Westchester Chronicles

The local roots of Festivus; how county residents fare on Craigslist, X-Mas goody bargains, and more.



A Virtual Home for the Weird and the Wonderful

Westchester: the refuge of two-car garages and manicured lawns. But peek beneath the surface, or rather, into the infinite world of the Internet, and a quirky, off-beat county emerges. And it starts in a place familiar to most and beneficial to many—www.craigslist.org.

Founded in 1995, craigslist serves more than 300 cities across the globe from Tarrytown to Tokyo. Ranked as the 7th most visited website in the United States, it’s a forum where users put up free classifieds for everything from for-sale items to job listings to personals.

So what exactly do Westchesterites seek or sell on craigslist? How about “mint-condition superhero statues,” old opera records, a pair of gerbils, a painting of Haile Selassie, orchestra-seat tickets to A Chorus Line on Broadway, and even a request for “100+ chicken wishbones.”

Tony Nacinovich of Tarrytown has sold a dining-room set for $600, a cuckoo clock for $50, a garden cart for $95, a locust tree woodpile for $30, his own baby scale (now vintage) for $45, and an alabaster owl statue for $40.

Some objects you just can’t sell, including a seven-foot-long Leucistic Texas rat snake, in Eastchester. “Unusual, a real beauty,” states the poster, who is also willing to throw in the tank, hide box, water bowl, and travel case. And why would this pet be offered for free? “Just trying to find him a good home!” the posting assures.

Michael DiPippo of Queens has long found a refuge for his passions for bow-hunting in Westchester. In his posting, he offers to clean the garage, yard, old attic, or landscape or paint “in exchange for the rights to hunt your property.” Craigslist has worked for him in the past. “I made an arrangement last year to hunt at a Westchester tree nursery. It was successful to say the least.”

Other Westchester “craigslisters” seek activities of a more sedate nature. Caroline Coppola of Yonkers and her friend were looking for euchre players through craigslist. “I figured I’d give it a shot,” she says.

- Dan Levin The Tantric Sex Experts Next Door

Mark Michaels and Patricia Johnson are a married Yorktown Heights couple who literally wrote the book (okay—a book) on Tantra (The Essence of Tantric Sexuality, 2006, Llewellyn Worldwide). They give workshops, offer private sessions for couples, and even offer online courses via their website, www.tantrapm.com. We asked them for some neighborly advice (not that we need it, of course).

WM: What is Tantra?
MM: It’s an ancient tradition from India that recognizes sexual energy as a powerful source for personal and spiritual development. Although it includes sexuality, a very small fraction of teachings include sex per se, even though most people think the purpose of Tantra is to make “it” last for hours. Most Americans think Tantra’s some kind of sexual yoga.

Q: It’s not? I mean, of course not! How silly!
MM: Tantra is a spiritual practice and an approach to living. Its core principle is reverence for your partner as an embodiment of the divine, which means that you treat your partner with kindness, respect, and genuine interest.

PJ: Tantra can transform relationships. Couples who experience a lack of desire have really just lost the ability to connect. Our culture tells them they should talk more, but we think that people talk too much!

WM: What’s a typical Tantric exercise for improving that connection?
MM: Gaze into each other’s eyes for two to three minutes and synchronize your breathing. These are the things we do unconsciously when falling in love. Consciously, you can recreate the same feelings.

PJ: Sit yab-yum (which is the classical Tantric lovemaking posture). This can be done fully clothed. The man sits cross-legged, and the woman sits on his lap facing him. In this posture, you can eye-gaze and breathe together. It is a very effective way to harmonize.

Q: What do you tell the neighbors?
MM: Well, we both have “day jobs.” I’m a lawyer by training and Patricia is an opera singer. But we do tell people we teach Tantra and they usually say “oh,” as if they know all about it. Later, they’ll admit they don’t know what we’re talking about.

—Catherine Censor

By the Numbers

A numerical look at the Holiday Season

Percent of times Hanukkah is either “late” or “early”:
100

Number of days Santa Claus will appear at The Westchester:
43 (from November 11 to December 24)

Number of photos expected to be taken with Santa at The Westchester:
10,000 +

Percent of people nationwide in 2005 who started holiday shopping before Halloween:
40

Amount of money the Westchester Red Cross raised in December 2005:
$251,076; in June 2005: $70,486

Largest Menorah display in Westchester:
30 feet tall and weighing 2,000 lbs. and then some (in front of the JCC of Scarsdale, on Wilmont Road)

Number of holiday cards sent by snail mail:
1.9 billion

Number of calories in a cup of Eggnog:
343

Number of calories in a potato pancake:
207

Number of soup kitchens open in Westchester on Christmas Day:
9

Number of white Christmases recorded by the National Weather Service in the past 20 years:
1 (Christmas 2002)

Number of pounds people typically gain over the holidays:
1 (the popular theory that it’s anywhere between 5 and 10 is wrong.)

