In New Orleans they start school early. August 23rd was the first day of kindergarten for Evangeline. I was looking forward to it. One of the many ironies of parenthood is that the start of school is a joy. Now you have a schedule! Not that the summer had been anything other than wonderful, for the most part, or that I wouldn’t miss it.
The first days were a Thursday and Friday. The first full week would commence Monday, but Sunday morning that swirling mass headed for Florida lurched in another direction, towards New Orleans. Suddenly we were making plans for a trip. Herewith, a brief guided tour of evacuating with small children.
The “wildlife” 1 of 10You might see cows, as we did, and call out to the baby, "Cows! Cows!" And if you are in the passenger seat, as I was, you might be able to turn and watch him lift his little head and raise his eyes trying to see out the window. And you might feel inclined to begin a session of family-wide mooing to help his understanding of what a cow is, and what sound it makes. Everyone but him is mooing. He will try to imitate the sound, except his comes out as a meow. Which is funny, and a triumph in its own way, because he has spent many nights attempting to meow, and keeps getting it utterly wrong. So it is a triumph to get him to meow properly even if you wanted him to moo.
Photo credit: Flickr user JelleS
The car talk 2 of 10If you're a man and driving at night, you will have the experience of having your wife tell you, repeatedly, to slow down. If you are a woman whose husband is driving too fast, you will have the experience of having to repeatedly tell your husband to slow down. Neither of you will take any pleasure in this. Later, however, y0u can reflect that you are part of a great cosmic wholeness of marriage in which couples all over the world have nearly identical exchanges. What parenthood and childhood most overtly share is the wish for your behavior to be reinforced by your peers. By having this numbingly annoying exchange you are, perversely, doing, if not the right thing, then the same thing as everyone else. Call it tradition.
Photo credit: Flickr user jwthompson
The unexpected 3 of 10In New Orleans you are constantly encouraged to be prepared for evacuating on short notice, and yet even if you prepare, you will have to rush. Unforeseen circumstances arose. Our flight to New York was cancelled. (Jet Blue, how could you!) We ended up driving to Memphis. I write from the laundry room of a Marriott.
Photo credit: Flickr user ilovememphis
Checking off the travel bucket list 4 of 10You might visit a new, unfamiliar place. In our case, Memphis, Tennessee! Home of Graceland and the city where Martin Luther King was assassinated. Other than this you know nothing about Memphis. Every car that passes you in the dark has Louisiana plates. See #2. On the first morning we stagger out of the hotel and find delightful little trolleys running outside. We get on one, and everything is magic in the sun-struck, honeyed wood interior of the clattering car. We buy day passes and go up and down, back and forth, for a while. My wife works the phone, which these days means your fingers do the talking, and soon we were made aware that another couple with little kids, friends of a friend, were nearby.
Photo credit: Flickr user Reading Tom
The feeling that you’re not alone 5 of 10You become part of a community. Not the community you have visited, that of the host city, but that other community, often embedded in host cities: you are a refugee. A overly dramatic way of describing an unexpected stay at the Marriott Springwood Suites, but still. You will immediately begin to seek our fellow refugees. It's the same instinct that makes people order Coca-cola when they travel. It's a taste of home. The one T-shirt you brought that has New Orleans written on it becomes your go-to T-shirt. Every time you see someone wearing their go-to shirt with New Orleans written on it, you strike up a quick, amicable conversation. You realize that you have a cause, a noble cause, in addition to the basic noble cause of surviving: you have to get back home. But the question is when, and how?
Photo credit: Flickr user anthonyfarrigo
The survival skills 6 of 10Your kids will lose it, but you will find a way to make it work. Either on the way, the first day, the second day. Perhaps every day. This is also true at home of course. But away, in the hurrication mode, you are probably quite stressed and/or depressed. When they lose it you will worry that they have absorbed more anxiety that you would have wished. In your own frayed condition, rallying yourself to rally the kids is especially challenging.
