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Category: Opinion & Reader Forum

WE’VE GOT MAIL

‘SOBER HOUSE’ CONTROVERSY

To the editor: 

It was with a heavy heart that I read the Sept. 17 article “Sober house rattles residents.” I personally know and work with Charles Valentine and I have seen firsthand the good work that he does in the lives of those he and his wife, Lisa, serve. All I could think when reading the article was, “They don’t know Charles.”

I certainly understand the desire of the residents of Kearny to feel safe, and to provide a safe haven for their children. As the mom of two small children, I understand this passionately and with vehemence. That is why I must write in support of Charles, Lisa and Valentine House. Charles has centered his life around doing the work of Jesus by helping the forgotten, the underserved and the broken. And who of us does not have a broken part in our lives? Who is not in need of some love, compassion, and a helping hand occasionally?

I implore you: Give Valentine House and the men who live there the chance you would hope to have yourself, or the chance you might hope for your child, your father or your brother. Because that’s who’s living there: someone’s son, someone’s father, someone’s brother.

Kerry Connelly 

Community Involvement Coordinator 

The LIFE Christian Church 

West Orange 

Thoughts & Views: The day that saw hell on earth

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Oct. 8, 1871, was a really bad day for the American Midwest.

As we learned Sunday at the Kearny Fire Department’s Open House (see story p. 3), national Fire Prevention Week is held the week of Oct. 8 to mark the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

That historic blaze (which was NOT started by Mrs. O’Leary’s much-maligned cow) broke out about 9 p.m. on the 8th, consumed much of the city on the 9th, and more or less burnt itself out on the 10th, with a little help from a rainstorm.

In the 19th century, Chicago was primarily a city of wood. Not only most of its buildings, but also its sidewalks and many streets were wooden. Add to that all the tarred roofs, and a three-month drought, and numerous lumber yards and coal yards within the city limits, and strong winds blowing the embers hither and yon, and the fact that the Chicago Fire Department’s equipment amounted to 17 horse-drawn engines, and it’s a wonder the flames didn’t spread to Milwaukee.

When it was over, 300 people were dead, more than 100,000 were homeless, and 17,500 buildings were in ashes. The death toll is likely inaccurate, since there was speculation that people jumped into the Chicago River to escape the flames, drowned and were never found, and others may have been completely incinerated.

As for the O’Learys, although the blaze is thought to have begun in or near their barn, the tale of a cow kicking over a lantern while being milked has been debunked. First of all, cows are usually asleep at 9 p.m. But in any case, the Chicago Tribune reporter who originally wrote the bovine story finally admitted in 1893 that he had made the whole thing up because it made good copy. (For shame.) To this day, the actual cause is unknown.

Now, as devastating as the Chicago fire was, it could not hold a candle to another conflagration on the very same day. But aside from those living in the area, relatively few people have ever heard of it, although it claimed more lives than any fire in U.S. history.

In Peshtigo, Wisc., a logging town, woodlands were being cleared by small, controlled fires. But on Oct. 8, 1871, a cold front swept in with strong winds that, according to Wikipedia, “fanned the fires out of control and escalated them to massive proportions. A firestorm ensued.”

Described as “nature’s nuclear explosion,” a firestorm is a tornado of flames.

One book, “Firestorm at Peshtigo,” cited “a wall of flame, a mile high, five miles wide, traveling 90 to 100 mph, hotter than a crematorium.”

Though the blaze began in a forest, it spread over 1.5 million acres and consumed 12 communities. The death toll, at minimum, was 1,200, but some estimates are as high as 2,500. Many victims were buried in a mass grave, because there was no one left alive to identify them. And yet, Peshtigo is now forgotten.

That’s the history lesson for today.

Spare a thought for all fire victims. And all firefighters.

– Karen Zautyk 

Am I worried? Not if I don’t turn on the news …

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Confronted with the widespread chaos and hardship around the globe, every time I pick up a newspaper or listen to the news on various media, I invariably want to bury myself in a good book or watch an old movie or sports event as a welcome distraction.

