Song of My Selfie

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‘A Whitman’s Sampler’

“I am large, I contain multitudes.” So sayeth the Internet, no doubt referring to those self-portraits otherwise known as “selfies”. Now I should point out, before I get too carried away with my mangling of Leaves of Grass, that the portrait at the top of this post is not actually a selfie. It may be difficult to imagine in this age of the ubiquitous hand-held device, but there were no cellphones in Seventeenth Century Holland. Though it sure looks as though those burghers are hamming it up for Instagram, doesn’t it?

Twenty-First Century Burgher Selfie. As you can see, I am not immune to the lure of the self-portrait. Even when being run down by a bike messenger

Speaking of hamming it up, I’ve been known to indulge in the odd selfie. In fact, I’ll be peppering this post with a few of my favorites — because why not?

Central-Park Selfie. Note how the young white blossoms complement my old white head

Now to be sure, those of you who read my rantings regularly (bless your hearts) know that there are times — usually when traipsing through jungles and rainforests on the prowl for exotic birds — when I am, as they say, offline. As in away from the internet, off the grid, incommunicado. And (mostly) unable to self-snap.

Hot (as in “temperature”; calm down) Birder Selfie. Somewhere on a river in Uganda. Note how Guide Man is making that Selfie Face

In fact, on this last trip — the one to the Uplands and Lowlands of Western Panama — my iPhone met some water it didn’t like. And died. It was old and tired and kind of on its last legs anyway, so it wasn’t the end of the world. But it’s amazing how you don’t realize how dependent you are on those darned things until you don’t have one.

Panama Selfie. The last selfie before the Drowning of The Phone

On these trips I mostly use my phone to take pictures, and not just selfies either. But it can be a good thing to commune with nature without documenting each and every cool tall tree or crazy-shaped rock or even cloud-filled sky by planting A Dude in front of it.

I am particularly partial to documenting wacky signs. As long as I plant A Dude alongside. Check out the last line on this sign in Uganda

While I was phoneless, I had time not only to take in my surroundings, but to read a New Yorker article by Oliver Sacks called The Machine Stops where he says he “cannot get used to seeing myriads of people in the street peering into little boxes or holding them in front of their faces, walking blithely in the path of moving traffic, totally out of touch with their surroundings.” Oliver Sacks, in case you need reminding, was a famous neurologist and the author of the best-titled book on the planet, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

Hat Selfie. Or Wife Selfie?

Oliver goes on to bemoan the fact that, for many people nowadays, “every minute, every second, has to be spent with one’s device clutched in one’s hand. Those trapped in this virtual world are never alone, never able to concentrate and appreciate in their own way, silently. They have given up, to a great extent, the amenities and achievements of civilization: solitude and leisure, the sanction to be oneself, truly absorbed, whether in contemplating a work of art, a scientific theory, a sunset, or the face of one’s beloved.”

My Beloved Dude contemplates a waterfall while I contemplate him

Well. After reading that I was almost grateful that my phone was now a soggy paperweight. I felt lighter, cleaner, more virtuous even, without it “clutched” in my hand.

Of course, the moment I got my clutches on an internet-connected device I ordered myself a new phone just like the one that died. And there it was, all fresh and new in its itty-bitty white box, ready and waiting for me to fire it up the second I got home.

Itty-Bitty Selfie. Well, technically not. But it is a darned cute photo, so what the heck

New York City. March 2019

Planes, boats, and sorta kinda automobiles

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’Getting there actually is part of the fun. If you’re a Crazy Birder, that is.’

Our chigger bites from our Guyana trip hadn’t even healed when we were off again, this time to Western Panama. (See ‘Nope. We didn’t drink the Kool-Aid’ and ‘Up in the air, Junior Birdman’ for hair-raising Guyanian adventures involving hitchhiking bugs and bullet ants.)

The first Panamanian Plane. De-icing outside, pre-birding inside

A few years ago we started traveling with this company whose motto is “seriously fun birding”. (Look out: plug coming.) And I’m happy to report Truth in Advertising: Field Guides takes both the birding and the fun, well, seriously. Of course, not everyone has the same idea when it comes to “fun”. Take the travel — please.

Our 4-wheel limo. Standing-room only, but with terrific air-conditioning

We’ve found that there seems to be an inverse correlation between gorgeous birds and efficient transportation. The countries with the best birds have, basically, the worst roads. (The teeth-rattling tarmac in Kenya comes to mind.) Or no roads to speak of. (Amazonian Brazil and Downcountry Guyana, I’m talking about you.)

No, our bags are not abandoned by the side of this extremely steep Panamanian road. (See ‘The Time We Left The Child by the Side of the Road’ for guilty details about another road, another time, and an actual abandonment)

Western Panama had roads. But, except for the Fortuna, which was paved and smooth and went over the Continental Divide (and along the sides of which we found most excellent bird life) the roads we saw on this trip were the kind you most definitely needed four-wheel drive (and nerves of steel) to navigate. To get to our first lodge, we went up (and up) to almost 6000 feet on a road so crazy-rocky that it took us over an hour to go two miles.

