Monday, April 22, 2013

The case for not coming home

Rod Dreher recently wrote an article for the Baton Rouge Business Report, “The case for coming home,” in which he chronicles his triumphant return to Louisiana after years in professional exile. He writes of wanting to return to his family and to his deep cultural ties. Many are hailing his story as a virtual template of what’s to love in the Bayou State. Reading it proved to be an emotional trial for me; I had to stop several times to collect myself. My own return to Louisiana has been a far more ambiguous ride than his.

Dreher and I are at very different checkpoints in the walk of life. He’s an older family man with a long record of professional success. And, judging by his frequent use of words like “grace” and shoehorned jabs at Democrats, is likely a religious conservative as well. I’m a relatively young, single man with a decent amount of success and am an unabashed, secular liberal.

Still, it’s not the differences, but the similarities in our conclusions that make Dreher’s story so poignant to me. We agree that Louisiana is a place to sacrifice professional opportunities and big-city trappings for family and culture. For him, that tradeoff is a happy given. For me, the merit is less clear.

THE FIRST GOODBYE

Before dawn on the morning of Feb. 3, 2007, I arrived at Lafayette Regional Airport for an important flight. As I entered the boarding area, the security officer checked my Louisiana driver’s license, which was set to expire in three months.

“It’s time to renew your license,” she told me.

“Well, I’m moving to Missouri today, so I’ll get one there,” I replied.

At the moment my jet parted ways with the tarmac, I gazed out at the dark terrain of Lafayette, La. — in my 26 years, the only city I’d ever called home. At that instant, a paraphrased line from the movie Weekend at Bernie’s came to mind:

“So long, Louisiana. It’s been fun,” I mouthed silently. “But ... not really.”

I was more than ready to leave. My new job in Springfield, Mo., ended the longest and most baffling two years of my life. In May 2005, I graduated with a master’s degree in English from the University of Louisiana. I thought having a higher degree, combined with my journalistic experience, would ensure that I quickly found professional footing. Throughout college, I routinely turned down unsolicited job offers — but now that I was available, those offers had dried up. I landed a series of interviews for jobs at several Acadiana-area publications, but was ultimately rejected for all of them. I had reason to believe that my past opinion writing factored into some of their decisions. I took that personally — and hard. Later in the year, I had to sell my beloved, longtime truck for $48 — a symbolic amount that covered a tow — to a mechanic in New Iberia because I couldn’t afford to fix its blown engine or bring it home. That forced me to quit the one freelance reporting gig I had left.

Every night that year I’d stay up until dawn, pacing in my bedroom at my parents’ house, pouring out tears and wondering if I’d ever get out. If I’d ever find a job. If I’d ever get a car or be able to fix my broken bicycle. If I’d ever again have another reason to venture outside my neighborhood. Wondering why I did everything right and still struggled to make anything of myself.

It took me 16 long months to land any kind of job at all, and that was working in the stockroom at Target in Lafayette. The job itself wasn’t bad, and I wasn’t even the only grad student back there. Still, I walked into work each day hoping that none of my past professors or college friends saw me in uniform. I felt like I’d failed miserably. And that my hometown, the supposed paradise on Earth that no one ever wanted to leave, didn’t want me around.

By that point, the feeling was mutual. I had grown jaded about Louisiana, a place I’d always sworn I’d never leave. All my life I never fully fit in, but was still quick to defend the area and its family ties, its culture, its friendliness and its quirkiness. But in light of my difficulty in finding gainful employment, Louisiana seemed all the more like a right-wing hellhole where the roads sucked, education wasn’t a priority, businesses could pollute to their heart’s content and fake manners mattered more than real compassion. Oh, and it was humid too.

It was time to stop being from somewhere. I had to start getting somewhere.

GO MIDWEST, YOUNG MAN

One of the first questions a co-worker asked me when I moved to Springfield was, “Do you hunt squirrels?”

The question was the first of a long series of Midwestern culture shocks. One day I brought a king cake into the newsroom and several people asked what it was — and most who did know had never been to Mardi Gras. Strangers often bristled when I was friendly with them. Their Jesus was different than Louisiana’s Jesus. The festivals didn’t quite compare. And I had no family ties in the area. But for me, the most jarring change was apathy toward the New Orleans Saints. They broadcast Kansas City Chiefs and St. Louis Rams games instead. Not cool!

But Springfield had considerable upshots as well. Bike trails. A vibrant YMCA. Milder summers. Cheap rent. Low crime. Easy recycling. Great libraries. Quality infrastructure. Flag football every Sunday. Diversity in opinion. I had a job in my field at which I excelled, where I was respected, had lots of friends and enjoyed a laid-back office culture. My time there helped bring into focus what I really wanted out of my daily life. My work, my hobbies, my friends and my pursuits all arose from scratch and thus more accurately reflected who I was. Missouri was the first place where I truly built my own life.

It wasn’t perfect, though. Sometimes I’d lapse into the same lonely despair I’d had in Lafayette. I got tired of staring at my old cell phone when talking with family. My nights, weekends and holidays belonged to work. I occasionally worried that, after paying all my bills, I’d only have a few hundred dollars left (heh). Combined with a looming job insecurity that brewed in 2009, I began seeing green grass where I had once seen only dirt.

WHO DAT GONNA HIT DAT ROAD?

