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Category: Sleeping with Ward Cleaver

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.

Let's Make a Deal!

My girlfriend calls my purse the Let’s Make a Deal purse. Remember that game show? Host Monty Hall would go into the audience filled with people dressed in ridiculous costumes like life-size lobsters and gigantic fuzzy dice and lugging enormous bags full of nonsense, and ask for the most unlikely item. Invariably at least one woman would have it along: the tube sock, the box of Creamettes macaroni and cheese, a jock strap. That woman would have been me.

Purses and me have a long and tortured history. I take my crap-toting very seriously, and over time, as I went from single to married to momdom, my purse-content hauling has ebbed and flowed with the years and demands of life. There were times when my shoulders were slumped from the weight of my purse like a deeply discouraged human being in line at the soup kitchen. And other times when life’s burdens seemed to lift from my very shoulders with the elimination of the vast stash of junk I ditched from my pocketbook. Although really, let’s be honest. The word “pocketbook” suggests petite, and rarely has petite been in the vocabulary of my purse world.

I’ll tell you a great one, one of my purse-hauling high points (well, really, a low point), from back in my single-but-seriously-dating phase. Wayyyy long ago. Standing in line with my teensy-weensy single girl purse at this totally hip-happenin’ Georgetown bar. Had to rifle through the mini-sack to find my i.d. And while I rifled, what falls out onto the ground, in front of the bouncer, the boyfriend, the line of desperate bar-goers (oh, and Val Plame. Remember her? Spy girl? I knew her from college and she happened to be in line behind me that night at the bar)? The Sponge.

Yes, one of those less-than shining moments in life, when it seems as if everything freezes in place but for you. Everyone is looking at you, at your ever-so-sad contraceptive of the 80’s, there, front and center on the cigarette-butt-strewn-discarded-chewing-gum-encrusted pavement, symbolic of nights past at that very bar, no doubt, and evidence of intent for all to see. Thank goodness for low illumination inside bars, as I was able to slink away into the cavernous darkness once past the chuckling bouncer without too much permanent destruction of my pristine reputation, able to mercifully hide my beet-red countenance like a slug hiding beneath a rock.

Alas, soon enough, my Sponge days were replaced with diapers, wipes, ointment, goldfish, animal crackers, juice boxes, baby food and masking tape (no, not to tape over their mouths; masking tape is the best-kept secret of moms the world-over: give your kids some masking tape and all is right with the world): The ingredients of the mom-purse. Eventually, liberation came. Three kids, diaper free. No more needing to lug the necessities. I saw my purse as a statement of my life and chose to schlep around as little as humanly possible. It lasted for a few humble months. My mini-purses groaned at the snaps and popped open at inopportune moments, spilling the modest contents (mercifully Sponge-free, however). Soon I realized I needed to size up my purse, especially with the onset of the electronics era: cell phones, iPods, Palm Pilots and the like. I’d taken the extreme approach and it was indeed most impractical. Hence I started increasing my purse size, bit by bit, as I added electronic paraphernalia. And then one day I realized my purse had taken over. Nearly as large as it was when it served as diaper bag-cum-survival satchel. Only now it’s all full of my what-ifs. What if I need a book to read? What if I am stuck shopping at the grocery store and can’t stand the Muzak and absolutely have to listen to that new song by Cake on my iPod? What if I’m exposed to the sun for too long and need that SPF 45 lip balm? What if I’m suddenly thrust into a book store at which my book is in stock and I simply have to sign book stock? And certainly, I have to have the hot-pink sharpie marker. The “signed by author” sticker. The Sleeping with Ward Cleaver book marks: all accoutrements of one’s booksigning venture. Yep, it’s all in there. And then some.

The biggest problem is that my current purse is a disastrous compartment-free monstrosity that is a famished creature ingesting whatever goes in, never to be seen again. When I need to find my phone, my keys, all of those necessities of life? Nada. I dig and dig and curse and dig and eventually, sure, I find the stuff. But often it’s stuck onto a piece of overheated chewing gum that has dislodged from its secure wrapper. It’s tangled in the cord from that unravelled tampon. It’s hidden beneath the tissue I cried into at my son’s graduation.

Nothing is ever where I put it and is always where I least expect it. Truth is, there’s not a purse in existence with enough compartments to contain my disorganization. But a few pockets would provide needed salvation. And once I get past this writing career, I’m fixing to venture into functional pocketbook design (note, I didn’t say purse. I’m aiming for reasonable sizing). I know I’m not the only gal out there frustrated with the lack of managerial-orientated purses. This, of course, is on my to-do list. Right after I finish my WIP. And revisions, and the seven freelance deadlines. And that screenplay I was gonna work on. And then once the house gets cleaned, the dishes washed, the laundry done. You get the idea. Until then, here’s what I deal with. It’s not a pretty sight. It’s frustrating and non-functional. But I have to admit, the leather is really soft and that’s a big plus. What can I say? I’m a tactile kinda gal.

Okay, so here’s a run-down of my purse contents (and forgive the spacing as I can’t get it single-spaced!):

•cell phone 

•key chain (pared down from about 15 unidentifiable keys to about 3)

•a DVD of Sicily (need to return to my Italian teacher)

•a copy of Sleeping with Ward Cleaver (you never know when you’ll need it!)

•The book I’m reading

•The book I’ll read after I finish the book I’m reading

•Save the Cat, a fabulous book on screenwriting


•business cards

•tampons (I think there are about 12 in various states of undress)

•chewing gum (probably 3 packs, in various states of undress as well)

•lip stick (3)

•lip gloss (2)

•tissues (probably 7 or 8, used and unused, but all fuzzy with wear and tear)

•the tattered ziploc bag full of discount cards (you know, buy 10 •cappuccinos and get one free, that sort of nonsense)

•pens, pens and more pens

•my book-signing stash (sharpie, etc)

•tic tacs (at least 3 half-empty containers, all missing in the bowels of the bag)



•Mojo sweet and salty trail mix bar, crushed beyond recognition

•reading glasses (and accompanying bulky case)

•sunglasses (and accompanying bulky case)

•Altoids raspberry sours (way better than cough drops)

•post-it notes

•credit card receipts, mostly for gas

•emery boards (3)



•Mojo peanut butter and pretzel bar, looks as if run over by 18-•wheeler on very hot pavement

•sewing project (needed to get supplies next time I’m near fabric store)

•notes, notes of notes, and yet more notes

•to-do lists

•one very fat overstuffed wallet (stuffed with pictures, receipts and nonsense, never any money)

Seeing, my friends, is believing:

I do hope you’ve enjoyed this sad little moment of disorganization at its finest. If only you could send <em>your</em> purse pictures for <em>me</em> to laugh at!