Congratulations. You've won the cosmic lottery. The universe is 10 billion years old, and modern man (Homo sapiens) is 35,000 years old, and yet—somehow—you were not among the three million souls on Earth at the end of the Ice Age or the 30 million spinning pottery in 2000 B.C. or the quarter billion sweating through sackcloth at the time of Christ.
In the whole history of the heavens, you have had the inexpressible good fortune to live now, in a time and place of unprecedented technological marvels so mystifying they are tantamount to magic. Existence is but a flashbulb—"a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness," wrote Nabokov—but your bulb has popped at the most auspicious moment in all the millennia.
Few of us appreciate that. Humans can screen movies six miles above the earth in a 500,000-pound flying machine, and the only expression of disbelief we can muster upon disembarking in Tokyo 13 hours after leaving Chicago is "I can't believe they ran out of peanuts." Likewise, sports fans will dwell on the unconscionable cost for a family of four to attend a Knicks game ($455.26) without ever recognizing the many miracles that allow us to see games—every day, from around the world—at little or no cost.
On any given day this week we can watch some combination of the NBA Finals and the Stanley Cup finals and French Open tennis and half a dozen baseball games and golf and auto racing and inevitable highlights of Australian Rules Football—pictures fed into our homes intravenously, by basic cable, for little more than a dollar a day. What's more, with the press of a thumb we can switch from Paris to Dallas to Perth and back. Think about that. Channel surfing, far from instilling a couchbound malaise, ought to fill us with awe.
Magellan's crew required three years to circumnavigate the globe, but we—whose numbers came up in Cosmic Powerball—can witness via satellite a soccer match from London's Wembley Stadium as it is happening. Such technology leaves me agog, feeling like the Phil Hartman character Unfrozen Caveman lawyer, a Neanderthal restored to life at the turn of the 21st century.
Occasionally I open the South China Morning Post and imagine that I am overlooking Hong Kong's Victoria Harbor. In reality I am on the Internet, an even better place to be, for it lets me travel, instantly, to the Himalayas. There I can watch a man climb Mount Everest in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I will never know. That punch line, originally spoken by Groucho in Animal Crackers, was in fact written by a screenwriter named Morrie Ryskind. Or so I just discovered in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations.
See? We are the first people in creation to have instant access—all at once and in limitless quantity—to affordable books, virtual libraries, foreign newspapers and Marx Brothers movies; the first who can, in an eye blink, go anywhere. Such a civilization should, it seems to me, put the Renaissance to shame, and perhaps one day it will.
What makes me think so? Seeking momentary diversion at home last week, I touched a button and was taken live by ESPN to the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., where 12-year-olds puzzled out such words as eudaemonic ("producing joy") and echt ("genuine, authentic"). Upon being given the word lucifugous ("avoiding light"), a lucifugous boy named Sean Conley asked the judges, "Does it contain the Latin word luci, meaning 'light,' [and] the Latin word fugue, meaning 'avoid'?" Told yes on both counts, the kid then spelled the word without pause.
At that moment I felt privileged to live in this age of potential greatness, of latent enlightenment. The realization came suddenly, in an epiphany that was both eudaemonic and—I know now—echt.