! heaven forbid!—the old.

His response: “Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me ‘old,’ when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat?”

Now don’t imagine this is a Trumpism. It’s not a sign of lunacy, either, whatever that may mean. This attitude is ageism pure and simple, and it’s the norm.

Old as applied to human beings no longer means having lived a certain number of years. In our English-speaking western world, it now means repulsivefeeble, pitiable, ludicroususeless, a condition to be dreaded above all others.

Ageism trumps even racism as a widespread prejudice. Here’s one teensy bit of research to support this statement:

In 2008, an ongoing study by UCLA and Stanford University researchers of 20,000 registered voters has found that far more of them would vote against Sen. John McCain because of his age than would vote against Sen. Barack Obama because of his race.

Why is the dread of old age so powerful?

Why do we dread and fear the old so deeply, despite the fact that we will all grow old—that’s if we’re lucky?

Ageism is hatred of the self that we will become.

But perhaps that’s not a paradox. Perhaps this is the very reason for our hatred and contempt: deep down, we know we too are ageing, and ageing implies that one day we will die, and we cannot bear to face this. Perhaps the human condition offends us particularly in today’s market-driven era of competitive self-improvement.

Understanding is just a start. Let us forgive our bodies for their inevitable decline, admit that we too will be old one day, and regard old age as an achievement, not a failure.

(And by the way, mental illness is an illness, not a failure.)

Bullied by technology? You be the judge

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This has been a terrible horrible—well, rather difficult—year for me and my writer’s technology. I love my computers and software, love them to bits. I look after them like a devoted slave, I praise them to their face and to anyone who will listen. And in return, what do they do? This year they all joined forces to torture me month after month, taking it in turns to deceive and fail and crash and burn and betray me, their devoted protector and caregiver. Don’t read this. It’ll only depress you.

ACT ONE: HARDWARE. I used to have two laptops and a phone. I upgraded the phone last year, with only minor problems. Endured a couple of months when both laptops were running slow and crashing: but where was the problem? Incompatibility between laptops and certain software? Problems in the network with my Time Machine backup drive? Ditching the Air and changing security software seemed to help.

ACT TWO: REPLACEMENT. Decisions, decisions. A new MacBook Air, for travel and working on the fly? Ouch, Apple appeared to be deliberately dragging the chain with upgrades. Old screens, limited hard drive capacity and other clues steered me towards the new swept-up iPad Pro — that’s where the action is for lightweight portable work computers. OK, I got one. And a keyboard. And an Apple Pencil. Looks like fun. I never never never used my old iPad, so there’s a lot to learn: I’m an iPad virgin. (Sh, don’t tell anyone.)

ACT THREE: SECURITY ALARM. Hack attack on the iPad Pro (what happened to Mac immunity?) and it took three hours on the phone with a very nice technician in California to fix it. Plus new security software, again.

ACT FOUR: WRITING SOFTWARE. Good news: MS Office has finally upgraded their Mac suite of software. Bad news: now you can’t buy it outright, have to pay an annual fee. Meanies. I did so. Then I thought, I hate Scrivener, the gold standard for writers’ software, hate it with a shudder and a retch. But maybe there’s something better now, something aesthetically tolerable that’s fully compatible with the iPad Pro, I thought. After a few days’ research I bought Ulysses, rather excited about the whole concept.

ACT FIVE: 1PASSWORD. So it’s now about six months since a perfect storm of technology problems attacked me, and I’m dying to start my new book. On the iPad Pro, you understand: after all this hassle, nothing else will do. But wait! On any new computer, storing passwords is high priority, and that should have been a breeze. I’ve used 1Password for years and it’s great. I’ve got a licence. So, just install the app on the iPad Pro and get going, right? Wrong. “They” have decided we must also have an account (what’ve I had all these years?) aka a subscription. OK, I’ll do anything — but I can’t. Two hours later I’m in the queue for help.

That book is screaming, “Write me! Write me!” But I’m determined to do that on my new toy, not on my faithful workhorse.

One day it’ll all be over, and I’ll be able to write again. Meanwhile, maybe I’ll practise using the Apple Pencil. That might cheer me up. Bye now.