The playful narrative describes a fictional creature he describes as "a kind of little fly" called an Ephemera. Of course, this is a play on the word with Greek origins referring to things that are not permanent or which last only a day. Franklin's imaginary Ephemera were creatures "whose successive generations, we were told, were bred and expired within the day." He tells of overhearing an "old gray-headed one, who was ... talking to himself" and he purports to write down what the elderly Ephemera said in his soliloquy:
"It was," said he, "the opinion of learned philosophers of our race, who lived and flourished long before my time, that this vast world, the Moulin Joly, could not itself subsist more than eighteen hours; and I think there was some foundation for that opinion, since, by the apparent motion of the great luminary that gives life to all nature, and which in my time has evidently declined considerably towards the ocean at the end of our earth, it must then finish its course, be extinguished in the waters that surround us, and leave the world in cold and darkness, necessarily producing universal death and destruction. I have lived seven of those hours, a great age, being no less than four hundred and twenty minutes of time. How very few of us continue so long! I have seen generations born, flourish, and expire. My present friends are the children and grandchildren of the friends of my youth, who are now, also, no more! And I must soon follow them; for, by the course of nature, though still in health, I cannot expect to live above seven or eight minutes longer. What now avails all my toil and labor in amassing honey-dew on this leaf, which I cannot live to enjoy! What the political struggles I have been engaged in for the good of my compatriot inhabitants of this bush, or my philosophical studies for the benefit of our race in general! For in politics what can laws do without morals? Our present race of ephemera will in a course of minutes become corrupt, like those of other and older bushes, and consequently as wretched. And in philosophy how small our progress! Alas! art is long, and life is short! My friends would comfort me with the idea of a name they say I shall leave behind me; and they tell me I have lived long enough to nature and to glory. But what will fame be to an ephemera who no longer exists? And what will become of all history in the eighteenth hour, when the world itself, even the whole Moulin Joly, shall come to its end and be buried in universal ruin?"
Then Mr. Franklin concludes his little parable with a final plea to Madame Brillon:
To me, after all my eager pursuits, no solid pleasures now remain, but the reflection of a long life spent in meaning well, the sensible conversation of a few good lady ephemeræ, and now and then a kind smile and a tune from the ever amiable Brillante.
I recall vividly how, at fourteen, this little essay struck me with a realization that life is short and that any measure of its duration is relative. Indeed, at 70+ years, Ben Franklin had a strong sense of his own impending mortality and his little story was a poignant plea to recognize that, however brief, the value of a moment lies in its quality and not its temporal length.
While the sense of melancholy from the loss of those we love is unavoidable, I believe the moral of Ben Franklin's essay is an important lesson. Every day we have is, in truth, a curtain closing that will be, at most, an imperfect and fleeting memory that itself has no more substance than a dream of the shadow of smoke.
To become preoccupied with permanence is ultimately foolish and sad. Now and then I look up the poem Ozymandias as a reminder. For what we have -- and all we have -- is the moment and the now. In this moment and this day I am reminded of how blessed and fortunate I am to have the history that populates my memories. The stream of my life is what defines me and, truly, the sadness of loss is merely the measure of how much joy and love I have experienced.
The whole "Life is Short" and "Carpe Diem" philosophies that I try to live by really came into focus for me as a result of a little incident that occurred when I was practicing law back in Kansas City. I had been assigned to prepare an automotive expert named Harley Kopp for his deposition in a case my firm was handling. What transpired eventually became the inspiration for a semi-annual event I host called The Friendship Party. Several people asked me to write down a little narrative of the event and so here it is, my own little essay devoted to the spirit of The Ephemera:
Ok, you gotta imagine we're sitting at a little bistro in North Beach. Maybe outside of Rose Pistola. Got it? I've brought along a bottle of 1985 Silver Oak Bonny's Vineyard that the waitress has uncorked for us and I tell you that I have a story about this wine that you might find interesting. You encourage me to go on ...
"Well, this all happened back when I was practicing as a lawyer," I begin.
"I was going to ask you about what that was like," you respond.
"Well, I studied graphics undergrad but went on to get my law degree at the University of Kansas. I was a trial lawyer in Kansas City handling catastrophic injury cases and mass disasters,"
"No shit!" the waitress adds (she's now pulled a chair over and is sitting at our table with us.)
"Anyway, one of the firm's senior partners called me into his office and handed me a plane ticket to Orange County along with a $500 expense check. He explained that the firm had hired a renowned expert witness named Harley Kopp who had been one of the top automotive engineers at Ford. Mr. Kopp was the star witness in a tragic case involving a talented high school quarterback who had been left a quadriplegic when his Subaru rolled over on a country road"
"The senior partner explained that the firm had already paid Kopp $30,000 without even getting his deposition taken. I can remember it like it was yesterday that the partner said, 'Johnson, we're hemorrhaging money. Get your butt out to San Clemente and prepare Kopp for his deposition.' I was delighted to take on the adventure and so in two days I was buzzing down the 405 in a rented Miata. The sun was shining, the ocean was gorgeous and I felt like a million bucks."
"I was supposed to meet Kopp at his home at 10:00 a.m. but my plane was about thirty minutes late. I still got there only ten minutes past the hour and I was just taking in the sight of his gorgeous mansion on a cliff overlooking the Pacific when a man came out of the garage mad as a hornet. I quickly came to understand that this was the legendary Harley Kopp and boy was he pissed off. He laid in to me for being late, for not calling him, for wearing casual clothes - in short, he was rude, boorish and insulting."
"I followed him into the house while he kept a steady flow of invectives directed back at me. I kept my mouth shut and put up with Harley's insults that now had grown to encompass my whole law firm, the state of Kansas and the Japanese auto industry."