We reach our destination: the Totumas Cloudforest Lodge. Where the road smooths out at last (and I throw in another plug)

When we weren’t rattling our teeth and compressing our spines jouncing along in the backs of trucks, we were scrambling up and down muddy rocky trails. On foot. Here are a few highlights from the High Country —

Up at dawn. Then more up — and up and up — watching carefully for cowpats as well as Common Chlorospingus

The aforementioned Common Chlorospingus, none the worse for being shot from a rattling truck. We saw one pretty much every day, hence the “common”

If a tree doesn’t fall in the woods, will someone stand in front of it?

Guess who ate the bananas that were put out for the birds? (And maybe left a few of those cowpats?)

Enjoying a well-earned midday break

When we’d had our fill of rattling in trucks and scrambling on foot we commenced bouncing. In boats. See, after the Western Highlands, we descended to the Western Coastlands, specifically to an archipelago called Bocas del Toros. The way folks get around in this archipelago is by boat. Ours were small, bouncy boats. Pretty much the only time we weren’t bouncing was the day our boat had a clogged fuel line. Then it would bounce like crazy, then slap the water and stop.

Bounce/slap, bounce/slap. Each time it stopped, the enterprising First Mate (or Whatever He Was Called) would pump the fuel line to get us going again until he finally just yanked out this tube and blew on it till whatever was clogging it popped out. Sort of like performing the Heimlich Maneuver, only on a boat.

A boatload of birders, ourselves included, bounce-bruised butts forgotten after a great day out. Photo by Fab New Friend Barry Tillman

We used these boats every day, to get pretty much everywhere. (Except, of course, when we were hiking on muddy trails — birding locations always seem well-equipped with muddy trails.) One day we boated along a disused canal that had been dug to ship bananas.

Yes, we have no bananas. But we do have plenty of these beauteous banana-billed toucans. (Not their real name, which is Keel-billed Toucan, but what the heck)

Speaking of bananas, it looks like The Dude was glad to see me. Or maybe it was that toucan

On our last day we even took that same little boat (in the dark…in the rain…one unfortunate couple who had packed their raingear got soaked) to get to a teensy airport to fly to a slightly bigger airport then took a van to get to the big airport — where we Crazy Birders dispersed to fly to our respective homes to nurse our bug bites and sore spines so we can be ready to do it all over again.

What does a rock think about? I know we’re already thinking about our next birdy adventure

New York City. March 2019

 

The time we left The Child by the side of the road

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‘The terrors of taking a toddler on a trip in a car’

Last week I wrote about the dangers one encounters on a trip to the Tropics. This week I to thinking about another trip we took — Out West, this was, years ago when The Child was about two — and those Bullet Ants started sounding downright cuddly. Because there’s nothing quite as dangerous as a Toddler Tantrum on a road trip.

Notice that I don’t say “The time we almost left The Child by the side of the road.” Nope. We honest to goodness left her. Not for very long, and no, there wasn’t anyone else around, but still. If we did this today, we’d no doubt get into some deep doodoo — like that hapless New York Times reporter who left her screaming spawn in the car while she ran into a 7Eleven.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Yes, still Before Road Trip, we hang out with The Dude’s Aunt Elsa, who had the Toddler Touch, even on a trip to the children’s zoo

It all started when we flew out to Arizona for one of The Dude’s Doctor Meetings. (You can read about another childlike meltdown on another of these Doctor Meetings in “Let me go; I want my mommy!”  Why, oh why, did we do this kind of thing — and more than once?)

We used the end of the meeting as the start of a Road Trip, which is (still) our favorite kind of vacation. (Of course, most of the time we’ve gone on a Road Trip, it’s been sans toddler.) I’ll spare you most details, but suffice it to say that, by and large, it was a success. We drove across Death Valley, we visited Lake Tahoe, we went to a ghost town that used to be an old mining camp.

The Child and The Dude, with friendly local, by the side of the road in the Ghost Town

At the start of the trip we even visited The Dude’s college roomie who was living in Kingman, Arizona. This was the same time that Timothy McVeigh was living there. Though, since he (McVeigh, not the roomie) hadn’t done his Oklahoma City bombing deeds yet, we were blissfully unaware of this.

The Child and I, by the side of a road. But not the road where we left her

Speaking of blissful, so far so good with the Road Trip, toddler and all. Oh, we’d had a few hiccups. There were a few stretches where I had to sing “If I Only Had A Brain” from The Wizard of Oz on pretty much endless repeat. (God forbid I cheat and hum a few bars; “Mommy, SING! No dah-dah-dah-dah dah!!!“)

The Child and I, by the side of (yup) a road. But not that road

Oh — before I forget. We had received a Christmas Card from the roomie, which was a favorite of The Child’s that year. It was bright and sparkly and had a vividly colored portrait of The Madonna on the front. We told her it was from Dad’s friend Don Casey, whereupon she’d point at it and say “Don Casey…Don Casey!” (Hi, Don!) You should have seen the look on her face when we introduced her to “Don Casey”. He didn’t have gorgeous robes, much less a halo.

The Child meets the roomie who is decidedly non-Madonna-like

But somewhere, around the third day, I think it was, The Child just sort of hit the wall, road-trip-wise. We were out in the middle of nowhere, about to visit an ancient pueblo, when she just sort of snapped. There was wailing, there was screaming, there was the dreaded Stiff-As-A-Board Thing. We tried food, we tried water, we tried the endless-singing-of-the-Scarecrow-Song. Nothing worked. And since we’d driven quite a long way to see that darned pueblo, well, we were gonna see that darned pueblo.

