In the summer of 1977 I traveled to Europe carrying a sketchpad. These were my last months of freedom before entering medical school, and I had doubts about whether I was making the right decision. My acceptance letter was hard-earned, but I rationalized the decision by telling myself that medicine is a noble profession and I could still make art on the side.
I wandered the streets of Paris, looking at art and soaking up the scenery along the Seine as I practiced the language learned grudgingly in my pre-med curriculum. I was sitting and sketching in a café on the Left Bank when a young man who looked my age took a table next to mine. He also had a sketchbook, but his was stuffed thicker with drawings and looked travel-worn. He also carried an easel and other art equipment. His skin unlike mine was dark and weathered, and spoke English with an accent. His name was Jacques and he told me this was one of seven languages he knew.
“I travel from city to city doing portraits,” he said. My interest heightened as I fantasized that this was the life I wanted. He told me story after story of his itinerant life in foreign lands making art and meeting beautiful women. I was enthralled, and deep inside I was regretting my decision to return to New Jersey to go to medical school. I started thinking of cancelling my return flight.
“What a life!” I exclaimed. “Aren’t you thrilled every day by living such a wonderful, romantic dream?”
My new friend made a sour face, scratched his head, then looked at me in astonishment. He was shocked at my innocent and idealistic question.
“Are you kidding?” he blurted, “work is work!”
I was startled by his response and settled back in my chair, my thoughts drifting toward the future. “Medicine is indeed a noble profession,” I thought, “and I could still make art on the side.” This was no longer a rationalization, but a life plan. I would support my life as an artist through a career as a physician.
Recently I was going through old sketchbooks and found the drawing I did that day as I sat at a café on the Left Bank of Paris. It shows a stylish couple on a date, walking in front of a subway station. I scanned and posted it above. It’s hard to believe that this drawing is 35 years old, but the moment it captures is powerful.
I loved the idea of being an artist, and felt that deep in my soul this was who I was. But I was terrified of failure and the very real financial risk that went with it. I grew up with too many horror stories of life in the Depression to risk that route. During my long career in medicine I’ve enjoyed the intellectual challenges and relationships with patients and colleagues, and still managed to make art on the side. Yet years after this sketch, I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had cancelled my return flight.
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