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November 2007
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December 2007

Redskins Make Playoffs - Family Life Rearranged

Dscn8903 See this pillow? I got it early in my marriage, and boy, was it prescient.

Tonight, the Washington Redskins clinched a playoff spot. Naturally, the household is happy, especially the Weatherman and the Boy. I have written before about the football madness that grips our home and the disruption it can cause.

For instance, there was some concern as it looked more and more likely that the Redskins would beat the Cowboys this evening. A victory would be aWashingtonredskins_2 wonderful thing of course. But what about next week's game? When would it be scheduled? Would The Boy be on his way back to college during the kickoff? Would the Weatherman change all his plans so that he and The Boy could watch the game together and then drive his son more than 300 miles north to return him to school?

But - thank Goodness - the first NFC playoff game will be played next Saturday afternoon, so they can watch together. Even so - there's a new concern. Again, a victory against Seattle will be a wonderful thing. But wait - there will be the next round of playoffs, and The Weatherman and I will be on vacation out of the country that week. What if he can't get the game?

I'm not even going to address the conversations that are beginning to percolate around here about actually attending the Super Bowl, should the beloved Redskins get that far. It's in Phoenix. One game at a time.


A Haven For Children At Court

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By KATE STONE LOMBARDI
Published: December 30, 2007
White Plains

THE door of the child care center is decorated with Winnie-the-Pooh stickers and pictures of snowflakes and Santa. But it also has an unusual sign: “Litigants’ Children Only. The Children’s Center is Unable to Accommodate Jurors’ Children.”

Inside the spacious room, on the second floor of the Westchester County Courthouse, a 6-year-old named Jason was sitting apart from the other children, arms crossed, eyes downcast. Mercedes Robles, the children’s center director, gently approached him.

“Jason, I want to show you something,” she said, leading him to a gray plastic castle. Soon the boy was involved in play, making two action figures fly off the castle roof and battle each other in the air.

Upstairs from where Jason played, a different battle was playing out. His parents were in Family Court, fighting over custody. Just a decade ago, a child like Jason might have had to be in the courtroom to witness the accusations his mother and father hurled at each other from the stand. Until the state began creating child care centers in courthouses across the state about a decade ago, young children — most of them toddlers — had no place to go during custody hearings.

“What was happening was that upwards of 80 percent of the families that had business in court were bringing their children,” said Rob Conlon, manager of the state’s Children’s Center Program. “They didn’t have access to child care, for multiple reasons. Children were winding up in hallways and, in some cases, on the bench with the judge.”

If they were not sitting on the judge’s lap, they might be with one of their parents in the witness box. Crying children in court distracted parents and lawyers and disrupted proceedings. Worse, they were often traumatized by what they heard.

“Children were being exposed to situations that were tense, emotional and highly volatile,” said Judge Kathie E. Davidson, supervising judge of the White Plains Family Court.

Even children removed from the courtroom suffered. Most were sent to hallways or waiting rooms, where court officers or lawyers waiting to try other cases might be asked to watch them. Sometimes small children roamed the halls unsupervised.

In the mid-1990s, a state commission made up of government officials and private child welfare advocates was appointed to study the Family Court system. Called the Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice for Children, it established children’s centers in courthouses across the state. Today there are 32, including three in Westchester: White Plains, where the center will celebrate its 10th anniversary next month, Yonkers and New Rochelle.

Signs throughout the courthouse in White Plains advertise the existence of the child care center, which accepts children from 6 months to 12 years old, and judges, court officers and lawyers will refer parents in court for any reason to it.

But some parents remain adamant about keeping their children with them. Judge Davidson, who keeps a stash of crayons and coloring books in court, said that, particularly in neglect cases, parents often insist that they are the only ones who can care for their child.

“Usually what I will do is stop the proceedings and tell them, ‘If you are not going to use child care, you have to find some caretaker,’” she said. “Even when a child is nonverbal, or 2 or 3, you can feel them getting tense in court.”

