Monday, February 25, 2008

Letters from the center of the universe

I was reading the New Orleans paper online today and ran across this article from one of my favorite columnists, Chris Rose. He was basically defending some comments he made in a previous article about how New Orleans may not be fully recovered, but we still throw a helluva party. Here are some excerpts of the article, and I live it because it explains the feelings so many of us have of the fair city: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...

In my story about the glorious NBA extravaganza that unfolded in New Orleans last weekend, I wrote these words about the many fans and visitors who came to town:

"They love us. And they'll all be back, every one of them, whoever 'they' are. Because they have danced at the center of the universe. And once you do that, you are forever changed.... New Orleans is the center of the universe for anyone with a lust for life."

That passage sparked some e-mails and some discussion on various Web sites. Usually, I quietly absorb the ramifications and meaning of all the e-mails I get -- and the comments about my stories on our affiliated Web site, -- but there's a thread of emotion in this one that warrants further reflection...

In my story, I used the term to talk about how New Orleans was front and center -- again -- in national and international news stories and broadcasts, once again under the microscope, and once again acquitting herself magnificently for the media and visiting masses who, to my eye, were in the vortex, the maelstrom, the party... the center of the universe.

Several folks found the phrasing a tad self-absorbed and, well, maybe it was. Maybe I love this town too much. But other people do, too...

Here's an e-mail I got from a reader named Ken McCarthy:

"Normally, I'd say a writer who writes like this needs to dial it back a bit, but as an ex-New Yorker who lived ten years in San Francisco and has seen the other great cities of the world, I'd say what you wrote is downright clinical in its accuracy. I moved here after the levee failures and I have to say this is not only one of the world's greatest cities, it's one of the greatest cities that ever was. It belongs right up there with Athens in its Golden Age (which I'm sure had its own petty government thieves, pointless violence and inept public works projects). I really pity the people who can't see what a wonder New Orleans is. They're not only missing the world's greatest party, they're also missing a place of rare nobility, decency and courage..."

I've always faltered when someone criticizes my triumphing this community, telling me I'm ignoring the bad stuff. But I'm not. And I haven't. And now I realize: It's complicated. This can -- and is -- in fact, the best city in the country, despite its problems. And I fail to accept the notion that trumpeting that view is disingenuous.

I don't think loving this place means you are ignoring the problems. Quite the opposite, in fact. I've never felt, more than now, that the residents of this city are dialed into a serious fixing of this place...

However, When I am not proclaiming New Orleans to be the greatest place on earth, I am lamenting the cesspool of humanity it is. One day I feel one way, the next I feel the other. Like I said, it's complicated. And I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm tired of people who don't get it that those of us who still sometimes lumber around town as if lost in a dream are whiners and weaklings.

That's not it. Living here in the Aftermath has proven a task of profound strength, endurance and agility. And the occasional limping should not be derided. I applaud those who are able to still admit it and articulate it. If you live here, you know this.

Paul Sanchez -- a local singer/songwriter of extraordinary talent, a former member of Cowboy Mouth and now out on his own as a solo act -- shared with me in a personal note the effect of that phrase, "dancing at the center of the universe."

I use his words here with permission:

"Once again, you were articulating what seemed on the tip of my tongue for weeks. I wanted to thank you for today's article because words matter to me, they have been my lifeline to existence since I was a boy and your words lift and remind me why: 'It is the center of the universe for anyone with a lust for life.'I read your story and I know that I have danced countless times at the center of the universe and I still hear the music calling me. Honestly, I don't know what my next move is, but I know that -- like everything else in the last few years -- things are different and the sooner I start playing the changes, the faster it will become a new song -- the coastal erosion continues, house, stuff, band, health and a growing distance between who I was and where I am. The flood keeps eroding my sense of belonging until I wonder if I'm the only one of my friends who doesn't belong -- the only one whose life is made up of unrecoverable yesterdays."

Sound familiar? Well, that's because it's how you felt yesterday. Or will feel tomorrow, or -- if you're stronger than the rest of us -- it's how your friends and family feel. Sometimes.

And sometimes not.

And that's the thing. One day, we're in paradise. The next, it's purgatory. The shockwave roller coaster rolls on. Next stop: New Orleans...

You are in the center of the universe. So start dancing.

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