Tuesday, January 24, 2006

So THAT's what's wrong

If there are men in your life you've noticed that something with them is just plain wrong. You've matured, but they don't seem to have done the same. This is a disease and it has nothing to do with their Y chromosome. The Evil One sent me the info. I think he's trying to tell me he has MHS

The American Male Hobby Syndrome (MHS)

(aka Boyz and Their Toyz)

by Robert Bean (a victim)

I have a theory regarding what I believe to be a common, but as yet not formally recognized social phenomenon. In the spirit of the times, this phenomenon needs to be identified and studied, so that its victims can recognize their affliction and take counteractive measures. Although I do not yet have anything more than limited empirical evidence, that evidence is compelling. I am convinced that a non-trivial subset of the American male population is prime breeding ground for what I will call the American Male Hobby Syndrome (MHS). You, or someone you love, is bound to be infected.

MHS progresses through 5 easily identified and relatively well defined stages during the course of the typical attack. But before it can attack, the syndrome needs fertile breeding ground. The necessary ingredients are:

1) A (chronologically) adult male. I am sure that a Y chromosome is not an absolute requirement, but as I look around me, I cannot deny the fact that most women of my acquaintance are relatively immune to this affliction. I don't know why this might be so, but in the large, it clearly is. Perhaps the answer lies in the perennial adolescence that many women think many men are stuck in.

2) Spare time. Busy men don't have time for such foolishness. MHS flourishes best in the idleness that is the devil's workshop. Men busy with school or families or jobs (or all three) have real lives. It's the man who is settled in a relatively comfortable job and family situation whose roving eye begins to wander.

3) Discretionary income. For reasons we will see in a minute, MHS strongly selects for those with a few bucks to waste, and always leaves the victim with fewer bucks still.

4) An addictive personality. Those that have an addictive personality know it, and are prime raw material.

5) A magnanimous Significant Other. When in full force, MHS will try the patience of Job; only saintly loved ones will permit the cycle to run its course.

Stage 1 is short and sweet - Initial Exposure and Infatuation. Somehow, somewhere, perhaps at the behest of a friend, you try whatever it is, and find out that it's quite entertaining. You think "hey, this could be cool...". So you try to find a way to do it a few more times, usually with some urgency (MHS is not a slow growing, simmering thing. It attacks quickly, hitting you between the eyes), and the activity continues to intrigue. You can see the potential; the activity excites and fascinates, but most of all is FUN. But you are frustrated by your inability to perform the basics of the activity, and the frustration leads to Step 2 - the decision to Learn How.

Stage 2, the Learning How phase, is marked by a deliberate attempt to learn the fundamentals of the task at hand. It usually involves instruction: it may be informal (hanging out with someone who knows how and who will teach you), but it can often involve formal instruction (Park and Recreation evening classes, or lessons at the local shop, or seminars, or open houses, or how-to books, or whatever). Stage 2 is often marked by seeking out a local club, attending a few meetings, perhaps even joining. You outfit yourself with a basic set of gear, usually at the low to middle end of the cost spectrum, following the recommendations of a salesman at the local shop who patiently (and condescendingly) tells you what you need and why. Since you don't know any better, you buy what he sells you (not top-of-the-line, but not bottom either), and put your new gear to the test. If you are lucky, the enjoyment will not fade, and with persistence, a minimal competence will come your way. You get to a point where you can recognize somebody who is really good at this, and you are frustrated because although you can mostly do it, you still don't do it all that well. Look out, because if you are still with it at this point, you are a prime candidate for the worst phase of all - the dreaded Stage 3 - the High Tech phase. And don't kid yourself - every hobby, no matter how simple it might otherwise appear, can be and is turned into an incredibly complicated high-tech endeavor by merchants and participants alike.

Stage 3, the High Tech phase, is the killer phase - it is the longest, the most expensive, and the most intense. Stage 3 is the total immersion stage where you become obsessed with the details of the hobby, convinced that the answer to your ever-frustrating under performance lies in the fact that you don't have the right equipment. All your spare time is spent studying, thinking about, talking about, and doing hobby-related activities. When you are not doing this, you are at the store exploring the latest gadgets, schmoozing with other Stage 3 victims. All your money goes into the latest gear ("If only I had gizmo X"), convinced that with that 7th pair of skis, or that 6th pistol, or that graphite set of golf clubs, you could shave .5 seconds off your slalom time, score that elusive bull seye, or lower your handicap by 2 strokes.