The center seems a world away from the acrimony of the courtrooms upstairs. The room is flooded with natural light. Children’s drawings decorate the walls. In one corner, there is a crib, with two comfortable rocking chairs nearby. There is an art table, a snack table, dozens of toys and a brightly colored rug in the reading area.

The cases that bring parents to court — custody, support, visitation, orders of protection, criminal, paternity and more — reveal the potential upheaval in these children’s lives. Ms. Robles is never sure what a case will mean for a child in her care. Once she had a 5-year-old girl who repeatedly cried for Mommy. When the case was done, it was Daddy who picked her up; Mommy had just lost custody.

Recently a woman brought her toddler in with no shoes or socks, despite the frigid temperatures outside. Rather than admonish the mother, Ms. Robles asked her what had happened. The mother started weeping; she had fled her violent household in terror, grabbing the barefoot boy as she ran.

The center, which is run by the Y.W.C.A. of White Plains and Central Westchester and funded by the Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice for Children and the county’s Office for Women, does more than provide baby-sitting. Many of the children brought to court are poor, and their families are not receiving services — like Head Start, Women, Infants and Children’s food program or food stamps — to which they are entitled, Mr. Conlon said.

Ms. Robles, along with one staff member and about 10 volunteers, does her best to help families get the services they need. The center also focuses on literacy. Every child who comes to the center leaves with two new books. Ms. Robles also keeps a stash of extra clothing for needy families, and runs drives in the courthouse for school supplies and winter coats. She dispenses snacks, library card applications and comfort.

“The children who come here, their families are going through crisis,” Ms. Robles said. “They don’t need to hear what’s going on between Mommy and Daddy in the courtroom environment. This is a happy place.”

E-mail:Westweek@nytimes.com


Where Exactly is Home for the Holidays?

Dscn8895_2 Last night the family went to Little Italy for dinner. Well, at least the Weatherman, The Boy and I drove into the city. My daughter lives there. The four of us had a delicious dinner in her neighborhood.


This week, she had taken her first few days of work off since she began her job back in July. She came home for a few days over Christmas. And then she started talking about going back home. I was  confused. She was home. She meant her apartment, of course.


This is just one more new phase. The Boy is in college, but he comes home. The Girl, evidently, just visits home.Dscn8898


No sooner had she left, by the way, than our two cats - Lawson and Madeline - made themselves at home in her abandoned bed. Which is one of the many reasons I need to leave her childhood room  unchanged - at least for now.


Your Blog Hit is Very Important to Us, Please Stay on the Line....

Kinkade__home_for_the_holidays Sorry for both the incredibly cheesy "home for the holidays" illustration and the woeful lack of blogging this week.

All I can say is that I've been a little swamped with entertaining and Christmas, and am just beginning to see daylight again.

This afternoon I started to get back to normal by covering a story for the NYT. It was kind of interesting. Sixty years ago and a day - Dec. 26, 1947 - a huge blizzard hit New York. A 19 year old from Croton, here in Westchester, was working on the old Putnam rail line as a "fireman." He didn't put out fires on trains; rather he shoveled coal into the old steam engine.

Anyway, this was long before the days of radar and The Weather Channel,Centurybliz4 and no one knew about the magnitude of the storm that was about to hit. This young man - along with the engineer and the conductor - got stranded on the train just outside of the Yorktown station, trapped between huge 10 to 12 foot drifts of snow. They spent a long, cold and hungry 20 hours on that train before they were rescued.

Today the man is 78 years old and he was at the Yorktown Community Center telling his story. Stay tuned - you'll read all about it in an upcoming issue of the paper, and of course, in the "column" section of the blog.

The old gentleman is quite a charmer. He doesn't miss working, but he misses his buddies.I asked him if he was scared that night. He said, "No, I was  19. I wasn't scared of anything. The engineer was kind of nervous though."


