Sunday, August 28, 2011

Having a creative outlet outside of academia

Yes, when I get stressed, I basically
turn into Tweak from Southpark.
One of the things I think is incredibly important for making it through grad school (and hopefully through the tenure track) is to have a creative outlet that doesn't involve academia.  These outlets let you get away (even temporarily) from thinking about classes, about the dissertation, about teaching, about publications, about the job market, and all of those other things that caused my eyelid to twitch from thinking about them too much. (Seriously, the eyelid twitch is God's way of saying "Look, you've got to calm down before I give you a stroke.")

When I was in grad school I had a number of different hobbies, some short-lived, some not, that let me escape from the grad school, homework (when I still had classes), research, and academia in general.  Due to my self-diagnosed hobby A.D.D., the assortment of things I used as creative outlets and general stress relievers was pretty varied. Here's a list of three things I did (and may still do from time to time), along with the reasons I found them to be enjoyable, and things to consider if you wanted to take any of these up in the future.

This is why I hate swimming.
Thanks Speilberg.
1. Kayaking
My wife and I took up kayaking after her parents took us kayaking a couple times during a summer visit. While I am not a strong swimmer, and generally am terrified of swimming in natural bodies of water (holla back if you saw Jaws as a six year old as well!), I found I actually enjoyed floating on top of the water, and being able to easily control where the kayak went.

The best part of kayaking, I think, is being forced to go out into nature and actually do something.  Kayaking gets you out of the house, let's you see and explore the natural surroundings in your area, and is very relaxing. Note that I am not talking about whitewater kayaking, which requires a helmet, fast moving water, an updated will, and the ability to not freak the f*ck out when you flip over and are strapped into your death trap of a boat. I don't think I would find that relaxing, and since I'm allergic to drowning, I don't think I'll be trying it anytime soon. Rather, I'm talking about kayaking on slow moving rivers and calm lakes.

Yeah... not this kind of kayaking...
The worst thing about kayaking is it's very weather dependent, and in the northeast that means about six months of the year it is too cold (or frozen) to go, and is also a no go when it's raining.  The startup costs are also one of the downsides, at least initially.

Kayaking has pretty high startup costs, especially if you want to buy your equipment and not rent it every time from someplace like L.L. Bean (which gets expensive quickly anyway).  A good entry level kayak will start at about $250, and you'll need a paddle ($50), a life vest ($25+), a carrier of some type for your vehicle ($50-$200), associated straps and ropes ($25), and things like dry bags ($10-$30) and other accessories.  It will probably cost at least $500 to get into kayaking (per person, if you go in as a couple like my wife and I did).  The nice thing is once you've bought your stuff, the actual kayaking trips will be virtually free, minus gas to drive places and maybe admission to state parks.

2. Iaido
My friend Matt convinced me during my first year in the Ph.D. program to join him for an iaido class. His sales pitch was basically "Do you like swords? You get to swing them around in Iaido."  Since I do, in fact, like swords, and wanted to swing them around without someone calling the po-po, I decided to give it a try.

Thanks to Iaido, I can theoretically
defend myself in this situation.
Very useful on the college campus.
Iaido means 'the art of the sword,' and involves learning the appropriate techniques for drawing a samurai sword (an iaito), making clear and precise cuts against imagined opponents, while portraying a level of zanshin (roughly a conciousness and energy), for certain scenarios (kata).  These scenarios stemmed from various attacks that a samurai may have encountered and had to defend against in his daily life in Japan during the Edo (and similar) period.  It does not involve attacking actual people.  For that, look into kendo, which uses body armor (bogu) and bamboo 'swords' (shinai).  Kendo also comes with a lot more bruises than Iaido, so keep that in mind.

Iaido is like this, but with
more 'wooshing' sounds
The best part of Iaido, in my opinion, is that it's very easy to let non-Iaido things slip out of your mind when you're doing the kata.  You have to have a LOT of focus to do the moves correctly, as it's not just where you swing the sword, but how you swing it, your stance, your 'energy,' etc.  It's also a decent low impact workout, and the people who do it are generally interesting people who are fun to hang out with.

The worst part is probably that it requires constant training if you want to be any good at it.  It's not really something you can pick up for the month, put down for six months, and pick back up for a month.  Like any martial art, to learn Iaido you likely need to find a school to join (run by a sensei), attend regularly, pay school dues, and practice outside of class.

