The whistlepig and the hermit

Ah, beautiful autumn palette!

Ah, beautiful autumn palette!

Every time I emerge from my hermitage, wan and disoriented from hours and days of reading and writing for my seminars, I find my neighborhood increasingly colorful. Fall in central Pennsylvania has turned the landscape into a moving painting in hues of red, yellow, orange, and brown–sometimes all those colors in a single leaf. Along with the leaves that come pinwheeling down, glinting like gold, seedpods and acorns plummet earthward. The squirrels grow increasingly squirrelly; whenever I cross paths with one, it glares at me accusatively, as if I had demanded it relinquish a precious acorn.

Even the groundhogs are active, their lumpen brown bodies reminding me of the hyraxes I saw in northern Israel. I spotted one foraging in the vacant field next to my apartment complex, visible as a bump in the grass in the above photo. While it didn’t seem to notice when I watched it trundling around, once I brought my camera, it proved to be shy and headed for cover. I looked up “groundhog” and found that besides the synonym woodchuck, they are also called whistlepigs, which is a pretty great name.

And he lollops off toward cover.

The camera-shy whistlepig lollops toward cover.

My classes have been intellectually stimulating, but in terms of emotional sustenance in these lonesome Sergeyless months, I have been blessed with several visitors. First, Deanna, my friend and former flatmate, and her sister, Debby, made the long road trip to State College. We explored the area together, from downtown and campus, to a lake-filled cave. On campus, we paid a visit to the Palmer Art Museum, which has a diverse collection of paintings and sculptures. I was especially tickled by an ancient Chinese camel statue that appears to have ferocious fangs–perhaps China was plagued by vampire camels in olden times? Outside of State College, we drove through the bucolic countryside to Penn’s Cave, where we took a boat tour of the cavern, replete with your usual cave décor–stalagmites, stalactites, flows, drippings, exhaust fumes, etc. Since I’m a poor swimmer, I was nervous about sitting trapped underground in a boat weighted down by a score of other people. The guide pointed out the lifesaver and assured us she had never needed to use it. Because of the dark, the water looked bottomless. I had a mini panic attack when I thought the guide said it was 30-60 feet deep–that’s a long way to sink!–but then realized she said inches. Ok, I could handle wading if we capsized.

Spelunking around.

Spelunking around.

About a month later, Jasmine came to visit, inspiring me to once again depart my desk and explore the area. Unfortunately, early October unleashed its worst possible weather upon her arrival, with the entire weekend dismally wet and cold. But we didn’t let that keep us confined–no, we decided to climb Mount Nittany in the drizzle. Mount Nittany seems to have a similar relationship with Penn State as Mount Holyoke does with Mount Holyoke College, although as far as I’m aware, there is no Mountain Day at Penn State when classes are cancelled and students climb the mountain to eat ice cream at the peak. Oh well, not all universities can sound like fairy tales! What I meant to be a brief hike turned into a several hour long sojourn on the mountain thanks to a wrong turn. On the descent, over rather slippery, sharp rocks, I finally did capsize, but righted myself with Jasmine’s assistance. We were filled with relief to return to the car.

One of our discoveries on Mount Nittany: a slug moth larva, resplendently leaf-like. Someday it will metamorphose into a rather boring moth. Photo credit: Jasmine

One of our discoveries on Mount Nittany: a slug moth larva, resplendently leaf-like. Someday it will metamorphose into a rather boring moth. Photo credit: Jasmine.

After a day of recovery, we went on a jaunt to historical Bellefonte, which boasts a variety of Victorian buildings, some dilapidated, looking ready to serve as haunted houses for Halloween, others sprightly and brightly painted. From the small downtown, we walked to the central park, which is charmingly duck-infested. Somewhere around there, a historical railroad operates a few times a year, providing a quaint ride through the colorful hills in fall–on my Centre County bucket list for sure. We continued our wandering, down streets lined with big Victorians and old trees, and then we went for a literal Sunday drive through the picturesque hills, near little towns with names like Snowshoe and Yarnell, and past lanes like Swamp Poodle Road. I kid you not! In some places, we drove above valleys where mist hung, a romantic Pennsylvanian panorama.

Well, it is time for me to hit the books again, or more precisely, to let the books hit me. Next time you hear from me, I’ll probably have grown a long beard and found a gnarled walking stick, real hermit style.

