Opinion

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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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Former President Jimmy Carter’s announcement last week that he had four spots of cancer on his brain made me think of Wallace Hartley. Engaged to Maria Robinson, Hartley spent a week with his fiancée in Yorkshire, England before he brought his violin to lead the orchestra on the maiden voyage of the Titanic in 1912.

The 33-year-old violinist played music as the enormous ship floundered and disappeared with more than 1,500 other people into the frozen waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

After Hartley’s body was recovered, 40,000 people reportedly lined the route of his procession, while more than 1,000 people attended his funeral.

What is it about Hartley that captured the imagination of the people in England? Is it that he offered something resembling normalcy and decency in the face of certain death? Is it that he didn’t panic, dive overboard or do whatever he could to save himself? Maybe.

Or perhaps it’s that his swan song was so beautiful that it might have offered something remarkable, memorable and peaceful that night to two groups of people: those safely at a distance in lifeboats and the ones confronting the final moments of their mortality.

Last week, Carter, who is 90 years old, offered a picture of calm as he grinned, answered questions and remained positive throughout a public discussion of his health.

I’ve often heard people imagine what it is that makes humans different from other animals. At one point, a discussion centered around our use of tools. Chimpanzees, however, remove leaves and branches, jamming sticks — or in this case their own version of tools — into a termite mound and eating the insects attached to those branches.

Maybe we’re different, some have argued, because we use language. Given the extensive sounds of songbirds on Long Island, the range of noises dogs make when we return home after our bosses bark incessantly at us, or the calls of whales over hundreds of miles of ocean to each other, it’s hard to believe we hold an exclusive on language.

Among other things, maybe we’re different because we can see through time. We can imagine the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago, we can picture the age of the dinosaurs and we can work toward a 5-, 10- or even 20-year plan in our lives.

We can also salute the life of someone we knew. Long ago, when my son was 4, we passed a chipmunk roadkill. He asked whether the members of that chipmunk’s family missed him.

Despite the familiarity of routine in our lives, we recognize the uncertainty of each day, whether we have the good fortune to live as long as Carter or the misfortune to see a sudden end, the way Hartley did. In those final moments, if we get them, we might have an opportunity to offer a memorable swan song, tipping our caps to others who are still here, grinning the way Carter did, at a life well lived, at friends, at family and at memories that will outlive us.

More than 100 years later, Hartley’s name is immortalized at his grave and through the Internet, a tool for communicating developed long after he played his last note and offered what legend has it were among his final words: “Gentlemen, I bid you farewell.”

Carter has no idea how many notes he still has left to play with his diplomacy and his efforts to construct homes. In this press conference, however, he shared a broad smile and a reassuring tone, ready perhaps for the moment — whenever it comes — to bid us all a peaceful farewell.

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Teq CEO Damian Scarfo, and President Chris Hickey. Photo from Lisa Hendrickson

There’s been a lot of hubbub about the 21st century classroom, where interactive whiteboards replace chalk, and pencils and pens are subbed out for iPads and Chromebooks. Even our own governor has incentivized such reforms at our schools.

But let’s push pause and ask: Is all this technology helping or hurting? And what benefits are we missing out on in the real world beyond the bright screens?

This week, a Huntington Station company, Teq, announced it had partnered with Canadian company SMART Technologies — yes, the creators of the famous SMART Board that is a staple of today’s classrooms — to be the sole distributor of Smart products for grades K to 12 in New York. That’s a big deal and we applaud Teq’s success. The educational tech company, already projecting sales of $50 million this year, anticipates the partnership will boost its revenues 20 percent.

That’s not just chump change, and it’s a good deal for Long Island’s economy.

Yet how much of our new technologies are really needed for learning and how much are we just advancing for the sake of advancing? It feels like a lot of the new software and hardware is needed only to keep today’s student boredom at bay, as many kids are so used to having tech products in the home that they will not concentrate on paper.

A culture of distraction is one of the greatest setbacks of today’s overly technological society. We understand that it benefits our students to be familiar with today’s gadgets, so they will be prepared for tomorrow’s success. But it also benefits children to know what it feels like to hold a real book in their hands, to solve a difficult math problem using a pencil and loose-leaf notebook, to be able to tell time without a digital display, to play outside instead of staring at their phones.

Today’s kids are being handed iPads not long after retiring baby bottles.

Steve Jobs once told a New York Times reporter that he limited his own children’s tech time at home. Instead of rushing to live in a completely digital world, our educators, parents and political leaders should place importance on carving out some time for a little reality — some quiet time and disconnect to facilitate thinking and creativity.