The Dude, in the act of leaving The Child by the side of the road (er, path)

So, yup. We left her. Right there by the side of the road. Well, er, pueblo path. And The Dude and I climbed right on up and checked that pueblo out. Of course, we could see the bright-red-parka’d Child at all times. We could even see when her mouth finally closed, indicating that the screaming had ceased and that it was safe to go back and collect her. Which, of course, we did.

All’s well that ends well, pueblo-and-tantrum-wise

The Child, of course, survived to tell the tale. Well, actually, she was too little and does not remember, so I get to tell the tale instead. But she ended up none the worse for wear, as you can see by this somewhat-recent Road-Trip-Without-Us photo.

The Child by the side of a road in Iceland. Where no one left her, not even for a second

New York City. February 2019

 

Up in the air, Junior Birdman

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‘Just not upside-down, if you please.’

I amaze (and amuse) myself sometimes with the mere fact that I go on these Crazy Birding Adventures. (See last week’s “Nope. We didn’t drink the Kool-Aid” for gory Guyanian details.)

Not only are there bugs and spiders and scorpions to deal with (along with the occasional dollop of gecko poop on one’s pillow) but these trips usually have several of my own personal psychological bugaboos layered on top, including (but not limited to) an almost-paralyzing fear of heights. Oh yeah, and lest I forget, there’s The Snake Thing.

Before we move on to heights, here’s that snake — a big ole rattler, no less — that The Dude and Ron were trying to photograph in my story from last week

You may recall from my story “The Year of the Snake” that I have a particularly acute aversion to creatures of the slithery persuasion. Unlike, say, Intrepid Fellow Birder Linda (who snapped this snake), you won’t hear me cooing “That’s the most beautiful snake I’ve ever seen” about this specimen we found on a nighttime hike. Though I did have the gumption to take this movie. So there’s that.

But as much as I’d like to go on about how I’m working on my reptile fear, it’s time to get back to heights. And how I really really don’t like them. Maybe even more than I don’t like snakes. I’m still shocked that I got up so high so many times on this last trip. Must have been the malaria pills.

The biggest weak-knee-inducing experience was visiting Kaieteur Falls. In the photo at the top of this post you can see said Falls being snapped out the window of the extremely-small plane we flew in to reach them. This plane was so small it felt like we were wearing it. No kidding — we all had to get weighed and placed carefully around its interior so it could take off without tipping over. Or something.

Here’s another view of the Falls from the teensy plane’s teensy window. Teensy planes are, basically, the only way to reach these Falls. Let’s just say it’s not very crowded up there

Even the people (and not many of them) who work up at the Falls’ visitor center have to get there by plane. Unless they want to hike straight up a cliff for a couple of hours each way.

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Visitors Center, Kaieteur Falls

Oh — and once you’ve deplaned, you don’t get a fear-of-heights break. You head off on a skinny path to a vertiginous vantage point — where you can enjoy a few more cold-sweat-inducing moments.

Look out, Danger Man! Don’t get too close to that edge!

But do these Birders pay attention to Danger Man? As for me, I’m thinking the Falls look just as spectacular from back here

Gotta love those Birders. They were so busy digging the white-tailed swifts (or whatever the heck was flying around up there) that they hardly noticed the Falls. Even though they are four times higher than Niagara Falls. And twice as high as Victoria Falls.

How Birders look at a waterfall

I like to soothe my height-traumatized ego by reminding myself that I read somewhere that a fear of heights is associated with creativity. Hmmm. In my case, the only creative thing to come out of cowering by a cliffside is coming up with colorful excuses not to go there.

But I was really into this Guyana trip, scary heights be damned. Heck, I even climbed up to the canopy catwalk. That’s a rope and mesh contraption (the “catwalk”) suspended high above the tops of the trees (the “canopy”). It’s so high up — and so precarious — that only One Birder At A Time is allowed to walk on it.

The Dude affects a blasé stance on the Canopy Walkway. Those are the tops of the trees. The ground is at least a hundred feet down

You go up there so that you are eye level with the treetop birds. As it were. As they say, it’s only scary if you look down. Or if you happen to put your hand on one of the Bullet Ants that hang out up there on the mesh. They say that being bit by one is like “being shot by a firearm”. I must say that avoiding the bite of the bullet ants did distract me from my fear of falling.

The New Yorker, bless their hearts, had a cartoon about a canopy walkway. Which I spied on the plane going home. Giving me a double dose of heights phobia

But before we could jump on that plane and go home, we had one more height to conquer: the Lighthouse in Georgetown. Finding ourselves with a free morning (and, in my case, a need for a distraction from my getting-on-a-plane-soon-itis) we took a City Tour. New Best Friend Francis showed us all the sights, including the Lighthouse. Which was even scarier than Jim Jones’ house.

Well. I just that’s about all the scary height and/or snake-related stuff I can think of. Till I go to sleep and my dreams kick in. (“Bullet Ants”, for heaven’s sakes!)

Bye-bye, Bullet Ants!

New York City. February 2019

Nope. We didn’t drink the Kool-Aid

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‘But we did catch the Birding Bug’

If you’ve missed me (and/or my stories), may you find your reward in Heaven. Or maybe South America. Which is where The Dude and I spent the last couple of weeks — in Guyana, which is a country we had to look up on Google Earth.

