A friend of a friend posed the question innocently enough while we stuffed our faces with tailgate food prior to the last regular season college football game:
"Do you hang your Christmas lights yourself, or do you use a service?" he asked.
"Self," I replied, knowing full well his answer was the other option.
Each year, post-Thanksgiving, I haul out a slew of outdoor lights I meticulously packed away the previous January, meaning I tossed them haphazardly into plastic bins, figuring there wasn't a chance they'd spend the next 11 months intertwining themselves into a hopeless collection of knots even an Eagle Scout couldn't untangle.
Ladders are no longer part of the decorating process, especially when putting lights on trees, for my fear of being permanently disabled due to a fall far outweighs the desire to place a star on top of my 20-foot-high backyard spruce. Instead, feet firmly on the ground, I use an extendable pole, staring into a blinding sun as I hook lights on the highest branches I can reach, slowly making my way down to the tree's trunk.
Note to newbies who are installing lights on trees without ladders: Always start with new, just-out-of-the-package lights, for at least one string will burn out the moment the job is completed, even though you tested and retested every bulb before beginning the process. You don't want to discover the topmost string is the culprit.
My neighbors to the immediate north and east have opted for the professional Christmas light installation services, or, as I refer to them, "those (expletive) guys." Sometimes we are decorating simultaneously; while I wrestle with the pole, I'm hearing the click-clack of extendable ladders being raised three stories in the air. Yes, my neighbors have large houses. A nimble team of men with death wishes moves up and down the rungs like Cirque du Soleil acrobats. Each man is talented enough to hold onto a portion of the ladder with one hand, freeing the other to illuminate roof lines with colorful bulbs, all precisely equidistant apart. Often, they complete the entire exterior before I've finished one mini-evergreen.
Extension cords are nowhere to be seen on my neighbor's properties; meanwhile, a slew of heavy duty orange cables snakes across my lawn at all angles. If a teenage rock band pulled up and the lead guitar player said, "Dude, mind if we plug in?" I could accommodate them.
When the decorating is finished, I proudly plug in my lights, mutter a few profanities related to the strands that are malfunctioning, run to the hardware store to replace them, reconnect everything, and vow this will be the last year my house looks like a paint-by-number creation hanging in the Louvre between Rembrandts.
At the tailgate, I listened enviously as the guest with the light service regaled me with stories about contacting "the on-call rep" regarding malfunctioning lights, and being told a "technician" would be out shortly to fix the issue. I imagined what it would be like to spend the entire Thanksgiving weekend watching football on the couch, knowing that, when darkness fell, I could gaze out my window and see trees and bushes so festive, Santa would look down from his sleigh on Christmas Eve and say, "Blitzen, let's start with THAT house."
I thought about wandering over to my neighbor's house and asking the "head light installer" for a business card. And then I reconsidered.
For me, the holiday season doesn't officially begin until the extendable pole has made an appearance. Yes, the freezing temperatures affect me faster, further curtailing my desire to adorn all my foliage with lights. This year, I skipped a backyard birch tree and tossed a bunch of candy cane-shaped decorations, which lined my driveway for years, into the garbage. I often joke to my wife that, in 10 years, our Christmas decor will consist of replacing the two clear porch lights with alternate bulbs, one red and one green.
Maybe I will make that switch in September. My neighbors will be so jealous.