Opinion

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Our nation suffered yet another tragedy last week when an avowed racist allegedly murdered nine people at the famous Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina, and it didn’t take long for the debates to start.

Should the Confederate flag still be flown? Does institutional racism still exist? Should the suspected shooter, Dylann Roof, be labeled as a terrorist?

The correct answer depends on whom you are speaking to. Most people already have an opinion and are sticking to it, which really doesn’t solve any of the important issues this most recent incident brings to light. Nine innocent people are still dead.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of hate groups nationwide has increased by 30 percent since 2000. In addition, antigovernment groups rose from 149 in 2008 to 874 in 2014 — numbers that jumped following the financial downturn and the election of President Barack Obama. The center also cited an influx of nonwhite immigrants as another factor.

“This growth in extremism has been aided by mainstream media figures and politicians who have used their platforms to legitimize false propaganda about immigrants and other minorities and spread the kind of paranoid conspiracy theories on which militia groups thrive,” the center said on its website.

We are lucky to live in a country that values freedom of speech and there are countless platforms to voice our opinions today as the Internet continues to connect us. But, it also gives individuals a space to spread their message with like-minded people. Our nation has a serious case of confirmation bias — the tendency to read, listen and seek out information that we agree with — and it is a big issue.

Those who condemn the killings but continue to spew vitriol are fueling a fire. The effects of the South Carolina shooting rippled throughout the country because they could happen in any community, including our own. In fact, one of the victims was a blood relative of a family from Port Jefferson.

The chilling notion that hatred and racism still persist in modern American society should not be ignored. Our freedoms come with responsibility and those who preach hatred against any group of people are wrong. As a society we need to be kinder, or at least remember the lessons we learned as children.

Let’s think before we speak, and if we don’t have anything nice to say, let’s not say it at all.

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Curiosity won and I arranged to travel into New York City on the new Sea Jitney last Friday afternoon. The ferry, with a capacity of some 150 people, runs between Highlands, N.J., near Sandy Hook, picks up the bulk of its passengers at the 35th Street terminal on the East River, then sails to the Port Jefferson dock, a two-hour ride. I took the ride in reverse, using the new water route to get into Manhattan.

Here is what I can tell you about the trip.

Port-Jeff-4th-of-JulywIt is a beautiful and serene cruise down Long Island Sound. I stood at the rail on the upper deck, watching the lush green bluffs of the Island silently slip by, thinking that the view of the land from the water probably hadn’t changed much since the Indians paddled their canoes along the waterway. The day was cool, the air smelled of salt water and the boat barely rocked as it hugged the North Shore and powered along, escorted by an occasional seagull. I could have been anywhere, I suppose, on any river cruise, until we reached Queens and the boat traffic became heavier, with barges, tugs, tankers and fishing boats plying the waters.

We began seeing the many bridges that herald the approaching port. Although I was born and grew up in Manhattan, I had never seen this perspective of the borough before. The bridges are the sentinels as the distant skyline, with its high-rise buildings, announces the coming metropolis.

We slid through Hell Gate, the place where waters from the Sound and the East River meet, then started downtown. There were all the east side landmarks, from the East River Drive and the Triborough Bridge — known officially as the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge — on the northern end to the unmistakable outline of the United Nations Plaza, followed shortly by the canopy of the 35th Street dock.

Without much ado, the captain neatly nosed the ferry to the pier, and I was walking down the gangplank and into the crowds and energy of Friday evening city life. The docks were filled with people waiting for other ferries, and helicopters were landing and taking off from the adjoining heliport. Red and blue buses were allegedly taking people across town for free, although I didn’t immediately see them in the crowded streets.

Municipal green and yellow buses were carrying people uptown and downtown.

The abrupt change from the serenity of the water to the cacophony and crowds of the New York City street scene was something of a shock but one that was short lived as we melted into the mass of humanity and went on our way.

The ferry is a stress-free way of traveling to and from the city, and I can hardly wait to take it again — just for the pleasure of being on the water in such a beautiful place.

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We don’t start at the top of a mountain, climb on a bicycle and coast to the bottom. That’s not how education works.

My daughter recently graduated from middle school. In a room packed with proud parents, school officials shared their observations of this “special” class.

One of the officials offered several stories. “I says,” he began, “that this is a great school.” “I says”? Really? “To fully understand the contribution this class makes to the community,” he continued. I know graduation isn’t about grammar, or is it? If school encourages students to learn, to push themselves and to work hard, it behooves these teachers and those who provide direction to provide a good example.

