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Once upon a time, before the ribbon was cut on the internet’s information highway, there was this thing called hobbies. Hobbies were activities focused on something an individual enjoyed, and wanted to spend a portion of his or her spare time pursuing. Unlike the cerebral tech knowledge required to engage in web surfing and obsessive social media interaction, hobbies revolved around old school skills like patience (to seek and find that special stamp or coin to complete a themed collection), manual dexterity (the ability to fit that movable wing flap on a model of the plane the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk), and stamina (a stitch in time saves nine when sewing a scarf for a special gift).

Hobbies refresh and divert us while at the same time giving us something to hold in our hands, to see the results of our efforts. They are not lost in the ether of cyberspace, and can be set down at any time, saved for future engagement, unlike the imperative needs of electronic hand-held devices and PCs that bade us to our monitors for hours on end. Nothing will change about your collection of vintage railroad magazines while you’re off doing other things, nor will your basement model train layout be any different when you go down to run the cars through tunnels and past stations, lost in the miniaturized world you’ve created.

Many elders among us have held on to their hobbies. They remember evenings when the only electronic fixes available were televisions with three or four channels and the telephone to gab with family and friends. Having something to occupy our hands, eyes, and spirits was a Godsend, some exploration or fascination with some engrossing facet of cultural life—Spanish Christmas ornaments, ham radios, personally-stuffed Teddy Bears.

Or beyond Earth and into the heavens, a telescope, or turquoise stones affixed to bracelets and necklaces fashioned by hand, during peaceful hours, something we care about in some abiding personal way.

They used to ask about hobbies on job application forms; do they still do that? Somehow, knowing about a person’s hobby gave a glimpse into their individuality. A coloration of their personality over and above their qualifications for the job. Sometimes the hobby and the job fit like peas in a pod: an entry level applicant whose hobby was vintage cartography, the study of historic maps, would naturally recommend themselves to a surveyor’s position.

And if a person had no hobbies, could not list a hobby, there was nothing wrong with that, but it was something to know about them, too.

Do young people today have such hobbies? We can be sure that many of them do. Having a rewarding hobby is something too beneficial to the human spirit to have died out completely, even with the advent of the electronic era and its ubiquitous gadgets. Somewhere some young boy is transfixed by the scent of smoke from his wood-burning kit and the scene he’s creating, a lone climber rising umber-brown on the face of a cliff. And somewhere in an upstairs bedroom, her homework finished and bored with her Twitter feed, a young girl has broken out her watercolor palette for another washy and idealized portrait of flecked Appaloosa pausing on a hilltop to sniff upwind under some clouds.

But are this boy and girl the exceptions? Have the tech wunderkinds rendered the pre-internet hobby hopelessly archaic, the lost art of handmade craft, the happy discipline of concentrating one’s heart and soul on something to give, to keep, to leave behind?

There are men in our city devoted to vintage automobiles, the kind of cars you find if you visit Portland’s Memory Lane. They spend hours tinkering and polishing side mirrors on 1950 Nash Ramblers, the same car their fathers once drove. There are women who’ve devoted entire rooms in houses to memories and memorabilia of Elvis Presley, of the time the saw him in Vegas, and since purchased every paintable mug, every bobble-head, every Elvis jigsaw puzzle their budget can afford. Imagine finishing that puzzle, and seeing Elvis.

These folks are almost invariably baby-boomers, and survivors of the Greatest Generation that came before them.

As we consider today’s kids, kids who’ve never known a world that did not include easy transport along the information superhighway, we wonder what they are working with their hands when those hands are not at work on a keyboard or monitor of some kind, what they have at the end of the day to show for the expenditure of time.

Next month: talking to millennials about hobbies.

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