A Westporter helps Westporters who help the world.
That was the theme of David Pogue’s telecast yesterday. He walked a few yards from his home, to Melissa and Doug Bernstein’s. There — with a “CBS Sunday Morning” camera crew — he interviewed the toy company co-founder about her lifelong battle with existential anguish and depression.
The Bernsteins’ new project — Lifelines — is an ecosystem for mental health support, resources and education. Pogue brought their work to a national television audience. Click below for that very important report.
Brian Lewis — chef/owner of the very popular Colonial Green restaurant (and OKO, on Wilton Road) is opening another Cottage in Greenwich.
The 49 Greenwich Avenue spot will seat over 60. As in Westport, it will celebrate seasonal ingredients, sourced from local purveyors and farmers. The Cottage Greenwich is slated to open later this year.
“We’ve always looked forward to the day that we can bring The Cottage to a new market after being so blessed with our devoted clientele and hardworking team in Westport,” says Lewis.
“As we experienced such continued support during COVID and after 6 successful years in Westport, the time was right to grow and find a sister location to complement the original Cottage.”
In the toy industry, Melissa Bernstein is a rock star.
The world knows her as co-founder and chief creative officer — with her co-founder husband and fellow native Westporter — of Melissa & Doug. The $500 million company is legendary for its toys that encourage interactive, hands-on play, and spark the imagination of children in a way screens and high-tech never can.
Yet for most of her life, Melissa Bernstein did not even know herself.
She and Doug built the business from scratch. It was their idea, their execution, their 32 years of hard — yet very fulfilling — work.
Melissa Bernstein, with some of her creations.
They married in 1992. They have 6 accomplished children, ranging in age from 27 to 13. They built a beautiful home.
Yet all along — for as long as she can recall — Melissa lived with existential anguish and depression. It made her who she is.
And at times, it made her want to end her life.
Existential anguish and depression is not a DSM diagnosis. But her torment — a crisis of doubt and meaning — was frighteningly real. It was “the darkest nihilism. Life seemed absurd and futile.”
Her mother remembers Melissa screaming every day, for the first year of her life. It was not colic; these were terrifying shrieks. “I had no words or creative solutions to what I was feeling,” Melissa says.
Melissa and Doug Bernstein.
Melissa grew up with that pain. But she was creative too. She wrote verses, and was a musician. But in college, realizing she would never play professionally, she quit music cold turkey.
She sought solace in academic performance. Looking back, she says, that turn “took me out of my heart, and into my head.” She felt “completely and utterly worthless.”
It was a coping mechanism involving denial, resistance, avoidance and dissonance, Melissa realizes now.
She created a “perfect, fictitious world” in her head. She lived in that “blissful place, filled with imaginary friends,” for at least a decade.
To the outside world, Melissa projected a façade of perfection. She worked, volunteered with the Levitt Pavilion, Music Theater of Connecticut and July 4th fireworks. She ferried her children to every sport and activity. The biggest criticism of her as a parent, she says, was that she seemed “emotionless.”
Doug and Melissa Bernstein, with their 6 children.
“Part of my validation was being a martyr,” she says. “I had to put one foot in front of the other. I had to think of my kids before me.”
Doug did not have an inkling of what Melissa was going through. But neither did she.
“I couldn’t let this demon come up,” she notes. “If I did, it would have taken me down.”
Five years ago, Melissa began to “connect the dots in a profound way.” She was exhausted. “I wanted to stop racing. It’s hard to resist everything you feel and are,” she says.
Melissa says, “My heart stopped. With profound alacrity, I knew what I was afflicted with.”
The more she learned, the more she realized that highly creative people — Beethoven, Mozart, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Emily Dickinson, Hemingway — shared her anguish.
For the first time in her life, Melissa did not feel alone.
Understanding her hypersensitivity to “both the beauty of the world, and unbearable pain,” she cried for 3 days.
She had awakened a window into her soul. She came to terms that her creative blessing was also a curse.
All those verses she’d written; all the toys she’d developed — they were outward signs of who Melissa Bernstein is. Now, she knew, she had to accept internally who she is too.
She could not do it alone. With the help of therapist Loredana Trandu, she has learned to make sense of her life.
“My journey with her was arduous. It was the lowest I ever felt,” Melissa says. “But she was there every step of the way. She’d been to that spot. I wasn’t scared.”
Now, Melissa wants to help others.
