Opinion

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John Feal speaks at an event advocating for first responders in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. File photo

The definition of hero is a person who is admired, or idealized, for courage. And we can’t think of a more courageous act than stepping up and putting others first in the aftermath of a tragedy like the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack.

When the dust had settled on that horrific day, elected leaders stood hand-in-hand with our first responders, whether they were firefighters, police officers or just volunteers. The narrative was that we would honor their sacrifices and do whatever it took to back them up, long after the debris was removed.

And yet here we are, 14 years later, making them wait to see whether the government will have their backs when they need it most. Never forget, right?

This week, Nesconset native John Feal headed to Washington, D.C., alongside other heroic first responders from across the Island, state and country to call on Congress to renew the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act. Originally approved five years ago, the legislation helped provide health care and programs to more than 33,000 of our first responders and their families because of complications stemming from their efforts at Ground Zero. But that legislation is slated to expire next month, and it’s not clear whether it will be renewed.

What happened to doing whatever it took to support our heroes? It is shameful to have this same discussion every few years, once legislation expires, because all that does is turn these people into political bargaining chips. To us, that doesn’t seem like a worthy reward for their sacrifices.

It’s time to take permanent action so people like Feal and the many others who worked alongside him know that we will have their backs — because they had ours when we needed it most.

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The night starts off with the top dog standing in front of a packed auditorium, selling all of us on the idea that what our children are about to receive in the form of another year of education at their fine institution is a spectacular blend of academic learning, extracurricular opportunities, social growth and development, and personal inspiration.

Ah, can’t you just hear the academic angels singing?

Somewhere in that magical evening known as Back to School Night, the principal and his or her vice-principal minions suggest how spectacular the teachers are, how magnificent the community is, how incredible the resources are and, most of all, how wonderful the parents are for being involved and coming to this Evening of Champions.

These people who are in these top academic positions are often doctors, although they’re not the kind with stethoscopes and they don’t have a waiting room full of old copies of People magazine.

They assure us that they’re people, too, and that they’ve been where we are. They know what it’s like to have someone they’ve brought into the world treat them as if they’re somewhere between an athlete’s foot fungus and a pimple surfacing on the tip of their nose just before the most incredible moment of their lives.

But, wait, there’s more. Their teachers tell us what they’ll learn, they smile, shake our hands — and assure us how excited they are to be sharing in this experience with our wonderful children.

Wonderful? Seriously? We can only hope that’s the case when they’re in school because the “wonderful” has been squeezed out of them by hormones that turn their voices into violins with broken strings, by their tough-love coaches, and by their would-be girlfriends and boyfriends who have decided that today is perfect to send them a text saying, “Sorry, we can’t date anymore because I’m looking for someone better.”

It’s almost like one of those old-fashioned sing-alongs, where we watch teachers with their Smart Boards at the front of the room, following the bouncing ball as it wows us with one after another of the stops on the journey to enlightenment.

For comic relief, we might get to hear from a teacher who seems about as comfortable speaking in public as I did when I was in seventh grade. He might look down at his feet as he talks, read from a script or take two huge gulps before each sentence. Speaking in front of a group of people, we realize quickly, is not exactly the ideal way to spend his day.

As they talk, they tell us how much they love a subject that, truth be told, might not be their first choice. However, the nearest district hiring biology teachers is an hour away and our school desperately needs a language arts teacher. They implore us to share information about our kids. That’s when we reach into our sales bag and suggest how eager our children are to fill their minds with inspiration and information. We plaster an enthusiastic smile on our faces as we hand in our creative writing assignments.

We emerge from the school, ready to take all that sales energy and turn ourselves into cheerleaders for education and our children.

“Oh, honey, I met your science teacher last night and she seemed so spectacular.”

“That’s interesting, Dad, because my science teacher is a man.”

“Wait, are you joking?”

The children share a devilish smile, pick up their heavy backpacks and trudge off to a place where the sounds in the real world corridors — real and in their own heads — are often nothing like a chorus of those academic angels.

