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Category: News

Sometimes It's Easier Just to Love a Doll

I’d say my first true love was my Raggedy Ann doll. In retrospect, the nice thing about falling in love with an inanimate object is that it can’t break your heart. Which is a really good thing, because just about every other true love I can think of in my life involved serious soul-sucking heartbreak, which I really don’t care for. So loving a doll is simply so much easier. The only problem is when your brothers decide to stuff it in the toilet just to be spiteful.

Of course you can’t stay in love with a stuffed doll forever (or if you do, you’re eventually carted off to the psyche ward), so I suppose that was as good a time as any to break it off with Ann, because she was certainly quite raggedy after that episode in the loo anyhow. Or at least irrevocably soiled.

This ushered in my schoolgirl crush phase. My first real crush was this guy with a tangle of blond curls, a smile a mile wide, and a wicked backhand. He came from this sort of shabby chic Nantucket-in-Pittsburgh type of family—the kind that looked as if they just finished a day sail in the Narragansett Bay and were ready for a clambake/badminton game on the beach, one of those beaches for which you need a four-wheel drive and you have to let the air out of the tires and you need a special permit. He was hip before I knew what hip even was. Before I could act on those tugging hormones, however, my best friend went away to summer camp. Same one tennis boy was at. They came back an item, and remained so for, oh, the rest of my school years. Unrequited crush, never had a chance to be first love. That rat.


He looked nothing like this ;-)
He looked nothing like this ;-)



My next first true love was a high school senior when I was a freshman. That was doomed from the get-go. No senior worth his salt is foolish enough to hang back for a simpering girl that much younger. It was fun while it lasted, but onward and upward. I repeated that pattern yet again my sophomore and junior years, so seemed to be the one left behind with tattered heart and tear-stained countenance.

It taught me to be cautious and savvy before getting too torn-up over a guy.

College brought a succession of entirely forgettable guys. One, my freshman year, broke up with me in such a cad-like way that I sought passive-aggressive revenge by strategically positioning his senior class picture (see, my first mistake—there I was dating elders again!) at the center of my dart board. I became quite skilled at darts (see for yourself!).

(good aim, huh?)

Sophomore year some random guy (actually, Random was part of his fraternity nickname) who always had a wad of chew tucked back in his cheek, and forever kept a dining-hall issue coffee cup in which to spit right by the gear shift of his 280-Z. Sharp turns and that nasty mix of tobacco soup would spill all over the car (or its unwitting passenger). Random wasn’t the guy for me.

Junior year? Can’t recall anyone worth mentioning. Except some last-minute formal date named Chip who is lucky I will refrain from elaborating on him, except to tell you that he had two formal dates that night but neglected to mention the other one to me. Disappeared after dinner for 90 minutes to appear at another formal with his other date, thinking I wouldn’t notice him missing. Had I been a malicious person, I might have aimed my darts at him, not his picture. I had thought about whipping together a voodoo doll in his honor.


Trust me, that guy didn't look even remotely as good as Brad here does
Trust me, that guy didn't look anything like Brad Pitt



Senior year I finally ended up dating someone my age. I think for the first time ever. It was a lot of fun and he was a great guy but timing matters and the timing completely wasn’t there. We parted ways when his old girlfriend slithered back into the picture. Had I been able to unearth my dartboard from my boxes of college detritus, I can assure you his picture would have helped me to further hone my dart-throwing skills, but by then I was far too sophisticated for such childish measures. Instead I slunk back home while job-searching and spent my free time—which until then had been devoted to him—in the pursuit of my Jane Fonda Exercise Workout (this back when we had to listen to it on the record player, if you’ll all recall…).

I have to tell you, Jane Fonda will never compare with a flesh-and-blood boyfriend. But she does wonders for whittling away all of that excess beer poundage from college, so to her I owe a debt of gratitude (and to this day I can hear her haunting lilting voice telling me to “feel the burn.”).

