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February 2009

Overheard at College

9939_M_W_400 That's the name of an actual website, where people post ridiculous things they have overheard on campuses. (Though they've got to be making some of this stuff up. I mean, I hope so.)

Here are some highlights that the Chronicle of Higher Education recently picked up on:

Harvard U:
Student: "If the Old Testament were a pop-up book, that would totally change my outlook on Christianity."

SUNY at Purchase:
Professor: "I was grading papers last night at a bar, this real cool hole-in-the-wall place near where I live...Anyways, I guess I thought it'd be a nice quiet place to work, but I ended up getting kissed by a transvestite."

Chapman U:
Professor: "I'm high as a kite today. The guy who hates me just got canned, Obama has the golden ticket for the Democratic Primary. Plus, I just dropped a load of LSD."

McGill U:
Student A: "So, are you coming back for New Year's?"
Student B: "Oh, definitely...When is New Year's this year? The 31st?"
Student A: "Yeah, I think so."

Bowdoin College:
Student A: "How fast do you think we're walking?"
Student B: "Five miles per hour, maybe."
Student A: "Five miles per hour, hmmm, what is that? Like three miles in an hour?"
Student B: "No, it's five. Five miles, per hour."

So Obama thinks we should all get more education. But maybe campus life makes you stupid.

From the Department of The Obvious

ScaleDM_468x481 This just in - what matters when you are trying to lose weight is....CALORIES!

Yes - hold the presses - in a comprehensive study published yesterday in The New England Journal of Medicine, researchers have concluded that successful diets are ones in which you reduce calories. What a break through! Did anyone actually not know this?

The point of the study is that it doesn't matter how you do it - whether you are counting carbohydrates or protein or fat - it all comes down to the calories. No kidding. Perhaps for the follow-up study, they'll examine another 800 people and conclude that exercising burns up calories! They might even hypothesize that a combination of consuming less calories along with increasing physical activity might lead you to lose more weight! Nah, that's just too crazy.

Why Americans Are Fat

I am never  on a diet, but then again, I never really eat what I want. Or all I want. Among the many deadly sins I suffer from are gluttony and vanity. These two sins tend to keep each other in check. Thus, I love food far too much to ever be really slim. But I am vain enough to never get really fat.

Yesterday I came upon a mind-blowing website. Here is the link:

People post photos of some of the most disgusting, fat-laden, over-sized, deep-fried, ill-conceived foods you have ever seen.  As the site itself says, this is "where dreams become heart attacks."

Check it out. But not if you have a weak stomach.

Newspaper Death Watch Again

RIP I'm having a hard time not pitching articles to the NYT. My inbox is flooded from ideas from public relations types, and I have a lot of good story ideas myself too. It's so tempting - writing an article is something I can do easily - pitch the idea, get the assignment, do the research, interviews, write it, copy edit - boom. Deposit check. (Well, actually the NYT directly deposits my check into my bank account, so I don't even have to do that.)

But I am trying hard to control myself. Why? Because I have a book to write. It's daunting. It's easier to bite off a 900 word article than to tackle a manuscript, especially when you've never tackled a manuscript before.

Reading yesterday's NYT business section reminded me to stay on my new track. Cover story - "The Media Baron Who Loves Print." Well, that sounds promising, except the gist of the article is that Rupert Murdoch's commitment to The Wall Street Journal and The New York Post is bleeding the rest of his empire dry.

Then we have "Philadelphia Newspapers Seeking Bankruptcy." That would be the once-proud Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News. Interestingly, there was also a piece on the murder of Chauncey Bailey, the editor of the Oakland Post, who was killed while he was investigating something called "Your Black Muslim Bakery." Now a group of journalism colleagues - some retired, some unemployed - are continuing his probe.

All this is a sad reminder of the importance of newspapers and their incredible declining fortunes. Not to mention a reminder that I should start working on the website that will be connected to the book, and not ditz around with another local story.

Food, Family and Friends

Woman-cooking2 The house is quiet on this Monday morning, after a full week of lots of family, friends and what seemed like a monumental amount of cooking. Some highlights:

-A week ago Saturday The Boy came home for a college break. Of course I always prepare a nice meal for  his homecoming, and in this case he brought along a friend, who was a vegetarian, so I couldn't rely on my normal standbys and tried some new recipes. (Main course - pasta with roasted vegetables. Also salad and special chocolate Valentines Day cake.)

-The Boy was home for the whole week, happily, which meant there were rarely leftovers, and when there were any,  they were consumed by lunch. Altogether he put away prodigious amounts of groceries.

-On Tuesday I cooked dinner for a woman and her husband, because she needed a break after shoulder replacement surgery (I can't imagine how painful that was.) That same night, my brother-in-law The Stage Manager also came over for dinner. (Main course - pork roast. Also noodles, green beans with mustard sauce, apple-pumpkin cake.)

