Category Archives: Media

Introducing “06880”‘s Persona Of The Week

Earlier this year Rob Simmelkjaer — who ran for 2nd Selectman in 2017 — left his corporate gig with NBC Sports and News to pursue a personal mission.

His goal: Develop a multimedia platform giving people the tools to create and discover great interviews and conversations. His company is called Persona.

Rob Simmelkjaer

Though national in scope, its rollout begins locally this month, with a custom interview service. Today, Rob and I are excited to announce a collaboration: the “06880 Persona of the Week.”

Each week, Rob or a Persona colleague will interview an interesting member of the community. Topics and interview subjects will be varied and unlimited, from local movers and shakers to those doing amazing things well beyond our borders.

Each interview will give “06880” readers a chance to meet a neighbor, and see the amazing things that happen when people sit down to chat.

With elections looming, we decided to start with a sprint.

Between now and Election Day we’ll post interviews with each of the Republican and Democratic candidates for the Boards of Education and Finance. These non-partisan interviews will give voters a chance to get to know the candidates, and encourage Westporters to vote.

We start with the Democratic candidate for re-election to the Board of Finance, Sheri Gordon. Tomorrow: Republican Board of Education candidate Vik Muktavaram.

More candidate videos will follow, in the coming days. After the election, this feature will become an actual “Persona of the Week.”

Jake Sussman Fights For “The Forgotten Child”

Imagine yourself as the child that always smiled
You were wild, you were beguiled —
Until the day you were profiled.
This is the story of the forgotten child.

Jake Sussman delivers those words clearly, directly and powerfully. Like many guys in their early 20s, he’s got scruff and exudes confidence.

But he is “The Forgotten Child.”

Now, he’s making sure that educators around the world do not forget any other Jake Sussmans out there.

There are many.

Growing up in Westport — and diagnosed with a learning difference — Jake had a “great experience” at Coleytown Elementary School.

Middle school was different, though.

“It wasn’t working for me,” Jake says. He transferred to The Southport School, then the Forman School in Litchfield for high school. After graduating in 2014, he headed to Roger Williams University.

It was the only college he applied to with no academic support system.

Jake Sussman

“That was fine,” Jake says. “In life, there’s no special corner for employees with learning differences.”

He directed his energy and charisma toward creating a Hillel on the Rhode Island campus. By the time he left for his senior year at the University of Hartford — for its program in communications and business — there were 30 attendees at Shabbat dinners.

As a junior, he took part in a campus poetry slam. “The Forgotten Child” was all about overcoming adversity, and being true to oneself.

Negative labels are destructive
Counter-productive and obstructive
This forgotten child refused to acknowledge
“You will never go to college.”

Speaking those words out loud, Jake felt empowered. He told his story — but he was not alone.

“Everyone learns differently,” he notes. “I may be 3 grades behind in reading, but I’m the best artist in the class. Teachers have to be able to tap into that.”

He realized his poem spoke for “anyone not seen or heard.” Learning differences, sexualities, physical disabilities — whatever adversity students have to overcome, Jake included them. They too are “forgotten children.”

At boarding school, Jake had met Harvey Hubbell V. The Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker — who himself was diagnosed with dyslexia in the 1960s, and in 2013 produced “Dislecksia: The Movie” — was intrigued by Jake’s passion. And his poetry.

Beginning last May, they collaborated on a video. Last Thursday — in the middle of Dyslexia Awareness Month — they launched “The Forgotten Child” on Facebook. In it, Jake implores:

Don’t ever give up your shot
Our minds are all we’ve got!

Within 2 days, it had 25,000 views worldwide. And dozens of very favorable comments.

He hopes it reaches the right audiences: people with learning differences, and those who work with them.

“I’m not a teacher, a psychologist, a researcher or a parent,” he says. “I am a student. I represent all those who are not seen or heard, just for the way they learn.”

“The Forgotten Child” is just one of the ways Jake is speaking out about his own educational life, and those of so many others.

