Monday, September 15, 2008

Nature vs. Nurture: A Dad's Debate

By Michael Gibbs
An Illustrator and Dad

The 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. 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 analogously, 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.

See what Michael grew up to do:


Friday, September 5, 2008

The Power to Fight Cancer

BEFORE HE WAS diagnosed with brain cancer at age 31, Dr. David Servan-Schreiber could be found scarfing down a bowl of chili con carne on the elevator at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in between teaching classes and seeing patients.

"I'd sometimes add a bagel to the mix, and wash it all down with a can of Coke," admits Servan-Schreiber, the author of Anticancer: A New Way of Life, which hits bookstores in September. "It's a pretty scary mix to me now."

However, it took another bout with cancer seven years later, when he was 38, before the neuropsychiatrist could bring himself to slow down or change his habits. Although both times Servan-Schreiber—who co-founded the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, and was a founding member of Doctors Without Borders in the U. S.—fought his tumor with traditional methods such as chemotherapy, the second time around he also decided to learn everything he could to help his body defend itself against the illness.

"I felt then, as I feel know, that it is completely unreasonable to try to cure cancer without the best of conventional Western medicine," the French-born physician says. "But I also firmly believe that it is completely unreasonable to rely only on this purely technical approach and neglect the natural capacity of our bodies to protect
against tumors. We can take advantage of this natural protection to either prevent the disease or enhance the benefits of treatments.”

The reality is that cancer cells lie dormant in all of us, Servan-Schreiber explains. But with some simple changes, it is possible to keep those cells from becoming life-threatening tumors. "In the West, one person in four will die of cancer, but three in four will not," he says. "Their defense mechanisms will hold out. The trick is to keep the cells from developing into life-threatening tumors by turning on the body's cancer-fighting capacities."

He points out in his book—which is part personal account, part reader-friendly biology lesson—that some foods specifically prevent or inhibit cell growth by more than 80 percent in certain cancers, such as brain, colon, lung and prostate. These cancer-inhibiting foods include beets, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, garlic, kale, leeks and scallions.

Getting at least 20 to 30 minutes of exercise per day is also important, he adds, as is steering clear of household cleaning products that contain alkylphenols. He also advises avoiding deodorants and antiperspirants with aluminum, and not heating foods in plastic containers made with PVCS, polystyrene or Styrofoam.

He also recommends taking time every day to do a little yoga or tai chi—anything that will calm and center the body and mind. "It's all about being conscious of what you put into your body and what you surround yourself with—including friends who have a healthy outlook and work that makes you feel good," Servan-Schreiber believes, noting that stress is another thing to be mindful of. "Stress is something you can avoid, but how you deal with it is really the key," he says.

A typical day for him now includes 20 minutes of meditation upon rising, riding his bike around Pittsburgh—or Paris, his second home—and eating an apple with ginger and soy yogurt for breakfast. He also drinks green tea instead of coffee, has an 85-percent-cocoa dark chocolate treat in the afternoon and goes for a 20- to 30-minute jog at the end of the day to get his heart rate up and his thoughts together.

"I pay a lot of attention to what I dedicate my time to in my professional and in my personal life," he concludes. "It has taken some time, but I have learned to ride out more serenely the unavoidable stresses of life."

TO HELP STAVE OFF CANCER Dr. David Servan-Schreiber recommends taking the following steps.

• Percliloroethynene (tetracliloroethylene), is used in dry cleaning. It may be possible to find dry cleaners that don't use this. Air out dry-cleaned garments for several hours before wearing.
• Don't use cleaning products that contain alkylphenols.
• Don't use deodorants and antiperspirants with aluminum.
• Don't use cosmetics, shampoo, nail polish, etc., with estrogens or placental products, parabens or phthalates.
• Don't use household pesticides and insecticides.
• Don't heat foods or liquids in plastic containers made with PVCS, polystyrene or Styrofoam, and don't prepare food in scratched Teflon pans.

• Eat grass-fed organic meat, milk, cheese yogurt and eggs.
• Reduce intake of sugar, white flour and products containing omega-6 fatty acids (sunflower oil, soybean oil, margarines, hydrogenated fats).
• Increase omega-3 intake (fish, grass- or linseed-fed animal products).
• Increase intake of anticancer products (turmeric, green tea, soy, fruits, vegetables),
• Filter tap water using a carbon filter or inverse osmosis, or drink mineral or spring water.

• Perform 20 to 30 minutes of physical activity per day.
• Expose yourself to sunlight for 20 minutes each day (or take 1,000 IU of Vitamin D per day).
• Practice a method of relaxation and self-centering (yoga, meditation, or tai chi).

Hope Katz Gibbs originally wrote this article for the September 2008 issue of The Costco Connection. She is a freelance writer in northern Virginia, and has embraced the anticancer way of life—except for giving up coffee.