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.

The home of the spider

There is a flâneur inside all of us.  If I recall my art history classes well enough, once Paris was Haussmanized–many of the charming little streets were converted into wide, orderly boulevards–a new species of pedestrian emerged: the flâneur.  The flâneur was a window shopper, an idler, an urban vagrant who did not necessarily set out with a destination in mind; he walked around to see the city and maybe stop for a croissant every once in a while.

My flâneurism (which sounds like a dangerous combination of flan and aneurysm) manifested in some exploration of the Hadar, a commercial and residential district which, according to the map, my street borders.  I can’t tell you how much time I’ve spent examining maps of Haifa in a fairly futile attempt to commit the general layout of the city to memory.  There’s the tourist map I keep in my purse at all times, and the one on my bulletin board at home, and there’s even one up in the office.   So I had my route planned out, and I successfully found the main shopping street with its endless noisy clothing stores and the department store wherein I found this happy couple.  Please take a moment to note his rakishly angled spectacles and her receding hairline.  Aren’t they cozy.

They do say love is blind...

They do say love is blind…

And this–jeans as art, or maybe the dryer broke:

Artist's house

Artists’ house

Once I had procured some houseplants and a muffin tin, I decided to retrace my route.  If I could accomplish that, I figured that would mean I actually knew the Hadar.

I did not accomplish that.

I suppose I was distracted by the unusually cool weather, the streets damp with rain, or maybe it was the dead cat in the street.  Anyway, I forget to take a turn and found myself in an unfamiliar area.  Unwisely, I decided to keep walking.  I suppose I hoped my “intuition” would lead me aright and my apartment building would suddenly appear in front of me.  Eventually, I swallowed my pride and found the friendliest looking person around (not a particularly easy task–Haifans are not the smiliest bunch) and asked for help.

“English?” I asked.  Over the course of the morning, I had gotten accustomed to the answer to this question being a shake of the head.  But it turned out she spoke very good English.  After she explained where I needed to go, she pointed at my map and asked, “Does it help?”  Good question.  As soon as I pull it out, I mark myself as an outsider, a foreigner.  But when I try to navigate without it, I end up seeing more of Haifa than intended.  Perhaps trying to make me feel better about my orienteering failure, she said, “The streets in Haifa are like the home of a spider.”  A very messy spider, I might add, the kind who eschews neat webs in favor of tangled nests where he stores his victims, including young women carrying Tourist Board maps.

Office star

Dear rock stars of the world,

While you might feel pretty cool shredding your guitars onstage, I’m rocking out admin style, shredding these papers…like Jagger?



Actually, when it comes to office tasks, I’m anything but a star.  A simple trip to the shredder reminds me that while my Mount Holyoke BA covered everything from the epidemiological paradox to sestinas, it failed to educate me on the finer points of office supplies.  So I find myself once again repeatedly jamming the shredder with an overload of documents.  The shredder chokes for the fifth time in the past four minutes.

I kneel down and tell it, “Hey, you should know I’m not such a dunce–I graduated summa cum laude, alright?”

The shredder considers, wondering how my fancy diploma would taste, and how it would look digested into strips of Latin.

A colleague asked me how I was doing with my new duties.  I hesitated, considering how much time I had spent struggling to fix a stapler or to coerce the photocopier into submitting to my will.  (It won.)  Or how difficult it had been to find that room where according to legend there would be stacks and stacks of bond paper.  After wandering around one building, asking everyone I encountered about “the room with lots of paper,” I found one sympathetic soul who joined me for my quest.  Up the elevator, down the stairs, I got my first thorough tour of this building.  It was an actual paper chase.

Does anyone know where I can find the big boxes of bond paper?

“Enough with this Socratic nonsense.  Does anyone here know where I can get ten reams of bond paper?”

There are these simple tasks that aren’t so simple for a newbie.  And then there are the bug traps–or, as Catchmaster calls them, “adhesive pest control products”–and the unfortunate lizards that stroll inside.  I saved that first one, yes, and a few more.  One of them I only partially saved, as in his eagerness to escape me, he abandoned his tail, which flailed around on the ground in front of me until I tossed it into the bushes.  But there are those tragedies when I’m too late.  Or the ancient bug traps I’ve found when I explore the creepier passages of my building, that were set out years ago and have been collecting diverse little bodies since.  I enacted the story of Pandora’s box with one such trap.  I just had to know its contents, so I unfolded the box cautiously and found a desiccated gecko and what I swear was a fossilized tarantula.  Shiver.

Oh, Pandora...

Oh, Pandora…

But these brushes with kingdom animalia have endowed me with a certain prestige in the office.  One day I was doing something administrative, possibly wrestling with some staples, when I heard a cry for help: “Is anyone here not afraid of lizards?”  Already excited, I stood up: “I’m not!”  My colleague led me into the ladies’ washroom where a tiny lizard was hiding behind the toilet.  I got down on the floor and after a little graceless scrambling around caught it by its tail and, cradling it in my palm, took it out to the garden to release it.  When I returned, the women I had rescued greeted me as a hero.  Literally, “You’re so brave!  You’re our hero!”

Really, folks, it’s nothing.  All in a day’s work.


There is a single ant running in circles between my arms right now. No wait, he’s crazily scrambling across my keyboard…now exploring my power cord… A small contingent of ants recently left the kitchen to reconnoiter my room. Maybe this one is monitoring my computer habits.

Orientation is nearly over. I’m not sure that I can call myself oriented, at least in the geographical sense, considering that today as the bus sped down an unfamiliar street I assured my friends that this was merely a shortcut (it was not). For that matter, I got lost yesterday too when I went on a mission to see the Shrine of the Báb at sunset. Thank goodness for my map.


(It was totally worth getting lost! And we spotted a jackal going down a staircase in the gardens, so cool! I have yet to see the wild boars that apparently roam around…)

There are now two ants scurrying across my laptop. Time to invest in some traps.

I had lunch with my supervisor today, and afterwards got a glimpse at the office where I’ll work. There it was–my desk, resplendent, in a room with windows! I can’t wait to decorate it with paperclip necklaces and pictures of my kids…or whatever adults usually do.