“There go the roses”

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‘Life as a series of passionate obsessions’

The Dude and I went out on a “bike ride” yesterday — me on my Vespa, he on his electric motorcycle, which is called a Zero. (He purchased it on a hilarious expedition to the wilds of Williamsburg — the hipster Williamsburg, not the colonial one.) He wanted this Zero because it is virtually silent, as in “Zero noise”, and therefore ideal for Biker Birdwatching.)

Dude, in background, stealthily examining some ruddy turnstones he was able to sneak up on — upon his super-silent Zero

Anyway, as we were dusting off our bikes for this jaunt, I couldn’t help but notice various relics of The Dude’s former obsessions: the ping-pong table, the archery target, and the windsurfing gear — all looking rather sad and neglected in the dim recesses of the basement. 

There was a time when ping-pong (excuse me, “table tennis”) was a passion of The Dude’s. He played all the time; he even had (and still has) this “ball-spitter” gadget that fires balls at you so you can, er, play with yourself. And when he wasn’t g-nipping and g-nopping (what we Henrys called “ping-pong” because that’s what the ball sounds like when you play), he was watching DVDs of competitions, which were usually between the Chinese and the Swedes. (The commentary was sometimes in Swedish, but the scoreboards were always in Chinese. So basically, your viewing enjoyment came from watching gleeful or dejected players scream incomprehensibly and fall to the ground, which they did with alarming frequency.)

I don’t have a photo of Dude Man doing his Archery Thing. But, trust me, there for a while it was tricky venturing outdoors. He would yell “Clear!” at the top of his lungs, and an arrow would zip by to plant itself into this big ole target he’d “backdropped” with an old oriental rug of his mother’s to catch the (somewhat pricey) arrows when they went astray.

I do, on the other hand, have plenty of photos of us windsurfing. Because, yes, I shared this particular obsession

Well. Enough of The Dude and his obsessions. But some people say you marry a man who is like your father, and I guess I did. Because, when it came to obsessions, no one could beat my Dad.

Alas, I don’t have photographic evidence of most of these. But I remember when he was passionate about fly fishing. He tied his own flies, which were very pretty indeed. He even started a sort of “business” where he would make them for other people. (He had some cool business cards made up.)

And there was his Thing with the houseboat. This one went on for years. I can’t recall where he got this boat — which he named the Sir Launch-A-Lot (honest, he had a nameplate made) — but he claimed it as a business expense. (He used it to entertain clients of the still-going-strong HMG engineering firm he founded with a couple of buddies back in the mid-sixties.) But mostly, he just liked to tool around on Lake Carlyle on it.

That’s my Favorite Sister Laura with my Henry Gramma and Mom on the Sir Launch-A-Lot (if you look carefully, you can see the nameplate)

The Sir L-A-L was the scene of many adventures — including The Time Doug Ran Into the Sliding Glass Door, The Time Someone Stepped Into The Sheet Cake, and (my fave) The Time Dad Bonked the Dock and The Grill Fell Overboard.

But the Obsession to Beat All Obsessions was The Roses. Somewhere along the line, after painting with acrylics (pretty awful, but he enjoyed it), and for some reason that escapes me now, Dad became interested in growing roses. And not just any ole roses — championship, rare, roses. He researched roses and got cuttings of roses and planted bushes of roses and entered contests of roses. Our whole yard, which was not small, was filled with specimen rose bushes. He was so obsessed that his license plate — for years — was ROSENUT.

Dad getting ready for one of many Rose Shows

The garage was full of vases, and the house was full of trophies (more vases, plus plaques and trays galore). I remember that my Mom even had a brooch that was actually a teensy little vase that held, you guessed it, actual water and an actual rose or two.

That’s my Favorite Sister-in-Law, Nobody-Doesn’t-Like-Jenn, sporting her own vase brooch, containing, no doubt, some of Dad’s roses

He even gave rose bushes as gifts. I still have a few blooms from our one surviving bush. (Roses don’t seem to do so well in Amagansett, which is the only place where we have some dirt in which to grow them.)

A rose grows in Amagansett, sort of. Well enough to get one or two roses each year, anyway

Well, rose-growing proceeded apace. And then my Dad retired from HMG. Because he was one of the founders, the company threw him a big party. All of us Henry Kids showed up for this event, which was pretty fancy, being held at the Country Club and all. There was food, there were drinks, there was karaoke. (Which we Henrys hogged all night when we weren’t dancing.)