On Monday night, he was at a Decoding Dyslexia meeting in Salt Lake City.

I’m not sure whether he presented a talk or a poem.

Either way, I have no fear.

His message was heard loud and clear.

(For more information, email bookings@jakesussmanlive.com)

Jacob Sussman, filming his video.

 

Molly Jong-Fast: Political Tweeter Talks Trump

Molly Jong-Fast knows she doesn’t know everything.

So she sticks to writing about what she knows.

Like women’s issues. The absurdity of the Trump administration. The fact that Republicans can’t quite figure out when life begins (conception? Or after children are ripped from their families at ICE detention facilities?).

And nepotism.

“I come from a famous family,” she says. “I know it well.”

Jonathan Fast, Erica Jong and Molly Jong-Fast.

Her mother and father were novelists. (You may have heard of them: Erica Jong and Jonathan Fast.)

Her paternal grandfather — Howard Fast — was a noted writer too. He became a political figure when he was jailed for refusing to name names in the McCarthy Era.

Jong-Fast’s in-laws are politically active too. Stewart and Connie Greenfield have spent decades working for — and running for office as — Democrats in Westport.

Erica Jong and Jonathan Fast lived in Manhattan and Weston. Molly went to pre-school and kindergarten here. She attended Singing Oaks Day Camp, and rode horses there. Her roots in this area are deep.

Which is why her appearance this Sunday (October 20, 2:30 p.m., Westport Library) is a bit of a homecoming.

The event is the Democratic Women of Westport’s Fall Forum. The title: “How We Can Use Social Media to Beat Trump.”

Molly Jong-Fast

Jong-Fast is no newcomer to the topic. She is a social media veteran. She has over 300,000 Twitter followers (and has tweeted 169,000 times). She’s active on Instagram and other sites, and is a regular contributor to the Daily Beast, Playboy and The Bulwark.

Her bona fides include Tucker Carlson calling her “not super smart.” But she has been skewered by Democrats too: Marianne Williamson once called Molly’s mother to complain.

Jong-Fast began her writing career as a novelist. Her satirical bent found an outlet after the 2016 election.

“Because I’m dyslexic, my brain has always been a bit off,” she says. “In English class, I’d always give the wrong answer to what a book was about.”

However, she notes, “that helps me make connections that are not always the usual ones. They’re not necessarily right or better. But they’re different.”

Her talk on Sunday will build on a theme she’s tweeted and written about often: the need for ordinary citizens to be “the public editor,” calling out disinformation wherever it appears.

But isn’t social media just an echo chamber? Whether we’re Democrats or Republicans, don’t we all listen only to the people we agree with politically?

Not necessarily, Jong-Fast says. “Every Democrat has a cousin who watches Fox News. You have to find that person, and engage with them.”

She worries about the state of our nation. “How do you get the white nationalism genie back in the bottle?” she wonders. “And misogyny, discrimination, the judiciary — it’s a disaster.”

However, she says, “the Democrats won the House in the mid-terms. Polling shows more and more people interested in impeachment. And the younger generation is awesome.”

Tweet that!

(Sunday’s event with Molly Jong-Fast is free, but space is limited. Click here to reserve a seat.)

Wise Words At The Farmers’ Market

It’s a scene familiar everywhere in America.

A group of retirees gathers every morning. They sit in the same seats. Over a single cup of coffee, they chew over all the problems of the world.

A group in Salt Lake City realized that all their wisdom, all that advice, went to waste. No one listened to them.

So one Saturday, they headed to the local farmer’s market. They hung a sign — “Old Coots Giving Advice” — pretty much as a joke.

To their amazement — and despite the disclaimer “It’s pretty bad advice,  but it’s free” — people wanted to listen.

Old Coots at a Salt Lake City farmers’ market.

Sarah Gross saw a CBS News story about the group. Suddenly, a light bulb went off over the longtime caterer’s head: There are plenty of older Westporters, with lifetimes of experience and a wealth of advice.