We’d both remembered that movie Papillon, with Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen, where Steve’s character escapes from Devil’s Island in French Guiana. But we couldn’t decide whether Guiana was in South America and Guyana was in Africa. Or the other way around. (The Guiana/Guyana thing didn’t help.) And of course there’s Uganda (where we’ve been) and Ghana (where we’ve not), complicating matters even more. Turns out Guiana and Guyana are both in South America. But only one of them is famous for its Kool-Aid.

It drove our new Guyanian Pal Francis — here with me atop the Georgetown Lighthouse — crazy to realize that The One Fun Fact we knew about his homeland was The Kool-Aid Thing

Yup. Guyana is where the Rev. Jim Jones took his followers and, ultimately, treated them to a Kool-Aid Party. Grape, it was. (Take a sec to check out Jim Jones’ Wikipedia entry. It actually lists his “Occupation” as “Cult Leader”.)

The house where Jim Jones lived. He didn’t do his Kool-Aid mixing here, though. That fun little party took place miles away, in the jungle at Jonestown

Anyway. Enough about Crazy Cults. The reason you didn’t hear from me wasn’t because I sipped any Kool-Aid, but because, once we hit the Birding Road, there wasn’t any internet. (There wasn’t any hot water, either. Which, trust me, took a whole lot more getting used to.) We did, however, have plenty of hot and cold running birds.

Can you find the bird in this picture? Great shot of a Great Potoo (which doesn’t do a lot of running, hot or cold), by one of our new birding buddies, Rhys Harrison

We saw shield endemics. And leks of mating Capuchinbirds. And many feathery others too numerous to mention. (No, I did not take photos of said birds, preferring instead to “just enjoy them”. Others took plenty, though, including The Dude. Though, if he remains true to Dude Form, his will never ever leave his camera.)

While they took pix of the birds, I took pix of them

The birds, of course, were amazing. But you know that “Birding Bug” I mention “catching” in the subhead? Well. It was a Actual Bug.

A bug that’s rather pretty. But no, this is not The Bug Of Which I Speak

The Bug in Question was a hitchhiker we encountered early on in the trip. We had been warned to zip our bags when not in use, especially if our bags were located on the floor of our cabins. Well, guess who didn’t read the memo — or pay attention when I read it to him?

You got it. The Dude was fussing with his camera gear one evening when a beetle the size and shape of a VW strolled casually into his backpack. Naturally Dude Man enlisted my help trying to get him out. We unpacked all the backpack’s gear, then tried shining a light in there, shaking it upside down, and even (very gingerly) examining the seams. We didn’t see Mr. Bug leave, but since we couldn’t find him anywhere, we figured he must have slipped out somehow and gone out to find some new bug friends. Then, seeing as how we had to get up at 4:30, we loaded the backpack back up with gear and tried to forget about it. (Urk.)

Nope. That’s not The Bug either. Within the circle is a jaguar footprint we spotted on the trail. Which is all we ever saw of the jaguar

(Needless to say, we used our flashlights even more judiciously than usual when tiptoeing to the bathroom that night.)

Next day, after hours of bouncing along a red-dirt road to our next destination, we were just settling in to our new digs when The Dude unzipped his backpack. Eh, voila! Out strolls Mr. Bug. And disappears under the bed. The same bed upon which I had earlier found a “mint” on my pillow which turned out to be gecko poop. “Happy new home, Mr. Bug; we hope you like Surama!”

Mr. Bug’s new home, the Surama Lodge. Somewhere outside the Lodge. We hope

Next night, after a long sweaty day of bird-studded traipsing, we were steeling ourselves for another cold shower when out pops Mr. Bug — making a beeline from under the bed to my bag. When I reached for the zipper to deny him entry, he actually jumped on my hand. I yelped in surprise (this was, as I mentioned, a Very Big Bug) and shrieked for The Dude’s manly assistance. “Get him off me!”

So there we were in partially-clad disarray, jumping around trying to dislodge and discard this darned bug. When The Dude finally managed to capture it with his bath towel, I urged “Throw it outside!” To which The Dude responded “But I’m totally naked!” “Just do it!” I hissed back. “They’ve all seen naked people before!”

Speaking of bugs, that’s one big termite mound there on the left. None of them hitchhiked, though

So much for Mr. Bug. Speaking of “creepy crawly critters”, as our guide called them, we did rack up quite a few: millipedes, crickets, termites, lizards, the afore-mentioned geckos, and even a couple of (gasp) snakes. But, as far as we know, Mr. Bug was the only one with whom we formed a lasting bond.

The Dude and Ron, our local guide extraordinaire, check out a rattlesnake right there in that bush. Nope, I didn’t get any closer than this. If you want to see that snake, you’ll have to wait till Dude Man shares his photo. Don’t hold your breath

Of course I have more Guyanian Adventures to relate. But time is short and this post is long. Let me leave you with a photo of our Nightly Ritual (other than the cold showers, that is), the Sundowner Toast: a shot of El Dorado Rum, made right in Guyana and served up in little Guyanian flag-embossed shot glasses. Which did get to go home with us in that backpack.

