Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Qualicum American Makes a Case

A birthday story for Loretta

The American paused before getting out of her car and read the note one more time. This was the definitely the place, the house. She had walked every neighborhood in Qualicum Beach to find the life-scale statue of local lore, with its eyes lifted, giving the impression he was looking back at viewers over the wooden fence. And the description of the house from the letter fit too: I’ve changed the style of the porch Darling, hung some plants, painted the old wood a brick red color to match the trees. And I placed a small elf holding a paintbrush just by the walk.

It was an ugly shade of red to paint a porch, she thought, now walking up the rain-soaked terraced steps to the front door. But obviously she needed to return the note she had found, and opened. Accidentally opened, of course, she would never intentionally open someone else’s mail. That might be the most awkward part. Returning a love letter that never reached its intended is one thing, but returning it to the writer, opened, obviously read…well, maybe the writer wasn’t even alive anymore, maybe a family member would just be glad to have it back.

The American had never meant to infringe on anyone’s privacy. She had borrowed several books from the library on the history of the surrounding area, trying to find out as much as she could about her vacation home. It was nearly impossible to locate a book about the island that focused on something other than Victoria, but there were a few publications, all in different darkness and pattern of coffee mug stain. She had settled on one book in particular, Qualicum Beach and Parksville from a Modern Day Ethnographer. Unfortunately, the book was printed in the early 1980’s, and if she could have a word with the author, Dr. James Malory, she would have let him know, in a friendly way of course, that in the 80’s, even in Los Angeles County in the 80’s, she had not felt it was a time of modernity. But then, not everybody had Reagan’s policies and AYSO to contend with during those years. Maybe in Qualicum Beach, the 1980’s had been a time of forward-moving prosperity.

Time and years served a different function on the island than it did in the states, and that was one of the reasons she had bought a home here. Qualicum would offer her a place to paint and focus on her art without any of the usual hassles that devoured her time back at home.

Malory’s book was interesting, in a quaint way, and she returned to it often while taking breaks from working on the new house. Usually she set the book down open-faced when going back to work, even though she knew this was hard on the spine, but with so many coffee rings she thought pressure on the binding was a negligible attack on the book’s modernity. When the phone had rang, it so rarely rang, and it had been her daughter, asking her to call back to a land line in New Jersey, she had accidentally closed the book upon answering the phone.

Returning to the comfy chair and Malory after their conversation, she saw the book closed and feared she lost her place in its many pages. Normally this would have upset her, for she hated trying to re-read in an attempt to find where she left off. Her memory was excellent in the big ways, and poor in the small ways. She new detailed financial information, and yet often forgot where she had set a glass of white zinfandel. But warm with the news that her daughter was engaged to be married, and therefore less likely to have a child out of wedlock and nearing the finale of this endless wishy-washy business of “living together,” she sat down and began flipping through the volume without much care as to how long it took her to retrace her reading.

It was then that she had found the incredibly thin envelope. It seemed to be no thicker than a page in the book, which could be why it hadn’t been apparent earlier. There was no writing on the faded pink envelope, except for a small check-mark, perhaps in pencil, at the top right corner where the postage ought to have been. It seemed it had been checked while between the pages of the book, for a long pencil line extended across a section of the text. The flap remained tightly sealed, so it couldn’t have been all that old. And yet, it was so thin, so very thin, that she assumed there was nothing inside the envelope. She lifted it to the light, and it appeared to be empty. Probably it had just been used by another reader as a bookmark, a reader who cared more about spines and binding and preserving modernity than she did. The envelope had just sealed itself with the lick of time’s moisture, and resealed with the continuous pressure from pages explaining colonization and expansion on the eastern shores of Vancouver Island.

And so she could open the envelope. Because there was nothing inside. And she had to make sure about that. She had been wrong.

My Love,
Don’t call it an affair. That word reeks of dishonesty and betrayal. Of those we have nothing. Our love is of art and beauty, as delicate as an ancient carving. Do not fear reprisal of any form, just come to me and look at my face…

She had inadvertently opened a love letter meant for someone else. It was a fun, but voyeuristic pleasure to be privy to knowledge before the intended audience. And it would have ended there, with her gently sliding the opened envelope back into the book and hoping the next reader would gain as much fun from the old letter as she had. It would be a slight update to Malory’s modernity, a little caveat on how people behaved after 1989. Of course, she had no idea when the note was written, because it wasn’t dated, but she guest it was at least 20 years old, and the library stamps on the inside front cover confirmed that it hadn’t been checked out in over a decade. How the letter found its way to the book, though, that she couldn’t guess, but either the writer or the recipient had been quiet careless.

Finding her original place in the book, the American had continued her reading. She read all the way up to where the note was, but she had became so intrigued by the mention of a “Hermit” and his carved statue that she clean forgot about the letter. It seemed there was a man who had lived in Qualicum in the first half of the last century, to whom the entire town referred to as a hermit. Really, it was only his appearance that warranted the name - his beard was mighty unkempt, and hygiene was notably not a huge concern of his. The American wondered if perhaps his hermitage wasn’t just wishful thinking on the part of those who caught his unpleasant odor in public places.

