Life in the city

Living in the blue lights

I never set out to do anthropology.

Or be a voyeur. I simply went out and walked the dog. But in the winter months, on darkened streets, anthropology and voyeurism seem to come with the territory. Because there are so many windows. So many lights.

And from almost every house, the ubiquitous blue glow from the screen.

I watch the blue lights night after night. Month after month. And this winter, they began to make me feel….well, blue. Because I believe history will show the television screen to be our version of the opium pipe. It sits in our dens (and bedrooms and kitchens and living rooms) and sucks the energy out of our cultural, political and community life.

Just as opium once did to the Chinese. In the early1800s, the British East India Company shipped tons of opium into Canton, making huge profits and creating a country of addicts. As Chinese families and communities fell apart, a predatory British Empire and its huge business cartels starting running the country. In 1840, the Chinese actually went to war to get the Brits and the opium out.

It was a Quixotic and doomed venture -- as would be any large-scale attempt to remove Time-Warner, Disney and Murdoch from our country today.

China lost. The opium trade more than doubled. And Chinese society continued its downward spiral. That I wander through the lovely streets of Linden Hills late at night, gloomily comparing my neighborhood to a decaying 19th century China may be a sign of what happens to genetic Scandinavians in their fifth month of seasonal light deprivation.

Disconnected But I actually started having these thoughts in the height of last summer when I went to debates as a volunteer with the Rybak campaign. Night after night, I watched as the mayoral and city council candidates (a pretty feisty, articulate bunch of people) debated the issues facing our city… usually empty halls and

auditoriums. After another discouraging turnout, I'd come home, walk the dog and notice the hazy blue lights in nearly every window.

And it wasn't just an isolated political phenomenon. Nearly every organization I know---our school PTA, church vestry, park sports board, neighborhood council and more--- scrounges for members and volunteers. Orchestras and theaters struggle with dwindling audiences.

Newspapers, books and magazines face declining readerships.

There are always plenty of reasons. Longer working hours. Two-income families. The rush of modern life. The suburbs and their hyper-individualism, with everyone retreating to their own private one-acre spreads.

But I find myself coming back to the blue lights. Because they're everywhere --in the city, suburb, country, across all race

and class lines. According to Robert Putnam, author of the best-selling "Bowling Alone," as people began watching more television, they also became more disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, PTAs, churches, bowling leagues and other forms of "social capital."

Acceptable vice In 1949, only two percent of all homes had a television set; forty years later, 98 percent had a set. My parents belonged

to a strict Baptist culture that forbade alcohol, card-playing, dancing and going to movies. And yet, in the '50s, like most of their generation, they welcomed television with an eager innocence that, in retrospect, seems naive. (Just as my generation's blithe embrace of Internet may someday prove.) The Baptist ban on movies quickly fell apart. (How could "Mary Poppins"

be Satanic when "The Lawrence Welk Show" was sacred?) And although we still weren't allowed to dance, we could sit in our living room and watch everyone else doing it on "American Bandstand."

By the time I was a teenager, our family owned three sets, including one that sat on the kitchen table and we watched during meals. TV had become our drug of choice, an escape from family problems no one wanted to deal with. Our family didn't drink. We didn't dope. We all just toked on the cathode rays and sat around stoned.

Which may explain why, as adults, my sister and I both hate TV, rarely watch it and restrict it with our children. Yet neither of us seems willing to join that two percent of all households who have chosen to abstain altogether. My family owns

one, small pipe. We keep it in the basement for sacred occasions like The American League Play-offs. Vikes games. The Simpsons. Star Trek reruns, NOVA, the Winter Olympics….

I mean, really. We're only doing it on the weekends. Or on special occasions. Never with the hard stuff. We don't have cable. We can quit any time.

Signs of hope But despite my lack of total sobriety, I see signs of hope. First, there's a growing, open discussion regarding what TV is doing to us. It took us decades to figure out the deadly effects of smoking. But more and more people are now quitting and maybe the same will happen with television. And second and closer to home, there's the astounding growth in local coffee houses, none of which seem to have TVs, unlike most bars and many restaurants.

Which I doubt is accidental. In the competitive world of Dunn Brothers versus Caribou versus Starbucks versus Mom-and-Pop stores, if TVs would boost sales, we'd have already seen 'em. But it seems people will actually spend money to sit in a place and talk, read, write, or play board games … and actually escape, for a few brief moments, the ubiquitous blue light.

Okay, so it's coffee. Another drug.

But I call it progress.

-- Lynnell Mickelsen is a Linden Hills writer. You can reach her c/o The Southwest Journal or at [email protected]