If the Shoebill fits, find it

Standard

‘On the hunt for a Ugandan bird as big as Idi Amin’

This morning I got locked in a bathroom. I mean seriously locked in. The kind of locked in where you beat on the door till someone hears you, but, worried that no one will, you actually consider clambering on top of the tank and climbing out the window — except the window has bars on it. Then someone finally does hear you, but that someone doesn’t speak English and it’s ages before a gang of guys comes with tools to break you out.

The bathroom in question was located on the banks of Lake Victoria, on the outskirts of Entebbe, which is in Uganda. Where Idi Amin used to be Head Dude and Dictator. Idi is long gone, but there are still plenty of ways to scare visitors. Like making a bathroom door that locks just dandy but, well, see above.

Once I emerged from said potty prison, unharmed except for a severely wounded dignity, our little Band of Birders boarded (more than a tad belatedly, due to my bathroom emergency) a local boat that was supposed to take us to a swamp so we could search for a rare bird called the Shoebill. My fellow birder/boaters had put the finishing touches on their potty jokes and had arranged ourselves on deck when a gigantic black cloud blew in and our leader, thank the Birding Gods, decided it wouldn’t be safe to continue.

While waiting patiently in an abandoned shelter for the storm to pass, our saintly leader happened to remark that in fact it was a good thing that I got locked in the bathroom — otherwise we would have already left shore — and been out on the open water when the storm hit. Which wouldn’t have been a good thing. No, not a good thing at all.

Gimme shelter. Nothing dampens The Dude’s birding ardor. Here he waits patiently for the torrent to subside. Yes, he’s laughing — probably about me getting locked in the bathroom

Anyway. I’m writing this in the Boma Guesthouse, where they do (obviously) have wifi. But it’s getting late in Birder Hours (it’s, like, 9:49!) and I have to get this done so I can schedule it to post tomorrow (yes, you can do that, unless you screw it up, which I’ve done) because tomorrow (usual Posting Tuesday) we’ll be staying in a place that (and I quote) “has seen better days”. I’m doubting it has running water, much less internet.

So I’ll skip the parts, funny though they are, about how we got to the boat that got us to the dugout canoes that got us to the swamp. And skip right to finding the darned Shoebill.

Yes, dugout canoes were involved. You may recall that this is not my first experience with dugout canoes. This is, um, my third. Once on the Amazon, and once in Panama. In fact, I’ve now been in dugout canoes more times than I’ve been in regular, normal, non-dugout ones. As someone who has never been what you’d call comfortable around water, I’m hoping I can break this habit, and break it soon.

But, as the only way to find this elusive Shoebill was to get into dugout canoes and roam around a swamp, that’s what we did.

The view from my canoe of one of the other canoes — stuck in the reeds and such. Note that our Boat Guy is standing precariously in the front so he can search for the Shoebill

The canoes had motors, but we couldn’t use them much, because a) it was too shallow, and b) because the boats kept getting stuck in the reeds. When we got stuck (a lot) the Boat Person in the fronts of the boats (see photo for how that guy/gal perched up there, mainly so he/she could scan the horizon for that darned Shoebill) would hop out and push the boat, kind of like the way Charlie, Humphrey Bogart’s character in The African Queen, would hop out and push said African Queen. Only I don’t think our boat-pushers had to worry about leeches. Snakes, yes. Leeches, no.

I know this because our guy got out once to scout ahead, encountered a snake, and soundly beat it with a long pole he kept on hand for occasions such as this. (He also said it came in handy in case he stepped into a ‘hole’ in the swamp and sank in over his head. Which happened. Three times.)

Well. Our three boats were supposed to stick together. It would be a shame if one boat found the Shoebill, and the other boats missed it. But our boater/guides assured us that this wouldn’t be a problem. They had cellphones, you see. If one boat found the Shoebill, they would just alert the other boats. Piece of birding cake.