-On Thursday I hosted my writing group, and while they don't come for dinner, they can't be expected to share their creative work on an empty stomach, so that involved baking a coffee cake, and providing vegetables, dip, cheese and crackers, etc.

-On Friday my sister was in town from California to surprise my Mom for her 85th birthday party. She was hiding out at my house the night before. That evening I was cooking dinner for 25 people, because it was my turn to cook for the Emergency Shelter Partnership, which hosts homeless men and women at various congregations around Northern Westchester. (The men and the family got the same meal - sour cream chicken enchiladas. Also spinach salad with avocado and orange slices.)

-On Sunday morning we also had My Daughter home, as well as The Boy and his friend, and The Weatherman made homemade waffles for breakfast. I packed sandwiches for lunch for the travelers.

-Also, it was my turn to order to stock the Interfaith Food Pantry for the week.

Last night, I informed The Weatherman that we were ordering Chinese food for dinner, not his favorite option. He graciously agreed. Now, what's for dinner?

How Does He Know?

Big Lawson This is the Greta Garbo of cats. He wants to be alone. Well, that's not accurate - he wants only to be with the people he knows very well, which is pretty much me, The Weatherman, my daughter and The Boy. There are other members of my family - including my parents - who have never seen him, and have begun teasing me that he doesn't exist.

Well he does, but at the sound of the doorbell, he hightails it (literally) to his hiding place, which is actually inside our bedroom mattress. (He dug a hole in there - don't ask.)

But here is my question - how is he able to distinguish between different cars coming up the driveway? I know you are going to think I'm one of these crazy cat ladies, but I swear to you he is completely calm if either The Boy or The Weatherman's cars come up our drive. But a car he doesn't know? Voooosh! He's inside the mattress.

Of course I think he is very smart. But I'll never be able to prove it, because he won't come out for company.

Old Lady Makeup

79557269_b2a6fde56e Now I finally get it. I used to wonder about the old ladies wearing what appeared to be clown makeup. You know what I mean - really, really heavy rouge, sometimes formed in perfect circles on their cheeks, bright blue eye shadow, lipstick that was applied on and around their lips. It was almost grotesque, and I thought it was some attempt to compensate - throw on lots more makeup in an effort to look younger.

Oh how humbling is the aging process. Now I understand what's really going on. These women can not see. They can't see to put the makeup on, thus the crazy lines on the eyes and lips. They can't see how much they have already put on and they can't see the final product.

How do I know this? Sad and bitter experience. A few times lately, I'll be driving and catch my reflection in the rear view mirror, bathed in full sunlight. Oh. My. God. What is that stuff under my eyebrow? Why it's mascara, that's come off my eyelashes. And was that suppose to be eyeliner? That thick, uneven smear on my eyelid? What's the running down my chin? Could that be lipstick?

OK, I'm making it sound worse than it is. But it is one more cautionary tale. Judge not, and ye shall not be judged.

Facebook Squatter

Facebook It's true. I am a Facebook squatter. That's squatter, not stalker. Let me explain.

I do not have a burning interest in joining this social network. Basically, I feel like I'm too old for it and that it is more appropriate for my kids' generation. I know there are no age limits, and I certainly have friends my age with their own Facebook profiles. But it grew out of the college scene, it is dominated by young people, it is geared toward them, and joining it would make me feel like one of those mothers who dresses like her teenage daughter, tries to adapt her lingo and befriend her friends.

None of this even mentions how intrusive my kids, particularly The Boy, would find my presence on Facebook.

But I do have a problem. You see, I have an addiction. I am addicted to WordTwist. This is aFacebook-word-twist game which to my knowledge can only be accessed through Facebook. There is a pale imitation called "Text Twist" which you can get through Yahoo, but trust me, it isn't nearly as good as WordTwist for any number of reasons, number one being that you can't play against anyone.

I absolutely love to play The Boy in WordTwist, who in all fairness, introduced me to the game. And I will admit, publicly (I hope you appreciate this, Boy) that right now he is the WordTwist Wizard. He is dominating. His winning record against me is....well, a significant winning record against me.

But the only way I can play him, not to mention improve and hope for redemption, is to have access to Facebook. Fortunately my extremely patient sister (who works at a University and has good reason for a Facebook account) lets me sign on as her and play the game. This is probably because she hasn't realized what a horrible losing record I have established in her name.

Anyway, I have a lot to do today, because I am working on a difficult story about the proposed New York State Bottle Bill, which I really want to get out of the way so I can work on the book. And I am going to get started. As soon as I challenge The Boy to just one more round of WordTwist....


