Saturday, December 30, 2006


I am so pleased. I have started hiking again, after 18 months of working on the house, putting in way too many hours on the job, and just basically hanging on, without taking care of myself as I need to. I've been spending plenty of time with my GPS and camera up in Black Rock Forest, digging into 18th century history here in the Hudson Highlands. This week, the NYS Outdoor Education Association accepted my proposal to teach a workshop on Geocaching at their 40th Annual Conference in November. Life is good!

A Christmas Story

The choir arrived early so that we could rehearse prior to the start of the Christmas pageant. While we were singing, I noticed a young mother with a little blonde girl at the altar rail. I had never seen them before, and guessed that they must be here visting grandparents for the holidays. The daughter looked to be about about four-years-old, and was wearing a red velvet Christmas dress. The mother was kneeling and they were talking, the little girl's eyes riveted to her mother's face. As we sang, I kept looking over to them, captivated by how intent and focused they were together.

An hour later, the pageant was in full swing, with various parishioners playing the parts of angels, Herod, Mary and Joseph. Suddenly, the little girl I had noticed earlier came walking up the aisle. Her mother never moved to scold or stop her, she just let her come.

The little one pushed through the angels, proceeded past the choir, and laboriously climbed the marble steps up onto the altar, where Fr. Tom was sitting in an ornate, carved chair. She marched straight up to him, and held her arms out to be picked up. He lifted her into his lap as if they had known each other all their lives. The grandfatherly priest spent the rest of the service with her nestled in his arms. Each time the ritual called for prayer, he took her hand and they climbed the steps to the altar to get the book. Then together, holding hands, they turned and faced the congregation to read.

Her little face was full of light – it was clear that she simply needed to be there. It was an emotional, unexpected manisfestation of the true spirit of Christmas. In religious terms, I would say that she was filled with the Holy Spirit, and it felt to me as though we were visited through her.

That (and the unmistakable resemblance to Cindy Lou Who) moved me to tears.

And a child shall lead them (Isaiah 11:6).

Iraq's bloggers weigh in on Hussein death sentence |

Iraq's bloggers weigh in on Hussein death sentence |

Burying the Godfather of Soul

Everything that can possibly be said has been written about the influence of this man on both contemporary music and African American self image. I have the utmost respect for his music, and can only add my personal experience working with him. He was one very strange dude, and you would best remember to address him as Mr. Brown! R.I.P.


TED KOOSER, Pulitzer Prize-winning Poet

Here's a poem for today, written by one of my favorite authors, Ted Kooser (he was also the Poet Laureate of the United States in 2004).

December 30: Two Degrees and Clear

A box of holiday pears came yesterday,
twenty tough little pears, all red and green,
neatly nested in cardboard cubicles,
their stems all pointed the same direction
like soldiers, a shine on their faces.
Five, all in a row, had been singled out
for special commendation and were wrapped
in crumbled tissue parachutes. Maybe
these were the leaders, the first to leap
from the trees, singing their battle song,
Early this morning I lifted the lid
and they were sleeping peacefully, lying
on one hard side or the other, dreaming
their leafy, breezy dreams of home.

Execution of Saddam Hussein

I am sorry. I do not believe that the State (any State) should be in the business of killing. No matter who he was, or what he did, we demean ourselves and our humanity when we kill out of vengeance and hate, calling it justice. He should have been locked in a solitary cell for life. Period.

Assessment, as 2006 comes to a close......

Over the years, my husband and I bought and renovated two 19th century houses in Cornwall, a historic Hudson Highlands village 55 miles northwest of New York. He was the handy one; I was the primary breadwinner. When we divorced after sixteen years of marriage, I rented a tiny, 3-room carriage house up on Storm King Mountain, feeling sad, vulnerable and relieved not to have a big house to care for alone.

I gave myself a year to heal and then assessed my prospects. The picture was serious - splitting our assets in half had been devastating financially. It seemed foolish to rent in a market like Cornwall, which is rapidly transitioning from rural backwater to NYC bedroom community. With college tuition and retirement looming not too far in the future, I knew I needed a real estate investment, pronto. I started to look for a “fixer-upper” that would become a profitable asset in this rapidly appreciating market, though frankly, I was a little frightened by the prospect of renovating on my own, without a “handy” partner. Though technically I had experience from our previous homes, the truth of the matter was that we bought and he renovated.

