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Duck Soup

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Even if most of us know that Americans use far more than our share of the world's resources and that the American lifestyle is a substantial cause of the ecological crunch facing the planet, we still go out and buy. We seem like a nation of frenetic Neros fiddling while our home burns with holes in the ozone and global warming. For those of you who think there ought to be a better way to celebrate the winter solstice, I have a few suggestions.

The best presents involve giving yourself, not stuff. Memories last forever, unlike perfume, sweaters, jewelry, knickknacks, gizmos and baubles. My partner Susan took her mid-western paraplegic Aunt Emma to New York City and wheeled her all over town. The Empire State and World Trade buildings, Times Square, the works. Aunt Emma joyfully remembered that adventure for the rest of her life. In a similar spirit, my friend Larry took his daughter cross-country skiing -- he didn't give her tickets or equipment or ski togs, but three days spent together sliding across the snow on borrowed skis.

A talkative, perhaps over-talkative, dear friend named Jeanne gave her partner silence -- a box of little coupons good for five minutes or half an hour or a whole day of silence. And Susan once gave me a box of slack -- I guess I'd said, "Give me a little slack," once too often. I'm saving those coupons for some time when I really need it.

Time is free, but it seems expensive, doesn't it? I think that's why giving your time to someone can be such a special gift. Take a computer nerd to an art gallery and your artist friend on a factory tour. Take a plant worker to the ballet or teach a ballerina to access the Internet. Drag a rocker to the symphony and an opera buff to a drumming. Has your grandma ever played putt-putt golf? Make it something out of the ordinary, and the memory will shine brighter than a diamond. Don't give a friend coupons for meals at a restaurant; cook something complicated or strange or goofy,and take them for a picnic beside a creek. Bake a loaf of bread. Give your best buddy one homemade loaf a month for a year.

The public library is one of the most magical places on earth. Take someone -- child or adult--to the library for the first time, and you have given them an unending treasure. Do it twice a month for a year. Read aloud to kids or each other. Share a book of fairy tales with your spouse or family, once a week all winter. Spend a morning sketching or painting with watercolors, even if you've never tried it. Sketch each other, do it every Christmas Eve.

If you feel the need to give something to be opened Christmas morning, think about things in your life that have been useful for at least five years, things that don't quickly wear out or get set aside. A dictionary, an atlas, or field guides for birds, flowers or trees will last a lifetime. Tools are excellent.

Surprisingly few people own a good-quality hammer or Phillips head screwdriver. A single $10 screwdriver will still be handy years after a $10 set of 10 screwdrivers have twisted into uselessness. The same is true of a decent paring knife, adjustable wrench or pair of scissors. A flat bar is indispensable once you've owned one, and you are better off with more than one. I have a knife sharpener that looks like a miniature yo-yo that has been superb for a decade. For about $2, you can make anyone's kitchen work better. Someone will be thanking you every time a tomato needs to be sliced.

Time spent shopping is never refunded. It's gone. So this season, why not spend more time at home with friends or family. Rake leaves into a pile and dive in, finger- paint, make caramel apples or go for a walk with someone you love. Make memories instead of credit-card bills. These are supposed to be holidays, and shopping is an awful lot like work. So celebrate!

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