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Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone makes his way down the marathon route in a previous running event held in the county. Photo from Bellone’s office

By Steve Bellone

Suffolk County is home to more than 90,000 veterans, the largest population of veterans in any county in New York State. They have selflessly served their country, in war and in times of peace, making sacrifices to ensure our safety and protect our way of life.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone makes his way down the marathon route in a previous running event held in the county. Photo from Bellone’s office
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone makes his way down the marathon route in a previous running event held in the county. Photo from Bellone’s office

We all have a duty to make sure that veterans are not overlooked when they return to civilian life. Too often, veterans return home from service in need of our assistance and recognition for a job well done.

I am proud that the Suffolk County Veterans Service Agency and our many local veterans organizations work tirelessly to meet the needs of veterans who are struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, lack of quality housing and job assistance. No veteran should have to fight another battle to receive needed services and adjust to civilian life.

The fact is, there is so much more we need to do to support our veterans. That is why I helped organize the first ever Suffolk County Marathon and Half Marathon to Support Our Veterans.

This event will kick off from Heckscher State Park, this Sunday, Sept. 13 and travel through many of our amazing downtowns. Every dollar that we net from this marathon will help fund services which will benefit our Suffolk County veterans community.

As a veteran myself, I will be participating in the event as one of the thousands running it. But, there are so many ways to be involved.

You can join in this effort to support veterans by running, volunteering or cheering on others who are participating in this great cause. In addition to the race, The Taste of Long Island festival will show off locally produced wine, food and drinks, with entertainment provided by bands made up of veterans. Among the thousands of runners are many veterans and active-duty members of the services.

I encourage you to go to www.suffolkmarathon.com to learn more about how you can be part of history and honoring our great veterans community. I look forward to seeing you out there.

Steve Bellone is the Suffolk County Executive.

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This month, hoards of Long Island students started their first year of high school. Almost all of those new ninth-graders were born in 2001, and they were either infants during the 9/11 terrorist attacks or still growing in their mothers’ bellies.

It’s shocking that we’ve reached this point, since the memories of what happened that day are still tender for so many of us. How can they be 14 years past? But time, as it always has and always will, marched along and here we are.

The kids who are in ninth grade now will be in college in no time, and the professional world after that. They will be part of a generation of adults who will discover new cures for diseases, build new developments in our neighborhoods, create new art to share their feelings about the world we all live in. It’s crucial that we impart to them how significant Sept. 11, 2001, was and continues to be, and how much it changed the world.

There’s a mantra we hear so often that we hope it doesn’t lose its power: Never forget. We say it in particular about the Holocaust and the other horrors of World War II, such as the attack on Pearl Harbor, and it carries a lot of weight in that context because there are so few Holocaust survivors and WWII veterans who are still alive. But it is also appropriate to say in the case of 9/11, this society’s day that will live in infamy.

However, in light of the milestone we have reached, of our children born in 2001 reaching a significant level of maturity and awareness, we would add something to that concept: Never forget, and never stop talking.

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Disney has owned the imagination of children’s minds for decades. When I was a child, I certainly was well aware of Mickey Mouse and all his pals. “Mic” — see you real soon — “key” — why? Because we like you — “Mouse.” The catchy and inviting songs and cartoons helped define my childhood, much the way endless texting, emojis and Taylor Swift songs do for this generation.

Recently, we took our son to the Broadway production of “Aladdin.” While the singing, dancing, staging, choreography, sets and lighting were truly spectacular, something occurred to me. What role do parents play in these Disney stories, which become the foundation of our children’s cultural legends?

Looking at Aladdin himself, the Broadway version suggests he loved his parents and that he thinks they were spectacular people. That’s nice, but they are gone from the picture, which makes them invisible saints, who help by inspiring him to be better or reminding him from a distance that he hasn’t done much with his life besides living as a “street rat” with a heart.

Then, there’s the ridiculous, all-powerful sultan. He has educated his daughter and given her a chance to think for herself. Ultimately, though, he wants her to get married so her husband can rule the kingdom. That’s an inconsistent message from one of the many single parents Disney has brought to life.