I began by searching for a 19th century house, hardwood floors, working fireplace, ample land. There were just five such properties listed in Cornwall. I called a realtor/friend, who hesitated and then said gently, “One of them is a lot like the house you used to live in.”

We walked in through the living room and opened a door onto an inviting back porch. As I took in the coppery sunset, filtered through a towering weeping willow, my teenage daughter whispered from behind me, “I call the tree!”

A fixer upper? Was I crazy? The place had been rented for years, and it was a mess. I could see that the roof was shot, the exterior paint was peeling, it still had its ancient, original windows, and the bathrooms? Well, let’s just say we gave it a ZERO rating in bathrooms. Decrepit, water damaged (“grotty,” Jules sniffed). I knew I could negotiate a low price and turn it into a jewel. But I didn’t have the skills to do the big work myself, nor the cash to hire a contractor.

Still, we loved this house. And after paying for an extensive inspection by a structural engineer, I was certain that the investment in this property, one of the last remaining “old” houses up on the mountain, would be a good one. I went back online, searching for a loan that would advance cash for the renovation.

“Have you ever applied for a HUD 203K loan?” my mortgage officer asked doubtfully. “There is a lot of paperwork.” I dug into the application, creating a work plan, getting estimates, selecting materials, hiring a contractor, creating a budget and timeline. I might not know how to install sheetrock, but this I could do!

Twenty months later, having spent virtually every weekend working our way through each room, sanding, refinishing, and painting, we are reclaiming the beauty and charm of this old house. Seven rooms down, two to go. And, now that I have proven to myself that I can do this, my next step toward financial security will be using the equity I have earned in this house to buy a fixer-upper investment property. This could become a habit!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

RIP Gerald Ford - My own tiny piece of the story

I awoke this morning to the news of the death of President Ford, and it brought back a very particular memory. It was the Fall of 1973. I was in college, and was an R.A. (Resident Assistant) in my dormitory. One of my new freshmen was Maria Shriver, whose father, Sargeant Shriver, caused quite a stir when he visited our women's dorm, accompanied by young, handsome Secret Service agents!

In those days, no one had a television in their room - there was a single television in the lounge on our floor. Spiro Agnew had just resigned the Vice Presidency in disgrace, and President Nixon was about to name the new Vice President. We all gathered in the TV Lounge, and watched as the President began a lengthy description of the strong qualifications of the as-yet-unnamed individual. All of us were listening, curious but baffled....we had no idea of whom he was describing. Maria Shriver listened to a couple of sentences and announced with certainty: "It's Gerald Ford."

And she continues to put her knowledge to good use, having remained in the family business!

This mini-memoir was published in CNN's iReport.
I-Report: Americans remember Gerald Ford -

Photo Credit: Jonathan J. Dwyer / AP file

Monday, November 20, 2006


It was a long, hot walk today in Petra. Although I was completely captivated by the beauty and majesty of the place, the Siq was eventually engulfed in shadow as the sun sank in the afternoon sky. I could feel that my face was flushed red from the long day of hiking in the steep desert terrain.

As the sun was setting Mr. Ibrahim, drove us to a simple, sidewalk café just outside the Petra gate. The owner brought a tall jug of cold water, and we ordered two big plates of chicken and rice, hummus, yogurt & cucumbers. We sat quietly for a while, drinking and cooling off, the sound of a girl’s voice chanting the evening prayers coming from a television in the back of the shop.

Hearing the child's voice chanting piqued my curiosity. I told him that I knew very little about Islam, and I was curious. If I were a Muslim child, what would be the first things I would learn about my religion?

He explained one of the core tenets of Islam, The 99 Faces of God (also known as the 99 Names of God). As I understand it, Muslims believe that everything we can know about God, and ultimately everything we can know about the entire cosmos is delineated by the Names. The long list of God's faces includes Ar-Rehman (the Beneficent), Al-Malik (the Sovereign Lord, The King), Al-'Aziz (The Mighty), Al-Bari, (The Evolver), etc.

