Wednesday, August 11, 2010
Flowing deep through the heart of Africa lies one of nature’s most dangerous predators. Snaking northward, she innocently maneuvers her way through the brilliant green brush and sun-soaked sand dunes, scouring quietly for prey. She camouflages herself as the lifeline to civilization, but those who reside along her banks know her true wrath.
One spring day, six thrill-seeking American college girls set out to tame her. Girded with only helmets and life vests, they climbed aboard the “Uganda Matayo” for the adventure of a lifetime—eight hours of utter terror, fifteen miles of crocodile infestation, and one rookie South African river guide named Elsa. It was 2003; I was twenty years old, and I was one of those thrill seekers.
Our journey started long before we caught a glimpse of the world’s longest waterway. Thirty-six hours prior to push-off from the banks of the Nile, we caught a bus in downtown Nairobi and ventured twelve hours across the Kenyan-Ugandan border to Kampala.
I had been in Kenya for three months as part of study abroad program with my university, and it had been the longest three months of my life. I was looking forward to a break from roommates who didn’t speak my language and food that didn’t settle right in my stomach. The six of us—Jen, Whitney, Sarah, Darya, Suzi, and I—had been planning this trip for weeks. A night in a hostel in a country far from my spider-infested, cobra-nested dorm room sounded like a vacation in the south of France.
I’m usually nervous when I travel, whether traipsing across town to Grandma’s house or trekking thousands of miles away to Africa. There is no real reason behind this fear. I haven’t lost a loved in a car wreck or witnessed a plane crash. I have no reason to think I may ever go up in a ball of flames. As irrational as it may sound, I constantly fear violent death. And this weekend getaway was no different. For weeks I had nightmares that my bus would crash somewhere out in the brown bush of Western Kenya, and I would be shipped home in a body bag without telling my parents I loved them one last time. Morbid—I know. But if I trusted every time my stomach turned at the thought of adventure, I would still be on 81st Avenue Circle in Omaha, sitting in my old purple bedroom.
Ignoring the knot working its way through the twists and turns of my digestive tract, I boarded the Eldoret Express Bus bound for Kampala. It smelled like Grandma’s bathroom after Uncle Jim used it, and the hours passed like a bad sermon on an empty stomach.
“Can you believe we’re really going to do this?” I said turning to Jen sitting in the seat next to me.
“If only the girls could see us now.” Jen and I had lived on the same hall at our small liberal arts college in Kentucky for the past two years. We signed up for the study abroad together, had our going away party together, and now were about to ride the Nile together. We both took a couple Tylenol PM and fell asleep.
When dawn appeared, the plush jungles were the first sign we were far from drought-ridden Kenya, far from the familiar wasteland, far from the comfort of what we knew. An hour after crossing the boarder into Uganda, the bus pulled over to what appeared to be roadside vegetable stands. As quickly as we stopped, men, women, and children swarmed the window holding up mini bananas, grilled chicken on wooden sticks, and bottles of water.
“Can you believe this!” Suzi said as she reached for Kenyan shillings, hoping to buy some bananas.
“I’ll take the chicken,” I shouted to a woman with a basket of fruit resting on her head and a handful of poultry gripped firmly in her palm.
When we finally arrived at the Blue Mango Hotel, we spent the day getting settled in a room that consisted of twelve bunk beds made of thin metal rods and inch-thick mattresses. To add to the atmosphere, there was a hole in the ground in the corner of the room for a toilet. The exhaustion from the overnight journey hindered any reluctance to pass out for hours on the bottom bunk of a bed in the corner of our five-dollar-a-night hotel accommodations. After a quick dinner at the hotel bar, we all climbed in our sleeping bags and anxiously awaited the alarm clock to ring six a.m.
The next day, we loaded the bus and sat in the back with our metaphorical war faces painted on.
“I think I’m going to do the bungee jumping-rafting combo,” Suzi said.
“This is going to be awesome,” Whitney said.
“Yeah, can’t believe the guys weren’t brave enough to come. Who needs ‘em?” I said coughing at the end of my sentence, trying to hide my trembling voice.