First, she shared her story on Jonathan Fields’ “Good Life” project. Hundreds of listeners responded. Their words were soulful and heart-wrenching. One told Melissa, “you put words to what was ineffable and hidden.”
She emailed or called every one. She followed up in depth with nearly 100.
Now, she and Doug have developed LifeLines. An ecosystem — books, videos, podcasts, community — its goal is to “help frame those soul-searching questions that allow you to explore your authentic self and discover what makes you tick.”
Melissa Bernstein reads her “LifeLines” book.
LifeLines is based on 3 premises:
You are not alone
We all have the capacity to channel darkness into light
We will not find true fulfillment and peace until we look inward and accept ourselves.
Completely free — funded by the Bernsteins — it’s about to roll out nationally. Major media like the Washington Post, USA Today, People, Elle magazine and “Good Day New York” are covering LifeLines this week and next.
Westporter David Pogue airs a segment on “CBS Sunday Morning” this weekend (March 14).
David Pogue tapes a segment with Melissa Bernstein, in her Westport home.
LifeLines has become Melissa’s life. She has recorded nearly 3 dozen podcasts, and oversees every aspect of the project. Yet she still takes time each day to speak to individual men and women — people just like her, who feel the same overpowering existential anguish and depression.
Being on the national stage — and speaking to strangers — is important. But Melissa is our neighbor. Sometimes the hardest part of baring our souls is doing it to those who know us well.
The other day at a Staples basketball game, a woman looked away when they met. Then she said, “I’m so sorry.”
Melissa felt badly that the woman felt so uncomfortable.
“We need a huge education program,” she says. “We know what to say, and not say, when someone dies. Now we need a new national conversation on how to talk about mental health.”
It’s taken Melissa Bernstein her entire life to discover herself, and open that internal dialogue. Now, with LifeLines, she’s opening up to the world.
The chief creative officer of one of the world’s leading toy companies is playing for keeps.
(PS: On Thursday, March 18 at 7 p.m., the Westport Library hosts a conversation with Melissa — and me — about her journey. Click here to register.)
The Bow Tie “Ultimate Royale” multiplex on US 1 — just over the border in Norwalk — reopens tomorrow. Features include “Monster Hunter,” “The Croods,” “Wild Mountain Thyme,” “Elf,” The Midnight Sky,” “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” “Honest Thief” and “Tenet.”
The experience will be different than in pre-pandemic days. For example:
100% reserved seating …
… but only 50% capacity
A temporary waiver of all advanced ticketing fees
Selling seats in an alternating pattern so each customer has an empty seat on either side
Contact-free purchasing of tickets and concession items
Mandatory face masks (unless eating or drinking at your seat)
Plexiglas barriers at box office and concession
Limitations on restroom and lobby capacities.
You can also book a private movie party” for up to 20 guests.
No word on whether you will still pay $22 for a 10-pound box of Jujubes. (Hat tip: Mark Mathias)
Christmas caroling — remember that?! — returns to the Unitarian Church this Saturday (December 19, 3 to 4 p.m.).
It’s COVID-conscious of course: in the large parking lot, with masks and social distancing required.
In Unitarian spirit, there will be a mix of secular songs and Christmas carols. Everyone will use phone flashlights to sing “Silent Night” at dusk. Feel free to bring an instrument too!.
In the holiday spirit, if you want to join but don’t want to actually join people, email email@example.com for the Zoom link.
Not quite the Unitarian Church parking lot, but you get the idea.
Chloe Hackett is a Staples High School sophomore. She’s an athlete too.
As she and her family searched for a way to help others during the pandemic, they found Leveling the Playing Field. The non-profit seemed perfect.
It collect new and gently used sports and playground equipment, then distribute it to needy youth organizations. And it was founded by Syracuse University alums — Chloe’s parents’ alma mater.
“My sisters and I play field hockey, ice hockey and softball year round,” Chloe says.
“Sports have taught us teamwork, discipline, commitment, determination and how to compete. They’ve given us an after-school outlet, and the opportunity to make friends. We are fortunate to live in an amazing town with so many opportunities, access to a wide variety of sports and the equipment to play them.”
This weekend (Saturday and Sunday, December 19-20, 10 a.m. to noon, at The Granola Bar), the Hacketts are collecting donations.
Cleats, field hockey sticks, lacrosse equipment, bats, hockey skates, footballs, softball gloves — it will all make a difference. Click here for a full list of acceptable and non-acceptable items.
If you can’t make it this weekend, the Hacketts have your back. They’ll leave a box in front of the restaurant, and make pickups daily.
