Traveling In An Age of Marvels
I am about to
climb into a huge silvery machine and fly up to the edge of outer space, where
I will drink a cup of tea. Then, after a few hours and a 3,000 mile journey,
I will return back to Earth, climb into a metal chariot, and drive to see some
of my fellow Stone Age people in New Haven.
Maybe I'm a simple-minded
kind of guy, or maybe there is a corner of my heart (more likely, my brain)
in which I am an engineer. I tend to sit and stare at something ordinary like
a pencil, a paperclip, or a brick, and wonder if I might have been able to conceive
of something so functionally elegant on my own. Invariably, I conclude that
the whole of human society is greater than the sum of its parts, by far. It's
the old story of four people lifting a fifth person, each using only one finger
placed under the fifth person's knees or armpits. It took a string of earlier
inventions to arrive at the pencil, out of which grew the drawings that led
to the 757 in which I am about to cross the United States in a few hours, a
journey that would have taken several months a little over a century ago.
I think it was
Dr. Joyce Brothers who observed that we are "Stone Age people living in
an Atomic Society." I am about to visit friends and relatives I haven't
seen in decades, and that raises in me a whole mix of feelings, from joy to
anxiety. Individually, we are indeed primitive entities. Taken as a whole, we
achieve a near miraculous kind of empowerment. I, for example, plan to eat a
bowl of various flavors of ice cream sprinkled with nuts, and whipped cream
over a tropical banana, in the air conditioned restaurant near the climate-regulated
swimming pool of my hotel. That's better than Louis Quinze probably ever did.
Or get this: while I do so, I will talk with my wife in San Diego on my cell
phone. Life is good. I have not lost the ability to marvelgenuinely, sincerely,
deeplyat the small wonders of this age.
is largely the imaginary world of 1950s science fiction. In fact, today's cell
phone was a fantasy just a decade ago. Remember that scene in a 1970's James
Bond movie when Roger Moore is stuck in a boat in the middle of a lake, and
pulls a tiny telephone from his jacket pocket to call for help? He only raises
one eyebrow superciliously, but the audience 30 years ago howled at how farfetched
the idea seemed. Now the impact of that scene is lost on all but the oldest
late-night movie watchers.
Ours is an age
when we can look to the edge of time, or analyze dinosaur poop from 200 million
years ago, or read the human genome. And yet it's an age in which humans have
not yet entirely learned to do unto others as we'd have them do unto us. We
just finished with the bloody yet hopeful 20th Century, during which humans
left numerically more of their own kind as untimely corpses than during any
other time in history. Here we are, today, in an age of plenty, when 40,000
children a day die from starvation and easily curable diseases. Here we are,
in the world's most advanced nation, where nearly half the population, particularly
children, have little or no health careyet there are billions of dollars
of pork barrel money rolling around, not to mention (to be diplomatic in saying
this) allocated to other priorities.
the biggest surprise of all, as I board that miraculous machine and thunder
away to the edge of space for my cup of tea. That some people's cups are so
full, and so many people's cups are so empty. I won't forget that as I dip a
spoon into my banana split at the hotel.
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