Dr. Kendi’s Journey

Exactly one year ago, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi was the keynote speaker at Westport’s annual Martin Luther King Day ceremony. A full house listened raptly as the winner of the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction described exactly what it means to be anti-racist.

It was a powerful, insightful lecture. Attendees contributed almost $3,000 toward anti-racism training in Westport.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi

In the weeks following, the MLK Planning Committee — TEAM Westport, the Westport Library, Westport Playhouse and Westport Weston Interfaith Council — worked with Dr. Kendi and his team to develop anti-racism training for senior management of key organizations in Westport. It includes town government, the police and the school system.

The year-long, successful pilot project is now in the action stage.

Dr. Kendi’s impact on Westport has been profound.

And it came while he was engaged in his own, very different struggle.

Last week, the Atlantic published a first-person piece by Dr. Kendi. Titled “What I Learned From Cancer,” it describes his whipsawing emotions as he was diagnosed with — and then battled — Stage 4 colon cancer.

It’s powerful, personal and raw. During grueling chemotherapy, he continued to research and write his new book, “How to Be an Antiracist.” It was, he says, “perhaps my way of coping with the demoralizing severity of the cancer and the overwhelming discomfort of the treatment, furiously writing and fighting, fighting and writing to heal mind and body, to heal society.”

Dr. Kendi’s Atlantic piece ties together his professional work, and his new insights into America’s healthcare. He writes:

America’s politics, in my lifetime, have been shaped by racist fears of black criminals, Muslim terrorists, and Latino immigrants. Billions have been spent on border walls and prison walls and neighborhood walls, and on bombs and troops and tax cuts—instead of on cancer research, prevention, and treatment that can reduce the second-leading cause of death.

Any politician pledging to keep us safe who is drastically overfunding law and order, border security, and wars on terror—and drastically underfunding medical research, prevention, and health care—is a politician explicitly pledging to keep our bodies unsafe.

Harold Bailey — chair of TEAM Westport, who with Rev. Alison Buttrick Patton of Saugatuck Congregational Church has helped lead the local anti-racism initiative — notes that Dr. Kendi’s Playhouse talk last year was his first public appearance after being diagnosed with cancer.

Bailey — but few others — knew of that back story as they worked through the year together.

Today, Dr. Kendi stands a good chance of joining the 12% of people who survive a Stage 4 colon cancer diagnosis.

In fact, on Wednesday, January 30 (8 p.m., Quick Center for the Arts) he will be the keynote speaker at Fairfield University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Convocation. (Click here for details.)

As for Westport: This year’s 13th annual Martin Luther King celebration scheduled for tomorrow (Sunday, January 20, Westport Country Playhouse) has been postponed. A new date has  not yet been announced.

The keynote speaker will be James Forman, Jr. He wrote the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner for general nonfiction: “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.”

James Forman Jr.

He is a leading critic of mass incarceration and its disproportionate impact on people of color. The Brown University and Yale Law School graduate clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. He then spent 6 years as a public defender.

Forman has contributed op-eds and essays to the New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The Nation, and the Washington Post.

(For Dr. Kendi’s full Atlantic article, click here.)

Pic Of The Day #641

Compo Beach jetty: The view never gets old (Photo/Patricia McMahon)

Friday Flashback #125

You may or may not miss the lack of snow so far this winter. (This weekend may change that.)

Odds are much better that you definitely miss the Red Barn.

The longtime, much-loved restaurant on Wilton Road near Merritt Parkway Exit 41 closed 3 1/2 years ago.

The Westport Weston Family Y now owns it. They have yet to decide what to do with the valuable building and property.

Whatever they do though, you won’t ever again see a scene like this:

(Photo/Lynn Untermeyer Miller)

My True Moth Story

Jane Green is a wonderful author. She’s written 19 novels, has over 10 million books in print, and been published in more than 30 languages.

Our Westport neighbor is as gifted a storyteller in person as she is in print. For years she entertained book tour audiences with her tale of cooking dinner for Hugh Grant.