Holiday Cooking

Womancooking Now comes the fun part. I've raced from store to store. The UPS man keeps showing up with stuff I ordered online. I have spent a ton of time and money at the grocery store.

Now it's cooking time. Sometimes when I have a lot of baking and other holiday cooking to do, I get into a zone. In my mind, there are two keys to happy cooking. I'll start with the second - having the Weatherman around to stop by and periodically tackle the sink full of dishes. The Weatherman is a huge help when it comes to cleaning.

But the other key is having appropriate music to cook by. I have burned several cds with playlists titled "What's Cookin'?" or "Music to Cook By." But now I just stick my ipod in its docking station and see what comes when I hit "song shuffle." This can bring some great combinations - no sooner are you stirring batter to Handel's "Hallelujah" chorus, then Run-D.M.C. comes on with "Christmas in Hollis."

I have found that show tunes can really get you through chopping onions. And if Kanye West pops on right after Joni Mitchell, that jolt alone can get you through blanching your vegetables.

God forbid anyone ever looks into my kitchen window and sees me using my spatula as a microphone as I prance from the stove to the counter. Uh oh, I guess I've already given you a visual image. Never mind - happy cooking to you!


Ritzy Westchester County

Rc_logo_en_3 Rensquarewhiteplainsrendering I love Westchester County. After all, I grew up here, I still live here and my job is to write about the place. But I have to admit I was taken aback by the notion that anyone would spend $3000 a night to spend the night here.

The spanking new Ritz-Carlton Westchester opened in White Plains a few days ago. It boasts all sorts of fancy amenities, spa services, expensive steak restaurants, a gazillion-thread count sheets.

I've been flooded with press releases about this place, which promises that the 118-room hotel brings "new heights of elegance and legendary service" to White Plains. Well, there right about the heights - the huge new edifice is the tallest structure between New York and Albany.

When I was growing up, White Plains was a sleepy little city, run down in many places. There was the old - and I mean old - White Plains Hotel, as well as the Roger Smith Hotel, which is now the Coachman Family Center and houses the county's homeless families.

I barely recognize the current city. But if you're hankering for a night of luxury at this 44 story hotel, buck up. You can get a budget room there for as low as $300. Not including tax.


Wisdom Teeth

Dentalwork Today, "The Boy" will be known as "The Poor Boy." This morning he had all four impacted wisdom teeth removed. The Boy is at an age where he does not like to be babied by his Mom (he's a college student after all).

But today, I get a pass. Not only does he have to eat actual baby food for awhile - applesauce, yogurt and the like - but also he's pretty much down for the count. I've made him what we call "a nest" in the family room - that is, his own pillow and favorite blanket in the corner of the couch.

Though I'm happy to have an excuse to pamper The Boy, I wish it didn't have to be when he's hurting. The Poor Boy.


Boardwalk, Yonkers Style

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By KATE STONE LOMBARDI
Published: December 16, 2007
Yonkers

WANT to get in cheap on all the redevelopment going on in Yonkers? Well, for a relatively small investment of $20 you can own “property” — or give it as a holiday gift — in Westchester’s largest city. All you need to do is buy a copy of Yonkersopoly, a new game based on Monopoly but set on the rolling hills and city streets of Yonkers.

I was pretty excited just imagining the whole thing. First, there were the tokens. Would Mayor Philip A. Amicone replace the top hat? Could State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins be the racecar? Maybe the former mayor, John D. Spencer, or the former legislator Nicholas A. Spano, would be featured — and if so, would one have to be the thimble?

Then there were the properties. Would Yonkers City Hall replace Boardwalk? Or would the priciest spots be more along the lines of the fancy new developments on the waterfront? And what would the Chance cards say? “Yonkers Teachers Strike — move your child’s education back three spaces”? Or how about, “Federal judge orders desegregation. Skip three turns”?

