Monday, February 25, 2008

"It's Been in the Family for Weeks" - by Tom Connor

September 10, 1998

NOT since the 1920's has the New York region witnessed estate-building on the scale and pace of the late 1990's. These aren't the dinky 10,000-square-foot McMansions that are crowding the suburbs; they're serious turn-of-the-21st-century manor houses of 15,000, 25,000 and 40,000 square feet and more.

One problem with the new estates, however, is that they seem so, well, new. But this isn't a problem if you have lots of new money. Because as more and more well-heeled homeowners are discovering, you can simply pay architects, contractors and landscapers to make the places look as if they'd been there forever.

One popular 1990's makeover is instant ivy implants -- the equivalent of ear-level hair plugs and comb-overs for bald pates. Two years ago, Ceci Brothers, a site-management company in Greenwich, Conn., installed 100 two- to three-year-old ivy plants on the walls of a 17,000-square-foot, hand-cut granite house on 20 acres in North Greenwich for a 31-year-old investment banker and his wife.

''Masonry's a wealthy touch,'' Mike Ceci said, ''but the house looked very cold and stiff.'' Working from extension ladders, his crew hammered inch-long masonry nails into the mortar between the stone, then wrapped galvanized wire around the heads of the nails and painstakingly connected each runner or tendril. Each plant took up to three hours to install and cost about $250.

Nabel's Nurseries in White Plains supplies mature ivy to Ceci Brothers and other landscapers. To get a vigorous, estate-worthy plant, Rudy Nabel, whose father started the nursery in 1942, packs 15 strong cuttings into a seven-gallon pot. In two years' time, the ivy can grow as high as nine feet, with each cutting producing up to 30 tendrils.

''This was a nonexistent crop five years ago,'' Mr. Nabel said. ''It's because of the instant gratification that consumers want these days.''

While on the grounds of the granite house in Greenwich, Ceci Brothers also laid down a half million dollars' worth of topsoil, eight acres of sod, a truckload of old boxwood plants and hundreds of perennials -- carrying out a design by the Manhattan landscape architect Edmund Hollander.

''It's different now than in the mid-1980's,'' said Mr. Hollander, whose firm in recent months has designed some 50 gardens and exteriors for estates in Fairfield and Westchester Counties and in the Hamptons. ''This is less splash and more tradition and elegance. A lot of what's going on now is a repetition of the 1920's.''

But it's 1920's tradition at 1990's speed. ''I can't say to a client, 'This landscape's going to look great in the year 2015,' '' he said. ''That's not going to go over well.''

One tactic is to start planting vines and shrubs as soon as construction begins; another is to build the house close to really old trees. Frank Newbold, a broker with Sotheby's International Realty in East Hampton, noted an imposing Adirondack-style house on Jericho Lane there that ''is so close to a huge tree that it looks as if it'd been built at the same time the tree was planted, when in fact the house went up last week.''

''I think people are looking for roots,'' said Francis Fleetwood of the East Hampton architectural firm Fleetwood Lenahan McMullin, which over the last 18 years has designed the majority of the shingle-style mansions in Southampton and East Hampton. ''They'd all love to be born into a grand old house that had been handed down through the generations. So would I.''

Mark Finlay, an architect in Fairfield, Conn., also designs what he calls ''brand-new old buildings.'' ''It's all in the details,'' he said. ''It's custom windows and sills of four-and-a-half-inch-thick bluestone. It's the way the mortar's done. It's the color of the mortar -- sandy rather than gray.''

Mr. Finlay recently designed a fieldstone house in New Canaan, Conn., to look like an early colonial that had been added onto over the years. For a brick mansion in Greenwich, the architect ordered flat, untooled, rough-looking joints. ''If you look at old brick in Europe, it's really sloppy, because,'' he said, ''half the masons in Europe were drunk.'' Mr. Finlay recalled telling the masons on the project: '' 'Go have lunch and drink a couple of beers, then go to work.' They thought I was nuts.''

Another European look especially popular in the Hamptons is the massive chimney that stands on the horizon like the mast of a tall ship.

''Chimneys were once a focal point because that's how they heated homes,'' said Frank Dalene of Telemark Construction in Bridgehampton, which recently built a 17,000-square-foot, cast-concrete house with three 35-foot-high stacks. ''Now, they're the focal point because they've become architectural details.''

As with the new mansions themselves, homeowners want their chimneys with old details: intricate patterns in the brickwork, ornate corbeling and multiple decorative clay pots on top. Mr. Fleetwood favors ''snow washes'' -- up to 16 inches of mortar mounded over the chimney caps.

The shingled-down Hamptons are also experiencing a demand for historicity. Ben Krupinski, an East Hampton contractor specializing in big houses, is building three outsize stucco-and-limestone mansions. He adds brown pigment to the raw concrete for an old color and tone and sandblasts the limestone to make it appear weathered.

Even Mr. Fleetwood has begun using stone in the foundations and columns of his shingle houses. ''Stone implies permanence,'' he said. ''Most people like stone. We like stone.''

Of course, nothing quite gives stone an old, weathered look as much as old, weathered stone. Mr. Hollander imported several thousand square feet of ''antique'' wall and paving stones from estates being broken up in England to use in terraces around an elegant house on a private island off Long Island. And for the grounds of a new 40,000-square-foot stone house in Westchester, he took moss- and lichen-covered boulders harvested from a Connecticut field and arranged them in the middle of a 100-foot stream he's creating behind the house. ''You can't start with new rock,'' he explained.

Meanwhile, back in Greenwich, the ivy implanted last year is now 15 feet high and thickening. If left alone, the air roots will begin pulling the mortar away from the granite. Then the homeowners must either pay to have the house given a light trim three times a year, as estate owners did in the past -- or build a new mansion and start all over again.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

"When Whippersnappers and Geezers Collide" by Lisa Belkin

July 26, 2007

SHORTLY after they reported for work this summer, groups of interns at Ernst & Young were invited to an orientation program that included a PowerPoint presentation titled “Hello. W U?!”

For those out there who need translation, that’s how Generation Y, to which these 20-somethings all belong, might ask “What’s up?” in a text message.

And this meeting was all about translation. “Strategies to Connect With Baby Boomers” was the title of one of the slides. Its advice? When the boss comes in to complain that the young team is “spending too much time text-messaging each other and listening to iPods,” it is just not the best time to explain that you have to “leave early to meet your volunteer commitments.”

Summer is the season of culture shock in the working world, when the old guard comes face to face with a next wave of newcomers, and the result is something like lost tribes encountering explorers for the first time.

Add to this the favorite fact of human resource managers everywhere: this is the first time in history that four generations — those who lived through World War II, Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y — are together in the workplace.

Managers tell stories of summer associates who come to meetings with midriffs exposed, baring a belly ring; of interns who walk through the halls engaged with iPods; of new hires who explain they need Fridays off because their boyfriends get Fridays off and they have a share in a beach house. Then there is the tale of the summer hire who sent a text message to a senior partner asking “Are bras required as part of the dress code?”

“They have an attitude toward work that looks like laziness and looks like impatience,” said Janice Smith, who leads the Ernst & Young seminar, carefully putting the best light on Gen Y qualities that are flummoxing managers, “but they don’t understand that’s how it looks.”

There have always been overconfident 20-year-olds, just as there have always been elders to say, “When I was your age. ...” Perhaps poetically, the last group to upend the working world with its ambition and drive are now looking down from the C-suites at their children, Gen Y, who are as single-minded in their search for balance as their parents were in their quest for success.

Surveys over the last few years have found that this group is looking for work that includes a “flexible work schedule” (92 percent, according to a Harris Interactive poll), “requires creativity” (96 percent) and “allows me to have an impact on the world” (97 percent). And when the polling firm Roper Starch Worldwide did a survey comparing workplace attitudes among generations, 90 percent of Gen Yers said they wanted co-workers “who make work fun.” No other generation polled put that requirement in their top five.

So the de rigueur summer event at many companies now, as much a part of signing on as the human resources forms and the ID card, is a seminar designed to close this generation gap. At Arrow Electronics it is “Generations in the Workplace,” while Michelle Marks, an expert on organizational behavior at George Mason University, calls hers “Managing the Challenges of the Gen X and Gen Y Work Force.” Aflac has “Generational Differences.” All are less than two years old.

Much of the purpose is to teach Gen Y the basics, which have often been neglected along the way. “They all have amazing résumés,” said Mary Crane, the founder of a Denver-based consulting firm and part of a new crop of experts teaching companies to navigate generational conflicts. She has been traveling the country “taming” Gen Y at workplaces from the law firms of Dewey Ballantine and Simpson Thacher, to the Orange County Employee Benefit Council.

These young employees, she said, had to overachieve to get through the most competitive college admissions process in history, so they don’t feel particularly inclined to pay their dues. “They have climbed Everest and excavated Machu Picchu,” she said, “but they have never had the experience of showing up for work at 9 a.m.”

