After Two Years of Pandemic Living, We All Really Need Hobbies
Couldn't we all benefit from something to take our minds off of everything — even if just for a few fleeting moments?
It was one of those cloudless, golden September days, and my husband and I decided to take our son and daughter to Valley Forge National Historic Park for a picnic. We drove up to the picturesque spot where we’d planned to put down our blanket, only to find other blankets already laid out, a couple dozen people milling around the field, and a small catering tent. The air smelled like fall and gasoline. Turns out we’d happened upon a “flying day” for the Valley Forge Signal Seekers, a club dedicated to flying radio-controlled model airplanes.
For the next hour, all four of us watched, transfixed, as planes the size of my four-year-old raced down the grass runway and took off, lacquered wings gleaming in the sun, spinning into rolls and loop-the-loops, easing into smooth landings. The kids couldn’t get over how fast the planes flew, how high they shot into the sky. Me? I sat there marveling at the time and energy it would take to learn to fly these things, let alone build them, as many of the pilots do.
True, some of these guys looked like they might be retired (also, judging by the Porsche and the BMW we parked between, rich). But upon closer inspection, not all of them appeared to be oldsters, and in any case, who cares? That wasn’t the point. The point was what I exclaimed to my husband as we finally drove off: “Wow, what a hobby!”
This is something I’ve been fixated on lately — not airplanes, but hobbies, and the adults who have them. Or the adults who don’t, in my case. At least, I haven’t lately. Years back — way back — when I was a girl with copious amounts of free time, I filled my days with piano lessons and volleyball, softball and choir and ballet. After that, I was a college student who crammed anything that sounded like fun into my schedule — ballroom dancing, rock climbing, archery, yoga, white-water kayaking — all in pursuit of a well-rounded life. (Fine, the kayaking was also in pursuit of a cute instructor.) In my career-focused 20s and early 30s, I Zumba’d and frequented the symphony; I traveled and took banjo lessons and, briefly, did some tap-dancing.
Now, I do none of these things. Who has that energy? That time? I’ve mentally demanded for roughly a decade when memories of shooting down the rapids or singing in the choir float in to tug at my heart. Until recently, this brand of nostalgia or craving for leisure or whatever it is never lasted long; I have a lot of work to do, you know. Also, family to attend to. Meetings to Zoom, supper to make, schedules to wrangle, news to obsessively read, exercise to put off, martyrdom to achieve and so forth.
But then, suddenly: bam. It’s like a switch flipped. Whether it’s the onset of a midlife crisis or the end of the very intense, consuming first phase of parenthood or the malaise of COVID times (all that languishing, as Adam Grant put it), I can’t know for sure. What I can say is that I feel restless. Busy — always busy — and yet also, if I’m honest, a bit bored. Not with work (well, not usually) or with the family or our house, which is old enough that there’s always something to be fixed up. Surely, not with Philly. Just sort of bored with … myself. And as one of my grade-school teachers used to say, only boring people are bored. So there you have it. Hobbyless and boring.
I know what you’re thinking. This sounds like much ado about a natural phase of life, particularly for parents of young children. It’s normal to focus on family pursuits rather than individual ones for a time, people will tell you. This is what I’d always believed. But once I started asking around, it became clear that this isn’t true: Countless parents with far more demanding lives than mine tell me about their woodworking, their violin-playing, their crafting. It feels like that moment in the sixth grade when I found out I was supposed to be shaving my legs — that everyone else had been shaving their legs since the summer and nobody thought to tell me. I’m shocked. Also, mildly mortified. Everyone I talk to these days seems to have been off being interesting and well-rounded without me.
“Wait, you’re in a folk band?” I say.
“You’re refurbishing a sailboat?” I say.
“You run a knitting club?” I say.
“What are you talking about? You’re not boring,” one friend says when I bring all this up. She gamely lists my non-boring attributes, but I’m only half-listening because I’m thinking about the pickleball tournament she just played in. I don’t play pickleball. “What is this really about?” she says. (This is a very good friend who happens to have a very good therapist, which means I don’t need one.)