February 7, 2010. The New Orleans Saints faced the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV. If ever I wanted to celebrate something, this was it. Every other year in Springfield, I’d been invited to at least three Super Bowl parties (and would be the following year as well). But that game, I watched totally alone in my apartment. My local friends probably (and understandably) didn’t want to be around that level of intensity (and also, some of them were Colts fans). When the Saints won, I never wanted to be in Louisiana more in my life. The homesickness that had long eluded me was officially in motion.

As luck would have it, my mom was scheduled for surgery two days after the game. (That isn’t the lucky part, though she did sail through it and was 100 percent within days.) The following week was Mardi Gras or, as it became known, Lombardi Gras. Because of my mom’s recovery (that was the official reason), I got to visit Lafayette that week. What a wonderful time to be there! Family, friends, parties and football — it was everything I loved about my home state rolled up into one memorable week. That visit and a subsequent one that summer cemented my plan to get back to my roots.

Meanwhile in Missouri, anxiety over the fate of our jobs loomed large. We were informed that many of our copy editing positions were heading to Iowa at some indeterminate point in the future. Some of my co-worker friends left pre-emptively, magnifying my sense of isolation. Perhaps as a result, I threw myself into more activities, winding up having the best year I ever had in Springfield. Nevertheless, I had my eye on leaving the whole time.

I joked at the time that I’d probably not have it so good for the next 10 years. But that was OK, because Louisiana is about family and culture. The important things in life.

THE BUMPY, ENDLESS EXPANSE

In February 2011, after exactly four years in Missouri, I drove back to Louisiana for good in an overloaded car. I had no concrete plans for the future, but had enough money saved up to buffer the next few months. I looked forward to reconnecting with my parents, siblings, cousins and friends. For the first few months, I did exactly that, and it was fun. Everyone I talked to asked me the same question: “Why did you move back?” Depending on who was asking, different words would be emphasized in that question.

However, it didn’t take long for me to start feeling doubts about my decision. For three months, my car — which I’d always maintained and always rode smooth as glass — continued to creak. At first I thought it was from having overloaded it on the trip. But it turns out I just wasn’t used to Louisiana’s terrible roads anymore. Time and time again, I’d get these kinds of little reminders that my home region was rougher than what I’d known for the past few years. Insurance was more expensive. A favorite business was long gone. A so-called “bike path” was actually a dangerous bike lane. But it was OK because, you know, family and culture.

In July, I landed a job in Baton Rouge in my field, which to date remains the only full-time, professional job I’ve ever held in Louisiana (unless a 3-month college internship also counts). However, I wasn’t a great fit there, and resigned seven months later. Another problem was that I struggled to carve out a life in Baton Rouge that reflected who I was. The city had few of the trappings of Springfield and less culture than Lafayette. I was on my own, but I wasn’t me. Attempts to land a job in New Orleans, which started well before my departure, went nowhere.

For seven more months, I lived alone in Baton Rouge while eking out a partial living as a movie extra. Fun work, but definitely not a sustainable lifestyle. And there was still the problem of having little meaningful to do in my downtime. I had to carry my bike down three flights of stairs just to go riding in a boring yet treacherous suburb. At my complex, a teenager brought a handgun to the swimming pool. I was paying as much in rent as some house notes, and still my power went out frequently for no reason. As my lease and money ran out, I lived on 99-cent frozen pizzas and $2 bags of chips. But at least people called me "sir" while ringing me up. The important things in life.

At the end of September 2012, on a torrentially rainy day, I packed my things and moved back to my parents’ house in Lafayette. I’ve been there ever since, with the majority of my belongings in storage. It’s been months since I’ve opened the storage unit. I still work in movies occasionally, but it’s usually such a cost-neutral hassle that I don’t bother much. I look mainly out of state for jobs, because I’m still set on doing something that’s personally meaningful. I’ve been told I’m too picky for doing this, but life is short and I want to explore. I know what’s here and can always return, but only if and when I’m ready to do so.

For now, I find myself once again in the same predicament as before, pacing my bedroom in my parents’ house and wondering if I’ll ever again find a job. If I’ll be able to fix my broken bicycle. If I’ll ever leave my neighborhood ... again. Wondering why it’s still a struggle after all this time.

Two years ago, I made a noble attempt to corral everything I needed and loved in the same place. But that isn’t always practical. And even when it is, sometimes you remember why you left in the first place. As thrilled as my family is to have me back, I think they liked me better when I wasn’t down and out. And constantly using their bathroom.

The irresistible pull of Louisiana manifests itself in different ways for different folks. I know plenty of people who left as soon as they graduated high school and haven’t returned since. They are perfectly happy in California or New York or Texas or Africa or wherever else they wound up. If asked, a few will express genuine resentment for the state. But most won’t. They’ll speak fondly of it and how excited they always are to visit. They make the most of their sojourns by immersing themselves in family, friends and the much-touted culture. And then, when the time’s up, they go back to the lives they’ve carved out for themselves elsewhere.

Dreher is no longer one of those people. Turns out, I still am.

Here’s hoping good times roll again for both of us.

3 comments:

Pete said...

Was I the one who asked about squirrel hunting? If so, I'm sorry you took it so personally. I was just working on a story about that topic at the time.

Ian McGibboney said...

Is that why you asked? No, I thought it was funny, which is why I still remember it. I was also asked to make gumbo (I've never cooked it and don't eat it) and boil crawfish (ditto). I totally get you wanted a source for that story; I've asked similar left-field questions of people for stories.

Ian McGibboney said...

I have deleted the third comment because I believe it is from a specific troll who delights in making cheap shots at me. If I am mistaken, commenter, take your own advice to "nut up" and repost the comment with some accountability. Then we'll talk.