When speaking to this group, Ms. Crane lays out scenarios. When you e-mail a client, do you use his or her first name in the salutation? Only if he or she has indicated that would be all right. At a business lunch, who sits in the chair pulled out by the waiter? “The client always goes first,” she said, “unless that seems to make the client uncomfortable, in which case, just sit down.”

Some of the blame for this knowledge gap lies with the very elders who are scratching their heads.

“This is the largest, healthiest, most pampered generation in history,” she said. “They were expected to spend their spare time making the varsity team,” not working part-time, Ms. Crane said. Their parents, she said, showed their love by staying late at the office to bring home more money. The children expect to be home for dinner. Career dominance, their thinking goes, can be achieved by 5 p.m., can’t it?

Billy Warden, an account director at the marketing company Capstrat in North Carolina, learned all this anew recently when he was being interviewed by an intern who was working on a booklet about Gen Y and work. The topic was job interviews, and, as Mr. Warden remembers it, the 20-year-old was explaining “that job interviews are a two-way conversation, where the company puts out what they want and expect from me, and I put out there what I want and expect from the company.”

Mr. Warden didn’t think that’s what interviews were. “Maybe in 10 years you’ll get to state your expectations,” he said he told the intern. “Right now, you’re a box of cereal and you’re going to have to sell yourself and hope that someone decides to put you in their grocery cart and give you a try.”

It is a concept that has all but disappeared from internship programs, where employees make it clear they have no patience for busywork.

“I walked away from one internship because it was a waste of my time,” says Ryan Healy, who last spring founded Employee Evolution, a Web site that gives advice to Gen Yers entering the work force. “We have limits.” He is 23.

For all the talk of teaching Generation Y, with a worker shortage looming, workplaces everywhere are bending to their needs.

So while Ernst & Young is teaching its Gen Y employees how to talk politely to partners, it has also started teaching those partners how to send text messages. Similarly, Liggett Stashower, an advertising and public relations firm in Cleveland, encourages summer interns to blog about their experiences. Deloitte & Touche runs a summer film competition (the winner will be posted on YouTube), on the theory that this is an area where interns in particular can show off. And the technology company Avnet changed its internship program so that interns spend the entire summer in one department, a response to suggestions from previous groups who felt they weren’t doing enough substantive work.

Which leads to the question — who exactly is grooming whom?

A quick tally would seem to show Gen Y in the lead, setting the life-work agenda. But it would be rash to underestimate the Me Generation. As boomers learn to text more quickly and interns learn to wear suits, the only sure bet is that the tug of war between these generations will shape the workplace for decades to come.

"Move Over Oil, There's Money in Texas Wind" by Clifford Krauss

February 23, 2008

SWEETWATER, Tex. — The wind turbines that recently went up on Louis Brooks’s ranch are twice as high as the Statue of Liberty, with blades that span as wide as the wingspan of a jumbo jet. More important from his point of view, he is paid $500 a month apiece to permit 78 of them on his land, with 76 more on the way.

“That’s just money you’re hearing,” he said as they hummed in a brisk breeze recently.

Texas, once the oil capital of North America, is rapidly turning into the capital of wind power. After breakneck growth the last three years, Texas has reached the point that more than 3 percent of its electricity, enough to supply power to one million homes, comes from wind turbines.

Texans are even turning tapped-out oil fields into wind farms, and no less an oilman than Boone Pickens is getting into alternative energy.

“I have the same feelings about wind,” Mr. Pickens said in an interview, “as I had about the best oil field I ever found.” He is planning to build the biggest wind farm in the world, a $10 billion behemoth that could power a small city by itself.

Wind turbines were once a marginal form of electrical generation. But amid rising concern about greenhouse gases from coal-burning power plants, wind power is booming. Installed wind capacity in the United States grew 45 percent last year, albeit from a small base, and a comparable increase is expected this year.

At growth rates like that, experts said, wind power could eventually make an important contribution to the nation’s electrical supply. It already supplies about 1 percent of American electricity, powering the equivalent of 4.5 million homes. Environmental advocates contend it could eventually hit 20 percent, as has already happened in Denmark. Energy consultants say that 5 to 7 percent is a more realistic goal in this country.

The United States recently overtook Spain as the world’s second-largest wind power market, after Germany, with $9 billion invested last year. A recent study by Emerging Energy Research, a consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass., projected $65 billion in investment from 2007 to 2015.

Despite the attraction of wind as a nearly pollution-free power source, it does have limitations. Though the gap is closing, electricity from wind remains costlier than that generated from fossil fuels. Moreover, wind power is intermittent and unpredictable, and the hottest days, when electricity is needed most, are usually not windy.

The turbines are getting bigger and their blades can kill birds and bats. Aesthetic and wildlife issues have led to opposition emerging around the country, particularly in coastal areas like Cape Cod. Some opposition in Texas has cropped up as well, including lawsuits to halt wind farms that were thought to be eyesores or harmful to wetlands.

But the opposition has been limited, and has done little to slow the rapid growth of wind power in Texas. Some Texans see the sleek new turbines as a welcome change in the landscape.

“Texas has been looking at oil and gas rigs for 100 years, and frankly, wind turbines look a little nicer,” said Jerry Patterson, the Texas land commissioner, whose responsibilities include leasing state lands for wind energy development. “We’re No. 1 in wind in the United States, and that will never change.”

Texas surpassed California as the top wind farm state in 2006. In January alone, new wind farms representing $700 million of investment went into operation in Texas, supplying power sufficient for 100,000 homes.

Supporters say Texas is ideal for wind-power development, not just because it is windy. It also has sparsely populated land for wind farms, fast-growing cities and a friendly regulatory environment for developers.

“Texas could be a model for the entire nation,” said Patrick Woodson, a senior development executive with E.On, a German utility operating here.

The quaint windmills of old have been replaced by turbines that stand as high as 20-story buildings, with blades longer than a football field and each capable of generating electricity for small communities. Powerful turbines are able to capture power even when the wind is relatively weak, and they help to lower the cost per kilowatt hour.

Much of the boom in the United States is being driven by foreign power companies with experience developing wind projects, including Iberdrola of Spain, Energias de Portugal and Windkraft Nord of Germany. Foreign companies own two-thirds of the wind projects under construction in Texas.

A short-term threat to the growth of wind power is the looming expiration of federal clean-energy tax credits, which Congress has allowed to lapse several times over the years. Advocates have called for extending those credits and eventually enacting a national renewable-power standard that would oblige states to expand their use of clean power sources.

A longer-term problem is potential bottlenecks in getting wind power from the places best equipped to produce it to the populous areas that need electricity. The part of the United States with the highest wind potential is a corridor stretching north from Texas through the middle of the country, including sparsely populated states like Montana and the Dakotas. Power is needed most in the dense cities of the coasts, but building new transmission lines over such long distances is certain to be expensive and controversial.

“We need a national vision for transmission like we have with the national highway system,” said Robert Gramlich, policy director for the American Wind Energy Association. “We have to get over the hump of having a patchwork of electric utility fiefdoms.”

Texas is better equipped to deal with the transmission problems that snarl wind energy in other states because a single agency operates the electrical grid and manages the deregulated utility market in most of the state.

Last July, the Texas Public Utility Commission approved transmission lines across the state capable of delivering as much as 25,000 megawatts of wind energy by 2012, presuming the boom continues. That would be five times the wind power generated in the state today, and it would drive future national growth.

Shell and the TXU Corporation are planning to build a 3,000-megawatt wind farm north of here in the Texas Panhandle, leapfrogging two FPL Energy Texas wind farms to become the biggest in the world.

Not to be outdone, Mr. Pickens is planning his own 150,000-acre Panhandle wind farm of 4,000 megawatts that would be even larger and cost him $10 billion.

“I like wind because it’s renewable and it’s clean and you know you are not going to be dealing with a production decline curve,” Mr. Pickens said. “Decline curves finally wore me out in the oil business.”

At the end of 2007, Texas ranked No. 1 in the nation with installed wind power of 4,356 megawatts (and 1,238 under construction), far outdistancing California’s 2,439 megawatts (and 165 under construction). Minnesota and Iowa came in third and fourth with almost 1,300 megawatts each (and 46 and 116 under construction, respectively).

Iowa, Minnesota, Colorado and Oregon, states with smaller populations than Texas, all get 5 to 8 percent of their power from wind farms, according to estimates by the American Wind Energy Association.

It has dawned on many Texans in recent years that wind power, whatever its other pros and cons, represents a potent new strategy for rural economic development.

Since the wind boom began a few years ago, the total value of property here in Nolan County has doubled, and the county judge, Tim Fambrough, estimated it would increase an additional 25 percent this year. County property taxes are going down, home values are going up and the county has extra funds to remodel the courthouse and improve road maintenance.