"Now, you must understand that while I wasn't enjoying his verbal attacks, I was still pretty much immune to their weight. I didn't have any idea how great automotive authorities acted and as far as I was concerned I still had a Miata and five-hundred bucks in my pocket so I was golden. I kept my composure and we settled into his office above the beach and got to work. We sort of developed a routine where I would cover an issue and he would proceed to tell me how stupid I was. However, in the process of pointing out my ignorance he did cover the necessary points so that we were making progress of a sort."
"The insults were constant and, if anything, increasing in their vituperativeness. So it was a surprise when Harley's demeanor changed abruptly as an old Grandfather clock chimed noon in the hallway. The man lifted his head, cocked it to hear the bongs and then it was as though scales were lifted from his eyes. He looked directly at me and I swear I saw the start of tears welling up as he said, 'Mr. Johnson. You must forgive me.... I have not enjoyed good health as of late. I offer you no excuses but do issue sincere apologies. ... And now it is noon and we may have wine.'"
"The expert struggled to his feet and once more I was in tow behind him. This time, however, there were no aspersions to my character and it was as though his evil twin had left to be replaced by one who was both hospitable and engaging. We walked down a long passage to the rear of the house and eventually entered a chamber that I was later to learn was part of a cellar complex that constituted one of the largest private wine collections in California."
"Harley caressed bottles as we walked and he would pause occasionally to pick up one, holding it gingerly as he looked at it with what could only be compared to a parent's love for a child. I was naive about wine and found his running commentary to be fascinating. Where he had been rude and abrupt before, he was now patient and as helpful as a devoted teacher. I don't know how much time passed in the cellar but I learned more about wine in those hours than I have in all the years since."
"Finally, Harley picked out a bottle of Silver Oak - Bonny's Vineyard. He told me how the wine represented a love story and how the wine maker, Justin Meyer, started out seeking to create the perfect California cabernet from a little 4-acre patch of vineyard in a rich volcanic soil. Mr. Meyer became successful and the winery's holdings and partner-vineyards grew to include rolling hills in both the Napa and Alexander valleys. However, he was devoted and terribly in love with his wife so that each year they would bottle a special reserve lot from the little 4-acre vineyard iand he named the wine 'Bonny's Vineyard' in honor of his true love."
"By virtue of the fact that the vines were some of the oldest producers in the valley and partly because of the charm of the story, Bonny's Vineyard became something of a small cult favorite and you couldn't get a bottle easily without making arrangements with someone at the winery. Harley explained that he was honored to be among Justin's close friends and he was given a special allotment of Bonny's each year. And, by the way, they stopped producing Bonny's back in 1992 and the bottle we have here today is probably the last I'll ever see. I'm glad I can share it with you."
"Now, back then in San Clemente, Harley took the wine bottle upstairs to a little balcony looking over the ocean. He pulled a crystal decanter from a hidden cupboard and then brought out two of the biggest cabernet goblets I had ever seen. After pouring the wine in the wide-mouthed decanter to let it 'open' Harley eventually poured two glasses and offered me one. As I took the glass he looked directly at me with an intensity I won't forget. At first I thought he was going to make a toast but instead he said some words that have become meaningful to me."
"Harley Kopp held the glass up where the sunlight caught it and sent shafts of ruby light dancing over the balcony. He then said the following:
- 'Mark, let me tell you a few things that may be of some small value to you. You see, people live their lives as though life is like a well that they can draw from endlessly. But that's a sad illusion. Life is short and as ephemeral as the wind passing through the space we occupy at this moment. Good wine should be a reminder of that fact and it, like life itself, should be cherished for the moment and shared with good friends. Let good wine be a reminder to you that while all of this is surely fleeting; it is also at the same time rare, sensual and precious.'
"So, the rest of the afternoon passed into an evening of stories, wine and, in fact, some actual work on the case. I said my goodbyes to Mr. Kopp and he sent me with a bottle of wine as a token of his apology for his behavior in the morning. And all of this would likely have passed into a pleasant but not particularly remarkable memory if not for the fact that when I touched down in Kansas and returned to my law firm I was greeted by a stone-faced paralegal who informed me that Harley Kopp had suffered a fatal stroke there among his precious wine bottles shortly after I left him."
At this point your eyes are wide and you take another sip of the Bonny's without saying a word. The moment is broken only slightly by the young waitress who lets out a soft but earnest "Holy Shit!" We all laugh and I set my glass down. For this moment in time Harley's words are as true as though he were saying them fresh to us this very moment. The city is beautiful, the sun is casting a long shadow across Columbus Avenue as the skyscrapers tower above us. It's all there as rare, precious and, yes, ephemeral as old Harley Kopp admonished. The wind picks up and a few napkins blow from tabletops.
With an empty bottle and a few more shards of conversation I finally say, "There is a small postscript to the story. You see when I moved out here I sought out the Silver Oak vineyard. It was a rainy day and there were only three people in the tasting room waiting for a scheduled tour. I approached the young woman at the counter and asked politely if she had ever heard of Harley Kopp. She queried me as to my interest and I told her enough that she left the counter and went upstairs to return with Justin Meyer himself. I told an abbreviated version of the tale and, swear to God, Meyer said, 'Screw the tour' and took us all back to the shipping shed. We sat on oak barrels while the rain hammered the old tin roof and Mr. Meyer had someone go to the wine library where they found a bottle of '85 Bonny's Vineyard. Glasses were found and we all sat on the barrels drinking the Bonny's and toasting the memory of that complex gentleman, Harley Kopp."