And we’ve got a Farmers’ Market.

Which is why this coming Thursday (September 19), a group from the Senior Center heads a few yards south on Imperial Avenue. There — under a table, tent and chairs — the writing group led by Senior Center coordinator of writing programs Jan Bassin will offer advice to anyone who wants it.

The official topic is “what we would have said to our 25-year-old selves.”

But feel free to ask about anything else, from turnips to Trump.

Just don’t call them Old Coots.

They’ve taken the name Westport’s Wise Words.

Respect.

A couple of old coots at an early Westport Farmers’ Market.

FUN FACT: Robert Penn Warren rocked Sarah Gross in her crib, and Ralph Ellison held her in his arms when she was an infant in Westport. Her extended family was made up of  authors and artists and the like — and her father was a book editor and literary agent until his death a few years ago.

Valerie Smith Malin’s Collective Wellness Community

As a consumer products marketer specializing in healthy skincare, Valerie Smith Malin knew the importance of holistic wellness. Exercise, nutrition, life choices — all were as crucial as the product one used.

Valerie Smith Malin

As a Westport resident since 1993, Malin knew that many residents here are interested in wellness. But as she roamed the internet looking for information, she realized lots of it was siloed.

She wanted a 1-stop shop —  a place where people could go to find out about healthy, beauty, diet, exercise, meditation, mindfulness, the whole shebang.

Malin created CollectiveWellness. The site aggregates all kinds of wellness resources. It’s a work in progress, but you can get an early peek here.

Because Malin is community-minded — online and off — she’s bringing the cyber version to her home town.

Next Friday (September 20, 11 a.m., Wakeman Town Farm), Westporter (and fellow Westport Young Woman’s League member) Beth Atlas will speak about “Natural Remedies for Anxiety.”

“There’s so much anxiety today — the political climate, job insecurity, healthcare,” Malin says.

“I’m in the sandwich generation. Our parents are getting older, and we’re also caring for our kids. Beth talks about anxiety, from a wellness perspective.”

It’s all well and good.

(For tickets to Beth Atlas’ presentation, click here.)

If You’re Thinking Of Living In Westport …

… then this Sunday’s New York Times has a story for you.

We’re the subject of this coming weekend’s Real Estate section feature. Sometimes a neighborhood is featured; other times, a village or — like us — entire town.

The piece begins with a story about a British couple with 3 young daughters. They rented in Old Greenwich, but found it very “finance-driven. They wanted to be part of “a real community.”

The New York Times map of Westport.

Westport — with its “scenic waterfront, proximity to New York City and variety of restaurants, as well as its international contingent and cosmopolitan atmosphere” — offered “ nice balance of diversity, understated successful people and enough of a European vibe.”

1st Selectman Jim Marpe then touts Westport’s “global mind set,” along with the arts, education, abundant recreational facilities and — according to the Times — “2 downtowns.”

One of our downtowns serves as the main image for the New York Times profile of Westport. (Photo/Jane Beiles for New York Times)

“The lifestyle here caters to a range of interests,” Marpe says. “And to high expectations.”

Marpe notes, “We live in a place that dates back to the very start of this country. There is a sense of history here, but we are firmly focused on the future.”

The rest of the piece includes information on Westport’s geography and neighborhoods (I learned that there’s an area known as “In-Town,” which is “within walking distance of the main downtown”); the housing mix (there are 8,818 single-family houses, 104 multifamily homes, 546 condos in 21 complexes, 292 rental apartments in residential and mixed-use buildings, 4 affordable-housing complexes with 217 units, and 1 building with 36 age-restricted cooperative apartments); the price range ($350,000 to $22.5 million, with homes under $1 million selling fastest and waterfront properties listed at a premium).

An aerial view of the Saugatuck River.(Photo/Jane Beiles for New York Times)

There’s also this, headlined “The Vibe”:

From “The Twilight Zone” and “Bewitched” to the current sitcom “American Housewife,” Westport has long been cast as an affluent suburban backdrop for television. Stereotypes aside, the town blends a laid-back ambience with year-round cultural offerings, high-end shopping and dining, and a slew of outdoor activities.