—Marisa Iallonardo

Past Perfect

With the year coming to a close, it’s fitting to consider books that investigate the past. These four, written by several of our best novelists, use history as a road map.

The Lay of the Land
By Richard Ford
Knopf Publishing Group, 496 pgs. $26.95

Novelist Richard Ford returns with his first novel in almost a decade, his last book of the trilogy starring Frank Bascombe, who starred in the first two installments, The Sportswriter (1986) and Independence Day (1995). The story is told over a period of several days. Despite the compression, much territory is covered, most of it ruminative. Frank is a real estate broker who has been living at the Jersey shore with his second wife. She, however, has left him to live in Scotland with her first husband. His son writes greeting-card prose for Hallmark. His daughter has broken up with her lesbian lover and is at home with Father. You get the picture— the typical dysfunctional all-American family. Oh yes, Bascombe recently has finished a protocol of chemotherapy for prostate cancer. If you’re seeking a guide through the latter half of your life, you’d do well to read this book. The novel offers a satisfying take on how we aging boomers are coming to terms with family, health, death, and helping us understand how, as John Lennon sang, life is what happens to us while we’re busy making other plans.

Inés of My Soul
By Isabel Allende
Harper Collins, 336 pgs. $25.95

If you recall any middle-school history, names like Cortes, Coronado, and Pizarro, 16th-century Spanish explorers and conquistadors, will be familiar. But what about Inés Suarez? Her riveting story is the subject of Isabel Allende’s latest book. This fictional account presents the life of a daring conquistadora, neglected by history, who could be called the founding mother of Chile. Narrated by Suarez as she nears death (she lived from 1507 to 1580), the historical novel recounts, in graphic and often violent detail, the remarkable tale of this one-time seamstress who leaves Spain in the early 1500s. She travels to the New World in search of her husband who has died by the time Suarez reaches Peru, where she begins a passionate love affair with Pedro de Valdivia, field marshal to Pizarro. Together the lovers go on to found Santiago. The book is stuffed with the makings of a television miniseries—love, lust, and violence. But Allende avoids turning the saga into a sentimental, over-dramatized tale by giving Dona Suarez an ironic and modern persona and voice.

Thirteen Moons
By Charles Frazier
Random House, 432 pgs. $26.95

Charles Frazier’s discerning new novel comes a decade after his prize-winning debut, Cold Mountain. This book is also set in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, though it takes place in the years after the Revolution. Protagonist Will Cooper looks back at his nearly century-long life, which starts with his exile to a trading post on the outskirts of the Cherokee Nation. Cooper’s epic tale zigzags between rapture and regret. An orphan, he is sent to run a trading post. Over the years, he acquires and loses fortunes and the love of his life. He is a self-taught lawyer who becomes a state senator, is adopted by a Cherokee chief, and later heads his adopted clan, helping the Native Americans through the horrors of the 1838-39 “Removal,” as well as the Civil War and the ever-eroding loss of their land. Frazier presents a narrator who like some ancient philosopher has seen too much and knows like Hegel that “peoples and governments have never learned anything from history.”

The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists
By Gregory Curtis
Knopf Publishing Group, 288 pgs. $25

This introduction to the cave paintings of France and Spain is as much about the men and women who discovered them as it is about these spectacular prehistoric works of art. Curtis, a former editor of Texas Monthly who has written for the New York Times and Rolling Stone, has written a kind of travelogue through 40,000 years of cave art history. For non-historians, there’s a succinct overview of the ancients as they evolved across seven million years. Curtis also leads us through the stories of the archaeologists and art historians who studied the paintings, and nimbly outlines various scholarly disputes within anthropology on our understanding of these distant ancestors.

- Pamela Hart Rago

Pamela Hart Rago’s poetry chapbook, The End of the Body, was published this year by Toadlily Press (www.toadlilypress.com). A former journalist, she earned an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College in 2004. She lives with her family in South Salem.

When Iron Was Hot—Literally

The future of Peekskill’s riverfront may feature condos, shops, and restaurants, but its past belongs to factories, specifically iron stove works factories. Less than 200 years ago, there were eight stove works foundries, eventually churning out some 200,000 stoves a year. Many were produced at the Union Stove Works.

Unfortunately, the foundry proved seriously fire-prone. In November, 1923, a blaze of unknown origin destroyed much of the site, closing down the foundry. The plant was partly rebuilt as a hat factory around 1936, but burned down again in May, 1939 (the culprit was thought to have been a spark from a motor generator).