Oldest Younger Brother Scott and I in a rare moment of not hogging the karaoke machine at Dad’s retirement party

There were speeches, there were stories, there were laughs. And, at the end of the evening, there was a presentation. His soon-to-be-former colleagues and associates got my Dad up in front of the crowd where a big ole box was waiting. Inside the box was a very nice gift — Dad’s very own personal computer.

Well. When my Dad unwrapped that computer — it was a Gateway, the kind that came in those cow-print boxes — well, Dad’s whole face lit up with glee. At which point my brother Scott famously remarked “There go the roses!”

Dad, several years later, not out working in his rose beds

New York City. October 2018

Gorilla My Dreams

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‘The Silverback makes my previous Ape Alpha Male look like Chimp Change’

You may recall my relatively-recent story about that Playboy Monkey the Alpha Male Chimp. (It’s called ‘Monkey See, Monkey Do’.) Mr. Alpha was one fascinating fellow; he postured, he posed, and he made satisfyingly movie-sound-track-like crazy chimp sounds as he ran around slapping tree trunks to show off his chimp cojones.

One of our merry Birding and Chimp-Tracking band made a little movie on his iPhone and was just about to play it back when the leader of our Primate Patrol cautioned him against doing so. The crazy chimp squeals on the soundtrack would cause Said Alpha to attack us. Oh.

But intimidating as he was, Mr. Head Chimp was an organ-grinder’s sidekick compared to the Silverback. Who is Head Dude of the gorillas, and well, a whole different animal. (The ‘gorilla’ featured in the picture at the top of this post is about as real as a unicorn. Though we did get to see Real Gorillas. And we were much much closer to them than we were to that silly gorilla statue.)

No, we weren’t camping. Nor were we in ‘executive budget rooms’. But we did find us some gorillas

This get-to-know gorillas experience occurred when we were in the Buhoma area of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. Our tour company, the inestimable Field Guides, had warned us that the Mountain Gorillas were hard to find, even though they were “habituated”. Which meant that they were (sort of) used to people. We could spend an hour with a gorilla troupe, provided we could find one, and, um, provided with suitable protection.

No, she is not a guerrilla leader — she was our gorilla leader. And yes that is a machete she’s holding

We were provided with a kick-ass leader (seen with adoring me above; I have forgotten her name, but not the fact that she was carrying ample weaponry along with her walkie-talkie) as well as porters and a couple of guys in front and back of our group carrying rifles. I like to think the rifles were only there to scare away elephants, but our Hipster Birder Leader said that, in a previous year, on a previous gorilla trek, a Silverback took umbrage at something he said or did and charged him. (He was told to stand perfectly still, a command which he obeyed, though I’m thinking he got pretty sweaty and it wasn’t just from the hike.)

Hipster Birder Leader takes a hike break after not being charged by a Silverback — not this time anyway

Yes, I said ‘hike’. As in long and steep. We hiked virtually straight up a mountain, our leader whacking away at the undergrowth with her machete to make us a trail, for three and a half hours to find the gorillas.

The Dude. On his way up, or on his way down. Can’t tell; we were equally sweaty either way

Then we got to spend an hour observing the troupe. After which, of course, we had to hike three and a half hours down. (The ‘down’ was harder; it was slippery as well as steep.)

Nope. That’s not the Silverback. That’s a momma gorilla. Yes, she was pretty darned big. And yes, we were that close

There was some drama in our troupe, though not of the charging-a-human kind, thank goodness. But drama nonetheless. It seems that, in gorilla society, females of breeding age leave their troupe and join another. Good for the blood lines, and all that. As with any immigration policy, though, problems can arise. If a female gorilla already has a baby, she cannot bring it with her to the new troupe. And they don’t just separate mom and child at the ‘border’. If she brings her baby ‘with’, the Silverback will kill it. Or her. Or both of them.

In the movie clip above, you can see Mr. Silverback charging a recently-arrived Momma and Baby. We didn’t stick around to see the ultimate end of this movie, though we were told it probably wouldn’t, alas, be a happy one.