Back to school

I have now been in State College for a few weeks. The first week was a whirl of getting the apartment stocked and shopping for furniture. I also ventured onto campus for the first time; my previous tour had been a virtual one online while I was in Israel. Penn State’s campus forms a large rectangle; at its south end is the downtown. Campus has two major attractions: Old Main and the Nittany Lion Shrine. The Shrine is apparently the second most photographed place in Pennsylvania, after the Liberty Bell. I have yet to pay homage to the Nittany Lion, but I have nearly circumambulated Old Main, which is a handsome replica of the university’s first building. A lawn stretches from Old Main to downtown, and I found that a flock of ducks likes to dawdle on the very edge of campus, near people waiting at the bus stop. (One day I was sitting at the bus stop and a lame duck—yes, a literal lame duck, not a congressperson—was quacking behind me. I wish I had a crutch to give it, but I’m no doctor, just a quack.) I would add a third attraction, which is the popular Berkey Creamery, serving locally produced ice cream and dairy products.

Week two was orientation, which involved the fearful task of meeting new people and trying to make friends. I did try to push myself in that regard. I have attended a grand total of four grad events requiring mingling, at which I’ve been able to show off both my lack of mingling prowess and my teetotalism. The first event was bowling night. It had probably been over a decade since I last stepped foot in a bowling alley. While I remembered the important aspects of the game—pick up ball, release ball, knock down pins—putting it into practice proved difficult. I was invited to join a team (alas, unfortunate team to recruit me). On my first few turns I managed to knock down nothing besides my self-esteem, but eventually, by developing my own method of tossing the ball, I managed to knock down a decent number. I think I might have even gotten a spare! While initially, I was thinking that it was unfortunate for the older grad students’ first impression of me to be my terrible hand-eye coordination, I realized the next evening that bowling had given me the opportunity to engage in short conversations with fellow bowlers with the option of watching the action when we reached a lull.

At dinner the next evening, there were no distractions. People broke into groups, impenetrable to a shy person, so I found myself frequently pouring myself cups of Coke to look like I was occupied. And I missed out on an apparently popular conversation topic sparked by the presence of lots of bottles of wine and beer, namely, alcohol. One acquaintance asked me what drink I would recommend…well, soda, of course. I have made one friend in the program thus far, and afterward, she told me I look very elegant even when standing alone awkwardly. (She didn’t say “awkwardly,” but it’s the truth.)

As an act of divine mercy, I was struck with a cold that weekend, which excused me from yet another mingling event, a party involving pizza and…a keg. The invitation said to bring your own drink if you didn’t want beer, and so I had anxious visions of myself clinging to my water bottle and hiding in a corner, the only sober partygoer. Instead, I had a quiet evening alone with my box of tissues.

This weekend, I again confronted my distaste for alcohol-centered events. My friend invited me to join the cohort (the group of first-year English MA students, of which there are seventeen) at a bar—we could get soda. And soda we did get, ginger ale in fact, in a very noisy bar where I could only hear the person next to me speak. My friend, who is from Taiwan, asked why people in America enjoy going to bars. “You are asking the wrong person!” I replied.

Finally, I attended a gathering of English MA students. This involved a brief bout of horseshoe throwing (before I gave up) and several hours of attempted mingling. Also, I made the mistake of assuming dinner would be ready when I arrived and showing up hungry. It was ready about two hours later, so in the meantime, I dominated a bowl of kale chips that happened to be in front of me.

Besides stabs at socializing with grad students, I have actually started grad school! While Mount Holyoke prepared me well for the academics, I’m still getting used to having all my classes in the three-hour, once per week seminar format, and spacing out the heaps of reading properly. Plus trying to learn Russian on the side in preparation for Cold War 2 (jk, just trying to get in touch with my husband’s roots).

