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.

Gettin’ hitched, part 4

So, after the flurry of preparations, we headed to the Chicago area–first Sergey, to meet his friend Vadim, and then my parents and me.  Our goal upon arriving in Skokie was to get the marriage license ASAP.  We found the county clerk’s office, an expansive building housing courtrooms and various offices, and after returning our electronics (apparently prohibited) to the van and de-belting for the metal detector, we went inside.  We found our room and joined the line of couples waiting for licenses.  Finally, it was our turn.  The lady behind the counter did not seem to find her job romantic at all as she embarked on a long list of questions apparently designed to determine our capacity for trivia questions, like “Where was your mother born?” and “What is your social security number?”  I guess we passed the test, because we got the license, woohoo!  License to wed!

License to wed!

License to wed!

Soon after that, my parents left, and Sergey and Vadim went to a baseball game to marvel at its slow complexity (they managed to withstand one hour of three), and I waited in the hotel for Dianne to arrive.  Actually, I fell asleep long before she came and accidentally locked her out of the room, but don’t worry, we eventually had our reunion, and then the next day were joined first by Faye and Milly, and then by Addie and Safiyyah (Sadia came a bit later).  And thus began our Mount Holyoke reunion.  Seven sisters, three days, one Windy City.

So what makes it onto the travel itinerary for these womyn?  Let me tell you: a museum honoring social welfare activism (Jane Addams Hull House), a giant ferris wheel–and then fireworks, the Art Institute, an outdoor opera concert, a glass balcony hanging over the city, and more.  As for the tastebud tour of Chicagoan cuisine, our first day together, we indulged in deep dish pizza.  I think I know why this style is mostly constrained to Chicago; Faye gave it the review, “I feel like there is a giant cheese ball sitting in my stomach.”  Vadim, on the other hand, started with cheesecake and moved on to the pizza.  Well, some friends enjoyed the cheese ball effect, but perhaps it is no coincidence that we lunched at a vegan café the next day.

I must say, it’s pretty nifty to have friends who delight in both the swing ride at Navy Pier and in analyzing historical museum displays, who make a surprising beeline for the paperweight collection at the Art Institute and appreciate the tale of Salome as told through the music of Strauss.  I guess that’s why these ladies are my friends and have been for five years.

Reflections: our group visits Cloud Gate, better known as the Bean, in Millennium Park.

Reflections: our group visits Cloud Gate, better known as the Bean, in Millennium Park.

Speaking of the Art Institute, I was disappointed to leave its glowing galleries after only several hours.  Before departing, Sergey and I visited the special exhibit on Magritte together.  Surrealist paintings watched us from the black walls with disconnected body parts juxtaposed with strange objects and nonsensical labels.  Sergey found it all quite disturbing and concluded of Magritte, “This guy was sick.”  Then, I gave Sergey a desperate whirlwind tour, whisking him through all the Impressionist (“It’s nice but blurry”) and Renaissance galleries at a near jog.  Then it was time for us to leave our friends to revel at the artistic treasures as we boarded the train back to Skokie.  There was, apparently, a wedding to prepare for…

The halfway point

The first Holy Day I attended here was the Martyrdom of the Báb, which in 2013 happened in early July.  Currently, it shifts each year according to the lunar calendar, so this year, it happened yesterday.  It seemed to mark my first year here coming full circle as I reach the halfway point in my service.

I recall my earlier wonderment at the crowd of commemorators filling the garden in front of the Haifa Pilgrim House, my surprise at the parasols–coming from the States, I thought people used them only decoratively and to preserve particularly porcelain complexions.  And the heat.  My seat last year, while initially in the shade, was soon overtaken by the noonday sun, making me itch for the circumambulation when I could finally move out of its harsh gaze.

The heat was just as oppressive this year, hitting a high of 95 degrees.  By now, though, I was used to the seating arrangement of rows on rows of pilgrims, visitors, and staff, and knew the wisdom of the parasols and the folding fans.  And we were careful to pick a spot completely in the shade of the pillar-like palm in front of us.  In this place, bits of pollen confetti sprinkled down on us from the trees overhead, burrowing into our hair.

