Author Archives: Dan Woog

Irene Backalenick: Our 95-Year-Young Poet

Grandma Moses took up painting at age 78. Compared to Irene Backalenick, she was just a kid.

Irene is a poet, not a painter. But after a long career as a journalist — she wrote for the New York Times, then became a noted theater reviewer — the longtime Westport resident penned her first poem just a couple of years ago.

She’s 95.

Irene has been published many times. She has fans in far-flung places. Poetry, she says, has become one of the most important parts of her life.

Irene — a Providence native who worked as a secretary after high school, then 5 years later was accepted without any college prep at Brown University, and graduated summa cum laude — never thought about poetry until she moved to the Watermark at 3030 Park in Bridgeport. She found the retirement community to be exciting, vibrant and fulfilling.

She and another former journalist decided to start a writers’ workshop. They found an inspiring teacher, Regina Krummel of Norwalk.

The small group of 5 women — including former Westport writer Gloria Sugarman — meet regularly, and dine together even more often.

Irene Backalenick

Irene Backalenick

Regina pushed Irene to spread beyond the interview-type stories she’d always written. Irene tried her hand at a few poems.

A new career was born.

All bustle, bag, bravura
She arrives upon the scene
With stethoscope, suppositories
And mountains of good will
She grips the fragile patient
Reviews his vital parts
She mumbles, notes, equivocates
Fills the room with bluster
Writes down her precious thoughts
Then offers false assurance
And beamingly departs

Some of her first poems were written after her husband Bill died in June of 2015.

The art form was “like a release,” she says. Poetry gives her “a chance to be absolutely honest about my life.” She writes compellingly of “regrets — things I should have done, and things I shouldn’t have.” Her poems include things she never told anyone.

Irene’s poems are short. But they pour out of her. When she wakes at 2 a.m. with a phrase floating in her head she goes to her computer, and writes.

Friends and lovers
Treasures stored away
In the attic of my mind
Ancient friends and lovers
Neatly stacked in boxes
Or tossed about with random
Upon the attic floor.

Jerry, detonated long ago
On the beach at Normandy
And Lise of suburban days
With judgments wise and foolish
And David of my college years
Who found me in the bookstacks

A shaft of light stabs the pane
Brings them sharply into focus
I open boxes, dust them off
Friends and lovers once again.

Irene has been published in journals — online and print. She posts on her own blog, Awakening Poems. Altogether, she’s written about 175 poems.

In the autumn of her life, Irene Backalenick has become a prolific poet.

In the autumn of her life, Irene Backalenick has become a prolific poet.

Some of her best feedback comes from Facebook. The 95-year-old likes the immediacy, ease and intimacy of instant comments.

Irene has done presentations at the Watermark and Stratford Library. She thinks it’s important for poets to read their own work. “I’m very conscious of tempo and beat,” she says. “I want to hit the reader unexpectedly.”

Dementia nibbles away
At corners of the brain.
Rounding off sharp edges
Like hungry mice
With small sharp teeth
Steadily, relentlessly,
Devouring the tasty feast.

Nine months ago, she collapsed in an elevator. The diagnosis: irregular heartbeat. She got a pacemaker, was put on medication, and now feels much better.

The incident slowed her writing — but not for long. Thanks to the Watermark and her poetry, Irene says, “I have a new life.”

(That new life includes modeling. Recently, Chico produced a fashion show at her residence. She walked the runway.)

Irene asks if I’ve ever written poetry.

No, I say. My mind does not work that way.

“Maybe you can do it in your old age,” she encourages.

Just like she does. Although any writer or poet can certainly come up with a better word than “old” to describe Irene Backalenick.

(Click here for Irene Backalenick’s blog.)

Remembering Mike Kulich

Mike Kulich — the 2004 Staples High School graduate who became an adult entertainment industry leader, founding 3 film companies and one of the world’s most 100 visited websites, plus a very successful PR firm — died suddenly yesterday.

Mike was proud of what he’d accomplished. In a story 4 years ago, I wrote:

After graduating from Staples in 2004, Mike spent a semester at John Jay, studying criminal justice. But the lure of his youth was strong. He soon headed west, got an apartment in Marina del Ray, and knocked on the door of industry kingpin Howard Levine.

