Working to untangle the the ganglion mass of outside Christmas lights yesterday morning in the yard, the 2010 version of the exterior illuminationist wondered just what the hell ole '09 Tom was thinking with his bizarre knots and warped winding. "Oh, Holy Night!" snaps the hero in his best pissed off Donald Duck imitation, while the two lads work steadily on - one on the endless litter of maple leaves (which are to our yard in November what the locusts were to the Nile Valley in the time of Moses) and his older brother on stringing the big globes from the ever-widening rhododendron.
While not quite of Griswoldian proportions, both the tangle and the finished display provided enough of a glimmer to ruminate by. But only just.
This is a dim time of year - both colder and darker earlier, and infused with the imitation good cheer of unchecked consumerism and product worship. We are increasingly defined by our gadgets and technology, as if the mere slapping down of two-hundred smackers for a certain brand of smartphone was in itself, a creative act. The creative class is dying, but everyone poses as the creative class. It's all in Jimmy Stewart's darkest post-war dream. Nick, dontcha know me? Hit me, I'm downloadin' apps. Black Friday and the insulting Cyber Monday - big savings online! - are mere marching orders from the oligarchs, secular holidays without the charm and humanity of the Hallmark-breeched Mother's Day.
A decade ago, Black Friday was a financial term used by analysts in the consumer marketing sector - a decade from now, I expect lawn decorations and Black Friday-themed shopping parties. It all kicked into gear when George W. Bush urged Americans to head to the mall in reaction to the killings of 9/11, beating swords into credit card debt. "This invasion of nature by trade with its money," warned Ralph Waldo Emerson before the Civil War, "threatens to upset the balance of man and establish a new Universal Monarchy more tyrannical than Babylon or Rome." Emerson wasn't against commerce at all (he fairly reveled in young America's commercial energy), but he argued for balancing trade with public good, and his idea of the American Dream was personal improvement, not wealth. But the Concord philosopher never had the opportunity to get to Best Buy at 3 am for that sweet 40-inch flat screen - ho, ho, the mistletoe.
Then too, we're hemmed in by media-required anniversaries of iconic American murders, from Dallas '63 to West 72nd Street '80, reminders of our own tragedies of course as well as heralds for the ghost of Christmas That Never Was (and Never Will Be Again). The late election results curdle the milk as well, especially if they're a harbinger of the national swing rather than a mere structural mid-term blow-out. The President's 12-stitch fat lip, garnered playing school-yard shoot-around with the boys (and he's entitled) may, we hope, serve as a painful reminder that he needs to set the high pick against the Republicans and lay out the likes of Tannin' John Boehner in the lane. No more pre-negotiating. More Charles Oakley in the West Wing, less Charles Smith (for you Knicks fans of a different era).
'Tis a strange sporting event, this national rooting for the retail economy. Halcyon days are those spent sitting 'round the barber shop on a Saturday afternoon, kibitzing with the fellas about Apple's latest iPad numbers. When Don Draper says he sleeps "on a bed made of money," Matt Weiner is writing pure 2010, folks, not our 60's selves. In The Times today, David Segal seemed to pick up on the patriotic call to purchase in the service of our country, but he had some bad news to deliver:
We are not going to shop our way out of this mess.
It’s a cheerless truth about the post-Thanksgiving start of the Christmas season, traditionally the bell lap in America’s year-long steeplechase of buying. There has been a rebound in consumption since the grimmest days of the Great Recession, but that has not been joined by an uptick in hiring or a robust expansion.
So the question of our anxious age: What will return our economy to full-throttled life?
Maybe when the feuding Teutuls get back together on American Chopper? (By the by, how can you not root for Paul Jr. and his buddy Vinny? Or for Derek Jeter over the hereditary billionaire Steinbrenner spawn?) Strange days indeed, and it's still November. Another month of deck them halls and shopping lists and forced commercial merriment.
But you know, the poet said it ain't no sin to be glad you're alive, even amidst the darkness. There's something to that. And that Emersonian glimmer remains: "It is much that this old and vituperated system of things has borne so fair a child. It predicts that amidst a planet peopled with conservatives, one Reformer may yet be born."
We can hope. Cue the Christmas lights, boys.