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

Monday, April 14, 2008

Off Campus

A shout out to the Alexander's for hosting a fantastic dinner party and karaoke night at their Princeton home. Laurie flew in from Austin for a familyandAmber visit this weekend and David, Nadler and I were invited to join her and her family for a super fun evening of great food and fantastic wine and terrible singing (except for Jenny, who really hits every note beautifully). Here are the boys (Nadler, Graham, and David) singing I have no memory of what.And this is Jenny and Laurie serving up some Duran Duran better than Simon Le Bon.
John D and Laura BN, you were very missed!


Kai has discovered the joy of burrowing in the mud, so her days of off-leash gallivanting in the woods are drawing to a close. She looked back at me, on trail, as she debated plunging into the creek bank of goo. I said "no" quite firmly, and threatened to take away her ipod privileges, but clearly that wasn't enough to convince her to stay clean.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Our Apartment

We live on the first floor of this little building. One bed, one bath, one study, living room and dining nook - it serves its purpose pretty well. Kai spends the most time there of the three of us, and she seems to be a big fan of all the rugs the institute provides for her to nap on. The front of the building is on Goldman Lane, named after Hetty Goldman, an archeologist and the first female professor at the institute. All the streets in the institute village are named after famous faculty members, and I'm psyched to live on Goldman from a feminist perspective, but from a naturalist point of view, I covet Von Neumann Circle because of its great wildlife. My first morning here, I saw a pair of Pileated woodpeckers in the trees above the creek that borders Von Neumann. These birds have alluded me for years. It isn't that they are rare, it is just that I haven't ever gotten a very clear (and long) sighting of them. A few days later, I came across at least 6 deer in almost the same spot. And today it was a Northern Flicker. Von Neumann is this wildlife hotspot, definitely the most desirable IAS address.
David and I had folks over for wine and cheese last night, and I stayed up way past my bedtime drinking and eating and laughing. It was a really fun group of people, a few youngsters, and Kai was very well behaved. If you are driving by and want to come in for left over smelly, soft cheeses, this is what the front of the apartment looks like:

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The campus

This is Fuld Hall from the back. I think all these trees are just about to get really gorgeous. The tea room is right behind those three large doors in center on the first floor - I think it is probably called the reading room - it has a lot of different newspapers there and lots of couches. And if you turn around from where I was standing when I took this photo, you can see the Institute pond and the woods behind it.
And then to the right and left are department buildings - physics and math and humanities and the most important department on campus, the dining hall, or Institute for Advanced Food Study. I am often found researching there, making my contribution to academia, culinaria, and society.

Monday, April 7, 2008

1st Deadline a Success, Bunny Rabbit Sighted

I started working Friday morning, the day after I arrived here. I wrote my first deadline on the chalkboard "Chap 2/ Air Jack due Monday 4/7". And now it's done. That chapter has haunted me since January, ever since I decided to rewrite it into two narrative threads that weave about each other.

David is in Boston today and tomorrow, giving a talk at MIT, so it is my first day alone here (among a hundred or so people I don't know). Daniel is in the next office over, ironic as he is also my neighbor back in Hyde Park, and he drew a nice picture of some mean letters on my blackboard (Y and Z to be precise, and they have it in for X – I think this stemmed from a discussion about women being notably absent around the institute, but I am very curious about which gender Z represents). Aside from him, I have only the indiscernible Russian language floating around across the hall and the cafeteria in the next building over to distract me. I find the office to be the most pleasant and productive work environment ever. This is probably why I met a deadline in three days that I hadn’t met in three months. I think my time here will be a success.

When I walked in today (about 5 minutes from the apartment in the IAS Village), I spotted a fluffy fat rabbit. He was almost camouflaged amidst the hundreds of squirrels that roam about the place, but his obesity gave him away.

It’s tea time, 3pm, and I’m going to grab a few cookies and then walk Kai. I’m really hoping for chocolate chip. I'm also hoping I do not go the way of the squirels and rabbits here with all this good food.