I remember being friends with Michael in my early elementary years — after all, we had a lot in common. We both liked Star Wars and each had a fair collection of action figures. We both liked the same cartoons on television. We shared a circle of friends. And we both had an interest in drawing and used it as best we could in an attempt to impress those friends. I remember visiting his house and hanging out with him on the playground at school. It seemed like any other childhood friendship. But it didn't last.
At some point things changed between us, and by the end of the third grade he seemed to have more interest in ending me than anything else. I don't know if it was jealousy or something I said, but I eventually found myself on the wrong side of some imaginary line, and over the years that followed never seemed to manage to cross back over. With our falling out, a rivalry quickly established itself. We both drew, and so naturally we each had to try and prove he was the better
It was during this rivalry that I came to see a major difference between us. While I drew incessantly, he was more of a casual artist. My efforts felt more like a grinding assault on a beachhead, his efforts seemed more akin to a precision bombing campaign. Just when you least expected it, he came swooping in to drop an art bomb in everyone's lap. What made it worse is that I never saw him drawing just to draw, as I often did. While I would practice drawing ninjas with dozens of false starts before committing to a more refined drawing on "good" paper, he would just belt out full scenes of ninjas clashing, fighting and diving with an eery ease and confidence that was extremely frustrating to me.
As far as natural talent went, Michael had it in spades. Though gifted with a decent helping myself, truthfully we were in entirely different leagues. He was the kind of kid who could see things in his head and just bring them to the page. There were no fits and starts. No warmups. No sketchy marks. He simply put his pencil down and made it happen. This was something I simply was not capable of, and to be perfectly blunt, I kind of hated Michael for it. I hated his abilities, I hated how difficult things were for me in comparison, and the frustration that built in me brought on the first doubt I ever recall feeling regarding art.
At this point my Mom, in an attempt to slam home some perspective, said among the more sage things she ever did during my childhood:
"No matter how good you are," she said, "there's always someone out there who's better than you."
This is kind of an Earth-shattering concept to a seven year old. At least it was to me. The frankness was the mental equivalent of ripping a band-aid off. Seriously, these words blew open my perspective on my own skills and life in general. In fact, I can still remember where I was when she said those words to me, and I remember walking next to her in silence as I pondered all that I knew in its new context. I remember it was Spring, and I can still see the way the morning light touched upon the grass and the yellow-green of each blade's translucency. I even remember the pollen-heavy smell. It was a strange and wonderful moment in my early life. And while I can't say I know whether or not the sentiment was age appropriate (I can't say as my Mom has ever been age appropriate), it was a lesson I was bound to learn at some point.
Now, there are two ways I could have reacted to my Mom's words, as I see it. I could have been happy that there was someone better than Michael at drawing, confident that one day Michael would would meet this person and feel as I did. Or, I could have just come to terms with the fact that some folks are better at things, some are worse, and such is life. Looking back, I reacted both ways. While the idea of Michael getting his comeuppance was certainly where my brain went first, it eventually settled upon the fact that life just works that way and that worrying too much about it wasn't going to change things.
Starting with the fourth grade, I was transferred to a different school and didn't see Michael for three whole years. During this time, I managed to gain a bit of notoriety for my artistic pursuits and even began taking art classes after school. But, when I ran into him again in seventh grade, I was reminded again of just how much raw talent he had.
Sure, I'd gotten better, but he still had insane skills that eclipsed my own in many ways. Curiously, I found that it didn't bother me so much, anymore. By then, I wasn't just drawing ninjas. I was drawig from life. I was also painting and sculpting. I was trying all kinds of different things and pushing the boundaries of what talent I had. I didn't have time to worry about Michael, nor did I have the inclination to. We were different people on different paths. I needed only to worry about my own.
Nowadays, I know a lot of folks who are better than me, some of whom I'd even call friends. The jealousy I used to feel for such things has been replaced by awe. The frustration has been replaced by excitement. Rather than be irritated, I take what knowledge I can from these folks their work and apply it to my own. At least I try to, anyway. Turns out there are people out there better at doing that than I am, as well.
So, whatever happened to Michael? That's a really good question. When I reached the ninth grade, I started going to a different school in a completely different state and I don't recall seeing him much after that. I don't know if he ever pursued the arts. Heck — I don't even know whether it even interested him. His part in our rivalry may have been more out of spite than interest. Still, herever he is, I hope he still doodles from time to time. I hope he's out there secretly creating masterpieces that make what I've been doing look like amateur hour. I hate to think that such talent is never used, and that so much potential has been scuttled.