And then he put his hands on the table and turned the palms up facing the ceiling, asking me to do the same. "Now, look at the palm of your RIGHT hand. The lines in the palm of your hand (reading right to left) form the Arabic numerals 8 and 1," or 81, which in Arabic looks like this:

He traced the lines in my palm with his finger, patiently teaching me the shape of the unfamiliar Arabic symbols.

"Now," he said, "look at the palm of your LEFT hand. What do you see?" Slowly, struggling to remember the shapes of the numbers, and pausing to remember to read right to left, I responded "1 and 8....18," which in Arabic looks like this:

"That's right," he said gently, as if he were praising a young child. "And 81 plus 18 equals...?" "99," I answered slowly, the light dawning. One of the earliest lessons for a young Muslim child is that God is with you all the time - the "99 Faces of God" are literally present in your hands.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if this simple yet vast concept could be the foundation of a solution to the huge gulf between Christian, Jewish and Muslim cultures? All three faiths started with Abraham, and it seems to me that it couldn't hurt to have us all believe that a single God is present in the palms of our hands.

Let's start with As-Salaam....האלוהים של שלום in Hebrew, "The God of Peace," in English.


I had just one free day during my business trip to Amman, Jordan, and was determined to travel to the “lost” ancient city of Petra. Inhabited by the Nabataen people from the third century B.C. until the sixth century A.D., their civilization gradually declined as the overland caravan trade routes fell into disuse. Earthquakes cut off many of the access points and eventually Petra disappeared from the map. Then in 1812 a Swiss explorer named Johann Ludwig Burckhardt made his way through the mountains and walked into the majestic ancient city. Petra was found.

I decided to forgo the buses that run daily from Amman and hire a car and driver (which my hotel happily arranged for less than two hundred dollars) in order to make the most of the single day that I had. We drove for more than two hours through the hot, barren Jordanian desert, and then Mr. Ibrahim, my driver, called my attention to the curve ahead. “Watch,” he said quietly, as the landscape completely changed. Sprawled before us, as far as the eye can see, was the (kind of) rock of the southern Jordanian mountains. Somewhere inside those mountains, I knew, was a massive cleft (“siq” in Arabic) in the formidable mountain range that had caused this location to become the crossroads of the ancient world. Caravan trade routes linking Arabia with Gaza, Egypt, and the Mediterranean civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome all converged here. It is modern travelers who converge nowadays in this remote corner of the Jordanian desert to see the ancient city which was literally carved out of the rock, and whose sophisticated architecture shows the influences of Assyrian, Egyptian, Hellenistic and Roman cultures.

As we headed toward the gate to the ancient city, Mr. Ibrahim suggested that I leave time at the end of the day to visit “Little Petra,” about 7 kilometres to the north. “Of course, I will need to charge you an extra thirty dinar,” he said apologetically, “but it is worth it.” I wondered if this was a hustle, but then again, I knew I’d probably never visit this remote corner of the earth again. I agreed, and set off into the Bab al-Siq. This towering cleft in the rock (walls more than 300 meters high and no more than 12 meters wide) takes about 25 minutes to walk, and leads you directly into the ancient city.

Although I had seen many photographs of the incredibly intricate architecture carved out of the sandstone, the towering majesty of the structures is even more impressive in person.
What I did not anticipate from the photographs is the bustle of the bazaar-like atmosphere that pervades the entire route through the city; “guides” urging you to hire a horse or camel (“You look hot, lady”), stalls offering food and trinkets, Bedouin families selling jewelry. Even in its antiquity, Petra has retained the energy of its trading heritage.

I hiked about a third of the way through the city, and by mid-afternoon was climbing back out through the deep siq. Mr. Ibrahim met me at the gate and we headed for Little Petra. I wondered if it would pale in comparison to the majesty of the architecture I had just seen.

Mr. Ibrahim stopped the car, and the two of us got out and began to walk through the shadows of the towering walls of another siq into what appears to have been a residential neighborhood – a quiet village just 350 meters long. A hawk soared in the bright blue sky above Little Petra as we walked in silence, the only sound the wind blowing through the rocks, a Blue Sinai lizard scrambling for cover at our feet.

