11.16.2016

I’ve Decided to Think about this year’s Presidential Election Outcome as a Forest Fire. Maybe You Should Too.


Yellowstone Fires. Summer 1988

In the very dry summer of 1988, about a million acres of Yellowstone National Park burned in a fire that lasted almost three months. Over a third of the park was affected. 


Week after week, nightly news broadcasts showed the desperate attempts of fire-fighters and volunteers to contain and extinguish the massive unruly fire, but their efforts were largely in vain.  The monster just kept burning. 


It was devastating to watch. Countless ecosystems and animal habitats destroyed. Homes destroyed. Not to mention lost tourist revenue and the decimation of so much natural beauty that had taken decades, if not centuries, to grow.


A 2008 story on National Public Radio provided a retrospective on the event.  


“In the end, the flames scorched about 1.2 million acres across the greater Yellowstone area, leaving the impression that the world's first national park had been destroyed,” reported Liane Hansen and Laura Krantz. 

The fires were cataclysmic in size and scope, and efforts to subdue it were for naught. As reported by NPR, Yellowstone Superintendent Bob Barbee considered the situation to be “unavoidable.” 


"No matter what we would have done, the conditions were such that there were going to be great fires in Yellowstone under any circumstances," he said. "They were started by lightning, by outfitters, by woodcutters — we were a perfect setup to burn."


Across the country, people wept for the lost forest. Romantic nostalgia and media hype combined to create a public outcry of grief over the devastation.



Report Hansen and Krantz, “The heightened media presence and the televised coverage of the fires horrified many people who believed that Yellowstone would be forever ruined. But the doom and gloom prophecies about the destruction of Yellowstone proved to be wrong.”
"Devastated" Yellowstone 1988


As Duke University fire ecologist Norm Christensen reported to NBC news in 2008, "… as big as these fires were and as important as they were in many ways, they were not historically unprecedented, and it was not unnatural” In the end, “The fires were not an ecological disaster.”


What became clear in the months and years following the forest fires was that they had not devastated the forest.  As stated by Superintendent Barbee, “…the forest recycled itself quickly. Now if you go to Yellowstone, you'll see a carpet of green, the forest is fully recovering. And so we don't characterize the fire as causing damage to the park."


If anything, the fires encouraged new growth, improved the long term health of the ecosystems and habitats, and provided an opportunity for scientists to thoroughly understand the nature of forest fires, how to protect and grow healthy ecosystems, and the process of ecosystem regeneration.  Since the fires, hundreds of research projects have been conducted to better understand the impact of fires on plants and wildlife. 

New Growth in Yellowstone. 2012

Writes Kelsey Dayton, “While it’s easy to first see the fires as destructive, they also created an incredible opportunity — a chance for long-term studies of everything from insects to wildlife to water to look at how a big fire like the 1988 blazes changes the landscape beyond the obvious charred tree skeletons.”




As we think about the election of November 8, many are anxious and fearful of the policies to come.  For scholars of political science, media, and journalism, we find ourselves in a moment of existential crisis: 
  • Only two of the 59 largest newspapers in the country endorsed Trump over Clinton.
  • Russia engaged in cyberattacks in an effort to deliberately swing the election towards Trump – and the public knew it.   
  • Trump was caught on tape bragging about sexual assault.   
  • Fifty Republican national security experts publicly voiced opposition to Trump.   
  • The 2012 GOP nominee publicly excoriated Trump.  
  • and the list goes on.

All of this happened and Trump was still elected President of the United States. 

It appears then, that information doesn't matter.  It appears then, that our field, and - more importantly - the functioning of American Democracy... is in crisis. 


Metaphorically, the forest is burning. The conditions were ideal for it, and so, here it is.
 

Do you know what causes large forest fires like the one in 1988? Just as with the 2016 election, experts say “the reasons are numerous,” according to NBC news. “They include an over-accumulation of old trees and underbrush resulting from drought, past policies of suppressing fires and insect infestations.”


An over-accumulation of old trees and underbrush. Past policies. Insect infestations.  