Balanced Birding. A shot of rum in one hand, binocs in the other

Amagansett, New York. February 2019

“I seen smallah”

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‘Alice’s Adventures in Underwear’

You just gotta love the Seventies. Well, at least I did. One reason was because in the Seventies, even in the Midwest where I was living at the time, underwear — at least of the brassiere type — was optional.

Me. In the Seventies. When I didn’t wear, um, glasses

See, I hate wearing a bra. Which is kind of funny because when I was 12 or 13 or thereabouts I could hardly wait to wear one. I remember feeling all embarrassed in PE (what you may have called “Phys Ed”) when we girls were changing into our bloomers (honest injun, we wore bloomers in PE) and I was the only one sporting an undershirt.

Do little girls still wear undershirts? Well, I’m sure as heck wearing one in the school photo at the top of this post. You can see its telltale outlines under that big “A”. (My Mom made that dress, and no, that letter “A” was not scarlet.)

Modeling (hah) my first bra. This was Confirmation Day, and that’s my Gramma and Grampa P

I begged my Mom to get me a bra — they called them “training bras” back then; what we were “training” for, I’ll never know — though I honestly didn’t need one. I’d stuff Kleenex into its Triple A cups so it wouldn’t moosh flat under my blouse, but when I  raised my hand in class the whole contraption would ride up practically to my shoulder.

That’s High-School Me — the one with the long hair — back when wearing a bra — and a pair of “nylons” too — was de rigueur

Speaking of contraptions, we’d also wear “nylons” and “garter belts”. (Look ’em up, O Lucky Ladies Who Don’t Know What Those Are.) And slips. Remember slips? They used to rustle and/or ride up, those being the days of Static Cling Before Static Guard. Instead we sprayed our slips with hair spray, like Aqua Net, which you probably don’t know about either. And no purse was complete without a little bottle of clear nail polish, a dab of which was used to halt the runs in our stockings. (That’s “ladders” to you UK readers; a much more descriptive term, in my opinion.)

This slip, along with that watch and those shades, was a gift. Yes, I still have all three, though do I wear any of them?

But back to Bra Trouble. I didn’t grow up near an ocean, but the public swimming pool was the center of summer social life. And owning a “cute” bathing suit was Very Important. Back then all bathing suits (which we called “swimming suits”) came with a bra built right in. This was a firm foam structure with a life of its own. If you were “frontally-challenged” like me, you learned to sort of squeeze your shoulders together to let some air in when exiting the water. Otherwise the cups would collapse and you’d look like you had little volcanoes strapped to your chest.

That’s foam-rubber-enhanced Me at Jantzen’s Resort. I’m thinking that’s my uber-glam Mom in black

Anyway. I was super-glad when the Seventies rolled around and bra-wearing, at least among My Set, was optional. Except for formal occasions, like my (first) wedding. (Yes, I was Married Once Before. You can read about it in “My Polio-Shot Marriage”.)

Time goes by, as is its wont. The Starter Marriage stopped, I moved to New York, met The Dude, had The Child. Huge “Etc.” goes here. But suffice it to say my topside stayed pretty much its same small self. Once I was with a friend (Hi Sande!) in the old Loehmann’s, the one with the communal dressing room. We were trying stuff on when she said “My goodness, you really are flat-chested!” Another time, while getting a mammogram, I was apologizing to the technician for making her job harder (there not being much to grab onto for positioning and all) when she — holding her clipboard and cracking her strawberry gum — looked me up and down and said, “Eh. I seen smallah.”

The dress I got at Loehmann’s that day. Which, yes, I still have. And still wear

And now, even though it’s no longer fashionable to go braless, I’m nevertheless able to get away with doing so pretty much most of the time. Though, you’ll no doubt be relieved to hear, I do draw the line, these days at least, at “topless”.

That’s me, the not topless person, next to my totally non-inhibited Dad

New York City. January 2019

Lucky Thirteen

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‘A match made in high school heaven’

I once read that some people are so freaked out by the number thirteen that many buildings just skip that floor. Kinda makes you think about that dentist on “14”, eh?

Well, apparently my parents weren’t freaked out — or maybe they just liked to tempt fate — because they were married on the thirteen. I don’t know how many times their anniversary fell on a Friday, but I do know that their umpteenth-gazillionth would have been this past Sunday. I say “would have been” because my Dad, unfortunately, is no longer with us to celebrate. Interestingly enough, The Dude’s parents also got married on the thirteenth. Of, maybe, November. (Why not ask The Dude, you’re probably thinking. Well, I did, and he said “Heck if I know.” Men.)

I called my Mom anyway, because hey, any excuse to call my Mom. She is remarkably fun to talk to. And it gave me a chance to quiz her on some family marital lore.

For example. I had always known that my Mom and Dad didn’t have a fancy wedding, but I wasn’t totally sure of the circumstances. Were they poor? Were their parents mad at them? Turns out that it was a Religious Thing. My Mom’s family was Lutheran (but you knew that), and my Dad’s was Catholic. Not Seriously Catholic, but enough to nix a Church Ceremony.

That’s my Dad, looking on as Someone Else gets to kiss a bride in a church wedding that’s not his

Also, I knew that my parents were high school sweethearts. I also knew that my Dad took my Mom to the prom in a milk truck. (The Henrys didn’t own a car, so yes, they were poor; not desperately poor, but perhaps enough to give a girl’s family pause.) I even knew that, out of a total of twelve kids in my parents’ graduating class, four couples married each other — and stayed married. That must have been some high school. What I didn’t know was that two of my Mom’s aunts didn’t, well, approve of my Dad.