We marched in rhythm toward the mucky waters, glancing down over the red banks of the river. Something about that rushing water didn’t look quite as peaceful as I pictured back in Sunday school with baby Moses floating gracefully in a basket made of reeds. And something inside me, probably the bad goat I ate the night before, tempted me to back out. The closer I got to the river, the more my heart pounded. I wanted to break free from the single-file line on the jungle path leading us to the rafts and run as far as I could. Nevertheless, I kept in beat for fear of being viewed as weak or being eaten by wild cats if I escaped into the tropical abyss. We made our way to the raft, climbed in, and began to float downstream.
“We don’t have a rapid for a while. Feel free to get in the water,” Elsa, our river guide, encouraged us. She had just moved to Uganda from South Africa for the job the week before and had only run this river once.
“You don’t even have to swim. The river will pull you.”
I thought about her words as I jumped in. The pull of the river. The idea of moving without moving myself—placing my trust in something unsure, unseen.
I took off my life jacket and swam as fast and as hard as I could. And when I had exhausted by muscles, I rolled over on my back and let the river pull me.
Just as I started to relax and float peacefully, I heard Elsa shouting.
“Quick, back to the raft, there are crocs over there.” Who knew if she was telling the truth, but it sure got me swimming.
“Jesus save me,” I yelled as I flailed my arms and kicked my legs.
“Jesus can’t save you now,” Darya responded jokingly from the safety of the raft. Crocodiles and hippopotamuses are killers in these waters. I wasn’t taking any chances.
When the white-water rapids began, they hit us hard and fast.
“Paddle, paddle, paddle!” Elsa demanded. “PULL IN!”
In one fluid movement we all pulled in our paddles, tucked our bodies and hid at the base of the raft, holding onto the rope that outlined the air-filled inner tube.
“Paddle, paddle, paddle!” she shouted again. “PULL IN!”
“Elsa, make the water stop,” Jen pleaded.
One rapid after another, the bumpy waters threatened to fold us up and to suck us under. We refused to surrender.
In the minutes between each rapid, we talked about our trivial lives, about boys and jobs and life after Kenya. All I could think about was the safety boat one older woman chose to take down the river instead of fighting the rapids—why hadn’t I chosen the easy way out? Just when I started to let my fear of falling out get the best of me, Elsa would tell us to paddle again.
After seven and a half grueling hours of adventure under the equatorial sun, I looked ahead and comforted my raft mates. The end was in sight. Only, I had spoken too soon. As we rounded a bend, Elsa’s face went sheepishly pale.
“Listen closely,” she told us. “In about one hundred yards we are going to encounter a waterfall. And when I say so, you must paddle with everything you have left. It’s a twenty-foot drop with rocks at the bottom,” she paused and regarded us seriously. “You keep going until we’re over it, and if we’re lucky, most of us will make it.”
Our laughter subsided and our eyes anxiously peered ahead. We sat in silence, except for someone randomly whispering an expletive under her breath. Elsa was serious, and we were in trouble. I made it this far and now you’re going to tell me I’m a dead woman!
Paddle. Paddle. Paddle. The rhythm of each stroke thrust the seven-passenger raft down the rushing river. The intensity of our team to survive the churning waters bound us together like soldiers at war. Paddle. Paddle. Paddle. In perfect unity, we approached our giant. “Get down!” Elsa yelled. And with that command we pulled in our paddles, grabbed the rope, closed our eyes and prayed for mercy. Suddenly the slippery raft came to an unexpected halt. Confused, all seven heads lifted. As we peered over the edge, we froze in terror. We were stuck on the cusp of the fall. Half of the raft was ready to be swallowed by the whitewater below; the other was still holding on to dear life. No one moved. No one spoke. The only sounds were the rapids gushing through the jagged rocks under us as we hung in the void between life and death. Elsa hollered to us again, “We’re going to have to jump up and down.” Was she crazy? If the choice was either to stay on this unstable pillar for the rest of our lives or rock the raft back and forth by jumping, I voted stay. “Jump up and down,” she yelled again. With trepidation in her voice, she said, “On three.”
“One.” Why did I ever agree to this? This wasn’t in the plan. I knew from the start this was a bad idea. This river is too big.
“Two.” No. I’m too scared. I’d rather stay put and watch everyone else take the plunge.
“Three.” Oh crap, I’m going to die.