“Wind reminds us of the old oil and gas booms,” Mr. Fambrough said.

Teenagers who used to flee small towns like Sweetwater after high school are sticking around to take technical courses in local junior colleges and then work on wind farms. Marginal ranches and cotton farms are worth more with wind turbines on them.

“I mean, even the worst days for wind don’t compare to the busts in the oil business,” said Bobby Clark, a General Electric wind technician who gave up hauling chemicals in the oil fields southwest of here to live and work in Sweetwater. “I saw my daddy go from rags to riches and back in the oil business, and I sleep better.”

Wind companies are remodeling abandoned buildings, and new stores, hotels and restaurants have opened around this old railroad town.

Dandy’s Western Wear, the local cowboy attire shop, cannot keep enough python skin and cowhide boots in stock because of all the Danes and Germans who have come to town to invest and work in the wind fields, then take home Texas souvenirs.

“Wind has invigorated our business like you wouldn’t believe,” said Marty Foust, Dandy’s owner, who recently put in new carpeting and air-conditioning. “When you watch the news you can get depressed about the economy, but we don’t get depressed. We’re now in our own bubble.”


Because of an editing error, an earlier version of an article Saturday about the growing use of wind power in Texas left unclear the amount of money that Louis Brooks is paid for having 78 wind turbines on his ranch on the outskirts of Sweetwater, Tex. It is $500 a month for each, not $500 for all of them.

"The Bride Wore Very Little" by Ruth La Ferla

February 21, 2008
THE gown was almost wanton — fluid but curvy with a neckline that plummeted dangerously. “It makes me feel sexy and beautiful,” said Natasha DaSilva, who slipped it on for a fitting last week.

Cut away at the rear to reveal a tattoo at the small of her back, the dress suggested a languorous night in the honeymoon suite.

Except that Ms. DaSilva, who will be married on Long Island in September, plans to wear it at the altar.

“Why not?” she asked. “I want to look back in 20 years and feel like I looked hot on my wedding day.”

Ms. DaSilva, 26, thinks of herself as adventurous, but not so brash that she is about to cross a line. Dressing for a wedding as if it were an after-party is accepted among her family and friends. “For my generation, looking like a virgin when you marry is completely unappealing, boring even,” she said. “Who cares about that part anymore?”

Ms. DaSilva is typical of a growing number of brides flouting convention by flaunting their curves. More vamp than virgin, many are selecting gowns that bare a generous expanse of cleavage, midsection, lower back or thigh, temptress styles that may be better suited to a gala or boudoir than to a church or ballroom.

“Brides today absolutely want to look sexy and glamorous,” said Mara Urshel, an owner and the president of Kleinfeld, the venerable Manhattan bridal salon. In recent months, the store has seen a spike in demand for plunging necklines and negligee looks, one that has only intensified since the spring bridal collections began arriving in stores. For brides shopping now for gowns to wear at summer or early fall weddings, “there is a lot of freedom of choice, and these girls exercise every bit of it,” Ms. Urshel said.

Determined to look torrid on their wedding day, they are picking dresses modeled, say, on the one worn by Christina Aguilera, who was married in 2005 in a gown with a plummeting neckline and ruffled fishtail hem. Or maybe the hope is to emulate Sarah Jessica Parker, who, in the forthcoming film version of “Sex and the City,” spills out of the front of her wedding dress.

“Young women increasingly look to the red carpet for style ideas,” said Millie Martini Bratten, the editor in chief of Brides magazine. “They are very aware of how they look,” she added. “They diet, they work out. And when they marry, they want to be the celebrity of their own event.”

To accommodate them, the once rigidly corseted bridal industry has loosened its stays. At the spring bridal shows in New York last October, tastemakers like Vera Wang, Oscar de la Renta, Reem Acra, Angel Sanchez and Carolina Herrera unveiled a preponderance of strapless styles, trumpet shapes and even a few above-the-knee looks. More-daring designers offered filmy peignoir dresses, two-piece looks and skirts slit all the way to the hip.

Some of these va-voom confections seem tailor-made for the bride who envisions the march down the aisle as a long-dreamed-of photo op, and the reception as an after-party on the scale of Oscars night.

“Women now are looking at their weddings more like a movie premiere,” said Jose Dias, a designer for Sarah Danielle, a New York bridal house.

These steamy fantasies extend to their choice of location. “It used to be that unless you married at home, you were married in a church,” Ms. Bratten said. But today fewer weddings take place in a house of worship, and fewer still in the bride’s hometown.

According to a 2006 survey by Condé Nast Bridal Media, 16 percent of couples choose a destination wedding — a fourfold increase from a decade ago. The same survey found that only 46 percent of brides are married in a church or synagogue, down from 55 percent the year before. With weddings transported to other locales comes a loosening of conventions.

Whether they marry in a walled garden, on a tennis court, on a yacht or at the beach, “brides are more focused on the after-party, and on personalizing it,” Ms. Bratten said.

Beginning with the gown. Today the prevailing fantasy is no longer, “ ‘I want to be a princess in my ball gown,’ ” Mr. Dias said. “A lot of women have done that already for their prom.”

Mr. Dias, who is based in Los Angeles, accommodates clients’ desires for dresses that echo runway trends with halter-tops and off-the-shoulder gowns that are more emphatically provocative than the strapless looks that have become commonplace. His dresses are cut to appeal to the bride who is “confident in her sexuality,” he said.

Similar considerations prompted the designer Monique Lhuillier, a favorite in Hollywood, to fashion a dress with an Empire bodice, wide lace straps and a wispy chiffon skirt — features more often found in a nightgown. A hit of Ms. Lhuillier’s spring bridal collection, the dress is available at Kleinfeld.

Yielding to clients’ demands, Pnina Tornai, an Israeli-born designer, specializes in patently vixenish gowns. Only a couple of years ago Ms. Tornai’s dresses — often cut from semi-sheer panels of lace — met with a chilly reception in New York. “When I first came to show my collection at Kleinfeld, I was thrown out the door,” she said. Undaunted, she modified her dresses and several months later returned. Today her gowns are among the store’s best sellers.

For brides who want to maintain the traditional modesty during the wedding ceremony but cut loose at the reception, there is the increasingly popular option of topping the dress with a shawl, stole or bolero.

When Jana Pasquel, a New York society figure and jewelry designer, said her vows in a convent in Mexico City last November, she wore bouffant dress by Vera Wang; effusively romantic, it was traditional except for the neckline, which revealed more than Ms. Pasquel cared to show.

Her father, who is Mexican, “is a traditional Catholic,” said Ms. Pasquel, 31. “He would not have liked me to walk down the aisle like that, so I had the designer make a cover-up, a kind of a bolero, very full and infanta-looking. It came all the way up to my neck.”

At a second marriage ceremony later that week on a beach in Acapulco, Ms. Pasquel thought only of pleasing herself. Inspired by a trip to India, she wore a tiny midriff-baring bodice and an abundant skirt made of gold leaf. More sensuous than brazen, it made an impression, she recalled. “People talked about it — a lot.”

Catherine Cuddy, an insurance analyst in New Jersey, was similarly focused on turning heads when she married in Bryant Park in New York last October. She dispensed with the customary long, fitted sleeves and train in favor of a halter style that dipped to the small of her back.

Even a veil was too much for her. “I didn’t want to cover up my dress,” said Ms. Cuddy, 33, a self-described Rita Hayworth type. Or the torrents of curls that rushed past her shoulders. Or, for that matter, her gym-toned back.

To get in shape for her gown, a white lace sheath that appeared to have been turned on a lathe, she stepped up visits with her trainer from one to three sessions a week. Ms. Cuddy had no thought of defying tradition or making a statement of any kind. She simply wanted to make the most of her curves, she said.

When she marries in Long Island City next fall, Ms. DaSilva, too, will dress as she sees fit — and with her mother’s blessing. “My mom loves my gown,” she said delightedly. “She thinks it’s very figure-flattering.”

Would her male relatives object?

“Oh, no, no, no,” Ms. DaSilva said. “Besides, in my family, we’re mostly women. It’s pretty much — we’re in control.”

Sunday, February 17, 2008

"For 'EcoMoms,' Saving Earth Begins at Home" - By Patricia Leigh Brown

February 16, 2008

SAN RAFAEL, Calif. — The women gathered in the airy living room, wine poured and pleasantries exchanged. In no time, the conversation turned lively — not about the literary merits of Geraldine Brooks or Cormac McCarthy but the pitfalls of antibacterial hand sanitizers and how to retool the laundry using only cold water and biodegradable detergent during non-prime-time energy hours (after 7 p.m.).

Move over, Tupperware. The EcoMom party has arrived, with its ever-expanding “to do” list that includes preparing waste-free school lunches; lobbying for green building codes; transforming oneself into a “locovore,” eating locally grown food; and remembering not to idle the car when picking up children from school (if one must drive). Here, the small talk is about the volatile compounds emitted by dry-erase markers at school.

