"What do you do?" we ask one another, and what we really mean is: "What generates your weekly paycheck?" But no one is, or should be, completely defined by a job.
Yet the word hobby is unsatisfying, too. With its childlike and casual connotations, hobby cannot capture the passion some people bring to their avocations, as opposed to their vocations.
"In terms of leisure behavior, a lot of people want their leisure to 'count' as much as their work," says Jeff Godbey, a professor of leisure studies at Penn State University, who has co-authored "Time for Life" with John Robinson of the University of Maryland. "It may actually be an insult to call these activities hobbies."
Why does someone with a demanding job then use precious leisure hours on an equally demanding activity? The issue appears to be freedom: As long as one is choosing how to spend those hours, it doesn't feel like work.
"Time loses its relevance, you forget where you are, you get immersed, you become one with your activity," says Jesse Dixon, a professor in recreation, parks and tourism at San Diego State University. "There's a ritual, but determined by you, not by someone else."
With that criteria in mind, we went looking for Baltimoreans with demanding careers but who still find time to lavish on hobbies. Their alter egos are woodworker, gardener, Civil War historian, cultivator of orchids and potter.
Robert Hallett, headmaster at St. Paul's School
Entering the Hallett home in North Baltimore County, one steps across the threshold and onto one of Robert Hallett's handiworks, a small rug. From childhood on, the St. Paul's headmaster has loved working with his hands -- hooking rugs, knitting, painting.
But his real fervor is reserved for woodworking. Initially self-taught, in 1982 he took a sabbatical from Friends Central School in Philadelphia and apprenticed himself to craftsman Christopher Faulkner in England.
"It's really an avocation," Mr. Hallett says, before showing a visitor his shop and some of the things he has made over the
year. "If I could rechart my life, I would do this."
In his shop, on the second floor of an old barn on his property, one sees the first two things Mr. Faulkner instructed him to make: his own workbench and tool chest. Then Mr. Hallett started on furniture that Mr. Faulkner could sell, including a woman's writing desk and a cabinet, all known as "one-ofs," for one-of-a-kind.
"Because of that experience, I've become a snob," he says apologetically, showing the dovetailed joints of his tool chest. "I look for the same touches when we buy furniture now."
His responsibilities at St. Paul don't leave him with as much time as he would like for woodworking. So this school year, Mr. Hallett has found a way to incorporate his spare-time activity with his full-time job: He's now teaching a woodworking course to the school's eighth-graders.
He's also trying to carve out more time, if one will excuse the pun, to make things for himself. The Hallett "one-ofs" in his home include a cabinet with glass doors and a cherry wood clock. He recently purchased oak for a trellis he plans to build, and a slab of walnut in his shop is just waiting for the right project.
"For me, it's enormously energizing," he says. "I'm not the kind of person who can read a book on the beach. I relax by being productive. Woodworking has a beginning and end to it, and you can measure your progress by the finished product. I can't always say that at school."
Barbara W. Gould, chairman of the education department at Goucher College
The Goulds' home in Ruxton hides a wonderful secret. While the garden in front is traditional, with a velvety lawn and well-defined flower beds, the back yard is a bit of the Adirondacks in Baltimore County.
A passionate gardener, Mrs. Gould calls this woodland wonderland her "Forgiving Garden." For it understands and accepts that it might be neglected from time to time, depending on the vagaries of Mrs. Gould's schedule.
"I'm a busy person when I'm teaching," says Mrs. Gould, who as chairman of Goucher's education department normally carries a demanding schedule of teaching and administrative duties. "My garden has to forgive my foibles in attention."
By all appearances, the garden has forgiven her. Even on a rainy day in early spring, it is an enticing place straight from a Smith & Hawken catalog. The lot (almost 1 acre) spills down the hillside toward a small ravine, crisscrossed with paths that lead one to a wooden bench. And it is colorful for most of the year, starting with the February appearance of yellow witch hazel.
To the untrained eye, it looks like nature, only better. But it has taken hours of work to create and mulch this path, and to put in the various plants alongside it.
The garden began more than 10 years ago when Mrs. Gould hired Foxborough Nurseries to clear the sloping lot, then dense with trees, underbrush and poison ivy. It will never be truly finished, which is part of its charm for Mrs. Gould. There are always more plants to add or cultivate.
For example, she one day hopes to bank the path in daffodils, but knows that will take seasons and seasons of bulb planting.
"It's analogous to education," she says. "One is never 'educated,' one is always in process. I see things growing and continuing. [My garden] doesn't look wild. It's interesting, harmonious, tranquil. I get the same kind of energy from it that I get from being in the woods."
Once a year, she holds a picnic at her home, because she wants her students to see that she has an interest outside of work, something she considers vital for teachers.
