Prairie Home Theater Invasion

Maybe all I need is a cleaner window on the world

My stereo system consists of a 20-year-old turntable, 20-year-old speakers, and a five-year-old receiver, tape deck, and CD player I bought for a total of about 500 bucks after hitting an exacta at the Kentucky Derby. My TV is a not-quite-state-of-the-art thing I giddily bought last summer after its predecessor was crushed in a move; my VCR is nothing special, and a few months ago I splurged on a 40-dollar DVD player, but it's not enough.

The man at Best Buy reminded me so. I was sitting in front of the bank of high definition flat-screen TVs, minding my own business, dreaming of the Greek Islands before me. I was taking in the crystal-meth-clear football helmets, the sparkling waterfalls, the beautiful birds in flight--just like I could at home, if only I'd buy. I looked at the price tag, which was that of a decent used car. The salesman, who insisted he doesn't work on commission, said, "You probably know all this, but by 2006, all television will be broadcast in high-definition. HDTV is the next big thing. It's going to be like when black-and-white went to color."

The truth is, I did not know all this, but I believed him. He said it with such certainty, a "pay me now or pay me later" shrug of inevitability. He said it like a representative of No Consumer Left Behind who had seen the future: all of us in a sedentary position. "It's like looking through a window," he told me. And, as a matter of fact, it was--a really clean window. So I started thinking that, yes, I am tired of looking through my smudgy window, and at all the icky weather and messiness and poverty and casualties, and I would much rather look through this window, at this world, at all this terrific entertainment!

James O'Brien

Mind you, I was only window-shopping, but I was open to suggestion. I wanted to know what I was missing, what all those lucky folks in their penthouses and finished basements and family rooms were doing while I was still huddling near the gramophone. So I went to the Mall of America, to the Bose store, which is located in suspiciously close proximity to Legoland, the better to pull defenseless dads like me into the vortex of its electronic toys, like moths to a videotaped Yule log.

The last time I was here was the day Saddam Hussein was captured. It was two weeks before Christmas, the mall was packed, and the news out of Iraq was on every screen in the world, except in Boseville. I stood in front of the display window and watched a man in a Daunte Culpepper jersey sink into the store sofa, his eyes glazed over at a football game on the high-tech screen in front of him. He looked so peaceful, like a wild animal that had succumbed to the warm clench of quicksand.

I sat down in the Bose theater, which is made up of six rows of theater chairs, and instantly felt like a member of Carm Soprano's movie club. I listened to the nice man talk about the amenities of the P-48 or whatever, but all I really wanted was for him to shut up and get on with the show. He dimmed the lights and asked if I liked The Lion King, and I said sure. The overhead projector came to life, and Rod Stewart or Elton John or Sting or somebody sat on my lap and sang to me. Snakes crawled up my leg. Birds cawed all around me. I tried to imagine how the new Arcade Fire CD would sound on this system, or the A.C. Newman song that sings about drinking to a true friend and all "the boring choices rich kids choose."

I asked him how much it cost. When he replied, "Under four thousand dollars," I wondered how much one of my children would fetch on the black market.

He took me past the iPods and Wave systems, which sound like transistor radios compared to the P-48, and showed me another home theater. Shania Twain was singing on the screen in front of me, possessed of such clarity and detail that seeing her in concert could be nothing but a letdown: I have already crawled inside her bellybutton, and possibly her heart. Her band was happy-go-lucky and choreographed, but she looked so alone, and with all that digital clarity came genuine insight: Shania was forlorn about all the antiseptia surrounding her, her bigger-than-lifelike eyes were those of a caged bird's, and I felt her pain in a way no man had before.

The sign above the screen said, "Listen to your life." The sign next to that said, "$3,000." Next to that sign was a silhouette of a blissed-out headphone-wearer who looked vaguely like any number of the print or TV ad guys who sit in front of screens with popcorn or beer or family--tricked out with the right accessories, I mean--and iridescent smiles. I imagined inviting friends over to watch a movie in my home theater, showing off all the doodads and high-ends and low-ends, and taking great pleasure in their sheer jealousy and my creeping agoraphobia.

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