Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

Filtering by Tag: mediocrity

Adding to One's Life Story (part 2)

Last week, with the help of several literary references, I wrote about the ideas of life achievements, mediocrity, and living out one’s life as epilogue rather than story (kudos to Vonnegut, Jr. for coming up with this one). The concluding question was this: if you haven’t achieved the goals you set out for yourself early in life, does that mean you’re living a life of mediocrity? I answered by saying that while you’re life might in fact be mediocre, it needn’t be.

In the film Manchester by the Sea, the lead character played by Casey Affleck is living an epilogue. His life story is over, and now it’s merely a waiting game until the finish line. Though his case might be an overly drastic one, I do occasionally observe people living out their epilogues and doing little to further their life story.

But more often I see the opposite: people doing extraordinary things that might not exactly constitute the lives of grandeur they’d envisioned for themselves decades ago, but are still impressive achievements, significant contributions, or interesting pursuits that give their lives meaning. Hell, on my block alone, we’ve got a man who opened up a toy museum, plays in excess of 100 gigs a year, wrote a book about the Chicago music scene in the 60s and 70s, and collects and sells antique toys worldwide. His life story is far from epilogue even if he isn’t gracing the cover of Rolling Stone.

Four years ago I met a man who learned a trade as a teenager, started his own business in his 20s, raced cars in his 30s, competed in Ironman Triathlons in his 40s, and THEN, at the age of 50, decided that he’d like to learn an instrument. He learned two. I now play keyboards for his classic rock band of 15 years. Oh, and last year he opened up a restaurant in suburban Chicago. Tell me his life is epilogue. Or mediocre. Or anything other than amazing.

Another friend of mine has been called a Renaissance Man. He built his own brick oven in the backyard, brews his own beer, quilts, cooks, plays the flute, builds his own drones, and runs triathlons.

Another buddy memorizes Shakespearean sonnets, studies philosophy in his spare time, plays a wicked violin, taught his daughters their respective instruments (one of whom is going pro), teaches Sunday school, serves on the synagogue Board and runs marathons.

(question: what is it with high achievers running marathons and competing in triathlons. I don’t get it)

The list of people whose lives I admire goes on and on. Average people publishing books, raising money for charity, driving political change, helping those in need, writing songs, building furniture, embarking on amazing home improvement project, traveling to interesting places. There is no shortage of impressive people in our midst. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

As someone who dreamed big as a child, I’ve done a fair bit of analyzing and rationalizing my current state of affairs. Like George Bailey, I haven’t quite achieved what I set out to back in my early 20s. About a decade ago I wrote the following lyric, supposedly for a friend of mine, but in retrospect aimed squarely at me:

(from “Grounded” off of Pause)

The truth be known, my friend
There lies a noble end
But it’s a million miles away from where you’ve been
You’ve been on cruise control
Without a lofty goal
And every day begins and ends and ends where it begins
I believe there is something grand you’re ready to achieve
It’s not so out of reach
After all
There are lesser souls than you to heed the call

My youngest child was about to start Kindergarten, and it was time for me to explore other aspects of my life more fully. I wouldn’t classify my life as anything exceptional, but when I’m feeling a little down about things I recognize that while my life story may not be a bestselling page-turner, it isn’t a dull textbook either. It certainly isn’t epilogue. I’ve accomplished much since writing that self-inspiring lyric.

The reality is epilogue never has to happen, even if you live to be a hundred. And the converse is true as well. The characters of Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road were already living epilogue in their 20s.

Learn. Explore. Volunteer. Start a hobby. Help others. Learn an instrument. Love, and experience joy with the ones you love. Learn a craft. Grow something. Learn a language. Have fun with friends. And perhaps most importantly, enjoy the little miracles around you every day.  As James Taylor wrote, “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.”