We have those, too:


Old trees and underbrush: 1) Citizens who feel apathetic and alienated from political life. The 43% of eligible voters who did not vote on November 8.  Content to engage in celebrity news and acts of consumption but to ignore news of oppression, corruption, or social injustice. Content to witness politics play out from afar – as though it is a spectator sport to be watched and not engaged in.  2) Liberal elites in DC, NY and LA who look with disdain upon the white working class, content to make them the butt of every joke, but not willing to hear their fears and concerns and put them at the center of their "to do" list. 3) Washington politicians whose sense of entitlement to "be next" because "that's how it should be" - which leaves many Americans feeling that the whole system really IS "rigged."


Past policies: 1) Media deregulation and consolidation of media ownership that have weakened our journalistic institutions. Underfunded and squeezed for profits that drain it of its purpose and will, our press struggles to exercise its obligation to the public good. 2) Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court which frees out money from outside groups to pour into elections in a way that is not accountable or traceable.


Insect infestations: Conspiracy theories and fake news that run rampant in an unchecked media environment. Eroding faith in institutions and in one another. Ideological echo-chambers in which we are always “right,” even if we never learn what is “true.”

These are our over-accumulation of old trees and underbrush. These are our insect infestations.  


And now we have our fire.  


The difference, of course, is that the “natural” regrowth that occurred in the aftermath of the 1988 fires isn’t imminent in the aftermath of the 2016 election. It’s up to us to seize this moment and improve the health of our democratic ecosystem. 




Let us take the steps to be certain that we do the same.


7.18.2016

Ten years.

Baxter with Mike's tree on July 18, 2016
Dear Mike,

10 years. It seems totally impossible that it's been a decade. It also seems like a lifetime ago.

Saturday night, I performed on stage at our newly painted beautiful theater with people that we've known forever. Our son was sitting in the front row along with PJ, Edie, and Crazy Susan. And I got four out of five things, smoosher - including playing jai alai while  wearing a snake and the scoop thing was a spatula.


Right now, I'm sitting in our backyard. It looks a little different
than it did when you were here. We had to take off that weird tiny back deck and we replaced it with a beautiful cathedral ceiling sunroom. 

Oh yeah, we also have a new white picket fence on the side of the yard to separate our dog run from the rest of the yard. A dog run you ask? That's right, I finally got my puppy!  Her name is Lucy and she's adorable and dumb as a bag of rocks.  And I love her.



It's interesting, Baxter always seems to process your death
differently as he ages. Friday was a moment of profound realization
for him. He and I attended a memorial service for the 43 year old
mother of his classmates who passed away after years fighting cancer.
She had been in remission, and then it returned, and for the last year
has been living her life to the fullest, knowing that her time was
about up.  She spent the last weeks on hospice at her home with her
husband and kids.


Friday night, Bax and I waited in line at the funeral home to pay our
respects and to show support for his friends and their family.

The line was so long - because she was so loved - that we found
ourselves waiting back in a room where they sell urns and memorial
jewelry.


Baxter had a thousand questions:


Can he have a pendant with your name on it (Sure.)

You were cremated right? (Yes.)

Do we have an urn? (No.)

So where are your ashes? (...In the blue and white box they came in,
sitting atop a shelf in my master bedroom closet).

Why don't we have an urn? (What would we do with an urn, baxter?)

Um... put Mike's ashes in it? (And put it where?)

I don't know... the living room? (He would hate that!  and he would
hate our spending money on a crazy expensive urn!)
Bax with Mike's tree in 2007 and (R) in 2013.

 

After we hugged the family and he hugged his friends, we knelt down at the edge of the open casket, said a prayer, and   returned to the car.

I've never seen Bax cry like that.  He was crying for his friends, for what they had gone through.  He was crying in anticipation of their days ahead without their mom. He was crying from the jarring
realization that a person is only a person when inhabited by their soul, and that a physical body can actually sit lifeless at the time
of death.


But he was also crying as a young man who was starting to understand
that the early years of his life must have been devastating and traumatic.

"I hate it.  I hate it so much.  All of it."  he sobbed.


and then, at home, with PJ and me on either side of him, he asked, in
reference to his friends, "What do they do NOW?"

"Well, they will grieve and be very sad.  They'll find ways to honor
their mom and remember her, and then... eventually, they'll find a new
normal."

"How?"

"People just do.  It takes time and tears.  But they do."

"Did we find a new normal?"


PJ rubbed his back.  "Yes.  His name is PJ and I'm right here."  We all laughed.


"How long did it take for you to get to the new normal?"  he asked me.