Speaking of happy endings, I’d like to switch gears here and tell you what happened the next day, which was The Dude’s birthday. Ordinarily, Dude Man hates any kind of undue attention, especially of the Birthday Kind. In fact, he made me promise (among other things) when we got married never ever to throw him a surprise party. Well. Good thing he’s not married to Hipster Leader. Because HL did just that: staged a Birthday Surprise. But, as you can see in this clip, Birthday Dude didn’t seem to mind. Well, not much anyway.

New York City. June 2018

Along the Rio Grande with the Birder Patrol

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‘Keeping an eye out for migrants from Mexico’

I was on the phone with my Mom the other day and she mentioned that she almost bought a set of camouflage sheets at her church rummage sale. She said she decided not to because she was afraid she “wouldn’t be able to find her bed.”

That’s my Mom (!) Not only did she get me laughing, she got me thinking about camouflage.

We saw a lot of camouflage when we were in Texas recently for one of our Birding Excursions. We saw camouflage-bedecked guys zooming in boats along the border waters, cruising in vehicles along the border roads, and even sipping lattes in the border Starbucks.

Border Guys in camouflage along the Rio Grande, just upriver from us Birder Guys. (Photo by Lynsey Addario for the NY Times)

Note how the Border Guys are doing exactly the same thing as Birder Guy Dude in the photo at the top of this post. Scanning the shoreline with binoculars, looking for Mexican migrants. Except ours were Summer Tanagers, not “bad hombres”. Continue reading

Like oil and river water

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‘We’re one crazy mixed-up couple’

They say that opposites attract. Well, The Dude and I have been married more years than most of you Dear Readers have been alive. Which is pretty amazing in and of itself. But it’s even more amazing given how, well, opposite the two of us are.

In fact, I’d call us bi-polar opposites, given that our differences often drive us crazy.

Okay, there’s the easy stuff. I’m coffee; he’s tea. I’m radio-on-in-the-car; he’s I-want-to-appreciate-the-silence. I like parties; he’s I’ve-worked-hard-all-day-and-want-to-crash-at-home. I like novels; he only reads non-fiction. (‘Why would I want to read something that someone made up?‘) I love art; he only likes art that looks like what it’s supposed to be and/or looks like it was very hard to do.

Pointe Hilton by Jack Mendenhall. Meets both The Dude’s criteria: looks like what it is, and indeed looks like it was very hard to do

And what is it with hot and cold? Has there ever been a married couple who agrees on the thermostat? There he is, in the dead of winter, wearing a tee-shirt and turning up the heat; I say put on a sweater — preferably one of the many I’ve knit for you. Continue reading

Put a bird on it

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Tippecanoe and Tyler Too: a totally tired, totally cheating travelogue’

I picked the picture at the top of this post for two reasons. One, because it has a bird (actually, many birds) on it. (Hail, Portlandia!) And two, because it shows a bed.

We flew home very late last night from our latest birding adventure, and boy are my arms tired. (Sorry, fatigue has made me giddy and prone to awful puns.) Meanwhile, don’t you hate trendy gerunds like ‘birding’? Like ‘parenting’ and ‘mothering’. What’s next, ‘kidding’? Oh. There already is a ‘kidding’.

Anyway. Since I have a mountain of sweaty stinky birding duds to burn (er, wash) I’ve decided to take the easy way out and just show you all some pictures from our trip. (I know, I know. Shades of the Olden Days when vacationers would bore their friends with their slides. (Which were like photos, but were these things they’d put in a ‘projector’ and show on a ‘screen’.) But really. If you’d been on a post-holiday night flight full of screaming kids accompanied by adults sorely lacking in Basic Parenting Skills, you’d choose this option too.)

So on with the (not-slides-but-close) show! Continue reading

The Curse of the Potoo

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‘We spot a most unusual specimen — and suffer the cosmic consequences’

Nope. That’s not the ‘unusual specimen’ in the photo at the top of this story. That’s Chuck. Or, as he came to be known on this trip (by me anyway) ‘UpChuck’. For reasons which will soon become apparent.

The ‘unusual specimen’ in this story is a bird called, I kid you not, the Potoo. I first heard about the Potoo when The Dude and I were birdwatching in Panama last year. Dude Man kept asking ‘Hey, can you find us a Potoo?’ And Guide Man would just smile and shake his head, as if to say ‘That’ll be the day’. And I’d be like ‘Potoo? Potoo? That’s not a real bird, is it?’

