New Orleans, Part 1

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I was looking for New Orleans. After two days in the city, I was itching to find it. It being an undefinable something I hadn’t yet discovered, but that I would soon recognize as being quantifiably New Orleans. Maybe I was looking for the heart of the city. Or its soul.

But that it can’t be forced. Truth be told, I don’t think it really exists.

The problem is that I was looking for my idea of the city: a fictional amalgamation of various incarnations of the Big Easy pulled from books and movies, music and stories, even visits to Disneyland. I was looking now for a New Orleans that no longer existed and would never exist, a romantic vision that mingled the most haunting and historic aspects of its past with the most poetic and glimmering hopes of what it could be.

As a visitor, I nonetheless didn’t want to be a tourist. As a stranger, I nonetheless wanted this city to be familiar.

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Whatever I was looking for wasn’t in the drunken bustle and hooting on Bourbon Street. It wasn’t in the hemmed-in stretch of water that I belatedly realized was The River. It wasn’t in the unshaven beggars and tipsy street artists, the bands competing for ambient dominance on every block in the French Quarter, the slick nods to voodoo and ghosts and vampires in every corner shop selling suggestive T-shirts and factory-produced Mardi Gras masks.

I didn’t want the New Orleans everyone else got. I wanted my own, private New Orleans—one that met my lofty expectations and revealed to me the secrets it knew I was looking for, even if I didn’t know what they were.

I wanted, I suppose, to be welcomed into a family that had been waiting for me to return to a home I’d never lived in, to feed me with authentic, generation-spanning crawfish-and-catfish recipes, to speak to me with a Creole patois and pull back a beaded curtain to reveal—aha, yes—the New Orleans I’d built in my mind.

My search was, of course, both naively selfish and obviously fruitless. I think we all do this when we travel—if we travel—though we do it to varying degrees. We search for the Hollywood sign in the redwood forests of Northern California. We look for smoky, starlit French cafés in the middle of a Parisian traffic jam.

I do, anyway.

I imagine wandering alone or with my wife along otherwise deserted stretches of parks, museum corridors and galleries, famous and photogenic thoroughfares, architectural marvels and monuments—and then bristle at everyone else doing the same. As author Bill Buford wrote, “The crowd is not us. It never is.”

When I arrive, I complain that I can’t see the city for the tour buses and tacky merchandise and people. Really, I can’t see the city for my own expectations.

And when I realized that—remembered it, really—I was able to find the New Orleans that was there: the solid, welcoming, real New Orleans with wet sidewalks and commercialized mystique. It.

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All history is manufactured, and it’s still being churned out today. Marie Laveau’s tomb. The graffiti on Marie Laveau’s tomb. The historical society member/tour guide lamenting the graffiti, the attempts to remove the graffiti, the attempts to repair the damage made by the attempts to remove the graffiti.

One night, my wife and I ate at an obviously modern restaurant set up in a building erected in the 1780s. We bought locally made pecan praelines that were individually wrapped in plastic and packaged for shipment anywhere in the United States. At another restaurant, we asked about the property’s history, only to learn that our apologetic New York waitress had only been in town for a couple of months and had no idea as to its past. “I think a princess lived here?” she ventured. We sipped absinthe in a pirate-themed bar, where we pushed two chairs next to a gas fireplace and ignored the ATM against my wife’s back. Next door was a bookstore set up in the space where William Faulkner worked on his first published novel. Election-day paraphernalia for a local office littered the streets. Emergency-vehicle sirens split the night in numbers the likes of which I’ve never previously heard.

I had expected a city preserved like a dragonfly in amber. But despite all my looking down for what was crystallized and unchanging, I was fortunate to catch a quick glimpse of iridescent blue-green wings lifting into the muggy Southern air. To catch a quick glimpse of New Orleans.

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Identity Week: It’s in the Cards

Identity Week: It's in the Cards

Just a couple of days ago, a Facebook friend put out a general question: What was the first CD you bought?

I answered honestly: “Soundtrack to The Little Mermaid.”

His response: “Your Man Card has been deducted by 2 points.”

He was joking, of course, and even leavened his words with the admission that he bought the Aladdin soundtrack when it came out.

