Coach O. Vs. The Acela Gradgrind
Couldn’t sleep last night, I was so wired up. Finally dozed off, woke up just before noon. I am afraid I must address, as calmly as I can manage, a controversy that has arisen in the Twittersphere. It seems that an Ivy League graduate who writes editorials for The New York Times did not like the fact that LSU cancelled classes on game day and the day after. He wrote:
“Actual schools.” Well, let’s see.
You’d think that the media elites would by now have learned the cost to their own credibility of not understanding this country. But they keep being surprised. Nobody expects a New York Times editorial writer to agree with the decision to cancel college classes because of a football game. But one would like to think that a man of the world such as himself would have enough sense to think about why this decision might have been made, and what it says about cultural difference. I suspect if the LSU Board of Supervisors had cancelled classes for Transgender Day Of Remembrance, the New York Times editorial board would have wet its collective pants with delight.
If you plan to vote for Donald Trump in November, do me a favor, and think of Binyamin Appelbaum and the LSU Tigers when you do.
What Appelbaum does not know is that cancelling classes was a prudent decision, because none of the students would have shown up anyway. Governor John Bel Edwards cancelled his inaugural ball because he knew that everybody would be at the game. He’s close to Coach O; he wanted to be at the game too. This made perfect sense to everybody here. Who wants to go to an inaugural ball when the Tigers are playing for the national championship? Nobody! If Appelbaum had the slightest bit of cultural awareness and sensitivity, he would recognize that not everywhere in this big and diverse country has the same values as the elites of the Boston-NYC-DC corridor. That’s fine; America needs people who graduate from Ivy League schools and go on to write economics editorials for The New York Times. But she also needs her Ed Orgerons, the hard-fighting Cajun from South Lafourche. She also needs her Joe Burrows, a white boy from struggling southeastern Ohio. She also needs her sons like Clyde Edwards-Helaire, a short, tough-as-nails black kid from Baton Rouge who fought his way to become one of the best tailbacks in the nation.
Maybe America needs men like that more than she needs Ivy League editorial writers for The New York Times. Who knows? I couldn’t possibly say.
We are a different people here in Louisiana. When I first moved to New York in 1998, my sister back home couldn’t believe that we New Yorkers didn’t have Monday and Tuesday off for Mardi Gras. I found that endearing. Fat Tuesday is such a holiday in Louisiana that everybody takes off — classes are cancelled, some businesses shut down — so everybody can go to the parades. I love that. It tells you something, though, that my sister, a school teacher, simply could not imagine that the whole country wasn’t celebrating Mardi Gras. This is less about Mardi Gras and more about a Louisiana orientation towards life.
I used to be something like Binyamin Appelbaum. I’m not much of a sports fan, but I am an LSU Tigers football fan, because that is our tribal religion here on the bayou. I’m not kidding: I’m sitting here writing this with tears in my eyes at the very though of Ed Orgeron. I love him so much. Here is a rough guy from down the bayou, who let his passions get away from him early in his life, and nearly destroyed his career. But the people of south Lafourche who loved him helped him get back on his feet. He kept coming hard, trying to rebuild his career. He failed. He failed some more. But he kept coming, and kept coming. When he was named head coach of the Tigers three years ago, a lot of people down here thought LSU was settling for second-best. Ed Orgeron didn’t stop. And now, he is on top of the world, and he has brought us all along with him. He has earned it. Goddamn it, why wouldn’t you be proud?!
Well, you wouldn’t if you were an Ivy League graduate who writes editorials about economics for The New York Times, because you wouldn’t know this world, and you would hate it because it is not logical, according to what you value. A lot of people here love LSU Tigers football because it’s what we have. Some folks, it’s almost all they have to bring joy to difficult lives. Maybe economics nerd Binyamin Appelbaum gets little endorphin bumps of pleasure when the Fed lowers interest rates, but that doesn’t do much for the folks in south Lafourche, or anywhere else in Louisiana. And you know, that’s fine with me. East Coast educated elite culture, in which I moved for part of my life, has some good things to recommend it. I’m serious. Vive la différence.
