"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.