My first year is drawing to its conclusion, and this is the season of farewells, as many of my friends are leaving.  My friend Tahirih de la Republica Dominicana flew home a few days ago.  Shania, who was a senior at Mount Holyoke when I was a meek firstie, is going home.  And half of my orientation group–eighteen staff–depart in the coming days and weeks, including my friends Diana and Todd.  They are all off to new journeys.

Due to all the departures, this has been a week of farewells.  One was quiet and devotional, another was energetic and noisy, but my favorite was last night’s.  It was initially supposed to be a reunion of those in my orientation group who had lived in the faraway land of Leon Blum when we first arrived, but it ended up as a game night between Sergey, Diana, Todd, and me.

First came Scrabble, where I proved the usefulness of that English major.  My winning at Scrabble is how the universe achieves balance with my athletic ineptitude.

Then came Risk–and not just any Risk, but Star Wars Risk. Now, I confess I had never actually played the game before.  I thought I had, but that turned out to be my vague memory of playing Axis and Allies in tenth grade history class.

We cued the dramatic Star Wars soundtrack and then proceeded into a 3.5-hour long battle to conquer the galaxy.  The game works by trying to take over as many planets as possible, and Todd acted like an extraterrestrial real estate agent, describing the notable features of each planet (“Tatooine is kind of like Akka…sandy.”)  I assumed I’d lose since I didn’t have any concept of strategy, but the dice was kind to Sergey and me, and our Rebel Alliance ended up ruling the universe.  Ok, just the galaxy, but still.

I guess I assume I’m going to see all these friends again.  If life here has taught me one thing, it’s that the Bahá’í World is very small–for instance, two youth I knew from Louhelen, where my family lived fourteen years ago by my count, are coming to serve here.  The last time I saw them they were yea tall, and now they’re full-fledged young adults.

In such an oddly tight-knit community, I think it’s inevitable that our paths will cross again.

I’m engaged


Dear readers,

This is just to say, I am affianced to Sergey.

I’ve been saving my 50th post for this!

Bahá’í engagement means that not only have we decided that we want to get hitched, but our parents are on the same page.  Thank you, parents!  See my parents’ creative Naw-Rúz present to us below:

Layli's 1st Naw-Ruz 1992 Layli's 23rd Naw-Ruz 2014

Most of you already know the story, but for those who don’t, here’s a little info lifted from my “Why Sergey” essay.


When Layli met SergeyOn July 5, 2013, I stepped off the airplane into the Holy Land. After getting through immigration, I was welcomed by my contact person from the BWC. There were a number of contact people there, including Sergey, who was there to pick up two of my orientation mates, Elika and Bahman. I was too tired and disoriented to make much conversation, but a photo Bahman sent, showing the three of us posing together at the train terminal, evidences at least some interaction. Through my daze on the train to Haifa, I listened to the conversation around me (how were these people so lucid?); Sergey said that he had not yet been to the beach. That lack of enthusiasm for beaches told me we were soulmates.

Just kidding. It actually took me a number of months—four, to be precise—to realize my attraction to Sergey. I didn’t see him much in the course of a week; an archival assistant has little professional reason to interact with an IT project manager. But, as luck would have it, we were both taking a Farsi class with my coworker Farideh. I would usually arrive a few minutes early; Sergey would usually arrive a few minutes late. (He claims that I always reserved a special smile for him upon his tardy entry.) Whereas I am a very quiet student, dutifully taking notes and asking the occasional question, he would ask loads of questions, gesticulating energetically, and remark upon the connections between the apparently infinite languages he knew—Russian, Romanian, Hebrew, German, English. Fortunately, neither of us had a knack for Farsi, or perhaps he would have found my stumbling attempts to speak the language more off-putting than charming; he seemed quite inspired by my small successes, congratulating me with a “Very good!” Occasionally, when I had given a response, I would feel like Sergey was looking at me a bit too long, but then figured it was just because I was in his direct line of vision.

