Shirley, You Must Be Joking

Unfortunately, wherever there is bullying there is a good chance the ball has been dropped by a parent or parents in terms of either teaching their child how to behave or not being there in the first place.

I would have thought raising a generation of Americans on “Barney and Friends,” et al, would have precluded us from having to discuss the bullying problem for the same reason that so many of us no longer smoke cigarettes: We know it’s bad and we know others don’t like it so we don’t do it.

 (Read LI Press story about Daphne Melin, pictured right, who was arrested for encouraging a fight between two 12 year-old girls in Shirley)

 And yet the other night, as I went to use the water fountain (yes, they still exist) in the grade school where a bunch of local dads play basketball, I noticed that the walls were plastered with bromides about the need to treat each other with respect and dignity. I imagine similar scenarios are played out in grade schools across the Island, and yet the news is still rife with stories about kids bullying kids.

I can tell you there were no bromides on the walls of St. Williams in Seaford, where I went to grammar school in the late 1960s. It was survival of the fittest, and the bigger kids ruled. It was either fight or flight and given my propensity for seeing every comment as a slight, I often opted for the former.

As crazy as things got back then, however, I did not have to deal with the Internet. It’s one thing to have to battle the known enemy during lunch or after school. It’s a whole ‘nother fight when the enemy – or enemies – have technological weapons at their disposal that can do their damage at the push of a key and in the blink of an eye. Hiding behind a keyboard emboldens today’s bullies, too, because they can commit their cowardly actions with an utter lack of fear of physical retribution. I’m not saying I kicked anybody’s butt, but if you picked on me you were going to get dirty and possibly even bloodied because I was never afraid to fight. Surely that had to discourage more than one bully from piling on.

I’m not suggesting fighting fire with fire. I am simply pointing out that one of the reasons why bullying seems so rampant now is because it is so much easier to be a bully. You even get the glory of media attention, thanks to the youtubification of every little thing that goes on in our society. (I can only imagine how intriguing it would be to watch a videotape of one of my schoolyard scraps).

So how do we end bullying? Unfortunately, wherever there is bullying there is a good chance the ball has been dropped by  a parent or parents in terms of either teaching their child how to behave or not being there in the first place. So it falls on our schools to continue the anti-bullying campaigns and have responsible adults intervene whenever possible.

I know that worked in my case. It was Sister Jean, who took over as school principal late in my St. Williams career, who set me straight. When I was in seventh grade I figured it was my turn to inflict rather than receive. After doing so (verbally, not physically) at the bus stop one morning, I was called down to Sr. Jean’s office. It seems the recipient of my obnoxiousness did not embrace the philosophy that being bullied was a rite of passage, even in a parochial school, and complained to the principal. Sr. Jean asked me why I was picking on a younger student who had done me no harm. I explained that that’s the way I was treated when I was younger. She asked me how it felt. Lousy, I said. “So why would you want to inflict that kind of pain on somebody else?”

I wanted to say “where the hell were you when I was eating the dirt at recess”, but I didn’t. I knew she was right. I didn’t want other kids to go through what I went through.

Bullies need to be confronted and challenged, with compassion if possible. Get to the root of why he or she is behaving in that manner and get the bully to understand the pain he or she is inflicting, and unless you are dealing with psychotic you will put an end to the problem.

Big Bird Is Watching

While I do not have a lot of sympathy for law breakers or snooty blowhards, I am concerned that we will reach a point in our lives where we are afraid to express honest opinions or thoughts simply because we have no idea what’s being recorded for dissemination.

Nassau County Red Light CameraWhen I was a child, heading off somewhere sans parents, my mother would say to me, “Just because I’m not around doesn’t mean I don’t know what you’re up to. I have little birdies everywhere keeping an eye on you.”

Even at such a young age I did not really believe her, but I didn’t put it past her, either. To this day my mother, who is in her 80th year and still drives a stick shift, has powers beyond mere mortals, and to this day anytime I find myself thinking of committing even the slightest indiscretion, those birdies come to mind.

My mother’s flock of see-gulls was just a harmless concoction designed to keep a little boy in line. Society, however, has embraced an extensive network of electronic “little birdies” – the proliferation of video cameras posted just about any place where people meet and/or pass through on a regular basis. This love affair with technology could turn into a nightmare of Hitchcock-like proportions.

