Category Archives: Media

Chris Knapp: The View From Notre-Dame

Chris Knapp graduated from Staples High School in 2002. He went on to Middlebury College, then earned an MFA in creative writing at the University of Virginia.

He now lives and writes in Paris. Two days after the devastating fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Paris Review published this insightful story of his. It begins:

In September 2016, police found a Peugeot with missing plates parked just steps away from Notre Dame; inside the car, they found seven cylinders of gas. The following week, four women—one of whom was carrying a letter declaring allegiance to ISIS and describing the planned attack as a deliberate act of terror and vengeance—were arrested and charged in connection with a plot to destroy the cathedral.

As it happened, the eldest of these four women, Ornella Gilligmann, a 39-year-old mother of three, had been a close acquaintance of my wife’s from childhood, for which reason these events became especially vivid in our minds. If the women hadn’t removed the license plates, we agreed, no one would have noticed the car, and the plot might have come off without a hitch.

Chris Knapp, in the 2002 Staples High School yearbook.

“Can you imagine if they got the Notre Dame,” my wife kept repeating. I understood this as a rhetorical question, posed in the same spirit we often invoked at the prospect of a Trump presidency: it was impossible precisely because it was too horrible to imagine.

The fire that nearly destroyed the eight-hundred-year-old cathedral on Monday (which French authorities are investigating as an accident) is not, of course, a catastrophe in the order of the 2016 election. But looking on from the banks of the Seine, it was hard not to experience the fire as a nontrivial data point on the timeline of a slow-motion apocalypse, which from a Western perspective stretches back (depending on whom you ask) to the 2016 elections, to the Brexit referendum, to 9/11, the paroxysms of the early twentieth century, to the intractable dependence on fossil fuels, to Napoleon’s campaigns in Europe, the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment—through all of which, the Notre Dame cathedral stood intact. What would it mean, at a time when civilization itself was starting to seem like a failed idea, for one of civilization’s signal achievements to burn to the ground.

When news of the fire reached me, at quarter past seven, I was at work in the seventh arrondissement, and it was not yet clear how extensive the damage would be. By the time I went outside, at eight o’clock, the spire had just collapsed, and on the Pont Royal a crowd had gathered in silence to watch the massive tongues of flame that rose in its place, high above the rooftops about a mile upstream. Along the right bank police had cordoned off the bridges onto the Île de la Cité; cars, buses, and trucks stood hopelessly gridlocked as a thickening stream of bikes, motorcycles, and electric scooters wove its way east, and foot-traffic overran the sidewalks and spilled into the street.

Fire consumes the Notre-Dame Cathedral.

The smell of smoke was distinct. Endless lines of police-personnel vans nudged their way along, and inside them fresh-faced young cops pressed their noses to the glass. More than a few times, I heard people around me, astonished by the magnitude and violence of the fire, ask each other in whispers whether this could be the work of terrorists, though officials had been quick to indicate that it appeared to be an accident. In front of Hôtel de Ville, closer to the cathedral, hundreds of people had crowded onto the various tiers of the large, rectangular fountain that flanks the square, so that it seemed almost as if bleachers had been set up for the express purpose of watching the cathedral burn.

Some of these people’s eyes were locked on the flames across the river; many of them held phones and cameras overhead, and many others were following the news on their screens. Some had their phones pinned to their heads, urgently describing what they could see and what they knew. Only a very few of them were crying: a man in paint-stained sneakers with his arms folded across his chest, perched on the saddle of a mountain bike, rocking himself back and forth; a woman in her twenties who let her boyfriend drag her by the hand through the crowd like a child, while she twisted herself backward in order to keep her eyes riveted to the glowing plumes of smoke. But almost without exception, their faces were graven in dismay, their mouths hung open, and their voices observed a general hush, creating a soothing walla from which could occasionally be distinguished a catch-all French expression of dismay: c’est pas possible.

Chris goes on to write about life in France, Catholicism, and explaining Paris to a Staples High friend. Click here to read the full story.

Chris was not the only Westporter to personally see the fire. 2009 Staples grad Rebekah Foley lives next to the cathedral. She was there from beginning to end, and gave a long interview to Sky News. Click below to see:

(Hat tip: Jeff Wieser)

Jane Green: “A Home Should Always Have Books”

The world knows Jane Green as a wonderful author. Her books have sold over 10 million copies, and been translated into more than 30 languages.

Westporters know Jane Green as our neighbor.

It’s in that role that we love a story from last week’s Washington Post Magazine. In a series of interviews, writers talked about what books meant to them — and to their homes.

