On the train a while ago I overhead some people talking about Heston (the celebrity chef). Apparently he had been doing a series on giant food. It involves him trying to figure out the physics and logistics of trying to produce food on a giant scale — for example, a three-metre tall soft-serve ice-cream cone.
After describing all the care and effort Heston took to produce this giant ice-cream, the first person declared, “He’s very clever.” Her friend’s response was, “He has too much time on his hands.”
Clearly this person could easily do a better job than Heston if she wanted to, but she chooses not to because she has so many more important things to do with her time. Apparently Heston’s not clever, he’s just idle.
I had a strong desire to lean over and ask her if JK Rowling had too much time on her hands, or if Stephen Spielberg had too much time on his hands, or Michaelangelo had too much time on his hands. If you think about it, what they did was more or less for their own enjoyment too and wasn’t “important” either.
Of course, it wasn’t Heston I was really indignant about. The statement brought up several unpleasant memories when people have said this to my face when they have seen me making models of fractals, crocheting hyperbolic coral, drawing digits of pi on the pavement or solving puzzles, or even just doing maths in my own time. They seemed to feel that they needed to make those things seem trivial.
Perhaps they felt cheated that they don’t spend more time doing things they actually enjoy. Perhaps they felt like I was making them look stupid and they needed to make me feel bad for it. Or perhaps they are just grumps who are unable to share in others’ fun.
Now that my indignation has faded a little, I feel sorry for them. I remember what it was like to be in a situation where I felt it was somehow wrong to choose to do things I enjoyed, and it wasn’t a pleasant place to be. It can colour your view of the world and frankly it does make it difficult to enjoy other people’s fun.
Still, it’s no real excuse for making people feel bad about things they have spent a lot of time acheiving. Sure, they may have a lot of time on their hands, but at least they are using it well!