May 30th, 2009
07:43 AM ET

Dear President Obama #131: Benjamin Button's secret to long life and weathering hard times

Reporter's Note: The President, Barack Obama, has invited the public to send ideas about the direction of the country. So I am directing a letter to the Oval Office every day.

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/SHOWBIZ/Music/04/26/nola.jazzfest/art.jazz.cnn.jpg caption="The New Orleans jazz fest has been an annual tradition for more than 40 years."]

Tom Foreman | Bio
AC360° Correspondent

Dear Mr. President,

I woke up this morning and I was twenty years younger. It was kind of a Benjamin Button experience but without the Brad Pitt looks and it lasted only a moment instead of a lifetime. Oh, and it was the movie version set in New Orleans, not the original Fitzgerald story which was set in Baltimore.

All of that is a round about way of saying I was awakened by the sound of a ship horn on the Mississippi river. I am writing this from New Orleans before I have to board my plane back to DC. Twenty years ago, when my wife and I lived here, we had an apartment overlooking the streetcar line at River Bend, (just a block from the Camellia Grill, which you might know) and it seemed like every Saturday morning we were roused from bed by the deep, booming sound of a freighter pushing by.

We were younger and living in the Big Easy, so I’m not talking about 6 a.m. More like 9 or 10. And it is not like we had pressing business even then. We would drift around town until we decided on a favorite spot for lunch; someplace warm and cozy against the chill if it were winter, someplace cool and dark if it were summer with the sun turning the streets into a blast furnace.

There we would sit and plan our lives over the best food on the continent: Steaming plates of étouffée, platters of iced oysters, boiled crawfish, scallops, crabs, and shrimp. We had deep bowls of gumbo over dunes of rice as white as the Gulf shore sands; fried green tomatoes, creamy grits and eggs, with plump andouille sausages sweating alongside. Jambalaya and Bananas Foster, barbequed and blackened everything, and great long, crackling loaves of perfectly browned French bread.

Mind you, not all at once, although sometimes it felt that way. On the right morning, in the right place, we’d stay for hours as friends stopped in either by accident or design, pulling up chairs, and joining in for conversation, food, drinks, and soaking up the lovely light, and sounds, and beauty that fill the air of this city of dreams.

Life does not stop for a crisis. When my father was dying, when family and friends have struggled, when I have suffered my own setbacks and frustrations; the bills have still arrived, the grass has still grown, the work bell has still tolled, and other people’s problems have kept them just as busy too.

New Orleans has been through a lot more than most American cities. I don’t mean just in Katrina, but throughout time. It’s older than most, and was carved into the river bank amid typhoid, yellow fever, malaria, floods, wars, and pirates. It continues to grapple with all the difficulties of reemerging from its most recent trial, while also taking on all the economic and political problems that are sweeping our nation.

But life goes on here, and maybe that is precisely because the people here go on finding ways to be happy, enjoy a good meal, a good joke, and good company even in the worst of times. Bouncing back for a city, or even a nation, I think, is not just about hard work. It is also about reassessing your values and appreciating what you have, even if it is just red beans and rice on a Monday. New Orleans can teach us all something about that.

Call if you get a moment. I thought about getting you a t-shirt, but wasn’t sure of your size. However, I do have a Shrimp Creole recipe that you’d invade Canada for!



Find more of the Foreman Letters, here.

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