"The garden produces a wonderful balance in my life," she says. "And I think I need the balance. I need both parts."
Ray Sprenkle, professor of music history and theory at Peabody Conservatory of Music
For years, Baltimoreans knew Ray Sprenkle as the thoughtful voice behind WJHU-FM's "On Music," a Sunday morning music appreciation show. Turns out this Peabody professor of music history and theory sometimes hears a different kind of music in his head -- the fife and drum corps of the Civil War era.
The Civil War has always attracted the interest of amateur scholars. Mr. Sprenkle came by his interest quite naturally, growing up in Waynesboro, Pa., not far from the Gettysburg battle site.
"I was just fascinated, who knows why?" he says. "There must be 20 million Civil War buffs."
His interest in the war is largely local, centering on the battles in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. And it does not extend to re-enactments, although he has an 1860 Springfield rifle, presented to him by his wife. Instead, Mr. Sprenkle's passion manifests itself in his library of more than 200 books and his visits to nearby battlefields. Friends sometimes ask for the Sprenkle special, a one-of-a-kind guided tour.
One might expect that, given his Pennsylvania roots, Mr. Sprenkle would be drawn most to Gettysburg. But his imagination is fired by the Battle of Antietam in Western Maryland, known as the single bloodiest day in the Civil War.
"Of all the episodes, Antietam is the most interesting to me," he says. "And Antietam is different. It's not commercialized."
He thinks of Antietam as the turning point in the war and hopes one day to rework a manuscript he wrote about the 1862 battle. Though there are more than 60,000 Civil War volumes in print by his estimate, he believes there's always room for one more.
"I think the Civil War is the most interesting period in American history. There were a lot of good people, fine human beings on both sides," he says. "I've often thought that we don't really connect to the Founding Fathers, but we do connect to Lincoln. He's the beginning of us."
N Mark Robbins, physics professor at Johns Hopkins University
In physics, Mark Robbins wrestles with the theoretical -- problems that can take anywhere from months to years to solve. One of his recent breakthroughs was an explanation of why glue adheres with more force than suggested by physical laws. It was dubbed the pop, crackle, snap, or Rice Krispie theory.
It's understandable, then, why Mr. Robbins lavishes his free time on a more tangible pursuit: growing orchids. He has more than 400 of the exotic blooms in his home, and even a row in his office at Bloomberg Hall, which may explain how one of his students caught the orchid bug as well.
"I do it in large part because it's a contrast to what I do and it's also a bit of challenge," he says. "It's very organic compared to theoretical physics, where I work with computers, pencil and paper."
He also is drawn to the huge variety of orchids. He says the orchid is one of the world's most developed plants and also one of the most numerous. "There's so much variety, just a zillion different types," he says enthusiastically.
He also says that despite orchids' hothouse reputation, some of the plants are easy to grow. But 400 is, he has decided, about the limit for one household. He's had to wean himself off the buying habit, which was hard. But he still has the monthly meetings of the Maryland Orchid Society to look forward to.
Dr. Joseph Sokal, psychiatrist
Not many doctors decide they need an outside interest in the middle of their internships, but Joseph Sokal thought it seemed like a good idea. Four and a half years ago, while in his internship at Franklin Square Hospital, he decided to start taking classes at Baltimore Clayworks in Mount Washington.
"I had always been interested in pottery and I was intrigued by the Clayworks," he says. "I wanted to cultivate something outside the medical field, maintain contact with my creative side.
"And it's fun to play in the dirt," he adds with a smile.
He signed up for a beginning class, with instruction in hand-building and wheel-work. Today, Dr. Sokal is one of the instructors at Baltimore Clayworks, teaching beginning wheel-work.
He wasn't a prodigy. His aptitude for pottery was "high average," he says, and, although he has sold a few pieces, he still considers himself an amateur. Teaching forces him to find words for technical aspects that are almost instinctual for him.
"Wheel-work is analogous to learning how to walk," he says. "There are 1,001 parts to it."
He remembers the first piece he made that pleased him, a cylindrical form with sections opening like petals. "I would not by any stretch say it was uniquely beautiful, but it showed me the fundamental possibilities."
Now he helps to show others those possibilities, even as he carries a 100-patient caseload as a staff psychiatrist at the Fayette Street Clinic, and performs emergency-room duty at Psychiatric Urgent Care and consultation work at Bon Secours Hospital.
"My work, while in some ways very rewarding, has a lot of grief, tragedy and horror, as well as certain kinds of difficult joys," he says. "In pottery, I find something soothing in beautiful forms, and aesthetic satisfaction. It gives me a respite from the real sadness I see people struggling with."
Pub Date: 5/16/96