Sunday, April 4, 2004

Just a little harmless entertainment?

Published in the Alton Telegraph--April 4, 2004

I was casually ignoring the advertisement on the radio because I needed to be somewhat less casual in my attempt to merge into traffic from the on-ramp. Then a single, stunning, potent phrase caught my attention. The robust voice of the invisible man in my dashboard enticed me with the claim that I could enjoy “hundreds of movies and thousands of emotions” simply by purchasing his 968-channel satellite dish system. I was captivated.

What enraptured me was not the magnetic appeal of the offer itself but the startling fact that someone in the entertainment industry was being so brazenly honest. They had finally admitted it out loud: my television is an emotional drug dispenser, and this guy wanted to be my pusher.

His proposal was genuinely appealing. He would bring a greater variety of drugs into my living room with such potency that I would feel no need to leave my recliner and seek pleasure in something as mundane and frustrating as real life. I could laugh with my virtual friends, cry at the vicarious pain of artificial people, be excited by the explosions of digitally manufactured cars, and experience late-night arousal the likes of which no ordinary house-wife can possibly provide. And all this for only a small monthly fee. Plus installation costs, of course.

As I recklessly grabbed my cell phone and prepared to credit card my way to emotional bliss, I paused. Sure, it all sounded great. I’d get everything my boring life could never hope to provide, and they’d get a pittance in compensation. But something inside me gently balked at the ravenous id desperately wanting me to order by phone today. I wondered if maybe there wasn’t some unseen hitch in the path to ecstasy so plainly laid out before me. I knew millions of other civilized Americans had been down this road before. Surely they couldn’t all have been wrong. I knew that the clinical trials for the system I might purchase had gone smoothly: not one unexplained death, and the FDA said the pharmacological side-effects were minor.

Still something was bothering me. It all seemed so easy. Perhaps too easy. Sure I could develop new friends, but would they ever comfort me when I needed to talk about my problems? My make-believe buddies would never give me a hug after a car wreck or watch my children in an emergency. Sure I could laugh and cry, but with whom would I share these joys and tears forty years from now? Would I really want to sit and reminisce about events that never even happened except on the lot of studio 27? Sure it would be great fun to watch the explosions and gunfights of outer space in a galaxy far, far away, but after winning the war I’d still be a philosophy teacher in a galaxy within commuting distance. Sure it’s grand fun to watch hundreds of different women parade around and pretend I am as arousing as that camera surely must be, but these imaginary women would never hold my hand at sunset or need me to make chicken soup for them when they became ill. Is the kind of intimacy I want in my marriage compatible with committing mental adultery via satellite whenever my wife comes home exhausted? Something about all of this started to disturb me.

More and more the price in dollars seemed like the very least of the costs in this Faustian bargain. Would this service make me happier? Or would it only make me temporarily forget how unhappy my ordinary life was by comparison? Would it inspire me to achieve great things for God and country? Or would it inspire me to compile a video library of my three hundred and twenty-four favorite previous emotional cocktails? Would I become a better person? Or would I learn there is no need to improve myself because my fictional friends in the little glass box are doing well enough for the both of us? I found myself wondering whether a person whose life is spent watching others imitate life is even really alive himself.
In the end, I made the choice which none of my neighbors can comprehend. I put the phone back in the glove box, drove home, and shocked the entire big-screen, surround-sound world by spending the evening cuddled up next to my wife. She appreciated the quiet time, and I enjoyed the pleasantly smooth pulse of reality for an evening. Oh, and by the way, my wife’s cold has gotten better. The chicken soup seems to have done the trick.