Musings + Essays

The Additive Power of Avocations.

By: Jen Shoop

My father has always loved harness racing and has owned or partially owned many racing horses over the past several decades of his life. When we were little, he would take us to visit the horses at their farms and, on occasion, to watch them compete at the racetrack. The latter excursions were always indulgences for my siblings and I, as we’d be up well past our bedtimes, treated to any imaginable snack or confection we could possibly want, sitting in a box while my Dad — usually cool as a cucumber — went wild, smacking a rolled-up program on the railing and yelling, “C’mon, c’mon!” When things would get close in the last quarter mile, he’d usually rock back on his feet with his hand over his mouth, watching in tense silence, and on more than one occasion, I noticed that all my siblings and I would be staring at him in anxious anticipation rather than at the horses coming around the final bend. If his horse won, we’d go out on the track with my father to be photographed alongside the steed, enormous floodlights in our eyes, which were already as wide as saucers.

The entire thing was an alternity: a garishly-lit other-world that was at once magical and slightly seedy and in any case wholly distinct from the safe, clean, disciplined cocoon in which I lived at home, where my mother would routinely and firmly declare: “The kitchen is closed” if she found one of us rooting around in the snack cabinet after dinner.

I have long marveled over the seeming asymmetry of this pastime of my father’s with the rest of his interests. A fisherman, a devout Catholic, a daily runner, an avid golfer, a lawyer, a philanthropist, a prodigious reader, an investor, a hobbyist woodworker — and, at the end of all that, also a harness racing enthusiast.

I have come to admire the breadth of his interests, this last one easily the most far-flung. I think at least part of his genius must be the carryover of lessons and strategies across the range of his varied avocations. I am sure that golf and fishing cultivated a proclivity toward patience, for example, and a mounting comfort with “the long game,” something I would imagine helpful in pursuits like investing and philanthropy. Did harness racing help with risk assessment? Did those lessons run against or reify his experiences in practicing law?

As I get older, I am often surprised by the applicability of takeaways from other periods in my life to my current situation. For example, I wrote not long ago about the fact that I find myself allergic to making decisions based on short-term discomfort. Instinct is powerful but I find myself now pitting it against the weight of my past experiences. This is the kind of risk-intolerance earned only after taking a few direct hits to the gut. So too in, for example, the small-stakes moments I’ve navigated with botched customer service interactions: I find myself instinctively applying negotiation tactics learned the awkward, hard way in my former professional lives. Dicta like: “Never make the first offer” and “Everything is negotiable” work startlingly well in this arena. (You would be surprised at what you can get by asking — or by stating that you are unhappy with the service received and waiting for appropriate restitution.)

But do we develop these principles only with age? Are they amplified by the extent or diversity of our experiences? I look at my Dad and think: how can a single person cultivate prowess in so many different categories? He must know so much because of it. And then I look at myself and see only that I enjoy reading and writing, dabble in cooking/baking, and occasionally fall in and out of love with running. Like so many of you without childcare, I am ultra-short on time right now, but I feel motivated to hitch myself to another pursuit. Could I train myself to develop a green thumb, for example? Learn to sew or smock? Take up tennis after all? Try my hand at painting or calligraphy? Or is all of this too forced, almost like I am stacking my resume?

I don’t know. And, for now, I find myself unable to think beyond the narrow straits in which I currently swim. But on the heels of turning 36, it feels like something to consider.

What do you think, Magpies? Who has turned toward a new gambit in recent months? How has it cross-pollinated other areas of your life?


+A few incredible artists I’ve discovered in the past few weeks: Marie Freudenberger, Tawny Chatmon, and Ronni Nicole. Hard not to look at their work and itch to do something creative.

+Another book to add to your tsundoku: Becoming Duchess Goldblatt, which is — intriguingly — anonymously authored?! Description: “Part memoir and part joyful romp through the fields of imagination, the story behind a beloved pseudonymous Twitter account reveals how a writer deep in grief rebuilt a life worth living.” More on what to read this summer here.