Let’s just say they fudged a bit. Our Boat Guy did have a cellphone, which he used. A lot. Little did we know the other boats didn’t have cellphones. So who knows who our guy was talking to. Maybe his Mom? Anyway, our boats got separated. For hours. And I know I’m prone to exaggeration, but not this time. We were seriously separated for about two hours. Two hours of sort-of paddling, sort-of pushing, sort-of motoring through a swamp.

At one point one of the guys in my boat said he had to ‘go to the bathroom’. (Me, I think I’ll never ‘go to the bathroom’ again in my life after being locked in one.) I told him to ‘go ahead; I wouldn’t look’. He didn’t take me up on my non-offer.

We, of course, didn’t know our boat wasn’t communicating with the others, and finally decided that if we couldn’t find the Shoebill, it was time to find our way out of the swamp. After about another hour, we emerged, only to see both the other boats filled with fellow birders wildly gesticulating. One was doing so because they had found the Shoebill (!) The other folks were frantically signalling — because their boat had run out of gas.

The Object of our Attention, stolen hot off The Dude’s camera: a bird as big as a Volkswagen. Hard to miss, once you’ve found it. But there’s the rub

I’m thinking that the Shoebill was pretty darned well worth the trouble. (I mean, take a look at that thing!) And I’m also thinking that those boater/guide guys and gals won’t get booked again by our Birder Company any time soon.

Near Lake Victoria, Entebbe, Uganda. May 2018

How many people can you pack into a gazebo?

Standard

‘No one knows — because no one has ever tried.’

Some time ago (in a piece called ‘What’s Not To Lichen?’) I wrote about stuff that families find funny. (Usually, but not always, it’s only the people actually in that family who find these things funny.) Sometimes, like in the Henry Clan, it’s bad puns. My Grampa Henry had a whole collection of particularly-awful puns. Plus dirty limericks. He wrote one once about his gall-bladder operation. He survived; fortunately, the limerick did not.

Me. Doing stand-up in a bed of you-know-what. Check out ‘What’s Not To Lichen?’ for more punishment (er, examples)

Besides awful puns (and sometimes limericks) there’s usually a set of inside jokes — groaners that never fail to amuse, at least when told (and retold) within the confines of the family itself. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard “How many dead people are in that graveyard?” (Answer: “All of them.”) I know, I know. If you can stand it, a good selection of both Henry and Whitmore specialties can be found in ‘Kangaroo Walks Into A Bar’. Just don’t take a sip of coffee before you read it; there’s a Whitmore urology joke that’s killer.

Sometimes this funny family stuff can’t be categorized as a pun or a joke or even a limerick. Sometimes what’s funny just is.

Take gazebos. For some reason, if you’re a Henry, the mere sight of a gazebo is sure to crack you up. (If you’re not sure what a gazebo is, you can click here or just look at the photo at the top of this post.) If a Henry sees a gazebo, and points it out to a fellow Henry, both burst out laughing. If there’s a non-Henry along, he/she can look a bit baffled.

Two Dudes in front of an empty gazebo. Yup, I am laughing right now

Thinking gazebos are funny has just always been one of our Family Things. Partly it’s that ‘gazebo’ is such an inherently funny word. Also, they invariably look, well, silly. Kind of ornate and effete and ridiculous. It doesn’t help that they are — always — empty. Go on; try to remember the last time you saw anybody actually occupying a gazebo.

We Henrys used to try to imagine scenarios when we’d make use of a gazebo if we had one, say, in our yard in Southern Illinois. (Sit there and read a book? Nah. You’d get eaten alive by mosquitoes. But what if the gazebo had screens? Cue screams of Henry laughter.)

We thought gazebos were so silly we used to make a game of pointing out all the (empty, every single one) gazebos we could find. We’d point, then make a ‘zero’ (to indicate no one was in said gazebo). We didn’t have to say anything; we’d just ‘get it’. I once took a bike ride with my Mom and Middle Younger Brother Roger all around his lovely gazebo-dotted hometown of Geneva, Illinois. We almost fell off our Schwinns.

