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A present Thanksgiving in New Orleans

Somewhere between the old-fashioned potluck and the NOPD requesting a volume reduction of old-school Snoop Dogg, I realized I had arrived. I was thoroughly enjoying the present — lost in the Popeye’s fried turkey with cranberry sauce-covered cornbread waffles, the living room rave with limbo dances, and friends’ embraces.

We had successfully executed the inaugural Skanksgiving – a celebration of friendships forged away from home. It was the perfect hybrid of a nostalgic holiday dinner followed by a medical school “play hard” party to make us forget both the homesickness and the renal pathophysiology.

In the past, I would have been studying on a Monday night, even during this holiday week. A long, leisurely dinner with friends or a full-blown party would never have been an option. Since elementary school, I have often forsaken enjoyment of the present to focus on the future. I progressed from worrying about being accepted into a high school honors program to college applications to medical school applications. I never really stopped to enjoy the accomplishments along the way.

Yet, I never completely lost touch with my surroundings. I stayed interested in politics and culture and explored the cities I inhabited. But, I still distanced myself even when I did go out. The analytical scientist and the curious writer within me noticed the subtle details — tile patterns, clothing choices, people’s idiosyncrasies. I would draw connections, philosophize, question, and analyze until I became too self aware or too removed.

While these tendencies have not vanished, I have at least adjusted my fun/stress ratio, which had become so askew during high school and college. What began as a slow-burn enlightenment during my last year and a half of undergrad turned into a full-blown awakening in New Orleans. If I chose to continue living in the future I would always find something to worry about: after medical school I would apply for a residency, then a fellowship, then a job, etc.

I needed a better balance, and what better place to learn the pleasures of the present than the Big Easy? In my short time here, I have seen that life is far from easy in New Orleans—a statement perhaps too obvious to its inhabitants.

Yet, the city also embraces life in a way that few others do.

This past weekend perfectly exemplified this idea. A friend suggested a Fringe Fest show on Saturday, and I agreed to see this city’s take on the “wild, weird, fresh” without knowing anything about the festival. We watched La Concierge Solitaire, an impressive one-woman showcase about a lonely concierge (as the title implied). From the descriptions I later read, this play might have been Fringe’s least weird or wild, but it certainly captivated thanks to Cecile Monteyne. She effortlessly switched between characters, swapping accents and demeanors, so that you swore at least six actors were performing. The story itself left me pondering the passage of time, the power of imagination, and dreaded loneliness.

Fringe, like most New Orleans festivals, hooked me and my roommate, so we headed to its official center in the Bywater. We arrived just in time to miss the Trunk Show, a street market along Press Street. Instead we stumbled upon a scene that reminded me of a 19th-century circus. Grandaddy Slank! played jazzy folk to a typically eclectic Bywater crowd from inside a tent with banners and string lights.

Across the field a wagon with a corrugated metal shell caught our eyes. It was a cross between an evil gypsy caravan and a giant beetle, so naturally, we ventured inside. Along the lower portion we found beautiful, handcrafted paper theater displays featuring different scenes of New Orleans. When we looked above, we shuddered in awe and horror. Bees and beetles dangled around our heads. Mounted mammal skulls overflowed with dead insects. A dead mouse pulling a cart constructed from bones and bugs sent us over the edge, and we turned toward the exit guarded by a taxidermied bird.

Fringe showed what can happen when you completely let go and embrace the present. Life offers the pleasantly surprising — La Concierge Solitaire and the musical tent. The disappointing — barely missing the market after driving across town. The bizarre or grotesque — the evil gypsy wagon. All of which make life interesting.

Unlike the surprising Fringe, I knew exactly what I was getting into at Sunday’s Poboy Festival. Sometimes we can consciously decide to enjoy the present instead of spontaneously finding shows or music, and that did not make the experience any less pleasant or memorable. I indulged in Oysters Rockefeller, barbeque shrimp, and cochon de lait. Conversations with friends and great local music like Los Poboycitos absorbed my attention.

Weekends like this one made me comfortable with the fact that I really don’t know what’s going to happen, and they have taught me to pause and appreciate what’s around me. Sure, I need to plan and work toward goals, but I mostly had that down. Instead, I needed to realize that too much reminiscing about the past or only focusing on moving forward left me miserable.

When we recall memories, we remember when we were fully immersed in the present. We think about striking feelings of shock or content, fear or pleasure and not about when we worried about the future or looked back on  melancholy.

So, I have slowly embraced the present to make challenges more bearable, which is why I can now welcome random opportunities like Skanksgiving. For that I can partially thank this city’s notoriously laid-back attitude and dubious excuses to constantly revel. They enabled me to enjoy a crazy, fun night without the guilt of the future.

During Thanksgiving, I enjoy offering thanks to something or someone I normally would not. I am always grateful for my friends, my family, my health, and my opportunity to attend medical school.

But this year, I thank New Orleans for fostering my appreciation of the present.

Jarod DuVall currently lives the not-so “Big Easy” life as a Tulane medical student. In his ample spare time, he enjoys exploring New Orleans. He graduated from Washington University in St. Louis as a Howard Nemerov Writing Scholar.


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