Ibm-logo It was at a  dinner party in Ridgefield, Connecticut, that I first heard IBM referred to jokingly as "I've Been Moved." Folks who worked for the corporate behemoth were often reassigned around the country, but they usually went with grace, knowing that they had long careers ahead of them with this most paternalistic of companies.

Uh huh. That was then (early 1980s) and this is now. IBM has laid off more than 4,000 workers in the United States, just since January. But I wonder how some of my former dinner partners are reacting to IBM's "Project Match"?

This is a proposal that IBM is making to laid-off American workers. They can still have jobs with the company, with just a few catches. One, they will be moved  to a country with a developing market, mostly likely India, China or Brazil. Ah, but they'll live like Kings on their American wages, right? Not exactly. They will be paid local wages - pennies to the dollar compared to what they used to make. (Why do you think the jobs have been moved there in the first place.) Your paycheck will also be in the local currency - think rupees, not dollars.

Oh, and IBM will help pay for the move, too - as in a one-way ticket to Mubai.

I've Been Moved indeed.

Pasta With Roast Vegetables

Pasta with roast vegetables
Thanks to Helen for the concept of this dish. It was easy to make, and tasty too, and even The Weatherman and The Boy, who tend to go for meat dishes, gave this their full approval. I don't have exact proportions, because I just made this based on Helen's description, and  you can easily alter the quantities according to taste.

Turn the oven up high - I had it at 390 degrees.

Put a good amount of olive oil in the bottom of a large roasting pan. Add chopped onion and minced garlic and let it cook for awhile, stirring occasionally. I used one purple onion and two cloves of garlic.

After about 20 minutes, add some roasting vegetables. I just used zucchini, but eggplant would be good too. While that was cooking (about 20 more minutes) I chopped some cherry tomatoes in half. (I used about two pints.) Then I threw those in the roasting pan, stirred everything up, and added some kosher salt, and let it cook some more.

Then I cooked a pound of farfelle pasta. Of course you could use whatever shape you like. Just before I was going to drain the pasta I added big bunches of fresh spinach leaves to the roasted vegetables. This  gave them just enough time to wilt, but not enough to over-cook.

Valentines cake I tossed the pasta into the roasted vegetables and then seasoned it with fresh Parmesan cheese and freshly ground pepper.

The meal was served with a salad, bread and for dessert - since it was Valentine's Day - this chocolate cake. If you look carefully, you will see that it's actually my Christmas chocolate cake. I just took a sheet of wax paper, cut out a heart, lay it on top of the cooked cake, and sprinkled confectioner's sugar on it.

At Manhattanville, A President Prepares For His Next Move

Published: February 12, 2009

Susan Farley for The New York Times
LEARNING EXPERIENCE In 14 years on the job, Richard Berman, who is leaving as Manhattanville’s president, has seen the college enjoy a resurgence.

RICHARD BERMAN never planned on a career in higher education. But 14 years ago, when he headed the search committee to find a new president for Manhattanville College, he faced a problem. No one wanted the job.

Prospective candidates looked at an institution that had dwindling enrollment, deteriorating buildings, a small operating budget and an endowment of less than $1 million and was in default on its loans. Some predicted that the college would have to close its doors in 18 months.

To the surprise of many, including himself, Mr. Berman left his position as president and chief executive of an executive search and management consulting firm and stepped into the job at Manhattanville. Now, as he gets ready to step down from the presidency at the end of the school year, he is widely credited with turning the college around.

Its finances are stable, and the endowment has grown to $21.3 million. Enrollment has nearly tripled, to 1,700 undergraduates and 1,200 graduate students, and the college’s profile has been raised locally and nationally. Manhattanville has climbed into the Princeton Review’s 2009 rankings of best colleges and is known for its global reach — it attracts students from all over the world.

Still, Mr. Berman’s tenure has not been without controversy. There has been faculty resistance on issues ranging from abolishing assigned parking spaces to introducing new athletic teams. Last year, the faculty delivered a “no confidence” vote after he fired a popular administrator who worked in student affairs. The trustees backed Mr. Berman, but the incident, he said, influenced his decision to move on.

“It’s obviously more fun to come to work when everyone is pleased with what you’re doing,” he said. “But if everybody is pleased with you, you’re probably not pushing the envelope hard enough.”

As he sat in his office, which is decorated with hockey jerseys, plaques and trophies, Mr. Berman, 64, said he was proud of his tenure and believed his vision of a college that creates self-confident students with a global vision and a sense of community purpose had been largely realized.

One of his missions was to transform the college from an isolated suburban campus into a vibrant part of the wider community. Mr. Berman noted that 500 students performed more than 30,000 hours of community service last year.

Manhattanville is now home to the Westchester Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center. Every year, the campus hosts Westchester’s breast cancer walk and autism walk. My Soldier, a pen pal program that seeks to lift soldiers’ spirits with letters and packages, was started at Manhattanville by a student who had been deployed to Iraq during his sophomore year; it now has more than 400,000 volunteers.