See, I thought The Dude and The Guide were having me on. That looking for a Potoo was kind of like going on a ‘Snipe Hunt’. Which, if you grew up in the Midwest like me, you remember was an elaborate practical joke that Big Boys would play on Smaller Boys, like at Scout Camp. Or sometimes the joke would be played on Naive High-School Girls by Naughty High-School Boys. ‘Hey, wanna go in the woods tonight? On a Snipe Hunt? (Snicker Snicker)’

Potoo? Oh, wacky little Potoo? You in there?

Continue reading

Eat. Or be eaten.

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‘Up close and personal with paranha, army ants, and other Amazon locals’ 

“Don’t look now, but there’s a half-naked man with a machete up ahead on the path,” fluted Paul in his Upperclass Brit Voice. And yes, there certainly was.

This was on, oh, Day Two or so of our Amazonian Adventure. The one where we spent two weeks on a boat traveling to the upper reaches of the Rio Aripuana, dubbed The River of Doubt by none other than Teddy Roosevelt.

Me, channeling my Inner Teddy on the Rio Aripuana. That’s our Base Boat, the Tumbira, in the background, a tad far away for comfort. For me, anyway

As the days went by we became more familiar with ‘men with machetes’, and actually quite happy to have them around. (In the Amazon, carrying a machete is kind of like carrying a Swiss Army Knife.)

“You call that a knife? THIS is a knife!”

There was a guy we met on another path on another day who even gave our Fearless Leader Bret a bit of a pause. I was transfixed by his Chicago Cubs hat and did not notice that he had been carrying a rather large firearm. Turns out he was out scouting for a jaguar that had been terrorizing his village. Continue reading

Panamaman Memories

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‘Don’t sit under the Tourist Tree with anyone else but me’

Apologies for my tardiness in getting this post out, O Faithful Fans. But The Dude and I just flew in from Panama, and boy are our arms tired. (Not to mention our bottoms, after six hours of getting to the airport while bouncing in a van on quaintly winding Panamanian roads.)

Speaking of flying, we saw gazillions of new bird species. (Well, around 250, give or take a specie.) Plus lots of other animals like monkeys, and sloths (the non-human kind), and adorable just-hatched baby turtles. Here is The Dude bonding with one of the babies (turtles, not sloths — though we did see some baby sloths too):

Don’t worry Little Guy; Wayne likes turtles. And I don’t mean in soup

And here they are, hightailing it down to the water. The Child saw one bobbing next to her surfboard soon after its release. Maybe it wanted a ride. Continue reading

Walking on air

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‘Spending New Year’s Eve in a jungle. (No, not the one in Times Square.)’

When I was a kid I used to watch the Ball drop in Times Square on TV, and dream of being there on New Year’s Eve to see it in person. But now that I actually live in New York, somehow the idea of standing cheek by jowl with a bunch of inebriated strangers in the freezing cold doesn’t sound nearly so enticing.

I think that’s the case with a lot of things that you dream about being old enough to do: driving, wearing pajamas all day, eating dessert first. I’m sure you can think of your own examples.

But even if I’m not out there partying in Times Square (or partying anywhere, for that matter) I still insist on staying up till midnight to See The New Year In. Even if no one stays up with me, which happens more and more frequently with each passing Eve. Continue reading

Gender identity is for the birds

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‘How to tell the ornithological girls from the boys’

Take a moment (before reading on in amusement) to check out the flock of bird-watchers pictured at the top of this post. Just how hard is it, on a scale of one to ten, to tell the males from the females?

Well. As someone who has actually been on more than one ‘birding’ trip and traipsed around many a field a-flutter with fellow ‘birders’, I’m here to tell you that it can be a tad difficult to distinguish the sexes. No, I’m not talking about the sexes of the birds. I’m talking about the sexes of the people watching the birds.

That's Mr. Scarlet Tanager on the left. With Mrs. on the right. Interesting how she gets to keep the name 'Scarlet', tho there's not a trace on her

That’s Mr. Scarlet Tanager on the left. With Mrs. T on the right. Some pretty marked sexual differentiation going on here, wouldn’t you say?

By the way, I’m not crazy about the terms ‘birding’ and ‘birder’. Almost as much as I’m not crazy about other nouns-turned-into-verbs-and/or-adjectives: ‘parenting’, ‘crafting’, ‘kidding’. (I’m kidding about ‘kidding’.) Continue reading