Life and Death in the News Obits

Since we started getting the print edition of the Washington Post, I’ve had occasion to read things I never would have online. The news obituaries, especially, have become a part of my day. My favorite subjects are the individuals whose professional and personal accomplishments, as related by the paper, allow me to project upon them my idealized combination of ambition and modesty — distinction without celebrity.

Through happenstance and selection bias, I have unscientifically correlated the subjects’ marital histories and longevity to how well they embody my notions of the well-lived life. Those whose careers flatter my own political, cultural or personal prejudices seem to live to a ripe old age and turn out to have been married to the same spouse for over half a century. Others who led lives less agreeable to my taste (the state lottery publicist, the abortion technology innovator) tend to leave behind multiple divorces and die sooner.

And then along comes Benihana restaurant founder Rocky Aoki.

Highlights from the Post’s obit:

He was almost killed in 1979, when his boat crashed in the San Francisco Bay, leaving him unconscious in the water with a lacerated liver, ruptured aorta and broken bones.

“I always say, you afraid of dying, you afraid of living also,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1982. “Death and life are next to each other anyways.”

Mr. Aoki led a complicated personal life, with multiple mistresses and illegitimate children. He once boasted that he had three children the same age, born to three different women.

In the 1970s, five months after taking up backgammon, Mr. Aoki defeated a former world champion at a tournament. In November 1981, he piloted a helium balloon 5,800 miles across the Pacific Ocean, the longest balloon flight up to that time. He won the inaugural Milan-to-Moscow road rally in 1987, driving a 1959 Rolls-Royce.

Mr. Aoki’s gonzo ways were probably no picnic for those close to him, but from my own safe remove, I can’t help raising a glass of cheap sake in his memory. Rocky reminds me to keep a little wiggle room in my definition of the well-lived life.