In Little Petra I had a persistent feeling that this village is still alive. It seemed possible that children were playing and goats were wandering this pathway just yesterday, rather than centuries ago. I wandered into the houses carved out of stone, imagining myself living here, hearing the murmur of voices from homes nearby after dark.

As the afternoon shadows deepened, we returned to the car, and began the drive back up the King’s Highway to Amman. As the city receded behind us, Mr. Ibrahim pulled over to the side of the road so that I could take one last photograph of the rugged stone mountain range bathed in the pink sunset light. I clamored gingerly down the rough sandstone, covered with sweat and gritty dust that I could taste when I licked my lips, making my way down a spot that was an overlook with a clear view across the valley. My guide called from the roadside above. "Your name is Nealon, correct?” I nodded, wondering why he had chosen this moment to verify my identity. “Good,” he said with satisfaction. “We will keep your name always here." Then he shouted "NEALON," and it echoed, over and over, across the rock formations of the Al-Wu'ayra.

Iron Chef Bake Off!

Jules, my teenage daughter, loves the Food Network, and she decided we should have an Iron Chef-style cook off this weekend. The core ingredient was apple, we were not allowed to look up any recipes, all ingredients in the kitchen were fair game, and we had 1.5 hour start to finish.

We had such a good time (though it took longer to clean up the mess than it did to do the cooking!). We were laughing and laughing as she made a very tasty apple pie from scratch, without a recipe. I tried a complicated custard that didn't work out very well....too runny. Tasted good, looked awful. We invited her grandmother over to do the judging (she scored us on both presentation and taste), and Jules won by a mile, fair and square.

I love having a teenager.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Forest Haiku

You two, doe and fawn

Why do you scatter, shocked

when I come each night?

Saturday, August 12, 2006

I'm back....and working on Sesame!

Well, it must have been a busy three years since I've posted regularly!

Life is settling down, so many things have changed....I feel like I want to start blogging again. I think I'll start with a link to the cover story from the Arts & Leisure section in last Sunday's NY Times. That is one way of catching up with whereI am these days.

NY Times
August 6, 2006
A Girly-Girl Joins the ‘Sesame’ Boys

LIZ NEALON, executive vice president and creative director of Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind “Sesame Street,” wasn’t sure exactly what she wanted in a new Muppet for the show’s 37th season, which starts on Aug. 14. But she did have one major goal: She wanted the creative team, at
long last, to come up with a female Muppet star. The show did already have a number of female characters, including Zoe, a rambunctious, orange, furry friend of Elmo’s, and Rosita, an emerald-blue, bilingual Muppet with a sweet, friendly soul.
“We have our wacky, and we have our gentle,” Ms. Nealon said in a recent interview. “But we wanted a lead female character. If you think about ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ some girls relate to Rhoda, who’s our Zoe, and some girls really relate to Mary, who’s a girly girl. And we didn’t have that girl. We made a definite decision to sit down with the writers to figure out what this character might be.”

The feminist-minded parent might not only applaud the decision to make a more high-profile female character, but wonder why on earth it took so long. “Sesame Street,” created to help underprivileged kids prepare for kindergarten, has over the years gone out of its way to include images of children of every creed and color, and every level of physical ability and disability. Yet its producers acknowledge it has never come up with a single female character with anything close to the name recognition of Big Bird or Cookie Monster or Ernie and Bert. (The closest that the Jim Henson Company, which designs Muppets for “Sesame Street,” has come is Miss Piggy. But she starred on “The Muppet Show,” not “Sesame Street,” and probably for good reason. You have to go back to “Dynasty” reruns to find a more jealous, vain and domineering female role model on television.)

Even bastions of liberal creativity like “Sesame Street” are apparently vulnerable to the realities of show business, including a disproportionately high ratio of male to female puppeteers, said Rosemary Truglio, executive vice president for education and research at Sesame Workshop. (Miss Piggy has always been played by male puppeteers, starting with Frank Oz.) And a show as politically sensitive as this one has an added challenge: finding female characters that make kids laugh, but not laugh at them as female stereotypes. “If Cookie Monster was a female character,” said Carol-Lynn Parente, executive producer of the show, “she’d be accused of being anorexic or bulimic. There are a lot of things that come attached to female
characters.” For example, said Deborah Aubert, associate director of national programs and training services at Girls, Inc., a nonprofit advocacy group. “It would be hard to have a female character with Elmo’s whimsy who didn’t also seem ditzy.”
But it’s not just a high-minded interest in gender equality that drove the search for a strong female character. The success of “Dora the Explorer,” a show built around a strong female lead, has not gone unnoticed by its competitors at “Sesame Street.” “ ‘Sesame Street’ is living in an increasingly competitive market,” Ms. Nealon said. “We used to be the only game in town, and now we’re having more conversations about where are all the points of appeal of our cast. We’re trying to be as absolutely broadbased as we can be.”

