Previous month:
June 2007
Next month:
August 2007

July 2007

In A Sugar Town, a Show's Sweet Harmony

Published: July 29, 2007

WHEN you think of Yonkers, the adjective “sweet” doesn’t immediately come to mind. It’s a city known for political intrigue, a long, ugly desegregation battle and, currently, a huge push toward revitalizing its downtown and waterfront.

But Yonkers has a long history as a sugar town. For more than a century, a refining and packing plant has been producing sugar on the banks of the Hudson River here. The plant, now owned by American Sugar Refining Inc., is the last sugar refining factory in the Northeast, according to Brian O’Malley, the president of Domino Sugar, one of two brands still produced at the plant (the other is Jack Frost).

It’s also one of the last vestiges of Yonkers’s era as a thriving industrial town. Huge factories that used to operate downtown, like the Otis Elevator Company and the Alexander Smith Carpet Mills, closed in the second half of the 20th century. The sugar plant in Yonkers has held on, despite constriction in the industry, as well as relentless pressure to sell its increasingly valuable waterfront property to developers.

Sugar refineries are rarely in the business of underwriting art shows, but in a perfect confluence of theme, history and location, Domino Sugar is the corporate sponsor for the current show at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, titled, “I Want Candy: The Sweet Stuff in American Art.”

Do not visit this show before you eat lunch. The works on view include depictions of every type of dessert imaginable. There is an oil painting of a carrot cake in various stages of consumption. There is a watercolor of Tootsie Pops. Towering wedding cakes, oozing sugar-coated jelly doughnuts, savory pies, dripping ice cream, Hershey’s Kisses, Valentine candy boxes and more are presented in various mediums. There is even a crocheted banana split on a table full of needlework confections.

Some of the show seems a little sinister — the melting chocolate bunnies in the grass are pretty disturbing. Then there’s the wall sculpture of a little girl chewing bubble gum with cheeks bulging, blowing a huge bubble that looks like a distended stomach.

The exhibition gives more than a nod to Yonkers’s sugar history. In addition to a 1915 oil painting of the sugar factory, there’s a display box with archival material from the American Sugar Refining Company. It houses a 1770 manual on growing sugar cane, a metal sugar cutter, sugar specimens the company collected in 1920, and a vintage, five-pound box of Jack Frost Cane Sugar. A brief written history of the plant is also mounted.

Bartholomew Bland, the show’s curator, said the exhibition was meant to examine the tension inherent in sweet things, between temptation and overindulgence. In chocolate brown paint on candy-pink walls, the show is introduced with the statement, “Candy allures, but it can also represent a danger when transformed into rampant consumerism, gluttony or even violence.”

Speaking of gluttony, the show highlighting sweets comes at a time when the county is stepping up its battle against childhood obesity. Last month, the Health Department reported that one in three children in Westchester was overweight or at risk of becoming so. Besides its Fit Kids program to fight obesity, the county recently banned the use of products with trans fats at Playland Amusement Park in Rye.

Mr. Bland said he got the idea for the candy show while passing the factory on his daily commute on Metro-North from Manhattan.

“I had always gone by this very decrepit building, which I assumed was closed down, and then I found out that it was still operating, and then it started to coalesce in my mind.”

Mr. O’Malley, of Domino Sugar, said the company usually did not support museum exhibitions, but it did try to be a good community citizen. The plant has 275 employees, roughly 50 fewer than it did before a bitter six-month strike in 2005. The workers returned on terms largely dictated by management. The sugar industry has struggled with a decline in consumption, as competing sweeteners, like high-fructose corn syrup and beet sugar, have claimed more of the market.

Many refineries have consolidated or closed, most recently a Domino Sugar plant in Brooklyn in 2004. Mr. O’Malley said that the Yonkers factory had survived because of its access to the railroad and its proximity to the densely populated Northeast. Still, the industry is under pressure, and the company says it receives frequent inquiries about whether the Yonkers property is for sale.

In a museum undergoing renovations, the slick exhibition celebrating our love/hate relationship with sweets is just two miles from the aging refinery. Yonkers’ relationship with sugar is similarly ambivalent. You may even call it bittersweet.