How, exactly, can he not notice that his evil adviser manipulates him and is clearly out for his throne? Despite Jasmine’s fury with Jafar, the sultan doesn’t see Jafar for what he is. It seems this well-intentioned wealthy man who lives in a spectacular castle doesn’t listen to his daughter.

In “Beauty and the Beast,” Belle’s father Maurice, who is also a single parent, is an absent-minded genius she has to protect. Peter Pan? He takes kids away from their parents to Never Never Land. In “The Little Mermaid,” Ariel runs away from her father Triton to pursue a life — and a love — he has forbidden. Looking for Ariel’s mother? She’s not under or above the sea.

Speaking of a child without a mother, in “Finding Nemo” poor Nemo grows up under the overprotective fin of his humorless clownfish father Marlin. Sure, Marlin is heroic but he has a long journey, physically and emotionally, to find his son — and in a way, himself.

I don’t recall seeing Cinderella’s father at all, leaving her with the evil stepmother — seems like a bad call on the father’s part there, too — and her horrible stepsisters.

Maybe taking away parents — or turning them into buffoons — creates plot points that these heroes have to overcome. It gives them a chance to learn to trust themselves and their friends and to believe in who they are. I realize the stories aren’t about the parents and maybe, in some backhanded way, these stories encourage kids to find courage when their parents can’t simply hand it to them or purchase it online from Amazon.

I guess there wouldn’t be as much of a heroic role for a child who helped conquer something just by learning or listening to his well-intentioned parents or to grandparents who attend every concert and are eager to hear about school.

Taking parents away, or giving them questionable judgment, creates opportunities for kids to take control of their perilous lives.

Perhaps Disney has bequeathed real-life parents a gift through all these invisible or flawed guardians. It gives the rest of us a chance to say, “I messed up here, honey, but it could be worse: I could be a Disney parent.”

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It’s the start of the school season, and that should signal us to be a little more wary behind the wheel.

With some schools already in session and some schools opening soon, we are urging drivers who are rushing to and fro to bring their patience and common sense with them.

Just this week in Smithtown, a police checkpoint netted 11 individuals and charged them with DWI — most of those Smithtown residents. It’s a scary number.

Over in Cold Spring Harbor, on Woodbury Road, an elderly woman died after crashing into the woods on Friday evening.

With this kind of troubling traffic safety news becoming the norm lately, we all need to step up our defensive driving game instead of stepping on the gas.

When on the road, come to a full stop at a stop sign, not a rolling stop. Always stop behind a school bus with its lights on — a resident told us this week that she routinely witnesses cars blowing past buses that are stopped. Those are children that could potentially be put at risk. And it goes without saying that we should take extra precautions in school speed zones.

The list goes on. Always signal before merging into a lane. And if you’re in the wrong lane, don’t try to cut across multiple lanes, especially on major thoroughfares. Obey crosswalks — we can’t tell you how many times drives ignore them.

Following the rules of the road goes a long way in keeping our families safe. Let’s all be a little more courteous and careful behind the wheel.

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Brookhaven Town wants to limit the number of cars allowed per house. Photo by Elana Glowatz

Long Island is infamous for its numerous layers of government, and sometimes those layers try to legislate too much of our lives.

An underlying misconception about what truly affects “quality of life” is forcing our elected officials to pitch laws that are more knee-jerk reactions and overregulation than appropriate responses. We are seeing it in several North Shore communities, like in Brookhaven Town this week.

As part of the town’s fight against overcrowded and illegal rental houses — many of them inhabited by students in the neighborhoods around Stony Brook University — officials want to limit the number of allowed vehicles per bedroom in a house, to help them track the number of people living in a home.

But elected leaders are reacting based upon unrealistic expectations of what “quality of life” should mean to the average Long Islander.

Telling a homeowner how many vehicles they can have, based on the number of bedrooms in a home, is drawing a dangerous line in the sand. What would that do to the basic Brookhaven nuclear family with four older kids, sharing two bedrooms? What would that do to the average car collector? Let’s also not forget about a different — but relevant — issue on Long Island: It’s difficult to even get around out here without a vehicle because of shoddy public transportation. And now we are going to limit the number of cars a family home can possess?

