Arcade games in a row.

I never had hobbies. Everything is all or nothing with me. Art isn’t a hobby. It’s my whole life. Riding my bike isn’t a hobby. It’s another way to enliven myself. Playing guitar is a spiritual quest. Being in the forest is a way to merge with heaven. And back in my twenties, carpentry was a job, a pleasant part-time income stream. So throughout my life, when the question of hobbies arose, I’ve always been at a loss. Nothing ever felt minor.

And then, after I finished art school, I found Ms. Pac-Man. My boyfriend took me to an arcade. This was way before everyone had apps in their pockets. The arcade felt like a watering hole without the water. It had a benign shadiness about it. We played a few rounds of pinball, and then we tried our hand at Ms. Pac-Man. We were quickly consumed by ghosts. And then my competitive urge reared its head. I wanted to win. I played a few extra rounds, and then we went home.

But I went back. And I got better.

I might even describe what I had as an innate skill. It wasn’t the sort of skill I would label as useful. I couldn’t even put my finger on how to categorize it, but there was no denying: I was good at this. I kept going back. I kept improving. I wondered about the point of it. What good did it do? What drew me? Did I have myself a hobby? I wasn’t producing beautiful artwork. I wasn’t working a paying job. I wasn’t exercising.

But then, I never made art for the finished product. I make art for the experience of making art. I take on jobs for more than the money. They have to feed my spirit in some way. And I ride my bike not to get exercise, but to have the feeling of flight. So what did it matter if Ms. Pac-Man did any good? I liked it.

When I played, I entered into an odd sort of calm. A zone. I’d chomp through lines of pellets, avoid ghosts, and eat the stylized fruit icons: cherries, strawberries, peaches. I got really good. The game gave me satisfaction, but I didn’t get prideful. I felt peaceful. It was like a meditation.

One day I went in and, as always, I strode past the teens at their game stations. I pumped my coins into Ms. Pac-Man and started to play. I felt an anchored spaciousness in me. My focus was sharp. No ghosts got me. Then I sensed someone watching me. A few people. A small crowd of teenage boys had formed around me. They watched my moves in silence. I played through every level of the game. Toward the end, one of the kids gasped, “She got to the banana!”

I felt a mixture of pride and absurdity. “What is this?” I thought. “The new jazz?” I wasn’t making beautiful music. This was not an achievement I would ever flaunt. But even so, I was pleased. I liked being accepted by these kids, being in the spirit of their world. I liked the unspoken camaraderie. I liked being a minor star for a moment.

I walked out into the afternoon light, contented and calm.

Photo by Steven Miller, used and adapted under CC.