Batteries Not Included

Carbattery This morning when her car wouldn't start, I debated telling my friend Sally that it was my fault. I knew it was, because I have bad car battery vibes. Twice this week I have been in the position of sitting in the passenger seat, hearing the driver turn the key and then hearing that dreadful click-click-click sound of an engine that is not even thinking about turning over.

Right now, we are waiting for AAA to give us a jump start. Faithful readers will think that all I do lately is vacation. I know this seems to be the case, but really what has happened is that a year's worth of travel has been crammed into a few weeks this summer. My own car died on Tuesday, just as the Weatherman and I were attempting to leave for Maine to visit the Boy. We were anxious to leave, so we simply took our other car and dealt with AAA when we got back.

Right now I am in San Diego, where Sally is condo-sitting for a friend. We were heading to the Farmer's Market before the car went into its coma. The reason I think the dead battery is my fault is that the last time we were in the car was when she picked me up yesterday from the airport. As some of you might Towtruck know, I am phobic about flying, so it's possible I didn't close the door properly in a Valium-induced haze.

I'm not sure why the dead battery earlier this week was my fault, but I'm confident it was. Anyhow, I'm very grateful that AAA is a national organization. And if things go well, we will be proceeding to a sand castle competition after the Farmer's Market. I'm hoping not to trip over one and knock it to pieces.

PS It turns out it wasn't the battery. It was the starter. And the tow guy swears it couldn't have been caused by a front seat passenger.

Old Girls Network

Etonboys_2 Back in the late 1970s, when I was looking for my first job, there was a lot of talk about "the old boys network." Men seemed to have all sorts of connections through their schools and clubs and helped each other - and each other's sons - up the career ladder. At least that's how we girls saw it. There were few women professionals at the time who could give us our starting break or even much guidance in how to navigate the professional world.

I was thinking about this recently, since my daughter just began her first job. She did not get it through any connections unless you count the electronic kind - she found her position on But she did get considerable help and guidance from a female friend of mine.  My friend (she probably wouldn't even want her first name mentioned, but _ _ _ you know who you are) is a veteran human resources professional - her career has spanned many high profile, international corporations. This very busy woman took the time to help my daughter improve her resume, write a sharp cover letter, prepare for an interview and even gave her tips on what would be appropriate to wear.

Do I know my friend through my own career? Nope. She's the mother of my son's best friend. Talk about networking. I'm really grateful to my friend and for the fact that my daughter has so many professional role models available to her.

Now, all I have to do is come up with a better description for this phenomenon than "the old girls network."

This Just In - Obesity is Catching

Discretionary A front page story in today's New York Times reports that "obesity can spread from person to person, much like a virus." Well, duh. Prior to this, didn't science understand how weight gain works? For instance, I just returned from visiting The Boy at his job in Maine. Two important weight-gain truisms weighed in on this trip, so to speak.

First, there are vacation calories. These are entirely different from calories you consume at home. They only count about half as much as real calories. It doesn't matter how long your vacation lasts. You automatically receive 50 percent off of what you eat. (Men will not understand this; women will grasp it immediately.)

Also - and this is true at home and on the road - any food you eat directly off your child's plate has no calories whatsoever. And thank God, because the Boy ordered fried calamari last night. Obviously, if you were to even walk by this dish in your home, you would put on two pounds promptly. But given that I ate some off my child's plate while on vacation probably means that I actually lost weight by this consumption.

You'd think by now scientists wouldn't need to study these obvious phenomenons.

Day One - It Sure Is Quiet Around Here

Movingout This weekend, a day or two before my daughter moved out, she accompanied me to the grocery store. Suddenly, I found myself giving her a crash course on buying poultry. "Murrays and Bell and Evans are more expensive, but they are worth it," I told her. "Look at how the Purdue chicken is that unhealthy, weird yellow color. It's shot full of antibiotics, too. Avoid that."

She, who has previously been oblivious to these concerns, nodded gravely. As of yesterday, she was setting up her new home. It's just a three-month sublet in Brooklyn, but the room and the rent are hers. The Weatherman and I assumed we would help her move in and set up. But my daughter had different ideas. "It's not like college," she said. "I'm an adult." So she drove her own stuff in (it's a furnished sublet, so it was only clothes and linens and towels) and settled in herself.

