The Uptight Hipster: Christmas Lights

Christmas lights downtown in the 1950s or '60s.

Christmas lights downtown in the 1950s or ’60s.

It’s cold.  It’s winter.  I want to stay indoors.  I want to drink cocoa in front of the fireplace with my jolly family.

But I am already dressed for the outdoors, so I must go.  I wear an all-purpose wool sweater that resembles a llama.

It is getting dark.

Did you forget your shoes?

Slip into the fleece-lined slippers that double as shoes.

The Rolling Stones are singing “Winter” on my iPod.

The Christmas lights in my neighborhood are already on at 4:30.  The scene is stark: bare trees, chunks of icy snow under the evergreens, and a pink-orange sunset as faraway as outer space. The lights are the only sign of softness.  When I walk around the block, I see 25 decorated houses.  Lights twinkle from roofs, trees and bushes.  Tacky lit-up creches, LED sleighs, reindeer, and window menorahs glimmer.

I miss the bleakness. The bleakness is kind of pretty.

I don’t approve of Christmas lights. I am an uptight hipster, not as oxymoronic as it sounds, who doesn’t do drugs or concerts but who cares about energy conservation. The lights waste energy.  The greenhouse gas emissions are huge. I read that each bulb on holiday lights produces enough carbon monoxide to fill 15,500 hot air balloons.

So what are my neighbors thinking?

LED lights are supposed to be more eco-friendly.  Are my neighbors using LED lights?

I can go door-to-door and say, I wish you a Merry Christmas, I wish you a Merry Christmas, I wish you a Merry Christmas, and do you use LED?

Uh huh.

At least they're LED.

At least they’re LED.

People have different attitudes towards Christmas lights in different neighborhoods.  Poor?  No lights when we lived in a neighborhood of mostly run-down houses.  Urban apartment house?  No lights, except indoors.   Working-class?    Bright bright lights, Santas, sleighs, reindeer in a competitive neighborhood trying to design the best displays.  Wow!  I want to go back there and take pictures.  Middle-class urban neighborhood & Suburbs?  Very subdued, mostly very pretty, as if in church, only a few fright shows of explosive high wattage.

Why do I think so much about lights?  I sit in front of my computer under low-energy light bulbs that don’t emit enough light.  Soon, I understand, we will not be able to get the bright old-fashioned kind.  I feel that I am being deprived of good light for the sake of an invention that isn’t quite good enough.  Perhaps this is how people feel about Christmas lights

The Rolling Stones mention Christmas lights in “Winter”:

And I wish I’d been out in California
When the lights on all the Christmas trees went out
But I been burnin’ my bell, book and candle
And the restoration plays have all gone ’round

The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones

And W. S. Di Piero describes them in “Chicago and December”:

I walk north across  
the river, Christmas lights  
crushed on skyscraper glass,  
bling stringing Michigan Ave.,  
sunlight’s last-gasp sighing  
through the artless fog.  

W. S. Di Piero

W. S. Di Piero

They fascinate us with their different rhythms and ways  of thinking about lights.

In the end we have to accept the lights. It’s Christmas.

Friendly Persuasion: Why It’s Okay to Have an E-Reader

Photo by Sarah Mackinnon; GETTY IMAGES

Photo by Sarah Mackinnon

On a recent journey, I was much occupied with my new e-reader.   Like many of us in the electronic age, I spend as much time with “e”-things as I do with human beings. My e-reader feels like my friend.  It is basically a small computer that supplies me with infinite choices of books; allows me to open my email and surf the web; plays music; and provides me with crossword puzzles. It is tactile.  I have my hands all over the screen every day.  I tap, click and drag, swipe, and read.

I told everyone recently that I didn’t need a new one.   “What do we need with all this new electronic crap?” I was haunted by images of e-waste I saw in a 60 Minutes story in 2008:  computers, phones and other electronic devices burning  in a dump in China where old computers and other electronic devices were sent to be “recycled.” One expert told Scott Pelley that these devices leak toxic chemicals like lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium, polyvinyl chloride.

I was horrified.  I want to make my e-things last.

But then my e-reader broke, and I had to replace it.  Call it Kindle, Nook, Kobo, Sony Reader: all of them are genies.

On Saturday, while my driver listened to Bob Dylan on the radio, I clicked on my e-reader and looked at the screen.  My device informed me that the temp was 36 degrees, and that on the basis of  recent library activity, which it semi-literately refers to as “picked for you based on recent library activity,” I might enjoy James Salter’s Burning the Days or Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.

I am indulgent of my e-reader’s faults, such as recommending books I already have, like Smith’s book, one of my favorite novels.  It is like having an encounter with a bookseller.  I might appreciate Burning the Days.

Suddenly the  screen dulled to gray because of the glare.  At first I wasn’t sure what was happening. Then I realized, “It’s so smart! It’s making it easier for me to read.”

Here is a short digression about my reading.   You probably think I was reading Disraeli’s Sibyl, or some other obscure 19th-century text available for download free from Project Gutenberg.

drowning-girl-caitlin-r-kiernan-paperback-cover-artNo, I was reading a new book I could just as easily have found at a bookstore:  Caitlin R. Kiernan’s strange, lyrical, fantasy-cum-psychological novel, The Drowning Girl.

Did I feel guilty that I hadn’t bought the paperback?  Not on the journey.  I was too fascinated by the poetic voice of the heroine, Imp, who is schizophrenic, like her mother, grandmother, and great-aunt, and who is writing a ghost story, about ghosts of mermaids and wolves.

She says:  “Sure, I’m a crazy woman, and I have to take pills I can’t really afford to stay out of hospitals, but I still see ghosts everywhere I look, when I look, because once you start seeing them, you can’t ever stop seeing them.”

I was guilt-free about my e-reader until we arrived in Iowa City and browsed at independent bookstores.  Why wasn’t I supporting Murphy-Brookfield Books, Prairie Lights, or Iowa Book & Supply?  Well, they’re too far from home.  I order books online,  books or e-books, because they are not available at physical bookstores in my city, where at least 12 independent bookstores have closed since the ‘90s.

Murphy-Brookfield Books

Back in the car, after buying a book, I immediately loved my e-reader again.  THE SCREEN LIGHTS UP IN THE DARK. I could read my e-book in the car.  I had to wait to read my paperback till I got home.

E-readers have their disadvantages.  At the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a study tells us that most e-readers have the capacity to track our searches and monitor our reading habits.  We mostly ignore that.

Lulling us with e-readers and computers, encouraging us to post our thoughts on Facebook,  Twitter, and e-mail, is fun for us, but great for surveillance, should it come to that, and provides employers with data to fire employees or information for divorce lawyers to prevail in court. In a strange kind of way, it also prepares us for the apocalypse, not Triffids, as in my favorite science fiction book, The Day of the Triffids, but perhaps for The Day of Climate Change.  We are indoors so much–except in Kindle ads–that we should be less panicky if it comes to the point where we can’t go outdoors.

Meanwhile, our e-devices are our friends. My e-reader is a female friend.  Does anyone else have a feeling like that?   And we sincerely hope our e-things will never jeopardize us.

Carpe diem while we can!