The Wife’s Life: Absurbistan

by Elizabeth Beller


My daughter says, “Mommy, can I have a playdate with Mia?”

The easy part comes first. “Yes!”  And then: “Which Mia?”

“Mia with the pretty brown curly hair”

“They both have pretty brown curly hair. New York or New Orleans Mia?”

“I don’t know. Where are we now?”

I often need to take a few moments to think before I can answer that question. Which is amusing. My daughter’s mad-hatter tea party question, however, so innocent as to be almost willfully provocative, makes me  question our judgment as parents.

I’ve alluded to our confusion between our two beloved cities as feeling like Alice going down the rabbit hole. And some of their similarities and contrasts do nothing but exacerbate the confusion.

Both New York and New Orleans  have distinctive cultures. The people and the culture,  entities unto themselves, inform the city as much as the landscape itself–a honeycomb of concrete in one case, a jungle of vines, branches, flowers, leaves in another. Both places, in an expected symmetry, now have the distinction of having been recently ravaged by hurricanes.

Yet they differ in one essential respect that impacts the atmosphere and logistics of raising small children. No, not the distinction is not like that between Mini Zen Zumba Dance or Breast Milk Cheese Making Class (why do they schedule all the cool classes on Tuesdays?). Rather it is the difference between an urban or suburban environment. Cars and some walking in one instance. Taxis, buses, subways, bikes and walking in another. (Vespa in both).

New York is vertical. Much of its power, literal and theoretical, lies in its upward mobility. New Orleans is decidedly horizontal. It spreads vast and wide, its staying power in its ability to hold to tradition. I’m too ‘mommied out’ to fully grasp all the different definitions of city versus town. (OK, maybe I’m just a dummy, but honestly it’s complicated.) Wikipedia says “the classification of population centers is a matter of state law; consequently, the definition of a city varies widely from state to state. The lack of a clear-cut definition of a city in the United States can lead to some counter-intuitive labeling.”

Ok,  so what would Wikileaks say? We can unfortunately glean what the Bush administration thought of New Orleans. Happily, Obama champions Nola now, but in a few decades will people rally to save it like they do Venice? Other than Hollywood South film crews with tax incentive shoots and the Nola natives themselves, my guess is that New Yorkers will be well represented among those who willing to take on the Save Nola cause. (To judge from the Voulez Vous Gala scheduled for January 17th, that is already the case.)

Wikis aside, having lived in both, I feel like New York (est. population 8,244,910) is clearly the urban experience while New Orleans (est. population 360,740) boasts a more suburban feel. But which environment is better for a child, -pedia, —leaks, nature and nurture wise? My proclamations and renunciations for both sides are endless:

The baby hates his car seat, and the endless suburban chauffeuring while he screams is vile. But parking is a breeze!

Gliding out of an apartment lobby with him in a stroller is a dream, but Sisyphus had it easy compared to hauling him and the unwieldly contraption up and down subway steps!

We bask in the fresh air in Nola, often scented with Jasmine on Spring evenings!

There’s nothing like the crisp autumn air in NYC. It has substance! Preferably substance like roasted chestnuts and sidewalk Christman tree sales, not the stench of subway elevators or a rancid cigar smoked by a man driven outside by Bloomberg’s New World Order.

The posturing of a large city! By this I mean all the parties I worry I’m not invited to.

The insular hierarchies of towns! Again I mean all the parties I worry I’m not invited to.

Ivy league prep schools!

A good education for less than $40k a year!

NYC is so overcrowded I can have a panic attack walking to the drugstore!

At night in Nola the streets are so isolated I can have a panic attack walking to the drugstore!

When the zombpocalypse happens, better to be out of the major urban areas!

Actually I’d rather go right away. Waiting for zombies is no life for me!

Unfortunately, my husband can pick up a game of street basketball in both.

And on and on, until it’s impossible to make a decision on the merit of place or zombies. With the pros and cons of each so far reaching, to me, the division lies more between those who make an unequivocal choice and vociferously believe in its superiority, and those who vacillate on the subject. I admire those who have the conviction to thoroughly weigh their options and make an unwavering decision. It saves time and angst. We, however, fall into the latter group. We aren’t capable of deciding. When we’re in New Orleans, we bask in the exotic beauty of its sub-tropic flora for a few months until it’s time to fly north, and when we’re in New York we delight in the edifying chaos until its time to ride the wave that will break back on the Mississippi.

It’s an insane way to live, causing confusion for all and pandemonium in our schedule. But we all love it. The kids continually have a vast array of experiences and friends that would otherwise be foreign to them. They get the unparalleled raucousness  of city playgrounds, but can also pour out of their house and play in a yard.  They have the privacy of a house, but can also spend part of the year playing hide and seek with a beloved doorman.

We have a chant every night before dinner. We hold hands and shout “One, two, three, Bon Appetito!!” But before that, we shout “One, two, three, [insert whatever city we’re in]. As if to commemorate the joy of not only where we are, but our unbelievable luck that it could either be New York or New Orleans. Often there is a halting pause before the city is named, eyes darting around our surroundings trying to remember, often one or all of us gets it completely wrong. It’s almost half the fun of the whole caper.

Granted, the hoops we jump through to make this work, namely staying with tolerant relatives and/or subletting an unknown place and giving ours up to strangers with a good check, exacerbates the pandemonium. But it’s worth it. I wish everyone who wanted to experience both urban and suburban amenities within the same year had the chance. Perhaps it’s time to start an agency so parents who want to give their kids an overdue commune with nature, or conversely, the N Train, can swap places for a month, week or even weekend: Place Pals. Swamp Swap. Get My Kids The Hell Outside. Or given the privileged but compromised mental state of constant travel, “Absurban.”


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