Iaido has low initial startup costs, as you can practice in gym clothes (no shoes) and use a wooden sword called a bokken ($15?).  Many schools will let you practice with these for the first few classes until you decide that Iaido is something you want to continue to pursue.  When you get more into it, you can spring for the metal iaito sword ($100 - $1000+), and the samurai clothing (a gi and a hakama, $100+ for both).  The main expense from week to week will be the class fees, which could be free (unlikely), or could be  more than $50/week.  Finding an instructor may also be a challenge depending on where you live.

3. Home-Brewing Beer 
So let me say up front that I don't drink a lot of beer.  I drink beer, I just don't drink a lot of beer.  This, apparently, is not a good trait for being a home brewer, as you will quickly end up with hundreds of bottles (literally) of beer that you won't be able to possibly drink yourself, and with friends who are tired of drinking your homebrew beer.  That said, I attended a party where someone brought some homebrew beer, and I was intrigued.  It seemed like an interesting hobby where you could get creative and tweak recipes to brew what you liked.  When I got the opportunity some time later to purchase my own homebrew kit, I dove in.

It's best not to think
about what this looks
like and just appreciate
the finished product...
Homebrewing is a fairly simple process, but involves a lot of steps that are all equally important to getting a tasty (or at least drinkable) resulting beer.  The process starts by making what is essentially a hot soup of sugary liquid (whether extracting it from grain yourself, or buying pre-made sugar extract), bringing it to a boil with a lot of water, adding specialty grains to give flavor and color to the mixture, throwing in hops at certain times during the boil to give bitterness, taste, and aroma, cooling the mixture down, adding specialty yeast, and putting everything in a large glass bottle (carboy) or plastic bucket to sit for a few weeks while the yeast turns the sugary liquid (called wort) into beer.

The best part of homebrewing I think is the ability to customize your recipes to what suits your tastes.  For example, I'm a fan of big malty beers, so I tweak recipes for barleywines, porters, and stouts.  Other homebrewers love hops, and so they focus on brewing beers like IPAs.  Thus, you can make what you like, and in fairly large quantities, for about the same cost as buying beer in the store.  This gives you a creative outlet to make, tweak, and try out different recipes, and you have a tangible product at the end of it (albeit about a month later) that you can hold in your hand and say "I made this!"

The worst part of homebrewing, probably, is that you don't actually 'save' any money by homebrewing.  For instance, a good recipe for a high alcohol beer might cost upwards of $50 in ingredients, and produce about 4 cases (48 bottles) of beer, for a cost of a little over $1 per bottle.  That's not that much less than buying decent microbrew ($8/6 pack?) and is a lot more expensive than buying a 30 pack of cheaper beer.  Actually, if you want to brew a basic America Lager (think Budweiser or Coors), you're going to end up spending significantly more money than if you had simply bought the same type of beer in the store.  It also takes a lot of patience to brew the wort (5+ hours?), and then wait for the beer to ferment in the carboy or bucket (2-3+ weeks).  So if you're one of those 'immediate gratification' people... well.. you probably shouldn't be in a Ph.D. program for one, but you also will probably find it hard to homebrew, for two.

"After I had to mortgage my house to afford
all of my homebrew equipment, my wife left
me and took the kids.  BEST DAY EVER!"
Homebrewing has moderate startup costs, as you can get a startup 'kit' for around $100 (or more, depending on how fancy you want to make it).  The kit will come with a couple brewing buckets, hoses and other tools, and a basic ingredient kit (you supply a large pot).  You can also buy ingredient kits for a basic low alcohol beer for around $30-$40, more if you want something like a Barleywine, Stout, or Porter.  You can also customize your homebrew setup with larger brew pots, more carboys or buckets, higher quality tools, etc., so you can quickly drop a LOT of money into homebrewing if you're not careful.  If you stick with the basic setup, then you can figure somewhere between $30 and $60 per 5 gallon (~48 bottle) batch of beer.

"My 'hobby' is academic research... as well as
heart attacks... lots and lots of heart attacks."
In conlusion: There are plenty of other hobbies out there that range from costing almost nothing (e.g., hiking, volunteering, blogging), to being very expensive (e.g., collecting antiques, skydiving); that range from being relatively quick (swimming, working out) to relatively slow (knitting, reading).  The trick is to find something that interests you, fits in your budget (both in terms of time and money), and gives you a way to get away from academia, if only for a little while.  Having a non-academic-related hobby will help keep you sane, make you well-rounded, and give you perspective.  I highly recommend everyone taking up something of interest to them that is outside of the academic world.
Picture Credits: Tweak Jaws Kayaking Iaido_1 Iaido_2 Carboy Beer_Dad Professor_Heart_Attack

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