Today I’m in sub-freezing, wet south Louisiana, where I flew yesterday from Phila. I’m picking up a couple of pieces of furniture from my mom and dad’s place, and driving it back to Dallas in the morning in a U-Haul. You can imagine how excited I am about driving a 14-foot moving van eight hours on an icy road. I’ve already slightly injured my back again loading the stuff this morning, but at least I got something good out of it: our neighbor Mr. Ronnie, who helped me hoist the furniture into the van, shared with me his recipe for his potliquor soup, which is great stuff I had once at his camp on the creek. So there’s that.
I’ve also got to give a speech tonight at the local Chamber of Commerce banquet. I hope people show up; not only is the weather abysmal, but tonight’s the national college football championship game. Alabama vs. Texas. Personally, I’m undecided. Naturally, I want to support the SEC champion. But I live in Texas and more to the point, am married to a UT graduate. Please do advise. I confess that I’m supporting ‘Bama … until I cross the Louisiana-Texas border tomorrow, in which case: Hook ’em, Horns!
It’s been a bit of a struggle trying to figure out what to say to local folks tonight. I want to say something meaningful, but I haven’t lived here regularly since 1983. So I don’t have a lot of credibility. On the other hand, a lot of the things that have happened here over the past 20 to 30 years, and are happening right now, play into the themes I write about a lot: a sense of place, the role of “progress” in changing a place, the inevitability of change, the role of economic structures and human choices in establishing the character of a place, and so forth.
West Feliciana Parish, where I’m from and from where I write today, is still largely rural. It’s one of the most beautiful places in Louisiana, and historically significant too (lots of plantation houses around here). But there are fewer people living here today than 100 years ago. The consumer economy is less diverse today than it was when I was a child, and far less diverse than when my parents were children. As beautiful and as wonderful in many ways as life is here, there aren’t many jobs for the young. It’s fine to talk about the need to build up your community, to stay in place and all that, but you’ve got to be able to provide for your kids. This is something the parish and its leaders, both political and in private industry, are grappling with: how to grow economically so it’s economically feasible for families to remain here across the generations, while also preserving what is essential about the local culture and character?
There is no formula for this, and as an outsider it’s not my place to tell people here what policies they ought to be following. The solution, if there is to be a solution, is going to have to be worked out by local people — the people who have to live with the consequences of their decisions. But in my speech tonight, I’m going to suggest a broad framework for thinking through this challenge. I think it’s the best I can do.
Strange to think about the kind of speech you would give if you were given the opportunity to address an audience in your hometown. I’m giving a particular kind of speech tailored to this particular hometown audience, but it’s interesting to think about what I would say if asked to address a general audience here in the place I grew up in. How about you? If you had the chance to spend half an hour talking to a representative office in your hometown, what would you say? Why would you say it? What would you leave out?