Sisyphean Hobbies For My Retirement Years

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, December 16, 2016

Let’s face it, our retirement years are life in decline. Our minds and bodies turn to oatmeal. Any hobby we pick at age 65 will get increasingly harder at 75, 85, and 95. So the challenge is to pick tasks that works well while rolling our rock up hill. For example, I’ve recently taken up crossword puzzles. I can see why oldsters do them. I started off with the New York Times mini-puzzles and I was flat out horrible. I couldn’t do them. I now finish the mini-puzzle on most days. I’m quite proud of that. To a real cross word puzzler, that’s like telling a friend who does monthly marathons you were able to run around the block today. But I feel a sense of accomplishment. I feel like an old dog telling the world “Fuck you” by learning a new trick.

crossword-puzzleThe other day I subscribed to the full New York Times Crossword Puzzle. I can barely do a seventh of a daily puzzle before I give up. However, I figure I’ll get better. I expect to eventually finish them. It might take months. And I believe I should continue to get better for many years, or dare I say it, decades? At least until my mind goes oat-mealy. Crossword puzzles will be the canary in the mind. When I start getting worse, I’ll know winter is coming to my neurons.

Blogging is a fantastic hobby for the last third of life. It’s a multipurpose exercise machine for the mind. When I go many days without writing, I can actually feel my thoughts get hazier, and I spend more time chasing elusive words around my head. I feel a sense of accomplishment when I finish an essay, so on the days I don’t write feel guilty. I feel lazy, and unproductive.

Retiring is all about not going to pot. (One reason I won’t smoke dope if it became legal.)  It so easy to do nothing. So doing something, doing almost anything, feels good. That’s why hobbies are important. And it’s all relative. I know retired guys who run marathons or build hand-crafted furniture, and know other guys who are happy to walk to the library or read a mystery novel. The key is do something you couldn’t do yesterday, because tomorrow you might not be able to do what you did today.

I’ve realized in recent weeks is I need to pursue more hobbies, ones that preserve my aging oats. Hobbies that exercise mental and physical skills that are currently snoozing on the couch. I need more variety of fun things to do each day. I wish I could do more outside physical things. I was walking and biking, until this summer, when I had to cut back. It was making my back and hip hurt, and making my legs numb. That’s because of my spinal stenosis. Not walking and biking makes my back, hip and leg better, but I worry about my heart. I’ve started small short indoor bike trips to replace the outdoor work. Luckily the plant based diet helps my heart tremendously. I also do my physical therapy and work out on Bowflex machines.

I get a lot of mental exercise out of reading and writing, but I’m starting to worry its not enough. I need some cross-training. Functions not tied to verbal skills need to start doing push-ups. My friend Connell has been getting better at drawing. I wish I could do that. I’ve also wished I could get back into programming. I did that for thirty years, and miss it. For my whole life I’ve wished I had some kind of musical ability, and recently wondered if I could create music with a computer or synthesizer. I could do that without performance skills, and it would get me back into computer programming. And I’ve also wondered, once again, if I could get back into math. I was doing the Khan Academy for a while, and it was pleasurable, but got out of the habit.

That’s the thing. Hobbies require building habit muscles. You have to do a little bit every day. When I do math, I discovered I had to go all the way back to grade school math. It requires being methodical. It’s much easier to go visit a friend, watch a TV show, or listen to music. Being retired is like living with sirens (Greek mythological babes, not fire engines). It is seductively easy for me to read a book, watch TV or listen to music. It’s much harder applying my mind to learning something new.

MPKmini_angle_web_lg_700x438Today I came across something called Csound. It’s a programming language for sound. This is a completely new world to me, and I wonder if I have the mental ability to explore it. I also ordered an Akai Professional MPK Mini MKII. It was only $69 at Amazon. This nifty toy will let me play music with Garage Band on my iPad mini, interface with music programs and programming languages on my computer, plus it comes with some simple synthesize software. I hope to teach myself basic music skill.

