An ye shall know us by our hobbies

Draft of 2012.12.12 ☛ 2016.03.16

May include: personaladviceworklife&c.

[If you want to categorize this particular screed in the Aarne–Thompson Rant Type Index, I think it might be an RT71.789, the “Dark Witch at the Christening”. One of my favorites, as you no doubt know by now. We attain mastery by practice, after all.]

It was the first anniversary the other day of my Mom’s death. It was also about the same time in 2004 when my wife’s Dad lost his leg to a stupid GP who didn’t pay attention to persistent complaints from a knowledgeable diabetic.

And that was also the year when I bought my first Plustek OpticBook. I began buying and scanning Public Domain books when our parents and friends started dying. We’ve run out of parents these days, and our old friends—the ones from the Greatest Generation—are getting scarce on the ground. But that said, I keep scanning a book a day when I can, because it’s the right thing to do.

I try to stay busy. People in my position seem to say that. I try to stay busy.

But my obsession with scanning books isn’t really the focus of this piece. Nor is the observation that people keep on dying, Oh-woe-is-me. I’ll have plenty to say about the former in a few days; as for the dying, they will manage themselves without any advice from me.

No, we gather here today to talk about the overlap between the two, in my life and my wife’s life. And as is my wont I am going to generalize from that dataset of two exemplars, treat us as type specimens as it were. Because I see a pattern coalescing out there in the world, or at least I want to see that pattern.

Even though I don’t know what the actual outcome will be, I know it’s something you might consider “bad” and I want you to have the opportunity to understand before it really kicks in and stuff starts to break. Future historians will always get it wrong, calling it something about wars or computers or classes, when it was in fact the notion of a “career” imploding on itself, and biology beating culture back into place.

But at least it will be written down here for people to ignore.

Right: So first, people die. You might know that bit.

Increasingly, it’s young people who are taking care of their dying older parents. They’re dying in chronic care situations, and long-term home hospice care. And—excepting cases of dementia—caring for your own parents in their last months is something you do for yourself. Nobody who’s ever been in one likes a nursing home these days, outside of dire emergencies, and so if you can afford to care for your loved ones you will.

And so we see a resurgence of family caregivers, working at home, and especially among the middle class.

Now I hate to break it to you, but as it happens when you spend three or four or a dozen years taking care of your dying relatives you won’t get a special-colored lapel ribbon to wear, and there is no magnet for your car. Nobody else really acts like they give a damn, frankly.

But from first-hand experience I’m here to say that in lieu of survivor support networks and redemptive life-affirming-though-glib storylines, you might get mastery. You might not ever be able to explain it to anybody… but it can be there.

More people are taking care of their loved ones, and I think more people all the time are falling into this odd and unsought state of “mastery”. They are in other words un-joining your club, and joining ours. I doubt we’ll ever be a majority, but demographics being what they are, you’re all in for a surprise over the next couple of decades—whether you’re one of us, or one of those left behind….

If you’re among the dying, I’m sorry to inform you that there will be no surprises. Try again next time.

More people are in this situation because parents are having their kids later.

There’s the thing the new hip literate late-career fertility-treated professional Mommies and Daddies don’t seem to have worked out: When your kids age up to around 40 years old, it just works out biologically that at that very same moment you will already be treading down the Road to Being Elderly.

Just because you were old when your kid was young.

In Olden Times, like the first half of the 20th Century and every century before that, Mom and Dad would typically be barely teenagers, and grandma might be as old as you are compared with your career-delayed kid. Hell, there could be four or five generations overlapping in a single lifetime.

But for careerist professional smartypants who wait until a few gray hairs have been accepted upon their brows before the kids? Unless the transhumanist crowd gets crackin’ pretty quick and we all upload our consciousnesses to computers on Saturn like, this week, guess what? You will start your morbidity-and-mortality extravaganza right smack in the middle of your kids’ nascent “careers”.

Like I said, my Dark Witch rant is not on the theme of woooo—you’re going to die!! Get somebody else to point a bony finger at that gravestone for you.

No, it’s far more interesting to me to point out that as your children come of age, your career culture is going to die. And you will have killed it, by waiting to have your kids until your own (final) careers were done.

I like when cultures die. It’s interesting, it’s fun, it suffuses me with glee. It means we get new cultures, and I am the xenophilic kind of guy.