Then, one day, everything changed. The occasion was the Birth of the Báb, celebrated on 5 November. After the program and circumambulation had ended, I found myself in the midst of the crowd that gathered to socialize in the small space in front of the pilgrim house. Feeling claustrophobic, I moved to the periphery, where I saw Sergey, apparently also alone. We greeted each other; I inquired after his Farsi studies. “I don’t like big crowds,” I commented. “Me neither, I would rather be somewhere above the crowd, maybe a roof, where I could watch,” he said. (Soulmates.) Then he invited me to join him and his friend Vafa for falafels. If I ever write a children’s book, I think it will be called Vafa Awfully Wants a Falafel. Although I usually abstain from crashing other people’s plans and from unforeseen falafel outings, I said sure, since I needed to head that direction anyway to find a replacement watch battery. It is important to note that I had been suffering greatly for the past week since my watch had died, leaving my wrist naked and me tardy.

So, Vafa, Sergey’s friend from Ukraine, led us to a small falafel shop in the Hadar district, the kind with mirrors above the slim counter so you can watch yourself spill pickles and drip tahini. Or at least that’s what I did. Afterwards, Sergey insisted on paying for my sandwich in a chivalrous move that I came to realize is a deep-seated part of his character. At that point, I was ready to set off after the battery and leave Sergey and Vafa alone, but instead Vafa left, and Sergey insisted he would help me. “This is my new mission,” Sergey said. “And I don’t give up until it’s accomplished. Plus, it’s for the sake of the BWC, since your office needs you to be punctual.”

For some reason, nearly all the watch stores were closed, and all the stores selling batteries didn’t have the cell I needed. (I can’t help but wonder if perhaps that was providential, as it gave us a reason to spend more time together.) After nearly an hour, when the sun had set, I was ready to call it quits. But Sergey told me not to give up so easily—there was one last store. I was skeptical. It was a hardware store with big things like tires and tools. But he insisted, and lo and behold, in a tiny set of drawers on the counter, we found the right battery. Sergey put it in my watch, and to my elation, it started ticking!

Over six months later, and five months since we made our “character investigation” official, my watch is still ticking away, leading us closer to our eternal union.


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.

Mysterious calcareous encrustations

Haifa in the morning

Haifa in the morning

It’s been a busy week.  Sergey and I went up to Nahariyya, a seaside town on the border with Lebanon.  After a ride on a public sherut, we stood on the pier, watching schools of skinny fish and a line of fishermen lackadaisically dipping their lines into the Mediterranean.  In what is typical of our relationship, I got suddenly hungry before we reached a restaurant, and demanded that we stop for ice cream.  I decided to wait for the frozen yogurt line, while he went for ice cream.  He got his before I was helped, and I proceeded to “safeguard” the ice cream while he put his wallet away.  Then I ate most of it, all the while apologizing for my greed.

“It’s okay,” he said as I contritely attacked the chocolate ice cream.  “Really, I’m letting you eat it out of self-defence, because I know how you get when you’re hungry.”

Once I had consumed my pre-lunch dessert, we sat down in the restaurant, Penguin.  Then suddenly I felt a strange sensation, a slackening around my neck.  One of the strings of my beaded necklace had broken and beads were cascading down.  I clutched at my neck, but already a number were spilling onto the floor.  Our server approached and wordlessly handed me a doggie bag for my accident.  While I managed to slip off the necklace, some rogue beads slipped down the front of my dress.  Observing my discomfort, Sergey suggested I “want to go to the washroom.”  And stand up like a maraca with beads pouring out of my skirt in front of all the nice families around us?  No thanks.  So I sat primly paralyzed until the barista started grinding coffee… “Now!” Sergey said.  I stood up, releasing my incubated cargo beneath the din of the grinding, and scooped up the beads from my chair like a clutch of tiny eggs.  It was the sort of thing that would have had me blushing myself ablaze on a first date, but luckily now it just sparked laughter.


Hey, maybe you can help me with my homework.  Last week, I hosted my orientation group’s weekly deepening.  Wait, let me clarify.  My orientation group in the Serving the Divine Plan program has embarked on a three-month study of a course called “A Discourse on Social Action,” and I managed to cram 23 of these souls into my tiny flat for dinner.  It is at times like this that I know I owe Chandu, who taught an Indian cooking class, a great debt of gratitude; because of him, I learned how to make the most delicious dish known to man (butter chicken) with zero chopping and minimal prep, allowing me to feed a crowd on short notice.

Anyway, tackle these and send me your answers to these questions from the Discourse on Social Action material:

What is the purpose of friendship?