The following is somewhat representative of the transition to life as a commuter grad student. One of my classes runs from 6:30-9:30, so around 5:45, I went to wait for the bus. As I was heading out, I heard some thunder, so I grabbed my umbrella. Then I was waiting by the bus stop…and waiting…the air was growing thick and hazy with the expectation of rain. And then it started to sprinkle. And then the heavens emptied themselves! I ran under a tree with my umbrella, but my legs and feet were immediately soaked, as was my poor backpack. I thought I saw my bus in the distance, but then I looked back, and it was gone. At this point I figured it would be difficult to attend class in my drowned rat condition, so I ran back to my apartment, changed, zipped up my raincoat, ran to my car, tried to figure out the windshield wipers, which I have never used in this car, and then drove downtown through the deluge to a parking garage, from whence I walked to campus as fast as I could. Somehow I made it only about a minute late! I think I disappointed my professor by my timeliness, because I had emailed an apology for being late after my bus fiasco. He actually arrived a few minutes after I did, and when he saw me, he said, “You’re here! I saw your email and I thought ‘good, I won’t be the latest one to class because of the rain.’”

Next time, I shall stick to my word and be late!

Like a cat in water

Admission: over the last month, I fell woefully behind in writing. There was so much to do before leaving the World Centre–boxes to pack, projects to complete, farewells to bid–that I simply could not make the few hours needed to complete this blog. So, these last entries are being written from within the purple walls of my home in Wisconsin, not from the Holy Land.


It might seem illogical for a couple with little interest in swimming to travel to a swimming hole, but once in a while, it comes time to explore something beyond the confines of our street. So, Sergey and I signed up for a trip to Gan HaShlosha National Park, more commonly known as Sakhne. People flock to HaShlosha from all over to shlosharound–I mean, slosh around–in the unusual turquoise waters of the pools, which are supposedly colored by natural minerals. So, after driving to the eastern edge of Israel, past vast sunflower fields bordered by low purple mountains, we found ourselves idling in a long line of cars, mostly filled with smoking Arab men ready to spend a smoky day with their grills, hookahs, and oh yeah, the crystalline waters.

After what felt like several hours of waiting, we finally made it to the parking lot. 9:00 AM on a Saturday and nearly no open spaces. Israelis take their weekends seriously, whether that means observing Shabbat or finding water to play in. We unfolded a towel and laid it on the dead grass on a hill beside the pool, from which point I surveyed the surroundings. Again, the main denizens of the water were Arab men, who had brought all manner of floating devices, including air mattresses. I had never realized that air mattresses could be seaworthy. The young men frolicked in the water, vying for spots atop the floaties, reminding me of walruses fighting for territory on an iceberg. Sergey remarked on the boyishness of their play–some of the men looking to be in their mid-twenties and above. Maybe the lack of women freed the men from putting on a display of savoir faire. Or maybe their playful jousting was actually for the benefit of the onlookers.

Hey look, an unmanned mattress waiting to be claimed!

Hey look, an unmanned mattress waiting to be colonized!

In almost all parts of the interconnecting pools, the water was over my head, and the shallows had other dangers (dead leaves, dirt, splashing kids). So, I spent most of my time perched midway down the steps into the water, letting my legs float like dead wood in the hopes of attracting the “piranhas,” as Sergey called them. These minnow-like fish enjoy snacking on dead skin, and they seem to get plenty of it from the hordes of swimmers, as it took a while for me to finally attract some. But once they came, they flocked. At the peak feeding time, I had at least fifteen fish giving me a pedicure. Their small beaky mouths tickled, but I stayed strong and still. (I can’t say the same for Sergey, who was reduced to giggling and squirming.) The fish were easily spooked. The slightest movement would scare them away, so keeping my legs immobilized became my mission. Of course, I couldn’t control the rambunctious people around me, who insisted on swimming, disturbing my piscine idyll. The fish seemed to sense even impending impacts–in the time between a boy’s leap and him hitting the water, they would race away from me.

Hungry fish

Just wearing my fashionable fish boot…

After I had my fill of the crowded park and the fish had full tummies, we headed home.

So, what do cats have to do with this story? Well, they also relate to our recreational activities.

When we moved into our apartment last summer, we became acquainted with several adolescent cat siblings, all with the same gray and white spots as their mama. Over the winter, they grew up, got hitched, and come springtime they were all pregnant. After they had their litters, we found a new hobby: kitten-watching. (Lest you scoff at our interest in strays, please remember that Haifa lacks cute rodents to observe–no rabbits, squirrels, or chipmunks…just rats, and once in a blue moon, a mongoose. Also, the feline families served pretty well as a compost solution for excess leftovers.)

