The etymology of the word “hobby” derives from a child’s toy rocking-horse, in the sense of something that doesn’t go anywhere. However, I think of a hobby as something I spend money on but that I’m not good at yet.

I’m all hobbies, in the sense of passion and obsession without necessity or (in the beginning) fluency. There’s something about taking up an activity and mastering it that brings me irrational joy, that puts me in a flow state. But then, often, I stop doing it, sometimes in a short time, sometimes after decades, because when I really know what I’m doing it isn’t as much fun any more.

My professions have all been hobbies, really. I went to art school, for instance, because I loved drawing. Thus, my bachelor’s is in fine arts, but I only practiced as an artist for a few years, having achieved what I wanted. Before I ever taught, I went to grad school for a master’s degree in elementary education, then a doctorate in research on teaching. The whole idea of how human brains work was absorbing and I found it interesting. That interest lasted longer. After thirty years of teaching every grade from pre-K through college and every subject from English to math to science, though, I told my boss I was getting bored and needed a change, and he didn’t understand until too late that I meant it. Yes, the job paid me, but I did it because it was interesting.

I wrote some books because that was tremendous fun, too, and because it was ridiculously hard. I made some money writing, not much. That took me some interesting places. I was invited to speak at the Library of Congress. I did book conventions, and did readings in bookstores. I got nominated for awards. I have spent far more on writing than I have made, though. I still write, mind you. I haven’t given that up. It continues to be frustrating enough to be worthwhile.

Other activities didn’t keep my interest as long. I have done most kinds of needlework, run a marathon, collected vintage fountain pens, and taken an assortment of classes. I take fluent shorthand, can run a table saw and glue a joint, and I have been a professional self-taught calligrapher, among the things I can remember at the moment.

The most expensive undertaking was learning to fence, in my forties. That’s when I first really understood what I was looking for in a hobby. That is, apparently, that I wanted to feel afraid and stupid, and I wanted to struggle for a long time. Fencing is fun, but it’s also quite difficult, and it’s very counter-intuitive. For the first couple of years, I used to take my weekly lesson and then go outside and shout on the front sidewalk, “I have no idea what you’re talking about!” And then I would go back in and try some more.

The funny thing was, I gradually began to know what I was doing, and as a result I have traveled all over the country and abroad, competing in national and international events. I have baskets full of medals, and a plaque that lists my eleven medals in Over-50 World Championships, including four age-group gold medals. I have another pile of medals in open competition. I’m getting a Lifetime Achievement Award on Friday at another national event.

Unfortunately, I’m finally getting a little bored. I am tired of traveling for tournaments. I don’t like plane flight that much, and if I’m traveling I would seriously like to be able to sightsee instead of spending days in a dingy sports hall with people I see over and over. I also don’t have as much disposable income as I used to, and I’d like to get rid of my car. So the other day, I posted an Ask on Metafilter, to see what new hobbies someone might suggest to someone over seventy who likes challenges.

The responses were great, including such things as learning an instrument, rope work, card tricks, weaving, geocaching, bicycling, community government, gardening, learning to program, square dance, repairing things, sign language, wood carving, pickleball, and restoring furniture.

As I read, I kept noticing that I’ve alread tried out a bunch of the things they suggested. I don’t play pickleball, but I played tennis when it was popular, and then racquetball when that was popular. Not hard enough. I have studied art, and I have square danced. I’m politically active, and have participated in numerous actions and demonstrations. I have carved wood, restored furniture, and done all kinds of crafts. I gave away my bicycle not long ago, because I live in a city where bicycling is more dangerous than driving and not only that, it felt boring.

I have tried to learn the piano, and I sang with my daughter and sang in a choir, but though I come from a musical family, I am pretty bad at music. That makes a musical instrument one of my main choices, of course. But I’m not sure I’m bad enough at it to make it into a new hobby.

The other thing that appealed to me of the suggestions is computer programming. Now, I have been trying to learn to program since, oh, 1967. (We had a little class in it when I was in high school.) I have kept trying since then. Mostly, though, I’ve just concentrated on being computer literate rather than on programming. I almost bought one of the first personal computers in the late 70s, because I was fascinated with the word processor I was learning to use, and I did buy one in the eighties. I was a heck of a DOS jockey, and I hand-coded my own website in HTML, using frames and then CSS. Then the software began to catch up, and it got easier to use someone else’s tools. I was a very early Internet adopter, and I have abandoned more social media sites than I can list on two hands (the most recent being Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter of course). (My new Mastodon handle is @howrawhowrue@mindly.social). As I used to say to our tech support people, I’m a very competent user. But programming? I suck at that. I have displayed the word “Hello” in a dozen programming languages, and that was about as far as I got.

Sounds perfect. I’ll give it a try.

Knowing myself, though, I will find out suddenly that while I was thinking about that, I have taken up an entirely different hobby already, and am sucking terribly at that instead.

The thought fills me with anticipation.

8 thoughts on “Hobbyhorse

  1. Kit Parsons says:

    Why don’t you take up the morin khuur? It is the grandfather of the cello. Mine is gathering (respectful) dust but I intend to revisit her, ineptly, once I am settled in Maine after the festival run of my documentary. It is very difficult and it sounds like one hundred violins…
    Then! You can practice Mongolian hot pots in your backyard (I have made note of the flying aversion). One of the traditions is to put round stones into the lamb stew, and then pass the greasy hot stones around to your guests, so they can warm their hands whilst simultaneously moisturizing. You’ll have to get your guests good and cold so they’ll go for it.

    1. DMT says:

      Both sound exceedingly difficult and are probably just the ticket, especially since my back yard has the ambiance of a garage floor 🙂 congrats on the festival run!

  2. Polly says:

    Delia, love your posts. Most important, congratulations on the lifetime achievement award!!! Amazing. Will someone be recording it? Wish I could be there, but a recording would be the next best thing.

      1. Kit Parsons says:

        Dunno, I find the term “lifetime achievement” a bit ominous, myself. Like, are you DONE?? Maybe if they called it the “Halfway there, old girl, keep going” award or the “You’ve managed to outlive most of your competitors! Much amazed!” award.

        1. DMT says:

          EXACTLY. I told my coach they might as well call it the “Kiss of Death” award. He’s terminally Serbian and thinks it’s weird that Americans compete at an age when “they should be retiring to their homes and waiting to die.” So I’m making him present me.

      2. Polly says:

        A lovely retreat, but I brought home a case of Covid, most likely from a trip into town while there. Past the worst of it I think. Send a recording anyway 😉

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