The thought of that time threw me a bit.  "Over a year."


He shook his head, "It must have been... awful.  Were you so so sad?"


"Yes.  But my friends took care of me... and you.  We had people at
our house all the time, staying over and visiting.  Michelle had us
for dinner 2 or 3 nights a week.  You sat in the highchair and made
everyone laugh.  The same will be true of your friends.  They have so
many family members and friends who  will help carry them through the
next weeks, months, and years."


What was fascinating about it, smoosher, was that Baxter was
experiencing the trauma of losing you for the first time as a young
man himself - as a young man worried about his widowed mother - as a
young man worried about how life would move forward for his mom and
his younger self. 
But, he already knew the story.  He knew that the
later chapters were pretty darned ok. But witnessing such a profound
loss and feeling that empathy for his friends and their dad gave him
an insight that he had never had.


On a broader topic, you should be at least slightly glad you're not
down here right now.


It's a political shitshow.  Hillary is the Dem nominee.  Yes, THAT Hillary.  *sigh*


And the Republican nominee is... Are you sitting down?    It's...Donald effing Trump.  I'm not joking, smoosher.


I told you.  it's a shitshow.


This insane farcical election aside, things around the nation and the
world are complicated right now.


Yes, that handsome inspiring senator from Illinois has been president
now for almost 8 years, but it's been a hard eight years. It's as
though having our nation's first black president has primed all kinds
of racial tensions across the country. That and digital technologies
that capture and disseminate evidence of injustices between law
enforcement and African Americans.  That and the continued disparities
in education, income, and opportunity between blacks and whites that
we just can't seem to remedy. Most people on both sides mean well and
are actively seeking solutions, but in the meantime, a rogue few are
acting out in ways that endanger lives of both cops and people of
color.  It's coming to a head and I don't know how it's all going to
play out.


On the world stage... Remember that war that we protested against in 2003 that we thought would only embolden Al Qaeda? Well yeah.  It
started an avalanche of problems in the  Middle East. War and tumult have devastated the entire region, leaving in their wake power vacuums and civil wars that have left a generation of young men feeling desperate, angry, and emboldened through radicalization. So, 9/11 was just the beginning.

Sometimes I wonder if it's all really that bad, or if, because of
digital technologies and this crazy thing called social media, it just feels that bad.

Often I wonder if it only feels dire because I'm older, more tied into
the world around me, and worried about the world that will be left for
our kids.

When you were here, things seemed so simple. Part of that is because I
had only just become a mother. Part of that's because my husband (you)
were an art director at a design studio, and not a homicide prosecutor
in Camden, NJ (peej).


Part of that is because when you were here, you did all the cooking, grocery shopping, bills, and financial planning.  I was just... along for the fun ride.  Now all those tasks are pretty much all me. (Although, I will say, for a vegetarian, Pj is pretty damn good on the
grill.)


Plus, I was a graduate student then. I started my work as a professor six weeks after you died.  I had to become a grown-up pretty fast.
Being a grown-up sucks balls.  You know what else sucks balls? Writing a letter to my best friend and remembering just as the letter is coming to an end that he's STILL not here and he'll never get to read it.

I love you, Mike Young.  I miss you. You would be proud of your son
and the young man he is becoming.  You would be proud of ComedySportz
and the amazing programming and education program that they have
created.  You would be proud of me and the fact that I cook
over-roasted veggies like a BOSS, got tenure, and am about to start
writing a book.  And, you'd be proud of all your friends.  Too many
fierce and inspiring stories to tell, but just know that your people
are doing good things.


smoooosh,
smoosher

7.18.2015

Nine years.

Hi smoosher, 
 
It's been nine years to the day and boy does the thought of your death still send me.  That awful day we lost you after months of fighting.  And no matter how I  spin it  - you're still gone.  Still can't hear you tell me how you are.  Still can't laugh at your crazy faces or voices.  Still can't hold your hand or hear your heartbeat. 
 
Your death is the only thing in my life I can honestly say I cannot fix.  I can mend relationships; work harder professionally; do research to improve my parenting; exercise and mind my nutrition to get healthy... but your death is the only thing I truly cannot change.  And that, my friend, is simply maddening.
Edie (who is now 5) was home with me today and yesterday with a fever.   Yesterday she was looking out the back window in a fever-induced fog and said, "Mama,  look.  Daddy Mike's tree.  It's just... so beautiful." 
Because,  somehow, that tree, the one that Heide picked up randomly for me,  the one that  I planted on our wedding anniversary a year after you died,  the one with your ashes beneath it. That fucking tree is at its peak bloom every single year on July 18th - the very day you died. Once again, this year.  It is beautiful.