I called last night to see how it had gone and couldn't help but ask what she had made for dinner. She'd had cottage cheese and a granola bar, the same thing she was planning for breakfast. Yuck. Today is also her first day of her new job. I'm wondering if she is deeply involved in her work or looking at the clock. Probably there are moments of both. My new mantra (reinforced by the Weatherman) is this: I'm sure she's just fine.

Bird Creek Trail - The Back End of Nowhere

Birdlakesignenlarged_2 The Weatherman said this was going to be the best hike yet. But after about 17Wildflowerpath_2 miles on an incredibly bumpy, winding dirt road we had to take to get to the trail head, I was losing faith. The hike was across the Columbia River, back in Washington State, and on an Indian Reservation. When we finally got to the starting point, we ran into another hiker.

"Boy," I said. "This is pretty remote."
"Yup," she answered. "It's the back end of nowhere."

Wildflowersenlarged Actually, it was part of the huge expanse of Mt. Adams. And after hiking through what looked like a primordial forest, we came out onto a breathtaking field of wild flowers. We were up at about 6000 feet, and for a very short period of time at that altitude, the alpine flowers bloom. We were in the thick of it. The Weatherman had not exaggerated. The trail ran back and forth across a creek (on a few crossings it felt more like a river to me) and all around the banks were flowers. If my friend Helen had been there, she could have told me what they were - as it was, we'd just say 'Oooo - look at this pink one!" "Check out this purple one!" "Did you see those white ones?"Pinkflowers_2

The trail slowly ascended and we had our picnic lunch overlookingLunchspotonmtadams_2 glaciers on Mt. Adams. As elsewhere, these glaciers are receeding. They look different from snow fields - they have almost a blue/green appearance. Most of this post is going to be photos, because they out do any words I could use to describe the scenery.

A River Runs Through It

Kandmkayakingood You can't experience this part of Oregon without getting on the water. Today the Weatherman and I went kayaking for a few hours. We had a nice young guide named Todd, who grew up in Hood River, and knew where to take two relatively inexperienced boaters. Basically we told him we weren't into checking out the rapids, but wanted a nice, smooth paddle.

He brought us to part of the White Salmon River and it was lovely - aKandmkayaking_2 meandering green river, woods on either side, some avian life on and around the water. I have now figured out away around my computer problems, so am putting back my own photos into these posts.

Windsurfingenlarged After a few miles on the river, we said goodbye to Todd and then had a late picnic lunch on the shores of the Columbia River. You can not believe the scene there. Half of the shore where people were launching their boats is reserved for windsurfing. The other half is the province of kite boarders. This is a sport I didn't even know existed until I came out here. Kite boarding is kind of like a combination of surf boarding and para-sailing. People stand on a surf board, and maneuver a kind of sail. Not only do they skitter across the river at amazing speeds, but they also become airborne for considerable periods of time.

The windsurfers, of course, just stay on the water surface, cutting back and forth across the waves. BothWindsurfing sports catch the wind, making the Columbia River, with its natural wind tunnel, a perfect spot. But there are clearly some territorial disputes between the two. It's kind of like skiers and snowboarders, the windsurfers being more old school.

The town is full of young, fit, athletic people who participate in all these sports. In fact we saw a whole bunch of them  at the ice cream shop tonight. Hey - we paddled, didn't we?

The View from Hood River

Bridgeofthegods Today we pulled up stakes from Washington State and moved over to Hood River, Oregon. For readers who saw this post earlier, the Google Image photos have been replaced by my own.

We left Washington State via the Bridge of the Gods and headed firstMhood2alsogood_2 to Parkdale, Oregon. There we got some great views of Mt. Hood, which excited the Weatherman to no end, because it is snow covered and offers summer skiing. (We looked, but we didn't touch.) Then we visited a local orchard that was growing apples, pears and the most delicious cherries I've ever eaten. After that we made our way to Hood River, a cool little town which boasts itself as the windsurfing capitol of the world.

Just when we were looking for a place to buy a sandwich, the daughter called from New York to say that she had succeeded in getting a sublet apartment in Brooklyn. She will move in next weekend, and then start her new job the following Monday. I can't tell you how emotionally overwhelming this is. We are so proud of her. But she is moving out next week. And we're across the country right now. Yikes! It's all very disorienting.

