RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

It Ain't Right, But It's So

The Sunday after the Sunday after That Vote, the Millersburg Press Club got together at Leemer's organic orchard to make cider. Barb, Ben and I cut apples in half and gave them to Leemer, who put them in the press and ground them up, then squashed them under 2,000 pounds of pressure. A trickle of cider came from the press, filling gallon jugs.

So, we chatted, how about That Vote? How about that Dan Rather and all his similes and metaphors? Ain't he just funner than a basket of speckled pups?

Ben said it's the ultimate miniseries--drawing us in and repulsing us at the same time. Barb said: "Everyone's forgotten that Nader was scheduled to be the bad guy."

She's right--the bad guy's the whole system. Cleaning it up will be painful and messy and long-term.

"It ain't right, but it's so," Leemer concluded, and I mean concluded. We don't argue with the guy running the Press.

If we were looking for an election that showed us the glitches of our system, this was it. Here in Missouri, we're still trying to figure out how the statue of liberty became the ballot symbol for the Dems while the donkey's been assigned to the Libertarians. No doubt about it, we need a standardized national ballot.

That Vote's been so riveting that I almost forgot to write my annual cautionary column about the ghosts of holidays present, past, and future, hazing the horizon.

"Tis the season to be jolly," goes a holiday song in the Christian tradition, and my dictionary defines "jolly" as "merry, joyful, full of high spirits and good humor." So how did the jolly season become the season of tension, depression, suicide, wife battering, and child abuse?

The answer, unfortunately, is at the mall. You see it in the faces of desperate grown-ups looking for Sony Playstation or Holiday Barbie, both sold out since Halloween, and you see it in faces of the thrifty who feel forced to get seriously in debt to please someone special. It's American policy to confuse joy and consumerism, splurging, buying more than we can afford and putting the rest on plastic.

Oprah's magazine hypes the gifts her friends are buying for her--$700 pajamas and $200 dog beds, and those are from the B-list. The A-list is unprintable.

Somehow, we're embarrassed to tell a loved one, "I want you to be happy, but I just can't bring myself to pay that much ... " or "Let's talk about finances."

From our earliest days on the continent, we've identified the holidays with satisfying longings for things we want. In pioneer times, the longings were for fancy goods from faraway places--dolls and rocking horses from Europe, ivory combs from Africa, sugar and coconut from Hawaii.

We still look for goods from overseas. Almost everything at the mall's made in Singapore or China, lands where slave labor may be common.

When we buy stuff made overseas, we send our money away. When we buy stuff made in our community, it's in our neighbor's hands to re-spend. It used to be common for a dollar to change hands locally six or seven times, but today the dollars go out immediately.

This trend is all around us, and we can't turn it around for everyone, but we can darn sure take control of our own lives and make our own holidays jolly without so much consumerism. We can seek out like-minded people, and make or buy gifts that reflect our interest in community.

Some communities create their own money, but our personal system doesn't have to be so elaborate. We can begin informally--trading chores, sharing equipment, giving gift certificates for babysitting or other time-consuming necessities.

Once you've identified a network, involve more people who think as you do. Our neighborhood owns a number of seasonal items together--beekeeping equipment, a horse, the cider press. We can't justify owning all those things separately, and we enjoy working together with the things we share.

If you want to make the holidays jolly, celebrate in ways that get you away from the mall and into your community. Here are some ideas:

* Make a gift basket using locally-produced goods. If your neighborhood clubs sell food items to raise money, find out who's in charge of the program and ask them to seek out local products and keep your money in the community.

Our high school FFA has been selling gift baskets of locally-made jellies, pie fillings, and farm gift certificates, and they've broken all old sales records, selling $17,000. The excited farmer/jelly maker who called to tell me said, "And all that's staying on the farm!" For her, part of an extended family raising purebred Angus on thousands of acres, the money means survival in an economy where they otherwise might not make it. I bought two baskets, and I can drive by her place and know where my money has gone!

* Give books by local authors. If they're from living authors, so much the better. Ask them to sign the books you're going to give. Arrange a signing at a locally-owned bookstore, restaurant, or historical society.

* Buy art from local artists. You can even have art custom-made, by asking an artist to paint a favorite scene, a picture of your home, pet, or family member.

* Hire local musicians to entertain at your holiday bash. A co-op around here throws a quarterly party for members, paying the musicians in co-op products, providing entertainment, and saving everyone a trip to the grocery store.

* In all things, think local: Have holiday clothing made or altered from thrift-store buys by a local seamstress. Buy wedding gifts from a local potter. Seek out the best in your community and support it.

If your buddies don't get it, and they want to be treated like Oprah, have a sincere talk with them. Tell them that Americans make up 5% of the world's population and consume 25% of the world's resources. Most of the world's desperate poor live in developing countries where mall goods are produced.

Because of our wasteful ways, Americans use five times the energy of a child from the developing world, and consume twice the goods as a child from Britain, Sweden, France or Australia, 14 times a child from India and 300 times a child from Laos or Uganda.

Fixing that system will take more than similes and metaphors, or even miniseries. Cleaning ourselves up will be painful and messy and long-term.

It ain't right, but it's so.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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