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The Cold Blue Hearth

by Kevin D. Williamson

A final surrender to TV

After holding out for nearly 40 years, I have for the first time in my life intentionally and voluntarily acquired a television. In the fine reactionary tradition, I have joined the middle of the last century, albeit in an improved version.

Which is not to say I’ve never lived with a television. My parents had one when I was a youngster (rather too much more about that in a bit), and the vagaries of my sometimes disordered domestic arrangements in adulthood meant that a television occasionally made an appearance in a place in which I was living. For instance, I briefly rented a television-equipped townhouse in northern Virginia, and, more significant, I once had a long-term roommate of the sort with whom one traditionally enters into an all too easily revoked legal relationship bearing tax benefits, and she desired to watch America’s Next Top Model and so acquired the necessary equipment, though I drew the line at cable. Said legal relationship was in due time revoked, and though I was sad to see her go, I did not miss the television. (Or the cat. Especially the cat.)

My beef with the cold blue hearth of the American home was, I am embarrassed to admit, literally juvenile, an outgrowth of preteen rebellion that lasted into early middle age. The story is this: As attentive National Review readers may know, I was raised in the city of Lubbock, Texas, which is not a terribly small place in terms of population — about 185,000 during my childhood — and is a very large place in terms of geography: about three times the size of Paris proper (and I don’t mean Paris, Texas). The resultant lack of population density made effective mass transit uneconomical, and my parents — who were, to put it charitably, sorely overmatched by the demands of parenthood — could not be relied upon even to take me to school on most days, much less to drive me to other appointments. All of which is to say that a bicycle was very close to an absolute necessity for a dashing man about town too young to drive.

I had a good one: a Schwinn ten-speed. It wasn’t fashionable — those were the days of Redline and Mongoose BMX bikes, with plastic mag wheels and Velcro-secured padding to protect young gonads from sudden deceleration — but it was quick and reliable and, unlike almost anything else in the world at the time, mine, entirely. Or so I thought.

Returning sunburnt and exhausted from my annual two-week summer trip to my father’s house, I experienced my first real intimation of homicide when I learned that my mother and her loathsome third husband had, as was their habit, dispatched my stepbrother to go to the Furr’s grocery store to buy two cartons of cigarettes. (Merits for her, Pall Malls for him, in an era in which a fourth-grader could go toddling into a grocery store with a signed check and walk out with cartons of smokes, without a SWAT-team response.) Apparently the nicotine fit was partcularly heavy upon them that afternoon, so my stepbrother was instructed to expropriate my bicycle, if only for the duration of this particular domestic emergency. My stepbrother, being a confirmed idiot, attempted to jump a curb on the ten-speed, as though it were a BMX bike, with the predictable results: a warped front wheel and an entirely useless front fork, a bicycle good for going nowhere except in wobbly circles. I spent a good part of the afternoon sharpening my hunting knife.

But, being an ephebic libertarian, I decided to test the Coase theorem and seek a remedy based on simple restorative justice. Immediately, there were problems of irreconcilable ideology. My mother, like most women who have had the experience of single motherhood, was at heart a redistributionist: Of course she admitted my stepbrother’s culpability in the matter (though not her own), but she believed that the repairs properly should be funded by my father, who made more money than she did. Her redistributionist tendencies were not shared by my father, who was by then thoroughly post–New Deal, a welfare reformer before his time, really, one who was convinced already that his child-support payments were being squandered. And so there was a three-way impasse: My mother and father had discovered yet another irreconcilable difference, and child-labor regulations conspired to prevent me from earning the money to fund the repairs myself, at least for a time.

So I was literally stuck. My nearest (in both senses) friends were miles away, a half hour’s walk or more. I set about scheming, and considered several entrepreneurial and criminal options for reclaiming my lost mobility, but to no success. A birthday came and went without progress, and my hopes were hitched to the one great bright star in the skies of children everywhere: Christmas. My case was ironclad: I was definitely on the nice-not-naughty list, with the report cards to prove it: high marks across the board, from science to citizenship. Bicycle repairs were safely within the budget of even my financially feckless family — perhaps, I deluded myself, there would even be a new bicycle under the tree.

Come the day, I could have punted the Baby Jesus across the Great Plains.

What was in fact under the tree was the worst of all possible outcomes, an awful trifecta: 1) a gift that was not a bicycle, or even bicycle parts; 2) a gift that was, even worse, a joint gift to me, my brother, and my idiotic stepbrother; 3) a gift that I did not want. My parents had spent what was for them an uncharacteristically lavish sum of money on a new television and, even more remarkable, a VCR — something not everybody had back then. I was unimpressed. I was destined to be an English major, but I already could do the math: We three boys shared a room, but there were a total of six of us sharing the one family television, to nobody’s great satisfaction. The idea of a joint gift already was abhorrent to the emerging young anti-collectivist (especially one in a family in which three boys had birthdays in the same month), but this one had the distinct feel about it of something that they were going to have bought anyway, for their own ends.

The television is an anchor that tethers one to the home, and I had been looking for a means of escape. I immediately turned my nose up at it, and it took three decades for it to come back down.

It’s been fun, these last few years, telling news-show bookers and cable hosts that I’ve never really owned a television, never sat through an episode of the Sean Hannity show or the Bill O’Reilly program, that I have managed without Parks and Recreation and Party Down. My adolescent rage against the machine was reinforced by a fair bit of literary snobbishness, to be sure, though when I looked at a television, what I remembered was my mother’s husband dropping off in a recliner, watching baseball, and performing the truly remarkable feat of smoking Pall Malls in his sleep. (Seriously, you have to have seen it.) But it wasn’t meant to last forever.

For one thing, television programming, as practically every cultural commentator already has noted at length, is a great deal better today than it was back in the days of three “real” channels plus UHF, or in the early days of cable. Television began to find a crack into my hardened heart when I was renting that townhouse in Virginia and coming home from my rather long and enervating commute from George Mason University to watch the HBO series Rome, which was terrific. It is surprising how much television one absorbs without really ever meaning to: A Mad Men episode here, a History Channel special there. It took its time coming, but television did bloom into an occasionally fascinating medium for long-form dramatic storytelling, deeper in its way than cinema or theater. Movies, as somebody once said, are like short stories, but television shows are novels. My literary prudery was worn down incrementally.

The real break came when I began to travel a bit more for work and purchased the horse opera Deadwood for my iPad. (Scenes from Deadwood occasionally are awkward to watch in intimate airplane seating, I’ve discovered: whorehouse realism and all that.) The final surrender came when the terribly helpful people at my credit-card company broke down one month’s spending for me by category and I realized that my habitual late-night socializing was costing me about as much as the monthly payment on a bright red midlife-crisis coupe. I began to theorize that the domestic anchor I had cut loose all those years ago might entice me into spending a few more quiet evenings at home in front of Sherlock or Top Gear.

Being a single man, of course I went whole-hog into the thing, buying a television that takes up the better part of one of the walls in my small New York apartment and adding the irreplaceable online services: Apple TV, Netflix, Hulu, various news apps, etc. So rich is the available on-demand content that I’ve not yet felt the need to subscribe to cable, and that arrangement seems to me more of our time, anyway: Who in this busy age wants to watch television on somebody else’s schedule? (Or do anything else on somebody else’s schedule, for that matter?) Televisions today are, like telephones and other appliances, computers, and televisions only incidentally and among other things. To make a Skype call on a 55-inch screen is to be reminded that we do live in an age of wonders.

But I bought a really nice bike first.

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