Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The things we have going for us, MV 1

We see our friends come, and mostly go, from these islands as the economic crisis we see tirelessly documented in the local media and breathlessly discussed at parties and barbecues, marches inexorably from recession to depression to the possible next station stop at cataclysmic upheaval and ghost town. No one wants to be left standing after the last train has left the station, so many of us have at least contemplated leaving these islands -- if we haven't made concrete plans to do so already.

It's easy to get caught up in the latest example of government mismanagement as you squint to see the numbers on your meager paycheck in your rolling blackout apartment and imagine the green grass in the states -- a place where the power plant works a lot better and a lot cheaper, the stores not as scandalously overpriced, the price of gas a lot cheaper, the jobs more plentiful while paying a lot better than $3.55 and the corruption further removed from home. All of that happens to be true. It also omits a lot of the downside.

I spent a month back in my native New Jersey on teacher summer vacation and got a reminder of the positives and negatives we tend to forget. There were things I certainly liked about being back in the mainland, such as access to major league baseball games, arena stature rock bands, grocery stores that defy description comparatively and fabulous restaurants -- at least those things ranked highest on my list.

It wasn't all so wonderful though. The U.S. is crowded and wildly so in major cities and their suburbs. The traffic in the area where I was raised is at least three times worse than when I was growing up, slowing simple tasks to a speed more akin to a crawl through a football field of glass shards – all to a symphony of honking horns and cuss words -- sounds that will never be confused with a Chopin Sonata. The lines at the local department store on a Saturday are hideous. Getting most anywhere in the states is a fight through tolls and traffic that creates so much stress as to diminish the joy of all the things available. We get to skip all that with our more simple lives out here, and we happen to have a post office to deliver the goodies we want. We get to live Thoreau’s edict of “Simplify” with a way to cheat a bit if need be.

Even though there are a lot of people in the states, they are completely isolated from each other. The mad dog consumer culture now has Ipods being sold in vending machines like candy bars, at least this is the case in Minneapolis Airport. It is very hard to find anyone, anywhere not talking on their cell phone, or tuning out the rest of the world with their Ipod, their portable PSP, or their wireless Internet Blackberry. We surround ourselves not with people, but with digital images and data. Paying for all the latest goodies takes a lot of time away from actually living a meaningful life, and that increases the hours at work and the stress level, which impacts health. Last year, I was sitting somewhere, just me and a stranger, and he started talking, I thought to me since no one else was there. I wasn't sure what he was saying, so I said, "Excuse me." Naturally he wasn't talking to me at all; it was the wireless cell phone headset he was talking into that is now so ubiquitous. No one talks to strangers in the states. I've never seen this piece of technology here, and I didn't even know we have another new method to isolate humans from other humans.

I would go places, and every once in a while I'd see someone who looked somewhat familiar out in the distance. Out here, that usually turns out to be a friend. In the wildly overpopulated states, it is almost never your friend, it's another person you don't know and aren't likely to know. There are too many places to go, there are too many people, and no one much knows each other, so those serendipitous moments rarely happen. I had to train myself to the fact that when I went out, I wouldn't run into friends at the post office or coffee shop or laundry mat, and I didn't much like it. That small town appeal has to be one of the great charms of these islands. It also tends to stop the moralizing and gossiping that would appear in the states. Most of us have seen our doctors, lawyers, politicians or teachers after a few too many Budweisers, or singing bad karaoke, or visiting a place like Chicago, and I'm not talking about the home of Jake and Elwood Blues, and seldom do I hear gossip about it because everyone has seen everyone at some point in that state on this island.

This leads me to another good thing about this place. It is very uncommon to develop friendships with people in higher, and lower, income brackets in the states. Teachers rarely hang out with doctors, lawyers, politicians and saloon keepers in the mainland. That happens all the time here. That is something else that's great about this place.

On the economics front, we complain about gas, but drivers require so much less gas via distance to get around that our gasoline costs are much lower. On top of that, car insurance is a staggering cost in the states. Insurance that costs $250 here easily costs $2,500 in some U.S. locations. As for housing, forget about it. My family is almost entirely in New Jersey and it is almost impossible to find a house for less than $300,000. There are property taxes, which pay for schools by the way, of $5,000 to $10,000 per year that go along with that house. Taxes across the board are much cheaper here. And jobs for well trained people are easier to find here than the states. The focus there is on "well trained." We have more than enough unskilled labor; we don’t have enough teachers, doctors, engineers, nurses, etc. So yes we have ridiculous power rates, but we have a bargain on taxes, housing and car insurance.

