For the past year or so, prompted largely by the New Orleans Saints’ awesome championship run, I’ve been feeling pretty nostalgic for Louisiana. I’ve been away for more than three years now, but I manage to get down there at least twice a year. My most recent trip, last February, was fed by the exhilaration trifecta of the Saints winning the Super Bowl, my first Mardi Gras in four years and my mom pulling through potentially life-threatening surgery. Quite a week that was.
The years have largely dulled some of the sore points I had with the area that largely left me to leave it in the first place back in 2007. Many of the best friends I’ve ever had still call it home, and the hospitality and culture remain unlike much else I’ve ever encountered. And a nice visit can stash all the frustrating memories in a vault and throw away the combination.
But sometimes, something dredges it all back up.
The human memory is a remarkable weapon. Even your most dusty flashbacks can come blazing back to life with little more than a glance. Two years ago, I stumbled upon a girl on Facebook who was in my second-grade class. She sat right behind me. My main interaction with her was rejecting her advances and icky girl-germ-laden love notes. That whole year, she had a crush on me, something that no girl would repeat for six more years. After second grade, I would never see her again. Decades later, I stumbled upon her picture online. She was beautiful. “Her cheekbones still look the same,” I thought to myself. “Wait, how do I even remember what her cheekbones look like?” Not bad recognition over a face I hadn’t thought about since the summer of 1988.
I didn’t ask to friend her on Facebook, but she wouldn’t be out of place among my eclectic crew. As of this writing, I have 546 Facebook friends. Out of those, maybe 300 have ties to south Louisiana, generally from our high school or college days. They’re all long used to my constant status updates, which tend to veer between harmless humor and divisive political commentary (though, these days, it’s mostly the former). One of my Springfield friends recently joked to me (in person, not online) that I could write “straws are round” as my status and it would get several likes and even more comments. Fittingly enough, I made that my next status. And it did.
One Facebook status I posted Wednesday served all of the above roles, but in a gut-wrenching way. And it wasn’t because of what it said or even the fact that it turned into a heated political debate. It was because it reminded me of some of the most frustrating facets of the place in which I hatched.
On that day, my home city of Lafayette held a “Rally for Economic Survival.” Thousands of people converged in the Cajundome unified under a single message: “Lift the Moratorium!” This was in response to President Obama’s brake-screeching on offshore oil drilling in the wake of the massive BP oil spill.
Lafayette and the surrounding communities (known collectively as Acadiana), though miles from the Louisiana coast, are huge oil and gas hubs. It’s the No. 1 industry in town, and has been for decades. Everybody either has or knows someone who has done a stint offshore or in a shop. One part of town is known literally as the Oil Center, where the Petroleum Club hosts social events (our high school football banquets were held there). Fittingly, Dick Cheney visited several times as vice president.
Consequently, it’s pretty much impossible to debate oil and gas issues with someone from the Acadiana region. You might as well argue that puppies should be shot between the eyes. It becomes a very emotional, personal argument and you come across as a villain, not even for criticizing the oil business, but for suggesting that anything about it needs to evolve at all.
I should have thought about that before saying anything.
Basically, I thought the rally was a bad idea on its face. I understood that tens of thousands of locals are worried sick about losing their oilfield jobs, and that the prevailing sentiment is that a moratorium would only worsen already-precarious job conditions down there. There’s also the question of whether curbing offshore drilling is the correct solution to a disaster essentially caused by penny-pinching on the acoustic switches. These are legit issues that are worth addressing with an open mind.
But I also know this: 1) Louisiana isn’t the most environmental state, and there isn’t a type of cancer the state won’t risk to do business; 2) Louisianians have voted consistently against their own economic and social interests for decades; 3) The majority of residents wouldn’t piss on President Obama if he had personally plunged into the oil spill himself, plugged the leak and caught fire on the way up. Though they would piss on him over health care.
And the rally, sponsored by oil interests, seemed more like political grandstanding than anything else. Fair or not, it was easy for me to detect a bit of tea-party mania and right-to-work groveling at play here. And that it could actually backfire from its intended purpose as an appeal to the president and Congress if an ulterior agenda seemed too obvious.
Which brings me to the status. I typed, “*Lafayette facepalm*” — in retrospect, probably not the most civilized thing to do. But it wasn’t until a non-Louisiana friend asked me about it that others made the link between my status and the big event of the day.
“There's an anti-drilling-moratorium rally today, the ‘Rally for Economic Survival.’ I'm not surprised. They still defend cockfighting there. And cancer is a cost of doing bidness,” I responded to my friend’s query. Again, not the best way to explain what I was feeling, but not untrue. Chicken-sparring is very popular, and they don’t call the corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans “Cancer Alley” for nothing.
Almost immediately, several friends piped up and said we’re gonna lose jobs, money, business, etc. Also, that I was pompous, heartless, would understand if I had family in the business, now is not the time for improvement, etc. On another forum, someone suggested that it was easy for me to object to the rally with a full stomach.
Two things really bothered me about this debate, both of which opened old wounds: 1) The people criticizing me are good people I have known personally for years, and spanned pretty much the whole political spectrum; and 2) the assumption that, in criticizing the motivations behind a singular event, I was attacking an entire industry from a completely detached, ivory-tower perspective.
When I lived in Lafayette, I discovered I was tremendously capable of saying and doing things that could anger/upset literally every person I knew. And even as I stood by some of those statements, I still felt terrible for how they made people feel. I often felt ganged up upon, and I brought it all on myself by taking a stand. It’s a conflict I’m still dealing with today, though not typically on such an emotionally draining level.
And I realize now that a major part of this is how other people view me. For whatever reason, friends think that I’m immune from job insecurity and that I can’t know what it’s like to have a stake in the oil industry. That’s crap, of course, because I’ll never forget when my dad was laid off from his brief contractor job when I was 11. He spent more time in school learning the trade than he did actually working in it. And I lived in Lafayette for 26 1/2 years, which was plenty of time to see the economy come and go with the tide of oil. Also, I was unemployed for an entire year there near the end. As far as emotional arguments go, I can roll with the most passionate.
I love Louisiana. It will always be where I’m from. I wear state-emblazoned shirts all the time. My car has a Saints helmet decal and a UL Lafayette frame around the license plate. I have not ruled out returning. My birthplace has made me who I am, and I’m grateful to be that person.
That doesn’t mean I can’t call out a pro-oil rally once in a while. Or that I shouldn’t make note of Lafayette’s self-inflicted lack of economic diversity, which devalues a college education and compels brain drain. And how concern for jobs and business sometimes overrides personal and environmental safety. Or that having an intellectual conversation over these topics, the first thing we need, tends to be the last thing we have.
Much like my old friend’s cheekbones, these frustrations come back to life like they never left in conversations such as these. They remind me of why I needed to leave, but also why I’ll always want to come back. Because of there’s one thing I share with my hometown brethren, it’s a desire to make things better.
And there’s no debating that.