Nassau County, for instance, is trying to balance its budget by “catching” citizens on camera as they drive through red lights. The police don’t even have to pull you over. You run the light; the camera mounted to the traffic signal takes the picture; you pay the fine. Brilliant! Suffolk County also has followed suit with these green-yellow-red cash cows.

The point of this piece is not to advocate for greater leniency for red-light-runners, however, although this afternoon I found myself going through a “photo-enforced” intersection as the light turned yellow and now I have to sweat out the mail for the next few days. And Lord knows the video cameras that were working in that Medford pharmacy last month and the street cameras in Brooklyn that caught the killer of Leiby Kletzky were most helpful in putting fiends behind bars.

One doesn’t have to be a scofflaw to have to fear the ubiquitous camera, either. Last month a woman made a complete ass of herself berating a Metro North conductor. A fellow passenger captured the tirade on a camera, posted it to the Internet and within hours the woman was a laughing stock around the country. I can’t imagine the horror of having your worst moment – and we have all had them – recorded for posterity.

While I do not have a lot of sympathy for law breakers or snooty blowhards, I am concerned that we will reach a point in our lives where we are afraid to express honest opinions or thoughts simply because we have no idea what’s being recorded for dissemination.

And where does it end? According to story in the New York Daily News, there are now tens of thousands – if not hundreds of thousands – of surveillance cameras in New York City alone. In 2006, the article says, the New York Civil Liberties Union launched an effort to tally the number of surveillance cameras but the search was called off after staffers counted 8,000 between the base of Manhattan and 14th St.

If you don’t think there is a downside to having all these eyes in the skies, then you might want to read – or re-read – George Orwell’s “1984.” Orwell’s “science fiction” concerns about a government that was all seeing and all knowing thanks to the miracle of modern technology should be required reading of all high school students today. Inexplicably, it is not. Talk about nailing it. Orwell’s notion that government officials are not above placing flat screen TVs in every room in every building in the country – and that those screens could hear and see everything you do – seemed far-fetched as recently as 1975, when I read it in Mrs. Baskir’s 10th grade English class. Not anymore.

Right now the American people watch “Big Brother.” Are we that far removed from the possibility of “Big Brother” watching us?

Royal Flush

I understand that plenty of Americans love pageantry and fashion shows – how else do you explain all those banal awards shows? But this notion of royalty makes me want to retch. As my father used to say, “a person can be rich and famous, or have a million degrees framed on the walls of his office, but that doesn’t make him any more special or different.”

Why in the name of the William Floyd Parkway would a Long Islander want to watch – or care about – the Royal Wedding?

 What you have here is a taxpayer-funded, multi-million dollar operation with billions of dollars in assets run by people whose only claim to the positions they hold came via birthright, yet the only way a woman would be allowed to be in charge is if there are no other men around in line for the job. What’s more un-American than that?

These Royal Folks have no discernible talents or achievements worth noting and/or that could possibly justify all the attention they receive. Let’s face it: the only difference between the Royal Wedding and an episode of the “Jersey Shore” is that the Royal folks dress better and there are decidedly fewer “F” bombs being dropped, at least within earshot of the camera.  Yet nobody thinks you’re being sarcastic when you refer to them as “Your Majesty” or “Your Highness.” Not that I ever would. Trust me when I tell you if I refer to you as “Your Majesty” or “Your Highness,” deferential is not on the menu.

A colossal waste of time is what I see when I look at all the hubbub about the Royal Wedding scheduled for this Friday. Why is every major news network sending crews and devoting hours of coverage to a wedding involving two people who may be very nice and quite possible do actually love each other but have zero relevance to our daily existence? And how did that “Royal Wedding” turn out? 

That’s why the attention and interest being paid to the Royal Wedding is a slap in the face to the Founding Fathers. John Hancock, Ben Franklin and Samuel Adams are more than just corporate icons. They were men who put their lives on the line and their personal fortunes at risk so future generations of Americans would have the freedom to work where they choose and create their own personal fortunes, not to hunker down in front of their television sets to watch hour after hour of Royal Wedding coverage. 

What the hell has Prince William and/or Kate Middleton ever done to generate so much excitement? Every time I see a member of the Royal family on camera he or she looks like he or she has to pee and is holding it in, and the next time one of them says something of interest will be the first time.