Jane described her life with her husband Ian Warburg on Owenoke — and gave a great shout-out to her fantastic mobile library project, modeled on the Remarkable Book Shop.

She says: 

I’ve run out of space. Books are starting to get stacked up on the floor, underneath tables, underneath chairs, on top of tables. They’re everywhere. With no more room on the bookshelves, I’ve been eyeing this gorgeous French armoire that takes up an entire wall. That wall is just perfect for shelves and would make the room warmer. I know, however, that my husband really likes the armoire. He sees: storage, storage, storage. I see: books, books, books. We’ll see who wins.

For years, I couldn’t get rid of anything. I have had to learn to manage the flow. Paperbacks I tend not to keep unless I love them and know I’m going to reread them. Hardcovers are really hard for me to get rid of. They all signify a time in my life. They all have stories around the stories. I will sometimes just stand there and look at my books and remember.

Jane Green, at home in Westport. (Photo/Chris Sorensen for Washington Post)

The first place I go in someone’s house is their bookshelves. You can tell exactly who they are.

I used to do something that I now realize was a bit creepy. After my first book was published and very successful, I was looking for a flat in London. Almost every flat I went into had my book on the shelf. I’d take it down and sign it! Sometimes, I even personalized it: “To Julia, with love, Jane Green.” I’ve never heard from anyone, but if they ever come across that, they’ll likely freak out.

They all signify a time in my life. They all have stories around the stories. I will sometimes just stand there and look at my books and remember.
Last summer, I started a little mobile library called the Remarkable Bookcycle. For 35 years, there was a bright pink bookstore in my town called Remarkable Book Shop. We had this cargo tricycle just sitting in our garage. I paid a high school student to turn it into a mobile free library. We cycle it around the beach in summer. I lurk around the bookcycle; I love to watch what happens. What’s extraordinary is that everyone gathers around the bookcycle and has conversations. I’m now able to get rid of books much more easily knowing they’re going to a good home.

I think I like to be surrounded by books when I’m writing, but the truth is I don’t. I’m easily distracted. I’ve done my best writing at my local public library in one of those little cubbies with noise-canceling headphones. If I need to do some research, I just make a note for later. If I go to a book or online, the whole day could be gone. Writing takes focus, and books pull mine in a million directions.

I subscribe to Nancy Lancaster’s rule of decorating; she’s an American decorator who moved to England in the ’20s. She brought the English country-house style into the mainstream. Her rules were that a home should always have books, candles and flowers. I walk into so many houses today that have been decorated. They’re exquisite. I find them beautiful: two artfully placed objets, stunning coffee table books. For a minute, I think, “I wish my house looked like this.” But then I remember I don’t feel like taking off my shoes and curling up on the sofa in these homes. In fact, I sit there terrified I’m going to spill red wine. A home needs a bit of curated clutter, and that curated clutter has to include things that tell the story of your life, of what you love. For me, that’s books.

(To read the full Washington Post Magazine story, click here. Hat tip: Elisabeth K. Boas)

And The Winner Of That 1978 Bottle Of Whisky Is…

Last month, I posted a story of a unique raffle.

Ian O’Malley — the New York disc jockey, realtor and Westport resident — offered a 1978 Macallan single malt whisky. It’s worth over $4,000.

Ian bought it years ago. He planned to save it for a special occasion. But he put it on a top shelf, and forgot about it. (These things happen.)

He recently found it — and decided not to drink it, but raise funds for a good cause.

His wife Debbie suggested Experience Camps. The Westport-based organization sponsors 1-week camps for boys and girls after the death of a parent, sibling or primary caregiver.

Kids laugh, cry, play, remember the person who died, or forget the grief that weighs them down. They feel “normal,” because everyone there has been through something similar.

Ian O’Malley

When Ian was 12, his father died of pancreatic cancer. Decades later, Ian says, “I would have loved an opportunity like Experience Camps.”

Tickets were $104 each — because Ian is a DJ on New York’s classic rock station, Q104.3.

The raffle raised $13,000. The lucky winner is Mark Mangino from Wilton.

And, of course, hundreds of kids who will have the experience of their lives at Experience Camps.

Staples Books Its Own March Madness

Last year, as Villanova battled its way through March Madness to the NCAA basketball championship, the Staples High School English department conducted its own bracket.

To Kill a Mockingbird beat out fellow Final 4 contenders Pride and Prejudice, The Diary of Anne Frank and 1984 to win the first-ever Favorite Book Ever tournament.

