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Sailing. August 1966, with his wife and daughter, on their way to Ireland. His daughter, Martha, in a bunny costume, won a prize, maybe second prize—or not. He forgot. B. was a regular at the bar. He remembers sailing across the Atlantic on a similar ship thirty years earlier, young, passionate and fiery in his determination to make a name for himself. “I stroll the topmost deck / high in the windy night, in love with life.” He got drunk with Dylan Thomas and had tea with William Butler Yeats on that trip. Two stories worth telling. Now, he has done it, made it, but at what cost? He looks into the mirror over the bar and has to face that the life he was so in love with back then “has produced this wreck” now. The Titanic went down because it was torn open, and eventually it broke in half. But it left a tremendous legacy: The greatest ship afloat, done in by something physically larger and stronger than it was. A monument to the hubris intertwined with human ambition, industry, and genius. The Hindenburg went up in flames, leaving us with the same message the Titanic left as it went down in pieces: All is vanity. My grandmother, though, was looking back on her life and telling her stories—full of the difficult love of family, constant goofball laughter, the grinding despair of the Great Depression, the death of her two year old son. She told me about the two amazing things she remembered that marked her life: seeing Haley’s Comet, and walking out into the yard one morning, looking up, and there was the Graf Zeppelin overhead, gleaming silver in the morning sun, almost 800 feet long, and all and only hers for that one brief moment as it floated over the back yard. So magnificent that she never forgot it, and she made sure her grandson heard the story. When she told the story of her life, seeing the Graf Zeppelin was one of the highlights. “I saw Haley’s Comet. I saw the Graf Zeppelin.” Those two sights mattered to her.
So, ambition and reputation and legacy, the echoing achievements of concentrated labor that float (for awhile) timeless. They’re not for nothing. But if it costs your life is it worth your life?
My question: Why is it one or the other? Why don’t we get both? Who says we have to choose? I believe we can have both, we can build a reputation through engagement with life. It doesn’t have to be by rejecting life for some alternate philosophical insubstantial parallel. But a zeppelin is a rare, unnatural, amazing thing, audacious beyond belief, so difficult to build and fly. And zeppelins ran the risk of going up in flames too. But gosh, what a sight the Graf Zeppelin must have been! All her life, my grandmother shook her head and marveled at the very memory of it.