Like most people who apply themselves—at times feeling alone in the world of leisure pursuits—to obscure and somewhat lonely hobbies, I am so unused to meeting people who share mine that I practically start hyperventilating on those occasion when I do. Which is rarely, and nearly always thrillingly, and never for lack of trying. Obscure hobby enthusiasts are constantly on the lookout for one another, searching for community, waylaying one another near the dairy cases of supermarkets when a telltale bit of gear, or something tips us off. It’s all very conspiratorial and clandestine, the approach and subtle intimation—or outright accusation: “You there! Fellow hobbyist!” Time stands still when obscure hobby enthusiasts find one another; wives and girlfriends quickly learn the uselessness of conspicuously checking their watches and giving us those looks.
It’s a special time for us. It’s when we get to talk shop, swap stories, commiserate over technological and mercantile current events with possible deleterious effects on our hobby, and generally bro out in the mutual exaltation of finding companionship in what had just moments earlier seemed a lonely Paradise.
And, should anyone chance to overhear one of these rare summits, they would almost certainly be enchanted by the passionate discourse that invariably ensues when two occult hobbyists find one another. Not by the details of the conversation, necessarily—simply that there could even be such a conversation, and one so jubilantly sustained by its participants, who understandably feel as though fate has led them together over a span no wider than a knife’s edge.
Connecting over an obscure hobby can have a deeply moving effect. A vindicating one, too. After all this time coming off as obsessed and somewhat deluded to our loved ones—who, tolerant though they may be, can never truly fathom the complexities the obscure hobby enthusiast grapples with on a daily basis—it’s a minor triumph to suddenly appear conversant in a real language to people who previously assumed you were the only one speaking it. And that you were making it up, anyway, and by the way the house could use picking up when you’re done fiddling with whatever thing that is you’re fiddling with and talking to yourself.
Normally we obscure hobby enthusiasts have only ourselves to talk to. I mean, you know, really talk to. This is especially true of hobbies that require a lot of repetition, which requires committing a few crucial nerve and muscle groups to the task while the rest of the brain is basically free to roam where it will. If you could look at the EKG readout of the repetitive hobbyist absorbed in his work, one of the lines would be a delicate herringbone, unique from hobby to hobby, of uniform peaks and valleys pulsing contentedly from the lobe in the brain that oversees hobbies. Hobbies are a balm to soothe, refresh and regulate the weary mind.
But as any observant hobbyist will tell you, the mere fact that something occupies such a significant chunk of one’s time and mental real estate doesn’t mean it should be proportionally represented in one’s speech. We are generally aware of our tendency to bore, though in the normal course of get-to-know-you and/or whatcha-been-up-to chit-chat at backyard barbecues and office parties once removed, it’s hard to know where to draw the line between sparkling conversation and self-absorbed blathering. Which is too bad, because when you love something you want to tell everybody. We enthusiasts suspect we can be wearisome on our pet subjects when given undue encouragement, which at least makes us more circumspect in our boringness than most people, who never stop to think about it.
I get confused about what counts as a hobby, about the difference between hobbies and “interests.” When you look at the personals ads, it’s rare to find mention of a hobby, but far from uncommon to read about interests and activities the seeker “enjoys,” often presented almost as a dare: “I’m interested in skiing, hiking and the outdoors. You be, too.” No one ever says, “I’m interested in origami, collecting songbird eggs and lamp finials. You be, too—if you think you’re man enough.” Of course it’s natural, especially given the penurious word count of your average personals ad, that ad-placers would emphasize situations and activities that can potentially be enjoyed with a prospective partner over intensely hermetic activities—like tending a collection of rare lamp finials. Collecting anything counts as a hobby, by the way, I’m pretty sure. Merely enjoying oneself in a particular situation or activity, like the outdoors and skiing, respectively, seems more like an interest. A hobby has always struck me as something requiring a workbench or a garage (or at a least a folding card table), and possibly a shelf or cabinet for display. Putting together models is a hobby. So is collecting insects. Bird-watching, on the other hand, is an interest.
It seems like people don’t have as many hobbies as they used to—at least it can seem so until you clap eyes on Fair Skies Expected at the 2003 Western Montana Fair and Race Meet, the official entry book of the event most people just call The Fair. The good hobby stuff begins on page 22, after all the event schedules, general rules and regulations and introductory comments are out of the way, on a page headed Ceramics, Pottery, China Painting in confident boldface type. It is here that the casual leafer-through of fair literature can best appreciate the complexity of certain hobbies he might never even have considered. The heading for China Painting, for instance, includes 18 subcategories of china painting, a full half-dozen of them reserved for different types of subject matter: animals, flowers, birds, fruit, and so on.
And China Painting is just the beginning, the alphabetical point of entry into a rarefied world with way more distinctions, classifications and names for everything than you ever thought possible. Crafts Original Work, listed in Fair Skies as the 10th class of Fine Arts exhibits (and not to be confused with Kit Craft, which gets its own class) differentiates driftwood art into two categories—“lamp, table, etc.” and “natural form”—with “natural form” further subdivided into stained and unstained work. The Crafts Original Work subcategory for glass etching, too, is further divisible, not by form but by engraving agent: diamond, acid or sand.
It’s the same in most other craft subcategories, too. Wreaths or swags? Sorry, ma’am, this line is for “wreaths or swags, pine cone.” The lines for “wreaths or swags, herb” and “wreaths or swag, craft paper” are over there, by the sorting area for “corn husk dolls, corn husk” and “corn husk dolls, paper.” Also, as if enough weren’t already at stake for hopeful eggshell decorators competing for a $3 first place prize in the junior division, the same competitors must also agonize over whether to go with the one piece they consider to be their very finest work (“egguary, decorated egg shells, single”) or demonstrate their consistent excellence in a series (“egguary, decorated egg shells, up to four”).
And did you even know there was a word “egguary?” and hence, quite probably, egguarist? I sure didn’t, and I’m an avid seeker of words that add prestige and an air of mystique to common activities and commonplace hobbies. Why be a stamp collector when you can be a philatelist? A coin-collector when you can be a numismatist? Or a journeyman eggshell-decorator when you can be an artisan egguarist?
Fair Skies isn’t all arts and crafts. Most of the 136-page booklet, in fact, is devoted to agriculture and horticulture, with about a dozen pages devoted to the culinary arts—candies, cookies, preserved foods, dried foods, refrigerated foods, cakes from prepared mixes, cakes from scratch, foods cooked with honey, pickles, chili, salad dressings entered by the pint. Though not in the same league as metal engraving or building miniature houses (lot 90156, and not the same as “doll house, kit” or “doll house, original,” thank you very much), baking the perfect cupcake is still a perfectly legitimate form of artistic expression. It took me awhile to order my thoughts on the subject, but I’ve decided that baking the perfect cupcake might be an even nobler achievement than building the perfect miniature house because adjudicated baking grew out of an everyday necessity from which adjudicated dioramism did not. It’s a pretty complex subject.
On that note, it’s also worth mentioning that one of the subtle pleasures of reading Fair Skies lies in learning how the protocols and etiquette for certain pastimes are codified for competition. Nowhere is the desire for rules and standards more evident than in Division II Floriculture Artistic Design. Rule One states that no artificial flowers, foliage, fruit or vegetables are permitted. Rule Three politely reminds participants that “some” plant material must be used in every exhibit. Rules Five and Six explain that religious symbols and national flags must be displayed in a respectful manner and in accordance with proper flag etiquette. It all seems straightforward enough, although none of these rules can really help participants with the task at hand, which is combining plant material and knick-knacks to come up with something that fulfills the thematic requirements set forth by the judges. The themes are gently evocative in a Sherwin-Williams paint chip kind of way: “Staying Connected,” “With These Rings,” “Walk in the Woods,” “Quiet Moment.” I wouldn’t know where to begin suggesting connectedness using fresh or dried plant material. But then again, it’s not my hobby.
It’s enough to know that it’s someone’s hobby, and that that someone probably derives a lot of satisfaction from it, even though they may have a hard time finding other people who can really understand or appreciate it. Hobbies are important, and maybe the more esoteric the hobby, the more rewarding it is for the person who sees it as a way of finding a private place in the world.