Perhaps not since the days of “dishpan hands” has the household been so all-consuming. But instead of gleaming floors and sparkling dishes, the obsession is on installing compact fluorescent light bulbs, buying in bulk and using “smart” power strips that shut off electricity to the espresso machine, microwave, X-Box, VCR, coffee grinder, television and laptop when not in use.

“It’s like eating too many brownies one day and then jogging extra the next,” said Kimberly Danek Pinkson, 38, the founder of the EcoMom Alliance, speaking to the group of efforts to curb eco-guilt through carbon offsets for air travel.

Part “Hints from Heloise” and part political self-help group, the alliance, which Ms. Pinkson says has 9,000 members across the country, joins a growing subculture dedicated to the “green mom,” with blogs and Web sites like and Web-based organizations like the Center for a New American Dream in Takoma Park, Md., advocate reducing consumption and offer a registry that helps brides “celebrate the less-material wedding of your dreams.”

At an EcoMom circle in Palo Alto, executive mothers whipped out spreadsheets to tally their goals, inspired by a 10-step program that urges using only nontoxic products for cleaning, bathing and make-up, as well as cutting down garbage by 10 percent.

“I used to feel anxiety,” said Kathy Miller, 49, an alliance member, recalling life before she started investigating weather-sensitive irrigation controls for her garden with nine growing zones. “Now I feel I’m doing something.”

The notion of “ecoanxiety” has crept into the culture here. It was the subject of a recent cover story in San Francisco magazine that quotes a Berkeley mother so stressed out about the extravagance of her nightly baths that she started to reuse her daughter’s bath water. Where there is ecoanxiety, of course, there are ecotherapists.

“The truth is, we’re not living very naturally,” said Linda Buzzell, a therapist in Santa Barbara who publishes the quarterly EcoTherapy News and often holds sessions in her backyard permaculture food forest. “We’re in our cars, staring at the computer screen, separated most of the day from the people we love.”

“Activism can help counteract depression,” Ms. Buzzell added. “But if we get caught up in trying to save the world single-handedly, we’re just going to burn out.”

Like many young women, Ms. Pinkson’s motherhood — her son Corbin is now 6 — coincided with Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and the advent of and A favorite online column is “Ask Umbra,” whose author weighs in on whether it is better to buy leather shoes or “pleather” ones that could contain solvents.

Shaina Forsman, a 13-year-old daughter of eco-mother Beth Forsman, said the alliance branch in San Rafael helped her mother take action at home. Her mother turned the thermostat down so low that Shaina sometimes wore a jacket inside, she said proudly. She was also monitoring time spent in the shower, so as not to waste water.

Shaina said she tried to get her mother to compost, but “we got ants.”

One of the country’s wealthiest places, Marin County, is hardly a hub of voluntary simplicity; its global footprint, according to county statistics, is 27 acres per person, a measure of the estimated amount of land it takes to support each person’s lifestyle (24 is the American average).

Members of the EcoMom Alliance “are fighting a values battle,” said Tim Kasser, an associate professor of psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., and the author of “The High Price of Materialism.” “They are surrounded by materialism trying to figure out how to create a life more oriented toward intrinsic values.”

Wendy Murphy, 41, a member of EcoMoms in San Anselmo, became an activist after she noticed that the new tablecloths in her children’s preschool contained polyvinyl chloride. She and a fellow mother, working with the Green Schools Initiative, a nonprofit in Berkeley, developed green guidelines for shopping, like buying chlorine-free cleaning products, low-formaldehyde furniture and toys made of natural materials.

The matter of toys is particularly thorny. At the EcoMom party in San Rafael, women traded ideas about recycled toys for birthday presents and children’s clothing swaps. Then there is the issue of the materials used in imported toys. “It’s ‘Mom, these come from China,’ ” Pam Nessi, 35, said of her daughters’ recent inspection of two of their dolls. “It can be overwhelming. You don’t want them to freak out.”

At last year’s Step It Up rallies, a day of environmental demonstrations across the country, the largest group of organizers were “mothers concerned about the disintegrating environment for their children,” said Bill McKibben, a founder of the event and author of “The End of Nature.”

Women have been instrumental in the environmental movement from the start, including their involvement in campaigns a century ago to save the Palisades along the Hudson River and sequoias in California and, more recently, Lois Gibbs’s fight against toxic waste at Love Canal.

In public opinion surveys, women express significantly higher levels of environmental concern than men, said Riley Dunlap, a professor of sociology at Oklahoma State University.

Lately “local lifestyle activism,” much of it driven by women, has been on the rise and is likely to continue, Dr. Dunlap said. “Just belonging to a national environmental organization, which seemed effective in the 1970s and ’80s, doesn’t work anymore, particularly in an era of government unresponsiveness,” he said.

Ms. Pinkson and her colleagues are well aware of “the mom demographic,” as they call it, in which, according to surveys for the Boston Consulting Group, women say they “influence or control” 80 percent of discretionary household purchases. Thus far, their thrust has been more about being green consumers than taking political action.

The eco life can occasionally spawn domestic strife.

Julie DeFord, a 33-year-old mother in Petaluma, said the high cost of organic produce prompted serious “conversations” between her and her husband, Curt, a lawyer, especially after seven nights of chard.

And ecomotherhood is not always sisterly.

At the EcoMom party recently, some guests took the hostess, Liz Held, to task for her wall-to-wall carpeting (potential off-gassing), her painted walls (unhealthful volatile organic compounds) and the freshly cut flowers that she had set out for the occasion (not organic). Their problems with the S.U.V. in the driveway were self-explanatory.

All the new eco-perfectionism did not seem to faze her. “I look around my house and think, ‘I haven’t changed all my light bulbs,’ ” she said. “But it doesn’t fill me with guilt. I think about all the things I’ve done so far. I just try to focus on the positive.”

"Marketers Are Joining the Varsity" - by Stuart Elliott

June 11, 2007

Athletes, if they are talented, train hard and get a break or two, can climb the sports ladder from high school to college to the pros. Madison Avenue, sensing a lucrative opportunity, is heading the other way.

Decades after marketers began selling products by capitalizing on consumer interest in professional teams, then college teams, they are becoming big boosters of high school sports.

Big media companies are getting into the market as well, in part by offering high school competitors a taste of the exposure that is typically lavished on college and pro athletes. In March, the CSTV Networks division of the CBS Corporation — the “CS” stands for college sports — acquired MaxPreps, which operates a Web site ( and has more than a million high school athletes in its database. Last month, CSTV began creating video-on-demand television channels under the MaxPreps brand carrying high school sports programming.

Another media giant, the Time Inc. division of Time Warner, formed an alliance in December with Takkle, which operates a social-networking Web site for high school athletes ( Visitors to the site can nominate students for the familiar “Face in the Crowd” feature in Sports Illustrated magazine.

“High school kids are more sophisticated than a generation ago,” said Mark Ford, president and publisher of Sports Illustrated in New York, “and brands like Nike and Gatorade are on this, reaching athletes at a much earlier stage than they previously have.”

The goal is to gain favor with student athletes and also their coaches, teachers and principals — not to mention their fans, friends and families.

“Energy for student athletes, and the moms who keep up with them” is, for instance, the theme of advertisements for EAS AdvantEDGE nutritional bars and shakes, sold by Abbott Laboratories.

High school athletes buy all the obvious products — sneakers, gear, sports beverages — along with general items like grooming aids, magazines and video games. Many high schoolers shop for the family while their parents work, so they may be buying groceries along with items for themselves.

Students can also influence the purchasing choices of their parents in important categories like cars, cellphones and computers.

For example, in 2005 Allstate Insurance started coordinating a program for local agents “to demonstrate their support of high school athletes,” said Lisa Cochrane, vice president for integrated marketing communications at Allstate in Northbrook, Ill. Today, the brand is present in more than 700 high schools where agents sponsor teams and make donations to athletic departments.

“In many, many communities, high school athletics is one of the premier events,” Ms. Cochrane said, adding: “Teenagers themselves are not big customers for insurance, but their parents are. And they will be, in the future.”

The trend is also visible in the popular culture, as two TV series — “Friday Night Lights” on NBC and “One Tree Hill” on CW — are centered on high school teams that play football and basketball, respectively. Both have attracted sponsors willing to pay to weave their brands into plot lines; among them are Applebee’s restaurants, Cingular Wireless and Secret deodorant.

“We’ve spent more than 30 years building our relationships with customers,” said Jeff Webb, chief executive at Varsity Brands in Memphis, which specializes in goods and services for high school cheerleading and dance teams. “In the last 10 years, our programs with consumer marketers have expanded dramatically.”

Companies like Bic, S. C. Johnson & Son, Nike, PepsiCo and Playtex Products work with Varsity Brands, which sends 300 field representatives to high schools across the country to give away product samples and coupons and operates cheerleader camps that draw about 280,000 high school students each year.