Soon after my endless manhunt drew to a close. I ran into this guy I knew in college. One of those guys who always has a girlfriend. Only this time he was girlfriend-less. Perfect timing. But for the niggling little detail that he wanted to go out with my sorority sister.

But I had a few tricks up my sleeve by then. We planned to get together on our own. About ten times. Each time one of us cancelled at the last minute. It didn’t seem destined to much of anything, really, what with our inability to connect in the first place and that propensity to blow each other off at a whim.

But then we went out and had a lot of fun and the next thing you know, we were dating, and then we were dating seriously. And the he got seriously cold feet and tried to break up with me but I told him “no way, dude” and just refused to leave that day. It was a bold move, perhaps a bit foolish, but it worked. A year later we were married, and I can tell you I definitely do not miss those Looking for Mr. Goodbar moments.

Oh, and you remember that tennis boy? The one I never did have my moment in the sun with? Well his brother went off and became some hugely successful movie star and damn, if things had worked out differently, well think of all of those Hollywood premiers I could’ve attended and perhaps rubbed shoulders with George Clooney and who knows, maybe even had my very own Lana Turner Schwab’s Drug Store Moment and, well, okay, this is where my vivid imagination takes over and I guess this is why I’m a fiction writer because I can capitalize on fantasy and run with it and make it something far more interesting than it ever would have been in real life. Narragansett Bay or not.

I've Got the Fever

I grew up in Pennsylvania, where winters tended to hang on like a bad case of pneumonia. When spring finally arrived it seemed to snap rapidly into the summer doldrums, long before we fully got to enjoy that transitional phase.


Bleak enough for you?
Bleak enough for you?



I attended Penn State, and for us students, the true harbinger of springtime was the opening of the Train Yard, a long, narrow, fenced-in outdoor bar that was a sort of backyard extension of a restaurant called the Train Station (late-lamented, as the property on which it sat was sold to a universally-despised Burger King a few years after I graduated). The drink of choice was their trademark Release Valve, accompanied by a basket of gratis beer pretzels (of course anything free to a college student becomes memorable) and the tangy-sweet Herlocher’s mustard (all Penn Staters worth their salt know about this).

The first warm evening beckoned us toward the Train Yard, and the wise student blew off late-day classes, because the Yard would fill to capacity rapidly, leaving hangers on to wait in vain for patrons to leave in order to gain access. College students seldom leave bars before closing, however, so many latecomers were relegated to loser status, just outside of the fence, within tantalizing sight of the bartenders mixing release valves and serving up pitchers of beer with the happy customers reveling in those early spring evenings.

I suppose it was the tug of the memories of spring-time freedom, the yearning for sun-induced warmth, the desperate need to flee the snow, sleet, darkness, term papers, ramen noodles and stale beer that led me to my impulsive and (some would say) insane senior year spring break road trip. This was the year everyone was headed to Florida. Fort Lauderdale, the then-capital of debauchery, the Sodom and Gomorrah of the deep south. Fort Lauderdale was where it was at.

All of my friends were flying down there, but I was broke. Instead, I was doomed to languish in wintry Pittsburgh freezing my butt off amidst the filthy February slush and snow, while suffocating beneath the hostile ambiance created by my warring parents (then teetering on the threshold of divorce). As I was headed to the Greyhound Bus station to purchase my ticket home, I ran into some friends who were brothers in the fraternity in which I was a little sister. They told me they were renting an RV and driving to Lauderdale and invited me to join them. I just had to come up with $20 for gas.

I weighed my options: sun, sand, bikinis and guys. Or tundra-like weather, a week of watching endless re-runs of Leave it to Beaver on TV (to counter the real-life anti-Leave it to Beaver with which I would be living), and absolutely no guys (with the exception of my dog).

I made some calls to friends who told me I was welcome to crash in their hotel room for the week, and suddenly spring had sprung for me, despite it being so cold my breath hung in the air as I talked.