I understand that plenty of Americans love pageantry and fashion shows – how else do you explain all those banal awards shows?  But this notion of royalty makes me want to retch. As my father used to say, “a person can be rich and famous, or have a million degrees framed on the walls of his office, but that doesn’t make him any more special or different.” Last time I checked that’s what this country was founded on – we all get one vote and we all have just as much of a right to the brass ring as the next guy.

Speaking of the next guy, I also have to wonder where the outrage is regarding the Royal Family’s pecking order. Male progeny take precedence over female – even if the male is younger than the female, and God forbid any of them should marry a Roman Catholic. Seriously – that’s the rule, right there in black and white. No Roman Catholics allowed. If I’m not good enough to run your country because of my religious beliefs then I am certainly not about to spend any of my time watching your stupid wedding. So there. 

Rest assured you will not find me in front of the television set Friday morning, basking in the majesty of it all. If anything, I will schedule a business meeting at a diner and order my usual: An English muffin…in a diner by the William Floyd Parkway.

Where Have You Gone, Robert Moses?

Having a building or park named in one’s honor is nice, but it is still not as cool as a statue. Let’s face it: A statue requires true greatness that stands the test of time – not just the ability to squeeze some money out of a budget in Albany.

They just don’t make great Americans like they used to.

That’s the only conclusion one can come to when you consider this: When was the last time somebody suggested that a statue be erected in somebody else’s honor? Taking things a step further, when was the last time you heard a suggestion regarding a statue honoring a Long Islander? Have you ever heard of someone suggesting that a statue be built to honor a Long Islander?

Well, there is one: a seven-foot (or so) statue of Robert Moses just west of Babylon Village Hall on Montauk Highway. He looks pretty dapper, for a statue. It’s there because Mr. Moses lived in Babylon Village when he wasn’t traversing the State as the last “Master Builder,” wreaking havoc on politicians and neighborhoods simultaneously, forsaking mass transit for his beloved parkways. The statue was the Village’s way of honoring a famous (at least in New York State circles) local resident, but chances are pretty good it will also serve as the last statue ever erected to honor  a man (or woman) who has walked among us.

In fact, I do not know of any other statues on the Island, and I travel the Island pretty extensively. In New York City, on the other hand, there are approximately 159 statues – give or take a bust – in the five boroughs, according to newyorkcitystatues.com. The city folks might have gotten a little carried away at some point, however. There are four statues of Alexander Hamilton alone, for instance. There’s also one of Chester Arthur, a New York native and the 21st President of the United States, as well as three of his contemporaries in Madison Square Park.

I suppose the modern-day equivalent to bronze immortality is having a building or park named in your honor. There are plenty of instances of that across the region – mostly for politicians. There’s Dean Skelos Park in Rockville Centre, Ken LaValle Stadium at Stony Brook University and my personal favorite, the Al D’Amato Courthouse in Central Islip. And only those truly captivated by trivial information can appreciate the fact that that the Hauppauge Industrial Park is officially known as the John V. Klein Hauppauge Industrial Park.

Both Sens. Skelos and LaValle are still in office, so you have to hope they don’t suffer the same indignity the Town of Islip had to endure when the town leaders were forced to scrape Town Supervisor Pete McGowan’s name from the front wall of MacArthur Airport’s main terminal. Turns out flouting the law is frowned upon when considering one’s bid for immortality.

Having a building or park named in one’s honor is nice, but it is still not as cool as a statue.  Let’s face it: A statue requires true greatness that stands the test of time – not just the ability to squeeze some money out of a budget in Albany. Being statue-worthy means providing bold and innovative leadership through turbulent times; anyone can lead when times are good, and as somebody once pointed out you never see a statue built to honor a conformist.

Washington, Lincoln and, yes, Alexander Hamilton, all earned their statute stripes. So did Moses, for that matter, although an argument can be made that his documented disdain for minorities and mass transit have made it rather difficult for Long Island to change with the times.

But what Long Island leader – past or present – can claim to be statue-worthy? Given the fragmented nature of our region, is it even possible for one individual to provide the leadership required to inspire a statue?  And what does it say about the times we live in that nobody will be worth remembering a 100 years from now?

Like I said, they don’t make great Americans like they used to anymore.

By Michael Watt