“They’re trying to find unique ways to reach the teen audience,” Mr. Webb said of marketers, adding that cheerleaders and other student athletes are especially attractive because “they’re visible, they’re leaders and they’re influential.”

The ardor among advertisers to go back to high school coincides with the rising national attention to junior sports. Examples include the basketball star LeBron James appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was still in high school, coverage of high school sports tournaments and all-star games in mainstream media, and programming on CSTV devoted to “Generation Next” high school football and basketball players (and which colleges might recruit them).

One reason that high school is getting its own chapter in the sports-marketing playbook is the large number of athletically inclined students in grades 9 through 12.

Call them Millennials, Generation Y or baby boom babies, the 7.2 million children who played sports in high school during the 2005-6 school year, as estimated by the National Federation of State High School Associations, represent a target market that has grown 80 percent since the 1971-72 school year.

“We’re seeing sports becoming increasingly important for young girls as more and more of them are being empowered through athletics,” said Lela Coffey, associate North American marketing director for the Tampax brand of feminine hygiene products owned by Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati.

Another reason that advertisers are crowding high school gymnasiums is their newfound ability to use the Internet, in the form of social-networking Web sites, to unite what had been diffused audiences.

“Technology allows you for the first time to aggregate small, fragmented communities in one place and try to reach the athletes themselves,” said Brian Bedol, president and chief executive of CSTV Networks. “It’s a very different approach from fan-based college and pro sports.”

The eagerness among marketers to clamber down the sports ladder worries those who are concerned with the intensifying presence of marketing in the American culture.

“Youths are overwhelmed with commercial messages,” said Robert Weissman, managing director at Commercial Alert in Washington, a nonprofit advocacy organization that decries what it considers to be creeping commercialization.

“To the extent possible, schools should be a haven from those pressures,” he added.

Most marketers turning their attention to athletes in high schools already “are linked up with sponsorships at the professional level and the college level,” Mr. Weissman said, “so they get to exploit the kids on the cheap.”

And by sponsoring local teams, advertisers “get the benefit of seeming to be part of the community,” he added, even when they are not.

Needless to say, the companies involved with high school sports describe themselves as sensitive to the potential pitfalls.

“We don’t want to be too intrusive,” said David Birnbaum, chief executive at Takkle in New York, which is owned by investors that include Greycroft Partners and the Wasserman Media Group.

For instance, no ads appear on the home page, Mr. Birnbaum said, because “it’s not just about the dollars.”

And although “I’m not going to say we wouldn’t” ever accept sponsors that peddle products like candy or soft drinks, he added, the intent is to run “the ads that the athletes want to see, that speak to their passion and engage them the way they want to be engaged.”

(When Varsity Brands works for PepsiCo, employees distribute Propel Fitness Water to high school cheerleaders rather than soda.)

As Under Armour, the maker of athletic apparel, completes plans for a campaign to begin on July 15, carrying the theme “Team Girl,” the inclusion of high school athletes with their college counterparts is being handled carefully, said Steve Battista, vice president for brand marketing in Baltimore.

Female high school athletes were assembled in focus groups to gather opinions, he added, which led to changes in marketing approaches.

For example, “we’ve had a women’s campaign featuring Heather Mitts, a women’s soccer star, on her own, not with the rest of her team,” Mr. Battista said, “but the girls said they want to see her with her team.”

As CSTV adds MaxPreps to its operations, Mr. Bedol of CSTV said, “often it comes down to judgment calls” when determining how to speak to students younger than the college students.

“We need to be vigilant,” he added, “and make sure we’re responding to the needs of our audience, not just to the needs of our marketers.”

What about going even younger? “I don’t think we’re looking to go into middle school or younger,” Mr. Bedol said.

At the cheerleader camps that Varsity Brands operates, however, Mr. Webb said, about 25,000 students who attend each year are from junior high and middle schools.

"Online Schooling Grows, Setting off a Debate" - by Sam Dillon

February 1, 2008

MILWAUKEE — Weekday mornings, three of Tracie Weldie’s children eat breakfast, make beds and trudge off to public school — in their case, downstairs to their basement in a suburb here, where their mother leads them through math and other lessons outlined by an Internet-based charter school.

Half a million American children take classes online, with a significant group, like the Weldies, getting all their schooling from virtual public schools. The rapid growth of these schools has provoked debates in courtrooms and legislatures over money, as the schools compete with local districts for millions in public dollars, and over issues like whether online learning is appropriate for young children.

One of the sharpest debates has concerned the Weldies’ school in Wisconsin, where last week the backers of online education persuaded state lawmakers to keep it and 11 other virtual schools open despite a court ruling against them and the opposition of the teachers union. John Watson, a consultant in Colorado who does an annual survey of education that is based on the Internet, said events in Wisconsin followed the pattern in other states where online schools have proliferated fast.

“Somebody says, ‘What’s going on, does this make sense?’ ” Mr. Watson said. “And after some inquiry most states have said, ‘Yes, we like online learning, but these are such new ways of teaching children that we’ll need to change some regulations and get some more oversight.’ ”

Two models of online schooling predominate. In Florida, Illinois and half a dozen other states, growth has been driven by a state-led, state-financed virtual school that does not give a diploma but offers courses that supplement regular work at a traditional school. Generally, these schools enroll only middle and high school students.

At the Florida Virtual School, the largest Internet public school in the country, more than 50,000 students are taking courses this year. School authorities in Traverse City, Mich., hope to use online courses provided by the Michigan Virtual School next fall to educate several hundred students in their homes, alleviating a classroom shortage.

The other model is a full-time online charter school like the Wisconsin Virtual Academy. About 90,000 children get their education from one of 185 such schools nationwide. They are publicly financed, mostly elementary and middle schools.

Many parents attracted to online charters have previously home-schooled their children, including Mrs. Weldie. Her children — Isabel, Harry and Eleanor, all in elementary school — download assignments and communicate intermittently with their certified teachers over the Internet, but they also read story books, write in workbooks and do arithmetic at a table in their basement. Legally, they are considered public school students, not home-schoolers, because their online schools are taxpayer-financed and subject to federal testing requirements.

Despite enthusiastic support from parents, the schools have met with opposition from some educators, who say elementary students may be too young for Internet learning, and from teachers, unions and school boards, partly because they divert state payments from the online student’s home district.

Other opposition has arisen because many online charters contract with for-profit companies to provide their courses. The Wisconsin academy, for example, is run by the tiny Northern Ozaukee School District, north of Milwaukee, in close partnership with K12 Inc., which works with similar schools in 17 states.

The district receives annual state payments of $6,050 for each of its 800 students, which it uses to pay teachers and buy its online curriculum from K12.

Saying he suspected “corporate profiteering” in online schooling, State Senator John Lehman, a Democrat who is chairman of the education committee, last month proposed cutting the payments to virtual schools to $3,000 per student. But during legislative negotiations that proposal was dropped.

Jeff Kwitowski, a K12 spokesman, said, “We are a vendor and no different from thousands of other companies that provide products and services to districts and schools.”

Pennsylvania has also debated the financing of virtual charter schools. Saying such schools were draining them financially, districts filed suit in 2001, portraying online schools as little more than home schooling at taxpayer expense. The districts lost, but the debate has continued.

Last year, the state auditor found that several online charters had received reimbursements from students’ home districts that surpassed actual education costs by more than $1 million. Now legislators are considering a bill that would in part standardize the payments at about $5,900 per child, said Michael Race, a spokesman for the State Department of Education.

The state auditor in Kansas last year raised a different concern, finding that the superintendent of a tiny prairie district running an online school had in recent years given 130 students, and with them $106,000 in per-pupil payments, to neighboring districts that used the students’ names to pad enrollment counts. The auditor concluded that the superintendent had carried out the subterfuge to compensate the other districts for not opening their own online schools.

“Virtual education is a growing alternative to traditional schooling,” Barbara J. Hinton, the Kansas auditor, said in a report. Ms. Hinton found that virtual education had great potential because students did not have to be physically present in a classroom. “Students can go to school at any time and in any place,” she said.

But, she added, “this also creates certain risks to both the quality of the student’s education and to the integrity of the public school system.”

Rural Americans have been attracted to online schooling because it allows students even on remote ranches to enroll in arcane courses like Chinese.

In Colorado, school districts have lost thousands of students to virtual schools, and, in 2006, a state audit found that one school, run by a rural district, was using four licensed teachers to teach 1,500 students across the state. The legislature responded last year by establishing a new division of the Colorado Department of Education to tighten regulation of online schools.

The Wisconsin Virtual Academy has 20 certified, unionized teachers, and 800 students who communicate with one another over the Internet.

