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My Mardi Gras, after a nomadic life

BY CT GILBERT - GUEST OPINION | FEBRUARY 25, 2009 7:39 AM

I’ve never really had a culture of my own. Oh, the grand sweeps of national character, maybe, participating in this or that element of Americanism — I know what a fast-food cheeseburger tastes/looks/hurts like, and, more importantly, I know my criteria by which it should be assessed — but nothing that I cleave to, nothing that I could call without hesitation my own. I am pure Irish, an unbroken line of micks traced right back to the Emerald Rock itself, but both sides of the family have been festering in Appalachia and the South for four and five generations, so the “Irishness” isn’t there any longer. I am a Southerner, then, except that I was born in Wenatchee, Wash., a tiny little town over the mountains from Seattle that erected its first Starbucks four years ago. I did manage to escape the Washingtonian wastelands by the time I was 4 years old and spent the next five years in New Guinea, Indonesia (I believe the territory is called Papua now, after the latest in Indo’s let’s-pretend method of nation-minding), becoming comfortable with the expat lifestyle — a “culture” we could term this — but at 9 years old, I was whisked away again back Stateside. My family drifted around a lot, jumping by hundreds of miles at a time into another pocket of localized culture: marshy suburb in Louisiana, New Mexican McHacienda atop the mesas, pine-strewn hamlet in Colorado, and then, just before high school, New Orleans. Blurs of geography and people, an overlapping of loyalties, and I struggled to arrest myself within my life with a “place.” I have since moved on from New Orleans, tried to make my place here in Iowa City, even spent a year in magical, wistful Prague, but something lingers of my Big Easy years. It may have been the simple fact of growing up there, that is, the important formative years of middle and high school, or maybe that such a dazzling, seductive, jealous city as New Orleans conducts a stronger hold than most, but I keep it rather more fondly than other corners of the world I’ve seen. But still, it’s not quite my corner. I just tend to get nostalgic for my adopted culture at around this time of year because of a very special holiday.

Mardi Gras is not from New Orleans. Not everyone knows this, but it isn’t important. It has been claimed by New Orleans more fiercely than other cities, except perhaps for Rio de Janeiro’s equally unique and intense rendition, condensing from the original mobile mystic societies the now-familiar collage of parade krewes, beads, booze and galas. I threw myself into it with the shiny-things fascination of a kid when I first lived in Mandeville, a town across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, and marveled at the wizardry of glamour and upset. Things — loud, bright, rushing things were going on around me and I was swept along, wide-eyed and mind-blown. When my family returned a few years later to New Orleans proper, I approached the parades more skeptically and turned my attention instead to the masques and balls, the dreamworlds of costume and tradition. The magic cemented itself in the practice of Mardi Gras, not just the witnessing of it. Dancing schizoid waltzes with a woman draped head to toe in a cardboard-and-sequins catfish outfit … with two enormous cardboard-and-sequins breasts. Waiting breath-bated for the lucky discovery of the tiny golden Christ Child in a slice of king cake, and a bracing round of applause for the poor sucker who would then have to buy the next feast’s cake. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was a complete fraud — my family wasn’t from this place, had no firm ties to its culture and traditions, or even the funny way they have of speaking (we have our own, a mongrel of Tennessean, Virginian, Louisianan, and blander, less-definable “American” dialects that reflects my lack of anchor far more directly than means of merry-making).

And now in my early 20s, I live in this pleasant Iowa enclave, and Mardi Gras has become just another party. An opportunity to break the night open with another Hand Grenade shooter (a vein-drip of Red Bull in the arm to take the edge off), a wavering cry of “Throw me somethin’, mister” ringing across the Ped Mall at someone who won’t, and a feeble whimper into sleep with the knowledge that this, like St. Patrick’s Day or Purim, holds no meaning or attachment, no anchor for me other than the party itself. The abstinence of Lent may be exactly what I need — except, of course, that I’m not religious, and any solace found in ascetic piety would be further example of a life annexed from those around me.


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