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What a Hobby Feels Like

One of the saddest predicaments of the current millennial moment is feeling desperate for something that isn’t work, but having no clue how to figure out what else there is.

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a scenic view of a river, with snowy mountains in the background below a partly cloudy sky

That shot was taken over the Clark Fork in Missoula, Montana, about halfway through my 12 mile marathon training run last week. I used to be steadfast in my commitment to never run a marathon: a half-marathon was fine, but marathons were for masochists. But my attitude began to switch last year. I was training for a Ragnar — a 200-mile relay, split between twelve people for three legs each, and involves running through the night, driving around in large vans, sleeping on high school gym floors, etc.

I had one of the two most challenging runner assignments, including a significant amount of elevation gain, and I found myself more and more eager to push myself with new training goals — more elevation, more mileage — every week. Along the way, I ran a half-marathon as “training” and PR’ed, which felt amazing, but more amazing was the actual experience of the Ragnar, which provided the sort of exhaustion, pay-off, and catharsis that had largely drained away from the rest of my low-key burnt out life. I had been researching and writing the book non-stop for six weeks by the time we showed up in Bellingham the night before the start, but then I spent the next 48 hours thinking about nothing other than the race: fueling my body, running, resting my body, repeat (plus being very present, and talking about nothing other than the race, with the other people on my team).

Races like the Ragnar are often conceived of as “stuff (bourgeois) white people like”: paying for the privilege to exhaust yourself. And I don’t disagree. But I think the motivating factor is perhaps more the “bourgeois” more than the whiteness, and probably has even more to do with a certain type of work/lifestyle. People within this realm work so much — and, depending on age, have so many obligations towards their families — that they have to formalize and extremetize leisure in order to rationalize seeking it. It has to involve consumption in some way (buy this running Camelbak!), and planning / long-term commitment (you sign up months before), societal buy-in (knowledge that this is a cool thing that you are doing), and secondary optimization (exercise). Then you can give yourself permission to spend 48 hours doing something exclusively for yourself and your suffering-and-survival as enjoyment.

But there’s a secondary quality to these larger races, whether a Ragnar or a marathon. Part of what makes them a privileged space isn’t necessarily the gear (here’s a great piece from a great marathoner disabusing that myth) but how much time they require in the lead up. You have to have a certain kind of job, or home situation, and a certain amount of liberty in order to train nearly every day in some capacity, but also to snatch several hours for a long run once a week. My friends told me that they gave me the hardest Ragnar segments, for example, because I didn’t have to “negotiate” every time I wanted to go on a training run — because I don’t have children.

Women, in particular, find it difficult to “ask” for the time necessary to train, or do anything that requires significant and regular time investment. The answers to my parenting burnout survey from earlier this summer came back to this point again and again: their male partners felt justified in spending an entire Saturday golfing, or attending a football or soccer game every week through season tickets. But the women didn’t have hobbies that took took an entire day. Training doesn’t take an entire day, but it takes a big chunk of one. It is a way of standardizing un-negotiable personal leisure segments the same way that buying a season ticket pass to the Seahawks or the Sounders does. Which helps explain why more and more distance races and running clubs are filled with women; and, for the first time, more women than men are running marathons.

My personal reasoning for running has less to do with the need to ruthlessly declare time for myself, and more to do with the desire to ruthlessly segment time away from work. I like training schedules because I like schedules and routine, but I find I am unexpectedly nourished by the vast nothingness of a long run. You’re forced to hang out with your own mind — even if you’re doing it with someone else, you’re still hanging out with your own mind a whole lot. Some people call it meditative, and I guess that’s what I mean when I say that it forces present-ness: you can think about work things, or relationship things, or plan your outfit for the next day, but you’re still right there in your body, doing the thing for the foreseeable future. At the end of a long run, my partner and I always joke “it feels like I’ve never not been running.” You want it to be done, but it also just feels like your current reality: there’s nothing you can do about it; it just is. And there’s something profoundly liberating in that.

I know that might be hard for someone who doesn’t distant run to understand, and you might have different experiences that produce a similar feeling. I also feel that way while backpacking, especially the two-week backpacking trip I did over the Haute Route in Switzerland. But amidst all of my thinking on leisure and the decline of hobbies for the book, I’d started thinking about why I do it: is it just another route towards intensely documented self-optimization? Or does it do something different?

It’s probably different for people who want to compete. My mom was a state champion sprinter, and always wanted me to run in junior high and high school, but no way. I started running the summer after I graduated from high school, starting with 2 miles. In college, remember going on a 6-mile run with friends through the wheat fields around Walla Walla and thinking it was the most momentous thing I’d ever done. But I never conceived of it as obligatory, or even that I ever needed to go faster. It was certainly interwoven with disordered ideas about my body — I still blame the popularity of low-rise jeans for making me feel like my body needed to look different in the early ‘00s — but as I’ve grown older, I haven’t completely shed those ideas so much as come to recognize what they are (ideological bullshit) and that your body in your 30s is incredibly difficult to change (outside of pregnancy) so might as well figure out its strengths instead of obsessing over its weaknesses.

I think that’s part of what Lindsay Crouse is talking about in this NYT piece on running the fastest she’s ever run at age 35. “I had internalized a narrative about my body,” she writes, “that once I turned 30, there might not be much to look forward to. I didn’t know the opposite could be true.” I don’t have the same interest in getting faster, but I do love the feeling of acquaintance, for lack of a better word, with my body. For so long, I had felt alienated from it: I didn’t know what it was, really, except not Britney Spears’ body. But the last twenty years of running, combined with a five-year interlude/devotion to yoga, has re-introduced me to it.

I felt that keenly over this weekend, when I went skiing for the first time in 12 years. I grew up skiing at a small but mighty mountain in Central Idaho, a place where brother, my friends, and their brothers spent our childhoods figuring out the limits of our bodies. We were almost entirely unsupervised; we were fast and often reckless; we spent seemingly endless hours trying to perfect one jump. We got better very gradually, over the course of more than a decade. We didn’t ski because it was cool, or because our parents forced us (although they certainly paid for it, although our season passes were mind-bogglingly cheaper then) but just because it was what we did, every weekend we could. It didn’t feel like a choice, it just felt like a natural gravity.

To me, that’s what I think a real hobby feels like. Not something you feel like you’re choosing, or scheduling — not a hassle, or something you resent or feel bad about when you don’t do it. Earlier this week, Katie Heaney wrote a piece in The Cut that speaks to what I think a lot of people feel when they think about their hobbies: she keeps trying to start one, but can’t make it stick. The truth is, it’s really really hard to start a hobby as an adult — it feels unnatural, or forced, or performative. We try to force ourselves into hobbies by buying things (see: Amanda Mull’s piece on the “trophies” of the new domesticity) but a Kitchen-Aid will not make you like cooking.

It’s also hard when the messages about what you should be doing with your leisure time are so incredibly contradictory: you should devote yourself to self-care, but also spend more time on your children and partner; you should liberate yourself from the need to monetize your hobby but also have enough money to do the hobby in the first place. This “Smarter Living” piece in the NYT on what to do with a day off is emblematic of just how fucked up our leisure messaging has become: you should “embrace laziness,” “evaluate your career,” “have a family meal,” “fix your finances,” “do that one thing you’ve been putting off,” AND/OR “do nothing,” AND THEN tweet the author about what you did over the weekend!

Apart from running, a hobby I’ve cultivated over the course of two decades, all of my hobbies are things that I’ve done, or seen modeled for me, since my childhood. Some of those things, like hiking, I resented fiercely. Some I just observed, like my mom’s gardening. And some, like skiing, have been unavailable to me: first, because I didn’t have the money to do it; then, because physically accessing good skiing was impossible from New York; finally, because skiing takes a whole ass day that, of course, I would always opt to devote to working. I didn’t have any gear, and felt weird about renting, and was scared I’d forgotten everything. There were too many barriers to entry, and as Katie notes, each barrier makes it all the less likely that you will continue with a hobby.

This mountain I went to yesterday, though, it was cheap, and the rentals were equally cheap and easy, and it was just a 90 minute drive away. (That might sound long, but in the West, 90 minutes is truly nothing; the mountain I skied growing up was 3 hours + a time zone change away). And after a few runs, all of those feelings of childhood came rushing back: feeling strong and fearless and hedging that thrilling line between total control and losing it, but also the glorious, unbound expanse of the mountain and the day. It felt at once easy and challenging, natural and all I wanted to do forever. I think that’s what a hobby is supposed to feel like: not an obligation, but a state you’re always returning to. It doesn’t have to be expensive, it doesn’t have to be organized, it doesn’t have to depend on other people. It just has to be yours.

But I grew up in a place, and a time, where hobbies — activities that had no place on your resume, no function in getting you into a better school — were still commonplace. Amongst the bourgeois American middle class, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Old Millennials were the last to experience this attitude towards activities and leisure. My partner spent his junior high and high school years at a competitive prep school on the Main Line in Philly, and has only recently come to realize that he had no hobbies, and no sense of what he actually liked to do, just what he needed to do in order to shape himself for school, then college, then work. Every hobby, for him, is an adult hobby — and thus all the more difficult to discover and adopt.

It’s weird to think of yourself as privileged to know what you like. It’s certainly privileged to be able to know it and have the means — the time, the money, the wherewithal, the health — to pursue it. But one of the saddest predicaments of the current millennial moment is feeling desperate for something that isn’t work, but having no clue how do figure out what else there is.

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This post originally appeared on Culture Study and was published February 2, 2020. This article is republished here with permission.

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