Last week, I was flying from Washington, D.C., to Seattle, in two gulps, and having a very bad travel day. All the things that go wrong were going wrong, and when I finally got to my hotel with my damaged new luggage, wanting a hot shower more than anything in the world, the check-in agent turned out to be a very officious and unpleasant person who instantly discerned that I had not suffered enough for one calendar day. By the time she finally handed me my keys, thirty minutes later, I wanted to have a giant meltdown in the lobby of the hotel. I had a fantasy of just sitting down on the polished marble in the middle of the lobby and emptying my two broken suitcases of every item, piece by strewn piece, and then decanting a whole can of shaving cream over my body, while chanting the first verse of Coleridge's "Kubla Khan."
I went quietly to my room.
Two hours later, after a meal (mediocre) and a glass of wine (excellent), I tried to step back and put things in perspective. Thanksgiving is coming, after all. Before I write to you again, we will have celebrated our national day of gratitude. It is, in my opinion, easily the best holiday of the year and often the best day of the year. So as I sipped my wine, I decided to take a play from the Sheila Schafer happiness playbook, and make a list of things for which we all can be thankful. My friend Sheila claps three times in front of the mirror every morning, to express her gratitude for the miracle of life, and for all the gifts that she has been given by the grace of God. She is the happiest person I know.
Well, first of all, we are the most mobile people who ever lived on earth. I started the day in Washington, D.C., and ended it in Seattle, at the other end of the continent. That's 2,716 miles. Total transit time 6 hours, 44 minutes. All the heavy lifting was done by the industrial revolution. I merely sat in two snug 38,000 foot reading rooms, sipped beverages brought to me by friendly uniformed attendants, and lost myself in my book. After a lifetime of flying around, I still regard it as a kind of miracle that you can wake up at one end of America and go to sleep at the other. Just think back. On a good day, if everything went precisely according to plan, if there were no accidents or screw ups, Lewis and Clark might make 15 miles. And that's with everyone pushing and tugging and rowing with all of their might, dawn to dusk. I was miffed when they ran out of peanuts on my second flight.
And speaking of books. We are living in a golden age of books. Thanks to Amazon.com and its rivals, I can hear about a book at a dinner party somewhere, order it with a single keystroke (no typing in all that tedious billing and shipping information, and the credit card number, plus the security code), and often enough it is waiting for me in my mailbox when I get home three days later. And that's the slow way to get books in the 21st century. If you don't mind reading a book on a screen, you can as often as not get it instantly. I've actually downloaded books, in seconds, at 35,000 feet, while soaring at 500 mph over the deserts of the American West. How is this even possible? What would Johannes Gutenberg (ca. 1398-1468) say about that? What would Thomas Jefferson think? With these breathtaking technologies, plus our superb currency-credit systems, and the wholesale digitization of the backlog of books from prior centuries, it is now possible to read just about anything you might ever want to read, immediately, on demand! I'm going to Europe in a few days, and my backpack will carry approximately 15 books (alas for my back), but I have pre-loaded 30 more books, some of them giants, on my iPad. In the face of that, how much annoyance can a power-drunk hotel desk clerk cause?
And speaking of backs. Thanks to pharmaceutical chemistry, nuclear radiation, lasers, and synthetic materials, we now live much longer than we used to, at a higher rate of well-being and productivity, with infinitely less pain. The life expectancy of First World people essentially doubled in the Twentieth Century. Today's men and women easily survive their first grave health scare (early 60s) and frequently enough survive the second and third crises, too. The quality of dental care we enjoy in America is enough to make anyone thankful to live now, rather than in the Age of Queen Elizabeth I, or for that matter in the Age of Jefferson, when you could expect to gum your gruel sans teeth for the last decades of your life. The "lying-in" period for women in childbirth in Jefferson's era was two weeks to two months. Today most women who give birth are kept in hospitals overnight merely as a precaution, and to provide some on-site neonatal assurances. Think of reconstructive surgery for those born with cleft palates or harelips, for those who survive grievous car accidents, or women who undergo mastectomies. Think of in utero surgeries that correct miniscule malformed heart valves or underdeveloped stomachs or lungs. We are living in the age of miracle and wonder.
Think about communication for a moment. When I was in college I called home once a month or so, collect, and I could hear my father at the other end of America, somewhere away from the phone, grumbling, "Tell him to write a letter," or "Can't this wait until Thanksgiving?" If we called my Grandma Rhoda long distance, she immediately asked who was sick—or dead, because it was not permissible to spend money on long distance calls if there were no big announcement or emergency. Today long distance is too cheap to meter. Some Saturdays I Skype or Face time with my daughter for a full hour, on high resolution video, free, wherever she happens to be and wherever I find myself. When she is busy I can follow her rhythms on Facebook. When she is very busy she sends me a puny little text, "Hey, papa," or "'Sup," that gives me the assurance I need that she is alive and well. In the Age of Jefferson, letters invariably began by hoping that the recipient was still alive. Communication was slow, uncertain, a kind of shot in the dark. If Lewis and Clark had had cell phones and GPS units, things would have been so much easier.
I've just ordered another glass of Pinot Noir. Remember back when in North Dakota your choices were red wine or white, and Inglenook was regarded as a quality wine for special occasions? When I go up to my room I'm going to watch Federico Fellini's great epic film of Rome, La Dolce Vita (1960), downloaded instantly for $3.95. But it could be any of a hundred thousand movies or television series.
For all of that, now that I've cheered up, the things for which I am most thankful have nothing to do with technology, or money, or stuff. They are two women, one biologically old but young of soul, the other biologically young but smart and wise beyond her years, or her father's.