Learning and quitting

Everyone I know is taking night classes. One minute we were all procrastinating the usual ways (social media, eating cookies), then suddenly everybody was constructing terrariums, learning basic woodwork and meeting in dark laneways to carve tiny horses from polymer clay. ‘Come with us!’ they said. ‘You might even meet some people!’ This argument kind of works, because I don’t know too many people who can make bookshelves from scratch. I am, however, very wary of hobbies all up.

I’m scared of forgetting, because I know I’m very good at it. Somewhere, in a gap in the space-time continuum, there’s a room filled with the knowledge that has melted out of my brain when I wasn’t looking, including:

  • The ability to use a recorder to play ‘My Heart Will Go On’ (possibly a win)
  • All athletic ability, i.e. throwing a three point shot from a third of the way up a basketball court
  • Foreign language vocabulary
  • Headstands
  • Anything to do with crocheting

As a kid, I was your original Lisa Simpson, asking her parents for grades when school wasn’t in session (seriously, folks: I would request they set me specific research projects so that I could write essays on Tutankhamen for funsies). These were the days when I had an all-singing, dancing, cross-stitching perseverance to learn shit, to get things done. The list of my tween loves included: gymnastics, community theatre, researching Wicca and ancient magic worldviews, playing basketball, heading a section of a youth orchestra, school choir, violin lessons, learning languages, perfecting key motor skills required for cricket and AFL, and stabbing myself accidentally with knitting needles (I thought I might have been crafty. Wrong). I didn’t care what the project was, as long as I could complete it and shout ‘Next!’

It’s worth pointing out that I was not a natural talent at any of these things. The one record I have of my attempts to sing in tune is an AMEB certificate scrawled with the assessor comment: ‘Perhaps practice singing before you have to do it in the exam’ (I had been practicing. Oh well). My violin teacher spent hours remarking that my fingers ‘just probably weren’t connected by tendon tissue in the same way as everyone else’s’, so difficult was it for me to reach my pinkie up to hit that last note. A Japanese tutor once looked at my university exam and remarked that maybe ‘Your brain just doesn’t process characters the normal way’. She was probably right – it did actually hurt to recall those hundreds of kanji combinations. Turns out I was never much fussed about talent, as long as I could give something a crack.

Sometimes, I’d try for decades. This is where things get alarming, because in my short life, I’ve had at least four hobbies that have spanned more than 10 years. I have spent the entire life of a 40-something trying to master skills that I have then completely abandoned. If extra curricular activities were marriages I would be Ross Geller, and this serial monogamy does not sit well with me. I mean, why on earth try so hard just to drop it twelve years later?

They say getting older has to do with recognising what you didn’t do, but I think it might actually be in the number of times you look back and ask yourself, ‘Why on earth did I do that?’ We all get those moments, staring back at the people we used to love, places we have called home, and being unable to connect to the circumstances. You were there, that is you in the photo, but to grasp at the motivation or knowledge you had then is kind pointless. So I try not to mention these forgotten skills if I can help it, because someone will usually invite me to display them. And it’s awkward to refuse when a friend says they need a talented person to fill in for their team sport, or exclaims, ‘Hey! You should play the violin at our party/for my mum/at my funeral!’ (all three requests have been made). I may have just said the sentence ‘I played in an orchestra for 10 years’, but I’m heartily confident that at best, my skills today would extend to holding a musical instrument without breaking it.

If you work on something for ages only to drop it in a moment, people are not crazy when they ask, ‘Um, why?’ The short answer is that I get distracted really easily by shiny things. I’ve never, thankfully, been in a position where I had to choose between greatness and a balanced life. My suburban sport experiences were never going to lead national championships. So I’ve been able to quit, move on, forget. When a better offer arrived, I could take it.

That’s a pretty lucky thing to be able to do. Access to formal schooling is not feasible for countless people. Having to toss up between intermediate Swedish and Indoor Garden Bed Construction 101 – that embodies a certain kind of time-rich privilege. This is what I want to keep in mind before I divorce any of my other long-term extra curricular activities. To be doing it in the first place is a win.

On New Year’s Day this year, I packed my old violin into the boot of the car to drop at an op shop the next time I drove past. My one real regret about leaving the dusty case in the corner of my room for all those years was that I never managed to use it as part of a Godfather-themed costume. I considered approaching a music shop and seeing whether they could salvage it for resale with tuning and some actual TLC, but decided that someone might as well happen upon it by chance. After abandoning the instrument completely, it was kind of the least I could do.

That donation marked the start of a new list of things to master (and forget) for 2015: making a flawless Hummingbird cake and cryptic crosswords. I might have accelerated the hobbies straight to that of a retiree, but these skills seem like they won’t slip too readily. I’d prefer if my knowledge just stayed in my head.

Image: Takeshi Kuboki


Emma Koehn is a writer and editor from Melbourne.

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