James Lileks
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Of all the great moral questions that divide our age, the subject I'm about to raise is one of the least important. But it reveals a lot about you, and if you disagree with me, you're probably going to hell.

OK, probably not, but that's the way public debates go these days, so I thought I'd save us all some time.

Anyway, let me set up the painfully Minnesotan scenario: I'm at a large retailer, and my cart has milk, cereal, Pepto-Bismol Maximum Strength — the other version apparently is intended for those who want incomplete relief — and a movie etched on a thin silver disc. For you young people, we call them "DVDs."

The clerk comes over, and because there's at least three decades in age difference, he probably sizes me up as someone who's looking for a machine to play old "Matlock" tapes. "Really, mister, discs? That's like, you know, carrying money around."

So you have to sling the lingo to let him know he's not dealing with an idiot. "I'm looking for a 4K player. Since HDMI and optical sound output is standard, what's the difference between these units? Does this one upscale the picture? Will it frammatize the scan rate on my OLED?"

"It'll play anything, pretty much. ... Wait, what?"

Now you have him because you know things he doesn't — among them that you have no idea what frammatize means other than you stumbled on it at a techie website and it appears to have something to do with slope compensation, whatever that is. No matter; you have upended his entire presumption.

Or, you can bop him in the nose with a rolled-up newspaper. Either works.

See, this is how men are. Put us in front of anything with buttons that plugs in or goes VROOM — or preferably both — and we can't admit ignorance. It's terribly important to us to appear to know things. We believe that if there's ever a problem on the International Space Station, the phone might ring because we saw "Apollo 13" once and have some ideas.

Anyway. There were two Ultra4K players, and I asked about the cheaper one. The box looked stained. Is that why it was on sale? It has moisture damage? Are all the movies going to have characters standing in a foot of water?

He actually thought this was a serious question and told me that if it didn't work, I could bring it back.

I put it in my cart. The price was right. If it did have moisture issues and the movies had more water than the director intended, maybe "Titanic" would only last 45 minutes. And who knows? Peter O'Toole wearing swim fins in "Lawrence of Atlantis" might be fun.

But as I shopped some more, I began to have second thoughts. The stain. The discount. What else was wrong with it? I'd soured on it before I got to the checkout, and that presented the moral dilemma I mentioned above: When you're in a store and you decide you don't want something, do you put it back where you got it?

There are two schools of thought. One is: Yes, of course. It's the decent thing to do. The other: Oh, come on! That's why they have stock people. They're paid to walk this jar of Prego Thick 'n' Chunky Garlic Garden Pepper Basil back to the Italian section, even if you left it in the bra aisle.

True. But isn't it up to us to lessen their burden?

Complicating matters: If I take back the player, I might hurt the clerk's feelings. "All that technical assistance I provided was for naught," he'd think, "because he looked it up on Amazon and it was three dollars cheaper. My life is a parade of ingratitude."

There was another option: If I used the self-checkout area, where I can check out my self's area, then I could just leave it on the floor. But that would mean the employee who watches over self-checkout — guiding the confused and entering the holy codes — might assume that anyone who bought a disc player was probably senile and forgot he had it.

"Sir! SIR! Did you forget your TV machine?"

I ended up handing the box to the guardian of self-checkout, saying, "I changed my mind. It's stained. Thank you."

It seemed the decent thing to do. Minnesota Nice is often derided, but you can boil it down to not leaving a 4K disc player in the bathroom tissue aisle because you changed your mind.

And then feeling terribly proud of yourself. But keeping that to yourself.

Oops. Forget I brought it up.

james.lileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858 • Twitter: @Lileks • facebook.com/james.lileks