#87: Stupid hobbies
On an ill-advised vlog turned heaven
Today I want to talk about the best-worst decision I’ve made so far in 2022.
A couple weeks ago I decided, at the nubile age of 32, to make my first vlog. Until approximately one minute prior, I had no interest in vlogging, no equipment to do it, and no awareness of how to actually make one, but I assumed I could figure that out in, say, the subsequent 24 hours, and decided to commit myself to releasing one the following Tuesday. It’s basically just an Instagram story, I reasoned. It was Thursday. My friend Michelle and I had plans that Saturday to knit ourselves balaclavas. We should vlog that right? I asked. Yes, she said, absolutely. On Friday I wrote in my newsletter, which was scheduled to go out Sunday, that in a couple day’s time, I would be publishing a vlog. I bought a tripod for my iPhone. Full of hubris, I considered what else I might do that weekend.
Four days later I’m FaceTiming my friend Daniel. The vlog was supposed to drop five minutes ago. “The color looks insane, I’m gonna lose it,” I said, eyes basically bleeding. “I didn’t stay up until 3 a.m. for it to fall apart at the last minute!” This was the sixth time I’d called him in 24 hours. The first was to ask him, a filmmaker, to teach me how to use Adobe Premiere in five minutes. “Stay calm,” Daniel said, half-awake, still in bed. “We’re going to figure this out.” My knee was bouncing of its own accord, my right finger tip was calloused from knitting for 20 hours straight, like some kind of junky grandmother. Somewhere in the background Avi was shuffling around the house, our rapport in shambles. I’d never felt more alive.
To say this project was ambitious would only be partially true. It was ambitious in that I was fundamentally unprepared for it on every level. But also, it was almost completely without stakes—the aspiration so humble (a homemade garment; a vlog), that I didn’t exactly pursue it under duress. The pressure was entirely self-inflicted. When Michelle and I realized the scale of the knitting endeavor we’d embarked upon, knitted chokers in our hands after six hours of labor, it was around 5 p.m. on Saturday. We could have changed our plan, then. We could have retooled the vlog to be about “starting a knitting project,” as Avi suggested. But we wanted to finish! And when we did, around midnight on Sunday night, our minds in a state of pure, uncut delirium, I knew I wanted to do it justice by editing it like a real-life vlogger. So the next morning I downloaded a trial of some of the most professional software on the market and proceeded to lose my mind a second time.
The vlog took me around 16 hours to edit. When Daniel and I finally fixed the color issue the next morning (note to my fellow vloggers: HDR can affect the coloring of iPhone footage when saved to mp4), I’d never regretted anything less. Somehow, it was the best weekend I’d had in recent memory, full of the kind of harmless misery and nonstop togetherness I associate with most of my favorite life experiences. Over the next days I kept cataloging it, emotionally, alongside a pointless school project you stay up all night trying to finish, growing closer to your classmates in the process, Breakfast Club-style. This aspect of it—or even of knitting in general—surprised me. When I learned six weeks ago on YouTube with a pair of needles I’d impulse-purchased at Blick, I did not expect the hobby to put me back in touch with, of all things, my youth.
The all-nighters were only part of it. Maybe more important was the unstructured kinship of sharing a hobby with someone. Michelle and I regularly knit next to each other for hours. Talking, watching a show, sitting in silence. Eventually, deciding what to eat for dinner. We text about possible projects we could start; we happen to go to the same yarn store on the same day. Learning something new can obviously remind you of being young, but it’s this aspect that’s brought me back most viscerally—to living with roommates, running into my friends in the hallway, studying with people in the library. It’s almost cliche by now to remark that graduation into adulthood often marks the end of that loosely communal aspect of friendship. I remember complaining in my journal circa 2012 that suddenly every run-in had to be scheduled, every night out planned days in advance. It struck me at the time as a profound loss, but eventually I got used to it. Only now am I realizing I didn’t necessarily have to.
