Every so often, someone sponsors a fund raiser that involves spending time with local athletes. We’re invited to buy a chance and if we win we get to have lunch and a game of golf, for example, with, say, Dustin Pedroia, the Red Sox second baseman. The television advertisements for these lotteries seem pitched a note higher than usual, as if these are particularly exciting prizes, as if anyone would jump at such a prospect.That excitement always leaves me feeling odd. I have no desire to have lunch with Dustin. None. But sometimes, looking at the television hype, I feel as if I ought to. I wonder at my deficiency. Apparently other guys—for I think this is mostly aimed at males—are aching for such an opportunity. I wonder about that. I wonder what they’d talk about and the dialogues that I imagine are absurdly thin. They’re idolatrous on the part of the prizewinner, bored and tolerant on the part of Dustin. And strained. I also think, uncharitably, that the prize is attractive mostly as a kind of trophy once the day with celebrity is finished. It’s not something anyone would really like to do, but rather something guys might like to mention to other guys at work or at the bar. But, as I said, that’s uncharitable. I guess I simply don’t know why the idea is attractive.This is to take nothing away from Dustin Pedroia or any other athlete or accomplished celebrity (for I would like to take something away from those figures whose celebrity consists primarily in being celebrated). Like most New Englanders, I like watching the local teams and of all the athletes I enjoy the play of Tom Brady the most. But I still don’t want to have lunch with him. And, to push this a bit harder, I don’t want to listen to him after the games. It makes no difference if the Patriots win or lose. He’s outstanding as a quarterback but only average as a guy who talks about quarterbacking. This assessment might account in part for the way I envision the talk during the prize lunch.

All this is to say that what is interesting about Pedroia, Brady and others is their work. When they are at the top of their games, they are dazzling. It might be argued that those moments represent a confluence of athletics and art, moments when the player and the game are inseparable. One is reminded of the lines from W. B. Yeats’s “Among School Children”: “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?” If those athletes did not give us such samples of near transcendence, of near perfection, we’d pay them no mind and would never purchase chances for lunch and a round of golf.

If this is so with respect to athletes, it is also the case with respect to writers. Of course, as far as I know no one is out there peddling chances for lunch with Philip Roth or Richard Russo. If they were, the conversations might be brighter, for writers are wordsmiths after all. But the talk might not be. It might be as strained and difficult as those at the athlete’s table and it’s easy to imagine the same mismatch of idolatry and tolerance.
As with the athlete, it’s the work that matters. We know the names of the writers—and musicians, dancers, painters and so on—because of the work. It’s the finished thing that shines, that leaves us enchanted, spellbound, charmed, those words borrowed from magic. It’s the art that counts, not the artist. It’s the performance that matters, that distills and perfects effort. The artist, sloppy human that he or she is, fades, recedes into the quotidian, the humdrum of eat and drink, of sleep and visits to the dentist, the world so familiar to us all. And what a relief that is. Imagine the impossible strain of living each moment at one’s Super Bowl, World Series, and Great Gatsby best.

Lunch with Brady? Lunch with Russo? No thanks. I’ll tune in on Sunday and watch Brady pick apart his opponent’s defense and I’ll read the next novel that Russo produces and will do these things with pleasure. But I’ll leave them both alone at lunch and if they have the usual good luck, they can share the meal with people who love them for the faulted, frail creatures that, aside from their shining moments, they must be.