I think a lot of people have extreme hobbies, and more people are drawn to them than we realize. I also think the reasons people choose these activities vary. Probably a lot of psychologists have looked into this. I also think what gets defined as ‘extreme’ could also vary. My personal opinion is that ‘extreme’ includes spending an extreme amount of time, effort, or money on something also classifies a hobby as extreme. You don’t have to agree with me, but maybe if you give me a moment, you might agree just a little after all. This is the story of an acquaintance of mine.
I was just looking something up on the internet like I often do, probably putting off doing something else but possibly looking up new books that were getting good reviews, when I came across the term extreme sports. I wasn't exactly sure what qualified for that status, and decided to check out what was listed. There was far too much information, and I simply settled for this:
Extreme Sports refers to sport activities that may have a high level of anger, involving a high level of expertise, exceptional physical effort, very specialized gear or movement). Examples include big wave surfing; certain winter sports; bicycle, motor, air or sea craft speed trials or stunts, canoeing down rapids, jumping from cliffs, horse jumping, polo and stunts in general, boxing, and martial arts.
What this (edited) description doesn't explain is why people choose to engage in activities that may be hazardous to their health. I kept searching, now definitely intrigued, and found that participants experience an intense thrill. Even with a higher level of risk, people still choose to practice extreme sports for the adrenaline rush (something I've never understood; maybe there's something wrong with me). Freud concluded that we humans have an instinctual 'death wish', the subconscious desire to destroy ourselves. We thirst for the thrill because danger feels pleasurable.
Maybe there's something wrong with me, but I'm not a fan of roller coasters or bungee jumping - basically, anything that involves excessive height or speed. Anything with a lethal weapon is also unappealing. However, don't think I'm not capable of excessive engagement in some types of activities. That knowledge led me to keep searching, and eventually it became clear that extreme sports can come under the classification of extreme hobbies. In other words, sports can be hobbies, but not all hobbies are sports.
So what are some extreme hobbies that are not sports? Well if we take a look at one list of "hobbies that are physically and emotionally challenging," we find: endurance running, powerlifting, learning to play a musical instrument, learning a second language, coding, public speaking, reading books, starting a business, living off grid, or an extreme sport. (Yes, I realize I have circled back a little, but there's a reason for that.)
This list focuses on the idea that such activities are challenging and explains that we usually crave a challenge when our lives are unfulfilled. While I have a bone to pick with this idea, I am intrigued by two of the activities on the list: learning a second language and reading, which partially but not completely overlap.
The list made me think. Reading as extreme hobby? A focus on words, syllables, sytagms, various writing systems? Language, in other words? Maybe it is time for me to do some self-reflection, assess my activities...
In another place I've talked about how I was read to as a very small child and how I was brought up on Little Golden Books. (Well, maybe I didn't mention which books, but those were the ones.) Since I was pretty much an only child, once I could read for myself I spent all my free time reading, which doesn't take into account the reading required in school and for homework. I mean all I wanted to do most of the time was to hang out with a book, go to the library, write bad poetry, things like that. Reading was - is - my number one hobby and nothing else has ever come close. That may or may not qualify it as extreme and certainly doesn't seem like it involves any danger.
That shows how little non-readers know, and unfortunately they may be the majority now. I pity them, I confess, even if it might make me sound like a snob. However, it's not about thinking I'm superior because I know the side of the book you open and actually finish most every book I start. It's because reading dug its kind claws into me and never let go. For that reason it has also been dangerous. It has become an obsession, an addiction I refuse to allow to be treated. The only world I know is one that has been written. And therein lies its extreme nature.
(This is the first and only time I am going to reveal this fact. After this story, it is not going beyond the pages or screen you are presently reading.)
As I said, I grew up with a head filled with things I'd encountered on pages and would never see, visit, do, or make, but which in a sense I had, because I'd learned about them while reading. Even now, years later, I'm not certain if I've actually been to Egypt because I read The Great Pyramid Mystery in fifth grade. Plus, as I've "joked about" on another occasion, I live now in Maine and will never move anywhere else in the US, because around that time I read The Honest Dollar. Sorry for repeating myself, but my point here is that my devotion to words drove me over the edge. Is perhaps driving me over the edge as I tell this story.
By edge I mean the edge of the book, the border or boundary that defines the separation o f the physical object - the volume with glued or sewn-in signatures - and the world beyond it, my world, or my former world. So I was first welcomed into the pages, the thousands or millions of pages, and gradually the welcome became an embrace, a labyrinth, an intimacy far beyond that offered by any human I've ever met. I have slept surrounded, my privacy taken from me, and am totally all right with that. As I have devoured books, they in turn have devoured me. I recall a book titled Ruined by Reading, but think it didn't have as strong a case as I do. Plus, ruined isn't the term I'd use; I'd say seduced, transformed, turned inside out, confused by reading, and that makes me feel ecstatic.
Reading saved my life. It is still saving my life. The days or weeks or months when I feel uncomfortable with how things are going, I drop down the well again (as Julia Cameron would say) and find words. I do write my own words nowadays, but I still respond to the come-hither gesture of a mystery novel, adore the nineteenth century (which I certainly never lived in), drool over a Gothic tale set in a medieval castle with a Romanesque church nearby), laugh with glee at the antics of the avant-garde writers from, say, 1900 to 1930.
I am nothing if not eclectic, which makes organization in my head and the spaces outside where I work, live, eat and sleep, a bit of a challenge. I don't want to do anything but read. Even when I was little, head in book meant four hours that only ended when my mother called, right in my ear: Supper! I lost track of time then and I lose it now. My world is not measured by chronological or real time; it is regulated by the time that I find in the poems of Mary Oliver and Emily Dickinson (to name just two, not the hundreds of others), the novels of Dashiell Hammett, Stephen Crane, and A.S. Byatt, in the essays of Alain Badiou and Jonathan Edwards.
