Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Finding your inner North Dakotan

Aside from the extremely large troop of twenty-somethings in Santa hats and Santa suits I saw jamming into the pub across from the Writers' Room last Saturday, this seems like a pretty low-key, subdued Christmas season.

Boston's hum-bug isn't helped any by the hole in the ground  - formerly occupied by local department store Filene's - that's just sitting there in the middle of what used to be the downtown shopping district. Funding for the BIG IMPORTANT DEVELOPMENT PROJECT that was going to fill the hole has fallen through, and they're trying to decide whether to lop off the 7 floors of luxury condos or reduce the office space. The City or the developers have tried to perk things up by hanging Christmas wreathes all along the Washington Street side of the cyclone fence that surrounds the hole in the ground. But the effect is more dispiriting than cheery.

All the news is about cutting back. No more lavish company parties. No more "every child's wish is your command" letters to Santa. No more bulging Christmas stockings. (What's that in the toe? Why, it's a lump of coal. We could burn it, but it's a pollutant. Wait a minute. Maybe it's licorice.)

While this may not be what our "oh, so reliant on the leveraged consumer" economy could use at present, it's probably not a bad thing that we're all finding our inner North Dakotan.

Why North Dakota?

A few days ago, there was an article in the NY Times on how North Dakota is, so far, largely withstanding the recession.

While their 401K's aren't immune to the same glance-and-gulp losses that the rest of us are suffering through, North Dakotans are enjoying 3.4% unemployment and one of the lowest foreclosure rates in the country. Housing prices are also gaining in value - modestly, but gaining nonetheless.

Some of this is the good fortune of being an agricultural state in a world where folks may not have to buy everyone in the family a different colored iPod Nano as a stocking stuffer, but do still have to eat. North Dakota is also an oil-producing state - who knew?

But North Dakota's relative prosperity is also due to:

...a conservative, steady, never-fancy culture that has nurtured fewer sudden booms of wealth like those seen elsewhere (“Our banks don’t do those goofy loans,” Mr. [Justin] Theel said) and also fewer tumultuous slumps.

(Theel is part owner of a Bismarck, ND car dealership.)

North Dakota is not only enjoying a state revenue surplus, but they also have 13,000 jobs that need filling.

Of course, getting someone to move to North Dakota may not be all that easy.

When I checked the Bismarck Tribune for the weather the other day, here's what I found:

Blizzard conditions still threaten Bismarck-Mandan residents in the next three days, with up to 8 inches of snow, low visibility and subzero temperatures possible.

I remember my mother telling me about some friends of my grandparents who farmed in North Dakota. Someone had frozen to death, or their hands had frozen off, or something equally dreadful, while trying to make it from house to barn to feed the cows one fine winter's day. Brrrrrr.

It's also easy to imagine North Dakota as something of a boring place, with nothing much to do other than counting frozen-off hands in the snow, and laying bets on how many kids will fall under the combine next harvest.

But, as the world has gotten smaller, isolated places like North Dakota have gotten more open and progressive. While I might not want to pull up stakes here to go after one of those 13,000 jobs, I don't get the sense that North Dakota is as aggressively and repressively conservative as some other parts of the country are. (When I was over doing my weather check, there was an ad for the Dakota Divas Holiday Drag Show flashing on the screen. North Dakota: it's not just for Lawrence Welk fans anymore.)

You are, no doubt, thinking Fargo.

North Dakota: it's not just cold, it's weird. (You betcha.)

But that was just a movie. (Wasn't it?)

In any case, that steady, never fancy, no goofy loans culture is looking pretty darned good right now, isn't it?

Yes, a lot of us will be seeking out our inner North Dakotan in the months to come.

We'll decide that last year's winter coat still has some warmth in it. That it doesn't matter if that turtleneck jersey has a stubborn stain on it, since it's always worn underneath a sweater where the stain doesn't show. That it's really foolish to pay $4.99 for what sure looks like a short-weight half-pint of blueberries, even though they really do make the cereal taste better. That a brown-bag lunch actually tastes better than a take-out sandwich. That those dated, 1980's kitchen cabinets aren't that bad, after all. And that $85 is just too much to pay for a ticket to a baseball game when you can just stay home and watch it for free. (Well, the jury's still out on this last one.)

Life in Bismarck, ND, meanwhile, is doing just fine, thank you.

Downtown, in the line of gift shops along Broadway, where shop owners reported sales that were healthy (though always sensible), residents said they were pleased — if a tad guilty — about the state’s relative good fortune.

No one was gloating. No wild spending sprees were apparent. No matter how well things seemed to be going, many said they were girding, in well-practiced Midwestern style, for the worst.

North Dakotans are smart to gird for the worst, as they aren't likely to fully escape the recession. It's just that the recession is not as likely to be as long, as deep, and as bad as it is in other places.

As for the rest of us - those who do live in those "other places" - we will just have to keep on finding that inner North Dakotan that has been dormant for so long.

Haven't found yours yet? Keep trying! (Take a deep breath and think Lawrence Welk: Ah, one an' a two...)

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