The purpose of certain things is truly complex.  Yet it is often possible to find a sentence that expresses this complexity in a beautiful and profound way. Consider, for instance, the statement that “The purpose of our lives is to know God and to worship him.”  How does this statement embrace all the praiseworthy aims of our lives, for example, to acquire knowledge, to find true happiness, to serve others, to love and to be loved?

To engage in a process of societal transformation requires faith–the assurance that such transformation is possible.  How does one acquire this faith?


In recent days my work has taken me into a chilly room with two objects conservators who share a number of interests, from archaeology to beading to Dr. Who.  My total ignorance about such topics makes me feel like a bit of a third wheel–they sympathetically apologized for my situation trapped in a room with the two of them–but by the same token, I’m learning a great deal about old things, for which they have unbridled enthusiasm.

One of them is a metal conservator.  She looks like she stepped out of an Orientalist painting, with a long black braid that flows down her back, glittering jewellery, and striking features, an appearance counterposed by her Californian accent.  From her I’ve learned some of the poetry of metal conservation–terms like “mysterious calcareous encrustations.”  Suddenly, everything has a “healthy patina,” from relics to lab coats.  The other, a collection specialist, has bright red hair, and pert British accent that perfectly complements her sharp wit.  She described how, in “uni,” she spotted the top of a skull sprouting in her flower garden and was immediately filled with excitement.  What being did this belong to?  To the horror of her “mainstream” roommates (“I think we call them ‘muggles'”), she excavated the skeleton, which turned out to be a cat.  A few more credit-hours with these two ladies, and I expect to earn my own degree in conservation.


My extended family

My extended family

For the weeks leading up to the fateful day of 30 November 2013, my life revolved around one thing: Thanksgiving.  You see, there was never any question in my mind that I would host Thanksgiving.  It is, as a recent New York Times article put it, the most important meal of the year.  And I think that’s all the more true for expats like yours truly.

First came the invites.  Once I had fussed over sending the most beautiful Outlook invitation I could make to fifteen friends, I realized I needed some food.  I asked my Moldovan friend Sergey to help me go grocery shopping.  He was puzzled by most of the foods on my list.  Squash?  Currants?  Celery?  Worcestershire sauce?  But mostly by French-fried onions, which I struggled to explain.  I mean, explaining them as, “The crispy onions that go on the green bean casserole, along with cream of mushroom soup and milk,” would surely cast doubt on American cuisine.

Well, I could not find those special onions, nor could I find the turkey, or breakfast sausage for the stuffing (solution: kebab with maple syrup).  Nor could I find whipped cream or pumpkin puree.  My dear American readers, I want you to appreciate how lucky you are to be able to crack open a can, dump in some cream and eggs, and basically have your pie, as opposed to chopping, then boiling, then blenderizing fresh pumpkin.  And don’t even get me started on trying to manually whip cream.

Nura’s World-Famous Spicy Pumpkin Pie, post-sampling

Oh, I did find butternut squash.  When I cut it open, I found that all the seeds had sprouted, giving the inside the look of a nest of white worms.  I stuck it in the fridge and haven’t looked at it since.  I probably should go deal with that…

There was a turkey leg for sale, but somehow, that did not seem right.  First, I considered going to Haifa Zoo, hoping they might display some American fowl.  Alas, I didn’t get a chance.  So I went to the butcher shop to buy some whole chickens.  A truck was being unloaded out front, and when I entered, there were crates full of apparently recently deceased chickens.  I bought three, and nearly fell over when the clerk handed me the bag.

“Um, do these have guts?” I inquired.

He shook his head, not understanding.  I shrugged and resigned myself to my fate.

I staggered up the hill back to my flat under the weight of fifteen pounds of meat, feeling like the Demon Barber with my cargo of carrion.

The day of Thanksgiving, I pulled out the birds, hesitantly grabbing them by the legs.  There…was…blood.  Ew.  I brought the first bird to the sink to rinse its cavity, and noticed the cavity wasn’t entirely deserted; two tiny kidneys dangled, and beneath, something dark red that I assume was the liver.

