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Casting a Lifeline
Hobbies make you happier when you’re older. But you have to have one first.

Illustration by Jessica Rae Gordon

Like storybook lovers, hobbies and hobby enthusiasts find each other and carve out happily-ever-after time. The physics of spinning balls catch a man’s attention, and he pursues tennis. Knitting’s repetitive motions calm a person, and she is pulled into a world of tucks and purls. Woodworking sends out its invitation to tactile pleasures, solitude and solid accomplishments. Something valued is given its due.

Hobbies contribute more to happiness as we age, according to the June 2012 AARP survey “Beyond Happiness: Thriving.” Forty-two percent of adults 50 and older find happiness in hobbies, the report states, up from 36 percent of people ages 35-49. That leaves 58 percent of us baby boomers, including me, missing out on the joy that hobby enthusiasts savor. 

So I found it odd that I bought and thoroughly enjoyed Where the Trout Are All as Long as Your Leg, a book by John Gierach that chronicles a man’s fishing jaunts to virgin streams. I began to walk along waterways, talking with fishermen, our conversations seldom about fish, often about our children, the economy, personal philosophies. Finally, I bought my own rod and reel.

At age 53, I wanted a love affair, slow-paced and conducted in the open air. 

Milwaukeeans are slightly more likely than the average U.S. citizen to spend free time sailing, going to movies, jogging, entertaining at home, gambling, bicycling and saltwater fishing, according to the 2011 edition of SRDS’ The Lifestyle Market Analyst. We bowl and paint as much as the next guy, camp and garden a little less. 
The first time I fished alone was an August Saturday night. Leaving behind unpaid bills and a husband watching baseball, I walked a mile to Shorewood’s Hubbard Park, carrying only my baited Cabela’s Classic rod and reel. 

To enter this park, visitors pass through a pedestrian tunnel and are rewarded with tunnel vision. Behind: civilization, worries. Ahead: rolling green, white gulls. This evening, a sign hung on the tunnel’s entrance reads, “Happily ever after starts in the second cabin on the right.” A wedding and, judging from the phrase and jaunty lettering, a union of lovers in the spring green of life.

I don’t need research to tell me that, at 53, I’ve surpassed golden-green. But research insists. According to the AARP survey, I’ve hit the bottom of a long, U-shaped curve of well-being. It also asserts that Americans’ levels of happiness have sunk to a historic low, in part due to the economy. This rings true. Our household income has decreased (two state employees). Our expenses increased last year (son entered college) and again this year (tuition increased). 

Moreover, there is a deep sense of rearranging priorities. Two days prior, I attended a friend’s memorial service and can no longer pretend my own story won’t end similarly. 

But the tunnel has barred concerns over money and death from entering the park, so I stroll to the Milwaukee River and begin to cast, reel, cast, reel. Was that a fish? No, a snag. Cast, reel, cast, reel. The mind cannot hold more than one thought (why multitasking is a myth and texting while driving is dangerous). Cast, reel, cast, reel. I am thinking of nothing more when the line snaps and my fishing trip ends prematurely.

No matter. Catching fish was not my goal. I watch trees morph into inkblots against the thickening sky and listen to ducks sound hilariously clumsy – quack! splash! – as they land. 

It is dark when I arrive home to find my husband still watching the ballgame. Tomorrow, we’ll leave for Indiana to hold a memorial service for his mother. “Our everyday connections to family are too weak,” we’ve said this week. “Why didn’t we pursue higher-paying careers?” we’ve asked this week, and my stomach lurches when I consider that tuition bill.

I perch on the edge of the couch with my fishing pole. Tonight, I will tend to a snapped line – a simple problem, a simple solution. If this is what a hobby offers, I’m in.

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