One cat mama birthed a brood of three tabbies, and another had three distinct kittens: one completely black, one black and white, and one gray and white. If only she had an all white kitten, she would have covered the whole monochromatic spectrum!

Israeli wildlife

Israeli wildlife

I think the tiny black kitten was my favorite. It looks like a surprised bush baby, all shining eyes.

Feline bush baby

Feline bush baby

Animal Farm

One weekend, Sergey and I were invited to accompany some colleagues to a place called Hamat Gader. This destination boasts stinky hot springs that fill a giant bathing pool. Now, marinating myself along with flocks of sweaty strangers is not my usual cup of tea, but we figured this was a good chance to see some of the Galilee region.

We were right. The winter rains had turned the hills and valleys of Galilee a vibrant green, shining like an emerald in the morning light. En route to our destination, we stopped at the most scenic gas station I’ve encountered. The station overlooked a field where cows grazed peacefully beside white cattle egrets. Occasionally this pastoral scene was interrupted by groups of bikers who zoomed down a path through the field, startling the cattle.

Cows and bikers

Back on the road, after driving along the border with Jordan, we arrived at Hamat Gader. Sergey and I set off to explore the flora and fauna of the park. We found the predecessor of today’s pool, the ruin of a Roman bath.

Roman bath

After documenting the ancient bath, I was distracted by a flock of birds: white-spectacled bulbuls twittering upon some trees near the ruin. Beyond them, I could just make out the shape of a mysterious green parrot, gazing impassively into the surrounding hills.


Then came the unmelodic squawk of an itinerant peacock. We gave chase. Above the ruins of a Roman amphitheater, we stalked him in pursuit of the perfect photo. He was not particularly interested, and gave us a final look of disdain before disappearing over the crest of the hill.


After our nature experience, we had a decidedly unnatural visit to the park’s “zoo,” which seemed more like a hapless mess of cramped terrariums and odd combinations of chickens and gazelles. Actually, perhaps that mysterious green parrot I saw was an escapee of the zoo’s tacky attraction, a parrot show. Sergey and I sat among hordes of tired parrots—I mean parents—and their shrieking children to watch parrots, macaws, and cockatiels perform tricks like pedaling a bicycle across a tightrope.

And a parrot biking across a tightrope.

But the weirdest part was yet to come: the Alligator Farm. The farm consists of a series of enclosures tightly packed with alligators, crocodiles, caimans, and, strangest of all, gharials.

Pretty guy

These thin-snouted creatures look like something out of Dr. Seuss (especially the males, which sport a “sexy” bulb on the tip of their noses), but actually, they come from India, where they are extremely endangered. While at first their slender jaws seem like an evolutionary mistake, apparently the shape enables them to effectively hunt fish, and even to stun them with underwater jaw claps.

Rivaling the crocodilians in strangeness were our fellow visitors, who, clothed in bathrobes and flip-flops, apparently had emerged from the hot pool to cool down by strolling through the farm. I wonder what the crocs think of these oddly clad bipeds. Would he look good as a handbag?


Soaking in the pool was…sulfuric. I was disappointed that afterwards my skin failed to sprout yellow crystals. What I will remember from this day are these comical snapshots of human-animal coexistence: spandexed bikers shepherding cows aside, and pink-skinned bathers walking between some of Earth’s oldest predators.

The Wild Kingdom

Bad hair day

Now that my brain has melted into a soup in which float the ratio of the legs of a 30-60-90 degree triangle (1 to the square root of 3), the application requirements for various graduate programs, faculty profiles with photos that blur into a smiling, silver-haired, bespectacled amalgam, and fancy terms to describe my academic interests in teaching and writing (I mean “pedagogy” and “composition studies”), I feel the time has come for a return to the blog. Somehow, writing timed 30-minute practice GRE essays cannot compare with free writing–and I must say, my newfound ability to churn out two 700-word essays in one hour leaves little excuse for my lack of entries.

Well, I could go on, but I’d rather not ramble. While I’d prefer to be less of a GRE hermit and thrall to my applications, I know these applications and the revival of math skills for the GRE are probably making me smarter and forcing me to evaluate my history and purpose. So, no complaining–let’s talk about my favorite therapeutic topic, animals!