Or take a retrospective look back into a seemingly simpler time in my youth: remembering my paternal grandfather – a self-employed tailor who had somehow found the courage to uplift himself and his family from a village in Russia at the turn of the last century – and start life over again in the U.S.

At home, after a full day at his tailor’s bench, he liked to kick back by sipping a glass of tea flavored with a white sugar cube and playing checkers with his grandson. I don’t remember every seeing him excited or flustered about anything.

But in today’s fast-paced world, there seems to be a crisis every moment: the spread of Ebola, global warming, drought in California, the continued deforestation of the Amazon, the slaughter and/ or displacement of civilians in Syria, Somalia, Gaza, drone attacks conducted by the U.S.

The tabloids decry the beheadings of journalists and aid workers by the ISIS extremists and Obama calls on the U.S. and its allies to send troops as “advisers” to the Iraqi military.

It wasn’t that long ago that the U.S. was invading Iraq and decrying the dictatorship of Syria’s Assad regime and now the tables have turned.

Witness the American support of the new post of “chief executive” in Iraq – a position not included in the country’s constitution but inserted as a way for the U.S. to prop up a puppet government there.

And our presence in Afghanistan – on the heels of Russia – only helped feed the insurgents’ cause to kick out foreign invaders, in turn, kindling an even more violent reaction by the extremist Islamic State.

Obama says it’s up to America – with the most powerful fighting force in the world – to “lead” but to not be the world’s policeman every time. That poses an interesting dilemma: how do you “lead” without managing to impose your political agenda or military might?

I reasoned with a politically aware friend that perhaps we – with our allies, whoever they turn out to be – have a moral obligation to send boots on the ground into the Middle East to defeat ISIS, just as we did in World War II to stop Hitler. He disagreed on the grounds that we’ve had a habit of not opposing overseas dictatorial atrocities in the name of political expediency.

I can’t argue with that proposition but I feel it doesn’t excuse not taking action now to quash a force set upon the destruction of anyone who, in their eyes, fails to conform to the rules of the Caliphate they wish to set up as the only law of the land. It’s a call to arms that has attracted believers from Europe and the U.S.

Meanwhile, maybe we’ll find a way to intervene in Hong Kong where youthful demonstrators look to apply democratic principles to overturn Beijing’s rules on how presidential candidates are to be selected. The irony there, the N.Y. Times tells us, is that local merchants – already preyed on by gangs taking a piece of the profits – have joined pro- Beijing thugs in removing the protestors’ Occupy Central tents from the clogged retail district.

Things have gotten so strange that states like California and New York have passed legislation mandating “clear assent” to sexual relations between students in the state university system, as a response to the hundreds of rape cases reported on campuses, coast to coast.

It’s enough to send me to the Mets’ clubhouse to cheer up Sandy Alderson. After all, he just got a new 3-year deal to make that team into a contender again.

When you compare that mission to everything else going on in the world, it’s a cinch.

– Ron Leir 

A fish story

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While contemplating topics for this week’s column, I considered our President’s abysmally belated response to the ISIS threat.

I considered the renewed debate over climate change.

I considered our governor’s increasing wanderlust, which appears to be in direct correlation to his decreasing waistline.

I considered the $17.9 trillion national debt.

And then I decided: Enough with the serious stuff. This week’s column will be about goldfish.

Initially, the idea stemmed from a news item about an Australian goldfish named George whose owner paid for brain surgery on the aquatic pet when it was diagnosed with a tumor.

Yes, brain surgery.

The veterinarian who performed the 45-minute operation in Melbourne noted: “George had a quite large tumor . . . and it was beginning to affect his quality of life.”

The BBC reported that the 10-year-old fish was sedated during the surgery and afterwards was given antibiotics and painkillers. The vet said that all went well and the next day George “was up and swimming around.”