The feminist parent might also wonder whether “broad-based” will boil down to characters with predictable girly-girl looks and interests. But Ms. Nealon said she wasn’t worried. “I came of age during that 70’s generation when you just had to do everything you could do to be taken seriously,” she said. “But the world has changed since then. My daughter is comfortable with clothes and hair and makeup and totally embraces her femininity, but can still be strong and completely competitive in a world populated by men and women.”

The Muppet that after nine months of research was selected to embody those characteristics is not technically a girl: she is a 3-year-old fairy named Abby Cadabby. Neither monster like Zoe nor humanoid like Prairie Dawn, the calico-wearing blonde who first showed up in 1970, Abby is a purely magical creature, complete with tiny wings, a magic wand and sparkles in her hair. There’s something suspiciously marketable, of course, about a new character who happens to be a fairy, just now in the midst of a girlish craze for tutus, tiaras and all things princessy, and as Disney prepares a big marketing push for its 2007 movie starring Tinker Bell. But the idea came not from some Mattel consultant but from a 30-year veteran of “Sesame Street,” Tony Geiss, whose most significant previous creations were the Honkers, monsters who communicate by honking their noses. One day the writers were tossing around the idea of a girl who was new in town, perhaps trying to fit into a new classroom. After the meeting broke up, Mr. Geiss approached the show’s head writer, Lou Berger, with the idea of making her the daughter of the fairy godmother, a character who is invoked but never seen. Her origins in fairyland would provide plenty of story lines about difference, without the show “having consciously to introduce somebody from Indonesia or India,” Mr. Geiss said. Mr. Berger and the team liked the idea and told Mr. Geiss to develop it further. A few days later he presented the full picture: a fairy in training, capable of hovering only when very happy, able to turn any object into a pumpkin but unable to change it back with any reliability. Her family had recently moved to Sesame Street for the schools, leaving behind Fairyside Gardens, an elves’ and fairies’ housing community in Queens (a bit of back story that’s mostly been dropped). “When I did a little presentation, I was calling her Daisy,” Mr. Geiss said. “Everyone said, no, that’s not it, and then we sat around as if we were coming up with names for a new baby. Patsy, Dixie, Leonora. ... ” Finally someone threw out Abby, and Mr. Berger followed that up with Abby Cadabby. “It had a vaguely magical sound to it,” Mr. Geiss said. The combination of “correctness and exhaustion” kicked in, he added, and Abby Cadabby she’s been ever since.

As a newcomer eager to learn, the writers knew, she would provide the perfect opportunity for explanatory lessons. She would also provide a way to talk about female friendships (including “What does it mean to bring a girl into the group?,” Ms. Truglio said, and to show healthy models by which girls could resolve conflict). The show had tried to introduce a character for just that purpose in 2000, the short-lived Lulu, a shy monster who “had a kind of quirky personality,” Ms. Truglio said. “She wasn’t that attractive.” With the approval of Ms. Nealon and Ms. Parente, and the product and publishing divisions of “Sesame Street,” the production team decided to take the idea of Abby Cadabby to the Jim Henson Workshop. Various sketches and fabric swatches of the Muppet-to-be were circulated for input from the writers and executives on the show. There was some retreading of what Mr. Geiss calls the big-nose versus small-nose debate. “Some people think the big nose is funnier,” he explained, but Abby’s is small, a nod toward the more feminine aesthetic for which the producers were hoping. Careful attention was paid too to how much eyelid would be visible; the more eyelid, the more vulnerable-looking the character. “Her eyes look up,” Mr. Geiss said. “They can look beseeching, and they can be sad as well as happy.”

