THE EXACT MOMENT becomes frozen in my mind. It happened in a restaurant where a group of us had gone to eat, as they used to say, Chinese. Someone mentioned that the Nutcracker was on television that night and all the ballet buffs at the table groaned about missing it. There was a woman there, blond, in case that's important, eating Moo Shi pork, which is important, and she said, "We're taping it." Then she threw her husband a let-them-eat-cake look and said, "We'll see it later tonight." I had the urge to kill.
Forget envy. I was not envious. It was something else and it had to do with the fact that some pretty fundamental laws of nature were being tampered with that night - laws having to do with how you can't be two places at the same time, how you can't have your cake and eat it, too.
At any rate, ever since that night, I've been obsessed with videotape recorders. I read all the ads and I go stare at them in the stores, thinking, in my own way, that they are somewhat magical. I wonder what they will mean in the long run, whether they will change the way children are raised, whether they will alter the rules we live by, the notion that life, for instance, is a series of options - that you can't have it all. Now, with television, you can and there is something about that that offends the Cotton Mather in me. That Puritan streak that holds that deprivation strengthens character. You can have your ballet or your Moo Shi pork but not, I submit, both.
I have to tell you, though, that I react with panic to most technological innovations. When I first heard of automatic dialing machines, for instances, I couldn't sleep. I kept thinking about what would happen if one of them called an automatic answering machine. Do you come home to find that you now subscribe to 32 magazines and the food of the month club? I wonder, furthermore, how all this stuff would have affected my life if it had come around earlier. I mean, I can just imagine me programming my automatic dialing machine with the names of all girls in my high school and than letting the device get me a date for Saturday night. I dare some answering machine to tell my dialing machine that it is washing its hair.
But I disgress. It is videotape machines that set me off and so what I did is call a friend and discuss the subject with her. She said that the people who bought these machines to replay the programs they were too busy to watch the tapes. They would always be behind, the tapes stacking up somewhere near the machine - mounds and mounds of sporting events, maybe all of "I Claudius" and an episode or two of "Upstairs, Downstairs."
That's the notion the people who make these machines want to get across - that you can watch more television. Maybe you can, but the people I talk to who own these gizmos say that's not the case at all. The woman who taped the ballet, for instance, works nights and tapes shows that she misses. I called her in the afternoon and she had just finished watching the Lou Grant Show, taped the night before. That told me something. I called another friend and he told me that he tapes nothing but old movies that play in the afternoon. He watches them late at night and he watches them without commercials - putting the machine on fast-forward when it comes time to sell something.
I continued to gather information. I learned of a guy who pays his kids to tape shows without the commercials. Apparently, they get up and turn off the tape machine when a commercial comes on, and then turn it on when the program resumes. I learned lots of people fast-forward the commercials and what I got, all in all, was a picture of people not using machine to watch everything that was on television for them - people who were knocking the concept of prime time into a cocked hat and who were ripping off television by not watching the commericals. How interesting. How delicious
And then I remembered something. I remembered all those talk shows where they tell you that they have helped taped it the day before. What I'm talking about is the feeling you get that they were making you watch they wanted you to watch whhen they wanted you to watch it and the feeling you get now that the day is coming when one night there will be nothing in front of the nation's television's screens but videotape recorders.
The rest of us will be at a Chinese restaurant.