At first, I was going to make mock of all this. However, according to the BBC, “Experts say the $200 procedure may have bought George another 20 years of life.”

What? Goldfish can live to be 30? Mine lived an average of 30 days. I’d come home from school to find them belly-up in the bowl, or they’d commit suicide by leaping out of the water when no one was around to rescue them. I began to wonder if Woolworth’s was selling depressed fish.

Now I wonder if I had made them depressed. They always had clean water and sufficient food, but their bowl was small and lacked accoutrements, such as one of those tiny castles. They were probably bored to tears.

Researching goldfish for this column, I have learned many things, including that, in some places, goldfish bowls (the same kind I had) have been banned “on animal cruelty grounds.” Because the fish have both high oxygen needs and a high waste output, “such bowls are no longer considered appropriate housing.”

From Wikipedia, I also learned the following:

• Goldfish “have a memory- span of at least three months and can distinguish different shapes, colors and sounds.”

• Goldfish are gregarious and can respond to their reflection in a mirror. • Their behavior can be conditioned by their owners.

• They can distinguish between individual humans. When their owners approach, some may “react favorably (swimming to the front of the glass, swimming rapidly around the tank, or going to the surface, mouthing for food).” When strangers approach, they may hide.

• Goldfish that have “constant visual contact with humans stop considering them to be a threat. After a time, it becomes possible to hand-feed a goldfish without it shying away.”

• By using positive reinforcement, goldfish can be trained to perform tricks.

(Tricks? What tricks? Playing dead? Uh-oh.)

And:

• “Very rarely does a goldfish harm another goldfish.” (Which makes them superior to some humans, especially certain NFL players.)

I found no reference to 30-year lives. However, Wikipedia says “the lifespan of goldfish in captivity can extend beyond 10 years.”

Which is nine years and 11 months longer than mine lived.

I realize now that they really were depressed. I treated my goldfish as a form of aquatic decor, and I could have been teaching them tricks. They were starved for attention, not food. And they were confined in a bowl. They had no quality of life. I should write a song: “My Goldfish Has the Blues.” I cod call it sole music. For either a bass or an Irish tuna.

(Stop groaning. At least I didn’t say I wrote this just for the halibut.)

– Karen Zautyk 

WE’VE GOT MAIL

‘SOBER HOUSE’ CONTROVERSY

Dear Editor:

Having grown up in Kearny and being a licensed minister for the past 32 years, I offer my comments regarding the “Sober House.”

First of all, Kearny has a rich history of supporting those in need and giving people second chances. That is not the debate point here. The point of debate is the manner in which the organization occupied this house.

Mr. [Charles] Valentine does not understand “what the neighbors are going through” because I believe he simply does not care about the neighbors. He made this dramatically obvious by not connecting with them prior to violating numerous town ordinances by occupying the property.

If he were concerned, would not the good-neighbor thing be to knock on their doors to introduce and discuss the idea before moving in and creating a uproar?

“We’re an asset to the community,” he states. Prove this by engaging with the community instead of picking a fight with it.

Garry Senna

Haymarket, Va.

CORRECTION

A story about the new Element Harrison Hotel in last week’s issue of The Observer mischaracterized the guest parking location. It is the Harrison Parking
Center. The Observer regrets the error.

Thoughts & Views: Even in ‘paradise,’ global tensions intrude

This week, your correspondent – armed with a valid passport – was planning (this column is being written Sept. 20) to vacation on the island Republic of Malta, whose islands – the website lonelyplanet.com tells us – “are like nowhere else.” Indeed, the website adds, “Here you’ll find great prehistoric temples, fossil-studded cliffs, glittering hidden coves, thrilling diving opportunities and a history of remarkable intensity.”

According to Wikipedia, there are indications that the country has been inhabited since pre-historic times. It has seen many occupiers – including Napoleon – in its lengthy history, until achieving its independence from Britain in 1964, and joined the European Union in 2004.

