My old friend Butch Reynolds asks that I post here a June 2002 guest column I had in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. (This essay was written before I began, in 2005, my regular gig with the Trib.) My vanity obliges me to grant Butch’s request . Here’s a slice:
Do a mental experiment. Imagine resurrecting an ancestor from the year 1700 and showing him a typical day in the life of Bill Gates. The opulence would obviously astonish your ancestor, but a good guess is that the features of Gates’s life that would make the deepest impression are the fact that he and his family never worry about starving to death; that they bathe daily; that they have several changes of clean clothes; that they have clean and healthy teeth; that diseases such as smallpox, polio, diphtheria, tuberculosis, tetanus, and pertusis present no substantial risks; that Melinda Gates’s chances of dying during childbirth are about one-sixtieth what they would have been in 1700; that each child born to the Gateses is about 40 times more likely than a pre-industrial child to survive infancy; that the Gateses have a household refrigerator and freezer (not to mention microwave ovens, dishwashers, and televisions); that the Gateses’s work week is only five days and that the family takes several weeks of vacation each year; that the Gates children will receive well over a decade of formal schooling; that the Gateses routinely travel through the air to distant lands in a matter of hours; that they effortlessly converse with people miles or oceans away; that they can, whenever and wherever they please, listen to a Mozart string quartet, a Verdi opera, or Frank Sinatra singing of romance.
In short, what would likely most impress a visitor from the past about Bill Gates’s life are precisely those modern advantages that are not unique to Bill Gates – advantages now enjoyed by nearly all Americans.