The Hermit himself was long gone, but his wooden statue remained in town. The book didn’t provide an address for where it was, but it did say that you could see it over the fence from The Road. Which road the book didn’t specify, but Qualicum Beach was simply not that big, and the American enjoyed walking. She would take her dog, a very large mutt that held affection in the highest regard, and stroll the area looking for the statue. She would canvass the town and peer over people’s backyard fences. Knowing the soft demeanor of Canadians, she knew that no one would mind a friendly peek over a privacy fence, and so she brought with her a light weight step stool (that she used to sit on while painting en plein air) to make the task a bit easier, for she was less than five and a half feet tall.

A few days after beginning her search, on a walk past the stores of the town center to where the businesses gave way to residences, she spied the angularly carved statue! It was in a well-manicured backyard garden, with bright flowers and little stone pathways. She had been so excited by her find that she decided to go up to the front door and ring the bell. Surely a Canadian would be kind enough to let a stranger wander his or her garden. Canadians were amazingly helpful at all places except where they were specifically paid to be, such as the library. It was as she came around to the front of the corner lot that she suddenly stopped in her tracks and told Bubbles, the very large dog who held affection in high esteem, to sit. A few feet from her stood a cherub cheeked lawn ornament. It was an elf holding a paintbrush. The porch was a dark red, flowers hanging around the perimeter. This was too much to be a coincidence. And it was then she remembered that the note had been placed on exactly the page that mentioned the statue. The poor author must have been reading about himself or herself and accidentally left the love letter at that page.

The American wanted to do what was right, and return the forgotten letter, but she also saw this as a very good quid pro quo opportunity to secure the owner’s good favor and therefore a closer peek into the backyard.

She had returned home immediately. And the very next day she set out to meet the owner of the hermit statue and the love letter. She took the envelope and secured it in her purse, gave Bubbles a treat for being left out of the adventure, and grabbing the book (for it was now overdue) she journeyed out.

And thus she was standing on the red-painted porch, knocking politely, and hoping the person inside was a native islander and not a Vancouver transplant, those types were never able to fully retract the city bustle from their personalities.

“May I help you?”

It was a gentleman of about 50, with watery eyes and not too clean teeth, but otherwise entirely presentable.

“Hello, I’m Evetta Kovak. I believe I accidentally found something that might belong to someone at this house.”

“Well, there is only me at this house and has been for some time, eh? Won’t you come in?”

The American was terribly relieved, for it occurred to her she might be alerting a spouse to a painful betrayal, despite what the note had said about not fearing reprisal. She stepped into the house and immediately took off her shoes, setting them by the door, as the local custom dictated.

“Come have a seat,” He said graciously.

Evetta followed him through the house, which was floor to ceiling with art and artifacts. She tried to take in as much as she could of the treasures before arriving in a bright sunroom, where she sat on a couch that seemed to made of a vinyl-like upholstery. She wished she hadn’t worn shorts, because her thighs would stick to this couch as certain as they melted to the driver’s seat of her VW bug in the late ‘60’s. Sitting on the edge of the cushion, to avoid contact with her flesh, she fished out the envelope from her purse and handed it to the man, who had yet to introduce himself.

“I’m so sorry to have opened it, I had assumed it was empty and my curiosity forced me to make sure.”

As he took the envelope, a confused expression passed over his face.

“I thought you would have destroyed this by now,” he said, almost chastising her.

“I found it in a book, from the library, I certainly wouldn’t destroy something that wasn’t mine, much less something that came from a library.”

His look changed from uncertainty to panic, and raising his voice he said,

“But did you not come here, for, for a shared love of antiquity?”

The American decided that this was one of the oddest Canadians she had yet met.

“Of course, I was hoping to see the sculpture,” she replied, not knowing how on earth this man had figured out her ulterior motive in just minutes. He must receive tourists constantly, banging on his door all the time wishing to see the Hermit statue up close.

The anxiety left his face, and he seemed to be in calm control again. Evetta noticed that he had tossed the envelope aside quite without even a thought, and his attention was completely directed at her rather than on the letter or how she came about getting it.

He eyed her somewhat suspiciously, from the top down and then back up. And although she hated to admit it to herself, he seemed somewhat disappointed in her overall appearance.

“Excuse me a moment,” he said, shaking his head slightly as he left the room.

Evetta wondered if she should leave. Just because it was a small town of Canadians didn’t mean one of them couldn’t be a deviant psychotic killer. And here she was, sitting in a stranger’s house. A stranger she knew next to nothing about and the little she did know was not comforting.

