Editorials

TBR News Media temporarily closes its offices to the public starting March 19.

At TBR News Media we remain committed in our responsibility to our communities.

That’s why in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and following the advice of health experts, until further notice our office will be closed to the public.

Our employees will be working from home as much as possible. As always, we will be checking our voicemails and emails and answering those messages. So, of course, keep on writing and calling. 

If you do see us out in the community, just as we have been doing for more than a week, we won’t be shaking hands and such, but all of us are more than happy to offer you an elbow to bump.

It’s important for each and every one of us in the office to do our best to stay healthy, as we need to be here to give you the news from the local perspective, and if we do run into you, that we don’t pass on anything to you.

When it comes to reporting the news, it will be business as usual. You will see our papers in your mailbox and local newsstands, and our website will be updated with the most recent news related to the COVID-19 situation in between editions.

We will also keep in touch with elected officials, local hospitals, school districts, organizations and more to bring you the most accurate news possible.

This is all unprecedented territory for all of us. However, modern technology will help us get the job done.

For example, just the other day Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) held an update on the county’s coronavirus response on a conference call with local journalists. With not only telephones, but FaceTime, Skype, and for those who are busy, emails, we will ask questions and track down answers.

As for our office outside the editorial department, our employees will stay connected through text messages, emails and Google Hangouts.

Speaking of joining forces, as always, readers are welcome to send in photos of anything interesting they see during their daily lives around our coverage area, whether it’s a house fire, car incident, wildlife at play or a beautiful sunset.

We would love to hear how everyone is doing during this time of temporary closures. Let’s hear your perspective, whether you’re a parent trying to balance work from home while monitoring your children’s studies, or a student trying to figure out what to do during this time outside of school buildings. Send us 400 words or less, and you may see your words on the Letters to the Editor page. Have more to say? We may just print it as a perspective piece in our news section.

We encourage our readers to keep up on the news, look for those pieces that attribute information to respected health organizations or experts — and heed their advice. That’s not to say there’s a need to overdo it and become panicked. Take the time to read respected and trusted sources, and don’t trust everything on Facebook as there are numerous rumors and falsities going around. Remember, always look toward trusted sources and fact-checking websites to get to the bottom of such rumors.

As we have been for more than 40 years, we will be here for our readers now and in the future.

The late Joe Rella, pictured in June of 2019 with Comsewogue School District Superintendent Jennifer Quinn. Photo by Kyle Barr

There are only so many people who could have done the job that Dr. Joe Rella, the former Comsewogue superintendent, did — teacher, principal and finally head of schools. If the scores of affectionate tributes posted to social media are anything to go on, Rella is one of the few folks you could point to that has made the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville community what it is today.

Rella died last Friday at the too-young age of 69. He had been dealing with a diagnosis of bile duct cancer for the last few years, but still he kept at the job until he finally retired last year. Community members know there wasn’t a day that went by where Rella did not put himself forward for the benefit of the community, whether it was his weekly online story times or his constant attendance as the “piano man” at district concerts. Many in the community can point to examples of outreach and help he bestowed upon employees and students in the district.

North Shore residents often rightfully complain of their high taxes, the majority of which stem from school districts, but Rella showed that a school district can become the heart of the local hamlet and the epicenter for every goings-on in the area. It can become the source of pride and culture for residents, not only the entity that simply teaches students for 13 to 14 years at a time.

What we found in reporting on Comsewogue is that doors were always open. Most of the time, officials did not hesitate to speak on either positive events or district issues. In an age where there seems to be more and more red tape between district/school administrators and both journalists and the public, Comsewogue, under Rella’s guidance, showed just how effective being open to public comment could be. In a final interview with Rella before he retired, he spoke to one newbie editor of how important it was to listen to community feedback, no matter if it was negative and no matter if you may disagree with it. As a former music teacher, who brought music into everything he did, he said the important thing was to listen.

Rella was named one of TBR News Media’s People of the Year in both 1995 and 2010 for music and education, respectively. Though the papers have changed editors since then, the editorial staff was amazed reading those old articles, seeing just how much of the same man was in stories 25 years old as he was in articles written about him little more than half a year ago. There is a sense of compassion, of simply wanting to be there, to spread an awareness of purpose amongst students and staff and to act selflessly and to help define a community around a sense of selflessness and compassion.