The actual game, of course, is much more benign. Yonkersopoly is the brainchild of St. Joseph’s Medical Center, which came up with the idea as a fund-raiser. The hospital, a fixture in Southwest Yonkers since 1888, sold spaces on the board to local businesses and organizations. Putting your name on a property cost $500 — probably the best real estate deal you could find in Westchester. For an additional $15, a business could include its logo, addresses and phone numbers. Corner spots went for $750. The Hudson Valley Bank sponsored the play money.

The hospital had 1,000 games made and expects to make about $25,000 from the project, said Michael J. Spicer, president and executive officer of St. Joseph’s.

“We thought this was a great opportunity to reach out to the business community and get them involved in supporting the hospital,” Mr. Spicer said. “When word got out, it really took off.”

As in the real Monopoly game, the price of properties on the board increases as you make your way around. The cheapest spots — the Yonkers equivalent of Mediterranean and Baltic Avenues — are Upright Imaging of Westchester and Habitat for Humanity Restore, each available for $60. Hudson Health Plan and Court Sports II each cost $100. Surprisingly, Kenneth W. Jenkins, the county legislator from the 16th District, which covers part of Yonkers, has a space named after him that is available for just $120.

When asked if he could be bought that cheaply, Mr. Jenkins laughed and said “That’s before I’ve even developed the property, before I even put the houses and hotels on it.”

“Hopefully, no one will have to foreclose on it,” he said.

Mr. Jenkins added that he, personally, was not for sale and that he bought a spot on the Yonkersopoly board to support the hospital and the city.

The local 628 Yonkers Fire Department costs $200; the Yonkers P.B.A. is $220. Upscale Yonkers restaurants, like Zuppa and Peter Kelly’s X2O Xaviars on the Hudson, are also in the $200 range. The most expensive property on the board — Yonkers’s version of Broadway — is the game’s sponsor, St. Joseph’s Medical Center, available for $400.

The Chance Cards are called “Yonkers Cards,” and with these your luck can go either way. You may get one that tells you to advance your token to Tara Restaurant and pay the owner twice the service charge to which he is otherwise entitled. On the other hand, you may receive $75, thanks to St. Joseph’s Medical Center.

There is also a “Get Out of Yonkers Court Free” card. On this board, Yonkers Court has replaced Monopoly’s jail. In a nicely targeted marketing twist, Yonkersopoly has an advertisement for a local lawyer, Steve Anduze, that runs around the border of the court square.

Mr. Anduze paid $750 for this corner spot and was surprised to hear that his advertisement had landed in the courthouse. Mr. Anduze, who specializes in injury litigation, criminal defense and real estate, spends a fair amount of time in the real Yonkers Courthouse. “I start to wonder to myself how many people are actually going to be playing this game,” Mr. Anduze said. “It’s probably going to wind up on the top shelf of a closet for 10 years and then someone will find it and say, ‘What’s this?’ and throw it out.”

He added that he didn’t expect to get much business from being on the board, but that he wanted to make a good-will gesture to support the hospital.

The tokens, by the way, are abstract figures, different from the regular game, and do not represent any local politicians, which is fine by Mr. Amicone, the mayor. Mr. Amicone said that he had already bought eight of the games, to give as holiday gifts to friends who have moved out of Yonkers.

“They can check out all the places they’re missing,” he said. “They’re going to get a taste of Yonkers as a present from me.”


A Surge In Reports of Abuse

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The county’s social services commissioner, Kevin P. Mahon, at his office.

By KATE STONE LOMBARDI
Published: December 16, 2007
REPORTS of suspected child abuse or maltreatment in Westchester rose sharply last year, and the numbers are projected to continue rising. County officials say that the increase is due in large part to publicity surrounding the 2006 case of a Bedford Hills Elementary School principal who was arrested after failing to report the suspected rape of a 9-year-old girl.

The rise in reports had a significant impact on Westchester’s 2008 $1.77 billion budget, which was passed by the Board of Legislators last week. The county executive, Andrew J. Spano, argued that much of the budget’s 3.9 percent property tax increase was needed to pay for additional child welfare services stemming from the increase in reports of suspected abuse.