But before she made a decision to flee, the man returned with a wooden box, about two feet by two feet. He placed the box on the table in front of the American, flipped up a latch and opened the lid. Inside, cushioned in foam cut exactly to its shape, was a carved wooden mask. It seemed to be encrusted with shell bits that glittered as if they were inlaid diamonds. There was almost more mosaic than cedar showing, and it was clearly a very precious object and not at all recently made.

“It’s beautiful!” She gasped.

“You may inspect it, but please wear these,” and he handed her a pair of latex gloves.

Evetta was thrilled. This man was not a lunatic murderer, he was an eccentric collector and she had stumbled upon a private showing of his most prized possession.

“How old is it?” She asked, putting on the gloves and gently holding the mask in front of her.

“Kind lady, I will not play these games. I can assure you it is authentic to the pre-colonial period, the papers of provenance are beneath the bedding. You must either find it satisfactory or not.”

Again, he seemed angry and confused. An odd man with a short temper Evetta thought.

“I find it quite satisfactory, thank you for showing it to me,” she said, hoping he knew how truly grateful she was as she returned it to the box in front of her.

“Excellent. How will you cross customs?”

Evetta was less surprised by the non sequitur in his conversation than that her Americaness was so readily apparent. She shook her head sadly, no matter how hard she tried to fit in, even with her speech, even by removing her shoes, even by calling a dollar a “Loonie” in a casual manner, as if that were a perfectly normal thing for an adult to call a monetary amount, they always knew she was a foreigner. Always.

“I cross on the ferry at Victoria, with my dog in the back seat of the car guarding all of my valuables,” she joked, hoping to befriend the man.

“Alright then, I bid you farewell.”

And he abruptly stood up, taking hold of the box with one arm and firmly grasping Evetta’s arm with the other hand. He led her back though the house, past various totems and jewelry, headpieces and statues and artwork of ancient-looking origin, to the foyer. She hadn’t even seen the Hermit statue yet!

“The transfer went through days ago,” he continued rapidly, “I must say I was expecting you sooner than this, and due to your lackadaisical approach we will not be doing business again. So thank you and goodbye.”

Evetta barely had time to put her shoes on before she was shoved out onto the ugly red porch. When she turned to tell him what she thought of his horrible manners and temper, the man pushed the box into her hands and quickly closed the door.

Upon hearing the deadbolt latch inches from her face, everything that happened in the last few days became quite clear to Evetta. She was not a stranger to mystery, whether she was in California or Canada. Mystery seemed to follow her like gum spat out on the sidewalk in 90 degree heat only to be tracked for blocks on the sole of a sneaker.

The American sighed, realizing that her second home would no longer offer any relief from the constant sleuthing and crime fighting that doggedly occupied her in the coastal resort community she usually inhabited. No, Qualicum Beach, perhaps the island as a whole, was in just as dire need of her skillful detective work as the pseudo-sleepy town of Cambria, California.

With the sad realization that her vacation home would really just be another location to battle conspiracy and correctly attribute murders, Evetta returned to her car. She carefully placed the box, which most certainly contained a stolen indigenous mask some three hundred years old, in the back seat of her car, tightly nestled between Bubble’s travel water dish and her can of oil paints.

Evetta then drove to the library, thinking she would save the police one more bit of trouble by finding out if there was any patron who had made attempts to check-out Malory’s ethnographic vision of Parksville and Qualicum Beach. Her investigation was delayed and then speeded by the librarian’s feverish obsession with correct change. It seems she would only accept Evetta’s overdue book fine in Toonies, and refused to make change for any bills. “The bank is down the road, we’re the library. We deal with books, not money. And I must say that has become a popular title lately. Just after you checked it out another foreigner came in here looking for it. Asked me to do a re-call before your loan period was even done. Can you imagine the nerve? Americans!”

Evetta resisted the temptation to inform the librarian that this American was saving a priceless artifact from being smuggled out of the country and instead found the correct change in the bottom of her purse and then offered to inform the her fellow antsy American of the book’s availability herself, seeing as how she had kept it past her allotted time.

Hurrying, because it was past dinner time now for her large dog, who would, due to his fondness for attention, would actually prefer petting to kibble, Evetta stepped into the police station next door to the library. There she supplied the detective/clerk/parking officer with a short summary of the crime, the address of the black market supplier, the name and number of the buyer, and the stolen mask itself. She felt secure that justice would take its course, not for faith in the local law enforcement, but because the editor/reporter/publisher of the daily Qualicum Query also happened to be at the police station, taking notes on everything she said and asking more questions about her claim than the police officer himself.

The Query was a rather clever piece of journalism, she thought to herself upon leaving the station. Evetta turned at the door to remind the officer to use oil-free gloves if handling the evidence, and upon smiling goodbye to the newspaper editor, the American was yet to know that her very next mystery in the cozy town of Qualicum would coincidentally hinge upon that man’s integrity. Indeed her own life would be imperiled by his wavering morality in the Case of the Copy Edit.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Lakeside Birthday

Happiest of birthdays to Karen, who celebrated at a relaxing camp-out at Muleshoe this weekend. It was such a nice people/canine welcome back home for Kai and me. I've missed Austin and Austin people!
Yay for the birthday badminton queen and the Piggle Pot!

