So what have you done lately?

Picked up Run Rabbit Run by John Updike. THis book shows up on the must-read lists with regularity and I thought I should give it a try.

This is my second try. The first try I choked on the main character. His disaffection reminded me of Catcher in the Rye, whose main character I find repulsive.

But, it is highly recommended and I needed a new book. So. Take two.

I was telling Chris about the book. “I am still not sure I am going to like it, but the prose is beautiful.”

“What’s it about?”

“well, the main character is mourning the fact that his best days are behind him. He was a basketball star in high school,” I tell him.

“That’s a well-worn theme.”

I am not so sure it is, not in books anyway. I think it comes up a lot in movies, but I don’t think it does in books.

It is certainly not common in Victorian literature. Austen and Dickens were very forward-looking.  And Shakespeare was a man of the moment, not much nostalgia in his works.

The Great Gatsby was not about the past.

It would seem that this back-of-the-hand-to-the-forehead thing started with the Baby Boomer generation.

The generation that went to fight world war 2, they did not have that tradition of mourning their best days behind them.

However. However.

It is a serious thing to contemplate. What is it, to come to the conclusion that your best work is behind you, never to be realized again.

Elizabeth Gilbert talks about this for TED.

She wrote a super best-seller book. And has this question after “Aren’t you afraid that you are never going to be able to top that?”

What if the world runs out of opportunities for greatness?

Rabbit, in this book, says it in a conversation. His pastor asks him:

What makes you think you are different?

“You think there is no answer to that, but I have one. I once did something exceptional. I was a first rate ball player. Once you’ve been first rate at something, it takes the kick out of being second rate”

What a problem! is doing something exceptional the same sort of thing as the curse of winning the lottery? Nobody is happier after winning the lottery.

Is achieving greatness something to protect yourself against?

There is a characteristic to the boomer generation that they are aware of their co-horts. They are a group, a feel their size and the eyes upon them.

So, Rabbit did something not merely exceptional, but popularly applauded. So did Elizabeth Gilbert when she wrote her best-seller.

I am not actually that impressed with Gilbert’s book. I don’t think it is a beautifully written book. But people bought a lot of copies.

Being popular is a particular kind of exceptionalism. But it is not the only measure of excellence. In fact, it may very well be a poor measure of excellence.

As I think about what I’ve done and what I plan to do with my life, I know that what I am most proud of is not what is best recieved.

I have to use my internal measure. What did I do today that I consider excellent work? If I am satisfied with and pleased with what I have done, then my life is good. If my satisfaction was tied to other people’s reaction, then I would be in great danger of never achieving it.

How do I know if I am doing a good job? I have to be the judge of that.

And if I don’t know how to improve my craft, and do better work over time then I would have to be worried.

I may have gotten a standing ovation last week, or years ago. But if I can sit down and bang out an essay, a blogpost or a piano piece alone in my home that I know is better than anything I’ve ever done, I’m getting better.

I like ovations. But they are not required