In the rolling hills of south-central Wisconsin roam camelids hailing from further south–South America, that is. At the honeymoon B&B, Sergey and I encountered a pair of alpacas. Alpacas are much like llamas, but more docile. One of the alpacas fit this description; white-furred like a lamb, it appeared uninterested in anything besides chewing its cud. The other, however, acted as the guardian of the pen. When we approached the enclosure, this redhead came charging at us. When I commented on his aggression to Sergey, he defended the beast. “He just wants to say hi!”

There are some animals who run at you when they truly just want to say hi. Actually, the only ones I can think of are dogs. But the gleam of anger in the eyes of this creature convinced me that his goal was not one of establishing a relationship with these visitors; it was to keep us out of his territory. Or he was really mad about his bad haircut, which left his body shorn but his head poofy.

Sergey optimistically persisted in trying to approach the Alpha Alpaca. Thankfully, no spitting resulted, but I swear it was a close call.

Alpaca eagerly sprinting toward his beloved Sergey

Alpaca eagerly charging toward his beloved Sergey

Over here in Haifa, our neighborhood offers three main forms of wildlife:

1. Kittens

2. Cats

3. Jackals

Around when Sergey and I moved to our current building, a family of kittens also took up residence. There are four striped ones and one spotted, plus a mom lurking around. They are excellent beggars, turning their innocent kitten faces toward us as we pass by, mewing hungrily. While I’ve always sided with dogs over cats, I have to say, this cat herd is pretty darn cute. My favorite is the cockeyed one.

Cats, while less adorable than their younger counterparts, offer their share of entertainment. In particular, there is a black cat that likes to roost on a tree stump outside our building. As we pass by, he lets out his strange cry of “meh, meh, meh.” No energetic “meow” for this feline; it is as if, world-weary or profoundly bored, all he can muster is a half-meow. He needn’t worry about a lack of cat voices in the world, though, since our days are often interspersed with sudden bursts of caterwauling.

At last we come to the jackals, the invisible neighbors who provide the canine counterpart to the caterwauling. Some nights, we will hear their chorus as a pack of them howls and yelps together. It’s a bit creepy, and it’s also odd to hear a sound I associate with wolves gathered in the middle of a forest so close to the heart of the city. Of course, this territory was theirs long before Haifa started expanding across the slopes of Mount Carmel.

The Hyrax

Q: What would you call Dr. Seuss’s Lorax if he grew taller?
A: The Hyrax, of course!

I had never heard of these wondrous creatures before I visited Hermon National Park in northern Israel.  And I might not have noticed them, had it not been for my curiosity about some stairs leading up a hill at this park.  Explorer that I am, I decided that I had to see what was at the top.  We climbed up accompanied by another gentleman from our group.  When we were a few paces ahead of him, we heard him cry out–“Look!  Some sort of large creature!”

I froze.  Did mountain lions live up here?  Was one crouched on the nearby boulder, preparing to pounce?  We descended the stairs to see the fearsome beast.

It was a brown, furry, ball of cuteness with a surly face, poised atop the enormous boulder with a clear “king of the hill” attitude.  It regarded us with disinterest, these lowly hairless creatures who had blundered into his realm.

Soon we discovered that there was a whole clan of hyraxes living on these boulders.  In a reptilian way, they like to sun themselves because they lack good thermoregulation (like me).   They are actually rather remarkable.  Although they look like big rodents, they are actually related to elephants (they even have mini-tusks), and their ancestors have been sunning themselves on planet Earth for nearly 40 million years–20 times longer than modern humans have been around.  Sergey and I went paparazzi on them, and a few indulged us by holding their poses.

Later, I was once again wandering in the park, this time behind some sort of utility building, when I spotted a small animal ahead.

“IT’S A BABY HYRAX!” I exclaimed and gave chase.  He skittered behind a tractor away from my camera, but this time we had truly hit the jackpot: a whole extended family of hyraxes peered at us from the brush beside this building.

This one is showing off his tusks in what appears to be the biggest smile a hyrax can give.

This one is showing off his bitty tusks in what appears to be the biggest smile a hyrax can give.

The nursery for the babies seemed to be indoors, through an open window; they played on a thick vine hanging from a tree, running up and down.  One young fellow got too excited and tumbled off the vine to the ground, then picked himself up and ran back.  It was seriously so cute it made me want to cry.