The very pregnant Ms. Warner in the Triangle of Hammocks.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Eilers Castle

I returned home from DC in two days' drive. long days. And I arrived to a heinous head cold and a hawk. One resides in my face, just behind my nose and eyes, and the other is in my back yard. The blue jays like to do flybys and harass him, and the neighbors say he has been here for a couple weeks. I am so lucky to have my own resident Broad-winged Hawk. So much bird drama occurs with him perched above my house. And I like hearing him call, it makes my sinuses feel better.

The District

On my journey back to Tejas I visited Shomon in the country's hub of institutionalization, Washington DC. Did you know that the official license plate there says "Taxation Without Representation"? I assumed it was one of those plates you had to pay extra for, like Quilters do it with Needles, but no, as Shom pointed out, you have to pay not to have TWR on your car. The district has definitely been shafted by not being a state. But I don't live there, and it isn't my constitutional rights that are being violated Every Day, so I can just enjoy the museums. For free!

I visited in the Hirshhorn (above), and the Sackler and the Freer. And got to see a lot of great sculpture by David Smith, who I really dig.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Institution of Marriage

We are the betrothen ones. You can't have him.

As of May 4, David and I became officially engaged. As in, to be married. Our ringless, non-kneeling ceremony took place sometime in the evening, somewhere in the woods of Shawnee, PA, and somehow involving a 400 lb bear and a dog named Xena. It was awesome. Still is.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Weekend of Fun Day 4

This is what the view of the river looked like when I woke up! We were above the clouds.

Tuesday we left or lovely B&B, but the main even of the day was horseback riding on the Jersey side of the Gap. I rode Ranger, and David rode Cody.

Weekend of Fun Day 3

We canoed the Delaware River. I mostly floated and drank beer. David paddled and drank beer. Life vests come with a built in beer koozie (ie: strap, see photo)! who knew?

Lunch was on an island all to ourselves. Actually, the whole river was practically ours. This is what happens when your weekend extends into Monday.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Click to Give

In the last month I got two emails reminding me about Clicking to Give sites on the web - you mouse click an advertisement box and it translates into donations for a good cause. I was going to compile a bookmark folder of the sites (and find more) and just try to run through it each morning and habituate myself to doing a good deed before I've even had coffee. That way, I'm done good deeding for the day and can proceed to be an asshole until bedtime.

Anyway, the sites are all with the same meta-site,, so I don't need a bookmark folder, and this is what I wanted to share with you all. Go to the site for Free Mammograms, or the site for Food For Rescue Animals and then run through the tabs at the top of the page, because all the sites are accessible through eachother. Make a click for the Rainforest or Literacy or World Hunger. And don't forget Child Health! It's easy to do, quick click. And you can click every day, but not more than once a day.

If you are a cynical, suspicious person like me, you can even check out the legitimacy of this fund raising on Snopes at this webpage on the Free Mammograms and you can see that it takes 45,000 clicks to provide one woman with a free mammogram. So get clicking. Also, at any of the fundraising sites, they have a RESULTS link on the left that tells you what the clicks have earned by day, month, or year. For example, on May 6, the clicks generated 19K pounds of food for Hunger programs.

And if you are an even more cynical, suspicious person than me, and you like to be an asshole well beyond bedtime, you can do the research one step further and find out if the companies that are paying to advertise, and therefore having 75% of their fees donated through a secondary LLC, the GreaterGood site, get a tax break for this and would be donating an equal or greater amount to charity if the site didn't exist. Maybe they are laundering their donations through advertisement, double dipping the same amount of dollars that would be used to get IRS deductions anyhow. I don't know, I'm writing a novel, not an investigative piece on the faux philanthropy.

Weekend of Fun Day 2

On day 2 of WofF, we drove a few hours north of Princeton to the Delaware Water Gap. Laurie had suggested it as a nearby vacation spot for us and she was so very right, it is absolutely beautiful. David had reserved a beautiful B&B for us near Shawnee, on the Pennsylvania side, but we wanted to get a hike in before arriving.

So we did a four hour loop up to Sunfish Pond (on the Jersey side of the Gap) and had a picnic lunch, saw a Hooded Warbler, and checked out some nice waterfalls.

Then we went to Santosha on the Ridge, where our bedroom was nestled up in the trees and I could bird from my window.

It's called the Sunrise Room, and each morning the light would flood in and the birds would sing and while David slept I crept around to each of the three views from our room with my binoculars trying to ID the little feather creatures. Then I'd go back to sleep, because breakfast wasn't served until 9.....