I was Borges before I knew Borges existed, and if you don't know who the Argentinian writer was, his view of the world as a library-like labyrinth full of Ariadne's thread-words, please do check out his short stories. After him, you should read another Argentinian, Julio Cortázar, whose stories I have walked through so many times that the now wallpaper the rooms in my house.
Now I've just realized that I'm sliding toward an outgrowth or expansion or explosion of the early extreme hobby of reading. And it truly was a hobby at the beginning. Nobody gets paid to read, right? Except I felt that if I could just stay in school and get homework assignments, then I could disguise my lust for lexicon somewhat. (I'm reminding myself of a story by Claudio Rodríguez Fer about a she-wolf who looks like a woman but has a ferocious appetite for meat, so has a relationship with a butcher.)
My point is this: Spanish. It appeared when English began to feel like a straitjacket and Latin literature has not proven exciting (it probably was the teacher's fault, not the literature). It began as a hobby. I borrowed a Spanish book with no sound and crossed the threshold easily, without fear. Soon I was talking to myself and the walls, pronouncing things I'd never heard - kind of like with Latin - and making lists of words, grouping the vocabulary in categories like: spices, art terms, bodies of water, architecture, geography. I acquired a very big dictionary which still lives with me, and let the vortex envelop me.
I wasn't a little girl any more; nevertheless I was as helpless as one. I entered the forest and couldn't see it because I couldn't stop touching the trees, learning all their names in this new language, learning words like piedra, paisaje, agua, edificio, cielo, mar, gato... I was parched for lack of words, and found them in the Spanish of the Caribbean countries, in Latin America, and finally in Spain. The Never-Ending Story? That was and is my life.
And everything I read, which was a little history and a whole lot of literature, stole a part of me, depositing in its place a part of it. The result has been that I am not me, not the person you might see in a photo or run into downtown; I am what I've read and am reading. That's kind of like we are what we eat. I'm different. I'm extreme. I think it was Borges who wrote about the confusion of reader and writer, or maybe it was Cortázar, whose story about an axolotl is in me every time I visit an acquarium or see a gecko. The visitor to the zoo stares through the glass in a zoo at an axolotl that has a face like an Aztec mask, and we readers witness the confusion of the visitor with the amphibian.
I am an axolotl, just like the visitor in this story, which in Spanish is titled "Yo soy un axolotl." Don't worry: I'll spare you more examples of how my life events were often molded by my reading, which after a few years became pretty much limited to Spanish.
I was insatiable. My hobby was extreme. Did I know that in the beginning? I'm not sure, but even if I did, I didn't care. If there was a woman who lived in a shoe in the Mother Goose rhymes, then I could live in books. The more, the better.
Still on a quest to conceal my hobby-slash-obsession (I really enjoyed A.S. Byatt's novel of the same name), it was understandable that I used it as a mask. I was no longer my original, nondescript, low-class, low self esteem me when I used Spanish, a language with no relationship to me personally. It let me rethink myself. Let me hide. Helped me feel safe. Other words might have hurt, but Spanish ones didn’t. And it was exotic. In my 101 class in college I knew they spoke it in Puerto Rico. That’s all I knew.
Later, another language would do the same thing, but I’ll explain further on.
Fast-forwarding: I had to establish rules, which included: Go to parties only to practice Spanish. Speak no English while there. Read only in Spanish. Only have Spanish-speaking friends, even when they were jerks. This took a lot a manipulating activities and daily schedules, seeing as how I lived in New York State, but I pulled it off. I gave myself over to the love of my life, subjunctive and all, mood and tense of verbs and all, phonemes and morphemes, even more so. I would be forever faithful. I was also thinking of changing my name to Profe, as my students affectionately called me.
Yes, I stayed in school. I had no choice. We were one, words and I. Spanish ones, that is. Not my native ones.
Fast-forward again: I have been unfaithful to my one true love, to the only family I have left, but only partially. I have left Spanish for another. The language no longer rolls off my tongue like it used to, and when I stumble over it, I see it is because I have ventured further into the cave. I'm not sure if I could pinpoint the location of the cave, because there have been so many of them in the books I've read, including The Cave of Plato, which I ought to go back and peruse, but first want to finish this story. Further inside Spanish and also Portuguese, I came by accident to Galician. Resisting was hopeless. To understand what happened, just read the preceding paragraphs. Curiosity killed the cat.
I am also a cat, and can happily cite writers and words that possess this animal. T.S. Eliot, Colette, Hemingway, Pilar Pallarés, so many others have been fond of felines, inside and outside of their writing. Like William Blake with his "Tyger Tyger, burning bright, In the forests of the night; What immortal hand or eye, Could frame thy fearful symmetry?" What book frames me? Probably every last one of them, and if I didn't care before, I care even less now. I can just sail away to Egypt or Cyprus or Guam for almost nothing. Like Emily Dickinson so astutely observed: "There is no frigate like a book," and that's one of the reasons she and I have had long dialogues. (I have read her complete poetry about eight times, might read it eight more.)
Now I only have Galician-speaking friends, none of whom are jerks. (I learned from experience.)
The language thing is clearly no longer a hobby. It’s a matter of life until death.
Life defined as reading, as another language, as oxygen because without it there's suffocation.
Reality is something we can choose, and you know where mine is.
But I must hurry, because I am not going to have time to learn all I need of this post-Spanish language, galego.
Lingua de amor. Lingua amada, echoing the verses of the thirteenth-century troubador Mártin Códax: Ondas do mar levado, se vistes meu amado! [Oh, waves of the roiling sea, have you seen my love?]
Yes, Martín. I'm on my way.