Anyway, as I said, I’m not all that different from Binyamin Appelbaum. Even though I was born and raised here, and graduated from LSU in 1989, I used to have a fair degree of Appelbaum smugness in me. I explained this, and my change of heart, in a 2013 piece I wrote for the Baton Rouge Business Report, about my decision to return to south Louisiana after my sister Ruthie’s untimely 2011 death from cancer. Excerpts:
As the years went on, I moved up and down the Eastern seaboard, onward and upward with my career. All the while I was corresponding frequently with an email circle of friends. One, a Californian, once said to me, “Did you ever notice that your best writing is about Louisiana? That’s when you really write with flair and passion.”
No, I had not noticed, but I conceded that she was right. Still, I told her, I can never forget the (perhaps apocryphal) words a New Orleans journalist told his newsroom at his farewell party before taking off for a job up North: It was more important to live in a city that valued libraries more than parades. That’s the reality of Louisiana life, I told my friend. Romanticism and sentimentality obscure, but do not nullify, hard truths about the barriers life in Louisiana raises to professional advancement.
Which is what mattered to me more than anything. And why not? There’s nothing wrong at all with wanting to advance in one’s field and better provide for the needs, comforts and prospects of one’s own children. As my family grew, my wife and I moved from New York City to Dallas, and then back east to Philadelphia; my career arc—and my salary—kept rising.
I was doing very well in Appelbaum World, the meritocracy. Then my sister Ruthie, out of the blue, was hit by terminal cancer. Lung cancer. She never, ever smoked. But it killed her, at age 42. More:
In my emotional geography, Ruthie was a landmark, a mountain, a river, a fixed point around which I could orient myself. There was no horizon so far that I could not see Ruthie in the distance and know where I was and how to find my way home to Louisiana, no matter where in the world I lived.
Now she was gone, and before long, my mother and father will be gone, too. What would my children know of Louisiana then? Does that matter? Should it matter?
It mattered. Julie and I decided that we wanted to be part of Louisiana life—tailgating at Tiger Stadium, Christmas Eve gumbo at our cousins’ place in Starhill, po-boys at George’s under the Perkins Road overpass, Mardi Gras parades, yes ma’am and yes sir, and all the little things that give life its texture and meaning more than career prestige and a paycheck.
True, by moving to Louisiana our children would have fewer “opportunities,” in the conventional sense. But what were the opportunity costs of staying away? I had believed the American gospel of individual self-fulfillment and accepted uncritically the idea that I should be prepared to move anywhere in the world, chasing my own happiness.
But here’s the thing. When you’re young, nobody tells you about limits. If you live long enough, you see suffering. It comes close to you. It shatters the illusion, so dear to us modern Americans, of self-sufficiency, of autonomy, of control. Look, a wife and mother and schoolteacher, in good health and in the prime of her life, dying from cancer. It doesn’t just happen to other people. It happens to your family. What do you do then?
The insurance company, if you’re lucky enough to have insurance, pays your doctors and pharmacists, but it will not cook for you when you are too sick to cook for yourself and your kids. Nor will it clean your house, pick your kids up from school, or take them shopping when you are too weak to get out of bed. A bureaucrat from the state or the insurance company won’t come sit with you and pray with you and tell you she loves you. It won’t be the government or your insurer who allows you to die in peace—if it comes to that—by assuring you that your spouse and children will not be left behind to face the world alone.
Only your family and your community can do that.
What our culture also doesn’t tell young people is that a way of life that depends on moving from place to place, extracting whatever value you can before moving on again, leaves you spiritually impoverished. True, it is not given to every man and woman to remain in the place where they were born, and an absolute devotion to family and place can be destructive. I do not regret having left Louisiana as a young man. I needed to do that; I had important work to do elsewhere.
But the world looks different from the perspective of middle age. In her last 19 months of life, Ruthie showed me that I now had important work to do back home. Hers was a work of stewardship—of taking care of the land, the family, and the people in the community. By loving them all faithfully and tending them with steadfast care, Ruthie accomplished something countercultural, even revolutionary in our restless age.
You can’t convince somebody by logical arguments why they should love someone or something. You can only show them, and hope the seed of affection falls in the heart’s fertile soil. Through Ruthie’s actions, and through the actions of everyone else in the town who held our family close, and held us up when we couldn’t stand on our own two feet, I was able to see the power of Ruthie’s love, given and returned. And I was able to see my own life in light of this love, and, finally, to feel for the first time in nearly 30 years, a profound affection for this place I had abandoned so long ago.
We moved back to Louisiana and have regretted it not one bit.