Other supers have also made the list of People of the Year, including Elwood’s Ken Bossert — formerly Port Jeff superintendent — who has shown a similar sense of community engagement. 

Of course, we do not wish to diminish the hard work of the many heads of schools in our coverage areas, and we know many who have shown strides in district leadership. What we instead ask is for more people to look at the example Rella left in not just defining a school district, but defining neighborhoods and neighbors, of being the precedent which every student and even most residents could look toward. He was the one who looked to building trust not by demanding loyalty, but by creating a space everybody feels they’re on the same side and that all are working toward goals that benefit everyone. 

Rella will be missed, but his example remains one that all should live by.

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“Fear is the mind killer.”

It’s a recurring phrase found in the seminal writing of Frank Herbert’s 1965 book “Dune.” Despite the complicated jumbling of sci-fi jargon and galactic themes of power, religion and politics, the one phrase sticks out, touching on a basic fact of human existence, and the ever-present element of terror in the hearts of humanity.

We experience that same overriding fear again and again, such as now when reading about the current outbreak of the coronavirus from China. There have already been five people announced to have caught the virus in the U.S. That is out of 110 people who are currently being investigated for having the virus, where over 30 have come back negative. New York City has yet to have seen a particular person come forward with the virus, but city hospitals are making preparations knowing it’s only a matter of time, according to The New York Times.

Long Island is in much the same way making such preparations, with Stony Brook University Hospital and other Long Island health centers putting plans into effect.

This isn’t some kind of new, alien virus. The coronavirus has been around for many years, and causes respiratory illnesses in animals, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This new strain of the virus is being called the 2019 novel coronavirus. Deaths, experts say, have mostly been the elderly or those with underlying health conditions. 

There’s something primordially horrifying of the prospect of disease, and despite our modern sensibilities we still have not eclipsed that fear. There was swine flu during 2008 and 2009. There was Ebola in 2018. 

However, the coronavirus is not something to simply tune out. The death toll has now exceeded 132 persons, all of them in China, and there have been a reported approximately 4,500 cases confirmed, with some scientists saying the number of infections could be higher. 

That is not to say these diseases do not kill people, nor that they did not have to be met by concerted efforts of government and civilian medical professionals. But panicked reactions to such outbreaks rarely help. 

Factcheck.org posted its own data points of misinformation spread about the virus, with some on social media inaccurately saying there are 10s or 100s of thousands dead, when that’s simply not true or at all confirmed. 

The U.S. has already strongly suggested canceling any nonessential visits to China. Transport within the epicenter for the virus is already heavily restricted by Chinese officials. The CDC has said the virus can travel from person to person, so the agency has suggested that if one must travel, then they should avoid contact with obviously sick people, as well as with animals, both alive or dead, and animal markets. A person traveling should also wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or with hand sanitizer if no soap is available.

Of course, we at TBR News Media will try to keep abreast of any new developments of the disease from the local angle and put any such updates on our website, but we also ask you don’t let the fear kill you, body and mind.

File photo by Sara Megan-Walsh

As journalists, we share the frustrations of many residents in our communities who see the large number of empty storefronts — many left vacant for several years — while new developments seem to erupt out of the ground just a few feet away from derelict properties.

Imagine the grief felt by Huntington residents two years ago when Great Neck-based developer Villadom Corp. proposed construction of a 486,380-square-foot mall with retail and office space on the 50-acre property known as Elwood Orchard. Many residents feared overwhelming congestion on Route 25 and water quality issues. Meanwhile, empty buildings stood just to the east and west of the site.

Imagine the relief when the developer withdrew the application. Then think of the relief that Hauppauge residents felt last year when they saw a sign reading Relish restaurant, of Kings Park, was opening an additional location in the old Pizza Hut on Route 111. The blighted building had been vacant for decades.