“Dear God, please give me strength,” I said.  If I were more in touch with nature, I probably would have said a prayer for the bird with whom I was enjoying intimate communion.  As it was, I grabbed a knife and started sawing away, thinking back to the cat dissection I did in high school.  I did poorly, but not because I was grossed out by the formadehyde-drenched feline.  I’m just not very good at cutting things.  But I do remember one thing: fasciae.  So much fasciae to slice, and here was fasciae once again.

Eventually, after submerging the chickens in olive oil and tethering their legs, I stuck them in the oven.  Actually, I crammed them in.  And then I bleached the entire kitchen.

Two and a half hours later, after I had manically swept, mopped, dusted, and decorated, the guests began to arrive.  The first one pronounced my cooking skills “legit.”  I told him he should wait to actually try the food.  The next guest I dragooned into carving up the chicken.  “How do I do this?” he asked.  “Here’s a book that tells you how,” I said, thrusting Betty Crocker and a knife into his hands.  I hovered nervously nearby, hoping the juices would run clear, as Mommy said.  The juice seemed clear.  The flat was filling with friends.

And then there were two.

And then there were two.

Everyone seemed to enjoy the meal, even if the greenhorns (your usual World Centre mix of South African, Dominican, Ugandan, Kenyan, Norwegian, Mauritian, and Moldovan) were a little puzzled by all the strange dishes.  “So what is with the orange food?” the Ugandan asked, poking at the candied sweet potato.  “You Americans like orange, both on Halloween and Thanksgiving.”  Hm.

All I can say is, I broke only two glass items and nearly started only one fire, and I am very thankful for that.   Happy Thanksgiving!

Recipe: Birthday pudding with rainbow frosting

Sometimes I like to put my apron on and make a mess of the kitchen, or as some people call it, “bake.”  (Please note that I have not yet broken the oven in my second flat.)  Today I would like to share with you a favorite recipe.

Here’s how to start.  Plan to host a few friends for dinner.  Find out a few hours before the event that one of these friends has his birthday and “you should really bake a cake.”  Try not to panic.  Luckily, of course you have a stock of the staples dark chocolate and raspberries, so decide to make raspberry brownies.  Google “raspberry brownies” and go with the first hit, because time is running out.  The recipe description is:  “Squidgy and super moreish, these gorgeous foolproof fruity chocolate bakes will be snapped up in seconds.”

Try to get over the way the words “squidgy” and “moreish” make you think of squids and Othello, the Moor of Venice.  In fact, try to get over that whole sentence with its bubbly British English.

Nickelodeon vs. Shakespeare

Shakespeare and Nickelodeon. I get them confused sometimes.

(Also, foolproof?  Just saying, have you ever met this fool?)

Follow the recipe.  It’s pretty simple, really, except that simultaneously you should also be trying to use a rice maker for the first time ever and chopping veggies for the stir fry.

Check the brownies after the allotted 30 minutes.  Discover that they’re still molten.  Replace in oven.  10 minutes later, they are a bit more magma than lava.  Take them out and let cool.

Now, “let cool” to you means “let cool for five minutes.”  And you’re impatient to get those birthday candles affixed, so stick ’em in.  Then realize they are melting into the brownies.  Remove.

Once actually cooled, reinsert the candles and light.  There are 26 candles; the friend is turning 27.  26 is still a lot of candles even if it is a lie.  Use approximately 10 matches and nearly burn your hands trying to light them all.  The candles are mere fluorescent stubs by the time you sing the birthday song and the wish is made.  When extinguished, the candles make a lot of smoke.  Luckily, you don’t have to worry about setting off smoke detectors, because you don’t have any.  And the birthday candles will provide a colorful layer of frosting.

After the fire.

Now wait for all the wax to be picked out, leaving the surface of the brownies pockmarked.  When it comes time to serve the brownies, they are, well, squidgy, which you now know means “floppy and pudding-like, refusing to maintain any shape.”  One of the friends inquires politely, “Are these fully cooked?”  They are.  They’re simply mislabeled, because you billed them as “raspberry brownies” when in reality it’s chocolate pudding with paraffin enhancements.

Thank you for joining me for another baking lesson.  There will be more to come as I pursue a truly “foolproof” (Layli-proof) brownie recipe.

Taking candy.