The college sometimes feels a bit like the United Nations; a trip to the cafeteria reveals a babble of languages. Thirteen percent of the students are international, and 14 percent identify themselves as Hispanic. Currently, 15 students from the Seeds of Peace program, which focuses on educating children from war-torn areas, are studying on campus. They represent, among other places, the West Bank, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In addition to attracting a more diverse student body, Mr. Berman had hoped to build the representation of another group on campus — men — in part by reinvigorating Manhattanville’s sports program. That included starting a hockey program.

Though that goal was less successful — 33 percent of the students at the former women’s college, which became coeducational in 1969, are male — Mr. Berman said he is pleased with the overall outcome. On average, he said, athletes have higher grade point averages, higher retention rates and greater community service participation than students who do not participate in sports.

As for the hockey program, both the men’s and the women’s teams have been consistently ranked in the top 10 of Division III.

Mr. Berman has also taken a special interest in Manhattanville’s Graduate School of Education, which developed a “jump start” program to help people interested in second careers become certified to teach more quickly than traditional programs do. The college has also established formal relationships with public schools around Westchester, providing faculty development, helping to prepare teacher candidates and working to improve classroom instruction. There is a special focus on districts with large Latino populations.

“Our relationship with Manhattanville has really evolved over the years,” said Eileen Santiago, principal of the Edison School in Port Chester, where 84 percent of students are Hispanic and 10 percent are African-American. “The college has taken a significant leadership role, and it’s because President Berman really understands the value of partnership and community.”

Mr. Berman, who lives on campus and eats his meals in the cafeteria (“I don’t cook,” he said), says he has no specific plans for what he will do next. Before his job at Manhattanville, he worked in the business world and in government. He says he hopes his next position will have a global focus and involve “fixing something.”

“I don’t have a house, I don’t have a wife and I don’t have a dog,” he said. “I’m free to go anywhere and do anything, and I’m trying to explore all the options.”

Fear of Flying

Abc_fear_fly_080714_mn This weekend I was talking to another woman about our mutual fear of flying. We compared notes on the worst moments on an airplane. For me, it was the second you step from the the loading ramp onto the thresh hold of the actual aircraft. That, of course, is the moment  you leave solid ground and relinquish all control. For the woman I was talking to, it was when you were sitting on the plane before take-off, and they announce that they are about to secure the cabin doors. Same issue - it's your last chance not to be on that plane.

My fellow fearful flyer and I agreed that about the most annoying thing that people can say to comfort you is, "You know, your chances of being killed in a car crash are much greater than being killed in a plane." This is an absolutely useless consolation. Besides, as a neurotic person, I am also very uneasy in a car, especially during merges, on bridges, and .... oh sorry, I digress.

Please don't write to tell me this is a control issue. I know it is. I also know I shouldn't devour every little piece of information about every plane crash. But instead I pour over why the plane in Buffalo seems to have dropped straight to the ground instead of going down nose first, and whether it really was an ice-build up issue.

There is one piece of comfort though: once, as a reporter, I covered a phobia clinic. The director told me that the clinic was full of journalists, writers and artists. It seems that we creative types have vivid imaginations, which is part of the problem.

Well, fasten your seat belts and hyperventilate into the little bags tucked into the seat in front of you - judging from my turbulent mental state, it looks like  it's going to be a bumpy week.

Bald Eagles Turning Heads at Festival of Fans

ALOFT A bald eagle flying over the Croton-Jarmon boat launch.

Published: February 12, 2009

IT looked as if paparazzi had descended on the Croton Dam Bridge. Clusters of photographers with tripods and telephoto lenses conferred excitedly when they got the subject in their sights. Dozens of others had binoculars and telescopes trained on their elusive prey.

The celebrities they were pursuing? Bald eagles, which were spotted on the ice of the partly frozen Hudson River and nestling in trees on the shoreline. It was all part of Eagle Fest, an event that has been held annually for the last five years to celebrate the return of the bald eagle to the lower Hudson Valley.

“It’s such a success story, we wanted to share it with the public,” said Fred W. Koontz, the executive director of Teatown Lake Reservation, an Ossining-based nonprofit environmental organization — with an 834-acre nature preserve — and a co-sponsor of the event. “The bald eagles in the area are recovering, and they have been coming back.”

15eagleswe2-1.190 Bald eagles, among the largest birds of prey in North America, were once plentiful in New York. Before the 1900s, they used as many as 80 nesting sites, primarily in northern and western New York, according to the State Department of Environmental Conservation. But by 1976, only one pair of eaglets remained. Environmentalists blamed pesticides, particularly DDT (which was banned in 1972), for interfering with the raptors’ ability to reproduce.