There will be much to absorb for such a relatively tiny place – which looks like an almost perceptible speck on a map – and a lot to explore in just a few days. Maybe I’ll even find the legendary Maltese falcon – or is that just another Hollywood myth?

But, leaving aside for the moment the anticipated pleasures of R&R at an island paradise, we can’t forget the fact that Malta finds itself smack up against a geopolitical cataclysm.

Migrants – many refugees from war-torn Syria and Libya – along with Palestinians from Gaza – are being smuggled out of their desolate land through tunnels in Egypt and packed into boats bound for destinations in Europe. Those fleeing reportedly pay thousands of dollars for what they see as an opportunity for a better life elsewhere.

But their journeys are typically perilous, as evidenced by a recent episode chronicled by, among other media outlets, BBC News World which, through the Times of Malta, reported the deaths of “at least 300 migrants” who “drowned off Malta’s coast” on Sept. 12.

Survivors, brought to Malta’s shores, told the Times of Malta and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) that “the smugglers deliberately rammed the migrants’ boat after they refused to move to a smaller boat from the fishing vessel they were on,” leaving its passengers to fend for themselves in the sea.

The Times of Malta account said the IOM had logged “about 2,900” migrant drowning deaths in the Mediterranean so far this year, up from 700 recorded in 2013.

Malta – just 50 miles south of Sicily – has provided shelters for several thousand of the desperate migrants who arrive at the islands and Italy has launched “Mare Nostrum,” a search and rescue enterprise pledged to save migrants in peril in the waters off its coast.

Still, the number of deaths is mounting.

Meanwhile, Malta finds itself grappling with another dilemma of increasingly global concern: the deadly Ebola virus that has emerged in West Africa and threatens to engulf the region and beyond.

On Sept. 19, the Associated Press reported that Malta turned away a cargo ship, enroute to Ukraine from Guinea, carrying a crew of 21 including a Filipino reportedly showing symptoms of Ebola. AP said the boat’s captain had sought to dock in Malta to get medical treatment for the stricken crewman.

But Malta Prime Minister Joseph Muscat was quoted as saying that, “We cannot endanger our health system” and that it was impossible to know whether the captain was “understating or overstating” the man’s condition.

Maltese coast guard vessels escorted the boat, MV Western Copenhagen, out of the harbor, according to the AP.

And so, it seems that even in paradise, there is no escape from the crushing realities of the world.

– Ron Leir 

Thoughts & Views: Stand by your man? Hell, no!

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As of press time, I am sure controversy will still be whirling around the NFL — i.e. What did the league honchos know about the Ray Rice incident and when did they know it?

That bothers me less than another aspect of the case: The fact that Janay Rice knew everything she needed to know about her then-fiancee, and knew it instantly, as soon as he belted her in the jaw in that Atlantic City elevator.

And yet, she still chose to marry the creep.

And, incredibly, she is defending him, and attacking the media for allegedly ruining her happiness.

I have nothing but admiration for people who counsel victims of domestic violence.

The prime reason for that being that I know I’d be incapable of offering such aid.

And the prime reason for that being that I am incapable of understanding why any woman would remain in an abusive relationship — be that abuse physical or emotional. (Yes, I know men are also the victims of domestic violence, but I am focusing here on my sex.)

I have heard a variety of explanations.

Some women don’t know any better. Having been raised in abusive homes, they think this is the norm. (The U.S. Department of Justice notes: “Frequent exposure to violence in the home not only predisposes children to numerous social and physical problems, but also teaches them that violence is a normal way of life – therefore, increasing their risk of becoming society’s next generation of victims and abusers.”)

Some women stay with a brutal spouse, or boyfriend, “for the sake of the children.”

Some have been brainwashed in a sort of Stockholm Syndrome manner. Some are completely financially dependent on their abuser. Some are simply afraid to leave. (Again, from the DOJ: Victims who leave their abusers are 75% more likely to be murdered.)