The school has consistently met federal testing requirements, and many parents, including Mrs. Weldie, expressed satisfaction with the K12 curriculum, which allows her children to move through lessons at their own pace, unlike traditional schools, where teachers often pause to take account of slower students. Isabel Weldie, 5, is in kindergarten, “But in math I’m in first grade,” she said during a break in her school day recently.

“That’s what I love most about this curriculum,” Mrs. Weldie said. “There’s no reason for Isabel to practice counting if she can already add.”

In 2004, the teachers’ union filed a lawsuit against the school, challenging the expansive role given to parents, who must spend four to five hours daily leading their children through lesson plans and overseeing their work. Teachers monitor student progress and answer questions in a couple of half-hour telephone conferences per month and in interactive online classes using conferencing software held several times monthly.

A state court dismissed the case, but in December an appeals court said the academy was violating a state law requiring that public school teachers be licensed.

The ruling infuriated parents like Bob Reber, an insurance salesman who lives in Fond du Lac and whose 8-year-old daughter is a student at the academy. “According to this ruling, if I want to teach my daughter to tie her shoes, I’d need a license,” Mr. Reber said.

Not so, said Mary Bell, the union president: “The court did not say that parents cannot teach their children — it said parents cannot teach their children at taxpayers’ expense.”

The Weldies and 1,000 other parents and students from online schools rallied in Madison, the state capital, urging lawmakers to save their schools. Last week, legislators announced that they had agreed on a bipartisan bill that would allow the schools to stay open, while requiring online teachers to keep closely in touch with students and increasing state oversight.

"Short on Labor, Farmers in U.S. Shift to Mexico" - by Julia Preston

September 5, 2007

CELAYA, Mexico — Steve Scaroni, a farmer from California, looked across a luxuriant field of lettuce here in central Mexico and liked what he saw: full-strength crews of Mexican farm workers with no immigration problems.

Farming since he was a teenager, Mr. Scaroni, 50, built a $50 million business growing lettuce and broccoli in the fields of California, relying on the hands of immigrant workers, most of them Mexican and many probably in the United States illegally.

But early last year he began shifting part of his operation to rented fields here. Now some 500 Mexicans tend his crops in Mexico, where they run no risk of deportation.

“I’m as American red-blood as it gets,” Mr. Scaroni said, “but I’m tired of fighting the fight on the immigration issue.”

A sense of crisis prevails among American farmers who rely on immigrant laborers, more so since immigration legislation in the United States Senate failed in June and the authorities announced a crackdown on employers of illegal immigrants. An increasing number of farmers have been testing the alternative of raising crops across the border where there is a stable labor supply, growers and lawmakers in the United States and Mexico said.

Western Growers, an association representing farmers in California and Arizona, conducted an informal telephone survey of its members in the spring. Twelve large agribusinesses that acknowledged having operations in Mexico reported a total of 11,000 workers here.

“It seems there is a bigger rush to Mexico and elsewhere,” said Tom Nassif, the Western Growers president, who said Americans were also farming in countries in Central America.

Precise statistics are not readily available on American farming in Mexico, because growers seek to maintain a low profile for their operations abroad. But Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, displayed a map on the Senate floor in July locating more than 46,000 acres that American growers were cultivating in just two Mexican states, Guanajuato and Baja California.

“Farmers are renting land in Mexico,” Ms. Feinstein said. “They don’t want us to know that.”

She predicted that more American farmers would move to Mexico for the ready work force and lower wages. Ms. Feinstein favored a measure in the failed immigration bill that would have created a new guest worker program for agriculture and a special legal status for illegal immigrant farm workers.

In the past, some Americans have planted south of the border to escape spiraling land prices and to ensure year-round deliveries of crops they can produce only seasonally in the United States. But in the last three years, Mr. Nassif and other growers said, labor force uncertainties have become a major reason farmers have shifted to Mexico.

While there are benefits for Mexico, as American farmers bring the latest technology and techniques to its crop-producing regions, American farm state economists say thousands of middle-class jobs supporting agriculture are being lost in the United States. Some lawmakers in the United States also point to security risks when food for Americans is increasingly produced in foreign countries.

Tramping through one of his first lettuce crops near Celaya, an agribusiness hub in Guanajuato, Mr. Scaroni is more candid than many farmers about his move here. He had made six trips to Washington, he said, to plead with Congress to provide more legal immigrants for agriculture.

“I have a customer base that demands we produce and deliver product every day,” he said. “They don’t want to hear the excuses.” He acknowledges that wages are much lower in Mexico; he pays $11 a day here as opposed to about $9 an hour in California. But without legal workers in California, he said, “I have no choice but to offshore my operation.”

The Department of Labor has reported that 53 percent of the 2.5 million farm workers in the United States are illegal immigrants; growers and labor unions say as much as 70 percent of younger field hands are illegal.

As the American authorities tightened the border in recent years, seasonal migration from Mexico has been interrupted, demographers say. Many illegal farm laborers, reluctant to leave the United States, have abandoned the arduous migrant work of agriculture for year-round construction and service jobs. Labor shortages during harvests have become common.

Some academics say warnings of a farm labor debacle are exaggerated. “By and large the most dire predictions don’t come true,” said Philip Martin, an agricultural economist at the University of California, Davis. “There is no doubt that some people can’t count on workers showing up as much as they used to,” Professor Martin said. “But most of the places that are crying the loudest are exceptional cases.”

But some recent studies suggest that strains on the farm-labor supply are real. Stephen Levy, an economist at the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy, in Palo Alto, compared unemployed Americans with illegal immigrant workers in the labor market. “The bottom line,” Mr. Levy said, “is that most unemployed workers are not available to replace fired, unauthorized immigrant workers,” in part because very few of the unemployed are in farm work.

Mr. Scaroni said he started growing in Mexico reluctantly, after seeing risks to his American operations. At peak season his California company, Valley Harvesting and Packing, employs more than 1,000 immigrants, and all have filled out the required federal form, known as an I-9, with Social Security numbers and other identity information.

“From my perspective everyone that works for me is legal,” he said. But based on farm labor statistics, he surmises that many of his workers presented false documents.

An impatient man in perpetual motion, Mr. Scaroni marches through his fields shouting orders to Mexican crew leaders in rough Spanish while he negotiates to buy new trucks in Mexico on a walkie-talkie in one hand and to sell produce in the United States on a cellphone in the other.

Frustrated with experts who say that farmers with labor problems should mechanize, he plunges his hands into side-by-side lettuce plants, pulling out one crisp green head and one that is soggy and brown. After his company invested $1 million in research, he said, “We haven’t come up with a way to tell a machine what’s a good head and what’s a bad head.”

He also dismisses arguments that he could attract workers by raising wages, saying Americans do not take the sweaty, seasonal field jobs. “I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that if I did that I would raise my costs and I would not have a legal work force,” Mr. Scaroni said.

Still, transferring to Mexico has been costly, he said. Since the greens he cuts here go to bagged salads in supermarkets in the United States, he follows the same food-safety practices as he does in California. Renting fallow Mexican land, he enclosed his fields in fences and installed drip-irrigation systems for the filtered water he uses.

He trained his Mexican field crews to wear hair nets, arm sheaths and sanitized gloves, and held drills on the correct use of portable toilets. In the clean-scrubbed cooling house, women in white caps scrutinize produce for every stray hair and dirt spot.

By now about one-fifth of Mr. Scaroni’s operation is on five farms approaching 2,000 acres in Guanajuato. A few of his Mexican employees came from California, like Antonio Martínez Aguilar, a field manager who worked there for 15 years but could never get immigration documents.

“I tried everything, but there wasn’t anything anyone could do to make me legal,” Mr. Martínez said.

Negotiated among growers and unions over seven years, the agricultural measure in the failed immigration bill, known as AgJobs, had wider bipartisan support than the bill as a whole, lawmakers said. Its supporters have said they hope to bring it before Congress this fall, perhaps attached to the farm bill. [It was hurt by last week’s resignation of Senator Larry E. Craig, the Idaho Republican who was one of its chief sponsors.]

Mr. Scaroni expects to recover his start-up costs because of the lower wages he pays here, although he says Mexican workers are less productive in their own country.

“It’s not a cake walk down here,” he said. “At least I know the one thing I don’t have to worry about is losing my labor force because of an immigration raid.”

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Desperate Days at the Merlin: Donald "Joe" Peak - by Julie Sullivan

February 25, 1990

By Julie Sullivan
Staff Writer, The Spokesman Review

Joe Peak's smile has no teeth.

His dentures were stolen at the Norman Hotel, the last place he lived in downtown Spokane before moving to the Merlin two years ago.

Gumming food and fighting diabetes have shrunk the 54-year-old man's frame by 80 pounds. He is thin and weak and his mouth is sore.

But that doesn't stop him from frying hamburgers and onions for a friend at midnight or keeping an extra bed made up permanently in his two-room place.

"I try to make a little nest here for myself," he says.