“With roots as an artists’ colony, Westport remains a creative hub,” The Times continues. The Westport Country Playhouse, Community Theatre, Levitt Pavilion, Westport Writers’ Workshop, Library, and MoCA Westport (formerly the Westport Arts Center) are all mentioned.

Schools get mentioned too, including the district’s #1 ranking in the state (and 28th in the country) by Niche, and Staples’ 7th place state rating by U.S. News and World Report.

Girls soccer: one of the many great activities at Staples High School. (Photo by Jane Beiles for New York Times)

Finally, there’s a section on the “64- to 90-minute” commute (though Marpe notes that more people now come to Westport for work than leave), and a bit of history of the Minute Man monument.

It’s a very fair and balanced picture of our town.

It’s just a week after Labor Day. But clearly, every realtor in Westport has just been handed an early Christmas or Hanukkah gift.

(Click here for the full New York Times story.)

Jill Johnson Mann Takes Lara Spencer To (Dance) School

The other day, “Good Morning America” host Lara Spencer made a moronic, smirking “joke,” mocking Prince George for taking ballet classes. Her co-hosts cackled along. Audience members joined in the laughter.

The internet erupted in outrage. This is 2019, after all.

Jill Johnson Mann went one better. The Westporter wrote all about ballet in the Washington Post.

Jill Johnson Mann

She should know. Her 4 kids — 2 girls, 2 boys — have all taken dance classes. Plus, she’s a writer. And — oh yeah — back in 2012, she interviewed Lara Spencer for Greenwich Magazine.

Her 9-year-old son Jamie had just performed in “The Nutcracker.”

Jill is a lot softer on Lara than I would be. But she pulls no punches when she talks about her family’s experiences with dance.

She describes how Jamie was “entranced” the first time he saw “Swan Lake.” He was 3 years old.

At 7 he saw “Billy Elliot the Musical” on Broadway. “My son took the leap and began taking ballet classes — with all girls, which is often the case in the suburbs,” Jill writes. “He was not fazed. He loved it.”

The next year, he joined Alvin Ailey’s Athletic Boys Dance Program.

Commuting 90 minutes to class was worth it, so he could experience a studio filled with 25 boys who loved to dance as much as he did. The program is free — a common perk for young male dancers. Especially at ballet schools, the lure of free tuition compensates for the threat of teasing.

In fact, there was teasing. Jamie wanted to go to private school.

But 5th grade “turned out to be fine. Jamie was becoming a stronger dancer and fighting to have a strong viewpoint about what is okay for boys and girls to do. He began studying ballet with a tough Russian teacher who made the boorish kids at school seem like kittens.”

In 6th grade, things got even better. Jamie was accepted into the School of American Ballet — and danced with New York City Ballet. The Wall Street Journal included him in a story on boys in ballet.

Jamie continued to rock the dance world. He landed his dream role of Billy Elliot, in 4 productions from Florida to New Hampshire. Jamie’s parents — including his “ball sports guy” dad — watched proudly as he played his part: “a physical and emotional feat unmatched by any other child role.”

Jamie Mann in “Billy Elliot the Musical.” (Photo/Zoe Bradford)

Still, Jamie was living a real life — not a Broadway musical. His mother writes:

Despite an Actors’ Equity card in his pocket, the biggest test for Jamie was daring to don ballet shoes and perform Billy’s “Electricity” in his middle school’s talent show. In 2016, even in artsy Westport, Conn., “dare” still felt like the accurate term. He got cold feet a few days before. My husband insisted he not do it. “You don’t know how boys are,” he told me. I countered, “He has to do it, for every boy who comes after him and wants to dance.”

