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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Bon-Odori Fest Recalls Ancestors and Drums Up Family Fun

Bon-Odori Fest Recalls Ancestors and Drums Up Family Fun
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Westport News)

Westport, CT – For over 500 years, “Bon”, a Japanese Buddhist custom to honor the departed spirits of one’s ancestors, has been celebrated in Japan. The summer event traditionally includes a dance, known as Bon-Odori, which took center stage in a modified form as part of the Bon-Odori Festival conducted by the Japan Society of Fairfield County on Jesup Green Saturday afternoon. This year, the Festival was also dedicated to the survivors of the earthquakes and resulting tsunami in Japan this past March.

Besides the traditional folk dance, the event included thunderous performances by the Taiko Drum Group from the University of Connecticut, yo-yo fishing in which children have to fish for balloons bobbing in a wading pool using small hooks, and the selling of decorative handheld fans called uchiwa.

The Festival attracted curious onlookers who wandered over from nearby shops, attendees that dressed for fun in summer kimonos called yukatas and others of Japanese or related ancestry that came to remember loved ones that have passed or just show their support for the cause. When not participating in an activity, they huddled in the shade of trees, seeking relief from an unforgiving sun and dense hot air that had dug itself in over the last few days in a record-shattering heatwave.

Yumi McDonald, Vice President of the Japan Society of Fairfield County, led the activities, announcing each performer or segment of the event. She was dressed in a colorful yukata herself as was her daughter, Alice, 15, a Staples High School student, and her classmate Rachel Paul, 14, who came to lend their support.

Despite wearing her yukata, Alice said she was still feeling hot. “We’re using our uchiwas and our wagasas (traditional Japanese umbrellas) to try to stay cool.”

Looking on with her three-year-old daughter Mia, Joy DeJaeger, of Norwalk, was one of the many that came to honor ancestors. “My heritage is Japanese-American,” she explained. “My parents emigrated here from Hiroshima in 1952. My dad was a missionary, who just passed. He came to California as a young man and met my mom, an American. He came to help Japanese-Americans who were being oppressed in the United States after World War II.”

Dressed in yukatas, Mayumi Kleinman and her husband George said they were long-time members of the Japan Society and attend most of the group’s events. With regard to the Bon-Odori, Mayumi said, “I like the dancing and drum performances.”

Motoko Ishizuka of Cos Cob brought her two daughters Jenny, 3, and Catie, 5, to the event. “I wanted to show them the culture,” she said. “This is fun for the whole family.” On a more serious note, though, Motoko added, “Many of my friends’ friends were affected by the tsunami. It was terrible. We want to do anything we can to help.”

Souksakhone “Suki” Sithiphon came up from Norwalk to attend the Fest, meeting family that came down from Hartford. Of Laotian/Thai heritage, she was no less enthusiastic about the Japanese celebration. In fact, her family was special guests of the Japan Society. Her father, Boungai, is president of the Connecticut Laotian Society and held an event in New Britain back in late June that raised $3,700 for relief of Japanese quake survivors. He was introduced to the gathering and recognized for his efforts by Yumi McDonald.

In addition to enjoying the festivities, Suki and Boungai hoped to do some networking with Asian community members that had gathered.

First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, inconspicuous on the sidelines in a ballcap and sunglasses, had a special connection to the event. “I lived in Tokyo for eight years as a CBS News correspondent,” he said. “I have great affection for the Japanese people and their culture. Even the weather today reminds me of a Japanese summer – hot and humid. Even during the hot summer, Japanese would dress very elegantly. I have very good memories of my stay.”

With regard to the devastating quakes in Japan earlier this year, Joseloff said, “Japan is a very resilient country that has suffered disasters for centuries. They’ll get through this. Meanwhile, we will continue to support the private organizations here that are helping Japan. The Asian community is one of the largest minority populations in Westport.”

Hot Time at Pequot’s Summer Book Sale

Hot Time at Pequot’s 
Summer Book Sale:
High temps limit traffic on opening day of 5-day event
By Mike Lauterborn
(posted to 7/22)
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Southport, CT – The only thing hotter in Southport than the day’s temperatures was the much-anticipated opening of Pequot Library’s 51st Annual Summer Book Sale. At least, it started out that way when the event opened at 9 a.m. and a crowd rushed the gate. But thermometer readings that climbed above 100 trimmed afternoon crowds to a couple dozen hearty souls.

In large white tents on the browned-out grounds of the Pequot Avenue institution, as well as in the facility’s air-conditioned auditorium, sale goers combed row after row of book titles, CD labels, VHS jackets and more to find palatable choices to curl up and review, resell as dealers or even repurpose as Virginia Marr and Sarah Whiteley, both of Norwalk, were planning.

“We’re looking for antique hard cover books, out of which we will attempt to make purses,” said Whiteley. “I don’t know what we’re going to do with the pages. So, Shakespeare’s Othello will be the new designer clutch purse.”

With regard to the heat, Marr said, “I went to school in Louisiana, so I’m used to the heat. It’s like this every day.”

Whiteley had a completely opposite take. “I’m sweating,” she said. “Every step I take is painful. There are pockets of the tents here that are just too hot to enter, and the only breeze is sticky and hot.”

Kimberly Wasko, an Ansonia resident who works in Westport, had taken a half day to attend the sale. “I look for mostly oversized paperback fiction and mysteries,” she said, mopping sweat from her brow. About the hot temps she said, “The heat is good and bad at the same time. Good in terms of there being fewer people here than previous years. Bad because it’s stifling and I’m dripping. I should have brought a towel!”