It’s not that Louisiana has changed, or changed all that much. It hasn’t. Parades still matter more than libraries here, and college football coaches’ salaries are more important than college professors’ paychecks. The political and economic problems are still with us. So, bless his heart, is Edwin.
Louisiana may not have changed, but I have. Parades—I speak metaphorically—are a lot more important than I used to think. That is, the small things about the life we were all given as south Louisiana natives can’t easily be given a dollar value, or co-opted into an instrumentalist case for rising in the meritocracy. Having the chance to drive over to Breaux Bridge to the zydeco breakfast at Café des Amis, or to have Sunday dinner with the family every weekend, will not get your kids into Harvard, but it just might give them a better chance at having a life filled with grace and joy. Same goes for their parents.
When we told our Philly friends that we were leaving the big city for a tiny south Louisiana river town, we expected that they would be both shocked and amused. That’s not what happened. A startling number of them responded by saying, one way or another, how much they envied us. They wished they had a place like St. Francisville to go back to. Their parents made the decision to leave, and they themselves had been raised in rootless suburbia. This, it turns out, is one reason why they loved listening to my Louisiana stories: because I come from a real place, with particular traditions and a distinct culture.
Truth to tell, I was lucky that I had a good family back home, a beautiful town, and a job that I could do online. Not every Louisiana expat has these things, and that lack may keep them in exile, against their wishes. Nevertheless, many of us may come to realize that the limits we must accept by moving back to Louisiana make possible a richness of experience that we cannot have anywhere else. And it opens opportunities for us to take the good things we learned in exile and put them to work making our state a place that will be easier for our kids, whatever their calling, to choose as their home.
The cultural case for moving home to Louisiana, then, is fundamentally a countercultural one. The small life expats leave behind in search of grandeur in the world beyond Louisiana—a life whose limits are set only by our own desires and capabilities—may contain a profundity, even a greatness, that is hard to see when you judge it by contemporary American standards.
But how much sense do those standards make when judging a life? A Louisiana native who works in Washington politics said to me that folks back home know something about the good life that other people don’t.
“It’s OK to be average there,” he said. “To go to work each day, come home, have a beer, and love your family and friends. One thing that really sucks about D.C. is that everyone here very seriously carries the burden of having to Change the World.”
To be freed from the felt burden of having to Change the World, of having to get ahead, of having to think of your life in terms of achieve, achieve, achieve—it’s an unusual thing. You can be only OK in Louisiana, or maybe even a basket case, and they’ll love you anyway, as long as you can laugh at yourself and at life, and know how to sit on the front porch, so to speak, and pass a good time.
And to love the LSU Tigers. This is what the Appelbaumist meritocrats will never, ever understand about life. I know this because I used to be one of them, and if I hadn’t had roots down here on the bayou, I might have gone through my entire life never understanding it.
I wrote a book about all this in 2013, titled The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, after my sister. You who have been reading me for a while know that things didn’t go as well as I had hoped they would with my family when we came back here. It might have done, if we were all better people. But the life lessons that brought me back are still true. I want to share with you some excerpts from the book, because they answer Appelbaum more eloquently than anything I might write today. Starhill is the rural community outside of St. Francisville, where I grew up. You will see here that I adapted some of that Baton Rouge Business Report essay from this manuscript:
All that day, I thought about the long and winding road that had at long last brought me home. It began when Ruthie gave birth to Hannah, but I was not yet ready to receive my inheritance, nor were they ready to receive me. The turn sharpened on the road back when I became a father for the first time, and lay in night at bed with my baby boy, listening to the traffic on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, wondering what this child will ever know of Starhill. And then came Ruthie’s cancer diagnosis.
I began at that time to think about what life would be like without her in Starhill, and a strange alchemy began to work on me. I started to pine for LSU football, not because I care about sports, but because it’s what our tribe does. I wanted my children to grow up knowing what its like to experience the electricity crackle up your spine and down your arms when you hear the Golden Band from Tigerland play the first four notes of the LSU fight song. I wanted them to hear what Paw’s gravelly Southern drawl sounds like in their ears. What it means to feel the spring breeze passing over your cheek carrying the aroma of sweet olive blossoms. How the cool water of Thompson Creek feels on your ankles on a July day. What a crawfish boiled in Zatarain’s tastes like, what a Mardi Gras parade is, and, above all, what it means to be able to spend time with their family without having to get on an airplane.
