To a great extent. If my dad prepared me for the lucrative life of a blogger, my mom prepared me for everything else. To a great extent. That pet phrase of hers often lurks just behind the sentence, crossing out the period and replacing it with a comma, crossing out a simple statement and replacing it with something more complex. It’s pleasant to hear “I agree with you.” Try on, instead: “I agree with you, to a great extent.” Provocative will always trump pleasant. It does for me, at least, because that’s the way I was raised. To a great extent. The conviction of my mother never really allowed me to accept simple answers. Everything needs analysis, thoughtfulness, full appreciation. Nothing needs an empty grin. This etched-in phrase can make conversational banter limp—subdivision four-way stops that demand the brakes even with no traffic around. This way of thinking, though, can also make things soar. My studies in philosophy, theology, and now law are all just variations on a theme. To a great extent. It’s this phrase that gets my mind moving during this holiday weekend, as the United States again shows itself to be a uniquely great nation. In many ways. Kind of. Sometimes. Inspired by my mother, my 4th of July is “the Grand ‘ol Flag” meets “to a great extent.” Can we appreciate what we are without mythologizing to what we’d prefer seen? Can we appreciate the prosperity but accurately note the cost? Can we see the shining city but stop pretending it’s on a hill? The city on a hill allusion doesn’t really work well down here, anyway. Monkey Hill is in a gated community, and it certainly never ask’d for you to make home on its perch. New Orleans, though, can be a good lens for the state of our union. New Orleans is America, to a great extent. Just pay your toll on the St. Charles streetcar line to see how. If in the last few months you haven’t been a fanny-pack-flaunting tourist or a formally uniformed employee of those tourists, you probably have not been on a streetcar. As one-part sociological study, two-parts pay-to-park avoidance, I have made daily deposits of $1.25 to get down to the federal court building this summer. I’ve seen, to a great extent, America emerging on the clickety-clack tracks. Tourists have a profound love for our city, only outsized by a profound inability to quickly pay their fare. Once safe and seated, the comments flow faster than the sweat on their bench. “There’s no place like this.” True. “We’ve got to go down to the Garden District like the locals.” I guess? “New Orleans is just the best!” Well… This last comment rang out Uptown-bound, two blocks before I looked up from my phone after a lengthy stop. In the shadow of Eagle-Tea Circle—that’s the name now, right?—we had become driver-less. One light rotation. Two light rotations. The tourists had gotten quieter. And then, the triumphant return. Our conductor needed to get her lunch at the convenience store. Hope they didn’t need exact change. To love and loathe New Orleans. Where the bars never close and every day is trash day. Where everyone’s familiar with each other and every other block is a tax-bracket shift. Where charm and mischief dance together, filling each other’s heart and emptying each other’s pockets. Before my streetcar trip, I was in a federal courtroom observing an arraignment, the formal acceptance or denial of charges. Between the responses of “Guilty, Your Honor,” the defendant offered a striking summation of the city we love, the city he had only known. “I can’t do New Orleans anymore, Your Honor. I gotta get out of here.” Somehow, “I can’t do New Orleans,” “New Orleans is just the best,” and “Conductor, can you get me a cold drink” were all linked together, an hour’s length from beginning to end. Somehow, that’s my notion of our city and, by extension, of our nation. There is no place I’d rather love and live, fight for and get frustrated by. To do that, though, I have to see it all, allowing it all to both inspire and devastate. May this Independence Day free us from simple thinking. We live in the most wonderful city and nation in the world. To a great extent. -30- Another naming option for Eagle-Tea Circle, Ms. Leah Chase, always comes to mind with New Orleans mothers and their children. Listen to her reflect on the childhood divisions that steeled her for the civic success to come.