The time came that I had to leave my new quarry and resist the urge to take one back to Haifa with me.  I will have to content myself with my hyrax photo album.

The Vainest Chameleon

This blog is transforming into one of a recreational naturalist.  I promise, I do more than stumble across mongooses and petrified hedgehogs here!  It must be good karma from those tiny lizards I saved from sticky traps last year.

So.  I was on my way out of the office headed to lunch.  Now, I have an uncommonly beautiful walk to the lunchroom nearly every day, walking through the blooming splendor of the gardens. There’s always some gem to discover, whether it is a tree snowing petals in February, the yellow snapdragons lit up by the sun, or a colorful songbird.

But this day my encounter with nature was super duper extra special.

There I was, on my way out, when I noticed something green sitting on the white marble steps. It was a chameleon!

Chameleon on the steps

Already preparing to tip over.

Imagine my delight at seeing this odd creature unleashed from the confines of a pet shop terrarium.  Its eyes oscillated in different directions. Its feet were cloven into two sets of two toes each. Its tail was curly. It was a true wild chameleon.

I was getting pretty close to the chameleon because, technophobe that I am, I don’t know how to use zoom on my phone camera. The lizard seemed slightly nonplussed, then sort of tipped over and plopped off the edge of the stoop onto the next step, where it landed gracelessly on its side. I felt guilty, assuming I had caused its flop, but then it slowly picked itself up and walked to the edge of the step and proceeded to do the same, this time tilting over onto the gravel.

Preparing for the next dive

Gathering momentum for the next dive

It was truly the most unapologetically graceless animal I’ve had the privilege to watch. I don’t know how it even got up the steps in the first place, but I’m not sure that it had any options for descent besides letting gravity do the work.  Furthermore, it was clearly a slave to vanity, choosing to pose against the backdrop of blinding whiteness rather than the inconspicuous safety of camouflage against any of the abundant surrounding greenery.  If this was an Aesop’s fable, it would probably have been scarfed up by a fox.  

Instead, clever creature, it decided its willowy figure was best accented with a vertical pose.

2014-04-06 12.10.30

And then I had to go to lunch and resist the urge to make him my pet.

Rat a tat tat

It was Friday morning, and I was on my way to the office.  As usual, I knocked on Sergey’s door (a few floors downstairs) to pick him up for the daily commute.  He opened the door.  “Can you come in for a moment?” he asked.  “I have something to show you.”

Now, the last time Sergey said that, he had a bouquet of roses waiting for me inside.  This time, it is a rat.  I don’t want to read too much into what this means about the progress of our friendship, but…perhaps some backstory is in order.

First, Sergey and I had watched Ratatouille, which I find an unbeatably adorable movie.  I mean, a French foodie rat with family problems?  So cute.

A few days later, the movie really came to life.

Apparently, Sergey’s version of the gourmand critter flew/climbed in through the kitchen window.  Yeah, Israeli rats climb walls and break into apartments.  He and his flat-mate, upon discovering their guest, hid nearly all the food and dish ware and sterilized the kitchen.  They left out sticky traps, peanut butter scented, to catch the beast.  But this rat was smart, and, while avoiding the traps, went for the real peanut butter, nearly gnawing through the lid.  I had to admire its palate and persistence.

The final weapon in the weeklong battle of man versus rodent was old-fashioned rat traps.  That is how on that Friday morning there came to be one terrified rat cowering piteously in the corner of a trap on the kitchen counter as I looked on.  Seriously, it was so pathetically afraid–trembling, big beady eyes panicked, squeaking whenever Sergey spoke or moved.

In the abstract, I don’t think retaining vermin is wise.  Rats carry all sorts of pestilence and are a health danger to humans.  But, watching this creature, clearly so afraid to die, how could we do anything besides give it freedom?  So outside we went with this pet, and released it into some bushes.  It ran off without so much as a backward glance.


TO A RAT  (apologies to Robert Burns)

Small, worm-tailed wee creature,

with dirty paws your concerning feature,

why do you choose to live

‘neath this ancient fridge?


At quiet hours you grow spunky

and gnaw a banana like a monkey

leaving your marks of hunger

for us in the morning to discover.


I am sorry that we curse your life,

tempting you with cruel delights,

tidbits luring you into traps like sirens,

rewarding your desire with a prison.