Losing Ruthie compelled me to think in a new way about my responsibilities to Mam and Paw, to Mike and my nieces, and to my own kids. In my emotional geography, Ruthie was a landmark, a mountain, a river, a fixed point around which I could orient myself. There was no horizon so far that I could not see Ruthie in the distance, and know where I was, and how to find my way home. Now she was gone.
Ruthie never understood why any brother of hers would walk away from what she considered the greatest place on earth. That was a failure of empathy, and a failure of imagination. But here was my failure: I rarely considered with any degree of seriousness what pursuing my own dreams, and my own sense of personal autonomy, would cost my family and myself. I believed the American gospel of individual self-fulfillment, and accepted uncritically the idea that I should be prepared to move anywhere in the world chasing my own happiness. I honestly believe that God places a particular call on each and every life, and we must be ready and willing to follow Him, no matter what. The thing I had never seriously considered until Ruthie’s passing is that my place, in the end, and the fulfillment of the plan God set for my life before I was born might be found right where I began.
Sitting on my front porch on Fidelity Street one warm winter’s day, I asked Tim Lindsey, Ruthie’s physician, what the biggest lesson of her life was.
“That the American dream is a lie,” Tim said. “The pursuit of happiness doesn’t create happiness. You can’t work hard enough to defeat cancer. You can’t make enough money to save your own life. When you understand that life is really about understanding what our true condition is – how much we need other people, and need a Savior — then you’ll be wise.”
When you’re young, nobody tells you about limits. If you live long enough, you see suffering. It comes close to you. It shatters the illusion, so dear to us modern Americans, of self-sufficiency, of autonomy, of control. Look, a 42-year-old woman, a wife and mother and schoolteacher in good health and in the prime of her life, dying from cancer. It doesn’t just happen to other people. It happens to your family. What do you do then?
The insurance company, if you’re lucky enough to have insurance, pays your doctors and pharmacists, but it will not cook for you when you are too sick to cook for yourself and your kids. Nor will it clean your house, pick your kids up from school, or take them shopping when you are too weak to get out of bed. A bureaucrat from the state or the insurance company won’t come sit with you, and pray with you, and tell you she loves you. It won’t be the government or your insurer who allows you to die in peace, if it comes to that, because it can assure you that your spouse and children will not be left behind to face the world alone.
Only your family and your community can do that.
What our culture also doesn’t tell young people is that a way of life that depends on moving from place to place, extracting whatever value you can before moving on again, leaves you spiritually impoverished. It is not given to every man and woman to remain in the place where they were born, and as Paw’s back-porch confession revealed, an absolute devotion to family and place can be destructive. Still, so many friends of mine have no family home, in the Starhill sense, to return to because their parents chose to move for career reasons. In some cases, their parents, like they themselves, had no choice: our economy is no respecter of communal stability. We need more balance.
Yes, I resented how little understanding or respect Ruthie had for my work. I did not think that way about hers. But I didn’t understand until she became ill and died how important her kind of work was. Hers was a work of stewardship – of taking care of the land, the family, and the people in the community. She didn’t set out to be a good steward, but the place and its people claimed her affection from the day she was born. By loving them all faithfully, and tending them with steadfast care, Ruthie accomplished something countercultural, even revolutionary in our restless age. Nowadays it’s easy to leave home; it’s harder to stay. But it may be more necessary to stay, if we are going to sustain lives worth living, especially in a world that pushes hard against our limits while at the same time denying their existence. Wendell Berry put it like this:
For this to happen in the stewardship of humans, there must be a cultural cycle, in harmony with the fertility cycle, also continuously turning in place. The cultural cycle is an unending conversation between old people and young people, assuring the survival of local memory, which has, as long as it remains local, the greatest practical urgency and value. This is what is meant, and is all that is meant, by “sustainability.” The fertility cycle turns by the law of nature. The cultural cycle turns on affection.