After lunch, I bump into two of my friends, Isabelle and Diana.  I love these eighteen-year-olds, who exude energy even when they’re clearly exhausted.  One of them, Isabelle, who is from Eastern Europe, offers me a hard candy.  I don’t really like hard candy–while my sweet tooth is tusk-sized, it prefers dark chocolate and homemade baked goods (preferably involving chocolate)–but I accept.  It’s a Mentos, one of those fruity flavors that tastes nothing like fruit.

Isabelle watches me chew on the candy.  “What do you think of the–” she pauses, contemplates, then mimes sucking on a candy by pushing her tongue into her cheek.

“Mm, it’s nice,” I say.

She doesn’t seem satisfied, and turns to my other friend.  “How do you say–” Then she points to her tooth.

Great.   I must have some embarrassingly giant herb wedged between my teeth.  I need to start carrying floss.

“Um, is there something in my teeth?”

“No no no!”  She says something to Diana, who is attempting to translate.

“An ulcer?” Diana offers.

No.  Please no.  I arrived in Israel with two open cold sores on my lips, which didn’t help with my natural self-consciousness.  I felt like I should have worn leper bells.  Had they recurred already?

“I have an ulcer on my face???” I ask.

“No no no!”  After another moment of consultation, she arrives at the word: flavor.

“Do you like the flavor?”  she asks.

“Mm, it’s nice,” I say.  Then I head out to check my teeth/cold sore situation.



A very friendly woman asked me to get lunch with her, and I’m hoping (still on the friend hunt) to make a good impression.  We set our trays down on a table and she notices there is no salt shaker.

“I’m going to get one from another table,” she says.

I smile, and somehow manage to come up with an impossible tongue twister in response.  What I wanted to say was, “There seems to be salt shaker shortage.”  What I actually say is more like, “There seems to be a shalt saker sortage–shalt shake–salt sake sort–”

She remains unruffled, smiling through my stumbling, and agrees that there was indeed a shortage.  Despite my tongue being in a hopeless twist of sibilance, our lunch goes well after that.


I’m in a study group that meets once a week to discuss the Kitáb-i-Iqán, the Book of Certitude, which is one of the most holy books for Bahá’ís.  For whatever reason, the majority of the group is IT guys.  It’s a funny group.  I have to confess that my stereotype of programmers involves social awkwardness and thick glasses.  While there are some thick glasses in our party (mine), these guys are surprisingly chatty and even constantly wisecracking.  Like, constantly.  And with computer science allusions galore.  The facilitator studied computer science so she picks up on their references.  Me, on the other hand–I know a few HTML <b>codes</b>, but when it comes to real programming, I haven’t got a clue.  I console myself by thinking that if these men were to find themselves seated in a college English seminar, they’d be as lost as I usually am with them.

This particular day, we’re discussing progressive revelation, which Bahá’u’lláh explains with an analogy involving the sun.  There’s the concept that all the Manifestations (Abraham, Jesus, Moses, Muhammad, Krishna, etc) are the same, yet distinct.  He explains that it’s like the sun–I could say that today’s sun is the same as yesterday’s, or I could say it’s different.  Either statement would be true.  The sun is fundamentally the same sun, but it’s undergone changes since yesterday, so it’s also new.

“It’s kind of like object oriented programming,” one of the guys says.  Everyone laughs and agrees–“That’s a great comparison!  Progressive revelation and object oriented programming!”–while I lean back in my chair.  Well that clarifies things, I think, letting my mind wander back towards the humanities.


He’s on a ladder in the women’s restroom, and I am peering up at him.  I’m the contact person for problems in the building, including this case of the restroom door shutting too loudly.  It really is quite thunderous, but that’s mostly due to the acoustics of marble floors and bare walls.

So this young repairman/engineer is here.  I let him in and explained the issue to him, and now he’s set up to work on the hinges.

“Is there anything else I can do for you?” I ask.

“I need you to get out,” he says flatly.

I stare for a moment, my friendly admin smile still on my face, wondering why my presence is so obnoxious to this friendly guy.  Then I realize: “I need you to get out” means “I need you to help me get out.”  My building has limited access and lots of locked doors.  I laughed, explained my interpretation, we laughed together, and then there was nothing left to do–I got out.