My niece joined the family on July 12th, 2010. This special young lady's mother is my younger sister, which in classic Chinese culture makes me her Jiu Jiu (舅舅) -- thus the title of this blog. Here I intend to semi-regularly post reflections, thoughts, stories, and assorted whathaveyous pertaining to our trip to China, adoption in general, and (mostly) watching my niece grow up. Since the web is a very public place, I will attempt to maintain my family's privacy while telling the story... but I invite you to follow the blog and come along for the adventure!

Monday, June 3, 2013

A Hot April Day

No, that's not a typo -- I really am catching up on material that's almost two months old! (Dude, at least it's the same year...)

Mom & Dad's anniversary is in April, and as usual AJ & I decided to err on the side of caution and let them decide how they wanted to celebrate the day. Dad was amenable to whatever Mom wanted, and it took Mom all of about 15 seconds' thought to decide she wanted to celebrate by having the whole family take Miri to the zoo.  (This isn't as far-fetched as it may sound; Mom is happiest with her whole brood around her, and the Pipsqueak is a majorly huge fan of "the aminal zoo," and we all have fun watching Miri have fun, so...)

We didn't count on a lovely spring day in mid-April being so blazingly hot but since we were all looking forward to the day's outing and didn't want to disappoint the Pipsqueak, we loaded some goodies into a cooler with lots of ice packs and set off down Connecticut Avenue.  Once we were through the gate, our hearts sank at seeing one "LOT FULL" sign after another -- until a frantic waving of a FONZ card[1] and Dad's handicapped parking permit out the van's window got us into what might actually have been the last open parking spot.

We were also lucky to have parked adjacent to one of the zoo's larger gift shops, since everyone had forgotten to bring a hat for the Pipsqueak... so we marched in and spent the next 15 minutes attempting to navigate the crowd without losing Miri as she 'explored" the shop. (Read: Wanted to know what everything was while wandering around on her own, often moving through gaps between & under displays that none of us grownups had a snowball's chance of getting through.)  We eventually found her a cute panda hat that we all liked and headed out into the heat with Miri happily stopping to model her chapeau for the camera.

We decided to start with the panda house, and set resolutely off down the path... the wrong path. A quick discussion ensued, and we asked directions from a zoo employee and modified our trajectory accordingly.  As we walked (and felt our internal temperatures slowly begin rising), we encountered our first misting station -- a special shower head mounted about seven feet up on a post that would, at the push of a button, spray a very fine mist of cool water over an area of roughly ten square feet for several minutes. The Pipsqueak's love of playing with water, her desire to see the pandas, and her general excited need to just go somewhere at the zoo all ran into each other in a big jumble; she would walk up to the edge of the damp area, run back laughing, walk up to it again from another angle, run back to us, and so on until Grandma reminded her that the pandas were waiting.

Much to our happy surprise, there was minimal crowding in the panda house. Tian Tian seemed to have gone into hiding but Mei Xiang was actively chowing down on a huge pile of fresh bamboo.  The Pipsqueak (like many other kids of all ages watching) oohed and aahed at the sheer volume of bamboo disappearing into the panda's belly, and laughed at some of her antics when she played with her food. At some point, a thought quietly crept into my mind: the last time I had seen a panda in person, I was in Seven Stars Park in Guilin and the active, verbal, excited little girl oohing and aahing beside me was a 14-month-old, nearly bald, almost silent little stranger whom I had met only a couple of days earlier. I took a moment to reminisce, returning to the here-and-now only when interrupted by an excited, "let's GO, Uncle Brian!" as my niece grabbed my hand.

Next stop -- despite our best efforts to attempt to find the wrong path -- was the elephants. Miri was very excited to see her old friends (she was sure they remembered her from last year's visit), and it was interesting to see how one elephant was systematically demolishing a log, holding it down with one foot while carefully peeling back the bark with her trunk. We also watched a pair of handlers working with one elephant who obviously thought it was too hot to be outside, and enjoyed observing the interaction between members of the herd. The real highlight for the Pipsqueak, of course, was something entirely different; handlers working with a reluctant young bull, the cow manipulating a massive log like a toothpick, the interaction between members of the herd... that was all well and good, but watching an elephant poop?  WOW!

As we left the relatively sheltered paths by the elephant exhibit, the full heat of the day hit us like a hot, wet towel (also bringing about another short reminiscence of how it had felt to walk around Seven Stars Park). Even Miri was complaining, with a plaintive, "I hot!" every few feet as her bangs slowly dampened with sweat. A command decision was made and we stopped in front of the old elephant house for a quick clothing change. Off came the cute jumper, etc. -- and the Pipsqueak spent the rest of our day at the zoo essentially wearing only a long shirt and a pull-up. I think she would have been just as happy wearing only the pull-up but a quick reminder of how it's not OK to be undressed in public stopped any complaints. One advantage of her new mode of dress was that she could (and did!) enjoy the refreshment offered by misting stations for the rest of the day, which she did with great peals of laughter and shrieks of excitement, stopping occasionally to dry herself off on her uncle's pant legs.