Finally, there is a lot of natural beauty in the states, but there is nowhere with the staggering crystal blue waters we have here. The Atlantic is green and ugly, and certainly not conducive to pleasant scuba diving. With all the frivolous litigation, you'd probably have to sign your life away to do a dive there anyway. We live in a place that people come to for a vacation.

Things are hardly perfect here. But there are things we are blessed to have. In this column, I intend on raising a spotlight on things that diminish the unique joys of these little islands. My thoughts will be appearing regularly in the Marianas Variety on Wednesdays.


glend558 said...

Jeff: Maybe you could tell them how trash, polluted beaches, graffiti, boonie dogs, undrinkable water, power outages, a no account government and the ladrones diminish the unique joys of living here on these little islands.

Jeff said...

Has that stuff not been documented enough? Can I spend one day looking at the bright side?

Boni said...

I'm with you Jeff. The glass is half full according to how thirsty we are, and nowadays we are (hey there's no word for very thirsty like there is for very hungry)...we are very thirsty.

Saipan Patricia said...

Great article; I share many of the same sentiments...and like knowing that we don't have a homeless population (although we do have extended family homes)and cereal killers and rapists. I can take my kids to the park and not worry that they are running 15 feet ahead of me.

Boni said...

Wait a minute Jeff! Parched. We are parched. Did I spell that right? I've had too many Red Bulls. Sugar free Red Bulls. Whao Nelly

Pilgrim said...

Patricia- "cereal" killers? As in buying a box of Corn Flakes at Joeten and upon opening the box, discovering all the flakes to be crushed?

bradinthesand said...

No, ceral killers jack your box and take your life when you leave the store.

and boni, it's "plenty thirsty."

good to be back on sah-ee-pan!

Saipan Patricia said...

Oh, gee...thanks for pointing that out! I guess I should proof read my posts BEFORE posting them.

Pilgrim-inspired Haiku

Cereal killer--
All day I think about food.
I meant "serial".

Jeff said...

You're such a poet Patricia.

Bruce A. Bateman said...

In responce to your new column title I'm considering a name change on my column now to “From Hair to Eternity” or “It’s Better Hair in the CNMI” or “From Hair on in”

Nice work on your first column, Jeff, but it looks like you have already attracted the ire of some unhappy US mainlanders for daring to imply that the US is not perfect and pure as their schoolmarms taught them (see comments on your ‘not feeling assured’ string) and for not denigrating everything about the CNMI in your first piece.

Again, congratulations on your new column. There's plent of time for kicking some literary ass in future editions. (:-))

Jeff said...

Thanks Bruce. It wasn't a puff job. Those are the reasons among more personal ones I wasn't going to get into, that have kept me here for going on five years now --much longer than I ever imagined. I feel that if you find nothing redeeming about this place, you probably should leave. This isn't to say you can't be critical of policies and institutions, of course you should, but if there is simply nothing you like about this place, then you should leave.

A G Gatto said...

Put a fork in Suz and I.

Thx for having us.


Jeff said...

I presume that means you've had enough Rota and are leaving?

Marianas Eye said...

Congrats, Jeff, and nice job. I was expecting something scathing. Good to build up some goodwill as you have. Are you going to the lighthouse gig on Sunday?

The Saipan Blogger アンジェロ・ビラゴメズ said...

What is going on in Rota?

Bev said...

Looking forward to reading your articles Jeff! Congrats =)

bruce a bateman said...

Sorry to see you go., Andrew/Suz.
Please stop in and see us on your way if time allows.

The Saipan Blogger アンジェロ・ビラゴメズ said...

Jeff. Porky. Now.

The Saipan Blogger アンジェロ・ビラゴメズ said...

Jeff. Porky. Now.

GuamRayphand said...

Thanks for the article, Jeff. I'm considering taking a transfer from Guam to Newark, and this has given me a refreshed reminder about what I'm thinking about walking away from. Granted, Guam and Saipan are not in the exact same situation, but much of what you wrote rings true for both communities.