Sherrie Rollins Westin, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of Sesame Workshop, recalled seeing an early version that was a little too “bug-eyed” for her taste. One version had too much of a snout, rendering her worrisomely insectlike, given the wings in back, Ms. Truglio said. All versions featured various shades of pink- or lavender-toned skin, colors that would “work well next to Elmo,” who is red, Ms. Truglio said. “That was not up for discussion.” Once they narrowed the sketches down to two images that they thought worked, they showed them to 77children aged 2 to 5 and in one-on-one interviews asked them what they liked and didn’t like about Abby’s looks. The kids were particularly enamored of her turquoise dress; they also preferred a button nose to a flatter, more truncated version, and her hair in two pompoms, rather than in one big bunch atop her head.

Armed with that information, the team began to design the actual Muppet, a budget commitment of “tens of thousands of dollars,” said Ms. Parente, the show’s executive producer. They also began creating a 10-minute segment that they further tested on 53 3-year-olds. The resulting confection is a Muppet with the pretty pastel aesthetic of an Easter egg, complete with pink skin (compared with Zoe’s orange), purple and pink sparkly pompoms (Zoe’s hair juts out from the sides of her face ) and a Thumbelina-style petal-layered turquoise dress. (Zoe wears a tutu that’s charmingly incongruous on her bouncy little body.) Abby Cadabby’s lashes are long and feminine, her voice pitched somewhere between Elmo’s dog-range high notes and Zoe’s scratchy old-womanish tones. In the first segment created, Abby played hide-and-seek, making ample, if not totally proficient use of her magic wand. “The kids were pretty glued to the show,” Ms. Truglio said. “They loved that she could do magic,” she added. “But if you asked them how they imagined playing with Abby Cadabby, they mentioned regular kid stuff like playing catch. So we knew they liked her as a personality.”

For all the educational consultants and child psychologists the show could have enlisted, the success of the character seems to rely largely on the one simple quality no other Muppet can claim: she’s very, very pretty. As played by Leslie Carrara-Rudolph, a new Muppeteer, she’s enthusiastic, eager, occasionally bashful but never coy (and certainly never divalike along the lines of Tinker Bell). “I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready!” she answers Baby Bear emphatically in one segment when he asks if she’s prepared for her first day of school.

In the past the show has bent over backward to counteract stereotypes, with the tomboyish Zoe or the highly opinionated Elizabeth. “But political correctness hampers creativity,” Ms. Nealon said. “Abby Cadabby owns her own point of view, but she’s also comfortable with the fact that she likes wearing a dress, and as we’d tried to model strong female models, we neglected that piece of being a girl.”

On the set the joke was about the new toy on the block, as opposed to the new Muppet character, a dig at the obvious marketability of the new pretty-in-pink creature. Some of the writers, Ms. Parente said, worried about moving away from the show’s merely surreal characters to one with a full-blown dependence on actual magic. Others were concerned about the character tipping over into a saccharine sweetness. “What’s always been great about ‘Sesame Street,’ ” said Noel MacNeal, a longtime “Sesame Street” Muppeteer, “is that there was always a softness and gentleness to its characters, while still having enough edge. It wasn’t too cute. I just hope with Abby Cadabby, they’re not going to make a mistake they’ve made before when they tried to compete directly with ‘Barney,’ which was so cutesy.” (He was referring to his
take on why the show added a new set in the early 90’s to give the street a clean new look. A few years later Ms. Parente reverted the set back to its old chipped-paint aesthetic.) But for the most part the traditional “Sesame Street” team of performers and writers has rallied behind the character.