Chock-full of furniture and cups from the 32-ounce Cokes he relishes for 53 cents apiece, Peak's second-floor apartment is almost cozy.

A good rug covers holes in the kitchen floor, clean-looking blankets cover a clean-looking bed. Dishes are stacked neatly in the kitchen sink.

But cockroaches still scurry across his kitchen table.

"I live with them," he says with a shrug. "I can't afford the insecticides, pesticides, germicides. I don't have the money."

With a $500-per-month welfare check and a $175 rent payment, Peak follows a proper diet when he can afford it. He shops at nearby convenience stores where he knows the prices are higher but the distance is right. He has adapted to the noisy nightlife in the hallways and sleeps when he is too exhausted to hear it.

Part Seminole Indian, Chinese, and black, the Florida native moved to Spokane 20 years ago to be near relatives in Olympia. He quit school at 13 to help earn the family income and worked a string of blue-collar jobs. Along the way, someone started calling him Joe.

His voice is lyrical, his vocabulary huge, but Peak's experience with whites is long and bitter.

When conditions at the Merlin began worsening three months ago, junkies and gray mice the size of baby rats moved in next door. He hated to see it, but he isn't worried about being homeless.

He's worried about his diabetes. He's frightened by blood in his stool and sores on his gums. He wonders whether the white-staffed hospitals on the hill above him will treat a poor black man with no teeth.

Fighting for Life 50 Floors Up - By Jim Dwyer

By Jim Dwyer
Staff Writer, The New York Times

Now memories orbit around small things. None of the other window washers liked his old green bucket, but Jan Demczur, who worked inside 1 World Trade Center, found its rectangular mouth perfect for dipping and wetting his squeegee in one motion. So on the morning of the 11th, as he waited at the 44th-floor Sky Lobby to connect with elevators for higher floors, bucket and squeegee dangled from the end of his arm.

The time was 8:47 a.m. With five other men -- Shivam Iyer, John Paczkowski, George Phoenix, Colin Richardson and another man whose identity could not be learned -- Mr. Demczur (pronounced DEM-sir) boarded Car 69-A, an express elevator that stopped on floors 67 through 74.

The car rose, but before it reached its first landing, "We felt a muted thud," Mr. Iyer said. "The building shook. The elevator swung from side to side, like a pendulum."

Then it plunged. In the car, someone punched an emergency stop button. At that moment -- 8:48 a.m. -- 1 World Trade Center had entered the final 100 minutes of its existence. No one knew the clock was running, least of all the men trapped inside Car 69-A; they were as cut off 500 feet in the sky as if they had been trapped 500 feet underwater.

They did not know their lives would depend on a simple tool.

After 10 minutes, a live voice delivered a blunt message over the intercom. There had been an explosion. Then the intercom went silent. Smoke seeped into the elevator cabin. One man cursed skyscrapers. Mr. Phoenix, the tallest, a Port Authority engineer, poked for a ceiling hatch. Others pried apart the car doors, propping them open with the long wooden handle of Mr. Demczur's squeegee.

There was no exit.

They faced a wall, stenciled with the number "50." That particular elevator bank did not serve the 50th floor, so there was no need for an opening. To escape, they would have to make one themselves.

Mr. Demczur felt the wall. Sheetrock. Having worked in construction in his early days as a Polish immigrant, he knew that it could be cut with a sharp knife.

No one had a knife.

From his bucket, Mr. Demczur drew his squeegee. He slid its metal edge against the wall, back and forth, over and over. He was spelled by the other men. Against the smoke, they breathed through handkerchiefs dampened in a container of milk Mr. Phoenix had just bought.

Sheetrock comes in panels about one inch thick, Mr. Demczur recalled. They cut an inch, then two inches. Mr. Demczur's hand ached. As he carved into the third panel, his hand shook, he fumbled the squeegee and it dropped down the shaft.

He had one tool left: a short metal squeegee handle. They carried on, with fists, feet and handle, cutting an irregular rectangle about 12 by 18 inches. Finally, they hit a layer of white tiles. A bathroom. They broke the tiles.

One by one, the men squirmed through the opening, headfirst, sideways, popping onto the floor near a sink. Mr. Demczur turned back. "I said, 'Pass my bucket out,' " he recalled.

By then, about 9:30, the 50th floor was already deserted, except for firefighters, astonished to see the six men emerge. "I think it was Engine Company 5," Mr. Iyer said. "They hustled us to the staircase."

On the excruciating single-file descent through the smoke, someone teased Mr. Demczur about bringing his bucket. "The company might not order me another one," he replied. At the 15th floor, Mr. Iyer said: "We heard a thunderous, metallic roar. I thought our lives had surely ended then." The south tower was collapsing. It was 9:59. Mr Demczur dropped his bucket. The firefighters shouted to hurry.

At 23 minutes past 10, they burst onto the street, ran for phones, sipped oxygen and, five minutes later, fled as the north tower collapsed. Their escape had taken 95 of the 100 minutes. "It took up to one and a half minutes to clear each floor, longer at the lower levels," said Mr. Iyer, an engineer with the Port Authority. "If the elevator had stopped at the 60th floor, instead of the 50th, we would have been five minutes too late.

"And that man with the squeegee. He was like our guardian angel."

Since that day, Mr. Demczur has stayed home with his wife and children. He has pieced together the faces of the missing with the men and women he knew in the stations of his old life: the security guard at the Japanese bank on the 93rd floor, who used to let him in at 6:30; the people at Carr Futures on 92; the head of the Port Authority. Their faces keep him awake at night, he says.

His hands, the one that held the squeegee and the other that carried the bucket, shake with absence.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

"Sweet Providence" - by Beth Macy

Roanoke Times, The (VA) - November 23, 2006
Author: Beth Macy beth . macy 981-3435

"Laborare Est Orare."

(Work is prayer ) Latin sign found in an old Rockbridge Mill and replicated on the wall of Sweet Providence Farm Market

"Outhouse Rules: Shut Door So Chickens Can't Get In."

-- sign in Sweet Providence bathroom

Is this reality or some kind of Norman Rockwell mirage?

People who stop in to shop at the Sweet Providence Farm Market -- a cross between Fresh Market and a country store -- are never quite sure.

Witness the cacophony of food prep and farm chores on a recent weekday, all of it choreographed by two parents and pulled off by a team of seven children, 125 free-range turkeys, 2,000 chickens and a pet milk cow named Luisa:

n Eighteen-year-old Ann Houston sets bread dough in the warmer to rise, then mixes a batch of lemon biscotti.

n In the shed out back, 8-year-old Mary cleans chicken gizzards. Three-year-old Henry helps his dad stack the bananas, one of the few ingredients sold here that's not regionally grown, while 12-year-old Cora -- who can "gut a chicken like it's a work of art," according to her dad -- tends the cash register.

n Five-year-old Catherine watches Henry, and 10-year-old Thomas helps 16-year-old John William with "chicken killing," which is usually performed to the soundtrack of Brahms' "Hungarian Dance No. 5."

The question isn't so much why did John Paul Houston, at the age of 41, chuck a cushy paycheck and a career in sales to become a sustainable agriculture pioneer, but how did he pull it off? And how do they all work together without driving one another crazy?

"John Paul is almost a 'Green Acres' kind of deal, and yet he's innovative at the same time," said George Slusher, a Floyd insurance agent and longtime friend.

"Some of the old-timers laughed at him at first" and criticized his natural farming methods. "But you watch, in five or 10 years, that's where local agriculture will be headed."

Stuff doesn't equal happiness

Eight years ago, the Houstons lived in a four-bedroom Cape Cod-style home, with 5 acres and a creek out back. The master bedroom had 21 cubic feet of closet space alone.

Out of 22 Virginia Farm Bureau Insurance offices, John Paul ran the most profitable agency in the company. But he worked long weeks and traveled constantly.

Even then, his wife, Rainey, says, he was cheap. He never ordered an L.L. Bean sweater if he could buy a used one at Goodwill. He eschewed car payments, driving old beater cars and trucks with 150,000-plus miles. "He never let us spend money," Rainey recalled. "Even his business cars were used."

That's because he had a plan. John Paul dreamed of buying a farm : He'd have Christmas trees, some beef cattle, maybe some chickens and eggs. To pull it off, he knew the family would have to live beneath its means.

"I had clients who were making $200,000 a year but they were dead-busted broke," he said. "They had three car payments and a boat payment, and I realized: All that stuff doesn't give you happiness; it gives you stress.

"It hit me that the people who had a lot of money tended to zip it up in the pocket of their Pointer bibbed overalls."

Frank Levering and Wanda Urbanska's "Simple Living" convinced him he was on the right track; it reaffirmed that having more wasn't a solution to anything. A business book, called "Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap ... and Others Don't," taught him that a person's true calling lies at the intersection of three traits: passion, money-making ability and natural talent.