Rowenacrest2 This afternoon we went for a hike at a place called Rowena Crest. The topography of Oregon is so changeable. This part looked more like Arizona, with a lot of arid areas and scrub brush. Still over the crest, you see the mighty Columbia River.

I am too ashamed to describe dinner in full, but I will admit that I tasted elk for the first time, and it was really delicious.

Waterfalls and sore legs

This morning I told the Weatherman that I didn't really want to do any big hikes today. Yesterday's trip wore me out some and I thought it would be a perfect day to go kayaking on the Columbia River. Which doesn't really explain how we ended up hiking to the top of this waterfall pictured on the left.
Wholefalls These are called the Multnomah Falls. The hike to the top was only about a mile, but it was pretty steep.

In fairness to the Weatherman, he did make inquiries about kayaking, but the trips were all full until Monday. That said, no regrets at all about this morning's hike.

At first, when we got to the falls, I was a little disappointed, because the view from the top wasn't that spectacular.  But then we decided to go a little further - there was a loop trail. Did someone say let's make this a little four mile hike? But check out what we found as we made our way along the trail. First there was this pretty river bed.

Riverbankhorizontal_3   Then as we made our way further along the trail we started to come across all of this cascading water and some smaller waterfalls. It was incredible, you'd just turn a corner, and there would be another waterfall.Anotherfallontrail

Sometimes, it would look like this.
And then there was the view we got as we hiked out of the wooded area and made our way down to where we started.

I am still learning the ways of blogging, so bear with me if these photos are coming out a little bit unevenly.

Tonight we are going on a dinner river cruise on the Columbia River and I am hoping and praying that we will be able to sit down. OK - here's the scenery from the hike down.

By the way, you can click on any of these images to make them bigger.

Oregon Trail

Prettyalongtrail When my kids were little, they loved an interactive videoLowerpunchbowl game called "Oregon Trail," in which they took virtual covered wagons through the Pacific Northwest and faced all sorts of challenges - hunting for food, fording streams and more.

Today the Weatherman and I were on our own Oregon trail, quite literally. We are out here on vacation. Our hotel is actually in Washington State, but the nearby "Bridge of the Gods" (I am not making up this name) takes us across the Columbia River into Oregon.

Kateatfals We took an amazing hike on the Eagle Cliff trail, which led to the Tunnel Falls. We had our lunch right at the base of the falls. It was one of those hikes where everything was perfect. The trail was relatively smooth and mostly in the shade. Few people were on it. Every bend afforded another spectacular view.

The only itty, bitty problem was that the whole thing wasMikeonbridge just under 14 miles. Let's just say that the we were full of "Ooos" and "Ahs" for roughly the first 7 miles. The second 7 miles reminded us that we are not the young hikers we used to be. Still, it was one of the prettiest hikes we've ever done, and I hope the photos convey it. And that smart Weatherman - he remembered to pack Aleve (close and stronger cousin to Advil and Motrin.)

Daughter Launch

Mtm_2 My daughter just visited me in my office and with a huge smile on her face said, "I can't believe I'm starting my real life."

Of course, her life has seemed pretty real to me for the last 22 years. What she means is that she's starting her adult life. On Monday, she was offered the job that she wanted and today she happily accepted it. She will start work in about a week. Her new office (her new office!) is in lower Manhattan, which will mean a very long commute from home - you know, that would be our home. So she has now been searching Craigs List and already has an appointment to see a sublet in Brooklyn.

Incidentally, she would have no idea what this iconic photo of Mary Richards, aka> Mary Tyler Moore, throwing her hat up in Minneapolis refers to. The Mary Tyler Moore show, which featured a young, independent working girl, debuted in 1970, a full 15 years before my daughter was born.

Anyway, she is doing exactly what she is suppose to be doing at this stage of her life. A job! An apartment! She's done it all herself and has handled it beautifully. And the fact that I burst into tears at lunch while looking at her only means that I'm incredibly proud of her. That and I'll miss her.