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Good news. We are finally off the generator and back onto the electricity supplied routinely, but not to us these last nine days, by PSEG. Why have we been suffering while others around us have had electricity all this time? The answer has to do with supply and demand. Because there has been so much demand for contractors and carpenters as a result of the recent storm, we have had to wait our turn.

When the huge, stately tree that lived next to our driveway was snapped off at its roots by what the National Weather Service termed as straight-line wind — but not a tornado — it collapsed across our parking lot. The falling tree pulled down the lines and the tube that served as a conduit for the electrical wires on the rear of the building, too.

In effect it snapped the tube in two as if it were a matchstick. The electric company was not going to restore the lines that had been mounted outside the building until we were sure of the permanence of the wooden construction of our rear wall. And that required the approval of a contractor.

So we were hung up, waiting for help that wasn’t hurrying our way. Yes, we were kept in business by a big generator, powering our computers, Internet and phone lines but decidedly not our air conditioning. That required more energy than our generator could deliver. Perhaps you didn’t notice, those of you reading this, that there were a lot of beastly hot days during the last nine. We noticed. It was like the historically miserable sweatshop, I imagine. We kept going but it wasn’t pretty.

We would still be waiting but for a happy alternative. Yes, it required the approval of others, but that was fairly quickly forthcoming. We decided to trench the distance from the electric lines on the road, across the parking lot and into the basement. By doing so, we were able to avoid refastening the power lines to the back of our building.

Now we are no longer in a hurry for a contractor. More satisfying, too, is putting the electric lines underground, something we have been editorializing about for most of our almost-40 years of publishing. We can still lose power in future storms if lines are broken somewhere on the roads leading to our building, but not ever again if the problem is within our property.

In order to trench our way from the roadside electric lines to our building, we first had to get approval from PSEG, certifying that there were no other lines underground that we might be cutting into in the process. They call such on-site evaluation “marking,” and you have undoubtedly seen differently colored painted arrows and drawings on the roads that indicate where utility lines are or are not to go.

It took the better part of a day to do the trenching, lay in the lines, cover them with dirt and blacktop the ditch. PSEG was then summoned, and to their credit they arrived with three trucks that evening and
approved of the entire job.
We are set now to power on.

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We’ve all “had to go” at one point or another when the timing or location weren’t ideal. Maybe we were defending our dissertation, facing a pitcher in a big game, getting instructions about our first assignment at a new job, or sitting in the window seat of an airplane with two sleeping passengers between us and an aisle already crowded with people waiting to use the restroom.

A friend recently shared a “have to go” story that continues to give a chuckle to my kids, who suddenly tuned in because they sensed a real-life bathroom joke coming.

So, there he was, hiking with a group of his buddies. He was on a 6-mile trail when he noticed the familiar, unsettling rumbling in his stomach. Ignore it, he figured, because, as we all know, that always works so well. Well, no, not at all, actually.

Less than a mile later, the extreme effort to avoid soiling himself kept him from taking another step along the trail. He asked if anyone had toilet paper. Nope, they assured him, no luck. This was one of the many disadvantages of hiking with a group of men.

Once separated from the apparent toilet-paperless pack, my first thought would have been to avoid poison ivy and bears — or bears covered in poison ivy. However, he didn’t have the luxury of time for those kinds of concerns. As soon as he got his shorts down around his hiking boots, he had an instant explosion. Fortunately, he wasn’t trekking in the winter and there wasn’t loose snow overhead.

Disgusted by the stench from the first toxic release, he crab walked his way as far as he could to start round two. And so it went, for five rounds, until he left a connect-the-dots, “Hansel and Gretel” trail in the woods. When the contents of his digestive system were finally out, he faced the toilet paper dilemma.

He looked at the evergreen pine needles around him. Nature didn’t offer a solution.

He considered his underwear. He decided to rip it off and “go commando” the rest of the hike. Despite his best efforts, the underwear wouldn’t rip; it would only stretch, rendering it useless on two levels.

Taking off his shirt would work, but he was surrounded by mosquitoes. The only other option, he realized, was his hat. Fortunately, he said, the hat wasn’t as abrasive and uncomfortable as he imagined.

We’ve all been there. OK, well, we haven’t all exactly been on a trail without any toilet paper after our stomachs erupted. But we’ve all been in a situation where we’ve absolutely had to go at the wrong place, wrong time, or both.

In “Two Weeks Notice,” Sandra Bullock as Lucy Kelson is stuck on a stopped highway with her boss, millionaire George Wade played by Hugh Grant. Recognizing the urgency, Grant brings Bullock to a nearby camper and agrees to give the owners $1,000 to let her use the bathroom.

Until I figured out that I was lactose intolerant, I had numerous memorable urgent trips to the nearest restroom, including once in the middle of a baseball game and once in Philadelphia after my very first — and last — cheese steak.

