by Rick Bayan
(May 6, 2001) I like to stroll around my apartment complex late in the evening. It takes me half an hour to complete three brisk circuits around the buildings, and I can retire to my chambers knowing that I've agitated my body sufficiently to please my circulatory system. It's supposed to be beneficial to agitate one's body as often as possible, though George Bernard Shaw sneered at exercise and lived triumphantly into his ninety-fourth year. But he was a vegetarian and a major egotist, both of which tend to prolong life beyond the usual limits reached by carnivores with insecurity issues.
I walk mainly for the exercise, but I also walk for pleasure. I enjoy the look and feel of the apartment complex under the black sky of evening, especially during the warmer months when glimmering fireflies dot the landscape like hundreds of miniature tooth-fairies. Moonlike lamps illuminate my path, and in the dim light solitary rabbits move solemnly over the blue-black lawn. The occasional night-song of a mockingbird breaks the silence. Of all the creatures I encounter out on the trail, I appear to be the only one with opposable thumbs. That's fine with me.
I've long given up expecting to meet kindred spirits or wood-nymphs on my nightly prowls. My neighbors prefer to vegetate indoors in the evenings, and I've grown accustomed to their monkish ways. This is Allentown, Pennsylvania, after all, not Paris or Club Med. In fact, the residents of my complex seem to abide by an unwritten rule that forbids the active enjoyment of balmy evenings.
During all my fifteen years of night-rambles around the apartment complex, I've witnessed only one fairly spectacular exception to the rule. In the midst of a memorable stroll five or six years ago, I beheld a blonde temptress stretched languidly in a chaise on her patio, a scarlet macaw perched on her shoulder. She (the temptress, not the macaw) had luminous blue eyes and a velvety Deep South accent, and we talked for about twenty minutes. I returned to my apartment giddy with the certainty that this would be the summer of all summers, at least until the next evening when she introduced me to her live-in boyfriend. I'll remember those two evenings for the rest of my life, and nothing comparable has happened on my nightly walks since then. I'll be leaving the complex soon to embark on the twin adventures of marriage and home-ownership, so meeting blonde Southern temptresses is out of the question. Instead, I peer into windows as I walk.
Before you report me to the authorities, let me explain. The apartments at my complex are equipped with vast floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall sliding glass doors and adjoining picture windows. When the curtains or blinds are left open, these walls of glass expose the entire living room the way a fish tank reveals the antics of its submersible residents. The occupants of these particular aquariums were nowhere as colorful as guppies or goldfish, though they appeared to be nearly as cold-blooded.
Still, I began to relish the fleeting dioramas of human life as I'd stroll past. One particular scene replayed itself over and over again, inside half the apartments I'd pass: a solitary figure sunk in a comfortable chair or recumbent on a sofa, eyes fixed on a flickering screen, motionless and expressionless.
This bland and cheerless tableau, so endlessly repeated during my nightly walks, began to weigh upon my cynic's soul. I began to feel sorry for these immobilized creatures who couldn't stir themselves to enjoy the enticements of a summer evening. I felt burdened by their apparent indifference to both nature and humanity. Their lives seemed like black holes of terminal passivity and emptiness, and I was staring directly into the void. Then I realized that this is exactly how I must look -- how ALL of us must look -- when we're sitting mesmerized in front of the tube. In my younger days I spent entire evenings in exactly this fashion; today I've essentially traded the flickering screen for a clickable one. Yet my own life doesn't feel like a black hole of terminal passivity and emptiness. I'm entertained, engrossed, amused or agitated as the electronic images dance across my brain. I'm sure I look just as lifeless when I'm reading Plato or writing a column; I'm sure Mozart looked equally torpid when he composed a symphony in his head.
Mental activity temporarily removes us from the world of flesh and decay. The realm of the mind is perfect in its way, without lumpy flaws and sweaty confrontations. Our minds are the last refuge of privacy. After a horrific day at the office, we find it pleasant to retreat into our individual refuges and replenish our souls. Of course, some of us attempt to replenish them by watching 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer,' or, even worse, the nightly local news. But it's too easy for a cynic to pass judgment on the favored entertainments of others. After all, some of my fondest memories are of exactly such synthetic experiences: evenings spent before the tube, enjoying Lucy or Dick Van Dyke or 'The Twilight Zone' or my twenty-third viewing of the original 'King Kong.'
How is it that artificial entertainment has the power to lure us from the enticements of the fleshy world? It sings to us, it makes us laugh, it numbs the pain. It even connects us, in a strangely remote way, to millions of others who are watching what we watch. All that is obvious. What might be less obvious is that, to an impartial observer strolling past your living-room window on a balmy evening, it looks suspiciously like a self-induced coma.