Today is Fat Tuesday, which is one of the biggest days of the year if you’re in New Orleans or from New Orleans. The rest of us either enjoy imagining how much pleasure the last day of Mardi Gras brings participants, or we can’t wrap our brains around the fact that so much time, money and effort is put into a day that basically gives people an excuse to lose their minds before getting right and celebrating the Holy days that lead up to Easter Sunday.

No matter how many time it’s explained to me, I have a hard time connecting Lent with women lifting up their blouses so that men wearing black paint on their faces and grass skirts will toss them a coconut. Even when I’ve had the chance to participate in the Zulu parade, as caught up as I’ve become, it’s still clear to me that the only way to fully understand, appreciate and get swept away with the Mardi Gras experience is to be from New Orleans.

As anyone from there will tell you, they have a certain way of doing things down there, and they don’t really care whether we get it or not. It was the perfect attitude for people living below sea level that have their own way of cooking, eating, talking, dancing and everything else. So when Hurricane Katrina hit and the levees broke, sending thousands of its residents to other parts of the country, it seemed like it was an especially cruel trick Mother Nature – or the government, depending who you talk to – had played. I can’t think of another city in the U.S. where asking residents to make a transition to another part of the country would be more difficult.

People who live in New Orleans will tell you that they cannot live anyplace else. And many, until the storm hit, had never even been anyplace else. Everything they had and needed was right there, and nowhere else could provide those things. We all know people who left there and come to what we thought were better places – with lower crime rates, better economies and superior school systems – who rushed back to the Big Easy the first chance they got. At our live broadcasts in New Orleans commemorating the first anniversary of Katrina, CNN producer Kim Bondy told us that the city is like a mistress that you can’t stop returning to. There’s got to be some truth to that.

The rest of us can shake our heads and judge New Orleanians for going back or never leaving in the first place, even though another storm and future devastation is inevitable. And we can argue with them all day and night about whether the millions it costs to put on the Mardi Gras celebration would be put to better use to clean up and rebuild the Ninth Ward or used to improve the schools or the city’s infrastructure. And while we’re talking, the only thing they’re worried about is parade routes, whether they have enough beans to accommodate their guests and what outfits they’re wearing to whatever balls they’ve been invited to. Can I understand it? Not really. Do they care? Not at all.

So, instead of stressing about it, I’m going to indulge the whole Fat Tuesday thing for a day and celebrate the fact that the people of New Orleans have an outlet that allows them to forget about the crime, forget about the poverty and forget about a system that forgot about them. I just hope they can see more clearly when they have to face reality tomorrow.

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