June 2003

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 marvel—genuinely, sincerely, deeply—at the small wonders of this age.

Today's world 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 care—yet there are billions of dollars of pork barrel money rolling around, not to mention (to be diplomatic in saying this) allocated to other priorities.

That's probably 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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ComiCon International 2003: To be held July 17-20. Preview Night July 16. San Diego Convention Center in San Diego Harbor centrally located not far from the airport; on the trolley line, near the Gaslamp District, and near downtown. Special guests at the world's number one comic event include Neil Gaiman, Stan Goldberg, Carla Speed McNeil, and many other greats. You can e-mail them or visit their website. You can also phone them at (619) 414-1022.

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