But, wise rat, you chose well your abode

for herein dwells a gentle landlord

who cages and evicts you without pain or loss–

though perchance you will miss this kind host.


Check out “To a Mouse” for the classic rodent ode.

Farewell, puppy

Shadow Amerson, 2004-2014

Shadow Amerson, 2004-2014

My family’s dog of a decade passed away.

I’m not even sure where to start with writing what I guess is an obituary for her.  Ten years is a long time, at least for a 22-year-old.   I’m not sure how people manage to condense a human life into a newspaper column, because I really struggle to write this.

We got Shadow directly from a breeder.  I remember this lady as rather brusque and slightly racist, which are perhaps common features for someone with such passion for purebreds.  If I recall, Shadow’s father was an actual German German Shepard.  I’m sure she had a proud lineage, and in fact, her family tree is probably better mapped than mine.  But as German Shepards go, she was of the longhair variety, considered inferior and inadequate for a show dog, which made her affordable.

Shadow as a puppy

Unfortunately, her pedigree didn’t serve her health.  Even in puppyhood, she was a sickly dog.  I won’t go into the details–in fact, I can’t even remember all her various sicknesses and emergencies.  Suffice it to say that her cone became a frequent accessory.

I have some memories of puppy behavior class at PetSmart.  Mainly I recall one gentleman who, to our distress, insisted on ruffling her ears.  Growing ears should be handled with utmost delicacy so they grow erect and regal, but she had one ear that insisted on flopping over.  As the years went on, she acquired more physical eccentricities.  The extraction of a broken canine left her long, mole-specked tongue lolling out of one side of her mouth.  An affliction in her eyes made them droopy and bloodshot.  But she was a beautiful dog, weighing in at 100 pounds, massive for a female.

Shadow in the snow

Shadow in the snow

Oh yes, remember that behavior class?  Well, she didn’t either.  As Shadow grew bigger and stronger, it became difficult for Jasmine and me to walk her.  Any understanding she had of the command “heel” dissolved at a sighting of a squirrel or passerby.  Our walks reached their inevitable culmination when, one day, walking her in the prairie behind our house, a jogger stepped out from behind a bend and Shadow, surprised, lunged.  I was pulled to my knees and hung on with all my might (which wasn’t much) as she pulled me along in her pursuit of the jogger.  It was rather like water skiing if the boat were a dog and the water was grass and no skis were involved.  Finally we got her under control, and I got up, my knees grass-stained and shaky.  Really, big dogs should come with brakes installed.  From then on, it was choke collar–which didn’t do much with her thick fur–or the halter.

She was the ultimate family dog, protecting us with spit-flinging barking fits from any delivery person who dared ring the doorbell, or worse, friend who dared to step into her territory, and entering panic mode when we were absent.  One thing you need to know about Shadow was that, underneath the stoicism (instead of seeking affection, she seemed to resign herself to my insistence on petting and baby-talking her) and the fierceness was a profound sensitivity.  


Shadow: “Stop…touching…me.”

(I write that, and then I think about her lifelong greeting: goosing me.  Well, sensitivity takes many forms.)

As a puppy, she was once outdoors taking a bathroom break during a storm when an enormous clap of thunder scared her nearly to death.  From then on, she retained a phobia of thunder and similar booms like fireworks–we cursed Hometown Days with its lengthy grand finales that made our dog tremble and whine piteously–and later on any remotely bass sound.  The grumbling motor of the garbage truck terrified her, turning Mondays into the Day of Whimpering.  When she was young, we would sometimes spend the day in Waukesha with our grandparents, leaving her in the basement tornado shelter as a makeshift kennel.  One of these times, a storm passed over Verona.  Driving home through the puddled streets, we had no way of anticipating the mess we’d find in the shelter.  Great bloody streaks ran down the door with bits of fur embedded from when she had tried to claw her way out.  It was like something from a horror movie entitled “Separation Anxiety.”

Shadow had her quirks, her phobias, and her ailments, yes.  Her eccentricity was only rivaled by the lead character in Marley and Me (go read it!).  Nevertheless, my fondest memories of her are relatively normal: playing in our backyard.  She had a big red ball that we would roll across the grass and she would chase and even dribble it with gusto, tripping over it with her big paws.