The glowing promise of what-would-be was heavy in the air as the Party Van chugged out of State College: just me and some eight guys (all friends, honest!), headed south or bust. We had several cases of beer along; there was a bathroom on board. What more could we ask for? I soon realized that 24 hours in a van with a bunch of guys is not all it might have been cracked up to. There was a lot of odor involved, for one thing—this happens with guys, beer and burritos. And then there was that niggling problem that those cases of beer that were being consumed were being sucked down in large volume by guys who were then driving this large, unwieldy death trap. And driving really, really fast. So fast that the vehicle lurched from side to side at times. After sleeping for several hours and waking to the wobbling mobile traveling at warp speed along I-95 somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon line, I started to see more charm in that crotchety Greyhound Bus I otherwise would have been riding.

By the time we finally arrived in Fort Lauderdale, I was thrilled to plant my feet on terra firma, and spent a a good part of the week in Florida focusing on my tan and not thinking a whole lot about the gruesome ride home.

However, several days into the trip word got back to me that the Party Van—in which my fellow passengers had been camped out the entire week—was downright condemnable. Apparently they’d neglected to call either a housekeeper or a crime scene clean-up crew in to rid the vehicle of the toxic stech of bodily effluence best left far from one’s olfactory system. I was given fair warning that I’d be better off hitchhiking my way home than riding in that Animal House on wheels.

Yee-Haw! Road trip!
Yee-Haw! Road trip!


I took the warning seriously and booked myself on a flight home, tanned, rested, and mercifully spared the worst half of the road trip, thank goodness. I heard from the guys who had no choice in the matter that it was not a pleasant time.

By the time I graduated from college I knew I had to head south for good. I didn’t have the tolerance for frigid winters and the accompanying endless gloom that pervades the season. I went in search of certainly not endless springtime, but at least an extended one.

And now, as I yearn for those harbingers of spring that we all start to crave, I am reminded that spring might not always keep its promises, but I know at least that she’s more likely to stick around here than anywhere further north once she finally does arrive. And at least here I don’t ever feel a need to flee winter so desperately that I’d do just about anything to escape, like I did those many years before.

I Dreamt of Africa.

Since I was a small child, I yearned to make it to the “dark continent” to see for myself the magic and mystery of such far reaches of the globe. How lucky I was that my brother-in-law got a job many years ago in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (a rather cruelly ironic name, considering how very un-democratic the country is).

My husband and I were newly married. I was working as a photographer in DC. The chance to visit his brother in Zaire was a dream opportunity to combine work and fun: three amazing weeks traipsing about Central and East Africa photographing one of the most gorgeous, heart-stopping areas of the world.

Our first hint at how very different things would be came as we flew over neighboring Cameroon at night. Crossing an entire country, we could see no light, save for sporadic campfires burning in the jungles below. It was shocking to realize how polluted with light our own country actually is when all we saw below was black, broken by the occasional splotch of orange.

Zaire was like something out of a third-world version of a Dickens novel. Destitute citizens cooking over open fires on street corners in the middle of the busy capitol of Kinshasa. Contemporary high rises next to shacks. Paved roads gave way to dirt on a block-by-block basis. The opulence of the chosen few—often adorned in garish jewels and animal fur garments a la the then-leader Mobutu Sese Seko (known to sport leopard skin frequently) while surrounded by incalculable poverty. Public transportation consisted of hangers-on, jumping on and off of any moving vehicle headed in their direction. Often we would see trucks laden with 40 people, holding on for dear life as the vehicle lurched dangerously fast down rutted roadways.

My brother-in-law had a “domestique”—a “houseboy,” if you will. Actually a much older man, father of 10 children. He earned more in a week as a domestique than he could in a year doing much else. Nevertheless it struck me as painfully colonial and inequitable to see this older gentleman hunched over scrubbing the bird cage, or ironing all of our clothes (including our underwear!). I chastised my brother-in-law for this. But then I learned that the man ironed even our socks for good reason: when hung out to dry, certain insects leave behind larvae which, if given the chance, will embed in one’s skin and hatch subcutaneously, a la the movie Aliens. Blech. I immediately stopped complaining that the poor man had to do all that busy-work, and happily let him iron (and melt!) my undies.