Affection for our family and our family’s place — that’s what Ruthie Leming taught me, in her death and dying, and in discerning her own Little Way. You can’t convince somebody by logical arguments why they should love someone or something. You can only show them, and hope the seed of affection falls in the heart’s fertile soil. Because of our own mutual brokenness, what affection Ruthie and I had for each other did not penetrate either of our hearts as it ought to have done. But through Abby, Tim, Laura, Big Show, John Bickham, the barefoot pallbearers, and everyone else in the town who held our family close, and held us up when we couldn’t stand on our own two feet, I was able to see the power of Ruthie’s love, given and returned. And I was able to see my own life in light of this love, and, finally, to feel for the first time in nearly thirty years, a profound and overwhelming affection for this place. It is not too much to say that by Ruthie’s suffering, I was healed. This was the most surprising journey I’ve ever made: into a new and hopeful way of looking at old familiar things.
I’ll end with one more excerpt from the book. It’s about a funeral of a dear old woman who was close to my folks. Clophine Toney — “Miss Clophine,” we always called her — was a Cajun woman who grew up in Avoyelles Parish. She was a farmer with sun-cured skin the color and texture of leather. She never learned to read. She was poor. But she worked hard, and had a stout and faithful heart. Her son James and I were in school together. Here, in Little Way, I write about her funeral, which her son preached:
Miss Clophine Toney died in hospice care that spring. She was 82. On the day of her burial, I picked Mam and Paw up and we drove to the funeral home in Zachary. James, her son and my childhood peewee baseball teammate, eulogized his mother. I knew my old friend had become a part-time evangelist, but I had never heard him preach. He stayed up all night praying for the right words to say. He stood behind the lectern next to his mother’s open casket, flexed his arms under his gray suit and black shirt, then turned the Spirit loose on the 40 or so mourners in the room.
“During Christmastime, my mother would go out and pick up pecans,” he began, in his husky voice. “She wasn’t very well educated. Today they tryin’ to educate us in everything. Gotta stay with the next game, gotta make sure we go to college. We can’t get too far behind, because we might not make enough money, and that would make our lives miserable. My God, we gettin’ educated in everything, but we not gettin’ educated in morals. We not gettin’ educated in sacrifice.”
James said his mother was poor and uneducated, but during the fall pecan season, she worked hard gathering pecans from under every tree she could find.
“She was carryin’ a cross,” he said. “Because let me tell you something, if you don’t sacrifice for your brother, if you don’t sacrifice for your neighbor, you not carrying your cross.”
Miss Clophine took the money she made selling pecans and went to the dollar store in St. Francisville, where, despite her own great need, she spent it on presents for friends and family.
“Aunt Grace told me the other day that of all the presents she got from everybody, those meant the most,” James said. “Why? Because there was so much sacrifice. She sacrificed everything she made, just to give.”
James pointed to Mam and Paw, sitting in the congregation.
“She used to give Mr. Ray and Miss Dorothy presents. And I’ll say this about Mr. Ray and Miss Dorothy Dreher, they were so close to my mother and my father. They sacrificed every year, whether my mother and father have enough to give them a gift of not. They gave. We talkin’ about sacrifice. We talkin’ about whether you’re carryin’ your cross today.”
As a child, James said, he would cross the river into Cajun country to stay with his Grandma Mose, Clophine’s mother. There he would eat a traditional dish called couche-couche, an old-timey Cajun version of fried cornmeal mush. Grandma Mose served couche-couche and milk nearly every morning, and little James loved it.
“But every now and then,” he continued, stretching his words for effect, “we wouldn’t eat couche-couche and milk. We’d eat something called bouille.”
Bouille, pronounced “boo-yee,” is cornmeal porridge, what the poorest of the Cajun poor ate.
“I didn’t like bouille. I frowned up. Mama made me that bouille sometime. Bouille tasted bad. It wasn’t good,” he said. “But let me tell you something: you may have family members, and you may have friends, that will feed you some bouille. It may not be food. They may not be treating you the way you think you ought to be treated. They may be doing this or doing that. You may be giving them a frown. But we may be talking about real sacrifice.”
James’s voice rose, and his arms began flying. This man was under conviction. He told the congregation that if a man lives long enough, he’s going to see his family, friends, and neighbors die, and no matter what their sins and failings, the day will come when we wish we had them back, flaws and all.
The preacher turned to his mother’s body, lying in the open casket on his left, and his voice began to crack.
“If my mama could give me that bouille one more time. If she could give me that bouille one more time. I wouldn’t frown up. I wouldn’t frown up. I would eat that bouille just like I ate that couche-couche. I would sacrifice my feelings. I would sacrifice my pride, if she could just give me that bouille one more time.”
I glanced at Mam, who was crying. Paw grimaced and held on to his cane.