And some insist they still “love” the man who is assaulting them.

These may also be the reasons why such women are reluctant to even press charges against the abuser. New Jersey is one of the enlightened states that no longer requires a victim’s cooperation for the law to be enforced. Gone are the days when the beaten and bloodied victim could plead that the man with blood on his hands not be handcuffed and taken to the pokey.

In N.J., if police are sent to a domestic-violence call, and there is “evidence of an assault, it’s a mandatory arrest,” a source in law enforcement told us.

This is a step forward, but the assailant could still walk free.

“If the victim doesn’t show up in court,” the source told us, “most likely the charges will be dropped.”

I don’t know the statistics, but I bet a lot of victims don’t show up.

Now, I must admit, this column is being written in virtual ignorance. I have not been the victim of domestic violence. Despite the reasons cited above, I cannot comprehend why any woman would stay with a man if he even raised his hand to her. I, or he, would be out the door in an instant.

Also, I have known only one such victim in my life (unless others have kept it hidden). And I met her long after she had left her abusive husband. Left him taking her three children with her. Left him not knowing where she would go or how she would live. Left him having no money of her own to speak of.

But she left. And built a happy life. So happy that it wasn’t until I had known her for years that I learned of her prior situation.

She is one of my heroines.

Janay Rice is not.

Ray Rice knocked her cold and dragged her body out of that elevator as if she were a bag of trash. And she defends him? What kind of message is she sending to other victimized women?

Her Instagram message, posted after the knock-out blow portion of the video was released and hubby was cut by the Ravens, blasts the media and the public for their “unwanted” opinions and ends thusly:

“THIS IS OUR LIFE! What don’t you all get? If your intentions were to hurt us, embarrass us, make us feel alone, take all happiness away, you’ve succeeded on so many levels. Just know we will continue to grow & show the world what real love is!”

Real love?

What don’t you all get?

I don’t get any of it. At all.

But I can hope that the video of her being punched unconscious might just raise the consciousness of some other woman who might gain the will to free herself from abuse.

Help is out there. But you have to want help.

– Karen Zautyk 

Thoughts & Views: A Labor Day perspective

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On Sept. 1 the U.S. and Canada celebrated Labor Day as a tribute to the working men and women in each country.

Some communities around America mark the day with parades and speeches but, of late, it’s a holiday that’s been more honored in the breech than in the observance.

A brief review of how the holiday evolved might be useful, particularly in a time when the concept of a labor union is distasteful to many. In fact, 24 states – Michigan being the most recent – have passed so-called “right to work” laws as a vehicle to suppress unions.

There was a time – long before the digital age changed the political landscape – when many Americans – even young children – typically worked 12-hour days six or seven days a week in backbreaking, unsafe jobs in factories, mills and mines at bare survival pay.

If workers dared complain, they faced being summarily fired, with no recourse to an arbitrator, court or government agency.

Industrialists like J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie ruled the roost and generally had the backing of federal policymakers to stand their ground against labor unrest.

But champions of oppressed labor like Samuel Gompers, Eugene V. Debs, Peter J. McGuire and Heywood Broun (founder of The Newspaper Guild) rose up to fight for the rights of working people, many being immigrants from Europe and other lands.

It wasn’t easy, by any means, especially when these early labor pioneers tended to be tarred as “Reds” by the U.S. establishment. In some cases, union leaders did declare themselves as socialists but, by and large, it was not a movement that took hold among American workers.

Organized labor took on the industrialists in several major battles that came to define the struggle between the American working class and the establishment:

In 1886, the Haymarket Riot resulted in the deaths of several Chicago police officers and workers.

There was the Homestead Steel Strike in 1892 in which nine striking workers were killed by Pinkerton detectives at the Pittsburgh steel plant.