So, here on earth, in the shadow of your absence, things go on.  I just wrapped up my first sabbatical, which was pretty productive.  Baxter finished 4th grade and Edie is going to start Kindergarten in the fall.  PJ got moved to the homicide unit, which, while super prestigious, is also stressful as hell.  I remember your remarking about how Jim Carpenter had an insanely difficult and serious job as a Philly DA, and you found it hard to understand  how he could put that all aside  to "make the funny" in ComedySportz.  That job?  That insane job?  That's what PJ does, too.

You know, I miss the simplicity of the life you and I had, but  there are so many variables  wrapped up into one, it's hard to say  what I miss.  I miss being in the city and getting together with our friends ...whenever.  But that is something that  disappeared once we all started families and fled to the burbs - not just because you died.  I miss having a perpetually playful homelife, where  the stakes were low and we were just... silly all the  time.    But perhaps that would have receded with parenthood anyway.  Since you got  sick when Bax  was 10 months old and died 8 months later, it's hard to  know.  But it's definitely all confounded in this little mind of mine.

What I do know is that I married someone who you would love and respect, though he is quite different from you.  PJ is morally serious.  He is playful and funny, sure... but he also feels the weight of many social problems with his every breath.  He and I often talk about the kind of emotional  detachment he needs to have from his profession.  He can't  win every trial.  He certainly can't  bring victims back  through his courtroom successes... but he still feels it - and I can see the furrow  in his brow at the end of a long and troublesome week.  When I lament this stressful life we  have,  he reminds me that this morally serious person is the one who, at age 27,  was ready to date a widow with a child, and to assume the role of Baxter's father.  As I always say, "it's a complete  package.  No substitutions."  I think I have changed a lot, too.  I am still playful, but not as lighthearted.  I miss that me.  Because  you left  when I was just  becoming a real grown-up, I can  never  know if  I would have missed that "old me" anyhow.  But your departure sure left  an inconvenient causal agent on which I can continue to blame my lack of silliness.
In terms of the big picture  --- Bax is doing great.  He has lots of friends,  is doing exceptionally well at school, is playing the piano like a boss, and is a happy and  confident kid.  He sometimes caves under the weight of frustration (like, from having to fold his clothes or having to shut off Minecratft), which does worry me.  I actually talked to him today about how  he can't have a broken spirit from such minute obstacles and setbacks.  He seemed to get it, but I know the next time I tell him he can't  watch TV until his room is cleaned,  he'll look like I just snapped him with a whip.  Meanwhile, Edie continues to be a handful.  She never caves.   Quite opposite of Bax, Edie's spirit is NEVER broken.   Instead, she fights tooth and nail for everything.  While this might serve her well at the U.N., here in our home it can be particularly trying.  And yet,  she also  loves with abandon, hugs so hard that your wind gets  knocked out, and will  tell any member of the household that they "are the best person... EVER."  
 
Oh... and we got a dog.  A floppy muppet of a dog named Lucy - and I am in love with her. She lays down at my feet while I work and write.  She walks with me and licks my face.  She endures the children's insane affections.  And... I love her.
You will be excited to hear that ComedySportz is doing very well.  We are the exclusive  renters in the Playground space.  We have increased  programming, education opportunities and Red League.  Our crowds continue to be  decent size and our product continues to be super solid.  The improv scene in Philly is blowing up.  We are not the only show in town.  But, I would say, we are still the best and most consistently strong improv show in the city.
Smoosher, I want to write forever because it fools me into thinking you're right here, but I can't.  I need to help put the kids to bed and reorient myself to the world that is here now.  That is the double-edged sword of grief - the desire to connect with the past while still being firmly rooted in the present.  And now, my daughter is crying for me and Baxter is begging dad for a "mama snuggle," so I must go. I love you, smoosher


4.30.2015

Efficacy. Translating #BaltimoreUprising into a Movement towards Social Justice




Image result for brave new films racism



I'm a girl who was born and raised in New Hampshire, a state that, at the time, had a black population of less than 1% (it's at 1.6% now). I now live in a South Jersey town that is 1.5% African American.  My town has a median household income of $70,000/year.  Our town is literally 3 miles away from Camden, NJ, with a 76% African American population.  With a median household income of $18,000 (earning it the badge of America’s poorest city).  