There are several telltale signs of Stage 3. The victim subscribes to several periodicals devoted to the hobby (and reads every word of every article in every issue, and all the advertisements to boot - how else are you supposed to follow the latest and greatest equipment developments?), and has several books devoted to the most arcane aspects of the endeavor. His talk is laced with technical jargon that only another Stage 3 aficionado can understand. His loved ones have long since been bored to tears and wishes he would get a real life. Our victim has multiple different sets of gear, each specialized for a specific micro-optimization ("one racket for rainy days, one for cold days, one for doubles matches, one for clay, one for grass" etc.). If the hobby is practiced away from home, the gear bag weighs as much as our intrepid hobbyist - he is never without everything he might possibly need. If a club was joined in Stage 2, it is often abandoned in Stage 3 - the other members just aren't intense enough (there is a reason for this which we will learn later, but our intrepid Stage 3 hobbyist does not know it yet). All other symptoms not withstanding, however, there are two absolutely undeniable, incontrovertible signs of Stage 3. The first is numbers - the Stage 3 hobbyist is always tallying things - success rates, scores, number of times he did "x". Our Stage 3'r measures success by the numbers, always striving to better them (because he still believes it matters). The second sign is the worst - the shopkeeper of the local shop that specializes in this hobby knows you by your first name. He does this not so much because he likes you but because he sees more of you than he sees of his own family.

Stage 3 is so long, so intense, and so expensive that most people burn out during this Stage. If burnout occurs, our hero drops the hobby rather quickly and moves on to other things. This happens so often that there are even stores here in town that specialize in reselling the used hobby equipment discarded by burned out Stage 3ites.

If by some miracle you survive Stage 3, you might actually pass on to Stage 4. Stage 4 is the Mastery Stage. Despite all the junk you acquired in Stage 3 (which is actually more impediment than help), diligence, practice, and perseverance makes you actually somewhat capable at your chosen avocation. You begin to shed the trappings of Stage 3. You let your periodical subscriptions expire (although you might keep one for nostalgic reasons, but you only skim it, rarely read it). Of your umpteen equipment outfits, you find that you have a favorite one or two that you use all the time. You have learned what times and places give the most enjoyment, and you arrange to indulge your hobby only when and where the doin' is good, rather than every time and place you can. The most important sign of Stage 4 is that the numbers stop. You stop counting and keeping score, because you no longer have to prove to yourself or anyone else that you can do this thing (whatever it is).

An important aspect of Stage 4 is that if it is going to happen, it will happen in spite of Stage 3, not because of Stage 3. It is a gradual thing that sneaks up on you. There is certainly nothing in Stage 3 that contributes to reaching Stage 4, save the fact that Stage 3'rs spend so much time doing the hobby that they can't help learning something despite themselves.

Stage 5 is the Doing It For The Sheer Joy of It stage. Transition to Stage 5 is marked by two events. The first is the time you spend a day doing the hobby activity, and afterward honestly can't remember how well you did (you didn't count and you didn't keep score). I don't mean "pretend" not to. I mean really can't remember because it didn't matter and you didn't pay that much attention. The second marking event is the day where conditions are perfect for a hobby session, but you decide you'll do something else instead because you'd rather do that something else today, and there will be other good days when you can do the hobby.

If you are ever lucky enough to reach Stage 5, you might actually have found a lifelong pleasure. Something you can do competently every now and then for the sheer joy of it, having fun in context. If your family is still with you by then, they might even encourage the occasional indulgence because of the obvious joy you get from it, and because you no longer bore them to tears with the details. At this stage, if you are social, you might gravitate back to the club you left in Stage 3. But now you understand why most of the club members were not intense enough for your Stage 3 tastes - they are mostly Stage 4 and 5'ers, and participate in the non-competitive manner symptomatic of the later stages. The club is as much about being social as it is about the hobby, and at this point that is just fine with you too.

So now you know.

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