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Category: Opinion

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 

Thoughts and Views: Robin Williams: A final act

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The ability of someone to make us laugh, to make us forget the stress we have to deal with every day, is, I believe, highly enviable and enriching. Especially when the individual prompting our amusement can convey that humor in an inventive way, to make us see that so much in the world we perceive on the surface can be mined for infinite “readings.”

Among the more contemporary male practitioners of this art of improvisation are Mel Brooks, John Cleese, John Lithgow (when he’s not doing “King Lear”), Steve Martin, Ellen DeGeneres, Paula Poundstone, Ricky Gervais … and Robin Williams.

Yes, that extraordinary actor who, at the drop of a hat, it seemed, could take us on a voyage of imagination capable of propelling us through a comic wormhole forever evolving into an as yet unknown realm.

Recall his “object transformation” exercise – prompted by his lifting a shawl from an audience member on a segment of “Inside the Actors Studio” with James Lipton – where he created, on the spot, multiple, distinct characters, using the shawl as a takeoff point.

(Disclosure: As a sometimes actor-in-learning, I find it hard to accept that this son of a Detroit auto executive had laser-like to the world of imagination – or powers of human observation – that he used to enhance the craft he so preciously embraced.)

But then many question whether Shakespeare – given his apparently humble background – had the special gift to write the Elizabethan verse ascribed to him.

Let us simply appreciate Williams for what he chose to share with us – and not just his amply endowed comic persona – but also the dark shadings he dredged out of his soul: There is the mysterious crime novelist in “Insomnia” and the lonely photo technician in “One Hour Photo” to explore.

Or have a look at his quiet, serious, humanitarian side as the dedicated but fragile neurologist in “Awakenings” and the spirited, generous teacher in “Dead Poets Society.”

Williams was only 63 when, according to authorities, he decided to ring down the curtain forever by hanging himself with a belt.

None of us can know the inner pain he must have been feeling that drove him to this sad end. He had struggled with addiction issues, depression and was reportedly showing early signs of Parkinson’s disease.

As such a keen observer of the world around him and so tuned in to the nuances of the human condition which he could play back for us at any time, Williams may have felt like one of Oliver Sacks’ unfortunate patients, doomed to an irreversible mental slide.

I have striking memories of how a now-deceased favorite aunt, who was a talented pianist and singer and who loved to perform at family functions, quickly declined and I can think of nothing more heart-rending than to see someone who has spent much of their life bringing joy to others being robbed of that gift, because of some type of chemical imbalance.

Perhaps Robin Williams, anticipating such a fate, chose an early exit out of a sense of hopelessness.

This time, though, he used a belt for another type of “object transformation”.

And now there will be no encore.

 – Ron Leir

Thoughts & Views: ‘Wretched writers welcome’

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The Bulwer-Lytton Contest winners for 2014 have been announced, and I feel compelled to share some of them with you. I have written about the contest before, but in case you have forgotten: Named for 19th-century British writer Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, it is “a whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.” (That is not as easy as you might think.)

It was launched by the English Department of San Jose (Calif.) State University in 1982 and today attracts entries from across the globe. As usual, many of my top picks were Runners-Up or Dishonorable Mentions. So be it. I shall begin with the category closest to my heart: Read more »

Getting a leg (or ankle) up on crooked pols

It has been widely reported that the City of London is tackling hooliganism on the public streets triggered by repeated bouts of inebriation with a pilot program that compels offenders to wear an ankle tag that monitors their boozing.

The device is designed to measure the level of alcohol in the wearer’s perspiration every half hour and readings are transmitted to a base center for monitoring by a court officer.

Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, was quoted as saying that, “Alcohol-fueled criminal behavior is a real scourge on our high streets, deterring law-abiding citizens from enjoying our great city, especially at night, placing massive strain on frontline services, while costing businesses and the taxpayer billions of pounds.”

This strategy has been applied, to a limited extent, on this side of the pond as well, though I’m unfamiliar with any research on how effective it has been in tamping down alcohol-induced misbehavior.

At any rate, as a form of public humiliation, an ankle bracelet rates pretty low on a scale of what passed for common forms of punishment meted out by Elizabethan-era authorities in not so Merry England and by our own Colonial forebears: branding (an early expression of public “advertising” of your crime with hot irons), nailing an offender’s ears to a wooden plank or even encasing a “scold” in an iron mask to silence her.

Not to mention public whippings, stocks and pillories for the types of crimes that might make even Tea Party members cringe. Or not.

Even today, our criminal justice system can still find ways to torture inmates through botched executions. Yes, in most instances, the person sentenced to death certainly merited the penalty for having committed heinous crimes but, in this country, there are constitutional restraints against “cruel and inhuman punishment.”

But I digress.

The notion of a very public reminder that points up the criminality of an elected official entrusted with the public’s welfare – and tax dollars – seems like an attractive alternative to sending the rascal out of the public eye for a prolonged period of time. It’s policy now in Pennsylvania that when a state legislator is found guilty of a crime, his or her official portrait on display in the capitol will be tagged with a “plaque” disclosing the nature of their unlawful activity.

That’s a reasonable move but, after all, how many folks – even in the Keystone State – are inclined to go out of their way to visit Harrisburg and see those plaques?

No, I think we need a much grander vision here – something guaranteed to keep Sen. Squirmy or Mayor Mendacity out in the public eye so we don’t forget what drove them to the abyss.

Otherwise, we end up with Buddy Cianci, the twice-convicted former mayor of Providence, R.I., who did time in prison for corruption charges, declaring on his radio show that he’s running for office again. After all, we can’t count on Buddy to recount his former misdeeds.

So, I have a small suggestion. Nothing makes the heart of your typical politician beat faster than when they’re out there giving a speech – or a filibuster – right?

Well, we should take the next public official found to have taken a bribe, misused campaign funds, steered a contract to a favored firm, or whatever, put them on a bus, and make scheduled stops in key cities to deliver a rousing stump speech to their former constituents, outlining the history of their missteps and asking forgiveness.

In a sense, it’s sort of like campaigning. They should feel right in their element.

Of course, they may well be heckled or pelted with trash by the crowds who turn out for this public penance but I guess that’s better than a turn in the stocks, right?

Oh, I forgot to mention, they should be wearing an ankle bracelet that will be programmed to electronically record their speech and take photos at each “campaign” stop to be transmitted back to their probation officer.

Now I realize all of this will require enormous public expense but the politicians themselves should be forced to foot the bill. Speech might be free, but there should be a price to pay for abusing the public trust.

– Ron Leir