On our son’s previous report cards, teachers have written that he “reads a lot” and has “a lot of energy” and is “a lot of fun.” Hmm.

By the time teachers reach the end of a marking period, they have an enormous stack of papers to grade, a need to tally all the times their students were absent, and an administrative burden that takes them away from the front of the room, where they would otherwise have the opportunity to inspire and challenge.

These report cards are, perhaps, not the forum for aspiring writers to share a Dickensian turn of phrase or a Shakespearean allusion. And, yet, they are a way for teachers to spell out how our children are doing and indicate opportunities for growth.

My father-in-law has this incredibly amusing routine in which he discusses the modern-day little leaguer.
“Johnny gets up there, holds the bat all wrong, his knees knock into each other, he’s looking into the stands and he watches three straight-called strikes,” he says.

“He puts the bat down and goes back to the bench where the coach congratulates him on a good at-bat,” he continues.

“Good at-bat?” my father-in-law demands, his voice rising in sarcastic surprise. “Seriously? What exactly was good about it? You can convince little Johnny that he’s doing well, but I certainly wouldn’t.”

Harsh? Yes, of course. Inappropriate? Possibly. But, here’s the thing: Kids know when they’re moving forward, when they’re marking time and when they’re mailing it in, regardless of the sales and marketing job parents and teachers sometimes provide as they try to convince them that they’re “truly exceptional.”

Several years ago, I accompanied my daughter on a class field trip to the Bronx Zoo. On the way home, I sat next to a teacher I’d never met. She impressed not only with what she knew about the animals at the zoo, educational standards and American history, but with the way she expressed herself and with her ability to listen. When we returned from the bus ride, I told my wife I hoped our daughter would have the privilege of learning in this teacher’s class.

Two years later, my hope became a reality. Hearing that this teacher had a reputation for giving considerable amounts of homework, our daughter predicted it would be a “terrible year.” By the end of the first marking period, our daughter had adapted to the workload, planned every evening and threw herself into her studies.

She beamed at her teacher every time she saw her.

As I think back on that relatively short bus ride, I can’t help wondering how schools choose and then evaluate their teachers. Educators with the gift to connect, inspire and demand genuine effort from students can and should have the opportunity to help shape America’s future.

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Pumping nitrogen into our local waters can contribute to fish kills and have other nasty environmental effects. File photo by Rachel Shapiro

There is no need more basic than clean water. We need it in its simplest form to survive, but we also need it to be clean so that it can sustain the animals and plants we eat and support the environments we live in. So why aren’t we trying harder to avoid pumping it with toxins?

Tens of thousands of dead bunker fish have recently washed up on eastern Long Island, killed by low levels of dissolved oxygen in the water. Algal blooms are a cause of those low oxygen levels, and that’s where we come in — the blooms, in turn, can be caused by excess nitrogen in the water. How does that nitrogen get there? It can come from our septic and sewage treatment systems and from the fertilizers we use on our nicely manicured lawns, to name just a few sources.

We may not be able to avoid using the toilet, but we can easily refrain from dumping fertilizers with harmful chemicals into the ground and our water supply. But many of us are operating on obsolete waste systems and our governments should be making it a top priority — in action, not just rhetoric — to move communities over from septic to sewer.

This is undoubtedly a costly process, but it has benefits beyond the immediate. For example, sewer systems enable and encourage development, which is important for all of the downtown areas we are working to revitalize. Revitalized downtowns could help keep young people on Long Island, reversing the brain drain that is the source of such frequent sound bites for our politicians.

Shoring up our water management plans would create a ripple effect throughout so many other important items on our political and social agendas. Without clean water, none of these ambitious improvements will be achieved. We are calling for a heightened awareness from both our neighbors and our public officials not to let our water initiatives run dry.

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I’ve got a proposal for you. You write in and share the kinds of acts that reflect positive role models and I’ll share them with our readers.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve got bad news fatigue, reading headlines online and in newspapers about people doing all kinds of terrible things to strangers, neighbors and family members.

Every time an athlete, actor or politician does something embarrassing, awful or illegal, it becomes the talk of the town, triggering endless discussions about negative role models, driven by the pampered lives of those accustomed to living without boundaries.

We have become a culture of rubberneckers, watching the “gotcha” moments when reporters demand accountability from horrible landlords. We also watch shows like “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” where people routinely hurt themselves doing ill-advised activities, like jumping over something sharp on a skateboard.