In many ways the pandemic has recreated that school-to-work transition on a different scale, dividing us into little alienated units, scrubbing off the pleasant friction of spontaneity. In the same tenor as my post-grad journal entries, I’ve been reflecting on how much I miss working in a different neighborhood. How that constant, daily movement lent New York, and me, a sense of interconnectedness. Grabbing dinner with a friend after work, running errands with a coworker during lunch, nurturing weak ties all over the city. If things felt over-planned before, now we need to complete tests and bring special cards before showing up. Sometimes we need to force ourselves to leave the front door just to remember what it feels like to walk. Obviously it’s not always as extreme as that, but the last two years have applied innumerable social constraints on an adult population that largely already felt constrained. And I’m not even talking about economic welfare, which also seems to be in a constant state of free fall. I’m talking about our social fabric, eroding in new ways all the time, via virus only most recently.
Earlier in the pandemic I longed to spend focused time with my friends and family. These days I want unfocused time with them—the kind of casual coexistence implied by genuine community. Or as it’s referred to in the realm of child psychology (and adult Twitter), parallel play. “The term parallel play usually refers to young children playing independently alongside one another,” wrote Sophie Vershbow in a piece about the term for the New York Times last fall, “but it can also be a valuable way to think about adult relationships.” It’s tempting to laugh this off as just another example of our own infantilization, but I don’t really think that’s what it is. I think the ability to be “alone together” (and comfortably) with the people in our lives is an underrated pillar of wellbeing for social creatures like us. The poet Rilke famously referred to it as “the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other.” More clinically., Dr. Amir Levine says it’s one of the “hallmarks of secure relationships.” More broadly, secure communities.
When I picked up knitting, I knew I wanted to learn something physical and off-screen. I wanted to work with my hands, have something to chip away at on cold winter days. Be creative without all the stakes. The notion that it could bolster my social life honestly didn’t cross my mind. I’m literally talking about knitting here (lol). But low-stakes hobbies are a perfect inlet to parallel play. The other day, Avi and I invited friends over to our place just to hang around and work on things. Cooking, knitting, drawing, playing guitar, even scrolling on the computer. Avi later joked that for a while our living room felt like a YMCA, and that felt like heaven to me. I’d gotten so used to planning social gatherings around a specific activity that I’d forgotten the pleasure of the opposite. I’d been thinking of alone time and social time as necessarily separate, neglecting the liminal space in-between.
The vlog—from making it to editing it—offered a different kind of departure from my boring adult life, but not an unrelated one. The fact that the project was ultimately trivial lent it the same kind of safety I’m talking about. The stress I felt at the prospect of finishing the balaclava was completely without dread; my fear of the looming deadline was so playful it almost felt like acting. Adulthood is so rife with higher-stakes versions of these emotions that it was a relief to feel them, share them, in a more lighthearted scenario. It reminded me of an essay my friend Gyan wrote in 2019 about her fervent belief that friendships aren’t made over cocktails and nice dinners, but through doing tedious shit together. One of the wisest adages I’ve ever heard about friendship.
In our younger years, when we’re usually more safe and protected but also constantly dragged around at our parents’ and teachers’ behest, our lives are ripe with these bonding opportunities. But it’s not impossible to recreate those conditions as adults. Believe me when I say I’ve never felt closer to Michelle than when I peed my pants laughing at our collective knitting misery (that’s saying a lot, since she once made me cry art tears in a beautiful cabin). And as I remake and reimagine my social world in the face of a million unknown variables, that stupid little fact gives me hope.
OK OK WANT TO SEE THE VLOG?
I originally released it only for paying subscribers on a Tuesday, in place of my podcast, where I intend to release future vlogs (obviously my vlogging career isn’t over…). But since I wrote a whole essay about this one I figured it would be rude to keep it behind a paywall. You can watch it here! Thank you to my paying subscribers for funding it, and obviously a huge shoutout to Michelle and Daniel (the aforementioned filmmaker, also Michelle’s boyfriend) for so generously taking it from worst idea to best.
My favorite article I read this week was “What Was the TED Talk?” by Oscar Schwartz for The Drift about the fallow optimism of inspiring speeches. Last Friday’s 15 things also included a mitten tutorial and a new backpack.
Thanks for reading!