“I was 18 or 19, a cocky kid,” Mike says. “He told me to get out.”

Today, Levine is Mike’s distributor.

The dogged Mike landed a job with International Video Distributors. He made cold calls, selling videos to adult stores, liquor stores — and, memorably, Westport’s Merritt Country Store.

As the growth of internet porn slowed sales of videos, Mike started a company that printed and replicated videos for big studios. After a big payout, last year he began producing his own films….

Mike is happy to explain that his success is a result of hard work.

“I knew from high school on that this is what I wanted,” he says. “I researched the industry, went with reputable companies, reached out, and built my reputation.”

Many people have misperceptions about the adult entertainment industry, he adds. “They think porn stars are hookers. But people here are really monogamous. Being on set is like another day at the office. People work, then they go home to their significant other. It’s just one niche in the entertainment world.”…

“I’m a studio owner at 25,” he says proudly. “For me to get to this position in banking or marketing would have taken most of my career.”

Mike was a watchdog for his industry. When a Michigan man lost his entire porn collection in a robbery, Mike replaced it with every title his company ever produced. At one point, that was 40 a month.

In April — when North Carolina passed what became known as the anti-transgender “bathroom bill” — Mike programmed his XHamster website so that it did not serve any computer with a North Carolina IP address. He said the blank screens would stay in place until the state repealed the bill.

Oh My 06880 — Photo Challenge #91

You guys know your highway bridges.

And when I say “guys,” I mean it. Thirteen alert “06880” readers identified last week’s photo challenge as the Riverside Avenue view of the I-95 underpass. And 10 of those 13 were males.

I’m guessing that on their way to the station, men look at the concrete. Women gaze at the river. Not to stereotype, of course.

Congratulations to Ed Hulina, Richard Stein, Seth Schachter, Jonathan Maddock, Jill Turner Odice, Michael Moore, Fred Rubin, Alec Head, Bill Kiedaisch, Tom Wall, Morley Boyd, Seth Braunstein and Nancy Axthelm. Click here for the photo, and all the comments.

Here’s this week’s challenge. Male or female, click “Comments” if you think you know where this is. Of course, add any background info on it that you know.

photo-challenge-sept-26-2016

Wakeman Town Farm Raises The Roof

Back in the day, when a farmer needed help his neighbors rallied round.

In 2016, Westporters do the same for Wakeman Town Farm.

The working farm that offers educational programs, hands-on workshops and Community-Supported Agriculture — among many other sustainability efforts — was the site last night of an old-fashioned barn-raising.

Wakeman Town Farm is a place of growth and healthy living. But the farmhouse itself needs repairs. (Photo/Charlie Colasurdo)

Wakeman Town Farm is a place of growth and healthy living. But the farmhouse itself needs repairs. (Photo/Charlie Colasurdo)

Nearly 250 people gathered for the 7th annual Harvest Fest, to “raise the roof.” The Cross Highway property needs new shingles, interior and exterior renovations, and a new kitchen classroom, to better serve its stewards — the Aitkenhead family — and the 10,000 students and adults who pass through the farm every year.

Robin Tauck pledged a major gift. Others gave plenty too  — including $100 “shingles.”

First Selectman Jim Marpe and his wife Mary Ellen (center) were at last night's Wakeman Town Farm Harvest Fest, along with Kelle and Jeff Ruden.

First Selectman Jim Marpe and his wife Mary Ellen (center) were at last night’s Wakeman Town Farm Harvest Fest, along with Kelle and Jeff Ruden. (Photo/Dan Woog)

Area purveyors like Greens Farms Liquors, Rothbard Ale + Larder and AMG Catering donated appetizers and libations for the cocktail hour. DaPietro’s, Harvest Wine Bar, Wave Hill Breads and Saugatuck Sweets were among those providing fantastic, locally sourced dinners.

This was not your typical fundraier food! (Photo/Charlie Colasurdo)

This was not your typical fundraier food! (Photo/Charlie Colasurdo)

Dining inside the farmhouse tent. (Photo/Charlie Colasurdo)

Dining inside the farmhouse tent. (Photo/Charlie Colasurdo)

It was all served and poured by big-name volunteers: heads of non-profits like Bill Harmer (Westport Library), Tony McDowell (Earthplace), Jeff Wieser (Homes With Hope) and Sue Gold (Westport Historical Society).