Can wanting a hobby ever just be about wanting a hobby? Sure, it can. But in this case, I tell her, it’s also about Martin Short, the actor and seemingly delightful human. I recently heard him on a podcast explaining how years ago, while struggling in his acting career, he instituted a rating system in nine different segments of his life. The goal was to keep his professional struggles in perspective — to consider all the other areas of his life in which he’s doing just fine. Every year he gives himself a grade for each segment, including himself (namely, health and well-being), his immediate family, his “original family,” friendships, money, career and job fulfillment, creativity outside of work, discipline as it relates to working toward goals, and lifestyle, which is essentially about having fun and enjoying himself.
We could quibble, Martin and I, over a few categories here, but what struck me overall was what a sensible, balanced outlook on life management this was, particularly if you veer toward working in your every spare moment, as I do. What also struck me was how many of my own segments I’ve neglected or smushed together out of necessity or efficiency or the Protestant work ethic that runs deep in my DNA. Maybe separating some of the segments back out (disentangling my sense of creativity from my career, for instance; separating out my family life from all my fun and from my overall picture of myself) could raise my grade in all of them. Or at the very least could bump up my overall average.
Science actually backs this up. More than one study has shown that people with hobbies are both happier and more productive in the rest of their lives. Of course, I could have told you that: Many of the most all-around admirable, impressive people I know spend serious time on extracurriculars. My brilliant friend Cabray, for one, has two master’s degrees, two kids, an illustrious banking career, and a full hobby life in which she plays multiple instruments and is part of a competitive synchronized ice-dancing team. (Also, at Thanksgiving every year, she makes the most amazing cake out of decorated Twinkies. But I digress.)
There’s my neighbor Angie, too, a scientist at Penn, a deeply involved community member and mother to adolescent twins. She works on important medical things in a lab all day and comes home to sew and knit, garden and bake and can her own preserves. Not only does she seem like a contented person, but half our block is happier for her hobbies, too, knee-deep in baked goods and sour cherry jam.
As it happens, I also live with someone who manages a veritable parade of hobbies. My husband goes camping and runs a fantasy hockey team and collects vinyl records, which morphed into co-founding a vinyl club. Sometimes, he buys electronics just to take them apart and tinker with them. For fun.
And that’s great, right? Especially considering that science has also shown that people who spend time on hobbies boast lower stress levels, lower sadness levels, lower blood pressure and lower heart rates. All things I wish for the love of my life.
And yet, it turns out, the same well-roundedness that’s so wildly impressive in your friends can be mildly irritating in your life partner. I don’t recall this issue ever coming up in the premarital counseling we did a decade ago, but it’s true. Then again, how could we possibly have grasped back then the friction one partner’s “vinyl club weekend at the beach” can introduce into a relationship if the other partner doesn’t have a hobby equivalent?
Filling time up with joy, if you can, is a great
privilege of being alive, and trying on some tap shoes might be a nice break from staring into the abyss.
To be fair, my husband, who is unfailingly supportive of everything I do, is a strong advocate for my more complete leisure life. We both know it’s not his fault that we find ourselves here: he, with his A-plus in “Fun and Lifestyle”; I, just now realizing — exactly the way I do in that recurring anxiety dream — that I was supposed to be going to this class all along but somehow just totally forgot to show up.
There’s another thing, too, beyond the desire to be more productive and balanced and have more fascinating stuff to talk about at all the post-COVID dinner parties I plan on attending. It’s Mary Oliver, the poet. She died in 2019, before the pandemic inspired countless thousands of us (but not me) to take up bread-baking and adult coloring. Since then, her most famous lines keep running through my head:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
Not to be dramatic, but when you’re folding laundry and watching Real Housewives for the thousandth night in a row and that line pops into your brain, it can feel a bit like a rebuke.
Don’t get me wrong: By anyone’s standards, I have a good life. I like my work, more often than not. I have friends to talk to and even occasionally see. I love beyond measure my family that creates all that laundry. Picnics in Valley Forge in a golden fall, for God’s sake! My cup runneth over; who am I kidding? On the outside, there’s a pandemic and shootings and struggle and what feels increasingly like End Times in every headline.