And with that, we jumped up and down. Again and again. Finally, I felt a budge. The raft turned, and in a Michael “Air” Jordan move, we flew through the sky, raft and all. Water sprayed like a fountain around us, and we were tossed like popcorn. After a final thud, our raft stopped, and we soberly opened our eyes to see if any of us had succumbed to the pull of the fall. We were at the bottom of this aquatic beast. We had conquered Africa’s fury, and not one person fell out of the boat.
When we reached the end, I climbed out of the muddy river and felt the earth’s black goo squish through my toes. I hiked the steep pathway away from the water as native children ran to offer their toting services. At the top, I turned and saw her, the Nile, in all of her glory. The river’s current looked deceptively peaceful hundreds of yards away. In hindsight, it always does. The only trace of struggle was the pain in my body. But I knew that pain breeds strength, and not just surface strength, but strength deep down in the soul. For those few hours, the river had held my life as if she had a message for me. Through the twists and turns, the rapids and the rocks, the river had led me. The river had terrified me. And the river had brought me safely back to her banks where I could stand on my own two feet. There, at the finish line of a conquered fear, the river had taught me something. The river taught me to let go.
Monday, August 2, 2010
Disclaimer: I've had several people ask to read my Match.com article from my grad school thesis. HERE IT IS. But- it's long. So, grab some coffee, sit back, and don't judge my love life. One of these days... Mr. Right will be Mr. Right Now.
I didn’t get my first real kiss until my twenty-fourth birthday. I know—you can lift your jaw up off the floor. Trust me, I didn’t plan it this way. I’m not a part of some strange religious cult where the men and women aren’t allowed to see, let alone touch, each other until the wedding day, nor did I convert to the Shaker faith, a culture that died out many years ago because they didn’t believe in sex. I just was never kissed. To be honest, I never had a boyfriend, and, to be quite honest, I never really dated. I blame it on my mother, clichéd as it may sound. Throughout my entire childhood she prayed that God would “put blinders on every guy's eyes except my husband's.” After not getting asked to four homecoming dances in a row, I politely told her she had to stop praying. It was totally hindering my game.
I shouldn’t blame it all on my mother. There was one time a few years ago a good friend from college started calling me daily. Although he lived four hours away from me , I thought I would give him a chance. If my mom's prayers were working, this guy may have been my husband. So I made the trip for the weekend. We had a great time, no thanks to my mom suggesting I get a hotel because it just wasn’t appropriate to sleep in the same apartment together. But, being kissless at twenty-two, I felt pretty safe that there would be no hanky-panky going on.
We had come in late Saturday night after he had taken me to dinner and showed me around his city. Standing in his living room, he helped me take off my jacket, and then he pulled me into his arms. I remember thinking how nice it felt. A man had never really held me that way before. I hadn't ever felt that a guy wanted to be more than just my friend. I looked up at him. He looked down at me. Our eyes locked. The moment had come—my first real kiss. And as he leaned down, our lips drawing ever nearer, I did what any logical twenty-two-year-old lip virgin would do. I slapped him.
I’m not sure why I did it. I just knew that, if I had waited this long, I wasn’t going to waste my first kiss standing in some guy's living room. It would be special.
Oh, and special it was. His name was Victor, and he was the heartthrob of our Lexington newsroom. For my twenty-fourth birthday, he took me to see the Holiday Lights at the Kentucky Horse Park. It was not only beautiful but also romantic. Afterward, as we drove back to his place, I couldn’t help but smile at the thought of a goodnight kiss. We got out of the car and walked to the side of his house, and there, next to the trashcans, he kissed me. Okay, so maybe that living room smooch with the old college friend would have been a little less smelly, but this kiss was perfect. I then called every person I ever knew to tell them my lips were virgin no more.
That kiss gave me the boost of confidence I needed to accelerate my dating life into full speed. I moved to Washington, DC a month later, and, in my first few months of living in the city, I went out with a slew of characters that I affectionately referred to by code name. There was the surgeon, the married guy, who I didn’t know was married until three hours before our first date, and the meteorologist. Then there were Blind-Date Doug, the pilot, the creepy waiter from Chadwick’s whose name I still can’t remember, the sports reporter, the airplane guy, and button boy. But none of these guys ever came close to my standards.