We Henrys are not the only ones, apparently, who find gazebos innately hilarious. Recently, John Mulaney did a Gazebo Riff during his opening monologue on Saturday Night Live. Here, I’ve cued it up for you:

Nice to know the Mulaneys were a silly family too. I can’t wait to see if he works a gall-bladder limerick into a future monologue.

Before I go, I must admit that there was one time a Henry actually used a gazebo. That I witnessed, anyway. This was a few years ago out in Petaluma, CA, where my Oldest Younger Brother Scott made an appearance at the Butter and Eggs Festival (yes, that’s a Thing) with his band, Bad Neighbor.

Bad Neighbor plays. Yes, that’s a gazebo and the band is in it. You can’t see the whole thing. But I did; I was there. But I was never in the gazebo myself

Quick note. His band got the name ‘Bad Neighbor’ because one night when they were practicing in his garage, the guy next door came over to complain about the noise and said, “You are a really bad neighbor!” To which my Bro said, “Thanks, you just named our band.” Sometimes, when just two of the four band members do a gig, they call themselves Half-Bad Neighbor.

But why play in a gazebo? Isn’t that what band shells are for?

Oh. I guess the band shell, like this one in Central Park, was otherwise occupied

New York City. May 2018

Crocodile Dumdee

Standard

‘What you don’t know can hurt you.’

A couple of years after The Dude and I got married, we took a trip to Australia. This was a very long time ago. So long ago that when I googled ‘Crocodile Dundee’ after coming up with that groaner of a title, I found out the movie came out after we took our trip. So we weren’t familiar with lines like That’s not a knife…this is a knife’, much less with the fact that practically everything in Australia can pretty much kill you.

Speaking of my punsterific headline, let me say right off the bat that I don’t mean to pick on The Dudeman. It’s just that the photo of him in his Crocodile hat looks, well, more ‘DundeeLike’ than mine.

Me, sporting my Crocodile Dundee (er, ‘Dumdee’) hat. And not much else. I’m perched by the pool that had all the snakes in it, soon to be described in horrifyingly hissy detail

Because, let’s face it. We were both pretty dumb on this trip. Granted, this was long before TripAdvisor or (probably) even the internet itself. (Not sure; I’ll have to ask Al Gore.)

At any rate, we were young, we were naive, and we were game for pretty much anything. We were also pretty poor, but I had oodles of frequent flier miles from all my work-related plane-hopping for Ogilvy. (See ‘Around the World in 80 Shoots’) So we cashed ’em in and flew Qantas to Cairns. Where, before we could even grab a rental car, we were ourselves grabbed — right there in the terminal — by a couple of guys who said “Hey, wanna go diving on the Great Barrier Reef? Come with us!” (Use your imagination for the Australian accents.)

No, we didn’t buy the Brooklyn Bridge. But yes, we did hop right on this dive boat

Nope, we were not certified divers. In fact, I had never even tried diving before. But we strapped on that gear and dove right in. There are still marks from my fingernails etched into that boat’s wooden sides. Continue reading

Malcolm and the Duchess

Standard

‘What passes for Royalty on either side of The Pond’

I’m staring at my le Creuset, thinking of the Duchess of Devonshire. Wondering if I can squeeze out another batch of her boeuf bourguignon before the weather agrees that it’s Spring.

The Duchess was the last of several Mitford Sisters, two of whom were famous writers, and two of whom were famous Nazis. (One, Unity, shot herself when Hitler dumped her for Eva Braun.)

While her sisters were writing books and dabbling in fascism, Deborah was saving Chatsworth, her husband’s estate. Bless her, she was able to get people to pay good money to check out her Elvis Presley memorabilia and flocks of fine poultry.

Malcolm Forbes wasn’t a Duchess (or even a Duke), but he shared her fondness for celebrities and eggs, particularly Faberge. Malcolm was powerful, knew a lot of famous people, and had lots of houses–certainly more than Debo (as she was known to friends and fam, but not to me or Malcolm.)