I have evidence. My wife and I both popped into the world at the headwaters of Generation X, specifically in the first year of that nominal cohort (or the last year of the damned Boomers, but I disavow those who claim it). Whoever named “our” generation did so ex post facto; I think it was probably a columnist who had maybe heard of Douglas Coupland but never read his actual book. But it’s a catchy moniker with which to paint the requisite broad strokes: we’re TV-watching, computers-but-not-Internet, Walkman-toting, ironic, ennuitic, selfish, undirected—all that stuff.

Oh, and flag “undirected” for later, for me, OK? Make a little note.

The Web of History is plaited together like bad macramé from scratchy artisanal strands of Named Generations some asshole historian has dyed in bland 70s colors in an old aluminum saucepan. It’s not written by “the winners”, it’s cut and pasted from random Wikipedia articles by their interns, and never copy-edited. In other words, I’m here (again) to say (again): No. Not so fast, Bucko. It’s more complicated than it sounds, and more interesting.

I slice the situation differently.

Despite being born at the advent of Generation X, I’m a crap representative. I’m here to say we—and the point is we’re definitely a “we” now, and not just my wife and me—are something very different from a “generation”. More of a growing subset that’s an echo and a consequence of a quite different externality.

See, unlike most of “Generation X”, my wife and I were born to old parents. For example, my Dad was born in 1908 in a town now submerged beneath the Columbia River; my Mom was born in 1923 and grew up during the Depression. And yet I was born in 1964.

In our day it took a divorce-and-remarriage play to get the numbers to work out this way, and a lot of crossed fingers regarding Down syndrome and the like. But the inevitable actuarial consequence is that our parents started dying when we were in grad school and getting good and settled in our pension-earning “career” tracks.

All the kids of old parents will have that. Doesn’t matter whether they arise from old-fashioned remarriage, or careerist delay, or the miracle of in vitro spooge-mixing. Old people with new kids just plain tend to die when their kids are younger.

I imagine social scientists and psychologists and crap have said we “suffer” more because of this. They’ve probably got a new DSM V category for “Sad surviving children of elderly parents” all lined up. But they also have a category for “argues with physician over diagnosis” and “sasses teachers too much”, so fuck ’em.

Life is suffering. Dude who sat under a tree said that a long time back. Learn from it.

What happens is that you stop being part of your Generation. My wife and I are not really part of any Generation, X or otherwise—we’re a demographic subspecies.

If you needed to name us, it would be OK to call us the Hobbyists.

Those of you who are not us should fear us. I meet more of us all the time; I like us, because we’re interesting and talking with the others among us suffuses me with glee. I overflow with glee, in fact, until I end up standing in the puddle. Do you have any idea how hard glee is to get out of the rug, by the way? Just remember: club soda.

“Hobbyists”. I wonder if you think that’s a pejorative term, a word you say “mere” in front of, like “mere amateur”. You go right ahead thinking that, Pink Boy.

We chose to stop our lives.

We got off the merry-go-round career cycle.

There is no ladder to climb. We have no pensions, no tenure, no tick-mark job description for the forms you fill out when you join professional societies. I am trained as a molecular biologist and operations researcher, but I scan books, husband communities, do AI research in my spare time, sell antiques on eBay, trade stocks, edit and publishing print magazines. My wife trained as a mechanical engineer and has an MBA from a top-ranked school, but is a film-maker and photographer, and so on.

And we are not old.

What happens when your parents die and you pause to care for them while it’s happening, it isn’t some kind of symbolic rebirth or spiritual vision quest or any of that crap. It’s an interruption. You spend your days waiting. Days, weeks, months on end. Waiting for some particular problem to improve or get worse, waiting to hear results from doctors, waiting to change the sheets again or to serve another pudding cup at 3am.

And while you wait, you play video games for a while, or you do crosswords, or sort socks a few times. You buy a bunch of extra towels and then you get damned good at folding them all.

And then after that’s used up, when you’ve got all the badges in your iPhone puzzle game of choice, you step back into your hobbies. The things that were never allowed in your “career”, the ones you put off back in your (recent) youth so you could focus on the stuff your superiors demanded of you.

You learn again to write, photograph, program, digitize, archive, read widely, weave, sculpt, paint, engage, play, cook. You Make. Mindfully, over and over again, you Make. “On the side”, to while away the time, it may seem. You cannot work in the traditional way; you may as well be retired or in the hospital yourself.

Your career will wait, you say.

But then here’s the other demographic facet that the honored veterans of our Many Recent Wars will already tell you: The wounded and the sick no longer die. The old no longer die.

And so you will keep Making. Your career will wait.