There are already provisions in place to penalize irresponsible neighbors who make too much noise, don’t properly dispose of trash or park on lawns — true quality of life issues. Cracking down on vehicle ownership is beyond the pale, especially if everyone is parked legally. If we cannot use existing provisions to track or police rentals, perhaps they are not enough of a nuisance for us to get involved.

Neighborhoods change. People build. People leave. New people with new personalities come in. These things happen, and it isn’t the job of our county or town officials to make regulations in an attempt to control that.

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Hello, ladies,” the gentleman at the front door said. The blushing and grinning reminded me of middle school, where the athletic star walks into a room and the girls swooned.

Except that, in this case, it wasn’t a group of middle school girls, it was their middle-aged mothers.

“Hey, bub,” I wanted to shout, “back here, behind the considerably taller women sits a man.”

Of course, I didn’t say that, because I didn’t want to stand out, or even up, for that matter. I had a good seat and was waiting for a key moment to contribute something or to clear out.

I was at a do-gooders gathering. That’s not the name of it, because people don’t generally come up with such generic sounding names for a collection of people who want to make a change, to help people, to make a difference in the world. But, really, that’s what they were.

Why were they there? Who knows? I didn’t ask them. I suppose it could have been that they all felt a strong calling to contribute. It could have also been that they had friends who would be there that night and they wanted to do their part, alongside their close friends, to effect change. Or maybe it was because they were required to be there, because their daughters played on a sports team and the parents of the team captains had the responsibility to make sure everyone, and they meant everyone, as email after email said, attended and contributed.

After all, for this effort to be successful, they needed 100 percent participation. Lovely, lovely, lovely. But wait; I seem to recall reading this book called The Chocolate War, which kept springing to mind as I was furiously typing details of this meeting to my wife.

For instance, I told her that I’d never smelled such a powerful combination of floral scents. The host of this gathering had gone deep into the well of potpourri for a scent that, I’m guessing, carried over the river and through the woods all the way to grandma’s house. I also told her that I was the only man in the room and that there was a plate of cookies in the center of the island that no one touched.

Anyway, in The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier, Jerry Renault, on an assignment from a group of unofficial student leaders, is told not to sell chocolates as part of a fundraising campaign. When the assignment ends and he’s supposed to decide to accept the chocolates, he continues to refuse. Ultimately, he suffers serious consequences from rebelling against the school and the Vigils, the student thugs who effectively run the school.

I’m not suggesting that these delightful women, with their floral-scented kitchens and earnest, sincere, and heartfelt grins and plans are anything like the Vigils. They are working toward a great cause and are encouraging complete participation. But, something feels wrong about the compulsory nature of a good act.

Instead of everyone working for one, particular effort, perhaps this group could encourage full participation in a charity, good cause or effort of each player, or a family-choice activity. I get it, of course. The complete effort of the players and all their families could easily be greater than the sum of the parts of small efforts from each person.

Maybe it was because I was the only man in the room, or maybe it was because I am such a fan of The Chocolate War, but I couldn’t help wondering if there was a coercive undercurrent to all this cheerleading.

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Stock photo

We didn’t make up that headline. That is the name of an actual recent military study, the second of its kind, that found at least 9 million American youths are too overweight to serve in the armed forces.

That’s about a quarter of our young people between ages 17 and 24, according to population statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Being overweight or obese is the top medical reason preventing young people from enlisting, according to the military study. One retired Army general called childhood obesity “a potential threat to our national security” in the future.

In case anyone was unsure of whether we have a weight or obesity problem in this country, that fact should really hammer it home. The military study gives a snapshot of what is occurring throughout our entire nation.

The problem is parents.

Some may feel outrage to see this blunt statement in ink, but the fact is that parents are responsible for teaching their kids, partly by example and partly by directive, how to eat healthy and live a healthy lifestyle that includes physical activity.

It’s true there is a degree of health and nutrition education in schools and, of course, schools should strive to offer healthy food in their breakfast and lunch programs. However, school districts should only be supplementing what parents are supposed to do in their own homes. An obvious reason for this is that children spend a tremendous amount of time with their parents and learn the most from them and their examples throughout their lives. And it is up to parents to raise their children and show them how to make good decisions, not the public school system.