I’m making my 2017 resolutions a couple weeks early. I want to learn crossword puzzles, drawing, math and music next year. I’m not particularly ambitious though. So long as I piddle at each a little bit each day, and show a tiny tittle of progress, I’ll be happy.

JWH

5 thoughts on “Sisyphean Hobbies For My Retirement Years”

  1. I try to do the Sunday NYT and LAT every week. Usually it takes me the whole week. If i had a time machine I would have given my earlier self this advice, floss your teeth and work the daily crossword puzzle. There is no better traing for the mind and they are fun to do. Also, I like to listen to audible (fiction) stories while working on a puzzle.

  2. James –
    Have you ever tried a recumbent bike, or at least a “crank forward” upright model? All the bikes I’ve owned have tortured my knees, but I have ridden a friend’s bike that didn’t at all — I assume because of a difference in frame geometry. On a standard frame I’m constantly trying to scootch back on the seat or raise it higher to get further back from the pedals.

    The thing about crossword puzzles, esp. the Times variety, is that they rely less on your own general knowledge than on your sharing a common cultural literacy with whoever made them up. And on knowing rules and tropes that are specific to crossword fans, of course.

    Just about any novice, regardless of talent, should be able to draw “better” just by studying and practicing the rules of perspective and other techniques for translating 3d into 2d. Actually “seeing” what you look at so as to put it down on paper — I don’t know how much that is a learned skill vs a talent.

    1. My indoor exercise bike is the recumbent type. I’ve been trying to use it more. I’m never sure how much my outdoor bike hurts my leg and hip, because I’ve always mixed walking and biking during the week. I need to try just biking. I know walking too far is a problem now.

      I bought a book yesterday that’s one of those Dummies books for doing crosswords. I figure that should get me started.

      I’m hoping you’re right about drawing. My goal is very minimal. I’d like to draw like how Victorian scientists did for their notebooks. Just to illustrate things I see.

      1. Speaking of recumbents and mixing up your hobbies – here’s a very cool bit of DIY engineering that might amuse you:

  3. Hey James – I can’t spell, so word games don’t work for me. Sudoku does. It works well on tablets, phones, and I even play it on my Kobo ebook reader. You can start at an easy level and work up to the level that is fun and solvable in the time frame you want to fill. I hated it in the beginning – didn’t see how they could be solved, but stuck with it, and over the years have learned some, but by far, not all of the tricks of the trade.

    For word games, my wife has half a dozen or more games of scrabble going on Facebook with her sisters and friends, and Words With Friends as well – spends hours on it. A bit more social than crosswords.

    Rediscovered the joy of riding bikes six, seven years ago. This year I cut my bike riding down to one 10 mile ride and a 3 mile ride with my wife each day. Still I managed 2,000 miles before the cold weather closed in. I had been doing two 10 milers a day for the previous 5 years, but my knees began to bother me a little by the end of last year’s season, so I decided not to push it. However, the key is that I ride on a former RR line, so it’s level (and I don’t have to deal with traffic). Hills I think do put pressure on knees & such, but using the gears should take care of that. I think about buying a recumbent bike every spring – you’re far closer to the ground if it comes to a spill. Maybe this spring I’ll get one, rather than press my luck.

    Like you, I can’t seem to find the logic in music. Memorized a few tunes on a harmonica, but could never instinctively know what a note would sound like or how to get one I wanted… Hopeless. Building music conceptually might be fun. I’m sure there’s plenty of on-line help to get you going. You’ll be doing movie soundtracks in no time.

    I do however paint. The key to enjoying art is to lower one’s expectations. The art you see and admire has likely taken someone the better part of a lifetime to master. Trying to match that only leads to frustration. And screw realism. That’s what cameras are for. It’s one of those “it’s a journey, not a destination” activities. Just mess around with paint, clay, or whatever and don’t worry about what results. Hey, it’s art!

    I also play an email wargame with some old high school pals.A turn or two a day. Pretty much the old Avalon Hill style of game. We play against the AI, so there’s no rivalry, and again it’s more social than playing video games at home.

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