Since middle school, I've been keeping a list of qualifications I want in a husband. Call me old-fashioned, but I'm not in the business of dating just to date. I have always gone out with guys because I hope there is potential for more: a deeper friendship that leads to romance that leads to love and eventually to marriage. Isn't that what every girl wants in the end anyway?
At the top of my list is a Christian. He's got to love to travel, have ambition, love kids, and love my dog. I want him to be successful yet still support my dreams and success, too. I would like him to be between five foot nine and six foot two, be okay with popcorn for dinner when I don’t feel like cooking, and be able to hold his own in a room full of strangers without needing me by his side. He's got to make me laugh, and he’s got to pursue me. None of this girl-calling-guy business; if he wants me, he has to do the work.
I go in spurts with dating—you know, the ol’ when it rains it pours mentality. Recently, I found myself in a precarious situation. A friend from work decided that I should meet her boyfriend’s brother. She said he was about my age, really cute, and a really nice guy. I thought, what would it hurt? Maybe he would be just what I needed, a fun-loving guy with passion for life and a passion for me. She passed along my picture to him and his picture to me. He was tall and blond, with a baby face and a great smile. Cute enough, I remember thinking.
Our first date was on a Wednesday. He took me out for sushi and ordered us a bottle of wine. He was funny, and our conversation was flawless. The night ended with a kiss, and I think I had “a little thing” for my coworker’s boyfriend's brother. We talked the next two nights, and by Saturday I was meeting his friends.
At the end of our first week of dating, we were watching television and eating carryout when it all went south. Fast. We started talking about prior relationships or, in my case, lack thereof. And it eventually came to the topic of sex. I may kiss on the first date, but I am not one to get physical fast. I was ONE WEEK into seeing this guy and we were already talking sex. This was not where I wanted to be and not what I wanted to be talking about. We should have been talking about family and growing up and past pets. Instead, I felt he was pressuring me into when I would “give it up.” When I ended the night early, he said he would “call tomorrow.” I never heard from him.
Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo’s book, He’s Just Not That Into You, has become gospel to me. In fact, I go through its chapter checklist with every “potential” I give my number to.
Is he calling me?
Is he asking me out?
And my favorite: is he a selfish jerk, a bully, or a really big freak?
For too long I’ve made excuses for guys I’ve been into, including the bozo who stopped seeing me because I wouldn’t sleep with him on day number seven of knowing him. It’s not that I’m scared of relationships. It’s that I have certain standards that I set for myself on the basis of my own moral convictions, and I refuse to compromise. I’m not going to continue a relationship if a guy has different morals or different beliefs, and I’m not going to have sex after knowing someone a week. If only finding that perfect match were that easy. I’m tired of landing the wrong ones—the ones that talk too much, or don’t ask enough questions. They’re either too tall, too short, too insecure, or too confident. Am I just too picky? Maybe it’s time for a new approach, time for me to cast a wider net.
I spend my Sunday afternoons watching “Lifetime Originals,” the four-and-a-half-hour, made-for-TV movies about battered women and sex scandals starring Valerie Bertinelli. The movie is usually followed by another four-and-a-half-hour sequel on how Valerie found love after some sort of cataclysmic loss. I love them. Last Sunday, I made myself a turkey sandwich, sat down on the couch, and turned on the television. About two minutes into the saga of a young dancer stalked by her dance instructor, there was a commercial break. Irritated and reaching for the remote, I paused for an online dating commercial. It was the one for Chemistry.com where the girl says, “I promise to never wear a flannel nightgown,” and the guy looks at her and says, “How about you just vow to never wear a nightgown?” She gives him a little smile, and then they give you some cheesy line about how looking is free. I’ve seen that spot a hundred times; it must be working because I can’t stop watching it. Maybe it’s the sincerity and love in their voices, or maybe it’s because they are offering that same hope to me, too. I promise to never wear a flannel nightgown too, I always think, tearing up and pulling my dog a little closer.
After this umpteenth viewing, I logged onto Match.com. (I always thought Chemistry was for old, bald men.) If I needed a new approach to dating, this might just be it. I’ve had many friends try Internet dating like Match, Chemistry, and eHarmony, and I’ve even logged on a few times myself. I just wonder what it says about me if I can’t find someone the old-fashioned way.
As the computer screen in front of me transformed from my home screen to Match.com, I made a decision. I wasn’t just going to window shop. This time, I would commit. Thirty days, I told myself. I will give this online dating thing thirty days.