The Hackett girls already have donations! From left: Alex, Chloe, Daisy. (Photo/Julianne Mulvey)
Melissa & Doug — the international toy company, and the Westport couple named the Bernsteins behind it — keep a low profile.
The company (and the couple) do many good things, out of the limelight. Here’s one that deserves notice.
They’ve partnered with the Whole Foods, selling toys in stores and online. Between December 20-24, 1% of sales at Whole Foods will support Whole Kids Foundation’s child nutrition programs.
Stock up on good food and great toys. And help children eat well. Melissa & Doug — and kids you’ll never know — will thank you. (Hat tip: Johanna Rossi)
Westport abstract expressionist painter David Stephen Johnson made his European debut earlier this year.
To share in his good fortune — and do his part to help local first responders — from now through mid-January, he is donating all proceeds of his Works on Paper sales to Norwalk Hospital.
Click here for some of the Works on Paper that make original, thoughtful holiday gifts (and support the community).
More of Johnson’s pieces can be viewed at his Compo Beach studio, by (socially distanced) appointment. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 970- 376-5058.
And finally … on this date in 1865, Franz Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” premiered. The composer died nearly 40 years earlier, from either typhoid fever or syphilis. Just 31, he had composed more than 600 vocal works, 7 complete symphonies, sacred music and operas, along with piano and chamber music.
President Trump’s on-again, off-again tariff decisions have rattled the global economy.
Here in the US, sectors ranging from aluminum to footwear have felt whipsawed by decisions made and remade in the White House. The latest industry is a big one: toys.
Earlier this week, the president delayed a new 10 percent tariff on some Chinese imports, from September 1 to December 15. That gives toy manufacturers some breathing room, before and during the make-or-break holiday season.
Melissa and Doug Bernstein
Westport has an important dog in this hunt. Melissa & Doug was founded in 1988 by Doug and Melissa Bernstein, in his parents’ garage on Guyer Road. Over the past 31 years it’s become a highly respected creator, manufacturer and distributor of educational toys, including wooden puzzles, arts and crafts products and more.
Bernstein breathed a sigh of relief at the tariff delay. But, he said yesterday, the larger question is the entire concept of a “trade war.”
“Wars are not good,” he said. “They cause casualties: human, social and economic. Calling this a ‘war’ is not a good thing.” He would prefer to see trade policy discussed “amicably.”
Like most American toy companies, the vast majority — 85 to 90% — of Melissa & Doug’s products are made in China.
This founders did not set out to manufacture overseas. Years ago, Bernstein said, he brought prototypes to factories across in the US. No one wanted the job.
The issue was not price. Rather, it was the “massive amount of handiwork” that goes into each Melissa & Doug item. “They can’t be stamped out” — and American factories could not do it at a price that would be reasonable for consumers.
A small selection of Melissa & Doug toys.
Over the years, Melissa & Doug built strong relationships in China. Today, around 200 or so employees oversee quality and inspection there. “They work for us,” he said. “They’re not 3rd-party contractors.”
While other companies talk about moving production to other parts of the world — Vietnam and India are often mentioned — Melissa & Doug worries about losing quality control.
“We have 3 tenets,” the co-founder says. “We make educational products for children; we make them with the absolute best quality we can, and we price them as affordably as possible. We don’t want them accessible only to kids who grow up in a place like Westport.”
So — even with higher tariffs — Bernstein and his wife are committed to “not passing on higher pricing to consumers. Other companies say that if the tariffs take effect on December 15, they’ll have to raise prices by 10, 20 or 25% in 2020. We’re working very hard not to do that. We would probably absorb most, if not all, of the cost.”
They’ve already been tested. In addition to toys, Melissa & Doug produce items like chalk and markers. They’ve already been hit with several million dollars in tariffs — and have not raised prices.
Bernstein sounds a hopeful note, though. “Honestly, I didn’t think the tariffs would happen on September 1. And I think there’s a high likelihood they won’t happen on December 15. This is a game of chess, and we’re pawns. No one gains from a trade war. I think agreements will be reached.”
Besides chess, Bernstein uses another analogy to describe the last few months.
“We’ve been on a roller coaster,” he says. “It would be one thing if there were transparent discussions. But for us — and everyone in the industry — it’s been up and down, on and off, 10%, 25%, September 1, December 15.”
That’s one game the Westport toy manufacturer has no desire to play.
No one snoozes during Westport’s Independence Day fireworks.
But if you snooze too long now, you’ll have a tough time seeing them at Compo Beach.