The only upside to these agonizing moments — and it’s a small consolation — is that they can make for amusing and relatable anecdotes.

Oh, and to top off my friend’s hiking story, if you will, when he returned from the woods without his hat, one of his buddies realized his mistake. As it turned out, he did have a handful of tissues.

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A rain garden in Rocky Point is a pretty way to collect stormwater runoff. File photo

Just about every time there’s any significant rainfall on the North Shore, our newsroom gets an advisory against swimming in our local waters — mostly embayments off the Long Island Sound.

As it issues the advisories, the Suffolk County Department of Health Services always explains that stormwater runoff increases bacteria levels in waterways, and because these little nooks and crannies of water along the North Shore do not flush out as quickly as other places, it can be unhealthy to go for a dip.

Stormwater runoff is an environmental issue we talk about a lot, but it seems we are not actually addressing the problem. There’s so much pavement in our residential and commercial developments that rainwater has nowhere to go but toward the sea, and it carries with it all the dirt, chemicals and trash it passes along the way.

The ideal solution is increasing the amount of permeable surface in our neighborhoods so the runoff goes into the ground instead, where it is naturally filtered. We can do that by taking note of the locations we see to be in the most need of improvement and calling on our elected officials to install more catch basins, which absorb and help filter the runoff.

We can also lobby for our municipalities — and even our businesses as well — to use permeable surfaces in parking lots or driveways. These absorbent pavements are not just fantasy; they exist and, though they are more expensive than asphalt, would save us a ton of money on stormwater and environmental maintenance costs in the future. And most importantly, no matter the cost, they would help protect the only home planet we have.

On a personal level, we can help our local bodies of water by planting rain gardens on our properties, as they help absorb stormwater runoff, and by refusing to use harmful chemicals to treat our lawns.

Everyone can do something to ease the burden of bacteria on our waterways. Protecting the environment is a group effort, so we all need to step up to the plate.

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A friend of mine recently shopped for a dishwasher with son, age 8. He checked out all the specifications from one to the next, examining the price, checking out the Energy Star rating and comparing the colors to the other appliances in his kitchen.

The salesman gave the father and son team an overview of all the features. When my friend asked about the energy efficiency, the salesman suggested he could get one with a particular rating, but it was not that big of a deal.

My friend’s son insisted, “Hey, it protects the environment. You need to tell people that when they’re buying it.”

My friend does energy research, where he tries to find the most efficient way to produce energy, although not for dishwashers necessarily. He spends his days designing, developing and refining plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while keeping down the cost of supplying the energy.

When he told me this story, he said he realized that his son, who didn’t always seem to pay attention to what his father said, was listening.

When our kids were young, my wife and I used to say, “The recorder is on.” That was a reminder that we might be venturing into conversational areas that weren’t appropriate for our children or that we might want to avoid saltier language.

Did treading lightly around difficult subjects and avoiding curses help our children at all? Well, we’d like to think so, at least back then. Still, the way we speak to, about or in front of our children matters.

That brings me to the recent Republican presidential debate at the home of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and near the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There was a candidate, Donald Trump, who made some pejorative comments about a moderator for the debate, Megyn Kelly of Fox News. He continued to go on the attack, even suggesting that Kelly should apologize to him for her tough questions.

Even in the moment, when challenged by a woman about his perspective on women, he insisted, with some effective humor, that he didn’t have time for political correctness and that he wasn’t referring to all women, only one, with whom he has an ongoing public feud.

But wait, a politician, who wants to be the leader of our country and of the free world, doesn’t have time for political correctness? Yeah, I get it, he’s barnstorming around the country, full of bluster and self-importance, blending entertainment and outrage in one big, hairy ball.

What happened to the notion of nuanced negotiations? Shouldn’t our leaders demonstrate the kind of statesmanship that enables them to discuss important matters with the leaders of other nations, without running the risk of alienating them and damaging our negotiating position?

Maybe Trump, the latest guy running for president, has a corollary to President Theodore Roosevelt’s “speak softly and carry a big stick” ideology. Perhaps he believes he’ll be more effective if he speaks loudly and brashly and carries a big stick.

Whatever his philosophy, it seems like the manner in which he delivers his messages isn’t exactly what we might like from a role model for our country and for the world.

Does attacking the moderator of a debate in which he’s trying to demonstrate his leadership skills underscore his effectiveness as a leader?

Perhaps Trump, and we, might want to consider the lessons we teach. If he was in a store buying a dishwasher with a younger relative, would he really want the next generation to insult the salesman and then demand an apology?

Whatever, Cleveland was rocking and the rest of the United States watched in record numbers.