In 1976, the state began its Bald Eagle Restoration Project in an attempt to re-establish a breeding population. Over 13 years, 198 nesting bald eagles were collected, mostly from Alaska, and taken to New York. They were reared in cages in towers in the mid-Hudson region and released.

Today, roughly 500 bald eagles winter in New York (they migrate here when the waters begin to freeze in Canada and Nova Scotia), and 143 pairs remain in the state during the summer. Dr. Koontz said that eight pairs had stayed year-round in the lower Hudson Valley.

The Eagle Fest, which was held on Feb. 9 and based at Croton Point Park, included heated tents with educational displays and talks by conservationists. But the wild eagles were the main event, and a white board kept visitors up to date on the latest sightings.

At 9 a.m., 6 bald eagles had been spotted from the boat ramp at the Croton-Harmon train station, 21 had been seen at George’s Island Park in Montrose, 9 had been spotted at the Croton Dam and 3 had been seen at Annsville Creek Paddlesport Center in Peekskill.

By 11 a.m., 25 eagles had been spotted at the dam, some of them feeding on a deer carcass on the partly frozen Hudson. Meanwhile, a peregrine falcon was perched on a street lamp at the train station.

15eagleswe3.190 Still more eagles could be seen from the shoreline of Croton Point Park. Frank and Patty Clark of Tarrytown saw two bald eagles flying about two miles out, over the Hudson. The Clarks were at the festival with their 3-year-old son, Frankie. All three had binoculars around their necks.

“I’ve never seen an eagle in the wild before,” Mr. Clark said. “It was exciting. They were both bald eagles. One was mature and one was immature.”

Mature bald eagles have the distinctive white heads and tails; the word “bald” in the eagle’s name comes from an Old English word that means white-headed. Younger bald eagles have brown heads.

Among the presentations at the festival was “Close Encounters With Birds of Prey,” a kind of Raptors 101 given by Bill Streeter of the Delaware Valley Raptor Center.

Mr. Streeter explained that the term raptor refers to any birds of prey — including hawks, vultures, falcons, owls and eagles. Raptors have hooked beaks, strong talons and feet that are disproportionately large for their bodies. The center where Mr. Streeter works treats sick and injured raptors. Most are set free when they have recovered, but some could not survive if released into the wild.

It was some of these birds that Mr. Streeter introduced as they perched on his falconer’s glove, including Ace, a peregrine falcon that had been hit by a car. Falcons, when healthy, can fly at 200 miles per hour and can kill birds four times their size, Mr. Streeter told his audience. Peregrine falcons are now nesting on Hudson River bridges from Manhattan to Albany.

Mr. Streeter also displayed a red-tailed hawk, a great horned owl and a saw-whet owl, but it was when he lifted Benson, a bald eagle, from his cage, that the audience let out a gasp of admiration.

Benson, though unable to fly because he had once been shot in the chest, still looked majestic. He was restless, and Mr. Streeter struggled to keep him perched on the glove.

He also displayed Julia, a 14-pound golden eagle, with 3 ½-inch talons and a 7-foot wingspan, “one of the most powerful birds in the United States.”

Festival visitors — some 4,000 by the end of the day — made their way from the heated tents to the various viewing sights. Dan and Carol Carhart of Denville, N.J., came to the festival on a bus tour. Self-proclaimed bird lovers, they have seen eagles all over the country.

Steve Brown of Manhattan came because his son Matthew, 7, had been studying birds in the first grade.

“We’ve taken up birding this year,” Mr. Brown said. “I knew eagles were on the Hudson, but I didn’t know they were this far south. We’re trying to get out and learn as much as we can.”

Hector DeLeon of Cortlandt Manor attended the raptor show and then made his way up to the Croton Dam. He was sporting a baseball cap with an eagle insignia and a sweatshirt with an image of a large bald eagle.

“I just really do like eagles,” he said. “They’re our national bird. They fly into a storm. They represent something."

Gee, Thanks.

FCCMLOGO I'm sure they mean well. I'm talking about those folks who, in a small fit of altruism, decide that they will help the hungry in their community by cleaning out their own pantries and donating what they no longer want to the local food pantry.

You should see what comes in. Yesterday, when I was unpacking some of these individual donations, I came across the following: an expired can of clam sauce. (Oh yum, let me feed that to my family tonight.) Expired boxes of Thai soup mix. A small, undated can of escargot. (Our clients are primarily, though not exclusively, Latino. These items are a mystery to them. Plus we now have one mysterious box of soup and one weird can. And 108 clients.) A collection of unused food from some pre-packaged diet plan. (Do I have to tell you that hungry people who come to food pantries are not trying to cut back on calories?)

OK, rule one - if you won't eat it, or feed it to your own families, don't think that it is OK to give it to someone else to eat, just because they are poor.