Mary Katherine Hocking

‘Nova did not repeat as 2019 champs. Nor did Harper Lee’s classic novel.

In the case of the Wildcats, they weren’t good enough. But for the books, they changed the rules.

This year’s contest — organized by teachers Mary Katherine Hocking and Rebecca Marsick, with help from Tausha Bridgeforth and the Staples library staff — was for Best Book to Movie Adaptation.

Thirty-two contenders were chosen. Voting was done online. Large bracket posters near the English department and library kept interest high.

As always, there were surprises. Some classic book/film combinations — like The Godfather — fell early. Others that Hocking expected to be less popular (Twilight, Little Women) battled hard.

The field ranged far and wide, from Romeo and Juliet and Gone With the Wind to Lord of the Flies and Frankenstein.

Hocking’s email updates to students and staff were fun to read. Before the final — after Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone crushed The Hunger Games, and The Princess Bride edged The Help — she wrote: “The moment we’ve all been waiting for! Westley versus Weasley, Vizzini versus Voldemort, Humperdinck versus Hermione.”

We’ll let Hocking announce the winner.

She wrote:

The Princess Bride has taken a rogue bludger to the head, losing to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. With a final score of 94-49, this year’s House Cup, Quidditch World Cup, Triwizard Cup all go to Harry Potter and Queen JK.

Remember, one can never have enough socks, and one can never have enough books to fill the time.  Please check out any or all of these books from your local library as we head into spring break.

She and Marsick are already planning next year’s contest.

Wahoo!

The Men On The Moon: Basil Hero’s Heroes

Only 24 men have traveled to the moon. Just half are still alive.

Their experiences have been told often, in movies and books like “The Right Stuff” and “Apollo 13.”

We know nearly everything about their missions: the risks, the challenges, the triumphs.

But we know little about the astronauts themselves. And even less about how their space experiences changed them, as human beings.

Until now.

Westporter Basil Hero’s new book The Mission of a Lifetime: Lessons From the Men Who Went to the Moon is the first time this elite group of men reveals their inner selves.

They talk about courage, leadership, patriotism. And also spirituality, God, earth, and the entire universe.

It’s a remarkable book. It’s remarkable too that no one has heard these legends — men like Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, Bill Anders — speak so eloquently about these ideas before.

Why not?

“No one asked,” Hero — the marvelously named author — replies. For half a century, journalists have focused on the technical aspects of space flight.

But ever since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon — when the New York Times published a special section with quotes from world leaders about how that event would change man’s relationship with the cosmos — Hero has been fascinated by what he calls “the bigger story”: what it means, deep in one’s soul, to walk on or orbit the moon.

Buzz Aldrin, on the lunar surface.

Though it’s a vast distance from the earth to the moon, Hero’s long-lived idea got a boost from nearby: his next door neighbor.

Bill Burrows is a noted aviation writer and Pulitzer Prize nominee, for publications like the Times and Wall Street Journal. He does not know any Apollo astronauts personally. But he mentioned the idea to former space shuttle astronaut Tom Jones, who helped Hero send an email blast to his Apollo colleagues.

Bill Anders was the first to respond. On December 24, 1968 he took the astonishing “Earthrise” shot. It’s been called “the most influential environmental photograph ever.”

Anders was intrigued. He invited Hero to his Anacortes, Washington home.

Bill Anders in front of his P-51 Mustang, last year. At 86, he still flies his own plane — at least an hour a day. Frank Borman — now 91 — flies his own vintage plane too.

The visit went well. Anders was so impressed with Hero’s approach and questions, he called his fellow Apollo 8 astronaut Frank Borman. Retired now after stints as White House liaison during the lunar landing and CEO of Eastern Airlines, he told Hero to come see him in Billings, Montana.

That interview went well too. So Borman called Jim Lovell, the 3rd Apollo 8 astronaut, commander of ill-fated Apollo 13, and the first of only 3 men to reach the moon twice.

Lovell gave Hero one of the most astonishing insights in a book filled with them. “We don’t go to heaven when we die,” he thought to himself while orbiting the moon. “We go to heaven when we’re born.”

Jim Lovell and his wife Marilyn.

As one astronaut recommended Hero to another, the project took shape.  The author understands how important those personal contacts were.

“These guys get a lot of requests,” he says. “Some of them are in their 90s. They were tired of talking about their missions. They liked the intellectual approach I took.”

Each man asked Hero what he wanted to do that had not been done before. He told them, “I want ‘The Right Stuff 2.0’ — their story from the philosophical, spiritual side.