Parking at Compo for the 62nd annual fireworks — which, in true Westport tradition, are blasted off a barge not on July 4th but, this year, on Monday July 2 — is by ticket only.
Sales — which began today — are limited, and on a first-come, first-serve basis. Once they sell out, shuttle passes from Longshore are available for purchase.
Tickets are available at Westport Police Department headquarters (50 Jesup Road), and the Parks and Recreation office (in Longshore, near the first tee).
The price is $35 per car (pack ’em in!). Before you bitch and moan: Proceeds go to Westport PAL, to support many programs — and thousands of kids.
And before you complain that the fireworks are sponsored by Melissa & Doug — the international (and locally owned) toy company — remember that because of them, PAL does not have to shell out money for all those firework shells.
Last year, some hard-to-please Westporters bitched and moaned because the 4th of July fireworks were held on June 30th.
Folks have complained about July 1 and 2 dates too.
There are several reasons why we can’t do fireworks on July 4. But this year we’ve got the next best thing.
The 2017 show — produced by Westport PAL, sponsored by Melissa & Doug, with fireworks from the great Gruccis — are scheduled for Monday, July 3.
Tickets for the 61st annual event go on sale tomorrow (Thursday, June 1). They’re available — first-come, first-serve — at the Police Department (50 Jesup Road) and the Parks and Rec office (Longshore, across from the 1st tee).
Westporters also sometimes bitch and moan that the cost is $35 per car. Well, proceeds fund a ton of PAL programs. And the entire evening is unrivaled for fun, and a community feeling.
Oh, yeah: The rain date is Wednesday, July 5.
We’ve got the 4th surrounded.
Westport’s fireworks, as seen from Hillspoint Road.
Kathy Mahieu — a Westporter who teaches in a Bridgeport elementary school — asked if I could write about the differences between our school district and theirs. I had a better idea: I’d post her 1st-person account. Her words would be far more meaningful than mine.
“A Tale of 2 School Districts” provoked a powerful response. Dozens of commenters offered thoughts. Many wondered what they could do to help.
The answer: Plenty. And here’s where this story really gets good.
Catherine Walsh called Kathy, and provided cartons of paper for the Read School. That simple gesture solved an enormous need.
Simultaneously, Jimeale Hede and Carolyn Russo got involved. Using Facebook, they installed “room moms” in every pre-K through 3rd grade classroom. The women published wish lists on their grassroots Brighter Lives for Kids Foundation website. Classroom supplies poured in.
Kathy Mathieu in her Bridgeport classroom. Very few teachers have whiteboards.
In just one week this month, over $71,000 was raised. Much of that came from a Cushman & Wakefield fundraiser. The money will pay for the purchase of 90 Chromebooks with educational programs, as well as field trips and a soccer program.
“06880” readers — and others in an ever-widening circle — volunteered to address other needs. Teachers are identifying students who need shoes or a backpack, for example, as well as requesting items like rugs, headphones and books for their classrooms.
Help is on the way Cesar Batalla Elementary School too.
Read Elementary School
Watching the generosity unfold brought Catherine to tears. Westport and surrounding communities rallied around the needy school. Importantly, she says, they’ve “committed themselves long-term” to aiding these children and their families.
One of the Westporters who helped with Pamela Long. She heard about a toy drive for the Cesar Batalla and Read Schools. She bought some, but was chagrined to learn that donations were slow.
She asked “06880” for help. Again, I was happy to help. Again too, I asked for the story in her own words.
Pamela was eloquent. “These kids are in desperate situations — the highest poverty brackets, shelters, you name it. 100% of these children are fed breakfast and lunch at school,” she wrote. “Their families have no money for basic necessities — let alone holiday gifts.
“Westport: We can do better. Every child deserves the joy of opening a gift this season. We’ve got 4 more days to come together as a community and show our compassion, by helping those who do not have our good fortune. Open your hearts and your wallets — and get shopping!”
Westporters — and readers far and wide — responded instantly. Taking advantage of an Amazon link — and thanks to a generation donation from locally based/internationally known toymakers Melissa & Doug — they blew past the goal.
Plenty of people also helped with the logistics: wrapping, transporting, and making the toy magic happen.
Some of the holiday gifts that poured in to the Read and Cesar Batalla Elementary Schools.
So — when it’s almost time for boys and girls all over America to enjoy the wonder of Santa Claus — let’s pause to thank the men and women (and kids) of our “06880” community (real and virtual) who helped bring smiles to kids a few miles away.