Rule two - The best way to help the hungry in your community is by giving money to the local food bank. Pantries can buy food is bulk - much of it subsidized by the USDA - and get far better deals than you can at the grocery store.

Rule two, part 2. It's much easier for people serving at a food pantry if the food has been purchased in bulk, because you don't have to rely on the vagaries of donation (3 cans of beans; 14 of corn). In that way,  all the clients get pretty much the same thing, and no one feels ripped off.

Good news - I will now step off my soap box and wish everyone a lovely weekend.

Dreaming of The Big Test

SAT-college-study-test-exam-vl-vertical Can anyone out there interpret dreams? Last night I dreamed that I was taking the SATs. No problem on the verbal - I was whizzing through it confidently.

But then I got the math section, and realized that perhaps I should have reviewed, since I hadn't studied math in more than 30 years. What flummoxed me were the long equations that had certain parts of the problem set off in parenthesizes. I was pretty sure you had to solve what was inside the parenthesizes and then use the result to complete the rest of the equation, but I wasn't confident.

But the real question is what is making me revisit the big test? Maybe because it was exactly a week ago that I got the book deal, and after having gotten two NYT articles finished and copy-edited, I am going to begin to tackle the big project today. Thank Goodness it does not involve much math.

By the way, in my dream I got my score (it was the old scoring system based on 1600 points): Verbal: 750, Math: 500. I have long since forgotten my actual scores, but I know they weren't that good.

So Much To Do!

Maddy's work is done I fancy myself a pretty busy person. My electronic "to do" list this morning was a bit overwhelming, with its combination of person/medical stuff (how is it that I need to see three different specialists at once?), work demands (two stories going through copy editing for the NYT and this little thing called a book I am meant to be writing) and volunteer commitments (my team is suppose to be working at the Food Pantry this week, and I don't even know who's serving).

But as I was sipping my coffee this morning, I realized that no one is as busy as my cat Maddy. What a morning she has had already! Personally, I witnessed her getting into a ferocious battle with a small wood chip she found on the floor. She stalked it for some time and then pounced on it with all of her 8 pound force. It must have jumped a bit when she landed on it, because she ran away in fear, her tail getting as big as a raccoon's. A few minutes later, though, she was crouched nearby, eyes trained on this tidbit and ready to do battle again. There were a few more scuffles with the wood chip until Maddy got distracted by a feather. The ensuing skirmish exhausted her for awhile, but now she is busy at work on my desk. She has already sat on all my notes for this week's NYT story and chewed on a few wires, and in passing stuck her head down my coffee cup.

After witnessing a demanding schedule like Maddy's, I realize that I really have no right to complain.

Cold Assignment

 Frozen gorge good As you can imagine, my nearly 20-year career of covering Westchester for The NY Times has sent me all over the county and into all sorts of unusual places. I've spent more time at the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant than I care to; I've covered strip clubs (that was embarrassing), one ex-President (guess who); I've logged quite a bit of time in prisons (Sing Sing, Bedford Hills, the County Jail), etc., etc.

But I must say I have never been as cold on an assignment as I was on Saturday. These photos were taken from the bridge that runs over the top of the Croton Dam. The story? The return of bald eagles to the lower Hudson Valley. (The bridge was a good viewing spot.) It's a nice story really - bald eagles had almost entirely disappeared from the region, but were reintroduced during the late 1970s through the mid-1980s, and now the population is healthy. Pairs migrate here in the winter, and some even stay in Westchester year-round.

Sorry I have no eagle photos to show you. I did see them - and they were pretty magnificent. But I was looking through a telescope. The photographer I was working with had all sorts of telephoto lenses, so hopefully she got some good pix. But sometimes when I'm reporting, I carry along my own little camera just to capture the scene.

Did I mention it was cold? Plus when I was interviewing people, I had to take my gloves off to hold the pen and pad. It took me until yesterday to fully warm up. Below is the partially frozen Hudson River, which had six eagles far out on it.
Frozen hudson 2

Pear Crisp

Pear cobbler
This is just a tiny twist on an apple crisp, but the pears are nice right now. Needless to say, this should be served warm, with vanilla ice cream. (If I could find cinnamon ice cream, I would use that instead.)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Have ready an unbuttered 2-inch deep, 2 quart baking dish. Peel and cut into  slices:

5 large pears (about 2 1/2 pounds)

Spread them evenly in the baking dish. Then combine in a bowl:
3/4 cup of all-purpose flour
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 and 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg.

Add 1/2 cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces. For Christmas, the Weatherman bought me a pasty blender, which I now use, but if you don't own one, take two knives and cut the butter into the dry ingredients above, until the pieces of butter are a bit smaller than individual peas.  You could also use a food processor, but personally, I don't think it's worth the clean-up involved.