That’s one of the Disapproving Aunts there on the left, posing with her sister, my Mom’s mom

One was my Gramma’s sister Annette. She’s the Aunt, you may recall from my story “Great Aunts and Glorified Rice”, who wore a hair net. Which is why we kids thought she was called “Aunt Net”. She was a Lutheran Deaconess, which is sort of like being a Nun but without the cool Sally Field outfit. So, natch, she wouldn’t have liked a Catholic Boy.

That’s Aunt Nellie in back next to my Mom’s Dad. She didn’t like my Mom’s BF either

The other one, Aunt Nellie, was, according to my Mom, “one of those people” who like to “boss other people around”. She’s not quite sure why Nellie wasn’t fond of her Boyfriend-before-he-was-my-Dad (maybe it was the Poor Family Thing?) but there you have it.

Could it really have been because my Dad was so devilishly, dangerously handsome?

Of course, my Mom wasn’t exactly hard on the eyes either.

My Mom during her Homecoming Queen days

I also knew that both my Mom and my Dad dated other people after high school. I discovered this scandalous fact when looking through a big box of old photos on a rainy day when I was a kid. “Who’s this guy?” I asked my Mom, discovering a snap of a guy with his arm around my Mom. “Oh, that’s Jim.”

Turns out Jim was totally smitten by my Mom when she was in nurse’s training. He had red hair, which you couldn’t tell from the photo, it being black-and-white. I remember being fascinated by this, since I didn’t know anyone with red hair. “Gee, if you had married Jim, would we have red hair?” I remember asking. I can’t remember how she answered us, but at least she had the good grace not to tell us that, red hair or not, we wouldn’t have existed if she’d married Jim.

My Mom, looking marvelously fetching during her nurse’s training and Jim-dating period

There really wasn’t much danger of Mom marrying Jim. For one thing, Mom’s Older Brother Ronald used to refer to him as “that pasty-faced redhead”. So there’s that. For another thing, according to Mom, Jim liked her more than she liked him.

So bye-bye Jim, and hello again Dale. They got married, disapproving Aunts be darned, on not-a-Friday Thirteenth. My Dad got his engineering degree — and me — at about the same time. After which they moved to, as I called it, “Vine Grove Tucky”, where they lived over a garage, and Dad (who was an ROTC Guy) was stationed at some air base.

Dad clutching his diploma — and me

Their marriage went on to be full of many adventures — way too many to relate in one measly Tuesday-after-their-anniversary post. (Check out “Kissing Daddy Good-Night” for a real doozy.)

And so what if they didn’t have a fancy wedding? They sure got to go to plenty. Here they are enjoying my Middle Younger Brother Roger’s. Looks like my Dad has the same smile on his face as he did at his own wedding lo these many years ago.

Living it up at Roger and Jenn’s wedding

New York City. January 2019

The time the New Year almost started without us

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‘Cancelled flights, skidding limos, and a surprise side trip to a Holiday Inn in Jamaica’

Somewhere there is a photo of a seven-something Child, slumped in one of those ‘exotic’-looking high-backed wicker chairs that corporate decorators like to install in chain-motel lobbies in the tropics, looking a tad tired and more than a little pathetic. The Child, not the chair. Well okay, maybe the chair too.

I can’t find the picture, and to be honest, it’s probably just as well.

It was New Year’s Eve sometime in the late 90s, and, instead of being in Bonaire as planned, We Whitmores had been shunted unexpectedly to Montego Bay, Jamaica. Where the only room to be found anywhere was in the Holiday Inn.

No, we’re not at the Holiday Inn. No pictures exist of that memorable New Year’s Eve. Not that I can find, anyway. Here we are, celebrating in New York City sometime in the mid-nineties

If memory serves, the whole shunting-to-Jamaica Thing was due to weather. Or maybe an Air Jamaica malfunction. Or both. Whatever the reason, we were (sort of) grateful to have a roof over our heads, what with the Holiday Crowds and all. Believe you me, that Holiday Inn was packed. And packed with families.

Families who were making the most of the all-inclusive amenities. There were pools, there were water toys, there were activities leaders. There were even young women who would braid your hair in dreadlocks. This was a very popular amenity. You have never seen so many Bo-Derek lookalikes in your life. And, trust me, most of them were not “tens”.

Nope, still not the Holiday Inn. Here we were at a Big Fancy Party to ring in the New Millennium

The Child and I passed on the dreads. But we were interested in the pools and eager to try out the outdoor spa. That is, until we actually saw them. Let’s just say that the requirement for showering before entering the pools was, um, relaxed. And yes, the spa was nice and steamy — but it was so full of children that it resembled kid soup. Kid soup with a nice rich brown stock, if you get my drift.

Speaking of food, “all inclusive” also meant you could eat all you wanted, as long as the food you wanted was on the buffet. And, since The Child was in her Extremely Picky Eater phase, that meant the only thing she wanted that was on the buffet was bacon. She literally ate huge plates of bacon, and bacon only, three times a day. Good thing her beverage of choice was water.