Yes, of course, some of those “gotcha” moments can benefit us, helping us as we stay vigilant against the same kind of scams or illegal activities we don’t want to trick us. But what about recognizing and emulating those people who affect positive change and tap into a seemingly endless wellspring of energy to improve the community?

How about the person answering the phone who has a kind, supportive word for anyone who calls; the receptionist who remembers every patient who comes into a doctor’s office; or the crossing guard who holds a stop sign in the middle of the busy morning commute, demanding safety for every child and encouraging anxious kids on their way to classes.

As we approach the longest day of the year, I’d like to offer you a chance to celebrate the sunshine in our communities. It’s harder for newspapers to see the sort of random acts of kindness that people share every day. After all, the police have press conferences and updates whenever there’s a crime spree or when someone does something the public needs to know about so we can protect ourselves.

A friend of ours recently started battling serious health issues. His wife has been by his side, while his children continue to go about their daily routines, to the extent possible. They go to school, take tests and walk the dog. Once their friends learned about these challenges, they rallied around the family, signing up through an organization called Lotsa Helping Hands to help provide meals and share in the dog responsibilities. These are the sort of things people routinely do to make life better for each other.

We have role models throughout our community. My son’s teacher, for example, recently noticed that he earned a lower grade on a quiz than she was accustomed to seeing from him. He didn’t fail and it didn’t cause his grade to drop dramatically. Still, she didn’t write off the result as a bad day or chalk it up to adolescent distraction. Instead, she asked to speak with him for a moment after class, where she went over each of the areas where he lost points. I’m sure that happens regularly with teachers throughout the community, who encourage and support their students in a way that might one day ignite a successful career.

To offer a corollary to the Homeland Security slogan, I’d like to suggest that “If you see something great, say something.” People routinely go out of their way to make a world filled with challenges a better place. It’s often the small things that stay with us through the day, like the magic that comes from transforming a child’s anxious frown into a self-assured grin.

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By Daniel Dunaief

Many dads don’t plan the same way moms do. Sure, we want what’s best for our kids, and, of course, we think about the present and the future while remaining aware of the past and the lessons it might teach us.
But, many of us have a hunter-gatherer mentality, or now-approach, to life.

Perhaps it’s easiest to illustrate this with a description. For my daughter, waiting for a big party six months away is something she savors. She can contemplate what she needs to do to prepare and keep the bigger goal in mind each week.

If I mention something, like, say, a trip to Yankee Stadium, to my son, he wants it now, now, now, even if it’s the middle of the winter. Something happening in six months might as well be happening in 2020.

When boys become men, many of us keep this view of the world. We see today as an unfolding series of decisions and not a script.

Like women, men follow the schedules we set out for ourselves and, more often than not, for our children. We don’t have the luxury of saying, “I agreed to coach this team, but I feel like taking a canoe ride today.”

The time known as now was often planned weeks and, perhaps, months ago, making it harder to react in the moment. As we grow up, we rarely pursue the impulse to do whatever we want most of the time because what we planned takes precedence.

As a father on Father’s Day, I imagine there are plenty of men out there for whom the greatest gift on the day would be the ability to make a decision in the moment. Feel like having a catch, son? Sure, dad. Feel like taking a jog and looking for deer, turtles and cardinals? Hey, why not? Want to head to The Good Steer for lip-smacking, spectacular onion rings? Definitely!

As Father’s Day approaches, I think about my own dad, who died over a quarter of a century ago. I remember those moments when as a family we walked along a trail in Quebec, stepping carefully through shallow, icy cold water on our way up the huge steps near a waterfall.

I recall those rare moments, which were much more unusual back then than they are today, when my father would put on a mitt and have a catch with us, or when, on vacation, we’d play family baseball.

How do we plan to be spontaneous? When we leave open some time, is there a chance we should be doing something better? And, what if something better, for one or all of us, comes along? Is it selfish to want to hang out, watch an old movie, sway in a hammock, drive to a farm stand to pick berries, or fly a kite?

Yes, I still love to fly kites and no, I’m not good at it. I find something about the way the wind in the moment sends the kite diving and climbing entertaining.

It’s ironic, really. When my father was annoyed, he used to say, “Oh, go fly a kite!” My response, especially on Father’s Day: “Don’t mind if I do.”

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Photo from Flickr/David Rodriguez Martin

As a community newspaper, we find ourselves tossing around the phrase “NIMBY” — standing for “not in my backyard” — from time to time. But it’s usually more of an expression, and a negative one, than a literal translation of residents resisting something from going into their actual backyards.