Of course there are medical conditions that cause weight gain, such as hypothyroidism and Cushing’s syndrome, and complicate matters. But those conditions — both of which are much more prevalent in females than males, who are the primary target for military recruitment — certainly do not account for anywhere near all of the overweight young people. In fact, both conditions are more likely to affect older people than children and young adults.

Some may argue that it’s hard to teach kids about proper nutrition when they are bombarded by fast food ads, or when the parents are busy working to support the family. But we’re not saying parenting is easy — we’re saying it’s a parent’s job.

Teaching kids how to eat healthy and exercise is important and many parents need to step up their game, or it’s not just our military recruitment numbers that will suffer.

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“Take me out to the ballpark” was the theme for all of last week, as I took my youngest grandchild on what has become a family tradition. Traditions can be great fun, and this one started when my first grandchild was 11 years old, which is to say about nine years ago. I signed us up then for the Elderhostel intergenerational touring program. Elderhostel, a not-for-profit tour company with an educational bent, that has since changed its name to Road Scholar, began offering specialized programs of usually one week’s duration for a grandparent accompanied by a grandchild in addition to their many other tours. That sounded like a good way to get to know my grandchild without his parents and sibling present, even as we might both learn something new, and we attended the NASA offering in Houston. The experience was totally satisfying and the stage was set for the remaining grandchildren, hence the trip last week.

Now to go on this particular tour, called Baseball: From Little League to the Hall of Fame With Your Grandchild, it helps if you like baseball — a lot — which I do, because it’s pretty much total immersion. We drove to Lock Haven University, the program provider, which is located in rural western Pennsylvania. That was the starting point, and when we arrived we discovered that there were eight boys and 10 grandparents enrolled in the program. The asymmetry was due to the fact that both grandparents accompanied a couple of the children. The families came from a broad geographic cross section of the country: California, Wisconsin, Vermont, North Carolina and Florida were represented, as well as another Long Island family from Port Jefferson.

The grandchildren started with a rigorous baseball clinic led by the Lock Haven baseball coach, and over the ensuing days the grandparents and grandchildren came to enjoy each other. Although the ages of the children ranged from 10 to 14, and their heights were dramatically different, the coach was readily able to integrate them into a display of fielding, throwing and hitting. The kids proved to be already accomplished, and the grandparents — who were lined up on benches in the shade of the dugout like birds on a wire — had much to cheer.

As you would imagine, we saw a number of baseball games, from major league play to the minors, to Little League. We were given an insider tour of the new and beautiful Phillies ballpark, then watched as the home team beat the Toronto Blue Jays, a particularly sweet victory for those of us who root for the Yankees since they are in a tight division race with the Toronto team. The Blue Jays loss narrowly kept the Yankees in first place.

We also watched the Reading Fightin Phils, a farm team of the Phillies organization, play the Auburn Doubledays in Reading, Pa.; and, on another night, the Williamsport Crosscutters take on the Auburn team. We even got as far north as Cooperstown, where we spent an afternoon in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. We did all this traveling by bus, leaving our cars behind in Lock Haven. The hours in the bus were made more palatable by the beauty of the countryside, largely undeveloped long stretches of lush, green forests alternating with occasional farms, silos and corrals. There were also several movies shown on the bus — with baseball as their unifying theme, of course. I must say, they were good ones, including “A League of Their Own” and the Kevin Costner award-winner, “Field of Dreams.”

The tour ended at the Little League Baseball World Series in Williamsport, Pa., with grandparents watching play from perches on the steep hills or seated in the shaded partial stadium; and grandchildren sliding down the hills on flattened cardboard boxes in between innings. That evening, Johnny Wilson Sr., a former Negro League baseball player and also member of the Harlem Globetrotters, spoke to us about his experiences in professional sports.

At age 88 he has seen profound changes in sports throughout his career. A trim and elegant man, he dispassionately shared some of the prejudices in his early years that blocked his advancement and undoubtedly broke his heart along the way. But his stories, like our baseball tour, had a happy end.

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