Rows of vacant buildings spoil Port Jeff’s uptown vibe. The abandoned businesses along Lake Avenue in St. James and Main Street in Smithtown also point to serious problems. In Setauket, a former King Kullen still sits empty years after the chain closed those doors, and a decrepit building sits on the corner of Gnarled Hollow Road. Suffolk County was willing to buy the latter property with the Town of Brookhaven looking to maintain it as passive parkland. Some of these situations are examples of property owners holding out for more money. In which case, the only real victim is the community as a whole.

Elected officials need to ensure that these empty storefronts are filled to create vibrant shopping areas. It’s an important, even essential step to take to create stronger, cleaner and healthier communities. It also protects groundwater and can minimize roadway congestion.

Preserve that open space and fill the locations that are already set up for commerce first.

Local officials may be limited in how much they can dictate to developers but there are options. Take for example Decatur, Illinois, where the city recently hired a retail consultant to fill the vacant storefronts. Consultants or even town employees can be tasked in recruiting companies interested in entering the market. Businesses can be sold on the benefits of reconfiguration and renovation, rather than new construction.

Business owners can take responsibility, too, to maintain the quality of life in their neighborhoods where they do business. Recently, former Yankees star baseball player Mariano Rivera received an OK on a zoning change from the Town of Brookhaven to create a car dealership in Port Jefferson Station in an already developed space. While he plans to create one new additional building on site, he will expand on an existing one. The local civic and town board complimented him on his willingness to work with the local community. 

Many big businesses may come into an area focused on their branding, concerned with how their building needs to look, and insist on building from scratch in what they feel is an ideal location. We encourage elected officials to welcome businesses into structures that already exist. Quality of life should be considered first and foremost in our communities.

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Ethical behavior has always been required and expected of government officials. In the pages of our newspapers, we are reporting on corruption cases, conflicts of interest and varying degrees of unfair, immoral and in some cases illegal practices in government — all levels of government. 

As one elected official recently stated, there’s a lot of this going on. You see it on federal, state and local levels of both major political parties and we need to eliminate that. 

An administrator in the Village of Northport recently pleaded guilty to using village funds as his “personal piggy bank,” according to Tim Sini (D), Suffolk County district attorney. Former county DA, Tom Spota (D), and one of his top aides were convicted of obstruction of justice and witness tampering. 

We are learning that the New York State Public Service Commission lacks oversight of the Long Island Power Authority, which can easily lead to abuse. Lawmakers are now looking to address that omission. We are not saying LIPA is corrupt, but if fraud is detected through agency audits, officials say they currently can’t take action. And with impeachment proceedings moving forward in the White House, there’s no shortage of examples of issues that deserve our attention. 

What exactly is corruption? It’s when elected officials steer contracts or use public policies and practices for their own personal benefit rather than the public good. When a government agency steers contracts to its family members, clients and business partners or to family members affiliated with these groups, it’s a red flag.

Corruption can, and often does, lead to fraud, wasteful spending and higher operational costs for government that you ultimately pay for personally. The costs are hard to quantify, but said to be significant. The state comptrollers office reports that over 215 arrests have been made and over $60 million recovered. 

Citizens need to sit up and pay close attention. Attend meetings, file Freedom of Information Act requests, look at government contracts, look at campaign contribution filings, demand transparency and ask for town hall-style meetings from your elected officials. If they’re not responsive, elect new officials. 

Among the best remedies known to prevent and beat corrupt practices is keeping citizens informed and engaged.

It may be tempting to look the other way and give officials a pass. It’s certainly easier. But turning a blind eye on corruption only breeds malfeasance. It’s about the worst response there is. Corruption ultimately corrodes the fabric of society and undermines people’s trust in their political systems and leaders. According to Transparency International, a global coalition against corruption, it can cost people freedom, health, money and sometimes even their lives. 

As governments struggle with budget deficits and aim to address urgent issues, the prudent thing to do is hold government officials accountable. We can’t fall asleep at the wheel. We the people need to make a point to stay engaged and informed in the new year and demand good government on all levels. 

State officials encourage the public to fight fraud and abuse. To report suspected abuse, call the comptrollers office at 1-888-672-4555 or email [email protected]

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People are scared.

You hear it walking down the aisle in the supermarket. You hear it in chatting with co-workers. You hear it with your relatives at the dinner table or over the phone. With the threat of war looming, everybody everywhere wants to know: Will we be safe? What’s going to happen next?

After President Donald Trump (R) ordered the assassination of the Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani last Friday, Jan. 3, the world has been reeling in a vortex of panic and debilitating fear. Iran has said there will be retaliation, and the president has said he will respond to the response.

That rhetoric has escalated, with Iran canceling all hopes of a nuclear deal and Iraq moving to remove all U.S. troops from its country. Meanwhile, Trump has said he would even consider bombing cultural sites in Iran as a response — something the International Criminal Court has called a war crime in the past. 

As Iran held a funeral for the slain general, with many thousands of mourners in the streets shouting “death to America,” the Pentagon has asked amphibious forces to be ready to support ground-based operations in that country.

War, huh, what is it good for?

The nation’s armed forces stand ready and, for what seems like only an eye blink from the last war, young men and women may yet again be asked to serve overseas.

One of our reporters encountered a young recent high school graduate at the checkout register in a local grocery store who recently signed up to serve in the military. What was his opinion of the situation? He shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t know.” After a pause, he added, “We do what we have to do.”

In June of last year, CBS TV’s “60 Minutes” ran an interview by Lesley Stahl with 99-year-old Ben Ferencz, the last living prosecutor of the Nuremberg trials. He was also at the head of establishing the International Criminal Court at The Hague in the Netherlands.

Ferencz fought in World War II and had seen some of the bloodiest battles of the Western Front, including the Normandy Invasion and the Battle of the Bulge. During the interview with “60 Minutes,” he gave a very specific opinion on war.

“War makes murderers out of otherwise decent people,” he said. “All wars, and all decent people.”

Whatever your opinion, whether Suleimani had to die to protect American lives, or whether the U.S. has committed itself pointlessly to another potential war in the Middle East, the common feeling is anxiety. 

We at TBR News Media feel the best way to live in such times is to ultimately stay informed. We ask people not to jump to conclusions. Take the time read the news and watch TV with a critical eye. Avoid posting rumors, propaganda or unverified info to Facebook and other social media sites. 

Perhaps something worse than being uninformed is misinformed, or to be purposefully led astray. Rely on facts that are verifiable to its original source. Consider the opinions of people with first-hand accounts, or named reliable sources with expertise. Some people like using fact-checking sites such as Snopes.com. We also suggest reading Glenn Kessler’s fact-checking blog in the Washington Post, both of whom are largely known for being nonpartisan.

Please, to all our readers, stay informed, stay aware and stay safe.

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There’s something brilliant about a letter. In fact, one of the best ways to test one’s writing skill is in the art of correspondence. Try reading “A Life in Letters” by Eric Blair, aka George Orwell, to see the unique power of the written word. 

Each and every one of our readers letters has power and each and every word counts. Just like news stories, your letters might be capable of prompting change, or inspiring another individual, typically in 400 words or less.

With that power, every letter writer also has a responsibility to readers, and we at TBR News Media would like to clarify just what is at stake when you send in a letter to us. 

As journalists, we are the community’s closest connection between people and government, covering news and events that impact people’s lives on the local level. We especially welcome letters that touch on recent articles, even if it’s something as seemingly benign as roadwork near your house or a neighbor down the road setting off fireworks well past July 4. 

We edit for A.P. style, which is the standard in most U.S.-based news publications. If you were wondering why we only use a person’s last name after the first reference, for instance, that is why. It helps maintain coherence over the many thousands of words contained in each and every issue.

But we also edit for length, libel and good taste. These last three items that have especially been a bone of contention for some of our writers. Lately, many of our letters relate to national issues and the policies of President Donald Trump (R) and include incessant squabbling between the two major political parties. We would never alter your opinion, but we do have an obligation to make sure the facts you cite conform with the truth.

We ask that our writers provide sources or backup information with letters, so we can fact-check the information. 

We’ve received letters using derogatory nicknames for Trump, former President Barack Obama (D) and other legislators and political figures. We have done our best to edit out this potentially defamatory language. Some writers might disagree with this. But, we have also received letters berating other letter writers, and we have looked to soften that language to invite more civil discourse. 