Today, one cupola furnace building survives. As seen in the photograph, the most iconic survivor of the foundry is a low brick structure with two broad gables facing Central Avenue. It’s now home to The Walter G. Legge Company, a manufacturer of static-control and janitorial products. But the city would like the building to be part of its ambitious waterfront redevelopment plans. So while the Union Stove Works and its industrial heritage may be receding into Peekskill’s past, the building itself most likely will always be part of its waterfront—and thus, its future.

—Rob Yasinsac

Festivus for the Rest of Us

Remember “Festivus,” the holiday “for the rest of us” made famous by Frank Costanza on Seinfeld? Celebrated on December 23, with an aluminum pole instead of a Christmas tree, “the airing of grievances” and “the feats of strength” (the head of the family must wrestle a son until one is pinned), the fictional holiday is today celebrated by die-hard Seinfeld fans. But, guess what? Festivus is (sort of) for real; in fact, it was created right here—in Chappaqua.

“It started as a celebration of my parents’ first date,” says Dan O’Keefe, the Chappaqua native and former Seinfeld and Drew Carey writer who brought the holiday to the small screen. O’Keefe’s father, Daniel, a longtime editor at Reader’s Digest, came up with the idea in the mid ’60s and he and his wife celebrated it on and off until 1971, when their three sons also began taking part in the tradition.

“Sometimes my father would say, ‘It’s starting to look a lot like Festivus,’ and then a few weeks later, it would start,” says O’Keefe. “But the majority of the time, there was no warning sign as to when it would begin.” In the Chappaqua household, Festivus could come anytime during the year, not just on December 23. “It was sort of a floating holiday. One year it came twice.” The younger O’Keefe, who wrote the book The Real Festivus (Perigee Trade, 2005), was reluctant at first to share his childhood celebration with a national audience but was coaxed by other writers on the show and his brothers (both entertainment writers).

Still living in Chappaqua, Daniel O’Keefe, whose book, Stolen Lighting: The Social Theory of Magic (Continuum, 1982), was nominated for a National Book Award, is happy to have had his vision brought to the masses. His son suspects his parents still celebrate the holiday in secret, although they won’t fess up to it.

—Marisa Iallonardo

What’s On Sale

For generations, families have flocked to Poundridge Nurseries each December to visit Santa Claus; feed and pet furry critters brought in just for the holidays; and explore the holiday shop’s collection of ornaments, festive greenery, and other holiday décor. All of it is 40 percent off starting December 26. Call (914) 764-5781 or visit www.prnurseries.com.

The Bittersweet Season

Coping with the loss of parents during the holidays

When Irvington author Allison Gilbert’s parents died, she found herself “an adult orphan” at the age of 31. Seeking help at her local bookstore, she found nothing to help her cope with the blow. So she set out to create a “literary support group.” Her just-published book, Always Too Soon: Voices of Support for Those Who Have Lost Both Parents (Seal Press, December 2006), is a collection of stories from Roseanne Cash, Yogi Berra, Mariel Hemingway, Ice-T, and others who know this kind of loss.

“Losing both parents, as Mariel Hemingway put it, means ‘you’re nobody’s baby anymore,’” Gilbert says. “Instead of being advised by a professional on how to cope, I wanted the guidance and support of real people.”

And what really helps most, Gilbert says, is “acknowledging the loss and talking about it.” At no time is this more critical than during the holidays.

“There seems to be this societal imperative that you’re not supposed to bring up the name of someone who has died during the holidays—especially in front of your kids,” Gilbert says, “but it’s important to keep that name alive.”

The book’s companion website, www.alwaystoosoon.com, also debuts this month. Gilbert says she hopes it will provide a forum and encouragement during this season and the many to come.

Store Openings

Nova Lorraine
5 N. Moger Ave., Mount Kisco
(914) 864-1718; www.novalorraine.com
Custom and ready-to-wear, and women’s eveningwear and bridal clothes.

Sorab and Roshi ETC.
792 Rte. 35
#8 Yellow Monkey Village, Cross River
(914) 763-2140
Gifts for the home.

Up River Art
157 Main St., Ossining
(914) 255-1832; www.upriverart.com
Art gallery (open Thursday through Saturday).

Buttermilk Blue Jeans
76 Main St., Irvington
(914) 591-6277
www.buttermilkbluejeans.com
Jeans and T-shirts, dress shirts, sweaters, jewelry.

Groovy on Grand
119 Grand St., Croton-on-Hudson
(914) 271-0700; www.groovyongrand.com
Hip kids’ clothing sizes 4 to 20

March
1250 Pleasantville Rd., Briarcliff Manor
(914) 923-2100; www.marchboutique.com
Women’s clothing and accessories.

Tranquil Boutique
12 Spring St., Hastings-on-Hudson
(914) 674-9642
Yoga clothing, gifts, and accessories.

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