Spread the topping evenly over the fruit. Bake until the topping is golden brown and the juices are bubbling - about 50 to 55 minutes. 

Day Dreaming At The Gym

Elliptical-machine So I'm pumping away on the elliptical machine at the gym,Oprah_vegan listening to my ipod, and of course looking exactly like the woman in this photo. Really, I can't believe I found an image of someone who has precisely my body type.
And I realize that as I am slogging away, trying to remember not to sing along out loud with the music (you know how people with head phones always sing way too loud and, at least in my case, off-key), I am also envisioning my appearance on Oprah. We are of course, discussing my book. She is leaning over, rapt with attention at one of my many insightful points. Then, she just looks at the audience expectantly and they all burst into thunderous applause.

Within minutes of the show's close, my Amazon numbers start to sky rocket.

Then I catch a glance at myself in the gym mirror, pink-faced and sweaty (we will not even discuss the hair) and I realize that I haven't exactly written the book yet. In fact, I am stuck in the middle of an extremely complicated story for the NYT about a proposed change in the bottle bill. And after that, I have to write one on bald eagles wintering in Westchester. (I'm not kidding. Such is the life of the glamorous journalist.)

A little less dreaming and a little more writing is on today's agenda. But when I next work-out, I'll be imagining my way onto "Ellen" and "The View."

Caution: Pranksters Ahead

Amd_zombie_signs Well, I think it's funny.

I know, highway safety officials say that these electronic pranksters, who have been fooling around with caution signs out in the midwest, are creating a hazardous distraction for motorists.

But don't you think it would make you pay even greater attention to what lies ahead?

In any case, we can all use a little humor these days.

Author! Author!

Book It's official! I have a book deal! And after all this time, it happened pretty quickly. I already had one offer from one publisher (not using any names here until the contract is officially signed) but while the house was very reputable, the offer was not, let's just say, generous.

Then suddenly an editor from another house invited me to lunch yesterday. The lunch struck me as kind of odd, in that she didn't seem to want to talk much about the book. We traded stories about our families, the newspaper and publishing industries, the economy and heaven knows what else, but little about my ideas or methodology or anything like that.

After lunch I thanked her but added that I didn't feel I'd given her a very good sense of the book I wanted to write. She said that that hadn't been the purpose of the lunch at all. She was sold on the book idea from reading the proposal; she simply wanted to meet me, see if I was articulate, how my mind worked and how well I could work with the media to promote the book. Thank God I didn't know that at the beginning of the lunch or I probably would have put a fork in my eye out of sheer nerves.

ANYWAY, bottom line - the first publishing house called my agent that afternoon to say they needed an answer by the end of the day. This forced my agent to call the woman I had just lunched with to say if they wanted to make an offer it had to come in that day.

The happy ending - the second offer was far more generous, we accepted and I am an author.

More details to come later on the nature of the book, the publisher, etc. Hooray!


Nonprofit_organizations_static Today's NY Times has an article about how Wall Street has become a national pariah, and how people who work in the industry are now almost embarrassed to admit it. One retired executive said, "I'd almost rather say I'm a pornographer. At least that's a business people understand."

Look, Wall Street is a complicated place, and a short hand term for an industry that includes the New York Stock Exchange, investment banking firms and more. A lot of people who work there are good, decent people. Moreover, many of them had nothing to do with the economic meltdown.

But the outrage over huge bonuses after the bailout is something I can get pretty worked up over, and as I read to the end of the story I got to a quote from a woman, Maria Agnuiano, who works at Barclay's Bank, where her municipal finance department has done quite well. She was angry that she might not get a bonus and said, "If you just take your base home, the question becomes, why not just work at a nonprofit from 8 to 4 instead of a bank where you're expected to work weekends and every night till 10 or 11?"

OK, this is why people don't like bankers. I know plenty of people who work for nonprofits, and I assure you they don't just work 8 to 4. In fact, I know many people in all sorts of fields that work long hours, and weekends too, and they don't expect to be showered with hundreds of thousands of dollars. They do it because they believe that the work they do has meaning and is contributing to something other than their bank accounts.

Get it, Maria?

What Happens in the DR, Stays in the DR

Tropikal_pool Wow, what a great getaway!  The perfect antidote to winter blues and work stress. Believe me, I know how lucky I was to be able to go and get a great deal to boot. There were few Americans at the resort where we stayed- mostly Russians, Germans and a group from France, who for mysterious reasons, all dressed in matching red outfits.

As for my time with Sally (my freshman college roommate, incredible friend and the funniest human being I know), I refer to the title of this blog. But here are some printable highlights:

-I laughed more in four days than I had in the previous year.
-Several people asked if we were sisters, but one asked if we were brothers. It was a translation problem - really, we look like girls.
-There was an open bar.
-At one point we were photographed with parrots on our heads. (Please see previous highlight for an explanation.)
-Oh yeah, it was in the low 80s and sunny EVERY SINGLE DAY.