Food For Thought

Dinner As faithful readers know, I love to cook and prepare dinner for my family most nights. (Check out the Food and Drink column on your right.) So what's going on lately? It's not just that I've been traveling, or even that the temperature soared into  the 90s today, which doesn't exactly inspire one to preheat the oven. The problem is the shrinking family. The Boy is off at his summer job in Maine. My daughter is often out for the evening, as she is tonight. So it's just the Weatherman and me. Is it really worth putting together the protein, the vegetable and the starch for just two people? The Weatherman would adamantly respond, "YES!" But I'm finding it hard to get inspired.

This is yet one more side effect of empty nest, or at least impending empty nest that I did not anticipate - the food implications. In the interest of a happy marriage, I'm sure I'll still be wielding my pots and pans. But did anyone else experience this drop in interest for food preparation when the chicks started flying out of the nest?

What's Missing from This Picture?

Taconicstatepakway My family just returned from a long weekend in the Adirondacks. As we hit the final leg of the trip home - an hour and a half stretch from the top of the Taconic State Parkway in Chatham, New York, to the Millwood exit in Westchester County - something felt wrong. We had driven this road hundreds of times, but something was different and we couldn't put a finger on it.

Finally we figured it out. There was no road construction. Think Taconic and you think lane closures, orange cones, mysterious looking ramps being built that seem to lead to nowhere, and construction vehicles that have been parked so long that weeds are growing into their wheels. As of today - nada, nothing, just spanking new asphalt and attractive retaining walls.Roadconstruction

It turns out that the construction on the Taconic on the 2.2 mile stretch between the Bear Mountain Parkway extension and Route 6 in Yorktown was just completed last week. It's been ongoing for four years. At least that's what the construction firm says - I swear they have been working on it since my now-adult children were in car seats. Actually, the contractor was fined roughly $1.2 million for tardiness on the project - it was only over a year late, it just felt longer.

If I hadn't just been in the car for six hours, I might want to drive up the Taconic one more time just to celebrate. Nah.

Contractor Horror Story? Join the Crowd

Westchester County Department of Consumer Protection
The way one job was left.

Published: July 1, 2007
ALL she wanted was a nice fence around her backyard. Danielle O’Connell was planning a 2-year-old birthday party for her daughter at the family’s Elmsford home and wanted the 18 toddlers safely fenced in.

Mrs. O’Connell and her husband got several estimates but were discouraged by the cost and how long it would take to finish. All the contractors who bid told them the fence would cost at least $5,000 and take four to six weeks to put up.

Then the O’Connells got lucky — at least they thought they did. The couple found a contractor in the Yellow Pages who promised to build the fence for $2,000 and to do it in a week. “We were like, ‘Thank God we found this guy,’ ” Mrs. O’Connell said. “We’re thinking, ‘This is fantastic — those other people were going to rip us off.’ ”

There was a rip-off involved, of course, but it was by the low bidder, not the other contractors. After pressuring Mrs. O’Connell to give him a $1,000 deposit for construction material quickly, he disappeared. He never showed up to build the fence, nor did he answer the phone calls Mrs. O’Connell made as the weeks dragged on.

The O’Connells later found out that he is suspected of bilking at least 11 others out of their money, too. His Larchmont-based company, Frontier Fence, is featured on the county’s Renegade Renovator list, a compilation of 23 home improvement contractors the Department of Consumer Protection is warning residents to avoid ( Efforts to contact Frontier Fence were unsuccessful; another business has been given its phone number.

Gary S. Brown, the director of Consumer Protection, said unreliable contractors were “our No. 1 priority because it’s our No. 1 complaint.” The county received 375 complaints about contractors last year. (The second highest source of grievances concerned gasoline sales, but Mr. Brown said those rarely involved violations; consumers were venting their outrage at prices.)

With nearly 7,000 licensed contractors in Westchester — and what Mr. Brown estimates to be 1,200 unlicensed ones — home improvement is big business. Go to any local dinner party and the conversation will most likely veer at some point toward renovation horror stories. In some communities, the true status symbol in the driveway is not the Lexus or the Mercedes, but the Dumpster — the sign that you are having major work done.

Even when everything goes exactly as planned, renovations are usually expensive, disruptive and stressful. But when there’s a shady contractor involved, insult can be added to injury to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. Worse, unscrupulous contractors often focus on vulnerable older people, as well as victims of natural disasters, like the recent flood victims in Mamaroneck, who were eager to get repairs as quickly as possible.

