Notes from Atlantis

Random Thoughts from the Crescent City

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Notes from Atlantis 9

Dear Folks,

I’m thinking about gallantry, and how gallantry isn’t merely gritting your teeth and soldiering on with life despite the odds.

Gallantry is also about happiness. It’s about being happy when it’s probably a little ridiculous to feel that way, and about ignoring the bad news as much as your intelligence will allow, for as long as your intelligence will allow it. It’s about living in the moment, if the moment is pleasant, and about being a grass-hopper instead of an ant when all the fields are fallow anyway and you’re not going to find any picnics to scavenge, so you might as well just pull out your fiddle and dance.

It’s about fiddle-dee-dee, and I’ll think about it tomorrow, and tomorrow is another day. And it’s a skill we should all definitely cultivate...although, like most talents, some people seem born with a gift for it.

Gallantry involves letting go...letting go of your sorrow, if only for a little while, and letting go of your fear and letting life course through you. It involves a big fat Molly Bloom-style YES to life, even if the smart money, the prevailing wisdom, and your own life experiences all say NO. It’s about being a fool. About being a child, who knows play-time is infinitely more important than homework. It may be how God puts up with us, with all the trouble we give Him (or Her). And it involves an absolutely clear-eyed acknowledgment that, yes, we are generally doomed, and a willingness to say let the good times roll anyway.

Okay, so what does all this have to do with New Orleans? Well, we went to a big free concert down by the Mississippi River yesterday, just off the French Quarter. A beautiful day, around 70 degrees, light chop on the water. The Mississippi there isn’t the behemoth it is up around Cairo, where it joins the Missouri and truly appears to be the Father of Waters. Here you can look across it to Algiers Point and almost imagine you could swim it (although the current’s rough). There are barges and ferryboats sailing back and forth across its gray-brown surface, and a long esplanade built where the old warehouses used to be. A few thousand people joined there yesterday to hear Kermit Ruffin and Jon Cleary and Walter "Wolfman" Washington and a bunch of other musicians lay it down and sing it out in pure D delight in being alive and being back home again. And we danced, and we sang, and we waved our hands in the air like we just didn’t care, and yes, we did what New Orleanians always do, which is we were gallant.

I wish I could be like that all the time. Of course I can’t, very few people can. I worry about the future and fret about the past and try and second-guess myself like everyone else does, and my gallantry generally goes right out the window.

But some people really come close to living with that kind of panache (to quote Cyrano de Bergerac, who also had it).

I had two great friends who died recently, both of whom seem to have had a real gift for gallantry. They both faced the modern world’s Calvary, cancer, and both lived every second of their lives as if their time on earth were limitless...and infinitely precious.

My friend Alice had a message on her answering machine that said, "Hello, caller, you’ve reached 674-1762, please leave a message after the well-known tone, and HAVE A GOOD ONE." Just like that, she transformed a bromide ("Have a nice day") into a buoyant injunction to be happy. My friend Hootkins, when provided with lunch by a friend, opined, "Ah...I see you’ve discovered the true secret to the cold buffet...RELISH!" He lived every second of his life with relish, whether it was for food or drink or sex or cigars or anything else, including life itself.

And of course I’m thinking about New Orleans, and its well-known penchant for frivolity. Now everybody knows this isn’t really a city that forgot care...or was ever forgotten by it. It has, however, sometimes deliberately chosen to ignore care: generally when it was dying from yellow-fever anyway, or facing a Northern blockade, or languishing through the Depression, or cleaning some frat-boy’s vomit off its front steps for the umpteenth time. Like my two dear lost friends, it was never stupid. It knew what its odds were...and believe me, it knows them now. Ask anyone down here, does New Orleans have problems, and you’ll get a ringing and elaborate YOU BET! And as anyone who’s been reading these notes knows, I don’t think this city is dead, or even dying. But it’s still dancing on the knife’s edge like we all are...only some of us are more aware of that fact than others.

And some of us choose, having that knowledge, to sit down and mourn, and curse fate, and stare with unblinking eyes at our own destruction, and know it for what it is.

And some of us choose to dance.

God keep me in that second line.




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