+The art of tsundoku.

+This $25 goblet-style vase is amazing!

+This adorable Reformation dress is on sale for under $100 for a limited time.

+Obsessed with this polished cobra bracelet. SO, so chic.

+Dreamy splurge bag.

+More on my dad’s love of flyfishing and running.

+Love these customizable letter necklaces.

+Such beautiful personalized stationery, and how cute are these personalized note pads for moms? (You can customize the children’s faces so they look like your own.)

+We played a lot of this easy game while away. Perfect, low-commitment, brain-candy kind of way to pass a quiet afternoon.

+I think this might be my new phone case. Love.

+In love with La Double J’s prints — especially this lemon one and this poppy one. But how amazing is this chic satin pouch?! I feel like it’s a bargain compared to the price tag on the brand’s other items. (Also love their tableware — how gorgeous are these dessert plates?!)

+Speaking of — this gorgeous dress of theirs is marked down from close to $800 to $266!!!

+Pretty, grandmillennial-vibe coverup.

+Fun frilled statement dress.

+Kule came out with a kids’ collection! This is such a fun tote and I’m currently eyeing this for Hill.

+Big sale happening at Cushnie. Her designs are so sophisticated and minimalist — what I imagine Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy would wear nowadays. Imagine these trousers…!

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16 thoughts on “The Additive Power of Avocations.

  1. I always love how you write about your family, Jen!

    Aaaah avocations… most days I feel like if I had the extra time, I’d sleep! That must sound so lazy 🙂 I remember in my 20s and early 30s when I seemed to have deep reserves of energy, I dabbled in so many things. I enjoyed making things with my hands — mostly baking (I attended classes for making croissants and French macarons for example), but also random things like making my own hand cream or candles… this all feels like a lifetime ago. There’s something about keeping hands busy — I had read something about the psychological and even neurological benefits of creating something with your hands.

    It reminds me of something someone told me after I shared that a friend of mine passed away a couple of months ago. She had asked what I do in my free time, and I responded with reading, because I felt that was the only thing I had energy for. She suggested creating something, just for fun, because while reading is great for many reasons, it’s a lot of “taking in”. In contrast, creating something with your hands is a more outward release, especially when there are emotions that need an outlet. Maybe I should “steal” my daughter’s paints sometime…

    1. Wow – interesting concept of “taking in” versus “outward release.” I feel like I do a lot of “taking in,” come to think of it. Motivation to lean into a new, constructive hobby. I completely agree with you on the benefit of keeping hands busy, too. Reminds me of my youngest sister, who is NEVER caught idle-handed, as she is constantly knitting. xx

  2. Like Deirdre above, I really want to try my hand at dollhouses! It’s so expensive, however, and I also think it would be a little bit of a “give a mouse a cookie” thing with me.

    I once read an essay in which the writer advocated for cultivating activities rather than hobbies. The outcome may be the same, but the shift in nomenclature releases you from the gravity of taking up a Hobby with a capital H. It was an interesting thesis – we can become paralyzed by the idea of doing a hobby correctly, with all the necessary trappings, and we often feel like we need to become an authority figure (or, at the very least, “good” at it), but activities can be discrete occurrences that don’t rely on sustained interest or skill. Not sure what my personal opinion is, but it is good food for thought!

    1. Annie, I love that thought on “activities” vs “hobbies” with a capital H — I feel like it emphasizes exploration, the process, the enjoyment, more than outcomes…much like how I view young children’s play. I think about how children are more likely to try new things and take risks simply for exploration. Calling them activities makes perfect sense!

  3. I was recently reflecting on this idea… I signed up my seven-year-old for online watercolor painting classes and then I had so much fun doing them with her that I think maybe I’m dabbling in watercolor painting myself? I’ve never considered myself particularly artistic (though I did go through an intense calligraphy phase in middle school–lol, bless my heart). But I’m having fun with it, and I’m proud of myself for modeling for my children two things I want them to value: creativity and trying new things!

