Maybe because Christmas and the New Year are traditional times for celebrating a sense of community, it's also a good time to acknowledge some of the rough patches in the rural Shangri-La where I live: the growing demands at the local food bank, dissension in the town of Joseph, Ore., over our governance, the 23 jobs lost when D&R Motors went gunnysack this fall, the closing of the OK Theatre, sudden illnesses, premature deaths and a recent suicide that left many victims.
These things are hard, and they make small irritants more irritable. It would be nice to have a Will Rogers around to help us laugh our way past some of them. My old boss, Chuck, a county extension agent and a cowboy, loved to tease a couple of ranchers who could not stand some of the editorials in the local paper, the Chieftain. "Cancel your subscription, did you -- again?" he'd ask innocently. "Heard you're the first to buy a paper when it comes out Thursday morning."
Then there was the school board member who sent his kids to school in another town over differences with school administrators and fellow board members. Another big story back in the day was about the county commission chair -- then called the "county judge" -- who had the county crew pave his driveway. He later explained that he had meant to reimburse the county all along. That followed a fight over where the road department's tires should be bought. Perhaps oddest was the story of the county health nurse who claimed that she'd never seen a case of child abuse in all her years on the job. One of the local doctors scoffed and said, "We take care of things without involving her."
So division, controversy and hard times are not new in my part of northeast Oregon. But to bring us to the present, the most troubling local issue is certainly the loss of jobs and the empty buildings on Main Street. I'd add that there's also an undertow of fear, both the fear of change and the fear of not changing.
These fears extend from current issues on the city council agenda, such as the "idea" of a city manager, to the unsettled future of the Wallowa Lake Dam. There also are nagging underground stories about the Nez Perce Tribe's attempts to "take back" local land. And there continue to be fears of a black man in the White House, and persistent rumors that good Christians are turning the country over to "Moslem terrorists." I know that these fears exist locally because they pop up in the schoolyard, and they're repeated in restaurants and in local e-mail traffic.
So how do we enter a new year in hard times with a new president who is preaching hope? We hope, too! We hope that local people will talk to neighbors openly about their fears and dreams. That they will, when necessary, put shoulders to the wheel to make local schools, the hospital, towns, dams, irrigation districts, food banks, churches, arts groups, sports programs, granges and the economy work.
On a recent "Meet the Press" TV show, Tom Brokaw began his interview with President-elect Barack Obama by suggesting that things were getting worse by the day as he waits to take office. But in maybe the best political news that I've heard in decades, the new man did not suggest that we shop our way out of the current mess. He acknowledged hard times and said that we wouldn't be able to dig our way out in a day. He said that the states and governors have public infrastructure projects that are languishing on the shelf and ready to go, and that he would find a way to fund them. Obama said that the energy crisis, environmental problems and failed medical insurance programs -- though fearsome in the short run -- represent opportunities for economic healing.
Life isn't fair. Bad guys win and good guys lose. All of us make bad choices, and most of us get caught up in others' wrong choices and in events that are just too big and remote for us to have much of a say in them. But now, with a new president, a pile of wood stacked against the winter, and two lively grandkids living with me who are excited about snow and Christmas, I can and will hope to high heaven.
Rich Wandschneider is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He helps keep the Fishtrap gathering of writers going in Joseph, Oregon.