Once I had made the decision to stick with it, I pulled out my credit card and paid the $34.99 plus tax. $34.99 plus tax to meet men! I closed my eyes, shook my head, and prayed to God I wasn’t making the biggest mistake of my life.
Your first rite of passage after selling yourself to an Internet dating service is to fill out a personal profile, and right from the get-go they suck you in.
“Welcome to our community,” the site says. “What brings you here today?”
Community? As in cult or some strange Trekkie convention? Don’t think twice, Seaton, I said to myself. Keep going. I answered all the basics like my height, relationship status, body type, and the age of the guy I’m hoping to meet. Then the hard part began.
“What do you do for fun?” the computer screen reads.
Remember the first day of school growing up when you had to go around the classroom say your name and a factoid about yourself, like your favorite movie? I was terrible at that. When the teacher called on me, I always froze, unable to remember one movie I had ever seen—one movie ever made. Even now, I can’t come up with one. I’m terrible under pressure. What do I like to do for fun?
This is what I wrote:
“Ha. Fun?” Do grad students have fun? A good glass of wine on the weekends with friends. A beer and burger while watching college football. Being outside. Playing with my dog. Road trips to catch up with good friends. Exploring D.C.”
There, that wasn’t too difficult. What’s next? Bring it on Match.com. Favorite local hotspots? Check. Favorite travel destinations? Easy. Last book read? Is that all you’ve got? I was on a roll and darn proud of my wit. I spent the next hour answering every question anyone would ever want to know since my birth. By the time I finally finished my profile, I was ready for a nap—or to rewind that Lifetime Original and watch if the dance instructor ever had his way with his pupil.
I had barely pushed submit when the winks started flooding in.
“WSUSUPERFAN has winked at you.”
“PSUS48 has winked at you.”
“TXBOYINDC has winked at you.”
“LOOKIN4LOVENOVA has emailed you.”
“PEZZCLOWN would like to IM you.”
“Would you like to IM with PEZZCLOWN?”
Whoa Match.com. Slow down. What is a wink, and why are all these people batting their eyes at me?
There are all these understood rules about online dating. Match is no exception. It’s not like your grandparents' dating game where you wait for the guy to make the first move. In Match, you have to be aggressive. Half the guys look like they’re twelve, and the other half look like they still live with their mothers. There really are only a handful of normal men on the site, and you’ve got to have cheetah-like reflexes to be noticed. I learned that a wink meant you were interested. If you winked back, you might get an email, beginning the first round of cat-and-mouse.
With Operation Match.com in full swing, I decided I needed to go shopping: new jeans, new top, new heels, new bra. (Not that I planned on showing off this new bra, but something about a new bra gives a girl extra lift and, in my opinion, extra confidence.)
I came home to start my search for Mr. Right and found a wink and an email from a guy named SoulRock. His profile showed no picture, but it said he was thirty-four and an executive. At twenty-six, he was pushing my limit. Ah, what the heck, I thought. I opened his email and found several pictures. Not bad looking. Shorter than I would like, but he was definitely in the running for a possible face-to-face date. He seemed a little exotic with dark brown hair and dark eyes. Very Rico Suave-esque. I had some actual work to get done and didn’t have time to respond right then. As I shut my computer, I noticed another Match email pop up on my Blackberry. This one again from SoulRock.
“I know you saw my pictures, Sarah. Why aren’t you writing me back?”
What the heck! Is this guy stalking me? I soon learned that on Match you can pay for a feature to find out if your emails have been read. I decided not to write him an “I’m not interested, but best of luck” email and just ignored it. Twelve hours later, I had two more emails from SoulRock in my inbox, both equally as indignant. Why wouldn’t this guy just leave me alone? Doesn’t he realize, if I were interested, I would write him back?
I had had it. Three emails. Two winks. All in twenty-four hours. Something needed to be done. Subtlety was not an option.
“Dear SoulRock,” I typed angrily. “I’m sorry if I offended you.” Why was I apologizing to this inpatient jerk? “But, I work full-time and am in grad school full-time, and had a twenty-five-page paper due this week. And, I had a family crisis that I had to take care of long distance, as well as some friends in town for a few days. So, I’m sorry that I didn’t get back to you when you would have liked. Actually, I’m not interested, but, even if I was, your pushiness is a big turn-off, and I think you’re a little rude. May want to tone it down in the future.”