Our view is the “Letters to the Editor” page serves as a form of public debate. Its purpose is to argue the issues, not personally attack an individual. Yes, please send us letters on what you think about the issues of the day, but when letters cross the line, they cheapen or even invalidate their arguments to knock at a supposed rival, or to drag people who live close to us through the mud.

We make a conscience effort to fairly represent opposing views to avoid discrimination. In fact, we find it most interesting and useful when we include letters from people on multiple sides of an issue. 

The majority of letters we get today concern the national discourse, and are essentially a mirrored reflection of the tirades and proceedings we see from people who are supposed to represent the best of us, the majority of us. 

Let’s raise the bar.

Instead of parroting the rhetoric of politicians and pundits, who regularly resort to insults, rely instead on the laws of logic and critical thinking. Analyzing arguments in the free marketplace of ideas is one hell of a responsibility. We the people hope we all take that responsibility seriously. Since accountability is the basis of democracy, let’s give it the gravity it deserves.

As the saying goes, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. So, the Sierra Club, state and local elected officials in Brookhaven are making noise, calling on Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles and target the Long Island Rail Road for electrification.

So far, the group, which held a press conference in Stony Brook Dec. 9, has accumulated more than 7,500 signatures, and hopes for 10,000 from Long Islanders by Dec. 12. It may be enough to grab the governor’s attention, but why not help expand the campaign, since people from many other communities along the line benefit from such a long-awaited move.

We ask readers, and their affiliated organizations, to join the effort. The Town of Smithtown, for example, recently announced the construction of a new apartment complex to be built across from Town Hall on Main Street in Smithtown. The appeal of that project was promoted as a good housing option for young professionals who regularly commute into Manhattan. 

Town Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) and town council members should push for electrification. Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) attended the groundbreaking to applaud that project. He and the other legislators should also appeal to the governor for electrification of the Huntington-Port Jeff line. 

In Huntington, state Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport) has been involved with the MTA overhaul. He is pushing for the idea, and it might help if industries and businesses along the commuter rail line organize their own letter writing campaign. 

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Stony Brook University are both along the Port Jefferson Branch. The governor has acknowledged, when he delivered this year’s budget plan, that both institutions were key components to growing Long Island and the state’s economy, extolling his intent to make the area a premier research hub in the United States. So, why not address that slow commute with high-speed service between these research centers, New York City and the region’s airports? Let’s not forget it might also reduce the number of cars on our busy roads.

Grassroot efforts are impactful and should be regularly exercised. On this and many other issues it has a way of instilling a community’s faith in the democratic form of government. 

The outcome can not only reduce emissions in the transportation sector and benefit the economy. It will also improve quality of life. For example, the 4:18 train on Dec. 10 from Stony Brook to Penn Station was 35 minutes late from Port Jeff, effectively making the journey to New York an unacceptable 2 1/2 hours. As a result two staff members had their respective evening’s entertainment truncated. 

The Sierra Club has an online petition which can be found at: sc.org/55×35. To submit petitions from a letter writing campaign to the governor directly, his press office recommends using the postal address: Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, New York State Capitol, State Street and Washington Avenue, Albany, NY 12224. 

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The season for giving is here, and while North Shore residents plan their holiday feasts, it’s a good time to consider the plight of people less fortunate. 

Imagine, more than 89,000 children on Long Island are hungry, according to Hauppauge-based Long Island Cares. These children aren’t dreaming of visions of sugarplums, they are wishing for substantial meals to get them and their families through the day.

Some centers, such as the Community Food Council on East 5th Street in Huntington Station, are reporting a 33 percent increase in demand over the last three months. It’s unclear why the sudden surge in food insecurities but the food banks are in need of supplies and volunteers, and counting on the local community to find ways to pitch in. So, it’s a good time to develop a plan. 

When preparing to donate to a food bank, a good rule of thumb is to call the nonprofit or visit its website to see what is needed. During this time of year, many have volunteers on hand to put together holiday meals. Throughout the year, depending on donations, there may be a surplus of one item and a deficit of another.