Staples students — many from the Environmental Studies courses — pitched in too.

Environmental Studies students volunteered to serve too.

Environmental Studies students volunteered to serve at Harvest Fest. (Photo/Dan Woog)

The WTF roof is a lot closer to be raised, thanks to last night. But you can still help — 2016-style. Click here to contribute any amount.

These were just the appetizers. (Photo/Dan Woog)

These were just the appetizers. (Photo/Dan Woog)

wtf-3-charlie-colasurdo

Wakeman Town Farm Committee co-chairs Liz Milwe and Christy Colasurdo. (Photo/Charlie Colasurdo)

Monica Lewinsky In Westport: More Than Just Words

When I heard that Monica Lewinsky will speak in Westport on October 6 — as part of the Westport Arts Center’s bullying exhibition — my first thought was: “Huh?”

But that’s the whole idea. For nearly 20 years, she’s been defined by what happened between her and the President of the United States.

Lewinsky is no longer a 24-year-old intern. She’s a 42-year-old woman who spent 10 years in self-imposed silence (several of them outside the country).

Now she’s speaking out. She talks about a subject she knows too well: internet shaming.

Lewinsky has tried to move beyond her image as the young woman in a stained dress. She’s now a social activist, contributing editor to Vanity Fair — and ambassador to BystanderRevolution.com.

Lewinsky has first-hand knowledge of the “culture of humiliation.” She is an expert at the effects of cyberbullies.  Anyone — and everyone — can become, like her, a target of the digital playground.

Her 2015 TED Talk — “The Price of Shame” — has been viewed millions of times. In it, she describes losing her reputation instantly — and globally — via the internet. “Public humiliation as a blood sport has to stop,” she says.

In Westport, Lewinsky will build on themes underlying the Arts Center’s exhibit. It examines the topic of bullying within a broad cultural context that considers how perceived imbalances of social, physical — or political — power can be abused to marginalize others.

Sadly, it seems just as relevant in 2016 as it was in 1998.

(Monica Lewinsky’s talk at the Westport Arts Center at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 6 includes a panel discussion. For more information or to purchase tickets, click here or call 203-222-7070.)

 

Clinton And Trump Debate In Westport!

The 2016 presidential campaign is one of the most polarizing in American political history.

Whether you’re with her, him or none of the above, passions run high.

So when the League of Women Voters — a non-partisan organization — was searching for a safe space where Westporters could watch Monday’s debate, they chose the most (small-d) democratic place they could find: the Westport Library.

The event will be as welcoming as possible. It begins at 8 p.m. with light refreshments, courtesy of the Library Café and LWV.

Local author and former NBC and Fox News journalist/media critic Eric Burns will provide an introduction before the 9 p.m. debate. At 10:30, Burns will moderate a public discussion about what was heard (or not).

I’m not a betting man. But I have followed this presidential race/train wreck quite closely.

So I bet that if you go to the library on Monday, whatever you hear afterward will be a lot more insightful than much of what passes for the “debate” itself.

clinton-and-trump-debate

New York Sports Club Lives On

When the Westport branch of New York Sports Club closed in July, they left behind a number of disappointed clients.

They also did something wonderful for a 16-year-old boy.

new-york-sports-clubMorgaine Pauker was one of those customers. Her husband Mark works with a man from Easton whose son Zach had just been paralyzed from the waist down, in a car accident.

Mark and Morgaine wondered if NYSC would donate some upper body strength equipment.

The club usually distributes excess machines to other NYSC locations. But they considered the request, and said they were happy to help

Then they went the extra mile. The other day, a machine was delivered to Zach’s house — and installed.

New York Sports Club is gone from Westport. But in one nearby home, it will never be forgotten.

(Click here to contribute to Zach’s medical fund.) 

Delivering the strength machine to Zach's home.

Delivering the strength machine to Zach’s home.

Christ Church, Revisited

Earlier today, I posted a 1914 view toward the Saugatuck River, from what is now Birchwood Country Club.

