I often ponder how I came to be doing what I do. Compared to some of my friends with “normal” jobs like teaching, lawyering, contracting, and banking, I think my work must seem exotic and unstable in equal measure. On the exotic side, I get to make things for a living and work with fascinating people; no two days are ever the same, and in terms of success, the sky is the limit, and that’s alluring. On the unstable side, if I don’t make anything, or don’t have any ideas, I basically have no job; every time I finish a day of work, I am effectively unemployed again. My schedule fluctuates so much that I rarely plan vacations, buy advance tickets, or fully commit to any family event until the last minute. I never know the provenance or ETA of my next paycheck.
I do know that my future was shaped, if not cemented, by the era in which I grew up, and the childhood experiences and hobbies that consumed me; and I always find it interesting to trace some of my current habits and processes back to these roots.
I grew up in a unique time in America, specifically, the 1970s and 1980s. I witnessed and took part in the rise of rock music, skateboarding and the personal computer. I got to chart the progress of the remote control, call waiting, the shoulder-strap seatbelt and the rise (and fall) of the answering machine. It was the era of mass divorce and the end of unlocked-door innocence and the pop-in visit. Back then, I was entertained by eccentric door-to-door salesmen, and men circling the block at sunset, shirtless, but still in their slacks, belt and work shoes, cooling off after dinner. I saw grisly car accidents and the proliferation of racquet clubs; and I surreptitiously enjoyed the golden age of porn, finding stacks of magazines in more than one of the garden sheds that I was privy to during my stint as a neighborhood gardener.
In my pre-Internet existence the public library played a giant role in the day-to-day gathering of information. I heard, “Go look it up in the a) dictionary, b) phone book, c) encyclopedia,” at least twice a week for my entire adolescence. I had a paper route, a Schwinn, and a wardrobe of Hang Ten and OP clothing. I observed (and helped hasten) the end of fireworks stands in my town. And I developed my “quiet voice” to talk on our corded rotary phone in the kitchen, trying in vain to have private conversations with my friends.
I could go on, but suffice to say that the world my kids are growing up in is as different from my childhood as mine was to my great-grandparents’, when horses were the main mode of transportation and televisions and airplanes hadn’t yet been invented. But what got me on this “Hey you kids, get off my lawn!” tear is the fact that I chalk a lot of my current artistic and entrepreneurial existence up to the necessity for innovation that fueled my daily childhood life. When I was about 10, I remember my friend Steve Elliot, who lived in the big corner house and always seemed to be having a better time than me, taking one of his many waterskiing trips. Waterskiing, a sports staple of the ’70s, seemed so exotic and out of reach considering my parents a) didn’t take vacations, b) didn’t own a boat, and c) avoided fun whenever possible. Of course I wanted to try it. I tied a jump rope to my bicycle seat and convinced my sister to pull me down the street while I stood on two skateboards. It was smooth skiing for the first lap around the block. Then she took a turn on the street skis, and it worked fine until I inadvertently steered her into a low brick wall and subsequently into the Chapman’s rose bushes. That was the end of that.
We also were never allowed to eat candy, so my sister and I solved that problem one hot July day by dressing up in our old Halloween costumes and going trick-or-treating. And yes, it worked like a charm. Who refuses two short kids standing at their door dressed up like Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf, holding paper sacks from Pic ‘N’ Save and yelling “Trick or treat!” We took in quite a haul that day.
Other innovations were more capitalistic in nature. I started a neighborhood yard care business that promised so much work for so little money on the flyer that for a summer I was cutting lawns and raking leaves for half the neighborhood until I realized I hated yard work more than just about anything. My sister and I sold subscriptions to a neighborhood newspaper that didn’t exist, and then realized we’d have to actually write it (that one still feels unnervingly familiar today). I created pet shows, haunted houses, carnivals, and in 1976, a giant recreation of the Olympics. My friends and I sold tickets to all of these events, and the whole neighborhood would show up. I also once tried to sell live mice door to door.
None of this seemed abnormal or eccentric at the time. We were just bored kids with a lot of time on our hands, and little parental supervision. No one was driving anyone to any play dates; if we wanted to get somewhere, we had to ride our bikes, which we tricked out with playing cards in the spokes and home-made racing numbers fashioned from paper plates taped to the handlebars. My parents’ supervisory approach, especially during the summer, was to lock us out of the house until the streetlights came on, and in retrospect, maybe that wasn’t all bad. There was a lot of time to dream up, plot and execute any number of brainless or brilliant schemes. The world seemed like a place where with the spark of an idea, the collusion of siblings and friends, and a basement full of junk, you could produce almost anything.
As I write this, I realize that I still largely hold that view of the world. I still believe that if I sit down with a piece of paper and a pencil I can come up with an idea that can turn into something big, fun and creative. I can sketch an idea for a photograph, draft a business plan for a weird hybrid radio station, or write a treatment for a TV show. I can make something out of nothing because I have years of experience doing exactly that, and I don’t know anyone who is going to stop me from trying. Who knows where the next idea will come from, but I know it’ll come. And I think almost more than anything else, that’s what I want to pass along to my kids, because seeing the world around you as a three-ring circus with yet-to-be-imagined acts is to live in the realm of constant possibility. But god, how do I pass that along? How do I help them find their own creative mojo in a world where online games, Amazon Prime, and nanny-supervised play dates offer pre-packaged, delivered-right-to-you entertainment? I don’t think I’m going to lock them out of the house anytime soon, so how do I let them get lost for a few hours without worrying that they will be literally lost, never to be found? If only paper plates, clothespins and a piece of duct tape could solve that one! But I do know that the world is a much more exciting place when anything is possible, and hopefully some of that will rub off on my kids…if I can just get them to look up from their iPads.
– Sam Jones, November 2015