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Weekend of Fun Day 1

There’s this place about 15 minutes from Princeton called the Grounds for Sculpture – it’s full of modern sculpture, ranging from “ugh” to “hey, that’s cool.” But more interesting than the art are the gardens you get to explore to find the art. It’s really charming. And HUGE, the place has hundreds of pieces of art.
It used to be a fairground before it was renovated and landscaped a couple decades ago. There are wooden doors hinged into tall hedges that lead to secret outdoor rooms where you can swing in a hammock, or make out with your boyfriend, whatever. And bridges to walk over koi ponds with misters shooting clouds into your face. And some fun water sculptures that are built into streams with little stone paths.
David and I had so much fun there Saturday, it was great. The photo above is me studying with a statue. If you are ever near here, you should definitely check it out – but don’t expect the Met, just think of it as a play ground – good for adults and little ones.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Genetic Bets

We know she is 100% adorable, but what are her actual breed percentages?

I’m taking bets on Kai’s genetic make-up. We swabbed her inner cheek this morning for epithelial cells, and soon we will receive results from her Canine Heritage ™ Breed Test. If you want to play the game, your admission ticket is one dollar. The winner gets the pot!! And yes, you can enter more than once.

Some background on the Chiral Spiral:

She was born around 11/05 in a litter of 4 pups. She was the 2nd most curly of the three females. The one male had short hair like a black lab. All 4 pups were pure black.

Kai’s adult weight is 36 pounds. Maybe a little less now that we gave her a buzz cut.

Her skin is white, fur is all black

Her tongue is marbled pink and black

Eyes brown

She is prone to ear infections and she has a sensitive stomach

She likes to retrieve and then keep (ie:balls)

She enjoys hunting for hidden objects – like an Easter egg style game

She will sometimes point with a front leg, she will always chase a squirel if she is off leash

Her bark is not totally small dog yappy, but not big dog low either

She loves food and is never satiated

She has shown a few “herding” behaviors in the past

She is not mellow. If we could harness her energy, the country would be freed from fossil fuels

The animal shelter we got her from described her as a Labrador and Spaniel mix. The impression they gave me at the time is that these were guesses.

The test results will provide primary (50% or more), secondary, and “in the mix” (low amounts but measurable) breeds. They only test for the 38 most common mixed breeds in North America. You can find those breeds here at their website.

Your guess can include one Primary breed, one or more secondaries, and one or more “in the mixes.” You can post your guess in the comments section, or email them to me. I know you are good for the buck, no need to send a money order.

Here are a few more photos to sleuth by. The first was taken when she was still a puppy. The second one I took this morning (note our lovely hide red wine and mustard carpeting). The last image is from a month ago, with a full body of hair and a bit of creek water.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Wegmans is from Hell

I am ready to rip someone a new asshole. With my teeth.

This is the state of mind a visit to Wegmans grocery store puts me in. I imagine that it is close to how a woman feels in the hours after her spouse of 20 years has informed her that he has been having an affair and is leaving her, for a younger smarter and more beautiful woman who speaks three languages, a woman whose vagina hasn’t been left gaping after delivering his five children, and PS he never loved you and was only in it for that crusted-pecan chicken dish you make so well. I feel like that woman, curled up in the fetal position on the bathroom floor, shaking, with waves of acidic nausea licking up at the back of my throat.

And I did this to myself, voluntarily. I had visited Wegmans one time before, my first weekend here in Princeton. And let me assure you that a weekend visit to Wegmans is akin to being flayed alive. In salt water. Yes, I did cry after that visit. And no, I am not ashamed, because to not be moved to tears by that experience would have meant I was so far from reality and suffering from such emotional disconnect that I would be practically robotic and numb in my approach to the world. People who can survive a trip to Wegmans on the weekend are the same freaks that mall walk.

So this time I plotted my journey to Wegmans. I strategized. They open at 6am, I arrived at 7am. On a Monday. I was rewarded in that there were no other customers. Unfortunately, there were also no employees. Or produce. An empty supermarket and me. Thanks be to the Gods the coffee bar was open.

But I was on a mission, so I forged on, filling my cart with overpriced items that boasted 96% organic content. (is the other 4% pure pesticide poison?)

The heinous thing about Wegmans, and you really can’t appreciate how God-awful it is until you have to make a full, complete grocery store trip there, is that the store is divided into “sections.” I don’t mean produce, dairy, canned goods. I mean “natural” “wegmans” “kosher” “redneck” “fresh”. Okay, the redneck section isn’t called that, but it is basically the left-over section that resembles the food aisles at a Wallmart, it is the cheap section where they put the non-organic, non-Wegmans knock-off, non-freshly baked, plain old pop-tarts. The problem with these sections, is that you can find (or not find) an item in numerous locations. The store is clinically schizophrenic. It is like grocery shopping at a state fair, with little booths spread out over a 22 acre plot of land. Bread is located in at least 4 places. I kid you not: fresh bakery, “natural”, a random frozen aisle, and the redneck section. Oh my god! Ketchup? 3 places. Cheese? At least 6, including it’s own entire wing.