All development, along with any hint of modernity, halted within miles of the city limits. From there out, Zaire was left to revert to its wild inclination. The roads bore deep, thigh-high gashes (like in this linked picture, minus the water!) from water run-off during the rainy season. Our four-wheel drive jostled to and fro as if we were in a blender, and made even the heartiest of us nauseous.

Occasionally we would happen upon a village. Our first encounter was memorable, as we pulled out our camcorder and videotaped the villagers, then played it back in the eyepiece for them to see. They were stunned to see such a remarkable thing. We shared our food with them, passing out Oreos to the greedy crowd, the men—till then busy getting drunk on banana beer beneath a palm tree—forcing children out of the way in a selfish food grab. It was so sweet to see the small children unscrewing the cookie to eat the white icing middle first! It was equally heartbreaking to witness so many small children with distended bellies, flies swarming their famine-bloated heads, a baby draped across their back, knowing we carried food enough in our truck to feed them for a month.

We came upon a massive waterfall, Zongo Falls (thanks to whomever shot these pictures; mine are buried in photo albums). Unlike the controlled tourism in the “civilized” world, there were no rules, no signs, nothing to prevent us from exploring wherever we wanted. To my chagrin the guys wanted to walk out on the rocks to the crest of the waterfall. We sat on the edge of the waterfall, the mist so heavy in the air we were drenched, the water raging on all sides of us, and even in the middle of the water-worn rock upon which we were sitting. We drank our litre-sized bottles of beer (in the same bottles we saw constantly used to transport motor oil, gasoline, and all sorts of other untoward substances during our trip) right on the edge of this. Terrifying, yes. Exhilarating? You bet. Would I do it now? Not in a million years!

We had to catch a flight to the far eastern part of the country. Only problem? One flight per week. With a dictator who tends to divert the plane for his personal whims. So while you can book a flight and pay for a seat, neither is guaranteed. We gushed sweat in an airless, sweltering airport terminal for hours awaiting the ostensibly scheduled flight. When wise-eyed watchers saw it arrive, the crowd broke out into a mass exodus to the tarmac: first on board gets to go, regardless of who paid. The flight was—I kid you not—standing room only. Far more airless and far more sweltering, the plane was a mishmash of discarded spare parts from the many gutted airplanes whose cadavers littered the sides of the runway. If ever there was a moment in which prayer seemed the obvious answer, that was it. Nevertheless, the flight attendants handed out a bottle of warm orange Fanta, a straw and a stale role to all passengers, standing or sitting. By the way, those standing? In the suffocating heat? In a country in which deodorant is not even in the vocabulary? And me, with the olfactory system that can detect leaking gas? Needless to say it was a long flight.

Also in Zaire, we hiked a volcano that had erupted only 3 months earlier. the volcanic ash and rock were so hot that it melted the soles of our REI hiking boots. Nevertheless, our tour guide hiked it barefoot, over volcanic rock as sharp and jagged as broken glass. We climbed through the fine volcanic sand, slipping backwards twenty steps for every ten steps forward, all the way to the caldera of the volcano. It was amazing. Although the sulfurous gases were enough to practically make our lungs bleed.

One of the high points of this trip was our gorilla trek. We were not guaranteed sighting lowland gorillas on our trek. We were warned it could be 6 hours of hiking mountainous jungle terrain for naught. But we had savvy guides who tracked gorilla scat, machete’ing our way through jungle terrain for a mere 45 minutes before spotting baby gorillas defying all laws of gravity on precariously weak-looking limbs high atop the tree canopy. We soon found the silverback and followed him for about 45 minutes as he meandered through the jungle munching greens. Eventually he grew weary of his company, however, and with a powerful series of tattoo thumps across his chest, he bared his vicious teeth, roared, charged us, and we all fell into submissive pose so that we didn’t become victims of a tetchy gorilla. And got it all on tape. Including the nervous laughter after our silence deadened the air around us when he charged our group.