Jane Green

The Moth — the wildly successful radio show and podcast featuring real people telling true stories — heard about Green’s routine. They chatted a bit, before deciding it was not quite right for The Moth. They asked if she had another story to tell.

She did. It was about her middle-aged head being turned by the attention of a handsome younger man. First told at Cooper Union, “Greener Grass” (clever name!) was wildly successful. It’s been heard more than a million times.

Which got Green thinking: Why not bring The Moth to Westport?

A longtime supporter of the Westport Country Playhouse — and one-time board member — Green always looked for programs appealing to  young audiences. She’d helped bring a “Hamilton” singalong, David Bowie tribute and Lisa Lampanelli play to the fabled stage.

The Moth was a natural next project.

Which is why next Friday (January 25, 7:30 p.m.), 5 great storytellers will bring The Moth to the Westport Country Playhouse.

Well, 4 great storyteller. Plus me.

I can’t believe I’ll be standing up there with Green herself; Alistair Bane, a Shawnee who makes dance regalia, paints and rehabilitates feral reservation dogs; Henia Lewin, a Lithuanian instructor of Hebrew and Yiddish, and Trina Michelle Robinson of San Francisco, who explores memory through video, archival materials and text.

Not quite the Westport Country Playhouse. But close.

I tell stories every day on “06880.” I can type a tale in my sleep.

But performing as a Moth storyteller is waaaaay different.

I’ll join 4 experienced folks — including a woman who has done this before, and written 17 New York Times bestsellers.

And — oh yeah — the Moth Radio Hour is heard on more than 475 stations. The podcast is downloaded a million times each week.

But I’m ready. I might rock it — or bomb.

Either way, for the rest of my life I’ll have one more intriguing story to tell.

(For more information and tickets, click here.)

Pic Of The Day #640

Gray’s Creek cemetery (Photo/Lynn Untermeyer Miller)

Fast Music

The recent death of Ed Baer — the Westport native, longtime resident and renowned, versatile radio DJ — got local folks thinking about the role of radio in our lives.

Inevitably, talk turned to Westport’s rich musical past.

Mike Fast has plenty of memories to share. Growing up in Bridgeport in the 1950s, he was one of many young boys fascinated by radio’s reach and power.

In 1957 he started hanging out at the WNAB studio downtown. Just 13 years old, he learned all he could about the business.

A couple of years later, at Harding High, he spent after-school hours at the station’s transmitter site. Mike had no formal training, but he learned how to build and design his own equipment.

Mike Fast, at WNAB’s Bridgeport studio.

At 17 — through his Westport friend Stuart Soroka — he discovered WMMM. The station’s studio was above Oscar’s, on Main Street. Mike’s interest in Westport was piqued.

“It seemed like everyone in town smiled, and wore new clothes,” he recalls.

In 1961 Mike, Stuart and a kid named Gordon Joseloff started a radio station at the YMCA. Their 1-watt transmitter — a couple of miles away, at Compo Beach — was hooked up to a phone line in their “studio.” It was an early “pirate” station — and it was called WWPT.

A July 1961 New York Times story on WWPT featured (from left) Gordon Joseloff, Jeff Berman and Stuart Soroka. As the caption notes, Mike Fast was missing from the photo.

Joseloff went on to become an international news correspondent with CBS — and later, first selectman of Westport. Today he runs WestportNow.com.

Mike’s Westport connection grew stronger. He, Dennis Jackson and Cliff Mills bought a turntable, and ran record hops at the new Staples High School on North Avenue.

A poster for dances at Staples High School. Perhaps Mike Fast’s shows cost a dime more than Dennis Jackson’s because they were 2 hours longer.

In 1962 Ed Baer — whom Mike had befriended back at WNAB — was working weekends at New York’s WMCA. Mike had very little experience, but when Ed set him up with an interview there, Mike talked his way into a job. (The key: Both his mother, and the mother of the engineer interviewing him, were from County Cork.)