But in the case of drones, NIMBY could not be taken more literally.

Call them drones, call them unmanned aircraft systems — either way, the public perception of these flying devices is still developing as they buzz around the skies.

Huntington Town attempted this week to ground concerns over these drones when it introduced a resolution that would regulate their use for the betterment of public health, privacy and safety “so that operation of same is respectful of community standards [and] the concerns of residents, as well as protect property and privacy rights,” the resolution said.

Huntington wasn’t alone in its efforts to come out a step ahead of drone regulation, either. U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer and several other elected leaders have been banging the drone drum for months now, calling on the Federal Aviation Administration to require drones to fly below 500 feet and limit where they can fly.

While we understand the legislative urge to keep an eye on the sky for the sake of public privacy and safety, we hope our public leaders don’t turn the drone debate into a droning drain on resources.

There are several things to consider when it comes to drawing the legislative line for drones. At what point would new laws encroach upon our personal freedoms? Whose job is it to regulate them? Does the regulator depend on how high the drone flies or what jurisdiction is underneath it? Should regulations vary based upon the type of drone?

Moving forward, our local municipalities should not jump the gun. Officials should properly investigate all the nuts and bolts of the drone industry and be careful when determining where governments should step in.

Flying a drone is not like flying a kite, and we, like many of our neighbors, are concerned about personal privacy and public safety. All we ask is that our elected officials consider the whole subject carefully before inking laws.

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Teddy will be 10 years old this week. Who is Teddy? That’s an interesting question that we have frequently debated over the years. Ostensibly Teddy is a dog, a gorgeous golden retriever, on the large and hairy side.

But we who live with him know differently. While he masquerades as a dog, trotting around the house drinking and eating from his dog bowls and otherwise sleeping and greeting, we know he is much too wise to be a dog. I’ve not been a believer in reincarnation particularly, but if there is such a process, Teddy is the real deal.

We’ve speculated on which of our ancestors he might be, and we’ve not come up with a certain identity. But there is no question regarding his intelligence. For example, when we are sitting in the living room and talking, he will curl up in the center of the room and join the conversation. Really. To the extent that he is able, he communicates with throaty and moaning sounds up and down the human scale. When he wants to go out, he will come over to where I am reading and try to look me in the eye. If I refuse to meet his gaze, he will plop his head across the newspaper or book I am holding, forcing me to acknowledge his presence.

When I do, he will jerk his head in the direction of the front door repeatedly until I get up to get the leash.

Then he will bound toward the door while uttering a series of falsetto sounds clearly expressing his joy.

OK, so that’s not so brilliant. Every dog knows how to communicate its biological needs to its walker. But consider this. It’s raining, dark and late. I’m standing in front of him, leash in hand, asking encouragingly, “Want to go out?” No response. “Want to go out?” I ask again. Unmoving, he will shake his head from side to side. He has mastered the body language for “no.” He can also spell. If the time is right for his next outing and I interrupt the conversation with my family by asking if anyone wants to take him o-u-t, he will jump up and rush toward the door with the ritual histrionics.

Goldens do have the most expressive brown eyes. Sometimes, when I have something on my mind and no one else is around to overhear my monologue, I will talk to Teddy and he will fix his limpid eyes on me all the while. Now he may just be thinking, “What on earth is she carrying on about?” hoping that, if he stays still long enough, in the end I will give him a dog cookie. But that’s the wonderful thing about dogs: They never seem to have pejorative thought about the people who care for them. One of their greatest attributes is that they can’t repeat what you tell them. They can only listen sympathetically. We should all be so smart.

Teddy loves broccoli and kale, especially when prepared with some garlic. He also eats yellow and red peppers, spinach, mushrooms and onions, all with gusto. He does not eat tomatoes nor bananas.

Teddy bears his age with grace. In human years, he is in his 70s, and his hips give testimony. He has some distinguished white hairs among the gold around his muzzle, and he definitely likes to sleep a little later in the mornings. He has developed an impressive snore. Our daily walks are a stately event. No longer do I have to keep him on the leash for fear he will dash off to the nearby beach or visit his friends in the adjoining yards. He is content to walk at a moderate pace beside me — most of the time. When a rabbit crosses our path, he will look at it almost quizzically, as if wondering why he used to get all steamed up chasing a bunny.

A cat? Not so much. He will still go off in pursuit of one — for at least 50 feet — and then return to my side looking mildly embarrassed.