The producers’ hopes of course are pinned on the possibility that Abby Cadabby could be the female equivalent of Elmo, a huge money-maker for the nonprofit organization behind the show. First to roll out will be storybooks featuring Abby Cadabby; if they succeed, videos and toys will follow. Maura Regan, vice president and general manager of global consumer products for Sesame Workshop, said she was confident about Abby Cadabby’s market readiness. She’ll be strong in spring, Ms. Regan theorized, because she has a “wood nymph quality,” and added that her pink coloring made her great for
merchandising around Valentine’s Day and Christmas, when she will pair well with red Elmo. Then of course there’s the fall back-to-school theme of a new girl getting to know her classmates. Ms. Regan’s team has already started working with the toy company Fisher-Price on a rough mockup of a doll. Most important, she said, is getting a cuddle-ready expression on the toy’s face; then there’s the challenge of capturing her feathery, fluffy, sparkly hair without creating a safety hazard. “There are so many cute things out there,” she added, “but in order to make them want one doll over another, I think the real deciding factor is how much they’ve connected with the Muppet from the show. And you’ve got to be able to capture that.”
Could Abby’s sales rival those of the show’s marketing juggernaut, Elmo? Ms. Regan obviously hopes they can. But in an aside, as she demurred from making predictions, she gave a hint on just how much rides on the outcome. “I don’t want to jinx myself,” she whispered. “That would be terrible, terrible, terrible.”

Whoever would think that I'd be the one credited with creating a "girly girl"? Curiouser and curiouser, this life!

Photograph © 2006 Sesame Workshop. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, July 01, 2006


We all piled onto a coach bus on Thursday morning and traveled to the Copper Canyon, an area of great physical beauty (a bit like the Grand Canyon, but with dense, green vegetation). It is also the home of an estimated 70,000 of the indigenous Tarahumara people, renowned for their long-distance running ability (their word for themselves, Raramuri, means runners). Most of the Tarahumara still adhere to their traditional lifestyle, inhabiting natural shelters such as caves or cliff overhangs, and they struggle with the problems of indigenous people the world over – isolation, alcoholism, poverty, depression. We visited an orphanage for Tarahumara children while we were there.

Unfortunately, what was billed as an eight-hour bus trip became thirteen hours due to many unscheduled stops to see the sights along the way. By 8pm darkness was falling fast, and the driver was having trouble finding the place where we were meant to stay. Finally, we stopped in the right lane of a two-way highway — there was no real shoulder to pull safely off the road. There was a small sign reading “Christian Center,” and a narrow rock track leading through the woods into the falling darkness. We had no idea whether we were in the right place, but the kids had had it – they all scrambled off the bus like caged animals onto a narrow strip of grass between the busy highway and an active railroad track. I was acutely aware of the parents that I left behind at home, promising that I would keep their children safe. I decided to focus on containing the damage — preventing anyone from being hit by a fast-moving, 3-ton vehicle seemed to be a practical approach for the moment.

Finally, we got word that this was the right place and they were sending vans to get our bags. We crossed the kids safely over the highway, sent them off into the pitch dark woods, and started unloading luggage off the bus. One of the drivers told me that they had cooked dinner for 35 people the previous night, and were surprised that we did not show up. Great. Wrong date. I asked, fearing the worst, if there were any beds available for this night. “Well,” he said, “there is an outbuilding that is under construction, if you don’t mind sleeping on the floor.” Mind? How could we mind? We carried all our things over to an empty brick building with a concrete floor and no electricity. The dust was horrendous as everyone settled in, throwing their packs on the floor and shaking out their sleeping bags. The particles in the air were soon so thick that soon every kid with asthma started wheezing. I made my way around the room, confirming that they had their inhalers (two didn't, big surprise), passing out antihistamines to take before bed. It was feeling less and less certain that I was doing much of a job in the “safe” department.

Finally, at 9:45 pm, the food was ready. Three women managed to muster up crispy tostadas (4-inches in diameter) with lettuce, tomato, refried beans and a sprinkling of cheese. There was just enough for each teenager to have two; the adults settled for one.

Brooding silence as we settled in for what we optimistically called “the world’s biggest sleepover.” Everyone was feeling upset, some scared, some angry, one afraid of the dark. Most were just quiet. This trip was not at all what was promised, and “nothing works, but somehow it all works out,” was not a very comforting thought as we faced a long night on the hard, damp floor.

As we settled down into our sleeping bags, a voice in the darkness started talking about Chewey, the little boy from Anapra. "He lives in a cinder block house," said one of the teen. "I bet he sleeps with a blanket on a concrete floor like this every night. And, you know he doesn't ever have much more to eat than we just did - they never have meat."

