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Set Piece

I was wandering through the “generics” section of a grocery store in Manhattan in the early 1980s–row after row of black and white boxes with no-nonsense labels such as OATMEAL and PAPER TOWELS–when I heard a woman whisper to her shopping mate, “This must be what the Soviet Union is like.”

Among other purchases deferred until we made it to our version of Second Life–no avatars, different time zone, better cost of living–was that of a new television set. I’m now wishing we were in the old Soviet Union, waiting for our government-issue television set to arrive one of these years, because on top of the minor angst of moving we have piled he general confusion surrounding buying a new TV in the HDTV era.

We have to sort out the format issues–LCD or plasma? HDTV or HDTV-ready? Plain, or peanut? And if HDMI cables are so important, why are they always sold separately? (Clearly the TV people have taken tips from the camcorder people.) But we are also struggling with some unexpected messages bombarding us.

For fifteen years we’ve been perfectly happy with a 19″ TV I purchased in Queens and lugged home in a cab. “Perfectly happy” may not be exactly correct; in Palo Alto, we tried hard to watch the TV from where we ate, only to find ourselves squinting, and at times dropping our dinner napkins to rush up to the screen in order not to miss the opening scene of Cold Case, or coming up with reasons to wander into the kitchen so we could go nose-to-screen with our 13″ TV.

Here we can’t watch the “big” TV from the dinining room unless we grow giraffe-like necks that can also angle around corners, so we are saved from that problem. In the living room, we sit at most 15 feet from the television. This only makes it harder to struggle with the none-too-subtle message that anyone who is anyone needs at least a 40″ TV. Just visit Best Buy, where the 32″ HDTV sets are around the corner from the 40″-and-larger sets, or view online ads, which call 32″ sets “a good addition to bedroom or office.”

When I measure the corner of the living room, a 40″ TV would fit just fine. It is also not completely out of league financially, since another large purchase we had planned on turned out to be unnecessary. (If you are thinking this is not a large purchase, you do not know us; it’s not a question of affordability, it’s a question of how much time we spend stressing over the purchase and how long and how often we will relive the experience between us after the purchase has been made. Bonnie and Clyde had their heists to fuss over; we have TV sets.)

It’s just that a 40″ TV is the admission that we actually do watch more than a little PBS now and then. A 40″ TV isn’t an appliance; it’s a shrine. It would be our cozy living room’s dominant paradigm, beyond the fireplace, couch, or cats perched on ledges. It would shout, “I’m the equivalent of five years of book purchases on Amazon or a long trip visiting museums in New York.”

You might think, so don’t buy a TV. Stick with your 19″ TV set. Time is on your side, as I pointed out to other friends struggling with this decision. But I had dutifully followed the advice of every TV-buying guide and dragged Sandy to an electronics store to compare plasma to LCD. “See, isn’t it better?” I insisted, and asked her which one she preferred. She pointed to a brand I never heard of, while I, of course, was staring at a Sony Bravia, just as in Neiman Marcus I have this unerring ability to put my hand on the most expensive dress on the rack. I stared at both screens. The Bravia had to be better, right? Right?

We went home to ponder service plans, refresh rates, and our intellectual souls.

“The TV sure looks fuzzy now,” Sandy observed as we watched a little PBS–o.k., Without a Trace (though we did finish up the Sunday Times during commercials). My dear old TV, which had uncomplainingly followed us through four moves, now seemed to project an image not much clearer than lantern slides. It was such a huge purchase when I bought it from the scrape-by salary of my very first library job. I could not bear the idea that it would languish in a used-goods store next to grotty toaster ovens and unwashed cardigans. At the very least, I decided, it could carry on honorably as an adjunct TV, like the three 13″ sets now soldiering on in various corners of this house.

How blessed we are that this is our magnificent obsession, and that I have the luxury to fuss over something as absurd as a television set. Still, come the revolution, put me on the list for a standard-issue TV.

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