Me, posing for the bus-riding paparazzi at one of Malcolm’s houses. See how I got there in a sec

Malcolm was a patient of The Dude’s Dad (who was a urologist). Very Important People (mostly Very Important Men) came to see him. Some of them (like Malcolm) became quite attached to The Dude’s Dad, who, in addition to being a great doctor, was also a very charming man. Continue reading

Working for Doctor Dude

Standard

‘The job I was just not cut out to do’

I’ve worked at a lot of jobs, over a lot of years. I worked at ad agencies in New York and, before that, in the Midwest. Before that I worked at my hometown newspaper. And before that I was a babysitter. Heck, I’ve even worked as a “cleaning lady” — and not just in my own house. Oldest Younger Brother Scott and I ‘did’ my Dad’s office back when I was a kid in grade school. (I can’t remember what we got paid, if anything.)

But nothing I had worked at before in all my many years of working prepared me for serving as a receptionist in my husband-the-doctor’s office.

Yup, The Dude is a doctor. An eye doctor (an ophthalmologist), in fact. If you’re going to be a doctor, it’s a pretty good kind to be. For one thing, there are hardly any emergencies. No matter how often your mom warned you, it’s really not that often that kids poke each others’ eyes out with pointy sticks. Another thing that’s good, at least from The Wife’s perspective: no one gets naked. Nope, you’ll hardly ever hear an eye doctor say “Let’s get that top off; I need to examine your retinas.”

The Dude’s extremely adorable office mural, made for him by the extremely adorable Child

Continue reading

Like oil and river water

Standard

‘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

If your friend jumped off a cliff, would you jump too?

Standard

‘Sometimes it’s best not to follow the leader’

I have this Teddy Roosevelt fixation. Maybe it’s because my name is Alice*. (In case your history’s a bit rusty, Teddy’s daughter Alice Roosevelt Longworth was a lively cigarette-smoking rebel who grew up to be a famous elderly curmudgeon. She had a needlepoint pillow that read ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say, come sit by me.’)

*Yes, ‘Lutheranliar’ is really named ‘Alice’. After my Gramma. Middle named ‘Celia’. After my other Gramma, whose actual name was Cecelia. But my mom said she shortened it so I wouldn’t spit on people. Go ahead; try it: “Alice Cecelia”. I rest my case. Or my mom does anyway.

And Teddy? Well, he did crazy things like wander off into the wilderness all alone and lead charges into battle on horseback. And he still found the time to read two books a day — even while he was busy being President.

Teddy almost died of malaria making the same (gulp) trip we did a couple of months ago. Read about his trip in ‘River of Doubt’. Read about ours in ‘Eat. Or be eaten’ or ‘The Curse of the Potoo’

One of the coolest things that Teddy did (or at least I think so) was how he evaded the pesky ole Secret Service. Since Teddy had actually become President when the guy before him, William McKinley, got shot,  there were lots of Secret Service agents following him around to make sure that this kind of thing didn’t happen to him, too.  Continue reading

Put a bird on it

Standard

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

Is that stocking half full, or half empty?

Standard

‘The Philosophy of Gift-giving. It’s all how you look at it.’

One of the few times I saw my mother weep was one Christmas when she opened a gaily-wrapped package only to discover that my well-meaning father had given her an electric toothbrush. “It’s the latest thing,” he protested as he tried to comfort her. It didn’t help when he pointed out that it came with different heads, one for each member of our family.

Poor Dad. He was one of those well-meaning people who give gifts that they really want. He loved gadgets; ergo, Mom got gadgets. I think it was the next Christmas that he gave her the electric knife.

My Mom later told us about a Christmas when she was very little — a Christmas when she really really wanted roller skates. There was a largish, heavyish roller-skate-appropriate box under the tree that looked promising. But her Uncle Warren Who Liked To Tease (didn’t everyone have one of these?) kept telling her it was a hair ribbon. Poor Mom.

I’m not sure if this was the Christmas Of The Electric Knife. Or the Christmas Of The Electric Toothbrush

Continue reading

The Curse of the Potoo

Standard

‘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