Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Christmas in Rehab

It occurs to me this morning that what happened to "the consumer economy" was that everyone sobered up and realized we've made an awful mess of our lives. The economy is looking like a holding tank for drunks. Continuing with the analogy, I wondered whether thinking about the present task as a recovery program can help us get somewhere with this mess.

Recovery from any addiction starts with that glimpse of stark reality known as "hitting bottom." I like Dante's description in The Inferno of waking up to find yourself in a dark wood. Recovery programs often help reinforce this realization by encouraging people to testify graphically to just exactly how awful they were. How awful were we as a nation? Consider Christmas.

What a burden it had become! Long shopping lists, waiting impatiently for other people to do the wrapping that was once fun. Obligatory parties. Pre-decorated artificial trees. Disappointment. Something had happened to a holiday that once featured hand-signed cards and cookies made from scratch, and handmade gifts and cherished traditional ornaments. All those things were now purchased by people who also bought storage containers and closet organizers, because we already had more stuff than we could handle.

One horrible Christmas years ago (before I sobered up on this matter) I sat with relatives and watched a little girl literally stagger with tiredness, opening hundreds of dollars worth of Barbie paraphernalia, all bought on credit by grandparents who were going to declare bankruptcy after the holidays. A favored first grandchild, she had been opening gifts all day long, and the evening before. She was only three, but she knew she was supposed to be pleased with every pink outfit that emerged from the recklessly torn paper. She kept trying to smile and do what people told her: here's the remote, you can run the convertible! Blindly, she punched the buttons. Put Barbie in the car! She tried.

Tomorrow the bad news about retail is going to be official; people did shop on Black Friday, violently in fact, but they bought only bargains. That wasn't the idea. Retailers can't afford to have people shop like that. The idea was to lure you into the store with a loss leader (something reasonably priced) and have you exultently fill your cart with other, high-priced stuff. It's looking like the November retail figures will be more sobering news as far as the stock market is concerned, but maybe it's good pain, really.

I notice that my neighborhood is far less illuminated this year than in the past. We ourselves used to string old-fashioned colored lights on one of the pines at the edge of the ravine, but that tree is almost dead, with the climate change. And we figured out that those lights were real energy hogs.

It's okay. The ravine is beautiful as it stands. Maybe Christmas can be beautiful too, can be about peace on earth. What we were doing was beginning to seem garish, inappropriate, tiring and, like getting drunk, not really much fun the morning after.

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