I remember Jamie’s mop of golden hair and his white ballet shoes as the spotlight fell across him during his dramatic entrance. My husband and I braced ourselves for heckling, but instead the audience roared with encouragement. Classmates shouted Jamie’s name as though he were a star. He was, because he made it a little bit easier for kids like George.

“06880” wrote about that day. It’s still one of my favorite stories ever.

Jamie is now 3 years older. He’s continuing to dance — and to dance beautifully. This summer, he performed in a new musical at Goodspeed Opera House. It’s based on the great children’s book “Because of Winn Dixie” — a story about kindness and acceptance.

It was a fantastic show. I look forward to watching him on stage this fall in “Mamma Mia!” with Staples Players.

And if Lara Spencer wants to come, she’s welcome to sit next to me.

(Click here for Jill Johnson Mann’s full Washington Post story.)

By The Book: Cathleen Schine

Every Sunday, the New York Times Book Review section runs an author Q-and-A. The questions are often probing; the answers, intriguing.

Yesterday’s was also local. And for me, it was personal.

Cathleen Schine

Cathleeen Schine — Staples High School graduate, and best-selling author of novels like The Three Weissmanns of Westport — was the subject.

To the question “What book should everybody read before the age of 21?” she responded:

The Phantom Tollbooth. Our teacher read it to us in 4th grade. It changed my life. Words are real!”

She’s right. Too bad though that she did not give her teacher — Burr Farms Elementary School’s immensely talented, much loved, died-way-too-early Annette Fournier — a shout-out by name.

How do I know?

I was in that class too.

(Click here for the entire interview. Hat tip: Fred Cantor)

He-Man Returns; Westporter Helps

“He-Man” is coming back to life.

And one of “the men” responsible is a Staples High School graduate.

Rob David is executive producer of Netflix’s new anime series. Called “Masters of the Universe: Revelation,” it will take place in a Mattel-inspired world, and focus on unresolved story lines from the classic 1980s show. It picks up on “what may be the final battle between He-Man and Skeletor,” says executive producer Kevin Smith.

Rob David (left) and Kevin Smith.

David — a 1992 Staples alum, where he was active in Players and co-president of Model UN — is well suited to the task. He’s vice president of Mattel TV, and author of He-Man: The Eternity War. 

After graduating from Columbia University, he wrote for several New York-based animated series, including “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” He now lives in California, with his wife and twins. (She is in charge of online content for Sesame Workshop, and has helped develop their highly regarded autism, LGBT and military family inclusion material.)

Staples classmate Evan Stein says, “Having read Rob’s reboot stories of He-Man and She-Ra that he wrote when he moved to LA, and the fanboy favorite crossover of He-Man and the ThunderCats, I’m sure this will be a runaway success.”

The original He-Man animated series ran from 1983-85. Set on the mythical planet of Eternia, it featured Prince Adam — transformed into He-Man — as the most powerful man in the universe.

He-Man

[OPINION] Hans Wilhelm: Causes Of Suicide Are Not Always Physical

Yesterday’s post on suicide drew many comments — public and private. Hans Wilhelm — self-described “mystic, author and illustrator of over 200 books with sales of more than 40 million copies,” former Westporter, current Westonite, and recipient of a Westport Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement in Literature — wrote:

Hans Wilhelm

Your post on the suicide of Mark Snedeker was a sad reminder that more Americans now die by suicide than in car accidents. The cause is not only physical, but in many cases also disconnectedness and loneliness — predominantly with the young generation. This is often paired with a lack of deeper purpose of living.

In a society that focuses mostly on material goals our soul, our spiritual side, often comes too short. Over the years I have found that particularly our youth does have a strong longing for deep spiritual nourishment and information which organized religions don’t seem to fully satisfy.

A few years ago, I started to make short illustrated videos that explain the basic spiritual laws of the universe — mostly for young people. Since their attention span is rather short, I also keep all videos brief and to the point.

I was surprised that my video on suicide quickly became one of the most watched clips of the series. From emails and comments, I learned that this video helped a lot of people over the years, as not every suicidal person has a physical health cause. Here it is: