The Great Crow Experiment, Part 1


The hypothesis of this experiment is that Corvus brachyrhynchos (American Crow) has the ability to recognize individual people and individual cars.

As previously reported in MEH and the Crows (citation: wordsxo) and Science News (citation: Science News), American Crows are extremely intelligent animals. MEH (My Engineer Husband) read an article in Science News about a crow researcher who would occasionally fling peanuts and/or dogfood out her car window to stir up crow activity. After she sold her car, the new owner called and asked her why a crow was following her to work. The researcher then realized that crows recognize not just individual humans but also individual cars. By the way, the car’s new owner didn’t mind the crow following, instead just “provisioned her car with peanuts for the occasional fling.”
MEH suggested we try an experiment of our own and test the theory ourselves. This was an easy task because there are a lot of crows at the nearby park and recreation center where we walk our dog once in the morning and again in the evening.

And so it was, about two months ago MEH purchased a large bag of peanuts (a preferred crow food) and we started feeding the crows—from our car and when on foot while walking the dog.

* Peanuts
* Camera
* Video Camera
* iPhone Audio recorder (we made daily audio “Crow Logs,”  like the one you can listen to at the end of this post!!)
* The car (white non-descript station wagon)
* Ourselves (MEH and Julia)
Method and Procedure

The experiment entailed a four-pronged method:

1. Placing peanuts twice a day at specific spots around the softball field at the recreation area: specifically at portions of the fence we have called “faux gates” (because they are shorter segments so they look like gates and we decided the crows might easily see them from the air).

2. Placing peanuts on the fence posts at the recreation area.

3. Flinging peanuts out the car windows (when crows are present) as we drive away from the recreation area as well as other places we see crows.

4. Throwing peanuts in our driveway if and when we notice crows in our yard or following us home.

Crow Log November 14, 2011 (mp3)LISTEN HERE for a preview of results!!

Next blog post (Thursday): Results and Conclusions

Goose, Goose, Goose, Goose, Crow

(Sunday, November 13, 2011, 7:14 a.m. EST, 44 degrees F)

Our lovely stretch of weather continues! And in addition to the lovely scenery, this video provides a rare opportunity to hear the voice behind wordsxo. Yes, at about 37 seconds into the video, I have a very brief conversation with a passer-by, and you cannot avoid hearing my voice. 
“Pepper Pete” in better days.

Aside from this novelty, primarily geese and ducks dominate this week’s video! Also—more notably to MEH (My Engineer Husband) and me—you will see a crow fly through the video toward the end. We’re big crow fans; you can read about that in the post I wrote about MEH and the crows. And watch for more posts about crows coming up very soon!

Meanwhile in the garden…. You may recall the large potted pepper plant, nicknamed “Pepper Pete.” We had hopes of wintering the plant in the house and putting it back outside next spring. But a few days ago we discovered “Pepper Pete” is infested with aphids. So “he” has been put out to pasture on the porch. There are still peppers to harvest, and the weather has been mild enough that we may still get a few peppers! In mid-November in Maine, this is unheard of, at least in this gardening family!

Our other news is that we’ve been getting the bird feeding station ready for winter—squirrel proofing it—and putting out suet and thistle, too. We also put out corn for the squirrels and chipmunks, because I’m a fan of all woodland creatures!

This was the birdfeeder yesterday before we squirrel-proofed it. “Mr. Grackles,” as we call all
squirrels, could empty this of seeds in a day. This is the view I see out the window over my desk.

But don’t worry, Mr. Grackles is still being well fed! 


Warning: This Post is a Rant.

On Tuesday I almost wrote this blog, but I thought twice. I don’t like to rant on my blog. I don’t like reading rants, and I don’t like writing them. Especially not when I have a 70,000-plus-word manuscript sitting on my dining room table, mid-edit.
But some rants have to be written. They beg to be written. Something is so annoying or frustrating to a writer’s brain that there’s no stopping them. Especially when there’s a 70,000-plus-word manuscript sitting on my dining room table, mid-edit, using an approach suggested by Laura Harrington on Women’s Fiction Writers called Rewriting Part 1: Dealing with Plot (Or Why Love 3×5 Cards).

Because, I—like Laura—love index cards. I use them a lot for everything. In fact, in this house we go through a lot of index cards—in addition to my use, my kids use them for flashcards, and MEH (My Engineer Husband) uses them for…everything.

But it’s not just us. Because two days ago Julie Musil wrote a post: A Love Affair…With Index Cards. I commented to her that I almost wrote about index cards that same day…but not about how much I loved them….

No. Because index cards have let me down lately. They’ve changed. Index cards used to be silky smooth to my touch, heavy in my hands. Any ink I used, even from a fountain pen, easily caressed their surface without smudging or running.

At first I thought it was me. Maybe I’m too demanding? Maybe I’m so used to high-tech printer papers and touch-screen everythings that I was becoming too good for the lowly only-to-be-handwritten index card. So I did what any disappointed lover writer would do. I turned to a trusted friend.

“Is it just me or have you noticed, too, that index cards are so flimsy these days?” I wrote in an email to writer friend Melissa Crytzer Fry.

“Sorry about your flimsy index cards.” Melissa answered. “I just opened mine and I can’t believe how paper-thin they are either. OH MY. I had no idea how cheap they are now.” 

Yes. Cheap. Further saddened, I wondered. Maybe there was another better brand, a deluxe index card, if you will. I went to Staples. No luck. Walmart. Still nothing better. RiteAid. Nope. I know what you’re thinking: that’s one dedicated writer! (Ok, I know what you’re REALLY thinking: she’s nutso!)

My final stop in my quest for the answer to the case of the flimsy index card was my local print shop. In our small town, we only have one small print shop/place to make copies. Literally 2 minutes from my house, I drove there immediately. I knew Dennis—a specialist: a graphic artist and owner of the print shop —would help me in my quest.
I waited patiently while Dennis helped the guy in front of me—someone who was talking about something much less important than my index cards: his 10,000 copy job of multi-colored ink, tri-folded, double-side printed, high-gloss paper brochure that would make him a bazillion dollars in sales.

When it was my turn, I cut straight to the chase. I handed Dennis the small heap of index cards I’d brought with me, a sampling of the many packages I’d purchased. Dennis may be one of the nicest guys I know. He actually took the time to look at the cards.

“Yes, they’re definitely thinner, and the surface isn’t as smooth.” He sighed. (He really did sigh.) “Cost cutting. Cheaper paper, more profit.”

“So it’s not my imagination?”

“Oh no,” Dennis said, shaking his head. “These cards are about 67# weight, lower-quality paper. Probably used to be 80#.” Dennis took me to the shelves-and-shelves of paper. He opened a package and handed me a sheet of smooth 80# cardstock. “That’s what they used to be.”

I almost cried. It was my index card of yesterday, in my hands, a full sheet.

Dennis opened another box on the lowest shelf, in the corner, by the floor. “That’s what you’ve got now. Cheaper made, 67#.” He handed me a sheet. Yes, exactly the lowly paper I’d been frustrated with for days. Flimsy, rough, paper-thin.

We stood there for a minute or two, Dennis and I, our heads bowed.

Finally it was Dennis who broke the silence: “I could print and cut some custom index cards for you. 10 cents a copy. Five cards per sheet. $15 a cut. I’ll send you a quote.”

Stop the presses. No way am I using a ballpoint pen on custom index cards. And since I’ve still got that 70,000-word-plus manuscript sitting on my dining room table, the search for the perfect fountain pen will have to wait for another day…

Have you had a disappointing experience with a paper product lately? Or a writer tool you used to depend on? Lastly, want to order some custom-made index cards? I know a guy.


How Far Would You Go?

“Harold, I’m sorry. You have to die…It’s her masterpiece, possibly her most important work in her already stunning career. I’ve been over it again and again, and it’s absolutely no good unless you die at the end….it’s the nature of all tragedies that the hero dies but the story goes on forever.”  – Dr. Jules Hilbert (played by Dustin Hoffman), Stranger Than Fiction

The other night I watched Stranger than Fiction—one of my favorite movies about writing. If you haven’t seen this movie, I recommend it for its entertainment value alone. Harold Crick (played by Will Farrell) is a hapless IRS agent who, it turns out, is also the main character in a novel being written by author Kay Eiffel (played by Emma Thompson). It’s not entirely clear if Eiffel invented Harold or if somehow she is writing things that begin to happen to him. It is clear—however—that Harold Crick must die.

I don’t want to give away the whole movie, but to figure out what’s going on—why someone is narrating his life—Harold goes to see a professor of literature. The series of visits and literary analysis that the two go through are hilarious…as Dr. Hilbert devises a series of questions to figure out whether Harold’s story is a comedy or a tragedy. Sadly, ultimately Dr. Hilbert confirms that Harold’s story is a tragedy so he must die to ensure the success of Eiffel’s novel.

It made me consider. And admittedly, this is an outrageous question. How far would I go to ensure I had a masterpiece? Or for that matter, to have a book published? Would I care if my main character—who turned out to be a real person, albeit that I didn’t know, could die as a result of me finishing the book?

To me, this extreme allegory could be the expression of what we all go through as writers. How do we get the words on the page, get the job done. Make our characters come to life? What games must we play in our minds? How do we convince ourselves that the story is worthy of telling?

Do we need to imagine a real person at the other end of what we’re writing? I’ve been thinking about this a lot while I’ve been revising the draft of my WIP. Primarily because I have pictures in my mind of most of my characters—but two (my main character and her new love interest) have been hazy in my mind’s eye.

Then about two weeks ago I went into Starbucks, and a group of women was seated at a table a few feet from where I stood at the cash register. When I glanced over, one woman seemed familiar, almost as though I knew her (I didn’t), and I realized in a flash that it was how I pictured “Annie,” my main character. A strange sensation passed over me as I surreptitiously glanced over at her several times, memorizing details that I could write later.

And yesterday, at Trader Joe’s, when MEH (My Engineer Husband) and I went to buy some wine, we were approached by a Trader Joe’s employee. The second I saw him I knew: he was “Annie’s Will,” her new love interest. I briefly considered using my iPhone to snap his picture—but decided that was going too far, and anyway he might have noticed.

After he answered our questions about Proseco, “Annie’s Will” walked away, and as he did, MEH—who knew I was in search of a face to fit the character in my mind—turned to me and said: “Let me guess: Will?” He had seen my writer’s face.  

As I consider my main characters—these two individuals who have come to personify them, yet with whom I have no relationship beyond my imagination—I wonder. Could I like Kay Eiffel write a scene that I knew would affect them? What if it was a good thing—that as a result of what I wrote, “my Annie” and “my Will,” selected seemingly at random, would really meet and fall in love? 

Could I cause one of them harm? (In truth I can’t even write the words in this blog “to die” in relation to anyone, so I think I know my answer to that one.) But a broken arm? A minor accident? A cold? To ensure a bestseller, a masterpiece, or simply a published novel?

How far would I go?

How far would you go? How do you put faces to your characters? 


The Halloween Costume: A Guest Post by My Daughter

I’m so happy to introduce my guest blogger today, someone brand new to blogging and very near and dear to my heart: my college-age daughter. Ever since I started blogging, we’ve talked about her writing a post, and Halloween seemed like the perfect opportunity!

HAPPY HALLOWEEN from my daughter (and me)!

As far back as I can remember I have always taken Halloween very seriously. Perhaps it was the three-piece princess costumes my mom sewed for me or the way my brother showed me how to strategically hit all the houses that gave out king-sized candy bars. For whatever reason, I accept nothing less than perfection for my Halloween experience.
Being a college student, this task becomes more and more challenging. Don’t get me wrong, I have consistently lived up to my expectations, creating costumes on the fly with a student’s budget and listening to Halloween songs on YouTube as I do my psychology readings. However, this year, the Halloween season took a disastrous turn. For some unfathomable reason, my organic chemistry professor decided to give us a test TWO DAYS before Halloween. Although I love Halloween, my grade in that class is exponentially more important. Thus, I spent the week before Halloween not carving pumpkins or roasting seeds or preparing my costume or making candy-apples but instead learning the mechanisms of Wittig reactions and basic enolates (I could probably synthesizea candy apple at this point).

You can imagine my stress, then, when on the Friday before Halloween (after my exam), I STILL HAD NO COSTUME, let alone decorations or Halloween cheer. Frantic, another friend who had no costume (he also had a midterm) and I assembled a team of Halloweeners for a group costume: two post-test students, one generally apathetic boy, and one kid who planned to go as himself for Halloween. Not usually the dedicated fan base I roll with on such an important holiday, but, hey, I was taking what I could get this year. After much debate among the group (read: I couldn’t decide what we should be and no one else really cared), we settled on the Winnie the Pooh gang. I would be piglet, mainly because everything I own is pink.

And so here is where the real story begins. Who knows why I embarked on the ensuing fiasco—perhaps my Halloween spirits were not sufficiently satisfied with the lack-luster Halloween preparations. Whatever the reason, I decided that I NEEDED to have a Winnie the Pooh ring tone for the occasion.


Sure, I thought to myself, It’ll be easy! Google free ringtones, piece of cake!


I think I was doomed from the minute I thought it would be easy.


I found the perfect ringtone for free—the Winnie the Pooh THEME. So, I clicked the link. Create a password? Perfect! BUT I realized it was one of those websites where essentially every password has already been taken. So I spent approximately five minutes coming up with a novel ten character password that I would never forget incase I needed to find another Disney ringtone.


After this, I got transported to ANOTHER website where I had to create ANOTHER password to get the ringtone texted to me. Fine, I thought, not a big deal, I love texts. Great. So I created this second password and received the text. BUT I had to follow a link on my phone to a website. And this website didn’t load. Argh, thought I, I just wasted half an hour (no joke) trying to get this ringtone!


So of course I checked my phone ringtones to see if I could BUY the Winnie the Pooh ringtone. What’s $.99 for an evening of entertainment and the icing on the perfect costume—the candy on the corn, if you will. So I bought the ringtone. EXCEPT, it was the SONG not the ringtone. OKAY, I yelled to myself, I WILL CREATE MY OWN RINGTONE. I’ve done it thousands of times before, I thought, so it’s not a big deal. (note: I’ve done this once with my friend. He literally did the whole thing for me).


I randomly opened various toolbars and pull-down menus in iTunes, trying to remember the directions. I struggled for about seven minutes (no way I was putting in a full ten), and then a brilliant idea struck me.


I bet there’s an app for this.


Low and behold, there is.


SO, I download the app and started making a ringtone. But, of course, I had to pick the PERFECT time in the song… which takes another five minutes because you can’t have a ringtone that awkwardly starts or stops in the middle of a verse. When I found the perfect timing, I saved the file.


There, I said to myself, I KNEW it would be easy.


BUT, as I checked my ringtones, IT’S NOT THERE. Then I realized the app has instructions. I needed to SYNC my phone with my computer and then download the ringtone to my desktop then upload it or sideload it or whatever to my iTunes and THEN RE-sync my phone with my iTunes. At this piece of instruction, my heart sunk. I never actually LEARNED how to use iTunes because I’ve never wanted to take the time to read the instructions. I usually just frantically click until something I want happens (but wait, some of you perceptive readers may think, aren’t you a science person, shouldn’t you KNOW to read instructions first? Yes, I should. It’s one of the many paradoxes of my life).




So, I followed the instructions on the app. However, they are utterly useless because they assume some competence with computers. At this point, nothing will stop me. SO I SEARCHED FOR IT ON YOUTUBE (this part is especially embarrassing, however, it helps).


After this, I finally had a Winnie the Pooh ringtone. Gosh, I thought to myself, glowing with pride, that felt like it took HOURS!


Because it did take hours.


In the time that I could have learned three more organic chemistry mechanisms, I instead created a Winnie the Pooh ringtone that I will use for one night and probably never actually hear because everyone who would actually call me will be WITH me.

Winnie the Pooh ringtone: multiple hours, Winnie the Pooh songs blasting from my speakers at 9AM, one new app, and $.99.

Retaining my Halloween pride: priceless.

Happy Halloween!

The Case of the Distractible Writer

The dog toy basket on the porch
(note the new, orange, toy)

One of the hazards of working at home is the distractions. This is true on any given day for any given work-at-home writer. Plenty of distractions.

Doing the laundry when editing awaits. Walking the dog even though you haven’t finished your blog post. Vacuuming when you know you should be finishing a draft. Cleaning the bathroom when all else fails.

But those are the normal garden-variety distractions. Yesterday I was all set to have a productive day of editing at the dining room table. But it was not to be. Yesterday was different.

First there was the dog toy. We went to take the dog for her morning walk and when we went to get “that toy,” the one she must take every morning, it was gone. Someone, some dog must have removed it from the basket on the porch where we leave it after every walk. Abby smelled all over the porch and then kept looking up at MEH (My Engineer Husband), as if to say: “Can’t you do something?”

He couldn’t and neither could I. And I was annoyed—what animal or person comes and takes a dog toy off a porch, out of a basket? And Abby, normally very easy going, was distracted on her walk. And in the car on the way home from the dog walk woods she let us know:

“Ruff ruff grrr grrr ruff ruff growl?” (roughly translated to “who took my damn toy?”)

I had no answers. And yesterday afternoon I had to go to Planet Dog and bought a new toy.

Later, after MEH left for work, I was sitting in my office—on the other side of the house from the kitchen/great roomand I heard a noise: a scrabbling-climbing kind of noise, like scraping toe-nails on wire. (Believe me I now know what scraping toe-nails on wire sounds like.) So of course I went to investigate—toe-nails on wire, for goodness sake! And I found—sawreally—a squirrel climbing up the outside of the window screen. A first. I mean the window is five feet off the ground.

The squirrel 
I did what any writer/blogger would do: I snapped a photo with my iPhone, of course.

Then? Back to work. A few minutes later, I heard a thud against a window in the laundry room. Again, I rushed to investigate. A bird had flown into the window (no, not through the window, against the glass)—and the small bird was lying outside on the grass. This always rattles me, I don’t like seeing injured animals. I went back and forced myself to concentrate on the editing at hand.

Another hour later, I heard a big crash—also from the laundry room. I go in to find the iron has fallen off the shelf where I keep it. But it hasn’t only fallen, it seems that it has leaped to the floor in some botched attempt to escape. It is now positioned on the floor about 2 feet from the shelf where I keep it, halfway to the washing machine. Is this even possible? I call MEH at work, and he muses: Maybe the ghost of Mr. Able?

But there was some good news from that trip to the laundry room: the bird was no longer lying under the window. Either it had come-to and flown away (of course, what I’m hoping) or some cat/dog/squirrel/other bird/chipmunk/person (maybe even one and the same with the dog-toy-taker?) had taken it away.

Of course by now it was time to walk the dog again. Now that she’s almost-10 she’s figured out my rhythms as a writer, and I’m absolutely certain she knows when I am the most immersed in my work (this was not one of those times, obviously!).

Does this toy belong to anyone you know?
But yesterday it may have been this… when we got outside, there in the middle of the driveway was a stuffed animal—and Abby went over to it immediately. Perhaps she heard a small child passing by in a stroller or car, calling to its mother, in some language only understood by small children and dogs:

“Gaga googie m-otha-gy stuf-otha-g fe-d ani-otha-g mal fe-otha-gll do otha-g-own. SHEESH!”

Loosely translated: “Mom, wait, I dropped my toy in that driveway! SHEESH!”

Obviously after Abby heard the plea, she alerted me in her doggie way, the only way she knew how. Pretending she had to pee. Since no child was in sight, I moved the toy to safety at the edge of the driveway where parent and child will notice it on their next trip by!

And then of course Abby pulled me down the driveway and we went on a walk—by then she had to save face and really pee, right? And why not let her take the peeing-pretense one last step? What else would a distractable writer like me do? On my way around the block, I got a pretty good idea for a blog today, and by the time I got home I wondered… is distractable spelled with an “a” or an “i”?

It doesn’t really matter, because I’m plenty distractable or distractible, however it’s spelled, believe you me.

Are you distractible? Here’s some actual scientific information I found while researching this highly-distracting post!


Mr. Bacon Meets Mr. Bean

In front of Bean’s, posing (as tourists always do) with the
giant boot! Shout out to the lovely couple from Atlanta who
offered to take a photo of us with Mr. Bacon
(we declined)…and who quickly departed when we
offered to take a photo of them with Mr. Bacon!

Last week, after laughing along with the blog posts of writer friends Melissa Crytzer Fry and Patrick Ross about their escapades with Mr. Bacon, imagine our delight when who should show up on our doorstep but the free-spirited, brightly-striped, extraordinary porkslab Mr. Bacon himself. 

Rarely content to loiter in the grocery store’s cooler with the other rashers, Mr. Bacon creates his own sizzle. And although forewarned in Melissa’s latest post that Mr. Bacon may be headed our way, and further tipped off by the mysterious smoky breeze we mistook for our neighbor’s breakfast, we were nonetheless taken aback to open our door and find that small slice of a bendy toy complete with his own special pork panache.

Mr. Bacon stopped to “meet”
Mr. L. L. Bean himself.
But wait, there may be some of you wondering….what the heck is she talking about now? Some of you may still believe bacon is merely a treat to enjoy for breakfast or in a tasty BLT. Who is this Mr. Bacon? And what could he possibly have to do with the writing life?

Melissa said it best on her blog:

“…It all started back in August. Journalist Patrick Ross introduced his sidekick, Mr. Bacon, to the blogosphere. On Patrick’s blog, Mr. Bacon made a break for freedom in the Shenandoah National Park, hoping to lose himself in the forest. With such short legs, he was an easy catch. Good for a laugh, Mr. Bacon was also a symbol of Patrick’s love for bacon (as well as his affection for bendy bacon toys). Then something interesting happened. Mr. Bacon took the writing world by storm. Writers tweeted Mr. Bacon’s adventures, responding warmly to the hint of his bacony aroma.”

Mr. Bacon had a chance to stop and smell the roses–his bacony
aroma combined with the roses created quite a sweet-salty tang
 in the air! (Rosa Rugosa (beach roses) are a beloved Maine
trademark flower.)
So now that you have the delicious and savory backstory (and I’ve given you a face to put with the bacon) I can continue with the story of our visit with mouthwatering Mr. Bacon! 

MEH (My Engineer Husband) and I were overjoyed to have the opportunity to show Mr. Bacon the wonderful state of Maine. We offered to take him where no bacon has traveled before (except in a frying pan) to the natural wonders of this vacationland state: picturesque islands, beautiful inland lakes, gorgeous mountains, wild rivers. 

But Mr. Bacon said “NO!” He would not go another greasy step until he was properly outfitted. He does, after all, have a well-seasoned reputation to consider!
And where in Maine do you go to get outfitted for outdoors adventure? L.L. Bean of course! Mr. Bacon, it seems, had heard all about the famous L.L. Bean boots. In case you’re not familiar with L.L. Bean, it’s a go-to place for outdoor outfitting. More importantly, its flagship store is minutes away from the wordsxo blog world headquarters—and perhaps even more importantly than that, it’s open 24 hours a day. That means, we can get boots at a drop of a hat, day or night! 
Even though we explained that moose are herbivores, this large
 moose really startled Mr. Bacon. Maybe he had his eye on the
coyote just to the moose’s right. Known fact: coyotes
love bacon (and all other meaty treats).
In our neck of the woods, L.L. Bean is known simply as “Beans.” We (and everyone else around here) go there to buy anything from kayaks to camping and hunting gear to kitchen equipment (even…yes it’s true, gulp, FRYING PANS!). More importantly it’s a tourist destination, and with its four stores in Freeport, creates an almost amusement-park-like atmosphere, featuring a giant fish tank for salmon, two snack bars, summertime concerts and plays, and even a giant boot at the entryway—a perfect place for camera-snapping tourists (like our tantalizing Mr. Bacon!) to pose to have their pictures taken.

This second boot was much closer
to Mr. Bacon’s size, but still was
much too large…
But our petite porcine Mr. Bacon was interested in L.L. Bean for something very specific: the famous L.L. Boot. Secretly, MEH voiced his concern to me that we’d never find Mr. Bacon’s shoe size (quadruple 0). I think Mr. Bacon overheard but remained unscorched—pulling off that smokey cool as only he can—and we headed up to Bean’s on a lovely fall afternoon. 
While at Beans, of course Mr. Bacon did a little sightseeing: hitting all the main attractions and some of the more obscure. And although it was indeed a challenge to find boots in his size, a very nice Bean’s employee helped us find just the right boots for his diminutive feet. 

Once fully outfitted, we hit the open road and showed Mr. Bacon all the sights fit for a bendy toy of his stature. But still, his visit was far too short, and all that remains now is the good memories, these photographs, and the delicious bacony aroma lingering behind….and the question: just where will he show up next?

This wonderful Bean’s employee (who was clearly smitten with Mr. Bacon’s smoldering good looks)
trusted him to keep her identity secret as she helped Mr. Bacon find just the right boots
 for his thinly-sliced foot.

Mr. Bacon let me snap this photo of him as we left the store.
Let me tell you, Mr. Bacon is one scrumptious sport! 

And here’s Mr. Bacon all outfitted, just before we hit the open road to
see all the sights we could during his all-too-short visit to Maine.

If you are craving more bacon treats (and let’s face it, who isn’t?), head over to this fabulous site created by Melissa and her husband. (We’ve submitted some outtakes from Mr. Bacon’s visit to Maine!) And if you are interested in serving up the delectable and ever-crispy Mr. Bacon on your blog, please let me know in comments, and we’ll contact his agent to check his busy calendar and get back to you!

Note: L.L. Bean did not in any way compensate wordsxo for this post. All photos featured in this blog post were taken after receiving permission from an L.L. Bean store employee. And Mr. Bacon paid for his own boots!

SLOW. Bump.

I’m telling you, it was foggy. And I don’t even remember this old car passing me. Ghosty, huh?

It’s been foggy lately, really foggy. So this morning, it was pretty audacious to think we could take our usual Sunday morning video of the beach overlook. But it didn’t stop us.
It should have stopped us because I was already in a bad mood. And we didn’t have much time.

Standing in our usual spot on the bridge, in the fog, I began to realize the folly of our way. We made several strategic errors this morning.

1. It’s foggy. Really foggy. You can’t see anything in the video. Nothing. Except the trees right in front of our face.

2. The traffic wouldn’t stop going by. And then, they would slow waaayyyy down as they passed us. For the first time ever, it seemed that people wondered What are they looking at?I was afraid someone would actually stop and ask me something like: Are you that weird blogger who posted a video of me walking my dog on the beach? (Thankfully no one stopped, but at least 10 cars went by and every single car slowed down. Every single one.)

3. We brought the dog. We rarely bring the dog. She (a) would not stop panting, I’m pretty sure you can hear her in the video, and (b) a well-meaning, very nice runner stopped to talk to her in the middle of one of my attempts to make the video. I’m pretty sure you can hear her (the runner, not the dog) talking to MEH (My Engineer Husband) at the end of the video.

4. I was going to wait a few minutes (after the traffic cleared and the runner went by) and make another video. But the camera’s batteries died. And we didn’t bring any back ups.

5. I thought about waiting until the fog cleared and going back and taking another video with new batteries. But instead, we need to return a coffee pot we bought yesterday (it leaks water all over the counter because it has a broken float). And we need to buy a dishwasher because that’s leaking on the floor and doesn’t get the dishes clean anymore. (MEH tried to fix it last night, but there’s too much wrong with it to make it worth the money to repair.)

6. Did I mention I’m trying to edit that first draft?

True confession time. I was grumpy. Really really grumpy. So, finally we gave up and sad to say, stuck with a video that you can see practically nothing of interest in (on viewing it at home, I did notice there is some nice birdsong in it, though!). We turned around to leave. As we did, yet another car slowed down. I grumbled to MEH. “Really? Another car slowing down? If they ask me what I’m looking at, I’m going to say: ‘didn’t you see the 7 moose right on the other side of the bridge?’”
Just then I noticed the sign about 8 feet from where I was standing: SLOW, Bump. And then I noticed the area under construction on the other side of the bridge, that drivers were clearly slowing down to avoid.

So, apparently everything really isn’t all about me. Not today anyway.

Ever had one of those days?



p.s. Oh, here’s the video.

(Sunday, September 17, 2011, 8:25 a.m. EST, 68 degrees F)

Winner of the Great Giveaway

MEH used a random number generator to select the winning number!


Erika Marks!

When MEH (My Engineer Husband) ran the random number generator at it generated the number 5, and Erika was the fifth commenter on The Great Giveaway postThank you to all who entered!

The Story from the Message in the Bottle

One of these bottles made its way to the shore where Mr. C found it…
a staggering 2.8 miles in 3 weeks 2 days!

Is anyone out there listening? I asked that question in this post. Before that, my husband, daughter, and I threw three bottles containing messages into bodies of water leading to the Atlantic Ocean—asking whomever found them to let us know.
So when I opened my email inbox last Sunday, my heart beat a little faster when I saw an email with the subject: “Your Message in a Bottle.”

Here’s what it said:

“Arrived yesterday at my parents’ house in Cumberland Foreside. Took a long time to get here! Maybe it went around the world first.”

Cumberland Foreside is about 2.8 miles from where we dropped two of the bottles—but still, I was curious about the particulars. What did they think when they found the bottle? Were there any details they could provide? Maybe a story?

I was lucky—when I emailed back, asking if the sender’s parents would be willing to talk to me, explaining: “I’m a writer, I write a blog. Might they be willing to tell me their story?”

The sender said “yes,” then generously gave me his parents’ names and phone number.

When I called, his mother answered. Mrs. C, a lovely older woman, immediately apologized: “You probably wish someone in a more exotic place had found it!” (I wondered if maybe she and Mr. C hoped it would have come from a more exotic place!)

She went on to explain that it was her husband who found the bottle on his morning walk on the shore—he brought it home. “It was exciting!” she said because it was their first message in a bottle they’d ever found; they’ve lived in their house, on a point jutting into Casco Bay, for 34 years.

“It looked like it was a pretty good bottle of wine,” Mrs. C said. “Was it?” They unscrewed the top and then tried to get the note out first with tongs and then with a “lobster poker.” Neither worked.

“Finally I said to Mr. C ‘why don’t we just breakthe thing!’ so that’s what we did! We put it in a paper bag and we broke it!” That’s when they read my note. She went on to tell me that since they don’t have email, they asked their son to send me an email about finding the bottle.

I explained I was going to write a story about the bottle and how they found it, and asked her if she’d ever found anything else unusual on the beach, could she tell me about it? She said they hadn’t, but she offered to tell me a story, if I had time to listen. Of course I had time to listen!

Mrs. C’s Story

Before Mr. C and I owned this house, his uncle owned it for a very long time. And his uncle’s first wife, E—a very beautiful and vivacious young woman—was invited, and attended, the opening of King Tutankhamun’s tomb. While she was there she was sickened by a terrible fungus. It was so sad, because when E returned home, she got sicker and sicker, and finally she died.

It was terrible! But my husband’s uncle went on to marry another wonderful woman, and they lived a good long life together in this very house. When my husband’s uncle died, he left the house to my husband, and that’s when we moved in, 34 years ago.

One day shortly after we moved in, I was going through things left in the attic, and I came across the loveliest photo of Uncle and his first wife E. I bought a beautiful frame for it, put the photo in the frame, and then placed the framed photo on the shelf over the television. And do you know what happened? As soon as I turned around, that television fell right off its shelf! Yes it did!

I picked up that framed photo, put it right back into the attic, right where I found it. And it never happened again!

*  *  *  *

“And what do you think of that?” Mrs. C asked me.

I told her it was one heck of a ghost story, and explained how my blog readers are pretty fond of ghost stories. And she said I should go ahead and share it with you.

Before we hung up, Mrs. C apologized once more that the bottle wasn’t found in a more exotic location. But how could I possibly be disappointed? Then I offered to call her if and when I hear back about those other two bottles.

She was thrilled! And I definitely will call her back—because I would love to have another conversation with a storyteller the likes of Mrs. C!

Have you ever had surprising results from a conversation with someone, like I did with Mrs. C, that started for one reason but ended with another? Are you, like me, always interested in the stories people have to tell

—no matter what path brings them your way?



Gone Writin’

Tractors are always very cool, and this one was sitting out of
place at the baseball field near where we walk the dog.

MEH (My Engineer Husband) here. Julia can’t blog today because she’s writing, she’s writing her WIP, whatever that is. And the only analogy I can come up with is that when I’m working on an engineering solution, I hate to break my train of thought. Hence, I am doing my best to maintain the blogging presence for my Beautiful and Talented Wife (the BTW, as one of my favorite bloggers, economist Brad DeLong, calls his wife). 

Since I can’t write, I will put up other visuals. These are things I found so interesting that I actually took a photo of them. Thank you very much for your patience.


Some damage to our neighbor’s barn from Hurricane Irene.
I can visualize force vectors on the cuppola from the tree crashing upon it.

Cool looking moth I almost stepped on, on our porch.

I took this picture of a seagull while it was feeding on herrings.
I like this picture because I like to fly, and I wish I were the
bird, skimming across the water like this.

Bags I picked up at the Free Wall at the Town Dump, that were
later identified as belonging to a well-known rare book collector.

The Great Giveaway

Here’s what’s included in THE GREAT GIVEAWAY!

By leaving a comment at the end of this post you’ll be entered in the giveaway! You don’t have to read the entire post to do that—but I think you might want to anyway! It’s funny AND you’ll find out what you’ll win in the giveaway! 

So here’s what happened. Two days ago (and yes even more than two days ago) I was having trouble focusing on writing. So, of course, that’s what I’m going to blog about. Right? Right.

But if you’ve been reading my blog for a while you know I like to do hands on stuff. I take (almost) all the photos for my blog andI act out what my fiction characters might do, like in this post. I end up doing some quirky things—like in this post when I tried to figure out who stole branches from my apple tree and in this post when I sent out messages in bottles (nothing back yet, by the way).

This is the photo I included in my last post. You may not have
even noticed the Lego house in the background!

My last post was no different. I wanted to have a photo that represented the different demands on my time. I decided I’d use a brass bird bell for Twitter/social networking and folded index cards for the WIP writing, the freelance writing, blog, etc. But what about my home demands? I decided I needed a representation of home.

I mean, home is one of the things I talk about a lot on this blog. And it’s important to me. I started looking everywhere in my house for a small house, a little representation of home I could use in my photo. Surely I had to have something! But, after half an hour of looking I came up empty handed. Nothing.

So I did what anyone would do. I went to Walmart. A mere 15-minute drive. And sure enough, I found one thing that would do (it wasn’t perfect but oh well): a Lego kit with a house in it. I drove home (I paid first—if I hadn’t this blog would’ve been about something entirely different. And I specifically remember paying because in front of me in line at the register there was a really weird, very pale guy dressed in camouflage buying ammo—scary and creepy, but again, another blog).

15 minutes and I was back home. And that’s when it hit me: “oh yeah, I need to build the house.” Another 20 minutes, which by the way would’ve taken any kindergartner 2 seconds to build—but unfortunately I’m fresh out of 5-year-olds in this family.

This little Lego guy shows how I felt after I built the house
and realized I’d spent an hour on prepartion for the
post; time I could’ve spent writing. The little gray&white
blocks in the middle of the photo are my attempt to build
a computer for the little wordsxo guy…
maybe she’ll get some writing done!!

So there I was, an hour into the latest blog-inspired adventure and (1) I hadn’t yet written the blog post about not being able to focus on writing, and—perhaps more to the point, (2) I hadn’t written any of my novel(s), which were still sitting in a pile on the kitchen table.

But, the good part (here’s where the giveaway finally comes in) was that I was left with a little Lego house and about 185 untouched Lego pieces still in a nearly-pristine box. And still no 5-year-old to play with them. So that’s when I thought what anyone would think: “Ah-ha! I’ll give it away on my blog!”

Followed quickly by: “But what if they don’t have kids? They won’t enter!”

And then quickly again by: “Ah-ha! I’ll include more stuff!”

Thus this giveaway was born! Which leads me (finally) to what is included in this great giveaway! If you leave a comment at the end of  this post (and you win), here’s what you’ll get:

1. The new-two-days-ago Lego Kit—includes one custom-built, designed by Lego built by wordsxo, home. All parts of the original Lego kit are included. Most (except the house) are in the original packaging.

2. A spiral bound 100% recycled acid-free paper notebook with Great Blue Herons (AKA: GBH; Scientific name: Ardea Herodias) on the cover. If you read my blog very often you know that I write and Tweet a lot about birds, and I love GBHs!

3. A teak cherry (thank you Erika!) bookmark with a cut-out GBH (see note above)….are we seeing a pattern here? It’s a really lovely bookmark, you’ll have to take my word for it!

4. A bag of “the caviar of Maine,” otherwise known as dried wild Maine blueberries. Not only are these incredibly healthy and chock-full of antioxidants, but they are incredibly delicious and addictive. I included these not only because they’re delicious but also because I write a lot about the state of Maine, and I think blueberries and Great Blue Herons and the beach videos I post every week really have kind of started to be a theme on my blog!

I’ll leave this post open for comments for two weeks, until September 15. Then on Friday morning, September 16, I will assign each comment a number, and I’ll use a random number generator to pick one of you as a winner! I’ll announce the winner on my blog!

Oh, and one more thing. I didn’t get paid for mentioning any of the products in the giveaway. Nor did I get any of the items for free. 

Finally, if you’re already one of my loyal blog and/or Twitter followers: THANK YOU, I LOVE YOU. If you’re new to wordsxo, welcome to my blog, it’s nice to meet you! I hope you’ll come back for more adventures with me! 



What’s a Writer to Do?

Unfortunately this beautiful brass bird bell from
Denmark has come to represent Twitter to me:
the big bird in the room that chimes for attention

Have you noticed how some blog posts leave you thinking: “Oh that’s nice.” Others make you think a little more. Still others you could take or leave. Then there are some, just a few, that really make you sit up and pay attention. 

In the past 10 days, I’ve read 3 posts like that. Posts that reinforce the little voice I’ve been hearing in my head, saying: I NEED HELP! Why don’t I write?

The day before yesterday, Nina Badzin posted Mixed Blessings of the Internet. Nina issued “a cry for help,” asking how we writers get our daily WIP writing done while still keeping up with social networking.

I responded (inadequately) in comments. (The truth is I had gotten about 2 hours of sleep after Hurricane Irene. Add to that, I was in a pretty down mood. I think my comment reflected it.) The gist of my answer to Nina is that I DON’T get my WIP done, or not very well. But that I keep doing it (social networking), drawn like a moth to the flame.

The second truth is that in the middle of a hurricane I was thinking about how to tweet about it—I was actually a little more worried about that than I was about not being able to cook a hot meal. (In fairness the storm had been downgraded to a Tropical Storm by the time it reached us, but still…)

Just like all writers, there are a lot of things vying for my attention!
The bird bell, of course front and center, represents Twitter and all social networking

Why do I spend my time the way I do? I started thinking about this last week when I read Post #2 that struck home: Slaying the Green-backed Dragon on Cynthia Robertson’s blog. Cynthia wondered if writers are more productive when working another job full time or when they are able to write full time on WIPs. In essence I responded that it didn’t seem to matter to my productivity level, whether I worked or not.

Right now I don’t work full or part time (about a year ago my part time job dwindled down to two or so hours a week—budget cuts). I no longer have children at home, like some of you lucky mothers. And thanks to the economy, my freelance client base has eroded away. In essence I have all the time in the world for my WIPs.

But my third truthis that my writing productivity is based more on my state of mind—how happy and relaxed I am—than on how much time I have. In fact, my most productive time, as a writer (of fiction), was when I was home full-time with two children. I wrote three middle-grade novels, one early reader, two picture books, three published essays, one nationally published short story. And the editorial feedback I got back from “good rejections” (there were plenty) was, well, good. But, note to self and readers: still no novel published.

Which brings me to Post #3, How Much Time Do We Really Need to Write, posted this morning on Natalia Sylvester’s blog. After reading Cynthia’s blog post, she experimented by dedicating an entire day to her WIP, nothing else, to see how much more productive she might be if she only had her WIP to work on—like I do.

And that, dear readers, brings me to MY problem. I have two really promising (my opinion only) WIPs: “Heavy Duty” and “Manila Folder.” One is over one-third written, the other slightly less. But I spend way too much time (more than I care to track) on Twitter and commenting on blogs.

My two WIPs AKA
“Heavy Duty” and “Manila Folder”

I rationalize: Twitter and blog commenting is necessary—it’s part of building my writer’s platform. That’s why I started. Way back six months ago when I first started, a blog post told me to.

But now something more important has happened. You tweeps are my friends: Nina, Natalia, Cynthia, and about 14 others of you that I talk to almost everyday. I wrote a guest post for Natalia a couple of months ago about this. If I’m not on Twitter as much, I’d miss you! My writing life is very solitary. I don’t go to coffee shops, I don’t have a writer’s group. I sit at my desk or at my kitchen table, (purportedly) writing.

Nonetheless, the fact remains. I need to get to work on my WIPs, drum up freelance writing business, write and submit short stories and creative nonfiction, write my blog, and—oh—live my life, maybe even clean my house. And then there’s Twitter, the big bird in the room…

But the real problem isn’t Twitter, it’s me. Why don’t I write? My two WIPs are well defined, great ideas (just my opinion, granted), but I am making much-too-painfully slow process. I honestly believe it’s not because I’m doing anything else, like blogging or Twitter, too much—it’s just that everything else takes priority. And I’m just not writing enough. So, why don’t I? What’s a writer to do?

Have you had times that you simply can’t or won’t work on your WIPs? What have you done about it?



Is Anyone Out There Listening?

It was a beautiful moonlit night

With all writing, you throw things out to see what sticks, if anyone connects with it. Usually for us as writers it’s a blog post, an article, maybe a book (if we’re lucky). We wait and we find out if it was a good idea—if anyone out there is reading what we write.

But sometimes it’s literal, you really throw it out there—like if you’re communicating via a message in a bottle thrown into the Atlantic Ocean.

Such it was that last Friday night, by beautiful moonlight, MEH (My Engineer Husband), MOD (My Outstanding Daughter) and I found ourselves in the car under the cloak of darkness. We had a mission: throw three bottles containing messages into flowing bodies of water leading to the Atlantic Ocean.

Just the words message in a bottle conjure up a romantic vision….not to mention they’ve inspired songs like the 1979 hit “Message in a Bottle”  by The Police; short stories like “MS. Found in a Bottle” by Edgar Allan Poe; and of course the book (and subsequent movie) by Nicholas Sparks, Message in a Bottle.

Legend and Wikipedia have it that the first known message in a bottle was released around 310 BC by Greek philosopher Theophrastus—as part of an experiment on water flow.

I was curious, what would happen if I did the same thing? Would I ever hear anything back? Would bottles get lost or end up as seaglass on some near or far beach? 

MOD generously agreed to help me with this “fun activity.” For our experiment, to ensure best success, I purchased three clear glass bottles with screw on tops. Okay, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit I bought the two cheapest bottles of wine I could find at Trader Joes (plus one bottle of “fizzy water”). Suffice to say we enjoyed the contents.
If you see one of these bottles on a beach near
you, please let me know! 
I wrote three identical messages and put one into each of the bottles, then wrote on the outside of the bottles in black permanent marker and in pink nail polish: “Message in Bottle” and 

“Open Message.”

Friday night we started making the rounds, first to a harbor at a river mouth. We stood at the end of the public dock and I flung the bottle in. Unfortunately tide was coming in, so the bottle immediately started flowing toward me. Not exactly encouraged, we moved locations, to the bridge overlook (where we take the videos each week). This spot had much deeper water, but was problematic because we had to stop in the middle of the bridge.

Traffic was light (actually we probably saw two other cars the whole time we were out), and MEH stopped mid-bridge. I got out and flung the bottle into the dark water below. MOD hunched in the backseat, not wanting to be seen. I offered MOD the opportunity to throw the bottle, but she declined:

“No, Mom, I don’t want to be arrested for littering. I don’t want a record for my medical school application.” (MOD wants to be a doctor.)

Just as I threw the bottle, MEH said: “I hope it doesn’t hit a seal.” And then he yelped.

Gales of laughter filled the car as I got back in. (You had to be there; take my word for it, it was pretty funny at the time.)

Our last stop was a small point where boats are harbored, where there’s also a public dock. MEH and I walked out onto the dock. This time MEH did the deed and flung the bottle out into the darkness. MOD stayed off the dock, pretending to be involved with texting a friend (okay, she may have actually been texting a friend since this is an almost-continuous activity for college students).

As I watched the bottles, one after another, floating toward us, I thought about the irony of communicating with someone via such an ancient method during this electronic era—and decided that Theophrastus and me, we’re on the same wavelength.

The bottles flowed toward us, so fortunately our
message is not as dire as if we were shipwrecked!
But not just Theophrastus; I join a long line of other famous and well-known bottle messengers, including: Christopher Columbus, the British Navy during World War I, and a group of 88 shipwrecked migrants who in 2005 were rescued off the coast of Costa Rica after they placed an SOS message into a bottle.

Fortunately my message isn’t so dire. Honestly, I’m just plain interested in whether or not anyone will find it and how far it might travel. It’s such a romantic notion—to toss a sealed bottle with a note into the ocean and have it travel to somewhere far away and have someone you don’t even know, on a far away beach, find it and read its contents. What’s not to love? 

Stay tuned to find out what happens!

Have you ever sent a message in a bottle? What happened? What other non-electronic communication methods fascinate you? Have you considered trying them and then blogging about them?

And for us as writers? Do you, like me, ever feel like blogging and writing for the Internet is almost like throwing a bottle out into the ocean? Do you ever wonder if anyone is listening?



Pancakes with Pete

When MEH (My Engineer Husband) and I go to a restaurant, he says there’s a certain look I get on my face when I’m accidentally overhearing purposely listening to other peoples’ conversations.

We’ve been married a long time so he’s used to it, and he never gets annoyed—the truth is sometimes he’s as interested as I am—little known fact about MEH: he’s a snoop! (My kids aren’t always ever so understanding.) I say I have to do it—for one thing, I might hear something really important, like about an imminent danger, like a hurricane evacuation (we live on the coast, right?). 

But mostly? It’s a requirement for the job. I think it helps me write better, more realistic dialogue. And it certainly gives me fun things to write about (for example, this blog post).

So it was the other day when we went out to breakfast at our local café. As it turns out, our waiter Pete (I’ll call him Pete because that’s his real name) was someone I’ve gotten to know over time. He’s a gregarious fellow, Pete. And he always sits down to chat. In fact, last time we were there, when we first sat down, I scooched over to one side of the booth, joking with MEH that I was making room for Pete.

Indeed Pete sat down (if there’s room he does this with everyone, not just me) and had a long conversation with us about our menu choices. For instance, when we explained that in addition to what we were each ordering, we’d also share a “shortstack,” Pete shared his latest business idea: a restaurant with tables that rotate so diners can share meals…..a great idea, but I digress… onto the more important matter at hand… the listening…

As we were winding up our meal, having just one more cup of coffee, a couple sat down in the booth behind MEH (they were obviously “outer-staters”… one of the affectionate terms Mainers use for tourists “from away”). Pete approached them and sat.

“What can I get you folks?” Pete always has a big smile on his face.

“I’ll take the pancakes,” The woman said, perhaps only moderately taken aback that Pete was now seated on the bench seat next to her.

“Is that plain, banana-walnut, or blueberry?” Pete asked, going on to add: “The blueberry of course is the best choice here, being in Maine and all.”

“I’ll have the blueberry, because I am in Maine!”

“Great choice!” Pete happily agreed. “And what syrup would you like with those pancakes?”

“What syrups do you have?”

“Well, you can have the house syrup, that’s basically Log Cabin, from the bottle, or the maple syrup—that’s the one from the tree.” 

“We’ll take the maple. That’s the pure maple, right?”

“Oh, of course, from the tree!” Pete agreed. (At this point I wondered if MEH was also listening because I saw a small smile forming on his face.)

Finished with the woman’s order, Pete turned to the man. “And for you, sir?”

“What about your homemade oatmeal, what’s that?” The man asked.

“Well, that’s your oatmeal… in a bowl,” Pete said, forming a cup with his hands. “And you can add raisins or nuts, like the menu says.” 

“Oh, oh,” the man said, “real oatmeal.”

(Again, here I’m wondering if MEH is listening, as he was suppressing a laugh. I’m wondering if he’s wondering the same thing I am… what other kind of oatmeal is there?)

“Yes, it’s the real deal,” Pete said. “Is that what you’d like, sir?”

Unfortunately I never heard what the man ordered because just then MEH broke in….

“The line, Julia,” MEH said (hissed, really).

“Huh? Sssshhhh!”

I looked up and MEH was gesturing to go. We exchanged a glance—MEH knew I was listening—although this time I’m pretty sure the fact that I was furiously scribbling in my notebook gave me away.

“The line…” MEH said again, “of people…” 

I looked over toward the entrance. A line of people snaked out the door. I took one more sip of my now-cold coffee, looked reluctantly at Pete—his back still to us, chatting happily with the outer-staters—and got up to leave. 

As I walked away I heard the man ask what kind of muffins there were, and the beginning of Pete’s reply: “The blueberry is your best choice here, being in Maine and all…” and I couldn’t help wondering what other great dialogue of Pete’s I’d miss by leaving when I did.

Do you ever eavesdrop overhear listen in on other peoples’ conversations? Do you think it helps you write better dialogue? 



Happy to be an Earthling

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Happy “1st”  Birthday, Neptune!
Hard to believe, but today marks your first full planet orbit around the sun since we Earthlings discovered you in 1846. I wasn’t invited to the official birthday party, but that’s okay, I’m happy to celebrate from afar because—no offense, Neptune—let me just say how glad I am to be an Earthling.

For one thing, your days are shorter than here on Earth, but even shorter than we thought. Astronomer Erich Karkoschka recently discovered that instead of 16 hours and 6 minute days, your days are only 15 hours, 57 minutes, and 59 seconds. That’s a net loss of 8 minutes and 1 second. I just can’t sacrifice that much writing time.

For another thing, from a distance you’re very beautiful—all that blue and all—but the truth is the blue color comes from the methane in your atmosphere, so I don’t think it smells all that good way up there.

Which brings me to the third reason I’m really glad I’m not invited to your party: you’re so far away. It took the space probe Voyager 2, 12 years to reach you. I don’t like being away from home that long—especially when I’m hurtling through open outerspace.

It also must be pretty dark and dreary there (even though you look so bright from afar)—Neptunians only get 1/900th as much sunlight as we Earthlings do….although, it would be nice to get away with never wearing sunscreen.

All this is inconsequential anyway because where would I even stand on your planet? Although you have a very small, rocky core, you’re primarily composed of hydrogen, helium, methane with traces of ammonia and water. I’d never be on solid ground—and even if I was, I might get blown away because I hear it’s super windy there.

Still, I think you must be very beautiful. You have nine moons, how romantic! And without the pesky sunlight, the stars must be amazing. So happy birthday Neptune, I’ll be thinking of you today and sending all Neptunians good wishes from this small Earthling 4.4 billion kilometers away.

The Great 12-hour Bird-Watching Adventure

It all started with this pretty little American Robin

It all started on our regular morning dog walk, with the picture I took of an American Robin sitting on a fence. Photo time stamp 6:06 a.m.

“I’ll post it on Twitter,” I said to MEH (My Engineer Husband). “The bird group will love it.” (I have a group of bird watching friends on Twitter—we exchange bird photos and stories.)

And that, thought I, was that, for the bird watching of the day. But boy was I wrong. We went about our Sunday business: the video of the beach overlook followed by breakfast out, then a little gardening, a little lawn mowing, a little work on the WIP (I kid you not, I really did!). Everywhere we went we saw birds: at the beach lots of ducks and shorebirds, more robins at home, but nothing out of the ordinary or noteworthy.

But all that changed at (approximately, no time stamp) 3:15 p.m. when we left to mail a Netflix video and go on a Walmart run. As we drove through the post office drive-thru lane, that’s when we saw them: a few birds in the grass—birds that looked totally unfamiliar to me. (I’m a pretty big bird watcher; so it’s rare to see something completely new.) One was a beautiful black and white robin-sized bird. The other two were gray and streaked with gray. We stopped the car to look. The birds obligingly stayed right where we could see them.

“What is it?” I said. “If only we brought the camera!” We both lamented the fact as we drove away; MEH suggested we come back later. Because, we discussed, while laughing, it’s not like a bird couldn’t go anywhere else.

At Walmart, as we entered the store, I glanced over my shoulder. A lone seagull sat on top of a car, not 30 feet from the store entrance! I pointed it out to MEH, we laughed, and went in the store.

An hour and a half later we returned home to pick up the dog for the afternoon dog walk.

The Eastern Kingbird, beautiful!
“Let’s take the camera,” MEH said. “We’ll go look for the bird at the post office first.”

I agreed, thinking there was no possible way we’d see it, but—just in case—I also grabbed the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America(my go to bird book these days) and my binoculars.

We drove around the post office to no avail. No birds at all. We drove to nearby buildings and parking lots, nothing. We spent about 10 minutes looking—until finally we spotted two birds darting through the bushes near the post office. MEH followed in quick pursuit, ending up in the exact spot where we’d seen the birds that morning.

The Mystery Bird…to be continued?
And right in front of us, at 5:18 p.m. (photo time stamp), on a stake in the ground, sat the bird. I quickly took several pictures then opened the bird book and started looking. It was an Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus). A bird that I really hadn’t ever seen!

Next we spotted the gray streaked bird, sitting on top of a very high light post. We tried to get a good photo—we couldn’t. And because I had to look into the sun, I couldn’t even see it well with the binoculars. This bird will remain a mystery.

The Osprey (click to enlarge)
But while I was trying to get a good look at the mystery bird, MEH spotted another bird.

“Is that an Osprey?” He said, pointing up toward the sky. And sure enough it was. The Ospredy (Pandion haliaetus) is fairly common in Maine now—but I always get a thrill to see this bird that rebounded from near-extinction in the late 1900s.

We left the post office, ecstatic bird-watchers, and we headed for the area we always walk the dog, where we’d seen the robin earlier in the day.

The Killdeer let MEH get pretty close
From the second we arrived we were surrounded by birds! First crows. Then more robins, then Killdeer (Characrius vociferus). As indicated by their Latin name, Killdeer are notorious for being very loud, usually to distract people from their nesting areas or babies. MEH walked as close as he could—pretty close!—to get a photo of the Killdeer who was doing its best to lure us away from a fledgling Killdeer we saw nearby.

(Click to enlarge)
Zoom in to see the burger in this gull’s mouth!
As we got back in the car, we agreed we’d had quite the birding day. But we spoke too soon—a crow swooped down right near the hood of our car, with a large piece of hamburger bun or sandwich in its beak. It was too fast for us to take a picture, but then, just as quickly, a seagull mobbed the crow and they fought briefly mid-air—and the seagull emerged the victor—flying away with the hamburger in its mouth! I got a picture (a little blurry, but still!).
As we drove away, we looked across the street at the herd of cows that lives nearby—just as a large flock of starlings flew around them, creating a cloud of birds. We stopped so I could get a picture, but before I could, the birds all settled down in the field.

As we sat there by the side of the road, I noticed a bright yellow spot in the nearby tall grass—an American Goldfinch (Carduelis trista). And MEH snapped a photo—at  6:06 p.m. (photo time stamp)—exactly 12 hours after I took the photo of the robin! 

The bright yellow spot: an American Goldfinch
We drove home, happily reminiscing about our accidental 12-hour bird-watching adventure!

Do you ever have unexpected adventures as you go about your regular day? Do they inspire your writing and give you new ideas to write about?

Cheers, Julia

2 Bridges of my Heart

George Washington Bridge
(from Wikimedia Commons)

When you have kids in college (like I do), one thing you become accustomed to is the coming and going of your children—teens, young adults. And you may become accustomed (like we have) to the “Dad run” or “Mom run”—the trip to drop off or pick up a kid from college.

It is a trip that, for us, involves lengthy out of state car travel, all over the eastern seaboard: Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania. I kid you not, between college tours, dropping off/picking up, and internships, these are places I am an accidental, pass through tourist on a semi-regular basis. And these trips, although sometimes fun, are mostly very business-oriented: pack up and drop off or pick up and pack up. Or very emotional: big goodbye hug followed by lots of tears (mine) then a long solo drive home. Or the best: a long-awaited hug followed by a long drive home full of happy conversation and news.

Sometimes these trips involve exciting sightseeing: new cities, horse farms, beaches, zoos, tours of ice cream factories, museums, hiking and walking trails; but often fairly mundane: Target, grocery stores, hardware stores. Many times it’s also a great excuse to try a new restaurant or visit a college bookstore—we always do that!

I think you might guess where this is leading. Yes, I just returned home from a Mom run. My daughter—home for the first part of the summer—is now off to another state to do an internship. I drove her and a huge carload of stuff 8 hours in a GINORMOUS rented SUV. I wasn’t really familiar with most of its features and it was about twice as big as the car I usually drive.

The way there was great fun! I love traveling with my daughter—we talked and laughed and listened to music and had a wonderful time. She: anticipating the fun of the internship and life on her own; me: just basking in the joy of being with my wonderful daughter. The problems with the rented car muted by the good times.

Me, almost smushed, on the GW Bridge
(I hope my kids never take a pic while they’re driving)

But then I dropped her off, unloaded the car, and we said goodbye. One more hug to last a month. Then, a fitful night’s sleep before hitting the road again for home, alone, via New York City, or at least across the George Washington Bridge. (All of you in New York and New Jersey can stop laughing at me for being stressed out about this. It’s stressful to go from a state of 1.4 million people and a town of 8,500 to a bridge that in any given day carries 300,000 cars.)

There I was in an unfamiliar huge car (that felt even bigger with just me in it) on that huge bridge with about 12,500 other people (rough calculation, give or take). But not one of those 12,500 people would give me an inch, and I was sure I would run into someone with the ginormous car, and I was terrified—at points near tears.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the bridge. It’s beautiful, and I love the view. But I do not like the prospect of being smushed into smush by four zillion semi-trucks surrounding me at any given moment. And the George Washington Bridge has also come to represent goodbye and hello. Hence, I always look forward to seeing the bridge when I’m heading southward, but dread it when heading north.

About five or so hours after crossing the George Washington Bridge, I cross the Piscataqua River Bridge—going from New Hampshire to Maine. This bridge has come to represent coming home (or to my kids, saying goodbye to home). Again: goodbye and hello. Wild, sparsely populated Maine welcomes me home to the place I feel most comfortable living, but also much too far away from the part of my heart I left on the other side of that other bridge.

Piscataqua River Bridge (from Wikimedia Commons)
These two bridges have become an integral part of my life with my children—linking me to them both physically and emotionally. Where once we were all under the same roof in a small town sharing our daily lives, I now traverse those bridges to see them: representing their transition from our nuclear and protected family, childhood to adulthood, as they enter the world that beckons them to explore.

And so it is that next month will find me, crossing both bridges again, full of anticipation without dread—once again braving the prospect of being smushed—heading back for that long-awaited hug.


Do You Need a Time-Turner?

I can’t stand another year like this one. That Time-Turner, it was driving me mad. I’ve handed it in.”            – Hermione Granger

Are you like me: a writer who works on multiple Works in Progress at the same time? If so, you can probably understand why sometimes I wish I had a “Time-Turner” like Hermione Granger had in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban—the one she used to go back in time so she could take additional wizardry courses.
With this nifty device, I would be able to work on one WIP, then use the Time-Turner, to go back in time to work on one of my other WIPs. Because—wait for it—I am currently working on not 1, not 2, not 3, but 4 WIPs.

Wait! Before you tell me I’m already mad—even without the Time-Turner—hear me out. 

If you’re a nonfiction, business, academic, or freelance writer, then you certainly already juggle multiple shorter projects and maybe even longer ones. 

But book-length fiction? I know some writers who feel strongly about this. Some think you should never, ever work on more than one book at a time. Others think it’s perfectly fine (or even preferable) to juggle multiple WIPs.

Here’s my current line up:

WIP#1 is an adult mystery novel

WIP#2 is women’s contemporary fiction

WIP#3 is a middle-grade fiction (in revision)

WIP#4 is a non-fiction reference-type book (in research stage)

I know for some of you, I’ve already crossed a line—that is, a genre line—and some writers have strong feelings about this, too. My blogging friend Cynthia Robertson has an excellent post about that here.

Although juggling these four projects is a challenge, one of the reasons I do it is exactly because I do enjoy the variety of the different styles and genres. I like the challenge of stretching myself and learning new things. I also like to work like this because if I’m bored or stagnating on one project, I can switch to another.

I think one of the reasons it works for me is because the non-fiction book is in the information gathering stage and the middle-grade fiction is in revision. The other two I’m writing concurrently, working on each of them every day.

Still, if I had a Time-Turner it might be a whole lot easier. (Or maybe I’d be like Hermione and it would end up driving me mad.)

My question for you: How do you feel about multiple WIPs? Do you work on multiple projects? Or do you work on just one project at a time? If you had a Time-Turner, what would you use it for?



Getting into Character

Today I took a field trip to do a little research for one of my works in progress.

I didn’t go very far, I didn’t need to. I live in a small town on the coast of Maine: a town where many people know each other—if not by name then by sight.

In fact, a lot of times people know each other by car or by house, as in:

“Oh, I didn’t recognize you, did you get a new car?”
Or (when someone who you only just met needs to deliver something to your house and you start to give them directions) they say:
“Oh, I know where you live.” In that tone that makes you realize they know a lot more than just where you live.
Anyway, one of my WIPs is a mystery set in a small town on the coast of Maine. And one of the places I get fodder for this mystery is from the local weekly newspaper’s Police Beat. (I wrote about the Police Beat in another blog when someone was stealing branches from my apple tree; you can read that here.)
Back to today’s field trip. Here’s why I took it: I wanted to get inside the head of my WIP’s protagonist, Maggie. Yesterday when I picked up the local weekly paper, I turned first to the Police Beat (like always), and I found this:
A resident of West Elm Street contacted police to report there was a family of woodchucks living under the shed. Really? (I’m telling you, you can’t make this stuff up.) 
So, as I’m reading this, I’m thinking: what would compel someone to call the police about a family of woodchucks (purportedly living under their shed), knowing they well might end up in the police beat? Then, more importantly, what would someone, like my protagonist Maggie, do if she wanted to figure this out? In short, I made the kind of plan that Maggie might make.
This was my thinking as I set out on my field trip with my legal pad and pen in hand. I also took my iPhone (of course, I never go anywhere without that. I did not take my camera, I figured my iPhone would do in a pinch. We’re talking about a 1.3 mile stretch of road, right around the block from where I live, for cryingoutloud. I figured I could always book it home and get the camera if I needed it.

Oh, I drove, because did I mention that it’s raining, again? So instead of walking, I took the car, our “other car,” because MOD (My Outstanding Daughter) is home from college, and MOD always drives my car (a newer but still pretty old white station wagon) because it’s (a) safer and (b) more reliable. But this “other car” actually works out better because it’s a nondescript much-older blue sedan. No one would ever think I’d be driving it. (MEH (My Engineer Husband) used to drive it before he got his bike and bikes to work.)

Naturally, in MEH’s car, I know no one will recognize me (small town, they know me in my white station wagon). Which is probably good because I was driving somewhat slowly, somewhat erratically with my pen clenched in my fist so I could easily take notes on the legal pad next to me on the car seat.

Here was my plan: drive the length of the road (like I said, 1.3 miles) and look for all the sheds. But of course I didn’t know that it was 1.3 miles until I set the trip odometer, which took me three times around the block to figure out how to do. I’m sure that wasn’t conspicuous at all. Not with the pen clenched in my hand and fiddling with the car controls.

Oh, I forgot to mention that before I left home I texted MEH to let him know I was going out to investigate the woodchuck-shed incident. (Every good detective lets someone know where they’re going, just in case something goes horribly wrong. I know Maggie will always do this.)