My husband spends his days prosecuting violent crime in our neighboring city of Camden.  Sometimes it’s a drug deal gone wrong.  Sometimes a rival drug set feels wronged by another drug set.   Often it has gang-related elements.  Usually within the gangs themselves – arguing over status within the system they’ve created for themselves.  Sometimes these “negotiations” turn into shoot-outs - sometimes in the middle of the day.  With people around... moms and kids.  It's like the Wild West. 

We spend hours debating the causes of this vast racial/economic divide and how to fix it.  But it’s so fucking complicated.  

So, yes, my husband is in law enforcement.  Not the kind with a gun or a baton.  The kind in a suit with a briefcase.  And he spends lots of time with the families of the victims.  Sometimes, the families have little interest in talking with law enforcement (to put it mildly).  But, not all.  Many of these parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents work so goddamned hard to keep these kids on a good path, but the options are simply not there.  The individual benefits of engaging in criminal activity in these neighborhoods vastly outweighs the costs for many of these young men.    


My husband and I inhabit two very different worlds.  I am a professor who spends her day with idealistic, engaged young people who are ready to change the world.  Young people from all different backgrounds who come to the University of Delaware, major in Communication or Political Science (the two subjects I teach) and are preparing to embark on some great path.   I have students who are the first in their families to go to college.  These students often come to the university without the same solid academic background from which their more affluent classmates have had the luxury of benefiting.  But they work hard and are in it to win it.  


I’m also a social scientist who explores the various factors (individual, environmental, political, social, and psychological) that increase the likelihood that a person might engage in a particular action.  I study these factors with an eye towards behavior change or prevention.  The goal in social science is partly to explain behaviors and partly to predict behaviors.  We do this – when we’re doing it right – in an effort to develop interventions.  Interventions are usually communication-based messages that might help change or shape these factors in a way that will maximize functional behavioral outcomes - like, getting people to vote, stopping people from smoking, getting people to get an HIV test, reducing anti-social behaviors (like bullying, for example). 


On the other hand, Husband deals with the action itself.  Homicide, for example.  Regardless of the factors that come beforehand, in the eyes of the law, certain behaviors are treated pretty much the same.  As you can imagine, our perspectives are quite different, but both of us benefit greatly from the exchange.  


What he is reminded of, when talking to me, is that, yes, every person has free will.  Every person can choose a specific course of action in a given moment.  But, to deny the impact of the obstacles and factors that poor, inner city youth have to overcome just to SURVIVE from one day to the next, imposes a myopic, decontextualized moral judgment onto an infinitely complex social problem.   


What I am reminded of, when talking to him, is that, if we explain people’s behaviors ONLY in terms of the social, racial, political or economic factors that brought them to that act (homicide, shooting, drug-dealing), then we  are  basically saying that an individual is no more than an automaton who has no free will.  If that is the case, then what is the policy solution?  Lock up everyone who has a particular set of background factors because “chances are” they will engage in certain criminal acts?  Of course not.  


The key is in identifying those factors, those efficacy factors, that can lead people to – in spite of all the obstacles working against them– make the functional choice in a given moment.   


What are those efficacy factors?  Efficacy is our sense of empowerment and confidence in our ability to take certain actions.  It’s the feeling that “I can DO this,  even if it’s hard.”  Is efficacy an immutable factor that only exist within us? Either we have efficacy or we don’t? No. Sure, some people just seem “grittier” than others, but efficacy is something that has shown itself to be quite malleable.  Through education, information, face-to-face, and media-based messages, efficacy goes up – and behavior follows.  This is true in the realm of health behaviors, political behaviors, and even stopping certain addictive behaviors. 


So, when I watched this short video today, from Brave New Films, I felt this groundswell, this eye-opening movement, as a sort of organic efficacy intervention.  


Maybe some of the overwhelming power of those negative systemic factors that trap young urban youth can be muted through increases in efficacy.  


And perhaps efficacy comes from something as simple as… finally feeling heard.  




We hear you.