And let’s vow to keep helping the boys and girls of Bridgeport every day in the coming year.
Melissa and Doug Bernstein do things in a big way.
The Westport couple have a big house. A big family. A big toy company.
Now that company, also named Melissa & Doug — along with their house and family — is featured in a big story on Page 1 of today’s New York Times business section.
The piece describes the company’s quick rise — in 25 years, they’ve reached an estimated $325 million in revenue — as “an anachronism.”
Matt Richtel writes:
In a time when major corporations dominate the industry, making toys with all manner of batteries, digital gimmicks or movie tie-ins, the Bernsteins keep making money in wooden puzzles, coloring pads, blocks, trains and simple costumes (the police officer, the princess, the pirate). They hatch many of their ideas by watching children at play — often among their own brood of six.
They do little public relations and don’t advertise in magazines, or on radio and television. They don’t put coupons in Sunday newspaper inserts. They don’t rely on big hits, industry analysts say, just a steady stream of variations on classic toys mostly for children up to the age of 5.
It’s an intriguing story, about an interesting company and the Westporters behind it. (Click here to read the entire piece.)
And — in keeping with the “big” theme — a very big photo of Doug, Melissa and 2 of their kids sprawls across the entire top half of the Sunday Business front page.
Doug and Melissa Bernstein, with 2 of their children: Nate (age 5) and Sydelle (9). (Photo by Christopher Capozziello/New York Times)
Which is more incongruous: 58 teenagers volunteering to spend 12 hours working at school (on a Sunday!), or chowing down junk food while trying to solve the problem of obesity?
Both happened earlier this month. The event was Staples’ 2nd annual Spectacular Student Challenge. For $12,5000 in prize money, 12 teams of students sacrificed sleep, engaged their brains, pooled their wits and downed enormous quantities of chips, soda and other obesity-inducing delights.
Early Sunday morning — alertly remembering the start of daylight savings time — 12 teams assembled in separate classrooms. Each team received this year’s topic: America’s alarming increase in overweight children and adults has wreaked havoc on health, health costs and the economy.
The “Challenge”: design a persuasive campaign, a “pitch” and a researched report to convince the Westport community to follow a plan encouraging lifestyle change and healthy living.
The report had to answer questions like:
What factors contribute to a rise in obesity levels in the U.S., as compared to other industrialized countries?
How has obesity impacted society so far? How will it do so in the future? How is that effect quantifiable?
What realistic steps can schools, the Westport community, town and state governments, and private groups take to solve the problem?
What obstacles will your plan encounter, and how will you address them?
How will you measure your plans’ effectiveness over time?
Campaigns would be judged on creativity and well-analyzed data. The information had to be well organized, and bibliographically cited. Visual and multi-media aids were strongly encouraged.
Taking a rare break from their work (from left): sophomores Marcus Russi, Judy Feng, Robert DeLuca, Martha Whammond and Amanda Wildstein.
Stopping only for food, the students went to work. They researched numbers, and dug into history. They analyzed data, synthesized ideas and modeled solutions. They thought outside the box, tossed aside the boxes that didn’t work, and dove into snack boxes.
They created pitches, argued over the best way to present them, came to consensus, then had to actually design them — in a variety of media.
It was education at its core. And it spoke directly to Staples’ school goal: understand a local theme with much larger real-world implications, and work collaboratively using math, science, social studies and English skills to craft a solution.
Senior Cole Manley’s group, for example, came up with a plan that included making bike lanes in Westport more expansive and convenient; eliminating all trans fats in Westport restaurants; making student lunches healthier through more diverse offerings (and more fruits and vegetables), and revising the phys. ed. curriculum to get more students exercising.
This group included (from left) Jeremy Rubel, Michelle Mastriani, Petey Menz, Michael Menz and Cole Manley.
Finally — 12 hours, and many Cheez Doodles and pizzas later — the 12 teams were done.
Cole’s team sent their paper off with 5 minutes to spare. Interspersed with calculus graphs of obesity percentages were Norman Rockwell drawings of youngsters exercising.
Now, a team of teachers is reviewing all 12 papers. The top 6 teams will make a presentation to a panel of judges on April 26.
Members of the winning team get $6,000, to be used as scholarship funds for college. The next 2 teams will share another $6,500. Prize money was donated by the Gudis Family Foundation, and the Melissa & Doug educational toy company.
Then the winners will go out to celebrate. With a dinner at Whole Foods.
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