"If the most important thing I have to do in my life is to glorify God -- and I think it is -- then I had to ask myself, how?" said John Paul, a Baptist.

"What could I do that would incorporate the things I love and have a passion for with the gifts God's given me: my family?"

What the Lord gave him: seven children, a natural talent for sales and a willingness to take risks.

"Anybody can make good money on insurance," John Paul reasoned. "But trying to raise seven kids on a farm ? Now that would be a challenge."

Trial by fire

Eight years ago, the Houstons bought a 70-acre farm with a 1,700-square-foot farmhouse. Their closet space shrank from 21 feet across to four. When life felt too austere, they reminded themselves that the first farmer to live in the house raised 12 children in it.

Quiet time is so rare, according to Ann, that "if I ever am alone, it feels really eerie."

The first summer, the family raised 25 chickens and sold eggs from the back porch. But farming wasn't the natural fit they'd imagined.

Rainey was on her way to a ballet recital with the kids when she noticed that a dog had gotten into the chickens. John Paul was flying in from Mississippi on a business trip, and she didn't know what to do.

"Do I butcher them? What do I do? I had no clue!" she recalled. She wrapped the injured chickens up in towels, put them in the bathtub -- and went to the ballet.

When John Paul arrived home, he went to the bathroom and was greeted by ... a tub full of dead chickens in towels. "We were so stupid about things; we didn't know anything," Rainey said. "But you just have to learn. You just have to put your feet in and do it."

To learn the art of Christmas-tree trimming and cutting, John Paul worked alongside a crew of Mexican farm workers on a nearby tree farm . ("They make those axes sing," he marvels.) As his interest in sustainable agriculture grew, so did his ability to keep the dogs away from the chickens. He constructed a portable device that cooped up the chickens and allowed them to fertilize the pasture at the same time.

In order to make a comfortable living farming, he realized he needed to net more than the average farmer, who earns 18 cents for every $1 of product sold. "It just makes more sense to me that if you sell it directly to the customer, you eliminate the middle man."

Selling locally grown produce and meat directly to the customer flies in the face of standard agricultural practice: The average number of miles your food travels to reach the dinner plate is 1,500 miles and generally was picked five to seven days before you bought it, according to organic-farming experts, including writer Barbara Kingsolver, who's writing a book on the topic.

"We've learned that people want to know the people who grow their food," John Paul said. During the recent E. coli-contaminated spinach scare, Sweet Providence sold out of its Floyd -grown spinach, grown organically by nearby Waterbear Mountain Farm . "I know the guy who grows it and bags it; I've seen his operation, it's clean, and people around here know and trust him, too."

The Houstons also know the growers of the four varieties of Floyd apples they sell -- at 59 cents a pound, about half the supermarket cost -- just as they know the nearby farmers who grow their leeks, peppers and squash. Sweet Providence even has its own coffee label, imported by a Grayson County roasting company.

While area growers supply vegetables and packaged items such as local honey and jam, daughter Ann provides the bakery goods. She became the inspiration, in fact, behind her parents' decision to expand the store beyond the planned metal shed when she asked if she could go to culinary school last year.

"Why?" her dad asked her.

"Because I love to bake," she said.

"Why don't I build you a bakery instead?" John Paul said, and the store concept was born.

Overcoming fears

Two years ago, John Paul finally took the plunge and quit his Farm Bureau job -- "the scariest day of our lives" Rainey said. With the help of friends and neighbors, they spent the past year building the red-roofed, timber-frame store , which opened in August. Sixteen-year-old John William knew the ins and outs of construction from the year he spent, at age 14, helping the family's pastor build a house.

"You can do things like that when you're home schooling," John Paul said. "We figured he could make up what he was missing from school later, but that opportunity would only come along once."

Another homebuilder friend just happened to stop by the day the Houstons were about to assemble part of the frame -- the wrong way. "Every time we messed up, somebody would show up to help us before it got too bad," John Paul said.

"Some we paid and some we didn't. It was like God was saying, 'I'm not going to let you mess up too bad.' "

The name of the store came to the family one night during the dinner prayer .

"I said, 'Thank you, Lord, for your sweet providence,' and we all just looked at each other like, well, that's it. That really says it all," John Paul said.

From Roanoke to Grayson County, about 125 Providence shoppers are sitting down today to pre-ordered, free-range turkeys raised at the farm . There's not a bird among the group that wasn't personally tended by the Houston kids.

When the Houstons sit down at their own table, they won't lament the missed vacation to El Salvador for a relative's wedding, or the fact that it takes John Paul a week to earn what he used to earn in a single morning, or the 401(k) he cashed in to pay for the store . He's grateful beyond measure.

"You'd either say of me, 'He's the luckiest person in the world' or 'God has blessed him,' depending on your perspective," he insists.

"But you'd have to say one of those two things."

John Paul Houston's spending rules

n Avoid debt. "If you don't have debt, it takes the pressure off your income. You can live just fine on $35,000 a year if you don't have any debt."

n Live beneath your means.

n Avoid car loans.

n Never finance a vacation on credit. "Just don't go. It's better to save up and go on a doozy vacation next year."

n "Don't buy into the notion that if you spend more money or have more material things, you'll be happier or more fulfilled."

n Adds wife Rainey Houston: "Sometimes you just have to jump out without your parachute on and trust that God will take you where he wants you to go."

Friday, February 1, 2008

"Green Eggs and Ham" by Dr. Seuss - excerpts

... Do you like
green eggs and ham?

I do not like them,
I do not like
green eggs and ham.

Would you like them
here or there?

I would not like them
here or there.
I would not like them
I do not like
green eggs and ham.
I do not like them,

Would you like them
in a house?
Would you like them
with a mouse?

Could you, would you,
with a goat?

I would not,
could not,
with a goat!

Would you, could you,
on a boat?

I could not, would not, on a boat.
I will not, will not, with a goat.
I will not eat them in the rain.
I will not eat them on a train.
Not in the dark! Not in a tree!
Not in a car! You let me be!
I do not like them in a box.
I do not like them with a fox.
I will not eat them in a house.
I do not like them with a mouse.
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them ANYWHERE!


"Life is Short- Autobiography as Haiku" - WPost

1) LIFE IS SHORT | Autobiography as Haiku
Sunday, November 19, 2006; Page D01

I come from Tehran and no, there are no camels where I come from. There are cars and honking taxis that pass women in black veils or short, colorful scarves that barely cover their heads. In this beautiful prison of banned dreams, there certainly isn't a statue of liberty; men and women liberate themselves with cafes, cigars, smuggled drugs and secret relationships. In America, I am a writer. I can imagine, dream, live, breathe as an Iranian, an American. I can add color to anything; if only I could paint the gray streets of Tehran with my words.

Elaheh Farmand

2) LIFE IS SHORT | Autobiography as Haiku
Sunday, January 23, 2005; Page D01

For many years, children were just short things I saw occasionally in shopping malls. I was a software engineer, cut down at age 23 not by the dot-com crash but by weak wrists. After a long interval where I, like Richard Kimble, toiled at many jobs, I now find myself guiding a classroom of preschoolers: 20 little dynamos between the ages of 3 and 6, each one half-animal, half-angel. My friends say, "You'll be really prepared when you have your own children!" I reply, "How could anyone ever be prepared for that?"

Adam Cooper

3) LIFE IS SHORT | Autobiography as Haiku
Sunday, July 22, 2007; Page D01

My teenage son was scanning the pantry. I asked him what he was looking for. "Mayonnaise." Hopeful that he would make his own lunch, I told him to look in the refrigerator. He shrugged and, expending as little effort as possible, walked to the fridge, opened its door and quickly declared, "It's not here." I knew it was there. I joined him at the refrigerator, immediately saw the mayonnaise, grabbed it, shoved it into his hands and asked, "Are you blind?" He stared at the jar. "No, are you deaf? I was looking for Band-Aids."

Maria McIntosh

July 22, 2007
What I need: round-trip bus tickets to New York, Advil, gas in my car, more money, a birthday card for Jean, to stop eating ice cream for breakfast, a way to move a futon to Boston, textbook money, a plan, a kitchen table.

What I want: new shoes, to lose five pounds, a nap, free everything, my cat on my stomach, better social skills, cooking classes, someone else to do the dishes, beer money, cheese fries, to smack some people, fewer doubts, to be there already.

What I have: two jobs, one more year of college, too much choice.

Christine Bath

May 6, 2007
We have plans to keep our children safe and prepared. We have fire drills. We have tornado and hurricane drills. We even have a protocol with a "to-go bag," in case of any emergency lockdown. Our Annandale preschool is vigilant. The explanations, with age-appropriate information, reassure and calm the children.

After this latest tornado drill, the all-clear sounded. Everyone did a good job listening and following directions. Mission accomplished. Thumbs up and high-fives all around!

Three-year-old Clay asked one important question. "When it comes, how big will the tomato be?"

Elizabeth Maguder