    1. I love this!!! I’m sure that your interest in the watercolors is also sparking your daughter’s. Love love love.

  4. This post unexpectedly stopped me in my tracks, forcing me to think about my own parents and their hobbies, all easily identifiable. But when I think of my siblings and friends – my peers – as well as myself, I am hard pressed to find any true avocations among us. We are all in our early-mid 20s, (I just realized that at age 24 I can no longer claim I’m in my early 20s, cue quarter-life crisis 😉 ) responsible for no one but ourselves, with more time on our hands than ever before and yet I cannot think of a distinctive hobby for any of my friends (who I consider to be worldly, interesting, and thoughtful people!)

    I am a reader but I don’t consider that a hobby so much as a habit or form of entertainment/education. But a hobby? Something to do purely because it brings me joy? Hmmm. I will have to think on what I want this to be. Thank you for such a thought-provoking post!

    PS – Is there anything more jarring yet delightful than seeing a normally reserved or stoic father absolutely lose themselves in an activity or event? My dad would be that way at some of our high school/club sports and it was always amazing to see him get so riled up about something (never at us, always at the refs haha) as it seems your dad did for horse racing!

    1. Hi Molly – I’m in your boat, too. Very slight on the hobby front…I can’t even claim a sport/fitness regimen as my own. Time to get moving — this post was a kick in my seat, too! Thanks for sharing this – so interesting to think that this might be a partly generational thing. Maybe we consume so much more time with our screens and the floods of information so plentifully available now, or maybe we let our jobs take up so much more time than our parents did, or or or?? Not sure. Thanks for sharing this insight.

      And agree on seeing my dad in a more unwound moment — so startling!


  5. I consider collage one of my avocations, and though I’ve made collages for the better part of my life (since around age 11!) — I recently started focusing on it again. It brings me great peace and also expands my creativity while satiating the need to use my hands.

    I am also hesitant to put journaling in the category of an avocation, but I recently decided to re-start the practice of writing in my journal each day. Like you’ve said about yourself before, writing truly helps me know what I think. Although I’ve regularly kept journals since age 7, I’ve fallen off the journaling wagon over the past decade, only making entries every few months, if that — so it’s time to re-dedicate myself to this practice!


    1. Love this! I think anything that requires dedicated focus and involves reflection and improvement counts as a hobby! Love that you’re making time for both of these pastimes. xxx

  6. Thank you for linking the personalized notepads on Etsy. I bought one for my sister who has to go back to work from maternity leave this week and send her baby to daycare (sniff!) such a tough thing to do even in normal times. I hope the notepad will at least brighten her office a bit. xo.

    1. Oh man! I’m sure she’s overwhelmed by emotions. These are such confusing, uncertain times. What a sweet gesture for her!!

  7. HOW could you deprive your readers of the time you proposed the name “Bold Baby Girl” for one of his horses?! It’s easily in my top 5 JMS stories!

    1. OMG, Lew – you know me too well. I actually sat down to write about that story, and then got distracted by the broader topic of hobbies. I will have to write about that one soon, though. Haha!!

  8. Having a similar hankering, but also having little free time with two kiddos at home, I decided that I need an outlet and have decided to make this for my 3 year old daughter. I think that assembling and painting and decorating and finding teeny tiny furniture will be a nice mental change – even it takes me until her 4th birthday to make!–71700000032182435-58700003832328702-92700053356480656&gclid=CjwKCAjwjLD4BRAiEiwAg5NBFhiF46_5fUDLA76PMgd9Xp0MAZMwSzP7UI9LlsQuF02YfAcYkq3uARoCLtcQAvD_BwE&gclsrc=aw.ds

    1. Wow wow WOW! This is absolutely incredible!!! What a great idea and I love that it will yield something not only incredibly special for your daughter but also highly functional for you in the sense that hopefully it will afford her many hours of quiet play! LOVE!

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