“They loved that. It’s a function of their age. Soon, the men who walked on the moon will be walking into the history books.”

During their careers, the astronauts had been happy to follow NASA’s directive to not talk much about Big Ideas.

“They didn’t want to appear too ‘intellectual,'” Hero says.

But, he says, “they are very deep thinkers. That separated them out during the selection process, even if no one realized it at the time.”

Hero says that the astronauts take the idea of “the common good” — duty, honor, country — very seriously. “That can sound quaint and outdated — like the ancient Greeks and Romans,” he notes.

But, Hero continues, “once they were in space, and saw the earth from the moon, they saw ‘the common good’ pertaining not just to country, but to humanity, and the planet. They came back to earth as humanitarian citizens.”

Bill Anders’ “Earthrise” photo — taken on Christmas Eve, 1968 — helped human beings see their planet in an entirely new light.

There was a lot they never said — at the time.

Anders’ Catholic priest was at Cape Canaveral when Apollo 8 blasted off for the moon. Six days later, he returned to earth an agnostic.

Hero paraphrases the astronaut’s epiphany: “To think that God sits up there with a supercomputer is bunk.”

On the other hand, Jim Irwin — the lunar module pilot for Apollo 15 — “found Jesus while walking on the moon,” Hero says.

Over and over, the astronauts talked to the author about their belief in “someone — or something — greater than oneself. These are very deep thinkers.”

The deepest of all, Hero says, was a man he never got to interview: Neil Armstrong. The first man to walk on the moon died in 2012.

Basil Hero

Hero is inspired by the Apollo astronauts. He always knew they were physically brave. But what comes through just as strongly in The Mission of a Lifetime is their moral courage.

Hero’s book should be read by everyone. He is particularly hopeful that it becomes a staple for high school and college students. He wants them to learn about the notion of “the common good.”

Reviews have been excellent. Amazon picked it as a Book of the Month. The Wall Street Journal ran an excerpt. Jane Pauley wants to interview him.

The timing is perfect. July marks the 50th anniversary of Armstrong’s one giant leap for mankind.

And after half a century — thanks to Basil Hero — the real story of the Apollo space program has finally been told.

Behind Bridgewater

Bridgewater Associates is notoriously security-conscious.

But last night, “60 Minutes” profiled the Westport-based hedge fund — by some accounts, the world’s largest.

Bill Whitaker’s story focused on founder Ray Dalio. It offered glimpses of the Weston Road headquarters — including not only shots of the exterior, but the seldom-seen interior.

Ray Dalio, at Bridgewater’s Weston Road office.

Cameras even recorded analysts in action, and a staff meeting.

Analysts in action …

Bridgewater has a reputation as a secretive place to work — almost a cult. Nearly every meeting is taped, for later analysis.

In his “60 Minutes Overtime” segment, Whitaker says, “I expected it to be a place where everyone was almost afraid of their own shadow. I didn’t see that at all.”

Click here for the full “60 Minutes” story. Click here for “60 Minutes Overtime.”

… and Bill Whitaker, during a staff meeting.

Pic Of The Day #719

Ordinarily, this would not warrant selection as Pic of the Day. It looks like just another shot of the disgusting state of Parker Harding Plaza.

But it’s worth noting the box next to the trash can, with its free papers. The issues inside are dated June 2018.

Safe to say they — and the entire news stand — can be removed, no?

(Photo/James Olson)

Kami’s Kloud Krosses The Ocean

Everyone in Westport, it seemed, knew Kami Evans.

In 6 years here, she made quite a mark. She started several community Facebook pages, and became an “influence marketer.”

Two of her most popular pages were Westport and Fairfield Parents, and Fairfield County Friends and Family. Readers asked about — and recommended — the best local places to shop, upcoming events, and other resources.

Then came “Kami’s Kloud.” She connected businesses with non-profits and charities, helping build community. Soon, she launched web-based Kloud9TV.

Last July, Kami and her family moved to England. Her husband is British; they always knew they’d go back.

Kami Evans, in her new digs.

In her new town — Trentham — she noticed the same desire for community engagement she’d found here. Once again, she began developing Facebook pages and a video presence.

At the same time, her Westport friends stayed connected with emails and calls. She tried to connect the two towns across the pond, but realized social media was not the best way to do it.

But an app might be.

The other day, on a visit here, Kami talked about her new Kami’s Kloud app.

The goal is to bring “hyperlocal communities” — Westport, Trentham — together. There are 2 ways: by posting information on little shops, interesting events, and the like.

And by having users in one community share information, ideas and insights with those in others.