After 1 hour and 30 minutes of locating items on my grocery list, I lacked only the soy sauce and any earthly reason to live. I had already found rice and stir fry veggies and I wasn’t about to turn back on that meal. I looked in three likely places for it, even willing to pay for organic soy sauce in the “natural” section if only I could fucking find it. And understand, Wegman’s is not physically small. It takes about 3 minutes to walk from one end to another without heavy cart traffic. So zig-zagging around looking for the soy sauce is not a quick task.
I had no luck finding it. Anywhere. At any price. I had to ask for help. But there are no employees wandering around to assist me, because at Wegmans You Are On Your Fucking Own Sucker. So I go clear to the Customer Service desk, where a woman coughs on me and then asks how she can help.

“What aisle is soy sauce on?”

Her face falls as she grabs a multi-page key/map/legend/emergency evacuation guidebook. She looks through it, she sighs. She looks up at me. She sighs. I swear to God I thought she was going to ask me if I really needed it That Badly. Then she says, “The easiest way to get soy sauce, the way I would find it, is to look in the International section way up front in the corner.”
Holy Shit! A whole section that somehow slipped my notice! But wait, I found salsa in three places already: the olive bar, the natural section, and the redneck section….so is there even more salsa in the International section? Imported salsa? Actual Mexican mexican salsa?

I found the soy sauce. I found 8 different brands of soy sauce, some enfused with cold-pressed citrus. And I guess that is the thing, that is why some people swear that Wegmans is the greatest food store ever – it’s not that they are sick, twisted fucks, it is that once you know the store, once you have memorized where your items are, then it is probably fantastic in its scope. But the learning curve must take years – like memorizing all the arrondissement boundaries of Paris.

I grabbed a bottle of soy sauce. I waited in line and paid. My total was $200. So I basically paid $100/hour for the pleasure of Wegmans. I think that is about 50% more than I would have paid for the same food in Austin. So the cost of living IS higher here, financially, but also, and more importantly, emotionally.

Sunday, April 27, 2008


There is a waterside trail here that looks very much like the Town Lake Hike and Bike trail in Austin (now Lady Bird Lake). It's called the Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park, and it is something like 50 miles of trail - part of it along the canal and then the other half alongside the Delaware River. You can walk to if from where I am living in about 7 minutes (you cut through a gravel road that isn't open to through traffic, only birders parking before they get crazy with their binos, but google maps refuses to believe that the street is not usable, and it makes mapping my directions from here very frustrating). Once you're on the D&R, either direction is pretty. I've only been as far as Port Mercer one way and the lock at Kingston the other - about a 6.5 mile stretch. The segment of the towpath next to Carnegie Lake is especially nice - canal on one side and lake one the other. This is the lake:


Heather, Charley and little Liam came to Princeton for a visit this weekend, where Liam discovered that the only thing that tastes better than crayon is a PJ's pancake. Heather is one of my best friends from high school and now she and her family live in Philadelphia. These photos were taken on a bench/sculpture at the Institute pond.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Winged Distractions!

This little friend (it's a barn swallow) made several appearances outside my window today while I worked.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Writing Community

I’ve been really fortunate in the last few months to find some peer groups/ opportunities that are helping me grow as a writer. I thought I’d update you all on that aspect of my life.

Last summer, I tried out “Writer’s Block” an Austin group of writers that meets once a week and does writing exercises. The meeting time is really problematic, so I didn’t stick with it, but the few times I did attend were beneficial. The act of doing quick writes, reading the result aloud to others, and getting positive feedback was very encouraging and a positive experience to have when I was just starting out.

After that, I started attending a Meet-Up group called “Austin Writers.” This group was organized by a very interesting guy, and meetings would vary between write-ins, happy hour, critique & discussion, and writing games/exercises. Sometimes the meetings were really fun and productive, sometimes infuriating. It just depended on who else showed up and what the group dynamic was that day.

In February I applied for my first writing residency. There are about 30 writing residencies that are offered around the country – they differ in degree of support (some pay you, some just house and feed you, some you pay), stature, and duration. They also differ in how much it costs to apply, and how many letters of recommendation you need to submit, and of course, how difficult it is to get them.

So I pitched my second book idea in this residency application (because I really hope to be on the next book and done with this one by the fall). Book two is a historical fiction collection of short stories narrating events from torpedoes to internment in World War II California. The stories are themed around a sunken oil tanker off the coast of San Luis Obispo, torpedoed by the Japanese weeks before Pearl Harbor was bombed. Maybe I’ll write more about this project in another post, but the point is, I was awarded the residency.