And with that, realizing that we had been handed the opportunity to live Chewey’s experience and gain a perspective on his life, everyone fell asleep.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006


The sun is breaking through the clouds as we head for the second church that we will be painting, but there is still a huge amount of water in the streets from the storms last night. It rarely rains in Juarez and the sewers clearly aren’t equipped to handle this storm. We set off toward the highway, our vans plowing through the water like stallions fording a river.

By the time we reach Anapra, the clouds have cleared and the sun is blazing overhead. Everything we heard about the poverty here, one of the poorest barrios of Juarez, is true. The electrical wires overhead end suddenly at the outskirts of the neighborhood, rusting cars are everywhere and virtually every modest structure is constructed of naked concrete. As we are traveling, the driver of one of our vans runs over a dog in the street without even attempting to brake or swerve. The teenagers onboard are outraged, some crying after this very personal encounter with the low value placed on life in this forsaken neighborhood.

The job today is daunting. Padre wants us to put white paint on a fence that runs 300 yards around the perimeter of the church. It is constructed of crumbling, unprimed cinder block – very difficult to paint – and there is sand at the bottom of the wall that sticks to the wet paintbrushes. There is not a bit of shade. The sand is full of burrs with deep, sharp spines and is burning hot on this day, which is going to top 100 degrees by noontime.

The teens have requested that they choose the teams and set up the work plan today. They get a kick out of running the show, and enthusiastically dive into the project. As the painting teams spread out along the perimeter, carrying paint, brushes and other supplies to their workstations, a little girl climbs over the wall. She appears to be about six years old, and lives in a house nearby. As she talks with our teenagers, other little kids join her. Soon, our painting crew is supplemented by fourteen little children, all wielding paintbrushes under the tutelage of doting (and suddenly expert) teenagers. Spanish phrasebooks materialize on the steps of the church – now, no one is embarrassed to try speaking Spanish because they want to communicate with these children.

A three-year-old named Chewey steals everyone’s hearts. He is mischievous, affectionate, and funny, with black eyes so huge and limpid he might have been drawn by a Disney illustrator.
As the sun moves higher in the sky, women from the neighborhood are setting up lunch inside the church, which is at least 15 degrees cooler than the glaring sand outside. They carry in huge trays of tamales - steam-cooked cornmeal dough filled with cheese, beans and chilis, wrapped in cornhusks to retain the moisture. The kids traipse inside, hot, tired and sweating, shepherding the little ones in front of them. They sit the neighborhood children down at the table that has been set with cups of cold water and plates of food, standing behind them and waiting to eat until the little ones have had their fill. Could this possibly be the same group of teenagers who just yesterday had goofed their way through a haphazard painting job? Clearly, as our kids have fallen in love with Chewey, the severity of his circumstances has begun to sink in.

No question about finishing the job today. After a rousing soccer match with the kids, our crack painting crew finishes the task and poses for a triumphant photograph in front of the long, pristine white wall. As we pull out of the neighborhood to head back to our compound, fourteen little children are running behind the bus. There is a long silence, and more than a few tears, as we drive away.

Sunday, June 25, 2006


My Episcopal church is one of three, New York-area churches that is sending a group to do Habitat for Humanity-type work in Juarez, Mexico, and I must admit, I am feeling some trepidation now that the trip is upon us. Earlier this morning, our church held a special “commissioning service,” blessing all of us who are heading off for eight days painting outpost churches in the bleak Mexican desert. A friend who often does this kind of volunteer work in Haiti told me: “We like to say that nothing works, but everything always works out. Lower your expectations…because efficiency is not going to be part of your experience in Juarez.”

Later, as we prepared to depart from the church parking lot, anxious parents thanked me for making the trip and keeping their children safe. Frankly, I am not terribly worried about security, although Juarez is a rough border town. We are staying in a locked compound, and we’re traveling with experienced, savvy, Mexican/New Yorkers – Canon Sylvia and Father Hilario, who is a towering, muscular man with a shaved head and neatly trimmed goatee. Priest or not, anyone would think twice before messing with this dignified, fierce-looking man.

I am more uneasy at the prospect of a week of physically hard work in 100-degree temperatures, using a sleeping bag in a sweltering bunkhouse, to say nothing of chaperoning nineteen teenagers. I know they are not used to this kind of hard work.

“Better you than me,” whispered one of the mothers as she reached past me to give her daughter a final hug.