(From left): Kami Evans, Shari Lebowitz of Bespoke Designs and Natalie Toraty of Noya Fine Jewelry. The local merchants look forward to having their events featured on Kami’s Kloud.

Kami is all about community. Westport still feels like home. She wants the best for it. And she wants people here to get to know people in Trentham, and vice versa.

Kami’s Kloud launched softly on March 22. By April 15 she hopes to add Google Maps, push notifications about nearby events, and more. She’s partnered with Waze too, so when you’re stuck in traffic, you can check out nearby events.

It’s available for both iPhones and Androids. On both sides of the Atlantic.

When $30,000 Property Taxes Hit A Little Harder

That’s the headline on a CNN story posted yesterday to its website.

The piece — about the effect of the new tax law on high property tax states like Connecticut — was illustrated by a stock photo that seems to show Westport.

Whether that’s our town or not, there’s no denying that residents here have been hit hard — along with our counterparts in places like New York, New Jersey and Illinois.

The CNN story concludes with this assessment from a local realtor:

While many towns in Connecticut also have relatively high property taxes, some towns further up the Long Island Sound — like Westport or Fairfield — have lower bills than Westchester and are still a commutable distance from Manhattan.

“In Westchester County — towns like Larchmont, Rye, Mamaroneck — the taxes are crazy high,” says Mary Ellen Gallagher, a real estate agent and partner of Compass Westport Team KMS Partners in Connecticut.

“Younger people can’t afford those taxes and are looking [in Connecticut] where you get more house and pay less taxes, but you’re further from New York.”

She says for many luxury buyers, taxes don’t always play into their decision to buy a new home, but can be a deterrent for those looking to move up to a larger and pricier home.

“I think it is hurting the luxury market,” says Gallagher. “Because people aren’t trading up.”

(Click here for the full CNN story. Hat tip: Seth Van Beever.)

Rob Simmelkjaer’s Ground-Breaking Persona

As a kid, Rob Simmelkjaer’s grandmother always told him: “If you’re going to open your mouth, the best thing is to ask a question.”

Questions are “a sign of respect, curiosity, a way to learn,” notes the Westporter. “They’re more than just an opening.”

Simmelkjaer has had lots of chances to ask questions. He’s a former member of the Zoning Board of Appeals, and a 2017 candidate for second selectman.

Rob Simmelkjaer

He’s been an on-air contributor for NBC Sports, and as vice president of NBC Sports Ventures was involved with the radio network and podcasts. He previously worked at ESPN and ABC News, where as anchor and correspondent he covered the Virginia Tech shootings and President Ford’s funeral.

Simmelkjaer — who majored in government and philosophy at Dartmouth College, and holds a law degree from Harvard University — is a huge fan of NPR’s StoryCorps. In those short Friday segments people interview relatives and friends, unearthing tales rich in drama and inspiration.

So it’s no surprise that Simmelkjaer — who was NBC Sports’ “in-house entrepreneurial expert” — is now striking out on his own.

Or that his new venture — Persona — is all about asking questions.

Simmelkjaer calls Persona “the first social video platform dedicated to interviews.” It’s like Instagram, he says — but with conversations, not photos.

The app makes interviewing easy. It helps interviewers frame great questions, makes sharing interviews easy, and enables users to discover interesting interviews on similar (or totally unrelated) topics.

Rob Simmelkjaer is at ease in front of a camera. Persona will make the rest of us feel comfortable too.

Persona is not yet ready for prime time. Simmelkjaer is developing a prototype. He’s slowly releasing content on other platforms, like YouTube, to grow the brand.

It’s an exciting project. Just the other day — in the aftermath of the massacre at a New Zealand mosque — Simmelkjaer interviewed Imam Mohamed Abdelati of the Bridgeport Islamic Community Center.

Westport is an important part of Simmelkjaer’s process. Interviews with people like State Senator Will Haskell and attorney Josh Koskoff Takes On The NRA — interesting folks with intriguing insights — are part of the plan.

Simmelkjaer’s very first Persona interview was with Victoria Gouletas. She’s the ZBA member who was paralyzed a year ago, when a heavy tree branch fell on her during a windstorm.

Gently but insightfully, he asks Gouletas about the accident, how she handled the devastating news, and the effect on her family. As she talks about her children, they chatter in the background. Despite the tragedy, the interview is warm, personal and uplifting.

That’s Simmelkjaer’s goal with Persona. It launches officially later this year.

Keep your eyes and ears open.

And when you open your mouth, follow Rob Simmelkjaer’s grandmother’s advice: Ask a question.