Which leads me to the ending of the Monty Python film, The Meaning of Life. Michael Palin says, “Now here’s the meaning of life,” is handed an envelope as if announcing the winner of an award, and says: “Well, it’s nothing very special. Uh, try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”

It degrades quickly from there in inimitable Monty Python fashion, but it starts out nice enough!

Conformity, Greatness, Mediocrity and George Bailey

In college I had a roommate who facetiously claimed that the Frank Capra Christmastime classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, had been commissioned by the U.S. Government as a way to dampen expectations of the post-war population. Soldiers returning from the war wanted not just a piece of the American Dream, they wanted to achieve, to aspire, to conquer life the way they had conquered death on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific islands. In short, they wanted it all. The Feds, fearful of a potential uprising of unsatisfied citizens, hoped to quell their desire, and what better way to do so than to make a movie about a man with big dreams who by the film’s end learns life’s most valuable lesson: that no man is a failure who has friends? A wonderful theory, and one that made the twenty-something me laugh and take note, as I sure as hell wasn’t going to settle for the simple life. No fricking way.

Fast forward just a short decade or so, and I was an at-home dad taking care of twin daughters in a three-bedroom ranch in suburban Pennsylvania. So much for conquering the world, though there were days – say, on a sunny weekday when my kids and I successfully tackled a trip to the Philadelphia Zoo with no spousal lifeboat – that I did indeed feel like The King Of The World.

Government conspiracy or not, the idea of conformity did seem to take hold in post-war United States, so much so that author Richard Yates devoted his 1961 debut novel Revolutionary Road to the concept. In a 1972 interview, Yates says of his novel: “During the fifties there was a general lust for conformity all over this country, by no means only in the suburbs—a kind of blind, desperate clinging to safety and security at any price…”  He also says his book is about “…a series of abortions, of all kinds—an aborted play, several aborted careers, any number of aborted ambitions and aborted plans and aborted dreams.”

George Bailey, right?

Not so fast. 

As I was reading the book last month, I noticed that Yates’s protagonists, Frank and April Wheeler, were living out the second part of a life cycle that Kurt Vonnegut Jr. describes in his novel, Deadeye Dick:

“If a person survives an ordinary span of sixty years or more, there is every chance that his or her life as a shapely story has ended and all that remains to be experienced is epilogue. Life is not over, but the story is…I suppose that’s really what so many American women are complaining about these days: They find their lives short on story and overburdened with epilogue.”

Overburdened with epilogue.  The unhappiness of Yates’s characters really had nothing to do with marriage, suburbia, careers or lack thereof, hobbies, home projects or friends. The Wheelers were going to be miserable whatever their life circumstances. Their stories were over, and they were living out their epilogues. They experienced no joy from their children. They didn’t do interesting things on the weekends. They didn’t enjoy the company of others. They did nothing to help people. They were largely sleeping walking through life.

George Bailey lived a life that – while perhaps not the one he’d envisioned as a youth – was quite rich in comparison, though one could argue that this conclusion is the result of rationalizing. He didn’t achieve greatness, and therefore had no choice but to find solace in mediocrity. But are those the only alternatives?  Is the alternative to greatness – to achieving one’s dreams at any cost – mere mediocrity?  Is George Bailey anything special in the end? John Steinbeck might not think so. In his novel East of Eden, the character Sam Hamilton says, “When the Lord God did not call my name, I might have called His name – but I did not. There you have the difference between greatness and mediocrity. It’s not an uncommon disease…I’m glad I chose mediocrity, but how am I to say what reward might have come with the other?”

How, indeed. In the current movie, La La Land, the final segment offers a glimpse into alternative lives for the two leads had they chosen difference courses, and I suppose we all play out these parallel universes in our imaginations from time to time and wonder what would have been like had we taken a different turn, said yes instead of no or vice versa, or taken a risk we weren’t prepared to take. But does mean that the life we live – perhaps a rather common life – is mediocre? 

I argue that it might be, but it definitely needn’t be.

More on this point next week.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved