One of the great lost art forms is the eccentric hobby, which is a shame, as what a person does in leisure is far more telling than what they do for a profession. I have yet to learn anything about someone by being informed that they are a "systems analyst," but "the guy who makes dollhouse furniture from beer cans" is a subject worthy of investigation. We seem to have a fall-back position of passive consumption, whether products or media, and originality has been left to others; I think it is time to start afresh, to look at the possibilities and perhaps find more perfect ways to spend spare time.
Collecting has long been a favored hobby, but it has become usurped by profiteering. Rule one of pastimes should be: neither you nor anyone else should benefit in any real way. People are more likely to browse flea markets today in search of resale value than to search for things they merely enjoy. Finding something completely bereft of value to collect is a challenge, but the eclectic genius William Sidis nearly cracked it with his collection of streetcar transfer stubs. Transfers were given for free and had no value, but because they came in many varieties, could be collected. He wrote a book about the subject, called "the most boring book ever written" by one critic and that was his undoing, because he caused others to collect them and, because of their increasing rarity, ephemerality and age, they became valuable... to the four or five other collectors.
Crafts, too, have been a mainstay of the hobbyist. Unfortunately, folk art has become trendy and there is a market for intentionally naïve attempts, for example Etsy crafters making increasingly ugly Christmas sweaters. Again, once money becomes the focus, the point of the activity is lost. When Francis Johnson of Darwin, MN made the biggest ball of twine, he didn't do it for money or notoriety, though it is now the town's center attraction; he was not a visionary, just a man with a lot of twine. The second rule of pastime should be: impress no one. Ideally, you want to spend an inordinate amount of time and energy on something just this side of futile, something that causes others to think they could do it and probably do it better, but couldn't be bothered to try. This brings us to the third rule: do not inspire competition (there are now bigger twine balls). This non-competitiveness can be tricky; while you may while away an hour completing a cross-word or jigsaw puzzle, there are others who do it in less time and do it competitively - there is even money involved, breaking all the rules.
Years ago, hearing of "high-pointers," who climb to the highest point in each state, I did some research and found that many states have county high-pointers, who frequently ask themselves why they drive all day to stand on yet another mound in yet another corn field in yet another county. These sounded like my people. I thought about climbing all the "peaks" in Minnesota (which are defined in a complicated manner involving 300 feet of rise from the saddle with the nearest taller neighbor) and discovered that there were a couple one could not do - corporate legal teams citing insurance liability - and I scared a true climber into doing most of them before I could. No one's done Wisconsin's peaks, which are easier, but the logistics bothered me. Then I noticed that if you drop the 300 foot rule, Wisconsin has more than 700 prominences, 74 of which are in Vernon County, which has zero 300 foot peaks. Vernon, in the glacial driftless area, is corrugated with tiny ridges and has no island peaks or chimney-like rocks requiring climbing skills and it's a mere two hour drive from my home.
Climbing the hills in Vernon County has several things I seek. It is a physical challenge, but a completely undemanding one. It is a logistical quagmire, which allows me to fill idle moments with thoughts of whether any one method of doing them is preferable to another. It's so infuriatingly vague that it is hard to know when one is done; the county high point is in one of ten possible areas, one a half-mile in diameter, all of which would have to be painstakingly covered to be certain one did not miss the true high point by a step or two. If I accomplished climbing all 74, not one person would be impressed and certainly no one would be inspired to duplicate the feat, even if I should follow Sidis and write the "Guide to Mountain Climbing in Vernon County, Wisconsin," available to download for free, of course.
What other pursuits should I consider? I ask myself as I crumble a madeleine into tea, ruining both. What tales shall I tell?
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