Now it's back to reality. I had a nice column about my grandfather published in the NYT yesterday. Today I have to start work on a somewhat complicated recycling story. Book contract negotiations are on going. And it's supposed to snow tomorrow. But that's ok, I had a tropical inoculation and I'm a much happier camper.

From Grandpa, Missives Treasured Through Time

Published: January 30, 2009

A FEW weeks ago I was sorting through a box of old papers and came across a group of letters from my late grandfather. Grandpa Bill, who lived in Texas, was a faithful correspondent. The letters, dozens of them, are almost all typewritten on a thin, delicate onionskin paper. Sometimes he wrote to all four of his grandchildren at once, making copies by sticking shiny sheets of carbon paper between each piece of stationery. How old-fashioned it seems today.

The letters were affectionate and newsy and would update us on my grandparents’ health and travels, which rarely took them farther than the Texas hill country, about an hour from their home in Austin. I have only one handwritten epistle from my grandfather, and it begins with this: “Ordinarily I would use a typewriter for legibility if for nothing else, but Grandmother Lawson is asleep and the clatter of the typewriter would disturb her. I don’t like to do that as she needs all the rest she can get.”

Even in mundane descriptions, my Grandpa Bill’s manner of speaking came through on the page. “The weather down here right now is awful,” he wrote one July. “It is Texas-hot. And I’ve heard it said that is hotter than the hinges of hell.” Or this, when he heard I had broken a bone: “I know a lot of sorry old people that I would not care a whit if they broke their arms, but you are certainly not in that class nor one of them.”

I don’t know if he meant to make me laugh with this line of comfort, but he did, because it sounded so much like his irreverent self. Or there was this, after a lengthy description of someone he was worried about: “If I were a religious man I would pray for him. But I’m not.”

When I got married in New York, my grandparents were not well enough to travel to our wedding. But I so wanted my new husband to meet them that not long after returning from our honeymoon, we traveled to Texas to see them. Austin in August, while it might not be quite “the hinges of hell” that my grandfather described, was not for the faint-hearted. It was unbearably humid, yet my husband insisted on wearing a tie and jacket on the plane ride down. He wanted to make a good impression. And sure enough, there was my grandpa at the gate, himself in a suit and tie, but with the addition of a Stetson. He shook my husband’s hand vigorously, announcing, “I like the look of you, boy!”

There were moments on that trip when I thought we would have the shortest marriage on record, and I am referring specifically to those times when my grandfather was driving us around Texas to show us the countryside. He was about 84 then, and his vision and reflexes had deteriorated considerably. Once, when we were careening down the highway, he commented randomly, “I love those red cars,” and after a pause added, “ ’cause you can see them.” After that, either my husband or I would pipe up: “Look, Grandpa! A blue car!” or “Here comes a green one!”

Sometimes my grandfather would veer off the highway completely, bumping his big sedan along the shoulder, all the while swearing about how they just didn’t maintain the roads like they used to. Once he got us on some bumpy dirt road that had multiple warning signs that we were trespassing on private property and to turn back. “I love these old country roads,” he pronounced serenely. “You never see another car on them.”

My grandmother wasn’t well enough (or in retrospect perhaps she was too wise) to accompany us on these car trips, but she did rally for Mexican food at night. We had long talks on their front porch in the evenings. At the end of our visit, my grandfather pulled me aside to tell me he very much approved of my “young man,” even if he was a Washington Redskins fan — although he found that somewhat excusable. “The boy doesn’t know any better,” I remember him saying. “He was raised that way. It’s his people.”

That was the last time I saw my grandfather. My husband and I returned to New York, and we were soon busy with our jobs and then with starting a family.

But the letters back and forth continued. Grandpa Bill was thrilled to hear I was expecting a baby, though nervous. “When it comes to my family, I am a regular worrywart and I am never at ease until I hear everything is well,” he wrote. He was thrilled to hear all went well with the birth and especially delighted that I gave my daughter the middle name of Lawson, which was his surname.

The very last letter I got from him contained a message for her. “Since we do not get to see that beautiful, precious little Jeanie I can assure you we nearly eat pictures of her on sight,” he wrote. “Some of these years after Jeanie is old enough to understand, please assure her she had two great-grandparents who adored her, even as they love and treasure her parents today.”

My grandfather died when my daughter was 2 months old. Because I only recently found the trove of letters, I delivered his message some 23 years later. Both my daughter and I cried. How grateful I am that he and I corresponded before the Internet was invented. Had we written e-mail messages, they would be gone, ephemeral things, lost in cyberspace. Instead, I have these old-fashioned letters — fading and delicate on their thin parchment but oh such a solid piece of my grandfather.