Too Much Spare Time?

“He has too much spare time.”

“You do that? You must have a lot of free time.”

“She must have a lot of time on her hands.”

These well known off-the-cuff remarks are often made about someone who has an “unusual” hobby or interest, especially if it’s of the geeky variety. Recreational hackers, Japanese animation aficionados, model car/train/airplane builders, the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism)/LARP(Live-Action Role Playing) crowds and anyone else whose interests fit somewhere in the Geek Hierarchy. These people catch a lot of flack for spending their free time on passions that don’t appeal to “most people”. I should know; if I had a dime for every time someone’s said that about me, I’d have enough metal to build and launch my very own Orbital Accordion Platform.

There’s a certain selectivity to the kind of interest that gets the “too much spare time” treatment. In our society, which has always viewed intellectualism as suspect (and even more so with the current political climate), hobbies of the mind get short shrift. Sports fans who paint themselves in their team’s colours or dress ridiculously, memorize every player’s stats and spend each Sunday blankly watching TV, belly full of snack food, brain clouded by Lowenbrau, are not categorized as having too much free time. The “I Shop Therefore I Am” crowd, in their vainglorious quests to purchase their way to the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy, don’t get smeared with the label either. In the wake of the shootings at Columbine schools across the States, instead of looking at the jocks-and-popular kids/geeks-and-outcast kids social dynamic, blindly clamped down on the “weird” kids, driving up the already inflated price of being different.

“Just an ambitionless DJ”

This kind of sniping is a pet peeve of mine, particularly because of one incident that took place when I was still in university. At a party, I’d mentioned to a friend of mine that my sister Eileen was coming to visit me. My friend remarked that she could not believe that we “came from the same place”. Eileen had the great academic history (despite being younger, she’d graduated before me), she’d landed at the U.N. in Vienna and New York, and was about to enter a Master’s program in Community Health. I was the perma-student with a checkered track record, too many silly extracurriculars, and in her words, “just an ambitionless DJ,” which was also the way she drunkenly introduced me to people at the party. Yes, Eileen’s accomplishments, while notable — I’m very proud of my little sister — but what I’ve done before and since is nothing to sneeze at either. I’m not going to hang my head in shame because some alcohol-impaired self-appointed personal scorekeeper of mine has decided that I’m not worthy and introduce me to complete strangers at a party as such.

When I confronted her about her remarks a few days after the party, she couldn’t recall ever having said such things and because of that, she couldn’t have really meant it. Bullshit. Drunk people say things they’ve thought beforehand; the fact that she couldn’t remember the incident is a combination of alcohol and the fact that what she thought of me was invisible yet all around her, like the air she breathed or the way you stop noticing the hum on an airplane’s engines after you’ve been in it for a while. This person is one of the lucky few to end up on my thankfully short shitlist.


My pal Cory Doctorow, pursuer of hobbies and passions even more obscure than mine, was written a wonderful rant on the truth behind the “that guy has too much spare time” in a posting he made yesterday on bOING bOING.

Bless you, Cory, and bless all you people with “too much spare time!”

“That guy has too much spare time” is one of the most odious, intellectually dishonest, dismissive things a person can say. It disguises a vicious ad-hominem attack as a lighthearted verbal shrug. The subtext of the remark is that the subject’s passions — this remark is almost always directed at someone engaged in some labor of love — are so meritless that their specific shortcomings don’t even warrant discussion. The subtext is that any sane person who considers these passions will immediately see their total worthlessness. To direct this remark at someone is to utterly dismiss their personal fire and so their ability to distinguish between the worthy and the unworthy.

It’s a substitute for thought. It’s a uncompromising line between art and junk, between personal enrichment and navel-gazing. Whether it’s directed at some model-train otaku who has reproduced, in miniature, a fantastic landscape that she brings to life with the flick of a switch or an obsessive collector of breakfast cereal packaging whose house is wallpapered with gaudy enticements to tooth-decay, the slur brooks no possibility that the speaker has failed to appreciate some valuable, fulfilling element of the subject’s hobby.

The essay is available in its entirety here.

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