In 1894, tensions between railroad workers and the Pullman Co. over wage cuts and the firing of union leaders led to the Pullman Strike by members of the American Railway Union that shut down the nation’s trains west of Detroit. Ultimately, President Grover Cleveland sent in troops to break the strike. Debs, who headed the union, ended up sentenced to six months in prison.

That same year, to conciliate the burgeoning labor movement, Cleveland declared the first Monday in September as Labor Day, a federal holiday and it has been celebrated as such since then.

Disclosure: During my tenure at The Jersey Journal, I served for several years as president of the local chapter of The Newspaper Guild and witnessed the transition from the old typesetting machines to computers that ushered out the International Typographical Union and its members who had the unenviable job of sitting at those infernal machines that fashioned pieces of hot lead into characters that ended up forming our stories onto the pages of the old JJ.

Before and during my tenure at the paper, for the men and women who labored in the JJ newsroom, the Guild – which came into its own after World War II – offered protection against arbitrary firing, decent wages and benefits, and a right to a pension, among other things.

Now, as a result of attrition, the union has been subsumed by the Guild’s New York Local and is struggling to stay afloat.

But I can say I’m proud to have been a union member and I believe, still, in the validity of the union movement to preserve the rights of workers everywhere.

– Ron Leir 

Thoughts & Views: Fanning the flames on social media

By now, you surely have heard of “The Ice Bucket Challenge” wherein people are videotaped pouring ice water over their heads in the name of charity. The stunt is raising awareness of, and donations for, the fight against ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

But there is another “challenge” out there, performed in the name of abject stupidity. Or insanity. Or both. It’s known as “The Fire Challenge,” and if you haven’t heard of it, you’re probably an adult. If you are a parent or guardian, you damn well ought to learn about it, because it’s endangering your kids.

The best we can determine, the first “Fire Challenge” video was posted on YouTube back in April 2012. Today, there are multiple videos. And there have been multiple injuries but, amazingly, no deaths. Yet.

Last week, the N.J. Division of Fire Safety issued an alert to first responders in the Garden State. It reads as follows:

“A disturbing new trend is manifesting itself online on social media sites such as Facebook and YouTube called ‘The Fire Challenge.’

“The fire challenge involves teenagers pouring an ignitable liquid . . . on their bare skin and igniting it while another teenager takes photos or video of the event. [We have deleted the type of liquid cited, although several kinds are used.]

“The photos and video are subsequently uploaded to the various social media sites for the world’s online community to watch and share. The imbecilic act is supposed to elicit laughter as onlookers and internet viewers watch the reaction from the person who is on fire. . . .

“Several news stories regarding the practice report that when young survivors are interviewed, most say they didn’t give much thought to the possibility of being injured or killed and they didn’t realize the fire would be so intense.

“Since many of these reported incidents involve the ignitable liquid being poured on the chest, emergency responders must be particularly aware of the potential for serious respiratory burns when treating victims, in addition to the obvious external burns.”

Repeat: Kids are pouring flammable liquids on themselves and setting themselves on fire. Repeat: Most say they didn’t give much thought to being injured or killed and didn’t realize the fire would be so intense.

Part of our still semi-sane brain wonders if the whole thing is not some sort of hoax. (The reported death of a teenager in Buffalo was apparently untrue. Apparently true was the Aug. 24 news story about a North Carolina mother arrested after filming her son performing the stunt.)

In the videos, the subject usually stands in a bathtub or shower stall, presumably so water to douse the flames is readily available. Except, when you’re going up in flames, it takes only a millisecond to be seriously burned.

In at least one video, a panicked youth, torso ablaze, runs from the bathroom into another room. How he didn’t set the house, as well as himself, on fire is not known.

If you are seeking some profound analysis of the Fire Challenge phenomenon, you won’t find it here. We are simply dumbstruck.

Perhaps the best summation about the warped mindsets behind all this is in a parody photo we saw online: A hospital patient, swathed in bandages head to toe, is holding a phone. The caption reads, “How many ‘likes’ did I get? #FireChallenge”.

- Karen Zautyk