It’s Gladwell-glib, but even a stopped clock is right three times a day: Odds are good that you will spend at least 10000 hours at your “hobby”. You will become a Master of it.

And eventually you realize your career can still wait, and will keep on waiting, and then you’re free.

I hear some thinking out there: Awesome! You’ve discovered a second career!

These are the people who should be embarrassed to hear themselves say that, but who never seem to realize it. Maybe they’re dizzy from the merry-go-round of their own life histories, their careers and the unquestioned sense they’re getting somewhere.

They don’t see the glint in my eye, which you know of course the sign of rising glee. So I ask them, “Why?”

They never have an answer. Often they’ll trot out the old “Somebody has to pay the bills!” canard.


It dawned on us slowly, but I don’t think it will be that way for all those who follow: my wife and I can do what we want. That is not a “career”. There is no “career”, and there never was.

What we’ve mastered is not a hobby, though I think you ought to call us Hobbyists. What we’ve mastered is doing what’s needed.

I don’t think this has a commonly-accepted name any more. “Slacking” is Barbara’s word, and I approve. Or you could call us “retired” and be close. But is it really “slacking” when we work 12 hour days, every day, in our enthusiasm? When we have launched a dozen businesses in as many years, when we talk daily with correspondents around the world, with people who actually see this mastery and recognize it and with whom we are happy to share it for free?

What have we become? I don’t know. Whenever we’re in a “go around the table and introduce yourselves” moment, the folks who know me all grin when it gets to be my turn. I never know what will come out, whether it’s one of the projects or a deep philosophical thread that links several. In all cases it’s contingent and meaningless, except that it helps calm down the few who are savvy enough to be concerned.

I try to do what’s needed. Because when you’re caring for the dying, you learn to do what’s needed, and what’s right.

On the Shuhari scale, we’re unquestionably Ha-level whatever-the-fuck-this-is. Probably not Ri, but who knows? I’m loathe to call it “wisdom”, but somebody recently accused me of that. I did my best to prove him wrong, and he got over it eventually. But it might be “expertise”.

We ate our careers. Burned them up. Remodeled and recycled them and gave away the pieces. A “second” career would be like having a second brainwashing, a second kind of cancer.

We sat for a handful of months in a cool, quiet, dark room. Caring, waiting, thinking, loving, despairing. All the things you do. And also along the way mastering a hobby, because there is no work but The Work when you’re caring for a dying parent.

Then a few years later, we did it again. And that time we both mastered some different hobby. I don’t even remember which, now.

And then a year or so ago we did it a third time… and we started to learn what mastery itself is.

We don’t get a pretty ribbon for surviving a commonly-accepted narrative arc. We get no pension, and we have no health insurance or “employer” or retirement funds to speak of. Politicians and public policy folks have no idea that we exist.

A year ago I would wake up in the middle of the night like when I was a startup founder, panicked about how ridiculous this all sounds within the old cultural framework. What will we do? Somebody has to pay the bills.

But you learn to do what’s right. And you learn how to learn what’s right. And that’s OK. We make a living; we have no careers.

People ask me for help all the time, and I am happy to give it. Technical help, advice, just conversation. My wife Barbara and I are surprisingly able to help people with their businesses, with their transitions from employed to freelance, with their social entrepreneurship, with their business plans, with their software architecture and online community management. When they listen, they seem to appreciate it.

But in the end, we are undirected. Just like our Generation X was supposed by its predecessors to be. We sound like “slackers” or “retirees” to folks still on the merry-go-round.

But unlike youths we are also masters, and unlike retirees we are not ourselves old. And I think, looking at the demographic curve, that we’re bellwethers.

What else is there for somebody like us to do, but to tear apart the merry-go-round and see what makes it tick? There’s probably some useful stuff in there that can be salvaged.

Maybe we can try to fix it. Maybe we’ll just break it to see what happens. We could do that.

Or maybe we’ll help your children, the ones who will be sitting in the cool dark rooms in a while watching, loving, caring for you, and learning hobbies. If we wait, then they will do it surely.

And yes, maybe there are other ways to reach this state of career-less mastery, to jump or be pushed from the merry-go-round. I wouldn’t be surprised. This makes you feel better how, exactly?

In any case, be sure we’ll do what’s right. You’re all looking dizzier all the time.

Update: Barbara is sitting in her evening chair and reads me “How Older Parenthood Will Upend American Society”, apparently from the New Republic. Small world. There you go; another face of the same stuff, from the standpoint of an older mother.