What I’m saying is that talking about the doldrums, about something so comparatively small and navel-gazey as hobbies, can feel a bit like greed and also like fiddling while Rome — no, the Earth! The actual Earth! — burns.
But then there’s author Tim Wu, who wrote in the New York Times a few years back that the fact so many of us have forgotten the importance of doing things for no other reason than that we just like to do them is in itself “a sign of a civilization in decline.” What’s all this technology and labor and man’s triumph over the “brute survival” stage for, he wondered, if not to free us up to merrily paint by numbers every once in a while?
In the years since Wu wrote this piece, the national narrative has taken more of a “brute survival” turn than I suspect most of us anticipated. And yet, if anything, this has only strengthened his argument. I don’t mean to be a downer, but, yes, yes, it does feel like civilization is in decline. I think our collective plight has little to do with hobbies, but it still strikes me that he’s right about the importance of spending time doing stuff we “merely but truly enjoy.”
My own reasoning here is part Mary Oliver (#YOLO) and part doomsday: Filling time up with joy, if you can, is a great privilege of being alive, and tying on some tap shoes might be a nice break from staring into the abyss.
So then, what will it be? What should I do with my wild and precious life, or at least the one-ninth of it that I’ll carve out in the name of COVID-safe leisure pursuits? Should I relearn French? Garden? Cook my way through the June Carter and Johnny Cash family cookbook my sister-in-law gifted me a couple of Christmases ago?
If you’re out of practice in the art of the leisure pursuit, it can be surprisingly hard to know where to begin. A friend of mine tells me over coffee one morning that her wife is, like me, “hobby-curious” but stymied by the fact that she didn’t have a childhood full of activities that would easily translate into an adult pursuit. It’s just a bit overwhelming, you see, the idea of starting woodworking or whatever from scratch. How does one even choose?
This leads us to discuss what even counts as a hobby: volunteer work? Exercising? Reading?
The answer, I think, is different for everyone, based on a highly personal algorithm of what you like to do (fun), the things your life compels you to do (responsibility), and what you do for money (work). I read quite a bit, for example, and love it, but that feels completely inextricable from my work (writing), so I don’t consider it a hobby. (Though I do like attending my street’s monthly book club. I think of this as hobby-adjacent.)
When it comes to personal leisure pursuits, the less overlap of fun with responsibility and work, the better … at least, when you’re in the thick of a work-and-responsibility phase of life. Like my friend Dorothy, a busy mom who has a corporate writing job: Until recently, she jokes, her pursuits have included “buying cleaning supplies I never use, managing my Amazon shipments, puzzles, and managing my kids’ schedules.” Not long ago, though, she joined a roller-skating squad that meets a couple times a week in her New Jersey neighborhood.
“Ooooh, a squad?” I say.
“We skate in a circle on a basketball court, a bunch of middle-aged people roller-skating and listening to ABBA,” she tells me. She loves it. What’s not to love? Because she already knew how to skate and “because someone else organized it,” this hobby required very little of her at a time in life when she has little to give.
It is, in short, nothing but a joy. And so no wonder she’s leaning in harder these days, scrolling Reddit for tips on new drills, taking classes online, strapping on her skates in quiet moments to wheel around the driveway with her kids.
Hm. Roller-skating. It’s no white-water kayaking, admittedly, but it appeals to me all the same, for precisely the reasons it appealed to Dorothy: the fun, the friends, the ABBA, the relative ease. Especially the ease. Because it’s actually true, what I’ve been telling myself all these years: I really don’t have much excess energy, and for mostly great reasons, I have even less leisure time.
But no matter; people do more with far less than I have. Time is what we make of it, as they say. Boredom is boring, joy begets joy, and someone else will fold the laundry. Or not. Who cares? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Mary Oliver wondered.
I’ve got the skates in my basement; they just need a good brushing-off. Now, who wants to join the squad?
Published as “Trivial Pursuits” in the December 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.