Of course I didn’t feel like my masculinity was genuinely being insulted. In fact, I responded once more: “Meh,” I wrote. “Man Cards aren’t worth the frilly pink paper they’re printed on.”

And I meant it.

A Man Card, if you don’t know (or do know and just want to hear my own brilliantly concise definition), is a theoretical document that jokingly certifies your manhood and can be revoked if other men feel you’re not being manly enough. In their opinion. I’m not sure when it started, but it’s been around for several years, at least.

There’s even a website, officialmancard.com, where people can submit reasons to revoke their friends’ man cards, with offenses ranging from one dude crying when Beth gets her piano in Little Women to a guy being unwilling to sleep with a prostitute who had already been paid. Seriously.

For my 34th  32nd birthday a couple of years back, I took my then-foursome of a family to Disneyland on Super Bowl Sunday, because I’d heard that was one of the least-attended days of the year. After seeing the lines for myself, I don’t think that’s true.

My parents, my wife’s parents, and my wife’s siblings and their significant others came along, too, and at one point I went with my in-laws to find a fast ride while my wife took the kids to something more child friendly. (She was pregnant, so she couldn’t ride anything that would jostle her around. Otherwise I totally would have reversed the roles. Plus I later sent our daughters away with their grandparents and surprised my wife with a visit to the Blue Bayou for lunch, so stop judging me.)

Anyway, when we settled on an attraction, I texted my wife to let her know—except I entered the wrong number and ended up messaging some random stranger who had no idea why I wanted him to know I was about to go on Space Mountain. He suggested that I give up my Man Card for choosing the Happiest Place on Earth over watching a football game. (Apparently, Disney-related activities and purchases aren’t manly.)

The idea of a Man Card is ridiculous. It’s meant to be jokingly and good-naturedly insulting in that way guy humor can tend to be. And I get that. I don’t care if someone takes a dig at me, because I can take it. Casual insults happen, and in fact I often feel more accepted if a friend can hurl them at me, because that means he’s comfortable enough to not worry about being mistaken for someone who genuinely has something critical to say.

The Man Card concept specifically, however, is insulting to men and women in what it’s saying about our respective roles. Men are supposed be this way, not that way. Do these things, not those things. You’re not a man if you don’t fit society’s (or some section thereof’s) definition of one, and, unfortunately, people who joke this way are denigrating empathy, sympathy, respect for women, honesty, sensitivity, and responsibility. They’re saying real men prize getting their way over cooperating or compromising. Real men don’t care what their girlfriends or wives think. Real men do what they want.

This is dangerous. I’m not saying that joking about the Man Card is the downfall of modern masculinity, but it’s certainly not helping in a culture that blames the victims of sex crimes for leading their attackers along. It reinforces the already warped attitudes of men who believe they’re entitled to a woman’s body because, hey, men are men and everybody should know there’s only one reason a guy is interested in a woman. It’s right there on the card. Or it’s implied, anyway. And you wouldn’t want your buddies to think you weren’t a real man.

Wow. That got dark quickly. Sorry.

Bottom line: I don’t want my daughters growing up in a world that tells the men in their lives to treat them like objects. I don’t want my son feeling pressured to conform to a stereotype of brutish idiocy masquerading as a coveted brotherhood.

This is why I make no secret to my children, or the world, that:

I cried at the end of Cars. (Seriously, Disney again?!)

I cried at the end of A Walk in the Clouds.

I have acted as a living dressmaker’s dummy for a bustle my wife was creating on a gown.

I enjoy playing Halo.

I know what ruching is.

I am obsessed with gadgets.

I know what ruching is from watching Project Runway.

I grow and maintain a thick beard.

I know what ruching is from watching Project Runway and enjoying it.

I drive a mini-van.

I hate stopping the mini-van for any reason after I’ve started driving on a road trip.

I can name all the Disney—yes, them again—fairies.

I drink scotch.

I know more ballet positions than my 6- and 4-year-old daughters.

I list pink as my second-favorite color (it just can’t beat grey), and I wear it regularly.

I don’t think the things listed above are manly or unmanly. They just are.

So, do you think I’m overreacting?