Wednesday, September 17, 2008

here's the catch...

he floor of my son's room is an almost comical testament to the life of a typical nine year old boy. A baseball glove. Drumsticks. A Game Boy. Stuffed animals. His stash of coins. A week's worth of clothes. A Captain Underpants book. A book on scientists. Gizmos made of disassembled old toys. A SpongeBob chair. Stacks of his drawings, next to a toolbox filled with crayons and markers.

Two of those things stand out, for not so obvious reasons; the baseball glove and the toolbox of crayons and markers. He's very good at throwing a ball, and he's very good at creative thinking and drawing. Yet those two things also represent opposite extremes of social behavior: team sports, and solitary expression of self.

One of my jobs as father is to figure out where he's going to go in life, and help him sort things out and get there. Those symbols of wide-ranging boyhood interests littering his room will slowly get whittled down, in some cases replaced by other things, but eventually he'll choose from among them and become the man he's going to be.

Once, I had a similar collection of stuff as I went through a similar voyage of self discovery. Today, I still have my baseball glove — well-worn and containing years of memories snagged out of mid-air — but for years now, it's been catching nothing but dust. It's a metaphor for the path I chose; a path that led not to teamwork, but to the relatively solitary life of a freelance illustrator.

Illustration is a career that results in — if not calls for — solitude. Not that I'm a loner — before my freelance career, I worked in graphics departments and loved the camaraderie and close friendships I made. But I never liked collaborating. In some ways, I guess I disliked the word TEAM because there was no "I" in it. That missing "I" is not a pronoun. Rather, it stands for individualism. 

That individualism came from somewhere, likely in the genes as much as something instilled, perhaps unintentionally, by my parents. As a kid, I was more interested in things like electronics kits and chemistry sets and model rockets than getting pounded into the turf in Pee Wee football. Despite the occasional smoke filled basement from an ad-libbed chemistry experiment gone awry, my folks seemed to encourage my more cerebral pursuits, and they never pushed me into team sports — in fact, it was never even suggested.

Looking back, I've often lamented that decision by my parents — I loved playing pickup baseball games as a kid, and later ran track in high school — but at the same time, I wonder if it unwittingly led me into the arts, something for which I'm profoundly grateful. I found my own interests, and gravitated toward art — mostly, photography; decidedly individualistic, solitary, and not a team sport. By my teens, I had decided individualism was something to strive for, perhaps as much a desire to create something unique in life as a dread of individualism’s counterpart, a meaningless march through time as a busybody.

Some of the benefits often cited by those who encourage youth sports are cooperating with others, working with others toward a common goal, and working with people you don't like or respect. [1] [2] But in many ways, these attributes run counter to the individualism and introspection that tend to spark creativity and the unique point of view that defines successful illustrators. In art, groupthink can lead to compromise, and compromise doesn't generally lead to memorable art.

In steering clear (or being steered clear) of team sports, I went in the opposite direction, becoming a bit of a "loner," although I'd point out that, contrary to popular belief, not all loners are creepy lurkers with a pathological fear of social contact. As Jonathan Cheek, a psychologist at Wellesley College points out, "Some people simply have a low need for affiliation. There's a big difference between the loner-by-preference and the enforced loner." [3] 

I simply had a preference, at times, to travel through my own interior universe. And when I'm creating, I invariably withdraw into that interior universe, where all the good ideas are. It's part of the process. That’s not just a hunch; research by psychotherapist Elaine Aron shows that withdrawn people typically have very high sensory acuity. Because they are good at noticing subtleties that other people miss, Aron says, they are well-suited for careers that require close observation, like writing and scientific research. [3] And, I'd suggest, illustration. 

So maybe my parents did me a favor, encouraging my more solitary hobbies and never mentioning sports.

I hadn't given this a lot of thought prior to that night I found myself sitting on my son's bed, tucking him in and musing over the choatic montage of his life he'd strewn about his room. Now, as I look back at the road I took — the very road my 9 year old son is now navigating — I wonder how, or if, things might have been different if I'd been introduced to Pee Wee football or Little League baseball when I was his age. Would I have been drawn to team sports, and more broadly, teamwork? And conversely, did my complete lack of exposure to team sports lead to my embracing a life of relative solitude?

There's no way to know where the roads not taken might have led. I took the road that I took, with another's hand on the wheel for the early part of the trip, and become the person I am. And now I wonder who will my son become? How firmly do I grab the wheel, and when do I let go? He likes to draw. He likes to play ball. When I ask him if he wants to play organized sports, he's ambivalent — he could go either way, he says, and leaves it up to me. But as I draw on my own experience, I realize there may be more significance to that decision than meets the eye.

[1]  [2]  [3]

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