The area in which we trekked the gorillas is some of the country’s richest, as far as mineral wealth, volcanic soil rich in nutrients for crops, and such. The people were kind, gentle, poor but generous. A horribly oppressed population then, they were not at all fearsome. We flew a 6-seater prop plane across Lake Kivu, landing in a field filled with men wielding machetes. We did not feel threatened. A few short years later, those very same men were using those machetes against one another, and continue to do so today. The gorilla population has been nearly decimated. The horrific Rwandan civil war spilled over the boundaries into Zaire, already in turmoil due to a civil war following the deposition of Mobutu. And still today, this country is wracked by violence and ongoing war, a beautiful country peopled with wonderful, resilient people, unable to extricate themselves from the hatred that binds them to the way of life there.

We had to hitch rides from Zaire to the Rwandan capital of Kigali. We were so amazed to see the modernization of Rwanda, credited to massive infusions of Chinese cash, back in the 80’s. Of course much of this was subsequently destroyed in their civil war. But at the time, Rwanda was downright first world. Schoolchildren with shorn heads in plaid uniforms, prisoners in pink pajamas working road crew detail. An airport that—from outward appearances—could have filled in for any airport in the States. Until we realized that the x-ray machine may well have x-rayed the contents of people’s bags, but the security attendants didn’t actually have screens with which to view things. We were somewhat sobered to see our pilot who flew us in that treacherous lake-crossing in the 6-seater, working as a baggage checker at this airport. Evidently he was moonlighting in one of those jobs!

Africa had much more in store for us. The very hairy spider the size of my spread hand on my cot as I unpacked my suitcase in the rustic tent in which we were to spend one night in Tanzania. The sporadic supplies of water, electricity. The foul-tasting zebra meat, the meal du jour at the Tanzanian government lodge atop the exquisite Ngorogoro Crater. Baby rhinos, frolicking young elephants, playfully tugging on trunks, sneaky leopards, graceful cheetahs, lions happily devouring a zebra.

There was the luxury tented safari in the Masai Mara in Kenya. Guarded fireside at night by a rifle-toting Kikuyu guide, I naively thought he was there was to keep wayward four-legged aggressors at bay. My husband kindly waited until we were on the flight home to tell me the rifle-toting guard was there to keep the two-legged marauding bandits from holding guests hostage, leaving them abandoned in the savannah, as had evidently become commonplace.

The good thing for a worrier like me is I spent much of that trip cloaked in blissful ignorance. What I didn’t know didn’t exactly hurt me.

Africa gets in your blood. It’s like no place else in the world. It’s a continent vastly different now, alas, than it was when we went there. The devastation of AIDs has changed the face of the many diverse countries. As has continued strife and warfare, both tribal and country to country. It’s a land of contradictions: extreme beauty living alongside unimaginable squalor. Primitive yet contemporary. And everywhere that seems as if it’s catching up to the modern world, you’re also left with the sense that it’s a hairsbreadth away from decimation.

I would love to return to Africa. To show our kids the wonders of this great continent. So that they can see how much is out there that they cannot really imagine. And to enhance their appreciation for the many riches in their own lives.

I’d love to offer up a few recommendations of books that will take you to Africa, even if you don’t have the luxury of making the trip yourself. My all-time favorite is Elspeth Huxley’s THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA. It’s a beautifully-written memoir of a girl growing up in pre- and post-colonial Kenya. Alexandra Fuller’s DON’T LET’S GO TO THE DOGS TONIGHT is a heartbreaking yet compelling tale of a highly dysfunctional ex-patriot British family trying to make their way in Rhodesia as civil war unfolds. Barbara Kingsolver masterfully captured Zaire on the cusp of independence in THE POISONWOOD BIBLE.