In retrospect, we should have known this trip was doomed. Even before we got shunted to Jamaica, we’d had a misfire in leaving New York City. We’d travelled all the way out to Newark Airport only to have our flight cancelled because of snow. We grabbed a recently-vacated stretch limo and slipped and slided our way back to the City in mob-boss comfort (there was a very well-stocked bar) — where we grabbed a couple of hours’ sleep, then went right back out to Newark, where we boarded our ill-fated flight to Bonaire (er, Jamaica).

Me, pursuing my favorite New Year’s Eve activity. Nope, this was not taken in Jamaica

Anyway. Here we were, stuck in a Holiday Inn on New Year’s Eve. The Dude hunkered in our itty-bitty windowless paper-thin-walled room while The Child and I searched for adventure. It was New Year’s Eve, for pete’s sakes! And adventure there was — Jaws III (right up there with the worst movies ever made) was playing on big suspended screens. (There was no sound, but it really didn’t matter.) As for sound, that was the year of “Who Let The Dogs Out”, (which Rolling Stone ranked at number 8 on a “worst songs of the 1990s” poll) and all you could hear was a joyful sort-of-melodic barking while a big conga line snaked around the grounds. Yes, we joined it.

The Dude spends another New Year’s Eve in another room, another trip. As you can see, he still prefers to hunker

I’ve forgotten exactly what happened at midnight, except that it must have been fairly G-rated, since there were so many dreadlock-bedecked children participating. I do recall sipping from a plastic cup of “champagne” while wearing a funny hat and yelling “Happy New Year!”

New Year’s Eve adventure, 2018-style. Yes, I did have some champagne. And yes, I did stay up till midnight

When we two Celebrants returned to our room, we found The Dude curled up in bed, his head stuffed with ineffectual earplugs, trying to ignore the whooping and hollering of all our neighbors. Fat chance. There was a party going on.

Next day, we were able to make our way to Bonaire, our intended Holiday Destination — where there were no dreadlocks, no dog songs, and not even any bacon-laden buffets.

Aaaaaah. A conga-line free pool — and with nice clear water at that

Since that ill-fated Eve, we’ve spent very few New Year’s out of the country — or even out of the house, for that matter. But we’ve enjoyed each and every one.

Happy New Year, dear readers. Here’s hoping 2019 is a good one, and that pretty soon I’ll stop writing “2018” on my checks. 

New York City. January 2019

Chop Phooey

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‘All I got for Christmas was egg foo young’

We were in a cab the afternoon of Christmas Eve when we saw Santa driving home from a hard day of ho-ho-ho-ing. We’d just seen Free Solo, which is an absolutely amazing movie about this guy Alex Honnold who climbed 3200 feet up the sheer face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park using just his hands and feet — no ropes! no nothing! — but even after that it was still pretty exciting to see the Jolly Old Elf himself in all his red-suited, white-bearded glory at the wheel of his Chrysler mini-van.

Another Santa we saw this season. This Santa was spotted in his driveway, having just ridden in on the back of a Corvette convertible

No doubt Santa was thinking about the nice home-cooked dinner he was going to have that night in his North-Pole-like outpost in Queens (he was in the traffic lane for the Bridge) before heading out in his sleigh.

We Whitmores were also looking forward to home and our traditional pot roast, a small version of which we three (yes, The Child was home this yearwere planning to polish off before opening presents and hanging out by the fire. (Being of the Swedish persuasion, I’ve Swedishly persuaded The Dude that Christmas Eve gift opening is more fun than the Christmas Morning version.)

The traditional pot roast, as it was consumed in Days of Yore. Meaning when we had Other People over to help eat it

The Dude, who doesn’t have a Swedish bone in his body, goes along with this, I’m thinking, because it’s more fun to open presents with wine than with coffee. Though my Personal Sister, also married to a non-Swede, fuels her Christmas Mornings with what she calls “happy coffee”, which she swears by as a gift-opening lubricant.

The Whitmores’ unwrapping lubricant of choice

So. Everything thing went swimmingly on Christmas Eve, with our tummy-satisfying dinner of beef, and our bubbly-infused soul-satisfying exchange of gifts.

Wombat guarding the Stocking after Santa has arrived from Queens (er, the North Pole), but before The Child has

Christmas Morning was pretty sweet too, since we have not relinquished the custom of the Christmas Stocking — even though now The Child is practically large enough to actually wear said Stocking.

Stockings and Starbucks: our new Christmas Morning tradition. That’s a pomegranate she found stuffed into said Stocking’s toe. Very Dickensian

We loafed around in our jammies pretty much all day, admiring each other’s taste in gifts, until we started to get, well, peckish. There were certainly enough Christmas treats around — caramel corn, toffee, a giant tin of cookies, and Godiva galore — but it was getting on towards dinnertime and we wanted something, well, more substantial.

We’d demolished that pot roast on Christmas Eve (there weren’t even any leftovers), and, silly me (the One Who Cooks), had in the back of her lazy-butt holiday mind that on Christmas Itself I could take it easy and we could just “grab some sushi”.

Hah! (Or should I say “Ho-Ho-Hah!“)

“What? I’m not worried about dinner. Dinner’s in a bowl. On the kitchen floor. Like always.”