While many may be inclined to reach into their pantry to find nonperishables, a cash donation can often be the most beneficial to nonprofits, so they can turn around and buy food in bulk. This can also save volunteers time, because they don’t need to go through items looking at expiration dates.

If one wants to donate food, a trip to the supermarket is the best bet to ensure the donated items aren’t expired. Though if your cabinets are bursting at the seams, reach in and make sure to check expiration dates on cans and boxes. Also, look cans over to ensure they are not dented or leaking and that boxes aren’t damaged. And steer away from food in glass jars as these containers can easily break.

Take into consideration more nutritious options, too, such as cereals high in fiber, whole wheat pasta and low sodium soups and vegetables. When it comes to any kind of mixes, remember many households may be out of milk or eggs, so choose a mix that can be used with water. Another thing to consider is purchasing toiletries such as toothpaste, deodorant, diapers and toilet paper.

To increase the spirit of giving, organize your local Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops or religion classes or get your children involved. Or, if you already know of a group organizing a food drive, contribute your items to the event. Collecting food for those in need is a wonderful way to inspire young ones to help others and it encourages them to continue charitable pursuits when they reach their goals or succeed them.

In our coverage area, in addition to Long Island Cares and the Community Food Council, there are the Smithtown Emergency Food Pantry, St. Anthony of Padua R.C. Church in Rocky Point, St. Cuthbert’s Episcopal Church in Selden, Ecumenical Lay Council Pantry through the First Presbyterian Church in Northport, St. Gerard Majella R.C. Church in Port Jefferson Station, Our Daily Bread Food Pantry in Setauket and many more. 

As the lights come down in a few weeks, remember when it comes to food banks, the hungry keep coming. The spirit of giving can last all year round as these organizations are always in need of donations no matter what month on the calendar.

The gift of time, too, is also a generous way to contribute.

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The pending impeachment proceedings of the 45th president of the United States means dinner table conversations this holiday season could get extra heated and dicey. So, it may be in everyone’s best interest to avoid broaching the topic, which risks exposing the passionate political leanings of loved ones.

So, what’s a family to do?

As the saying goes, you can’t pick your relatives. But you certainly can choose and encourage activities that bring people together rather than widen the divide. As you and the brood gather, equip yourself with a solid plan that keeps the peace.

Keep in mind, talking about the weather, once a light, safe-harbor topic, could backfire. Discussing California wildfires, for example, could spark a fruitless debate over the scientific theories behind climate change. Knowing this tendency, if you see news footage of the flooding in St. Mark’s Square in Venice, Italy, you might want to quickly change the channel.

The first step in any successful endeavor is to set a realistic goal: Coming away from the weekend festivities without anyone suffering black eyes or bruised egos.

One idea is to play a game. Try coming up with a new name for the country, one that drops the word “United” in the United States of America. To keep it democratic, go around the table allowing each person to suggest their own clever alternative.

Before or after dinner, you can also play the fast-paced word game Bananagrams, only conduct politics-themed rounds. The entertaining activity allows for self-expression and could likely become a fair-minded approach to spending quality time together while eliminating tensions in the air. If it doesn’t? Hold a regulation wrestling match on the living room floor and keep score. Takedowns, reversals, near falls and escapes all count.

If tensions rise? Flip the bird.  As in turkey. (Thanksgiving is the one day of the year that you can get away with this one.)

Music soothes the savage beast. So, stream it in. Or better yet, make your own. Form a drum circle using common household objects as percussion instruments. The ancient practice of striking rhythm together is known to alleviate isolation and alienation. But be sure to hide the good china from the tribe.

Building crafts can also be a fun and rewarding activity for family members. Martha Stewart built a dynasty, once she acknowledged this fundamental fact. Try building sock gnomes together. The blind, deaf and mute miniature humanoids can actually become an unexpected and perhaps even necessary source of inspiration for the crowd.

Instead of discussing politics, you might try identifying the moral virtues of each of the world’s many different great religions. 

On second thought, don’t do this.

You could eat in silence like monks. Or you can try giving thanks with everyone recounting their blessings out loud in turn. This may in fact be the wisest strategy, since there’s likely plenty of material to go around.

Happy Thanksgiving!