Ted Murena, co-chair of the sale, seemed apologetic about the heat. “We always seem to pick the hottest weekend of the year,” he said. “It feels like a sauna today. We had more people than expected first thing this morning, though numbers are down from previous years due to the heat.”

Murena said the library had taken special measures to ensure the safety of its patrons in the unusually hot environment. “We have put out four large dispensers of water, with cups, to keep people hydrated.”

Murena added that there are 150,000 items on sale, including books, CDs, records, DVDs, VHS tapes and more. Over 30 categories are represented, from Atlases and Dictionaries to Young Adult titles. On Sunday, there will be a “reading for children” tent, where additional children’s book titles will be made available. In addition to the merchandise, CafĂ© Lulu is onsite with gourmet sandwiches and cold refreshing drinks and radio station WPKN will be around on the weekend broadcasting live.

It was all a great draw for Devon Dopfel, who came all the way down with her dad from Framingham, Massachusetts. “As a hobby, my dad and I sell books,” she said. “This is one of the biggest sales, so it’s worth the trip. I’m a personal trainer, so I look for health and fitness titles. My dad likes business books.”

As a trainer, she had experience dealing with heat. “I’ve been doing a good job of hydrating,” she said. “I’m used to being outside working, so I’m not too bothered.”

Library staffer Robin Jerrild related a hot temps anecdote, while walking through the large tent straightening books. “We shoot a cannon off to start the sale,” she said. “The Pequot Yacht Club loaned it to us this year. The staff member that brought it over said that, at the Club, people were getting dizzy from the heat. He suggested we post OSHA signs saying what to do in a heat emergency.”

Indeed, the library printed out and posted several of these distinctive signs all around the venue.

The temps wouldn’t interrupt Jackie Ryan. A Monroe resident who teaches at the Bridgeport Juvenile Detention Center, she was on a mission to secure materials for her classes. “They are in desperate need of books, for a variety of ages.”

Ryan said it was “sweltering but worth coming” and was taking her time and pacing herself.

She wasn’t the only teacher on hand. Shannon Palumbo, of Waterbury, and Giovanna Baker, are instructors at Black Rock School in Bridgeport and were given a $100 grant to buys books for their classes. At checkout, their purchases totaled up to that amount – mission completed.

Pequot Library Summer Book Sale Days/Hours/Pricing:
Friday: 9am – 8pm (Items are twice the cost of the marked price)
Saturday and Sunday: 9am – 5:30pm (Items priced as marked)
Monday: 9am – 6pm (Items half price)
Tuesday: 9am – 2pm (Items are $5 for a bag)

For more information, call 203-259-0346 or visit

Meeting of the Minds at Westport Arts Center

Meeting of the Minds at 
Westport Arts Center
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Westport News)

Fairfield, CT – Ding! Ding! “Ok, let’s go people! Up! Up!” barked Peter Van Heerden, Westport Arts Center’s new executive director, clanging a pair of small gongs and herding groups of people from one table station to another Thursday evening.

It was all part of the fun in a program dubbed “Expert Minds”, sponsored by the Riverside Avenue-based Center in partnership with non-profit Green Village Initiative (GVI). The evening offered participants the opportunity to have intimate sit-downs with nine experts from diverse environmental fields and engage the experts in constructive conversation for 15 minutes at a time – speed-dating style. Seated four or five to a table, participants and experts exchanged questions, comments and information with the objective of expanding visionary thoughts and ideas.

Featured experts included John Fifield, an innovator in architectural design solutions; Julie Belaga, a legendary environmental policy reformer; Deepika Saksena, a zero waste manager; David Brown, public health toxicologist; Maxine Bleiweis, librarian; Watts Wacker, futurist; Bill Taibe, sustainable culinary master; Eden Werring, arts and education advocate; and John Solder, world champion robotics technician.

“We met with GVI, run by Dan Levinson, and they were interested in doing something community based,” said Heerden. “The program we came up with connects the general public with community leaders, so many pockets of information can be mutually exchanged. I suggested the speed-dating format after seeing it used successfully by organizations in my native South Africa. This is really speed dating for the mind.”

Each participant was issued a card listing four stations they would be visiting. Two fifteen minute rounds began the evening, followed by a short break, then two more fifteen minute rounds. Heerden told the group that their discussions should be collaborative, engaging and stimulating, with full participation from everyone.

As the first sessions commenced, ran their course and the groups broke for wine and finger foods, participant and Westporter Stacie Curran, who had just met with expert Saksena, said, “I learned tips like taking my own plate and cup to fast food places and deli’s to make less garbage, and how to compost. At the same time, I discovered that single stream recycling and anti-bacterial products may do more environmental harm than good. It was a tremendous 15 minutes. I learned a ton.”

Westporter Annie Harnick, 19, met with expert Werring. “She was very focused on philanthropy and getting the younger generation more involved,” Harnick said. “She wanted to know how to peak our interest. Our generation is really motivated to help, perhaps more than any other generation before us. It feels good to give.”

Robotics expert Solder, a mere 17, liked the premise of the evening. “It’s meant to stimulate minds,” he said. “It stimulates me just to present my ideas. There’s nothing better than this type of interaction.”

Jossie Fifield, expert John Fifield’s daughter, sat with Bill Taibe. “He explained that in order to make what he makes is costly. It made me wonder how that could be made more accessible for people of lesser means.”

GVI’s Levinson said he was impressed with this program and the new director’s energy. “Peter is barely 30 and has done a good job of getting up to speed,” he said. “He’s really going to take the Center in some exciting new directions.”