In 2006, Westchester County had 5,939 such reports, an increase of about 17 percent from 2005, when there were 5,080. (In 2005, the number of reports rose just 2 percent from 2004, when there were 4,980 reports.) Kevin P. Mahon, the county social services commissioner, said that he expected the numbers to continue rising. Through the first 10 months of the year, 5,142 reports had been made; Mr. Mahon estimated that 6,200 cases would be filed by the end of 2007, and he projected 6,800 reports in 2008.

“Typically, we get a rise whenever there’s been public awareness raised,” Mr. Mahon said. “What happened in ’06, when the principal was arrested in Bedford, is that the numbers went up, and they’ve continued to go up.”

Mr. Mahon said that a growing percentage of reports were coming from mandated reporters, people who are required under state law to report suspicions of child abuse. This group includes educators, doctors, social workers, psychologists and other professionals who regularly work with children.

In the case of the former principal, Victoria Graboski, prosecutors charged that, instead of going to the authorities, she began her own investigation after learning that the 9-year-old girl had told other children on the playground about having sex with an adult. As a result of her failure to report the suspicions, the abuse went on for months, prosecutors contended.

Ms. Graboski was fired after her arrest. In a deal with the district attorney’s office, she avoided a trial and possible jail time by agreeing to present six seminars to educators and others on the importance of following mandatory reporting laws; in return, a criminal misdemeanor charge was dropped.

Janet DiFiore, the district attorney, said she believed that prosecuting Ms. Graboski had made educators more sensitive and aware of their responsibilities under the law.

“I was looking to hold her appropriately accountable and to have that added public education and prevention piece in that disposition,” Ms. DiFiore said. “She went out and she spoke to people about the importance of not sidetracking the investigation.”

Ms. Graboski, citing a pending lawsuit by the girl’s mother, declined to comment.

But she was not the only one in Westchester explaining the reporting requirements. The social services department did additional training, as did some nonprofit agencies, like the Mental Health Association of Westchester.

Clearly, the message took. Of total child abuse reports that came in to the county in 2006, 72 percent were from mandated reporters — 10 percent higher than the statewide figure. Through October of this year, 73 percent of reports in the county were from mandatory reporters.

How many of those cases are found to be credible? Roughly the same percentage as reports made by people not covered by the mandatory reporting law. For both groups, no credible evidence is found to support the allegations in 65 percent of cases; the remaining 35 percent are what the social services department calls “indicated,” meaning that some intervention is needed.

Every allegation, by law, must be investigated, so the rise in cases is straining county services. More complaints require more investigators and more prosecutors. When a report contains allegations of serious physical or sexual abuse, a multidisciplinary team that includes the county’s Child Protective Services and police officers trained in pediatric forensics is sent to investigate. Such children are often interviewed at the Children’s Advocacy Center, a Valhalla-based group of professionals trained to interview young crime victims in comforting, child-friendly surroundings.

More children being placed in foster care also requires more money. Nancy Travers, first deputy commissioner of social services, said that the cost of foster care varied widely, from roughly $30 a day to, in one case, $800 a day, and depended on the age, disabilities and placement of the child. (Some children live with foster families; others in residential care in and out of state.)

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Not all cases of neglect and abuse result in a child being removed from his or her family. Child Protective Services offers preventative services, from therapy and parenting classes to caretaking respite, in an effort to keep families together.

There are complicated formulas for reimbursing the county for these services. Generally, the state reimburses the county for 65 percent of the costs, with the county picking up the remaining 35 percent. The state has uncapped funding for preventative services, but there is a cap on foster care reimbursements. The remaining costs are passed on to taxpayers.

Amid all the numbers and formulas, it can be easy to lose sight that at the center of the system are vulnerable children. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the work of the Child Fatality Review Team, an independent group established in 2006 to review the death of any child in the child welfare system.