I’ll be spending 7 glorious days at Wildacres Retreat in October, about an hour away from Ashville. I was hysterically excited when I got the email telling me I was selected – but I don’t think I really came to understand how valuable the idea of “retreat” is until I came here to the Institute, where I have manufactured an illegitimate residency for myself. Having accommodations, food, workspace and no responsibilities is a really excellent way to get a ton of work done. I get so much done here I don’t even feel escapist or guilty about long posts like this.

Back to writing community. I also found Austin’s Novels in Progress group. A fantastic mix of smart people who do a twice-monthly critique of one member’s work. I only attended one meeting in Austin before coming out to Jersey, but I have been critiquing from afar in hopes of keeping up with this group and soon getting a chance to submit my own manuscript sample. I feel really good about NIP, the dedication and feedback they give each other is very constructive.

Lastly, I submitted a writing sample to the Heart of Texas chapter of Sisters in Crime, a mystery writing group that hosts an annual mentoring program in honor of Barbara Burnett Smith. I’ve been paired with an author, who has emailed me a critique of my submission, and I will be returning to Austin specifically to attend the Barbara Burnett Smith Aspiring Writers Event mid May.

Because Sisters in Crime has a monthly newsletter, participation in the mentoring event has also led me into the realm of “selling myself.” I know this is something I am going to need to get comfortable and proficient at if I ever want to find an agent, so I’m trying to embrace the 100 word story synopsis and 200 word bio, and thanks to David for taking a headshot of me. Since you all will probably not receive the newsletter, you can have an advanced peek:

Synopsis of “Ursuline Sisters of the Gone”
By Amber Novak

When Key Montgomery quits her job as a newspaper reporter and returns home to Austin, she assumes graduate school will be a welcome distraction from watching her elderly mother die. Instead, her academic work plunges Key even further into the emotional waters that surround their relationship. Researching her family’s history, she unearths passions and horrors that have been carefully buried for generations. With the unexpected assistance of an out-of-work architect who prefers microbrew to blueprints, Key discovers that the Montgomery women didn’t just keep secrets behind tight lips – but also inside walls and under floorboards.

About the Author:

Amber Novak has spent the majority of her adult life exploring the people, places, and stories of Texas while traveling the state as a freelance photojournalist. Her work has been published in the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune, Austin American-Statesman, Texas Observer, and Texas Highways magazine.

After a lifetime of attempting to quiet the make-believe voices of an oft-inappropriate and always overactive imagination, Ms. Novak finally acquiesced to their demands last summer. Setting aside her cameras she commenced in earnest to embrace her truest nature and write fiction.

The result is a literary mystery titled Ursuline Sisters of the Gone. Ms. Novak is in the rewriting stages of her novel and plans for it to be completed soon, if not before then. Ursuline Sisters of the Gone is set in Austin, Texas and intertwines multiple story lines spanning almost a century.

Amber Novak holds a bachelor’s of science in psychology from Brown University and a master’s in journalism from the University of Texas. She is a member of the Austin Novels in Progress group and was recently awarded a writing residency at The Wildacres Retreat. She is thrilled to participate in the Barbara Burnett Smith Aspiring Writers Event and would like to thank the Sisters in Crime Heart of Texas Chapter for providing such a unique opportunity.

What Mathland looks Like

This is the math building here at the institute. David and Nadler spend the majority of their time on the other side of those floor to ceiling windows you see on the second level of the building on the far right. Those bulky looking things on the grass at the left may look like trash bins from this distance, but they are actually outdoor chalkboards. Pretty cool, hu?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Tea Time

Some of you have heard me rave about the 3 o'clock cookies. Really, it is the only civilized way to get any work accomplished. Say you get back into your office after lunch at 12:45, and the afternoon seems long, hard, uninspired. But really, you just tell yourself to work hard until 3, and then you can go downstairs and have a cookie. or 5. there is no limit to the number of cookies you can have. they're free. and homemade. and delicious. and they are there every week day just waiting for you. with coffee, or tea.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A Trail Tour

David commented this weekend that he has never before been so attuned to the natural changes around him. He lingers over the flora here, from branch to forest floor, like I have never seen him do before, and he gives me updates on the blossoming of the cherry tree outside the math department.I feel it too, even though I have been here less than three weeks. It is the same feeling I had living in Jones Gulch while being an outdoor educator, or at the lovely Bradeen cabin on Gorham Pond. And it is strange that observing nature and seasonal change fills one with both security and awe at the same time. “Remarkable” and “Comforting” are not often linguistic bedfellows, and yet that is the best way I can describe how I feel when I begin to know a place’s natural sounds and smells and sights.There is a bird sanctuary here, adjacent to the Institute Woods, and it has a nice tower to check out the waterfowl action in the marsh below. Normally what I see from there is frantic wet turtle sex, a few great blue herons, wood ducks, and tons of red-winged black birds.