I pointed out various Riverside Avenue sites, like the old Staples High School and Assumption Church. But I had no clue about the church on the far left of the photo:

Click on or hover over to enlarge. (Photo/courtesy of Seth Schachter)

Click on or hover over to enlarge. (Photo/courtesy of Seth Schachter)

Thanks to alert “06880” readers Bob Grant, Ann Romsky, Tom Leyden and Peter Barlow, the mystery has been solved.

The spire at the far left belongs to Christ Church, consecrated first in 1835 on the northeast corner of Ludlow Street and the Post Road. In 1885 the congregation moved a short way to a new building Burr Street, on land owned by the Nash brothers.

In 1944, Christ Church merged with another Episcopal church — Holy Trinity — which had been on Myrtle Avenue since 1863. That downtown church was — and still is — called Christ and Holy Trinity.

The abandoned Burr Street church was demolished in the late 1940s or early ’50s. Peter Barlow was there — and took a photograph. This afternoon, he sent the image to “06880”:

(Photo/Peter Barlow)

(Photo/Peter Barlow)

Christ Church no longer stands — but God is still there.

After demolition, Assumption Church built a parochial school on the site. It has since closed, but Assumption continues to use the building for various functions.

Friday Flashback #8

Back in the day — 1914, to be exact — Birchwood Country Club looked a bit different than today.

So, in fact, does the view from there — off South Sylvan — of Riverside Avenue.

Click on or hover over to enlarge. (Photo/courtesy of Seth Schachter)

(Photo/courtesy of Seth Schachter)

This photo — labeled simply “Bird’s Eye View From Country Club” — is best viewed much bigger. Click on or hover over to enlarge.

In the center, we see the back of what was then Staples High School. (Today, it’s the site of Saugatuck Elementary School). To its left is Assumption Church, built in 1900. In the far, far distance we see the white spire of Saugatuck Congregational Church (in its original location, further east on the Post Road).

But what’s that church on the far left?

Enjoy the view. And think about what passed for a “country club” 102 years ago.

Historic Westport Home Hits The Auction Block

Not many people realize the connection between Kodak and George Gershwin.

Fewer still know that both are connected to Westport

Leopold and Frankie Godowsky. (Photo/Zillow)

Leopold and Frankie Godowsky. (Photo/Zillow)

But Leopold Godowsky Jr. — a concert violinist with a passion for photography — moved here in the 1930s.  He set up a lab, and for several decades in town helped develop Kodacolor and Ektachrome.  Today he is considered a major contributor to the field of color photography.  He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2005, 22 years after his death.

Godowsky’s wife, Frankie Gershwin — George and Ira’s younger sister — was a painter of oils and acrylics, and later a singer.  She too was a prominent Westporter.

In 2009 the Godowskys’ former home — a 7,000-square foot, low-slung compound at the end of Stony Point overlooking the confluence of the Saugatuck River and Long Island Sound, featuring pools, a waterfall, tennis court and dock — became one of the most expensive teardowns in Westport history.

Now the Godowskys’ previous house here — at 157 Easton Road — is on the market.

The 7-bedroom, 10-bath, 6-car garage property sits on 2.75 acres. There’s a boathouse, indoor pool, 2 bars, a wine-tasting room, guest quarters, tennis court, waterfalls, walking paths, and stone bridges. The Saugatuck Aspetuck River flows through the back yard.

157 Easton Road

157 Easton Road

The Godowskys moved to Easton Road from New York in 1938. Four children grew up there, before moving to Stony Point in the early 1950s.

Her parents entertained guests like local residents Richard Rodgers, John Hersey, Maureen O’Sullivan and her daughter Mia Farrow.

The house will be auctioned off on September 30.

It is not the place Nadia Godowsky Natali — Leopold and Frankie’s daughter — remembers.

Back then, she tells Zillow, it was “a country house. Very simple…not pretentious.” That place, she says, is gone.

How does Natali — now a California-based psychotherapist, author of “Cooking Off the Grid” and Zen center founder — know? She’s seen photos of the former “bucolic compound.”

They were digital, Zillow notes.

Not Kodachrome.

(Hat tip: Wendy Crowther)