“Let me tell you, you got family members and friends who ain’t treating you right,” James said, pointing at the congregation, his voice rising. “Listen to me! Sacrifice! Sacrifice! — when they givin’ you that bouille. Eat that bouille with a smile. Take what they givin’ you with a smile. That’s what Jesus did. He took that bouille when they was throwing it at him, when they was spittin’ at him, he took it. He sacrificed.
“My mother didn’t have much education, but she knew how to sacrifice. She knew that in the middle of the sacrifice, you smile. You smile.”
The evangelist looked once more at his mother’s body, and said, in a voice filled with the sweetest yearning, “Mama, I wish you could give me that bouille one more time.”
James stepped away, yielding the lectern to the hospice chaplain, who gave a more theologically learned sermon. Truth to tell, I didn’t listen closely. The power and the depth of what I had just heard from that Starhill country preacher, James Toney, and the lesson his mother’s life left to those who knew her, stunned me. And it made me thing of Ruthie, who lived and died as Miss Clophine had done: taking the bouille and giving, and smiling, all for love, as Jesus had done.
This was true religion. James showed me that. I tell you, the greatest preacher who ever stood in the pulpit at Chartres could not have spoken the Gospel any more purely.
The funeral director invited the congregation to come forward and say our last goodbyes to Miss Clophine before driving out to the cemetery. I walked forward with my arm around Mam’s shoulder. We stood together at Miss Clo’s side. Her body was scrawny and withered, and it was clad in white pajamas, a new set, with pink stripes. I felt Mam tremble beneath my arm. She drew her fingers to her lips, kissed them, and touched them to Miss Clophine’s forehead. In that moment, I thought of the Virgin Mary’s song, from the Gospel of Luke:
He hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat,
And hath exalted the humble.
He hath filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich he hath sent empty away.
I know, I know: the funeral of a Cajun woman is only tangentially related to what Appelbaum said about LSU Tigers football. But it’s really not. We have a way of life down in Louisiana, the meaning of which makes no sense to the meritocracy. This is not always to our benefit, God knows, but it matters. These are the things that bind a people together, and give them the resilience to endure life’s ordeals without losing hope. The ideals that the country preacher James Toney talked about in eulogizing his mother — they are sustained and transmitted not in the classroom, but in the culture of ordinary people. And in Louisiana, that means a shared love for the LSU Tigers. Like I said, it’s a tribal religion. If you don’t understand that, you are likely to end up writing a gradgrindy piece about the lost productivity from Americans taking the day off to go to Fourth of July parades.
The Little Way of Ruthie Leming is a book-length answer to the Binyamin Appelbaum View Of The World. Appelbaum, an economist by training, sees no utility in college football, and thinks we’re all a bunch of idiot hicks for loving the LSU Tigers as much as we do. But I tell you, on your deathbed, you will not regret having not spent more time at the office, climbing the meritocratic ladder, but you might well regret not spending more time tailgating at Tiger Stadium (or whatever your local equivalent is, reader). The Binyamin Appelbaums of the world think that life is a syllogism and a spreadsheet; the people of Louisiana, by contrast, know that it’s really a poem and a parade.
UPDATE: Reader Jonah R.:
Ya know, I’m not a college sports fan. I think it’s a massive corruption of our already dubious system of higher education. It’s asinine and decadent to pay a college football coach $4 million a year.
But I understand this. I have family in Louisiana, and I’ve spent a lot of time there. Outsiders who don’t understand this celebration don’t get that it’s not just another example of locals getting all worked up over their dumb college team. It’s about living somewhere that has a distinctive culture and sense of place, within a set of conditions you couldn’t recreate from scratch if you wanted to. When you’re a repeat visitor to Louisiana, you start to realize: Hey, people actually like that they live here. And then, over time, you begin to understand why, and you realize that this is the sense of community that people get wistful about, but you have to experience it to understand it. How it’s created is a mystery, and fostering it is hard because it’s fragile, but it’s the thing people are yearning for whether they realize it or not, and it appears in the most unlikely places.
UPDATE.2: Reader Jeff R.:
That’s a lot of nice words about tradition and cultural heritage and whatnot, but I would have retorted something more to the point like “yeah, and in the enlightened, progressive state of New York, they cancelled classes at Syracuse because some prankster drew a swastika in the snow and OMG TEH NAZIS ARE COMING or something. We might not have the same academic standards as you Yanks, but at least we’ve managed to retain some vestiges of sanity on our college campuses.”