My favorite trail is back behind the pumping station and wetland (yes, it is artificially created). This is what my favorite trail looks like:And although I have had some very good sightings of woodchucks here, I have yet to see any beavers, but this monument tells me they are present:The trail goes along Stony Creek, and at first parallels the tow path and canal, although you can’t see either of them over the embankment. The most frequent bird in Stony Creek is the Canada Goose:
Eventually, the creek splits and forms The Island. And the best thing about The Island, is the suspension bridge you have to walk to get to it:

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Cherry Blossoms

On the fourth day of my drive from Austin to Princeton, I arrived in the most beautiful garden of heaven – Washington DC during its peak cherry blossom days. I’ve always wanted to see the cherry trees in full bloom, so it was pretty great that it coincided with my road trip, and even better that Shomon lives in DC and was a there to tour Kai and I around monuments and mobs of other cherry tree tourists. I had such a nice time, the first really good day of an otherwise rainy, truckers-on-my-ass road trip.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A Mi/ Ah, Me

What is the mud-clumped root of the hesitation you grasp Window watching above the computer screen Not wanting to write nor edit but not much wanting anything else either
Or perhaps, as is shown right now, escaping with write, but being picky in what is written

Is that so bad? Well, yes if you have a project, a goal, no income, a book that must be finished and bound and held against my lips like an inanimate cross between baby and lover

Less bad if I were hourly-waged to just sit and write, turn in all the day’s work at the 5 o’clock bell Paid regardless of quality Is that what a grant is like? Pre-content payment to be free to type absurdities later?

[And the overarching truth is that my hair falls straight in these climes, so it isn’t just a new work-me here in Princeton, but a new mirror-me as well, and that does take some self one’s getting used to]

The problem being, as if explaining it again makes it solved, is that a character lied to me, and this I find shameful

I sat down, just like this, months ago, and she whispered to my fingers what to push and I obeyed, only to read it Monday and not believe what she had said! If I weren’t so distressed by why she misled me I’d be quicker to amend the chapter, but the sting of her misrepresentation is too much What reason did she have? Perhaps she was unsure of what her actions were?

It was a highly charged moment, around 4pm in 1958, if the note led her to vomit upon first sight, of course she might have considered several courses of action after that and mistakenly, rather than purposely, allowed me to write an untruth of fictional history

Thus I provide her with a gracious way out, and her and my relationship is salvaged (and we do need to remain on speaking terms, at least for a few more months) In general I just can’t trust her, she has so many faces depending on who is doing the looking. Mary. You are a problematic homemaker, drinker, planter of tulip bulbs!

I may, nay, will! wrestle the truth of what happened that day. And if she wont tell me, Judith will, for I find her to be more reliable a witness to what only takes place in my head.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Nature is Crazy Sick Here

Is it possible for an aspiring novelist to come live at the Institute of Advanced Studies and make mathematicians uncomfortable by her nerdiness? It seems yes, if the nerdiness motivates from birding. It is nice to know that there is a clear Nerd hierarchy, and that even the most socially ostracized of smart people have others they can look down on. I’m almost happy to provide such an out, especially if it means new species on my life list. That’s right, I have a life list, I’m not afraid to say it.
Anyway, I was sitting outside Fuld with two math guys, Carl and The Webster, eating my cookies (three kinds yesterday – peanut butter, chocolate cookie with white chocolate chips, and then a jam filled sugar cookie sandwich) and listening to a discussion of the process of math, as it is distilled for a layperson such as myself, when up above my head on the weather vane what did I spy but a fat juicy hawk! This was too much – cookies and Buteos? Well, I made the interpersonal faux pas our parents always warned us about and pulled out the ‘nocs, the binos, the old Minolta 8x23s that I have made a habit of carrying around with me here. Upon proceeding with identification (it was a Red Tail) The Webster fled into the building, hands raised in fear, face distorted in disgust. Carl actually wanted to take a look at the bird, and he seemed perfectly comfortable with the act of birding in public – but then again, my boyfriend is his advisor, so what choice did he really have? And he’s from Berkeley, so there you go.
So this has been your warning, and if you would like to wander off to the Daily Kos now would be the time to do it, because what follows is my bird list from Princeton for the last week. The Institute Woods is a very well known birding location for the spring warbler migration, so hopefully I will be posting another list in a few more weeks that makes this list look like I wrote Rock Dove 30x in a row.
The sweetie pictured above is a Hermit Thrush, I saw her on my way in this morning and she was kind enough to hold still for a photo. And this is what the trails look like around here:

And spring has most definitely stated her arrival:Canada Goose
Great Blue heron
Mallard Duck
Northern Shoveler
Wood Duck
Wild Turkey
Turkey Vulture
Red Tail Hawk
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Hairy Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker
Eastern Phoebe
Blue Jay
American Crow
Tufted Titmouse
Black-capped Chickadee
White-breasted Nuthatch
Ruby Crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
Northern Mockingbird
Pine Warbler
Palm Warbler
Northern Cardinal
Song Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
White-throated Sparrow
Red-winged Blackbird
Purple Finch