Opening Letters

It's Prime Time

dysfunctional owner in search of functional television

Ken Szymanski, illustrated by Catlin Felix Kramka |

This is the sound of my family relaxing by the television:




The television is acting up again. The picture has been disappearing mid-show, restored only when I repeatedly slap the side of TV. We enjoy good streaks now and then, but sometimes I hit it, sit back on the couch … and the second I’m comfortable, the picture goes out. The one positive? My frustration can be taken out on the TV: WHAP!

“When you watch the game, you can see each blade of grass on the field. You can see the sweat on the player’s faces.” On my mental Wants vs. Needs chart, I know where those things fall.

Our one-year-old son absorbs all of this; now he thinks people are supposed to beat their TVs. So he crawls over to it, pulls himself up to a standing position, smiles, and starts whapping the screen. It’s pretty funny, except when the picture is fine … and then by hitting it, he makes it go out again.

This is nothing new to me. Back at the turn of the century, at the middle school where I teach, an old TV on a cart required the same treatment. While watching something in class, the picture would go black. I’d pound the TV with windmill swings as amused students piped in: “Can I do it? Can I do it?”

Around the same time, my apartment TV – which I got for free – was the same way. I considered that to be “character.” After a while, though, when one has a job and can afford something that functions properly, it’s not “character” anymore; it’s something else.

I wasn’t aware that this philosophy had become an issue beyond my television until a friend’s girlfriend pulled me aside and said, “Ken, you need a new coat.”

“What? I love this coat. I’ve had it forever.”

She shook her head in serious intervention. “Ken.” (Pause.) “You need a new coat. It’s time.”
And so it is with our TV. As everyone moves on to a flat-screen, high-definition TVs, big boxes like ours are hard to give away. My 27” box TV has worked just fine, though. It even earned “oohs” and “ahhhs” when people saw it 12 years ago, but now it looks measly after watching a Packer game at my brother’s house. At home, I squint to read the smaller stats – ones that aren’t cut off from those of us without widescreens.

A friend suggested that a flat screen wouldn’t even be enough, though. “You have to go high def,” he said. “When you watch the game, you can see each blade of grass on the field. You can see the sweat on the player’s faces.” On my mental Wants vs. Needs chart, I know where those things fall.

Besides, I imagine myself at Best Buy, staring at a wall of TV possibilities, with someone watching from behind a stack of subwoofers, thinking, “Oh … look at Mr. Public Employee … must be nice with the big teacher salary … a regular TV isn’t good enough … Mr. Big Bucks has to have a flat screen at the taxpayer expense.” I’d read about myself in the Voice of the People before I even had the TV hooked up.

Welcome to my personal economic life, where an endless inner-battle rages between carrying on my parents’ noble Great Depression-honed frugality and “Ken … it’s time.” I’ve gotten better at this balance with age and marriage. I’m not crazy about having a giant monument to television as the centerpiece of our household, and we certainly don’t need even more incentive to waste days and nights in front of the TV. Yet I don’t want my sons having high tech fun at other people’s houses, only to have their friends come to our house for what feels like charades and carrot sticks.

I wouldn’t be even be thinking about a replacement if we had a working television, but our TV is – literally – lame. So, I decide to go ahead with the purchase – proud that I stuck to my principles and didn’t upgrade until necessary. A real rugged frontiersman, huh? Never mind that … or that bigger problems plague the world. Even our hardy ancestors – at some point – upgraded from radio to TV, from black and white to color, from VHS to DVD.

Then my wife brings up the idea of using her old 19” dorm TV that’s been in our basement gathering dust since we bought our house. “Nope,” I say, feigning disappointment. “It doesn’t have the right hook-ups in the back.” We go round and round, and I finally bring it upstairs to prove my point and … it works fine.

In our big entertainment center, it looks like a snow globe in a parking ramp, but it appears to be a free and easy solution. A 19” TV … one that’s had plenty of rest … it could last for years.


Upon hook-up, our son senses that this appliance is different, yet the same. He crawls over to it, pulls himself up, smiles, and starts slapping it – practically high-fiving the thing – perfectly happy with this perfectly functional TV.

And I sit on our comfortable couch, silent and sinking.