Bruce Bentzman's Suburban Soliloquy

~Reflections on the Occasion of My 25th Suburban Soliloquy. . .~

It might be that my spouse is asleep.  My spouse will have fallen asleep still wearing her reading glasses, which I would remove. Should she wake, she will see me there in the beam of my screen and return to sleep content.  I keep late hours and the only light in the bedroom will be the glow of my monitor.  My personal computer is on a shallow desk by the bed.  There is no other place to put it.  My study, where I do old-fashioned writing with paper and pen, is crowded with shelves of books, and I will not disrupt that desk in my study with computer paraphernalia. 

If I am not composing with my word processor, if I am not reading a Web site, then I am probably reaching out beyond the confinement of suburbia and the night to converse with friends distant, or just sleepless like me.  The conversation would exceed anything that could take place with my sleeping neighbours.  Language, especially in the form of text, is essential to this ability to socialize.

We primates are social creatures.  We have evolved cooperation in a group as a strategy for survival.  Our brains initially served as an alarm system alerting our body to the presence of danger and the presence of sustenance.  Eventually we extended that alert to our families and neigbours.  To do this, we had to transfer information beyond the hard shell of our skulls to other brains, having started with gesticulations and with grunts and screams.  Our brains swelled to accommodate this ability.  We humans have a repertoire of 7,000 facial expressions, and then there is spoken language.

Biologist John Maynard Smith writes,
"Brain size in primates is closely associated with the size of the social group in which the animal lives. The initial expansion of what was to become the human brain may have been prompted by a growth in numbers that required greater social skills: remembering who various members were, whether they were friends or enemies and so on. One social skill that would have been increasingly required as the social group grew was gossip - the need to swap information about each other. This may have brought about the initial expansion of the frontal cortex and, in its wake, the development of language."

Somewhere in our prehistory, "ideas" were formulated into language and held in memory, so that these messages could be delivered at a later time, which meant they could be delivered at the far end of some distance travelled.  Such sophisticated language encouraged culture, even as it permitted an increasing collection of humans to incorporate their services and coordinate their labours towards survival.  Our extended family grew beyond a tribe and became the city.

The invention of text encoded language with a degree of permanence outside of the barrier of the skull.  With text, memory and experience could be recorded in places other than our biochemical system.  Text could be applied to new mediums of inanimate objects to be relayed between distant individuals.  Text lends itself to evolving mediums for bridging ever-lengthening gaps between us.  Our human society expanded beyond the city and into nations.

We've gone from writing on potsherds to the improved storage and retrieval system of scrolls made from parchment or papyrus.  Then came the codex, where the scroll was sliced and bound into pages, which further improved retrieval, as it was no longer necessary to unroll a book to get to its center.  The invention of paper made writing surfaces more plentiful.  Most everyone had access to the materials necessary to produce paper.  The invention of printing made it easier to have copies of texts.  Each of these developments served to make the world a little smaller and accessible.  Knowledge and culture could be encoded and shared with more humans over greater distances and longer periods of time.

Arrives the Internet! The new world is caught in a web made from the reticular weaving of communication lines, of radio and microwave transmissions. Reading and writing has always seemed like magic to those who could not read nor write. And now the Internet is the closest thing we have to mental telepathy.

My tribe has grown to include the world. It is now possible for me to leapfrog my neighbours to find people with like interests and tastes with whom to socialize. I am part of a new tribe not defined by geographical barriers or political boundaries. I am no longer the lonely exile living in a suburbia just beyond the outskirts of the city Philadelphia in Pennsylvania. In the glorious time of my youth, before I was responsible for my own family, there were frequent all night conversations with friends. I had often missed those fun and stimulating discourses that lasted until morning. But now I am having those conversations again, both with the old friends who had moved from suburbia thirty years ago, and with new friends who have grown up on the opposite end of the globe (in New Zealand, for example) and whom I've yet to meet in person. The Internet facilitates my escape from the drudgery of my job and the vacuousness of life among cookie-cutter homes with their culture of shopping malls.

Among the arts, writing, as an undertaking, appeals to me the most. In terms of equipment, it requires the simplest tools; you need only employ your mind and a stylus. It is the most portable art form and only music is more sublime.

Writing does not come easy to me, and yet I love to write. I am convinced I have a brain not wired in the normal way for language, that this gives me both advantages and disadvantages. Regardless of however hard it is, writing is a passion to which I happily surrender. Circumstances have always restricted my ability to write. Time is the primary component required. A comfortable environment and ready access to research materials certainly contribute to one's ability to write. But I have also restricted myself, because I have valued relationships more.

The rewards from relationships are immediate. Too many of the rewards of art occur after the artist is dead, when they cannot reap the benefits or gloat. I did not want to deprive my family of the financial benefits of my being gainfully employed. In particular there are the health benefits that come with working for AT&T, which I should not care to do without. But recent technologies have given me the opportunity to write.

I am grateful for the monitor that permits me to craft drafts of my prose, moving large blocks, if necessary, without wasting paper. I am especially grateful for the invention of the World Wide Web and its manifestation of ezines, such as this: Snakeskin. Here I have found an outlet for my compositions, and I most desperately want to be read, which is, after all, the point of writing.

At the core of our humanity is the need to communicate. What began as a social tool to abet survival, evolved beyond necessity, beyond practicality, to become divine art, the glorious enhancement of our experience of being. Art is ephemeral and pointless to our survival. Art does not make us more fit to survive. It is probably the serendipitous side effect of our intelligence.

And here I am, reflecting on the occasion of my twenty-fifth Suburban Soliloquy for the fiftieth issue of Snakeskin during the last few hours remaining of 1999 - the new millenium has already begun on the antipodal side of the world and is approaching - that once again I have just managed to finish my essay before the deadline.

Bruce Bentzman

This is the twenty-fifth in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.