UPDATE.3: Reader Matt Grice:
The Binyamin Appelbaums of the world think that life is a syllogism and a spreadsheet; the people of Louisiana, by contrast, know that it’s really a poem and a parade.
I am not personally a college football fan— but I do remember, very very well, my first visit to Louisiana. Among many other memorable events from that visit, I found myself being invited to join in to a big meal being served on the sidewalk in front of somebody’s house in New Orleans, on St Patrick’s Day following the parade. The people whose house it was didn’t even know me, I was just the friend of a friend, but I was given a paper plate and encouraged to dig in with my hands — because the meal consisted of them emptying out a gigantic crab boiler (?) (I had never seen anything like it before) onto a big table covered with newspapers, so that there was a massive pile of bright red crawfish, ears of corn cut into fourths, pieces of potato, and coins of sausage. Plus a pallet-size pile of rolls of bread and plenty of beer, too. I am from New England and hadn’t grown up eating spicy foods, but during this one meal my aversion/inability to handle spiciness was cured — I had tears streaming down my face as I kept shoveling handfuls of the crawfish into my mouth, laughing back as the people I was eating with (good-naturedly) laughed at me, the Yankee, enduring this trial by fire. It was one of the best meals I have ever had in my life and from that day on I no longer feared chiles and peppers and Cajun seasoning and the rest of it. But also the spirit that one feels there, in Louisiana, is not like anywhere else in America that I have been. I’m very much a New Englander and a cold weather person at heart, but I really, really love New Orleans and Louisiana and I totally agree that it and its parades and holidays beat the Gradgrinds of the world any day. What a special place you have for a home. This is what Roger Scruton — a *really* great man, RIP– was talking about, I think.
Yes. And look, a lot of us fully know that we don’t value education as much as we should in this state. On Sunday, the front-page, above-the-fold story in the state’s biggest newspaper was about how Clemson values education far more than LSU does. This is a real problem with us. But that’s not what cancelling classes was about. It was about celebration and gratitude.
UPDATE.4: Son. Son!
If you don’t get the reference, this is an appropriation of south Louisiana slang (“Geaux Tigers”) for GOAT — Greatest Of All Time.
UPDATE.5: Reader Sublime Porte:
I am trying to put this into words, as this isn’t the easiest subject for me to broach without emotions causing my thoughts to become muddled.
Funny enough, while Applebaum is based out of New York, his snide Tweet–and your excellent, moving column–resonate well with this former New Yorker. I have no Starhill to return to, as the Starhill in which I was raised no longer exists. It might seem strange to someone from a small town to hear someone equating one of the 5 Boroughs to a small Louisiana town, but we grow up where we grow up, and it makes its impression on us. My surviving family members are the sort who would not understand why you’d want to live somewhere where being “average” is acceptable. They would also be very quick to tell you how much “nicer” my former home is now. How there are so many high end shops, how divey sports bars have been replaced by gastropubs staffed by mixologists, and how you can get an artisanal this that and the other thing delivered via Seamless or GrubHub or some damn app or another.
If you’re into that sort of thing, I can see why you might like it quite a bit. If you moved in after the fact, I can see why you’re not mourning a lost middle class ethnic enclave. It’s probably a pleasant place for a lefty upper class urbanite to call home.
It’s not where I grew up, though. Not in terms of culture, not in terms of who lives there, not in any sense but the street names. I feel no sense of homecoming in coming home, as “home” doesn’t really exist anymore.I think this has aided in causing my family relationships to be more strained than I would like, as they don’t understand my dislike for returning to a place that seems like a conquered city.
My wife and I are ultimately looking to moving abroad, as opting out of the Workism of the USA seems like our own, small BenOpt.
Someone told me that Appelbaum is actually based in DC. For purposes of this column, same difference. The Boston-NYC-DC meritocratic corridor is the same thing, symbolically.
UPDATE.6: I took out the personal insult that was in this piece earlier. I shouldn’t have said it. I apologize. I also found out that B. Appelbaum lives in DC, not NYC. As I’m not really talking here about NYC as NYC, but a mindset of coastal elites, I changed the headline to Acela, for the Acela Corridor (Boston to DC).