As Christmas Day started turning into Christmas Night, I got to thinking of a piece I had read in the New York Times that very morning about how eating in Chinese restaurants got to be a Jewish tradition in New York since they were the only places open on Christmas Day. (When I mentioned this to The Child, she said “Oh, Mom, that’s such a cliche.”) Well, Nervous Me, I got to thinking we should call the sushi place, you know, just to make sure they were open.

The Child shows off a Polaroid shot with a Christmas gift (A Polaroid-like camera) of us hanging around and dandling the cat

Riiiing, riiing, riiinnnng. Nothing doing. I then consulted Open Table. Equally nada. The Child, Millennial that she is, started consulting her apps. Uber Eats had a Thai place that would send takeout. Did we like Thai food? Sure! we said, then proceeded to waste half an hour arguing over the menu. (“Do you like curry?” “Sure, I like curry. But all these have coconut milk. Ick!” “Mom, all Thai curries have coconut milk.”) By the time we agreed on what to order, the place was closed. It was 5 o’clock.

Next she found a taqueria. (“Tacos? Sure, we like tacos. Sort of.”) Closed. Then a poke place. “Poke! What on earth’s poke?” Ditto. Closed tighter than a Hawaiian drum. At around 5:30, we realized we were all out of options. So Chinese it had to be.

And the Chinese food delivered, literally and figuratively. Though we were on hold longer than it took the food to get to us, we enjoyed every MSG-infused morsel. (As you can see in the photo at the top of this post.) The only thing disappointing were the fortune cookies, which weren’t, in my opinion, fortune cookies. They were more like saying cookies, since they said things like “Laugh and the world laughs with you”. And “Hard work is its own reward”. A fortune is something like “You will meet a tall handsome stranger”.

Or, in our case, “You will eat Chinese food on Christmas Day.”

Or maybe: “You will eventually change out of your Christmas jammies.”

New York City. January 2019

A very Marilyn Christmas

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‘A Holiday Tribute to an Aunt I bet Yule wish was yours’

I was feeling a touch of the Christmas Blues the other day. Remembering The Old Days and how we kids used to peer out the car windows at the Christmas trees lighting up the picture windows of the houses in the small towns along Route 50 on the way up to Gramma’s house. And how, once we got there, we’d run as fast as we could to the Tree to see just how big it was and to shake the wrapped presents to guess what was in them.

I think I liked pressing my face against windows. Here I am smudging things up at Gramma’s

When Christmas Blue, what do you do? Well, I called my Mom. (Thank goodness I still have one.) She knew exactly what I was talking about, and exactly what I was missing: The Marilyn Christmas.

Oldest Younger Brother Scott and I caught red-handed checking out the Tree (and the presents)

See, my Mom, like me, was the older of two sisters. (She also had three brothers, but this story isn’t about them. Sorry, Uncles Ronald, Mark, and Carl.) This story is about Aunt Marilyn. And about how gosh-darned terrific was the way she would “do” Christmas.

That’s my Mom, upper right. Aunt Marilyn is the cute little girl in front. Even though it’s summer in this photo, I bet visions of sugarplums are dancing in her head

After the seven of us Henrys — all crammed into a car without seat belts — made that long drive from Southern Illinois, we’d get to Gramma’s house where Aunt Marilyn would greet us wearing little Christmas-ornament earrings. Nat King Cole and Johnny Mathis would be playing on the stereo and the whole house would be decorated and smell like Christmas Heaven.

Another tradition: The Christmas Cousin Lineup.

Aunt Marilyn would have decorated my Gramma’s house — including putting out a little gumdrop tree — and helped her make a humongous Christmas Dinner — which was always on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day, which was the Swedish Way. We’d have korv (yum) and lutfisk (urk) and a big ole turkey and later on — after one of my Uncles would mysteriously disappear right before Santa’s arrival — my Dad would make his famous Oyster Stew and my Aunt Marilyn and Aunt Shirley and Gramma and Mom and I would eat fruitcake and play Scrabble.

After the turkey and lutfisk, but before the fruitcake and Scrabble

Somewhere along in here Uncle Carl, who lived in Colorado (which my Aunt pronounced “color” -ado) would call — Aunt Marilyn would answer the phone “Merry Christmas!” — and everyone would pass the phone around to tell him about everything he was missing, including The Game.

The Game was, basically, the centerpiece of a Marilyn Christmas. Every year, Marilyn would think one up that we would play while “Santa” was handing out the presents. This was invariably a word game, usually involving puns — the sillier and groanier the better. Sample: “Who has his own state university?” “Wayne (!)” I know, I know. But, trust me, this was fun. A lot of fun.

Mom takes a turn on “Santa’s” lap. Gee, I wonder where Dave went?

That last Game question was from the Very Last Marilyn Christmas. Which was lo these thirty-odd years ago. (I found a video my Filmmaker Younger Brother Roger made of it. If you have a very large coffee mug you might want to tune in. I don’t think Aunt Marilyn would mind.)

Speaking of Aunt Marilyn, she’s been dreadfully ill these past few years. But I bet she still wears little Christmas ornament earrings — or even little Santas. And I bet she still answers the phone “Merry Christmas”. I’m going to test that theory tonight.

Meanwhile, here’s wishing you all the merriest of Christmases — even if you don’t have a Marilyn in your life.

New York City. December 2018