It takes more than one shoddy job or broken promise to make the Renegade Renovator list, a group Mr. Brown describes as “the worst of the worst.” These contractors have generated multiple complaints, and tend to owe a lot of people — customers, suppliers and subcontractors — a lot of money.

Westchester requires all home improvement contractors — roofers, driveway pavers, landscapers, tile setters, chimney sweeps, fence installers, exterior painters, masons and people who install siding, doors, windows, decks and pools — to be licensed. Last spring, the county conducted a sting operation to catch unlicensed renovators. Using a county-owned house in Yorktown in need of repair, a police detective posing as a homeowner invited bids from unlicensed contractors, who had advertised in places like the Penny Saver and on supermarket bulletin boards.

“If they showed up at the house and made a bid, they were arrested on the spot,” Mr. Brown said.

Two of those who showed up were already on the Renegade Renovator list. Those arrested were charged with a misdemeanor. The Consumer Protection Department is pushing for tougher county legislation that would allow it to seize the trucks and tools of contractors who flout the licensing law. To get their property back, contractors would have to pay off outstanding fines.

That doesn’t guarantee they’ll get a license. To qualify, contractors must pass a criminal background check, have both liability and workers’ compensation insurance and also prove they have no unresolved judgments against them.

Of course, hiring a licensed contractor is no guarantee of a problem-free project. But “hiring an unlicensed contractor is a virtual guarantee you’ll be unsatisfied,” Mr. Brown said. “It’s like playing Russian roulette.”

The O’Connells never did get their money back. On the day of the birthday party, Mr. O’Connell went to Home Depot and bought some poles and plastic orange construction sheeting. It wasn’t pretty, but it kept the toddlers corralled. The family has since gotten a proper fence. They went with the original bid of $5,000.


Kayaking the Hudson

Kayaking_2 Today my friend Carin took me kayaking on the Hudson River. It was only the second time I've tried kayaking and she warned me that the water was kind of choppy. But the weather was sublime and I am a big believer in mini-vacations - an hour's hike here, a quick bike ride there. When you work from home you can get away with these breaks, as long as you deliver on deadline.

Anyway, it was just wonderful. We started out in Sleepy Hollow and started down the choppy Hudson. The current was flowing our way, so it wasn't difficult. Then she led us to a little tributary to the left, which it turns out was the Pocantico River. Suddenly it was peaceful and calm, and if it weren't for the occasional rumbling of Metro North trains nearby, you could have been in the Everglades. We even saw an egret. She had promised me a surprise, and sure enough, as we rounded a corner we came across someLamb_2 lambs grazing. It turns out we had paddled to the back of Philipsburg Manor, a recreation of a 18th century Dutch Farm.

Incidentally Carin - a recent empty nester who has a book coming out next month on the subject (Beyond The Mommy Years - Empty Nest, Full Life)  is being haunted by baby animals lately. Check out the saga of the chick in the nest in her backyard on her blog. (That's a literal chick, not her daughter.) On this trip we saw baby lambs, a baby calf and baby ducklings.

Fortunately I was able to speak to my own lost lambs (OK - fine, my 18 year old who is at his summer job in Maine and a vacationing 22 year old daughter) yesterday, so I am not feeling quite so forlorn.

I Miss My Kids

Nest Can a Mom be a cell phone stalker? I just caught myself counting the days since I've spoken to my two children. The Boy is working at a remote summer camp in Maine. The only place he can get phone reception is at the end of the dock, and even there he has to lean way over to the right, hovering just over the lake. This discourages frequent phoning.

My daughter is away for just a week, but she's far away - at a cabin on a lake somewhere in Minnesota. She's also incommunicado, out of cell phone range.  Needless to say, neither of them have access to the Internet at this point either.

Now I know that both children are in beautiful places and I'm sure they're both having a wonderful time.  Not only that, but this is just the beginning of what's to come as they launch themselves into self-reliant young adults who do not constantly check in with Mommy. (Please don't give me a copy of "Letting Go," it's already on my nightstand.)

It's just that I'm longing to hear their voices. I'm just sayin'.