Before the team was established, the state Office of Children and Family Services would investigate the deaths of children in the welfare system. Several counties had their own independent review teams to ensure local oversight, but Westchester’s plans lagged, mainly because of turf battles between the county executive and Ms. DiFiore’s predecessor as district attorney, Jeanine F. Pirro.

Soon after taking office, Ms. DiFiore started the review team, which is meant to help the responsible agencies learn from mistakes and avoid repeating them. It includes representatives from several county offices — the district attorney, social services, the medical examiner, the county attorney, the health department — as well as the state Office of Children and Family Services, a forensic pediatrician, local police and others.

“Every single person on that team is only interested in child protection issues and what we can learn from this child’s death,” Ms. DiFiore said.

In 2006, the team reviewed 12 deaths of children in the county; so far this year, they have investigated nine deaths. The reports are not public, but in some cases the team will issue a kind of hybrid report, if it believes that the public might be educated by its findings. So far, the team has reported publicly on the accidental death of a child caused by a baby walker, on abandoned babies and the safe haven law, and on the potential problem with using cellphones to make 911 calls. (Such calls are often routed to a regional site and referred to the state police, who may be unfamiliar with localities, losing valuable minutes in emergencies. In one case, the problem was compounded by non-English speaking parents who had difficulty explaining their location.) The next publicity effort will be on the dangers of parents’ sleeping with babies.

Ms. DiFiore said that when the team first convened, the atmosphere was tense, with members initially reluctant to share their agency’s record in the death being investigated. Now, she said, information is offered openly and the responsibility for mistakes is shared.

She said that every agency involved had been criticized at some point after the death of a child.

“I think that’s been helpful, because this is not a ‘gotcha’ exercise,” she said of the review team. “This is about doing the best we can.”


Weatherman's Delight

1997snow As you can imagine, the Weatherman loves a good storm. He talks about them for days in advance, monitoring his favorite websites, following different computer models and getting more and more worked up about projected snowfall.

When weathermen (and weatherwomen) are learning to be on-air meteorologists, they are taught to keep this excitement in check. Not everyone, they are reminded, loves snow, let alone the other forms of freezing precipitation. Maybe they can get away with saying, "and for you snow lovers out there..." but they have to temper it with a warning about a possibly rough commute.

Today's storm turned from snow to sleet, and the Weatherman was upset -both with how so many people had blown the forecast and at the lack of a really big snow fall. But fear not - there's a big Nor'easter predicted for the weekend. And the Weatherman will be all over it.


Patience

Clock_2 Among my many faults is my extremely limited patience. I am always in a hurry. Slow drivers, slow lines, even slow talkers (get to the point, already) drive me around the bend.

This is no way to live, so as I was cruising around the web I found an article titled "How to Be Patient."  Can you believe it had an entire introductory paragraph and NINE steps to read? Thank God the basic points were highlighted, so I didn't have to bother to read them through. There were such helpful hints as "Remind Yourself That Things Take Time" and "Pinpoint the Triggers That Make You Lose Patience."

I'd tell you more, but obviously I did not have the patience to plow through the whole thing.


Mahmoud and Me

Ahmadinejad0508 There are about 60 million blogs out there (hey - thanks for reading mine!) with roughly 100,000 new people starting new ones each day. That's a lot of company, but I was still startled to learn in today's New York Times that the world of my fellow bloggers includes Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran.

You can check it out yourself at: https://www.ahmadinejad.ir

It runs in Persian, Arabic, English and French, and each post opens with the following: "In the Name of Almighty God-the All-Knowing, the Most Lovingly Compassionate"

I was thinking of using this tag line myself, but I don't want to do anything to upset Mr. Ahmadinejad. The Iranian president apparently promised to spend 15 minutes a week on his blog. In a recent post, he notes that he hadn't written anything in a few months, but assured readers that this did not mean he had broken his promise. Instead, he wrote, he had been using "the limited time I have allocated for the blog" to read the comments of others.

You can comment on his blog if you like - many Americans do. But I think I'll keep a low profile with Mr. Ahmadinejad. He is known to censor the blogs of others in his country. And he is also known as a guy who holds a grudge.


Book Group Baked Cauliflower

Baked_cauliflower My book group meets for pot luck dinners. As the evening approaches, the host sends out an email, asking what people would like to bring. Almost immediately, there is a rush of people offering to bring bread and/or seltzer.

In fairness, some of our members work in Manhattan, making it nearly impossible to arrive with prepared food. Others just don't like cooking or say they do not have the time. Whatever. But yours truly offered to bring a vegetable side dish this week and here's how I prepared it:

2 pounds cauliflower
2-3 Tablespoons coarse sea salt
1 garlic clove
2 Tablespoons chopped parsley
3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground pepper
3/4 cup grated Pecorino Romano

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly oil a large, low baking dish.

2. Bring a large pot of water, at least 5 quarts, to a rolling boil.

3. Detach florets from the cauliflower at the base of their stems. Add to boiling water with 2-3 Tablespoons of salt and cook for 5 minutes or until al dente. Refresh with cold water, drain and reserve.

4. Saute the garlic and parsley in extra virgin olive oil over low heat until the garlic begins to color.

5. Put the cauliflower in the prepared baking dish, top with the garlic and oil, and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and grated cheese. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until cheese is browned and crusty.

6. Explain to your editor that you will get him those inserts and re-write the top of the article by tomorrow morning at the very latest.

This recipe came from "Red, White & Greens: The Italian Way with Vegetables" by Faith Willinger.


Ho Ho Ho With Leo

Tolstoy_big Usually, you don't associate Russian writer Leo Tolstoy with holiday cheer. Here's how I came to to do it: Saturday was one of those mornings I woke up far too early and full of anxiety. What was I anxious about? You name it.  First, we're not going to even discuss what's going on at work these days in a medium as public as a blog, but trust me - the situation isn't one that's conducive to peace of mind.

And then there are the holidays - that means gifts for all the out-of-town in-laws, and for that matter the in-town in-laws. In fact, it's presents for the whole family, and mine is rather large. Gifts must be purchased. Wrapped. Carted to the post office. There are holiday gatherings. Holiday cards. Holiday cooking.

Now all this should be cheerfully done - it's a joyous season, not one in which we should be hyperventilating about getting to Target before the crowds, or frantically  googling recipes for cookies that can be baked ahead and frozen.

Oh - did I add that I was feeling feverish and had a sore throat?

Anyway, at the end of the day, I had checked a lot of things off my "to do" list. And it came to me that rather than enjoying any of this, I was simply "processing" it, getting through it. You know, "it," as in life. Which brings me to Leo Tolstoy. On my iGoogle home page, I have a literary quote of the day. Yesterday, it was Leo, and here's what he had to say:

"In the name of God, cease a moment, stop your work, and look around you."

Happy Holidays, Mr. Tolstoy. And thanks for the wake-up call.


Read It and Weep

Cat_book Yesterday The Boy called from college with a request that made me very happy. I'd requested Christmas ideas, and he was asking for some good books. Be still my heart! His sister was always a voracious reader, but The Boy was less of one. For a long while, he'd read sports magazines and the occasional sports biography, along with his assigned school reading,  but not much else.

But now he was talking about an interesting memoir he was reading that a classmate had loaned him. He is also midway through a novel that a former high school teacher had recommended. All this while he is heading into final exams. Nothing could make me prouder.

This call came shortly after I came across a report released recently by the National Endowment of Arts saying that Americans are not only reading fewer books, they are reading less and less of everything, in every medium. The preface notes: "There is a general decline in reading among teenage and adult Americans. Most alarming, both reading ability and the habit of regular reading have greatly declined among college graduates."