With a re-costumed Pipsqueak in tow, we headed off across the zoo to the new seal & sea lion enclosure (which was still undergoing renovation on our last trip). Along the way we stopped to admire a bald eagle perched high up on a branch (which Miri definitely did not want to "come and see!" until reassured it would not, could not, did not come out from behind the mesh nor bite little girls); admired a she-wolf prowling her enclosure ("A pretty doggy!"); and spent some time watching a river otter launch itself backwards off the glass of its enclosure and swim in a big vertical loop until coming back to the window and start the process all over again and again and again.

After finally sweating our way to the seal & sea lion exhibit, we enjoyed the shade by a large observation window and all agreed that it was much nicer than the old enclosure had been. The window gave a great view of the playful pinnipeds both above & below the waterline, so while everyone else sat and caught their breath I tried to get a good "fly by" photo. After watching me repeatedly fail to actually get one of the zoomingly fast sea lions in frame, Miri asked if she could take a picture -- and got a nice pic on her first try, leaving her uncle wondering if perhaps he's a little closer to obsolescence than he thought. (She also took a nice portrait of her Grandma & Grandpa on a bench farther up the path, leaving me thinking seriously about how I had gotten my first camera when I was five but she might not have to wait that long for hers.)

We headed back out into the hot sun, making for the petting farm at the far end of the zoo. Along the way we found a "cave" at the back of the sea lions' tank with a huge underwater window, where a young girl was interacting directly with one of the sea lions. She had a bright yellow lunch bag in her hand, and the sea lion would follow her hand up, down, right and left -- and when she swung the bag in a circle, the sea lion began swimming tight loops, always taking care to match the speed & motion of the bag in the girl's hand. Everyone on both sides of the glass seemed to be enjoying the game (the sea lion would periodically surface for air, but would then immediately come back down and wait for the girl to begin waving her hand again), but Miri soon tired of it and we headed on our way.

Although disappointed by the hogs being MIA, the Pipsqueak was suitably impressed by the cows and llamas and alpacas and donkeys who were braving the heat along with their fellow mammalian visitors... although we all laughed at how one large cow and the alpha male alpaca made sure to remain under a mist sprayer in the shade. (Made me wonder which species was actually smarter: mine, or theirs?) I just had to include the "portrait" I took of one of the alpacas; don't you just love that expression? (Somewhere in the back of my mind is the old Far Side cartoon where one animal is looking out the window of a normal human-type living room saying, "Llook out Llarry, it's the llandllord!" I do miss that strip... but back to the story...)

Our plan was to work our way back toward AJ's van via the big cat exhibit, but we hadn't counted on the carousel just beyond its entrance being active. It took several promises before Miri would allow(!) us to walk into the tiger enclosure, and within moments of seeing only one striped cat moving around and then having to crane her neck to see just the mane of a lion sleeping in the shade of a tree next door, my niece was insisting we go to the carousel NOW. Since there really wasn't much to see in the exhibit (Dude, you should remember that all cats, big or small, like to sleep through the midday heat...!) we got on line for the carousel. Mom & Dad decided they'd be more comfortable sitting and watching, and I decided to save the entry fee, so AJ took Miri on herself[2].  I kept trying to get a photo of the Pipsqueak (seated appropriately upon a panda) as she laughingly zoomed past, but even with AJ's help she always seemed to be looking the other way, or calling to Grandma & Grandpa, or hidden behind another animal just as the shutter tripped... but she had a grand old time riding the carousel, and as a result there were plenty of happy smiles to go around.

By this time, misters or no misters, we were all thoroughly tuckered out from the heat and began the long climb back to the van (of course it was all uphill from the carousel to our parking spot!) We paid a quick visit to Uncle Beazley[3], and after I told Miri that the sign two young boys had clambered over at their mother's direction (she wanted a photo of them perched on his back) said people should not climb on the dinosaur, she loudly proclaimed, "They silly! That not right!" while I smiled an "I dare you" look at the shocked photo-Mom. We said hello to the turtles and prairie dogs and frogs, and then just as we reached the parking lot Mom realized we hadn't gotten the photo of Miri with the panda sculpture she had enjoyed posing with so much last year. We asked for directions but the two zoo employees we spoke with didn't seem to really know what we were talking about, so we settled for photos of Miri with a nearby-but-not-quite-as-nice cast metal panda by the gift shop.

Finally, after enjoying some of the ice-cold water in our cooler (much less expensive than similar bottles at the snack bar), we climbed wearily but happily into AJ's van for the ride home while both our folks proclaimed the day had been a wonderful celebration of their long-ago wedding. As expected, the Pipsqueak quickly fell asleep (she barely made it back to the main gate before sawing wood) and I think I may have actually dozed off for a few minutes, myself.  At some point I noticed a change in the decor inside AJ's van, so I took a quick shot of the dashboard... can you tell a little girl travels around in this vehicle?

And that, dear readers, is how we celebrated the Pipsqueak's grandparents' 50-somethingth wedding anniversary on a very hot day this past April.

[1] The FONZ card, separate from the standard Smithsonian membership, indicates you're a Friend Of the National Zoo -- there are enough perks & discounts included that I heartily recommend that anyone in the DC metro area sign up!

[2] We were pleasantly surprised to discover that a parent getting on with a young child will be charged only one entry fee, since it would be unsafe for the child to get on alone.

[3] From the book, The Enormous Egg (Oliver Worth, 1956) -- he used to live on the National Mall in front of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, but was moved to the National Zoo a few years back. The Pipsqueak knows him well because his picture is the desktop background on my laptop.

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