A rare slightly athletic member of the Amerson clan

A rare slightly athletic member of the Amerson clan

In the winter she bounced through the snow, ignoring the ice-balls that would gather between her toe pads, leaping, diving, chomping up snowballs. I remember her eagerness, waiting for a ball to be tossed, her body poised and taut in anticipation, sometimes uttering a yip if we made her wait too long.  Even in her dreams she would play–or at least that’s what I imagine she experienced as her legs twitched and she emitted adorable sleep-woofs.  Later on her dream life progressed to scratching at the floor as she dozed, and sometimes I would wake up to the sound of her scratching downstairs.  I wonder what she was digging up.

When I said goodbye to her this summer, I knew there was a good possibility I wouldn’t see her again.  But still the loss stings.  How strange to imagine my house without all the sundry arrangements we made for her–the water dish in the downstairs shower with the curtain hemmed high enough to let her under, the toddler gates, the doghouse in the kitchen.  The strange emptiness there must be without her sounds, her scent, her doggy presence.


Shadow, girlie, I will remember the smell of your ears, that waxy sweet fragrance hidden in the soft fuzz and sticky skin of those keen, twitching sensors, the way I still remember the dusty, salty scent that clung to the feathers of Skippy, my parakeet.  I will remember kissing your dry, rough nose.  I will remember burying my hands in the warm, luxurious fur around your scruff.  I will remember your canine language of woofs, whines, whimpers, growls, groans, and barks.  I love you.  Like so many pets, you helped teach your humans new ways to love.

The Fast

Today, my groggy eyes are presented once again with a stunning sunrise.  The sun peeks up at 5:52 like a fiery tangerine hoisted from its nest behind the mountains.  I lift a hand up to protect my eyes, and it is stained orange by the light.  Some of the clouds look like mountains that have simply detached from the earth; both land and sky are permeated by the same pink glow.  Two minutes after the sun rises, on schedule the lights at the seaport switch off.

Climbing onto my bed with a prayerbook in hand, pulling up the curtains, and assessing the sunrise has become one of my fasting rituals.  Most days, a layer of clouds obscures the sun now that we’re finally getting rain, but every once in a while, I am treated to this splendid feast of colors.

The first sunrise of the Fast

For me, the Fast forces heightened consciousness about time and habits.  I’m not saying my focus gets sharper during the Fast; the afternoons are always a struggle between my desire to take a long nap and my need to keep working.  The other day, I bumped into a friend who told me that during the rest of the year, our souls are slaves to our bodies, but now our bodies are slaves to our souls.  An interesting theory, but my stomach is certainly an ill-behaved thrall, kicking and screaming for food.

There is no other time of the year when sunrise and sunset hold so much sway over my habits.  In fact, usually I rarely see the sunrise.  But I also notice other things–for example, over the past two weeks, my sugar cravings have declined, and I have survived on a nominal half-cup of coffee in the mornings.  And getting up at 5:15 gives me so much quiet time before going to the office in which I can write.  I think I might be a closeted earlybird.

I’ve also realized just how close my office is to the upper terraces, the Bahá’í gardens that climb up Mount Carmel.  Without the routine of coffee breaks in the morning and afternoon or the daily trip to the lunchroom at noon, I find myself with more time to go outside and enjoy the scenery and sunshine, which is a form of sustenance in itself.  On one of my photosynthesis strolls with Sergey, I spotted a big praying mantis sitting motionless at the bottom of some terrace stairs, and crouched down to watch this alien-looking creature.  (Have I mentioned I like creepy-crawlies?)  It was the first time I’ve seen a “wild” mantis in ages.  A few days later, we saw what appeared to be an otter scampering through the gardens.  He clarified that it was not a landlubbing otter but rather a mongoose.  All my mongoose knowledge stems from the 1975 movie Rikki Tikki Tavi, which I remember watching on one of my parents’ compiled VHS tapes of children’s films.  It was pretty great to see one in real life, long, sleek, and tawny, though with no apparent cobras in tow.

In fact, many office workers have the same idea and emerge these days.  I wonder if the local gardeners think it’s funny, this yearly exodus of winter-pale Bahá’ís to the outdoors, sniffing the fresh air and clambering up the staircases of our Eden.  Where else in the world would I get to fast with so many other Bahá’ís, who all experience the same hunger pains, sour breath, and low blood sugar afternoons?