This doesn't just bode badly for us writers. In my mind, it bodes badly for our entire national culture.



Send!

Emailicon If you're like me, you've got a lot of things going on at once. Having a home-based office compounds my sense of being pulled in a lot of different directions. For instance, it is technically possible for me to be on the phone with five people at once - two land lines (one home, one office), each with call-waiting, as well as a cell phone. Obviously I have never attempted this feat.

But when all the phones are ringing and you throw in email, instant messages and ichat, and you have the potential for some serious overload boo boos. Yesterday was a doozy. I had been upset about something at work and had carefully composed an email to my editor on the subject. I also copied another editor I work for on the email.

This second editor wrote an email back with his comments on my comments, which - in a flurry - I forwarded to the Weatherman, whose advice on these matters I trust.

That is, I thought I forwarded it to the Weatherman. Actually I must have hit the reply button, because it went back to the editor. Worse, I had put a little cover note on it, addressed to "Typhoid Mary." This was a reference to the Weatherman's miserable condition of cold/cough and possible flu.

Now my editor wants to know why I'm calling him "Typhoid Mary". At least there was nothing worse in there. Forget "Don't Drink and Drive." My new mantra is "Think Before You 'Send.'"



Barking Up the Wrong Christmas Tree

Carolsingingdogs Well, there's no accounting for taste. America's most disliked Christmas song is the Singing Dogs' rendition of "Jingle Bells" -  the version that's all barks. How could anyone not like this song? Maybe it's the same folks who dislike "The 12 Pains of Christmas," one of my personal favorites.

An outfit called Edison Media Research asked a national sample of women (maybe that explains the results) about what Christmas songs they loved. Favorites include Nat King Cole's "Christmas Song" and John Lennon's "Happy Christmas (War is Over)."

Incredibly, the horrible "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" was loved by 47 percent of listeners, making me think that the whole sample group got into the holiday eggnog a little too early this year.


They Don't Pay Me Enough

Mask I love my job. I really do. Being a reporter takes you to some amazing places. But like most people, there are days when the refrain "they don't pay me enough" dances through my head.

I have had this thought when I was deep in the locked recesses of Sing Sing prison. I have had it when I faced a guard with his hand on an assault weapon at the Indian Point power plant, shortly after 9-11. (Frankly, I was glad he was there and followed all his instructions, but I had a belligerent photographer who was giving the guard a hard time and making me nervous.)

Yesterday, when I was working on a medical story, it flitted through my mindSingsing once again that perhaps this story wasn't worth the paycheck. I knew I was going to be interviewing patients, but it wasn't until the nurse had me don a surgical gown, gloves and a mask, that I was told I would be chatting with a poor guy who had active MRSA - that nasty hospital staff infection.

Way back in the day, when I was a youngon' at Columbia Journalism School, I was told by one professor that I didn't have the "fire in the belly" to be a journalist. I'm not sure if that meant I was basically a coward, or I wasn't cynical and tough enough.

Whatever. I'm grateful that I cover the suburbs. And I really am grateful that I have the job.


Sweet Caroline

Johnfkennedy_carolinekennedy If I needed any further prove that I'm gettin' old, it was discovering that Caroline Kennedy will be the cover girl for the January/February issue of the AARP Magazine.

Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg turned 50 last week, making her eligible for membership, but I remember when we were just a couple of very young girls - she hadJk_horse1_2 a Dad in the White House and a pony, and I thought she was the luckiest little girl alive. I also, for some reason, thought she was my friend (we  have never met - I just admired her from a far.)

I still admire her - I think she has conducted her life with incredible dignity and grace, in the face of unspeakable Caroline_2 loss.

And what did this gracious woman say  about turning 50?


"It's not that old it is?" she told the magazine. "I feel like I'm really happy, fortunate to have my family and the things I'm involved in, even without the people not here who were here once."

I guess in some ways, I still want to be Caroline Kennedy when I grow up.