After Evangeline came to me crying when Netflix wouldn't work, I fought my anger and dragged her more or less screaming out of the hotel room. I blindly headed away from the trolleys and civilization, the slightly tawdry cigarette-butt strewn scene of downtown, and towards the river where there was a patch of grass. For five minutes she just wept. Then she declared boredom loudly for ten more minutes while I proposed various things to do. Then somehow we came up with things to do. Of course it began with her asking me to swing her. But that afternoon my strength was at a low ebb. Eventually, to try and bully me into action, she jumped on me in a professional-wrestling sort of move. Somehow this evolved into my threatening to jump on her, and then actually sort of doing it, in the pro-wrestling way, which made her laugh. It was beautiful. I mean, the patch of grass, the hazy river off in the distance, the trees, the light, her laughter, mine, but most of all this sudden turn of fate — from abject misery to having fun.
The bonding time 7 of 10Your children will get to know each other better and become much, much closer. This happens all the time these days as Alexander comes into his personhood. (So quickly!) He can now walk, run, laugh, play, attack and even, in his own way, talk. If you allow that he speaks his own language, he talks all the time. So naturally he is more and more of a playmate for Evangeline, age five. They are becoming friends.
Running the household out of a single room accelerates this process, especially at bedtime,. It creates a new dynamic. Last night, for example: I lay on one bed with Evangeline and right next to us my wife lay with Alexander. Lights out. Sleep-time. But Alexander kept making these little noises. This made Evangeline laugh. She was roundly shushed. But then Alexander piped up again. Evangeline laughed again. We got them quiet. Then Alexander made a little noise. The sheer mischievous knowledge within that little bleat is incredible! It's like mischief, and the awareness that they are provoking you, daring you, is the second thing a kid develops after the ability to express hunger.
The food 8 of 10You will inevitably start to warm up to the place you have ended up. Or at least grasp its contours. Memphis, for example, has barbecue. We went to the Blues City Cafe. Ribs! Barbecue! Children! It was a joy. Evangeline, to her own surprise and ours, turns out to love ribs. The baby boy also loves ribs. And chicken. And beans. Also, he loves taking all these things and dunking them into his glass of water. He does this all the time. Once he has a concoction that is worthy of a witches cauldron, he then plucks something out, a piece of chicken or soggy bread, and eats it. It's slightly disgusting but from a health point of view, not the end of the world. We discourage this in most settings. For whatever reason, in the Blues City Cafe, it seems OK.
Photo credit: Flickr user ilovememphis
The VIP zoo access 9 of 10You will go to the zoo and have it mostly to yourself. It's a weekday. All the other kids are in school. You go with the new friends/fellow refugees. You go to the zoo because Memphis has a world famous zoo and also, what else are you going to do? Because you are wearing your go to shirt with the word New Olreans on it you get half price off — the refugee discount. Thank you Memphis! The white-cheeked gibbons, elegant loping figures, greet you like maitre d's at a fancy restaurant, their long arms extend as though to say, "After you." You go in search of the polar bears, and find yourself in an aquarium where there are no fish. Your daughter and wife come running up. Both report with excitement that they have seen the bears.
They are huge, incredible. In a minute one of them appears. It is going in reverse. A comic, surreal touch. A bear walking backwards underwater. At a certain point he stops and vanishes into another tunnel out of your sight.A minute later it is back, going backwards again. Just the white legs, the paws, the rear, the body. The head is out of sight somehow, above water. It's like seeing a truck back up. But it's an animal. Real. And underwater. The polar bear moves as though in slow motion. A weightless dreamy feeling. Beautiful and funny. At the Bronx zoo the polar bears seem very depressed. In Memphis they seem happy. Everyone is so happy, all the kids, all the grownups. Later you will feed giraffes and be exhausted and hot and so forth. But with the polar bears it is all a weird lightness. Then it hits you that it is water and fear of water that has sent you fleeing upward to this strange town and now your greatest moment here is watching a white bear in water, moving in a dreamy ballet of the submerged.
Photo credit: Flickr user devenlaney
The waiting 10 of 10You will find yourself, while having evacuated with your kids to a strange city, feeling concern for the city you have left. It's there all alone being whipped by wind and rain. You see it on television; you worry for you rown home but also the neighborhood, and the city, and the people that have stayed. In the case of Isaac, New Orleans seemed to have split fifty-fifty, stay or go, and that includes people with little kids. We texted with them throughout the day, wondering when their cell phones would die, since power was out. Our first couple of nights ended in the dark with the TV on, all of us awake and watching.
Photo credit: Flickr user utahwildflowers
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