There Is a Very Fine Line Between Hobby and Mental Illness*

December 23, 2009

You are what you collect. • C. Wayne Owens

I am easily amused. It makes me happy to get a new rubber alligator. I’ve been collecting them since I was a little girl and my grandparents brought me two from Florida. I still have those two, but now I have several hundred more lurking all over the house and office. It’s surprising how many different kinds of rubber reptiles there are. I have wooden ones and plastic ones and metal ones and other non-rubber ones, but those made from rubber are my favorites—they’re usually the cheapest too, and for years, I’ve been able to find them among the toys at thrift stores. This collection makes me smile when I spot the critters grinning out at me from unexpected places.

I am not picky. I don’t mind if I get a crocodile or an alligator since I have a hard time remembering which is which anyway. I know that one has a long, narrow V-shaped snout while the other’s snout is shorter, wider, and U-shaped. I’m pretty sure that it’s the croc that has the long snout and the gator that sports the shorter one. When I’m pressed to tell someone the difference, I figure it out by thinking about the long-nosed crocodile in Peter Pan (who looks a lot like the one in the new Disney movie, The Princess and the Frog). I remember that the PP reptile is a crocodile because its name, Tick-Tock, rhymes with croc and because of the song from the movie, “Never Smile at a Crocodile” and its title’s internal rhyme.

Memory is a funny thing and there are certain bits of information that remain elusive no matter how hard we try to remember them. This can be especially frustrating when you’re in school. Sometimes things are easy to learn and other times we need to create brain Velcro® so that stuff will stick. These shortcuts to recall require deliberate creative attention since what works to nudge the memory of one person won’t necessarily work for another. For example, I have a friend who never learned when Columbus sailed the ocean blue because she always remembers the couplet being about when he sailed the deep blue sea; any year she comes up with always ends in a three to rhyme with sea. I remember how to spell necessary, a personal spelling bugaboo, because the c comes first in the word and in the alphabet and there’s only one. The s comes second, so there are two.

But that’s not really what I intended to write about. I got sidetracked by the strange little jog my memory took when I was determined not to Google® alligators and crocodiles to find out the difference because I knew I already had something in my brain to retrieve. Still, I had to put the facts there. And that’s one of the secrets of learning information crucial to you. You have to deliberately put it there, finding associations and other memory devices that you can access under pressure.

But back to the reason for the alligator/crocodile focus. I bought a book last week called Magnificent Obsessions: Twenty Remarkable Collectors in Pursuit of Their Dreams. I found Mitch Tuchman’s (1994) exploration in the used book section of an art bookstore and it’s great fun. The collectors in the book talk about the relaxation their hobby/avocation/vocation brings them and the joy it gives them to find new objects. Mark Wiskow, a collector of aquarium furniture (the decorative figures that give fish a place to hide), is also a dealer in stuff, and he says:

“We shop for a living, and like anything you do every day, it can get to be a drag. We may go out one day and find something perfectly good in a Lalique bowl for cheap. We’re going to make a lot of money on it, but it doesn’t thrill me. It’s work. It’s my job. But the same day I may find a really cool diver for $1.50, and it gives me a lift. I like to collect stuff that’s cheap and that amuses me. Do I have it? Is it cute? Is it cheap? Those are my criteria” (p. 121).

I am a collector, but most of my collecting is driven by serendipity. Like Tuchman, I ask if it’s cheap and if it amuses me. There are very few things I collect obsessively, except, perhaps alligators and crocodiles, although even they must be cheap and different from the ones I already have. Sadly, what used to be an easy find is disappearing. The crocogator has been overtaken by the rise of multi-varieties of lizard, and what was once everywhere–crocs and gators–even in bags of ten or twelve at the dollar store, is increasingly elusive to hunt down, making it an even greater joy when I spot one.

What does this have to do with student success? Everyone needs cheap thrills and diversions whether it’s a favorite television show, sports, music, cooking, camping, running, making art, writing poetry, or going on the hunt for a new addition to a collection. A relaxed mind will return more easily to the rigors of school and to the training of memory.

Do you collect something? Is there something you’d like to collect, but can’t because of time, money, space, etc.? Do you have a collection you’re sorry you started? What could you collect that would make you smile every time you looked at it?

You can’t have everything; where would you put it?
• Mark Twain

I heard of a little old lady who kept everything. People commented that she hadn’t thrown away a thing in fifty years. Her only redeeming feature was that she did save things in an orderly way. After her death, a little envelope was found in her home marked: “Pieces of string too little to do anything with.”
• Daryl V. Hoole (1967),
The Art of Homemaking, p. 41

* from Dave Barry, “Things That It Took Me 50 Years to Learn”


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