About 10 days ago, someone in my building snitched my morning paper. Perhaps I should say "borrowed." It reappeared at my door just before I left for work. In the interval, I was out of the information loop. I always have NPR on in the morning--those uninflected voices do not interfere with my struggle to get out of the house. But the station was having one of its "annual membership drives," which means guilt-inducing reminders of our debt, and so I turned to television.
I don't know what gets me more--the mandated banter before a reluctant shift to the news, with all the relentless references to the hosts, or the shrieking at the barricades to greet the meteorologist. I am unsociable in the morning, intent on exits only. I grind my teeth and imagine the newsgiver chirping, "Good morning, Katie and Matt! Manhattan was hit this morning by a nuclear bomb, and then, Matt and Katie. . . ."
Actually, the "Today" show gave me my first glimpse of Ernestine Schlant Bradley, a potential first lady. She seems a breed apart: German-born; daughter of a Luftwaffe pilot; college professor and author of "The Language of Silence: West German Literature and the Holocaust." What she talked about was the cereal combinations Bill Bradley worked out for their 10-year-old daughter.
I was punished for my negative thoughts about the box. The following Saturday night, as I was watching the news, my set suddenly sputtered and died. I was bereft. I was used to two and a half hours of TV in the evening, watching Mark and Gordon and shouting John sift through the week's guff.
Sunday morning, with Tim and Bob and Cokie and Sam, has always been sacred to me. I don't care what their guests say, but I glom onto their commentators. But while they were doing my work for me last week, I was listening to Beethoven's Third on the radio and reading the paper.
In the week that followed, I was opinion-deprived and movie-starved, my routine shattered. It was my custom to dash home to catch Peter, then to Jim and sometimes, I must admit, to sneak over to Channel 21, where there is always some hanky-panky in a motel room or Clint Eastwood shooting. At 8 p.m., I turn to Chris, but not for long--I grow hoarse from yelling at him to shut up and let a guest answer his interminable questions.
But last week I found myself answering mail, sometimes the day it arrived. And I began to read, particularly books I had not intended to read. I had a copy of Dante's "Paradiso" to send to an Italian friend. With all the new time on my hands, I decided to try it. It's high altitude for someone unused to grandeur. Dante's tone is dazzling. "O senseless cares of mortals," he begins one canto.
I read another book because I promised to: "When Pride Still Mattered," by my friend and colleague David Maraniss. As many readers already know, it is about football coach Vince Lombardi. I can't stand football. But with my television gone, I picked it up. Lombardi was grim for my taste--he drove his players, bullied his family and lived and breathed the game. But Maraniss, a Clinton biographer, is a great man for context and he takes you deep into Lombardi's times, into the glory days of Grantland Rice and Damon Runyon, who wrote prose almost as good as Maraniss's. I learned to skip over Lombardi lines such as, "The big point I realized was that whatever formation I used, I had to have a flanker back" and hurried on to the good off-gridiron stuff.
I don't usually read campaign biographies, but in my TV-less life, I read "Faith of My Fathers," Sen. John McCain's bestseller, which is about his grandfather, his father and himself. It is mostly about pain and endurance, his five and a half years in Hanoi prison camps, years of solitary confinement and regular torture. It was so unnecessary, so protracted that you may be tempted to say, "Give this man anything he wants, including the Oval Office. He has had too much to bear."
On Wednesday night, I had a dream: Bill Bradley came to fix my television.
Finally, on Thursday, a real repair man came. He could not tell if my set was worth fixing. "You don't understand," I said. "How am I supposed to get through the week without 'Frasier' "? He looked grave. "That's my man," he said. And then, "I could get a new set here in an hour, if you want." I reached for my checkbook.
That night, a funny thing happened to me on the way to my favorite show. I got a glimpse of "Scent of a Woman," the 1992 film with Al Pacino as an impossible blind retired Army colonel and Chris O'Donnell as his naive prep-school weekend guide dog. I had missed it when it was here, and I couldn't leave it, even for "Frasier."
That may be the nicest thing about television. It gives you a second chance.