Here’s what I wrote in my text to MEH:

“Toughie’s back; off to research woodchucks on West Elm Street”

(“Toughie” is a cat that has been hanging around our house way too much. Our dog is getting old, and apparently is not nearly scary enough to keep cats away. Toughie seems to have some developmental issues, tipped off by her unusual gait, perhaps hit by a car at some point in her life…she’s a really nice cat, but we’re not in the cat adoption market, and I’m afraid Toughie (with her issues and all) is confused and thinks she lives at our house…)

My handwriting is usually better than this
but I was driving at the time…

Anyway, after I finally figured out how and set the trip odometer, I set out. As I said, my plan was to count all the sheds—first on one side of the street then all the sheds on the other side of the street. I was hoping if there weren’t too many I could do a door-to-door search for whomever called the police. Then I could interview them. Because, I’m thinking, that’s what I’d have my protagonist do.

Better yet, I was hoping I (and more specifically my protagonist) would actually KNOW the person—as in recognize them from the house they lived in.

On the second side, the east side (again, weird, huh? the east side of West Elm Street. Go figure.) I counted five sheds. Now, I need to say, it’s pretty woodsy these days—trees really grow like weeds here in Maine in the summertime—and West Elm goes from pretty dense, town-style housing to less-dense more country-style housing (with a lot of weedy-woods) once you go by the high school. But I tried hard to look through the woods and miss none of the sheds.

I even pulled over twice to let cars pass me. It was still raining so there weren’t many people out (I passed two male and one female runners, one man with a huge big bushy black beard and a blue baseball cap, and a kid on a bike)—which made pulling over on the side of the road logistically possible without driving too erratically or recklessly.

In addition to the sheds, I was actively looking for woodchucks because I assume that even if the police and/or animal control captured the entire woodchuck family out from under that shed, there may be other woodchucks in town. (For the record, I saw no woodchucks. I did see a squirrel, two chipmunks, and two cats.)

I’m sorry to report that none of the sheds I saw were behind houses of people I know who live on West Elm Street. And I didn’t really have the guts to approach all eleven houses with sheds to ask the people if they had, in fact, been the person who called the police and appeared in the weekly Police Beat. (Maybe I would have had the guts if there were only a couple sheds. Maybe.)

So I’m also sorry to report that I didn’t solve the mystery of the woodchucks under the shed or even who called the police to report it. And I probably will never know who on West Elm Street doesn’t mind taking a chance of being in the Police Beat about a family of woodchucks (although I may find out when I least expect it—living in a small town and all). But doing the research, thinking like my protagonist (who really will have to talk to people if she wants to solve mysteries, for instance a murder), taking notes, and writing this blog post, have been extremely helpful in the writing process.

And that’s really all I have to report. Except that once again, the kooky lady of Orchard and Main streets got safely back into her house without herself making it into the Police Beat despite the reckless driving with a pen in her hand.

What kinds of research do you do for your WIPS? Do you ever try to walk in your characters’ shoes?


Why This Blog Is Still NOT about Arugula, Part 2

The bolting arugula

Sometimes in writing, as in life, and even in arugula, things don’t always go as they should.

And—case in point—I have bad news about the garden: the arugula (that we planted last month) in specific. Which bolted before its time. And more bad news: it’s not just the arugula. It’s the spinach and the bok choy too.  Which is really perplexing because if you don’t know anything about bolting, it’s when the plant goes to seed prematurely and happens only in very hot weather. (At least that’s what I thought.) And it’s been unusually cold here.

We’re disappointed, of course, because we’ve been looking forward to the first salad of arugula since last summer’s last salad of arugula.  But (until yesterday) we were also feeling a little bit like failures as gardeners. 

But now we don’t (feel like failures) because sometimes, even when even when things don’t go as they should, there are unexpectedly happy consequences. Such was the case yesterday when, after several days of thinking about it, I picked up the phone to call the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Office…specifically the volunteer Master Gardeners!

(From Wikipedia: “Extension services are non-formal educational program implemented in the United States designed to help people use research-based knowledge to improve their lives. The service is provided by the state’s designated land-grant universities.)

I started with the state office. After I told the very nice person where I lived and explained my problem (specifically my gardening problem; I didn’t explain the impostor syndrome problem, even though I hadn’t written anything at all yesterday because I was so busy figuring out why my arugula is bolting). But she couldn’t help me because she wasn’t in my county. Instead, she transferred me to the Cumberland County Extension Office.

“My arugula is bolting. Can you help me?”

After determining that I was in fact a home gardener, not a professional gardener (known as a farmer), she said: “Yes. Just a minute, let me connect you with the Master Gardener’s office. Your name please?”

I gave her my name, and then she put me on hold.

A few minutes later, someone came on the line. “Is this Julia Martin?” (I only use the Munroe when I’m writing, which I wasn’t doing (at all) yesterday.)


“This is D your neighbor.” (Only she said her name, not her initial) “Remember last summer, we talked about getting together for a cup of tea?”

It took me a second to put it together, but then I realized I was talking to a woman who lives about six doors down from me—and she (apparently) works for the Master Gardener Office!

I explained my problem to D, and she said that usually bolting only happens in hot weather, but that she would look into it. And she also asked if we’d ever had our soil tested (which we have not). And when she found that out, she offered to come and bring me a soil kit that evening (which she did!).

And when D dropped off the soil test kit, she also dropped off information from the Royal Horticultural Society about bolting, specifically cool-weather bolting.

From the Royal Horticultural Society: “Bolting is the term applied to vegetable crops when they prematurely run to seed, usually making them unusable. A cold spell or changes in day length initiates this behaviour. It can affect a wide range of vegetables including lettuce, spinach and fennel.”

Then D and I looked at our garden—which she said looked “wonderful.” (Of course I doubted her sincerity because I have that ridiculous impostor syndrome thing going on this week more than usual.) And she commiserated with me because her arugula also bolted!

We said our goodbyes, agreeing to meet for tea, possibly mint tea since I have mint growing in my garden, and as D said: “we have to use it for something!”

Last night I looked at the soil test kit—which really did make me feel like a farmer not a home gardener when I read the instructions:

The soil test kit
1. The soil in this box should be a composite or mixture of 15 separate samples scattered over a well defined area.

2. Look your field over. Take one composite sample from each 8 acre area or from an area which is uniform with respect to texture, slope, drainage, erosion, color, or past soil management.

3. Use a sampling tube, auger or spade. Take each sampling to the plow depth (6-8 inches)…

There are four more steps, but you get the idea. It’s pretty intense. Today, after I finish plowing the fields and milking the cows, I’ll mail the sample to the Maine Soil Testing Service, and they’ll tell me how to amend the soil to increase my harvest of arugula. But I’m guessing it’s too late for my first arugula salad of this year anyway.

So stay tuned to find out if this blog EVER will be about arugula!

Do you ever have unexpected good consequences come from unfortunate events, like I did with the arugula? And are you like me that pretty much anything can apparently distract you from your writing?


What’s Your Writer’s Dream?

Guess who Meredith is talking to!?

This week one of my big writer’s dreams ended. You know, the carried-away dreaming we pre-published writers do about what it will be like when our book is published?

One of my biggies was dashed yesterday with Meredith Vieira’s retirement from the Today Show—following closely on the heels of Oprah Winfrey’s last show. Because for me, the dream was to be interviewed by Oprah and Meredith about my book

I know, it sounds pretty lame (even to me) when I actually write it down, but it’s true: I have always hoped, dreamed (dare I say fantasized!) that I would one day be interviewed by one (or both!) of these women!

And here’s how it would have gone down:

(After the introductory applause died down on Oprah or on the Today Show Matt and Ann and Natalie and Al all finished congratulating and hugging me….)

Oprah/Meredith: I cannot tell you how much I loved your book!

Me: Really? Thank you so much!

O/M: It gave me such insight, it really touched me. You have no idea. It taught me so much about myself and yet it was so entertaining! I couldn’t put it down.  (And then Oprah would of course do the ugly cry and Meredith would lean over and pat me on the knee, smiling with pursed lips, tears in her eyes.)

Me: Thank you so much! (smiling like an idiot)

O/M: Where do you get your ideas? Is this based on your own life?

Me: Well, not really…. (smiling like an idiot)

O/M: How are you handling the fame? How do you like being at the center of attention?

Me: Ummmmm….. (smiling like an idiot)

O/M: What’s next? Apparently Meryl Streep is talking about producing a big blockbuster movie, and you’re writing the screen play?

Me: I know, right? (smiling like an idiot)

O/M: Thank you so much for joining us today—are you free for lunch so we can continue this fascinating conversation? And, will you be my new best friend?

Me: Of course!

Guess who Oprah is waving (regretfully) at?
And then the three of us: Meredith, Oprah, and I head off to have a lovely lunch together….which of course would forge a lifelong beautiful friendship with these two women who undoubtedly would come and spend long weekends in Maine—not for the natural beauty of the landscape and the relaxation of the sea, but to see moi!

But it’s not to be. And now it’s time to say goodbye to the dream. And maybe, just maybe…after replaying this interview in my mind, it’s a good thing, too!

What’s your big writer’s dream? And, if you’re already a published author, please tell me what your dreams are, how they differ from before you were published, and how those pre-published dreams stacked up to reality!