He needn’t be because one of his endearing traits is his playfulness. I never scold him for being a dog, even a dog in disguise. And I appreciate that, even if he is past retirement age, he still works at his job. He knows that his job is to guard the house, and if anyone should drive up in a car he doesn’t recognize, he will let loose with a series of ferocious baritone barks. That is, if he hasn’t slipped downstairs for a civilized afternoon nap. Happy Birthday, Teddy.

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We talk constantly. We speak to our spouses when we wake up, to our children when we try to get them up, to our friends on the way to work, to the person preparing our morning bagel, and on and on. Most of that speech is automatic.

“Hey, how are you doing?”
“Great, you?”
“Can’t complain. I mean, I could complain but who’d listen?”

When we’re not talking, we often hear an internal dialogue.

“Why didn’t you demand a raise?”
“Next time, next time.”
“You’re always saying that. This is next time.”
“Hey, stop yelling at me!”

Words are as natural most of the time as the steps we take on the way to or from the car, down the block, or up the stairs. We don’t think, “Left, right, left, right.” Wait, no, isn’t it, “Right, left, left, right, right?”

And yet, something happens to the natural flow of words when we have to give a speech. It’s not the same for everyone. I suspect many politicians are so comfortable giving speeches that they just need to know where the camera is to share their eloquence.

That’s not exactly the word I’d use to describe the times I’ve had to speak in front of large, or even medium-sized groups. I’ve spoken out in meetings many times about stories, offering my opinion or awareness of the history of an evolving story to a group of editors.

I’m fine in those situations. It’s when I get up in front of a group of people, many of whom I don’t know, to share some words on a subject that the discomfort begins.

I lick my lips regularly before I begin, as the saliva that pours forth from my mouth so readily at other times has decided that this moment is the ideal time to take a vacation.

My breathing becomes shallow and quick. “I, uh, would, uh, like to, uh, say a few words.”

Speeches are like walking on the bottom of the ocean, wearing heavy boots and breathing through a small tube. Suddenly, the words become like unknown and unseen obstacles, blocking the path to communicating something charming, witty, insightful and cohesive.

“Uh, hi, I’m, uh, uh, Dan, right, Dan.”

Why do those public words become so unfamiliar and uncomfortable? Is it because we can’t correct them? Do we feel as if we need to perform the words instead of just sharing what’s percolating in our minds at the time?

In the middle of a speech, we can’t say, “Where was I? Oh, yes, that’s it. I could really use a tuna sandwich right now.”

I recently gave a short speech in front of a group celebrating my brother’s birthday. I didn’t know many of the people in the room and even though it was a receptive audience, I started to feel the typical nerves building up in those last few moments.

The speech went fine, or so people have assured me. But then, of course, the voices in my head shared their customary public-speech criticism.

I became like all those pundits who second guess every word and decision after an election or after the big game. “You know,” I thought to myself, “you should have started with this joke. That would have been funnier.”

“Oh yeah?” I wanted to bark back at that self-critical voice. “Where were you 10 minutes ago?”

“I was here, you just couldn’t hear me because too many other voices were up here, shouting into your ear not to mess up.”

Yet it always seems to turn out all right. Until the next time.

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MaryEllen Elia succeeds John B. King Jr. as the state’s next education commissioner. Photo from state education department

Shortly after our newly-elected school board trustees are sworn in for the next school year, MaryEllen Elia will officially take her seat as New York’s top education official.

As a community newspaper, we understand just how much the neighborhoods we cover care about education. We’ve taken notes through countless school board meetings, forums on the Common Core Learning Standards and rallies for public education. We have witnessed the passion on both sides of the aisle when it comes to educating our kids.

But while the whole debate over Common Core, higher standards, testing and teacher evaluations — just to name a few — started out as a civil one, it has become overrun with rhetoric, anger and confusion. We hope Elia will help start a new conversation.

Critics of former commissioner John B. King Jr. often mention he had no experience in the classroom. We are pleased to see that Elia, who began her career as a social studies teacher in New York state, has nearly two decades of teaching experience.

In addition, the teacher evaluation system she helped develop received praise from the president of the American Federation of Teachers, the union that oversees many of our local teacher associations. The system uses student test scores as a factor, but also provides developmental support for teachers and utilizes a pay structure that encourages teachers to take on more challenging positions.

We see this system as a sort of compromise and we want to see similar outcomes in New York with Elia at the helm. Both sides need to cooperate with each other, remain respectful and — most importantly — leave politics out of the classroom.

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