Wow. That felt good. Then I went to the bottom of the page and pressed “Block User.” Whew. With one stalker down, I had just twenty-six winks and five emails to weed through. Time to get serious. Besides, I was getting hungry.
I met Bobcat at a local Asian restaurant. We decided to meet over lunch because our evening schedules weren’t clicking. I was excited to meet this potential match. Although I didn’t find him extremely attractive from his profile picture, his work as a lobbyist struck me as ambitious and smart. Because I have a habit of being chronically early to everything, it was no surprise to me that I beat him to the table. Soon I found myself questioning every man who walked in the door. I had this fear that the online picture would look nothing like him. In real life, Bobcat would have an extra arm or a three-foot Mohawk and be completely unattractive to me, and I would have to sneak out of the place inconspicuously.
Bobcat looked exactly like his picture, and he showed up exactly at noon. Despite his tall, buttoned-up appearance, the attraction just wasn’t there. I worked hard to brush off my initial impression because his sense of adventure intrigued me. In our emails, he talked about climbing Kilimanjaro, visiting the Taj Mahal, and traveling around the country talking to lawmakers about issues close to his heart. The passion behind his words attracted me. I hoped the face-to-face interaction would be just as interesting. I was wrong. He spent the entire time talking about growing up as an only child and what his mom was up to these days. I wondered just how fast I could eat my chicken Pad Thai and get back to the office. Maybe he was thinking the same thing.
He hugged me goodbye and said he would call. I smiled graciously and thanked him for the meal. It took two days before he called to ask me out again. After some friendly banter, I told him it wasn’t going to work.
The month continued on with dinner dates, coffee dates, lunch dates, and phone dates. I met all sorts of men from grad students to accountants. From bushy brows to egotistical executives. Some were the age of my dad; some were barely out of college.
I ended my month on Match sitting alone on my couch, watching Lifetime with my dog at my side. Perusing through the hundreds of men available in my part of town, I entertained the option of one more month. Maybe Mister Right just hadn’t logged on. Maybe Mister Right is filling out his profile right now. With thirty minutes left as an official Match.com member, I clicked on “Account Settings” and scrolled down to “Cancel My Subscription.” I felt like I was a click away from canceling my shot at love, a click away from being marked single for life. And with a click, I was done.
Elle Magazine advice columnist E. Jean Carroll wrote a book entitled Mr. Right: Right Now, in which she promises to land smart women the men of their dreams in six weeks. Match.com guarantees someone great in six months. Even comedian Steve Harvey claims to be an expert and says, “give the man what the man needs and he’s yours.” Then, there’s the He’s Just Not That Into You theory, and shoot, while we’re at it, my high school history teacher has a theory too: whoever shows the least interest in the relationship controls it.
In the age of self-help books and mail-order brides, voices from every direction shout at me, “There’s no reason you should be single and lonely.” Another month on the Internet may have been just what I needed to find someone wonderful, or it may have been just another month of spending time and money trying to control what I cannot—love.
Pulling up at a stoplight on the way to meet my girlfriends for drinks, I looked into the car next to me—an attractive, blonde-haired man driving an SUV. He caught my gaze and smiled. Through the window, I felt myself smile back. Maybe happily ever after has nothing to do with looking for love and everything to do with waiting for it to find you.
Sunday, August 1, 2010
The next few months were filled with CT scans, blood tests, doctors’ appointments, specialists, oh and I can't leave out the colonoscopy. By the time October rolled around, we decided the best and only way to be sure the cancer was gone would be to remove a foot of my colon.
I like to cry. I believe that a good, hard cry can make all the difference in perspective. I cried for months--most days I didn't even know why I was crying. Fear, frustration, sadness, pain. Blow-drying my hair one Thursday morning, I felt the tears forming in the corners of my eyes as my little dog brought his favorite toy for me to throw. My heart ached. I turned on my car to drive into work and the words playing through my speakers were: "The Lord has promised good to me, his word, my hope secure."
Amen. The Lord has promised good things for my life. My hope is secure in Him. I stopped crying that day. (Okay, maybe not completely!)