What price appreciation?

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Here in the New Hampshire woods we are rediscovering that a bushel of home grown tomatoes very nicely pays for music lessons or the building of a bird feeder. It's not only that we have learned cash in a savings account depreciates in value over the year as inflation increases, but we have learned that barter has a special ingredient called appreciation in the emotional sense -- not economic. We who barter appreciate each other and our talents.

Appreciation is a facet of love, and because we love our neighbors we help them. When the front door lock suddenly needed repairing one Sunday morning, my ever-helpful neighbor Roland came promptly to set it right. He refused payment in dollars, and so I turned a box of fresh strawberries into a pie for Roland who shared it that night with his family who happily wrapped themselves around it. Barter we find is a very special way of sharing our good, paying its own kind of loving interest that is compounded hourly.

And when my friend Sarah gives me some of the blueberries she picked last year and froze, I respond with carrot cake (almost as good as her own), and she gives me back some of her pickled zucchini. It goes on indefinitely, to the delight of us all, like a game of can-you-top-this.

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Not only people but animals are involved in our barter system. A 12-year-old neighbor named Paul presented himself at my door a while back with a paper bag containing three fluffy kittens: black, gray and apricot. While the town knows I am a feline photographer, they also are aware that I have more than a sufficiency and so do not award me more. Paul, however, told me a predator had come out of the woods and killed the other kittens in the litter and these three needed rescuing. However, since I believe children need to learn responsibility in these matters, I asked Paul if he would be willing to work to pay for the future neutering of one of the three kittens if I paid for the other two. He not only said he would be glad to do so, but the next day brought along his friend Michael who announced he, too, believed in helping cats. They set to work with a will, scraping paint off the porch rail of the early Victorian across the road that had been recently bought to house my writing and art students. The day after, Michael brought his 15-year-old sister Elizabeth who said she would do just about anything for someone who rescued cats.

In Elizabeth I myself discovered a rescuer. She found me sitting on the floor attacking with a staple gun a batten-covered wool valance dredged up from the barn. I was trying to sheath it in yards of fabric that kept slipping away from me like a flowered eel. In a couple of hours Elizabeth had finished the eight-foot valance and explained to me that she enjoyed topology which is the study of how things fit together. Having not studied topology I have never been able to put together simple puzzles or those easy-to-assemble tables. Now, under Elizabeth's tutelage, I'll become a topologist and stop apologizing to smart eight-year-olds.

The Internal Revenue Service of these 50 states keeps a weather eye, we are told, on those who belong to the barter clubs where services and goods are traded without cash. It is the government's understandable position that somehow the tax collectors should be allowed into these clubs, probably onthe basis of nondiscrimination. After all, the centuries' old aversion to tax collectors is unkind since they are a hard-working corps and unfailingly polite to those of us who confuse addition and subtraction. The IRS further states that we should be able to compute the value of the goods and services exchanged and report them as if they were income.

This leaves me with a powerful puzzlement since I wish to remain a good citizen. How can I compute the value of a homemade strawberry pie or the relief I felt when Elizabeth took over my valance? Or the good feeling when the children said, "We help cats"? Since the measure of love for one's neighbor is beyond price, will the IRS elevate me to a higher bracket? Perhaps those long-suffering gentlemen in the government echelons will allow me to repay them in kind with some of Sarah's delicious pickled zucchini.

Or would they settle for three charming house-broken kittens?

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