Wednesday, April 06, 2005


Everyone should have at least one great passion in his or her life, an interest that fires the imagination and impels one to action. Some people find that passion in their work and toil happily away, some successful, some less so. Others find their Great Driving Force on the playing fields, where they pursue greatness through feats of endurance and skill. And others find it in the arts, creating great works of painting, sculpture, or music.

And then there are those with hobbies.

My father, the Eli of Elisson, tells the story of two men who meet in the park and strike up a friendship. A little conversation establishes that they are both retired, and that each of them has a hobby that he enjoys. One is a painter, working mostly in oils on canvas, sometimes in watercolors. The other is a sculptor, making little treasures out of marble and clay.

A third man comes along and the two new friends draw him into their conversation. He, too, is retired, and he, too, has a hobby.

“And what’s your hobby?”

“I can fart popular songs.”

“Whoa, that’s some hobby! Can you fart ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’?”

“Aw, come on, that’s kid stuff.”

“How about ‘Some Enchanted Evening’? You know, from The King and I?”


“OK, then. Can you fart ‘The William Tell Overture’?”

“Well, now, that’s a real piece of work. Whenever I get to the part that goes, ‘Pa da-dum pa da-dum pa da-dum dum DUM,’ I always shit my pants.”

So we see that (1) hobbies can be a comfort to old, retired guys, and (2) this stupid joke really has nothing to do with the point of this story.

Ah, you say. What is the point of this story?

The point is that with hobbies, as with any other area of Human Endeavor, people’s abilities and inclinations can be mapped out on a bell-shaped curve. On one end of the curve are the dilettantes, the people with minimal interest and/or ability. In the middle are most of us: people with reasonable capabilities who have a moderate amount of time to spend indulging our private interests.

And on the far side of that bell-shaped curve are the Serious Dudes. The Sensei. The ones who are totally immersed in whatever it is that they do. Experts. Mavens. Big Knockers.

These people are impressive…and also, a little scary.

During our visit to Foat Wuth this last few days, She Who Must Be Obeyed and I spent a little time visiting some old family friends. They’re an older couple with grown children, but Ardee, the husband, has himself a serious hobby. He is a Model Railroader.

But not a Model Railroader like most of us use or understand the term. Ardee is to Model Railroading what Da Vinci was to painting, what Michelangelo was to sculpture, Liberace to sequined garments, dead Elvis to the velvet business. He is the Gu frickin’ Ru. He is as far removed from us mortals with our chickenshit little Lionel layouts as the Andromeda Galaxy is from the bright blue-green marble of Earth.

Picture it: a model train layout so huge – about 8 feet by 35 feet in rough dimension – that it sits in its own building in the backyard. A building that is fixed up to look like a railroad field office.

Picture it: hundreds of feet of HO-gauge track, miles of wiring, incredible detail – a perfect recreation of an imaginary West Texas town of fifty years ago, complete with flying kites, billboards, hotels, whorehouses, rivers and canyons. Switches. Signals. Sound effects. A control panel worthy of the Starship Enterprise. And to keep it maintained and growing, a wall full of modeling tools. An army of Dremels, a platoon of X-Acto knives, sanders, paintbrushes, exotic and rare paints.

Nerd Heaven. Glory Hallelujah!

Ardee has been building his Railroad Magnum Opus for decades, sparing no expense. It will be passed down to his sons and grandsons, generation unto generation, the work of a Serious Man with a Serious Hobby.

Ardee: the exemplar of the man on the Far Side of the Bell-Shaped Curve, a land where few of us will ever tread.

So: how’s your piddling little stamp collection?

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