Mike worked other jobs too: doing sound at the United Nations; at the National Radio and TV Center; at WHN. A stint at 1010 WINS lasted “about 10 minutes.” He played the wrong record, and legendary DJ Murray the K threw him out.

In 1965 the WMMM engineer retired. Mike talked his way into that job too, even though he knew little about transmitting equipment.

Around that time, Staples began bringing live bands to the auditorium. The school had no PA system, so the ever-resourceful Mike supplied groups like Cream and the Rascals with his own.

Ginger Baker, on the drums at Staples High School. (Photo copyright Jeremy Ross)

But Mike’s real love was live recording. He worked often with the Westport Country Playhouse, and the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford (which burned to the ground last Sunday).

After doing sound on the road with Edgar Winter’s White Trash, Mike produced and managed his own bands. They were booked all over New England.

But those gigs did not pay well. Mike got back into radio. He moved around: Atlanta, Los Angeles, Portland.

He returned east — and went back to WMMM. He was there when Donald J. Flamm bought the station, and turned it into WDJF (named for his own initials).

When the FCC changed rules — eliminating the need for radio stations to hire 1st-class engineers — Mike was fired. The same day, his wife told him she was pregnant with their first child.

But he always found work. Mike has spent his entire life in radio and sound.

Mike Fast

“It’s a different world today,” he notes. “Radio stations are not the creative factories they used to be. I consider myself lucky to have been there, in the golden age.”

WMCA, WINS, WMMM — none of them are the stations they once were. But Mike Fast worked at all of them.

And — thanks to Westporters like Ed Baer, Gordon Joseloff and Murray the K — he’s had a very memorable career.

(Hat tip: Dennis Jackson)

Pic Of The Day #639

A dog enjoys a Pupachino at the Starbucks near Carvel. It’s whipped cream in a cup (dry), or with a splash of aqua (wet). According to JP Vellotti — who was next in line, and snapped this photo — they’re free. For dogs. 

Guerilla Marketing, Private School Style

There’s a law against posting advertising on school property.

But a recent sign planted on Bedford Middle School turf was not offering yard work, computer repairs or even a sports camp.

It was put there by a private school, apparently to poach kids from public school.

(Photo/Naree Viner)

Not cool. And just wrong — on so many levels.

Unsung Heroes #83

The Westport PAL Rink at Longshore doesn’t get a lot of press.

But every winter for over 20 years — quietly, efficiently, and very, very joyfully — the outdoor skating center just a few feet from Long Island Sound has provided thousands of kids and adults of all abilities (and none) with hours of good fun, and a lifetime of memories.

It’s not easy keeping an ice rink going — especially one without a roof. There’s ice to groom (and remove snow from). There’s the weather — sometimes too cold, sometimes too warm.

There are schedules to make (and adhere to), lessons to give, parties to help out with, reckless teenagers and worried parents to tend to.

The Westport Rink at Longshore. (Photo/Michael Winser)

I can’t imagine how the PAL Rink staff does it. But they do — and they do it in a way that makes it all seem easy. They smile often, extend helping hands when needed, and create a warm environment on even the coldest nights.

So to longtime manager Tony Lantier and his loyal, hard-working and often-overlooked crew: Thank you! You are our deeply appreciated yet Unsung Heroes of the week.

Manager Tony Lantier, at his rink.

Mobil Self-Serve’s Sam Is Back!

When ExxonMobil closed its Westport location near Barnes & Noble in September, Sam Hiba promised his many customers he’d keep in touch.

Four months later, there’s good news. Sam — the popular, generous owner who brightened everyone’s day, while working tirelessly to support his 5 children and on behalf of refugees from his native Syria — is now a partner in the Global station right off I-95 westbound Exit 14 in Norwalk.

Global is Sam’s new gas station.

The address is 224 Connecticut Avenue.

You might want to take the back roads there, though. 95 may be gridlocked — jam-packed with all of Sam’s fans.

Sam Hiba, at the Mobil Self-Serve.