Sunday, June 12, 2011

There's Your Trouble / Fayetteville Observer Column

Published: 12:00 AM, Fri Jun 10, 2011
Community Advisory Board: There's Your Trouble> < > < [+] By Skye Dent

Recently, I was among community-minded intelligent colleagues discussing the wave of terrorist-like tornadoes when a haunting subject arose. The group expressed surprise that so many strangers offered help during the tornadoes' aftermath.

They repeated quotes from others who were - surprised. The unknown off-duty military folks who pitched in without waiting to exhale. The stranger who did this. The no-name woman who did that. Their departing shadows reminded one of Clint Eastwood after he cleaned up the badlands and rode into the sunset with a nod, a squint and a toothpick between his teeth.

Weeks later, visiting Missouri's Joplin where many lives were swept up and crushed, Barack Obama applauded similar "countless acts of courage."

I had lived a bit of it in other places. Fires consuming acres, homes and wildlife. Floods. Earthquakes. My most vivid memories of the 1994 Northridge Earthquake were both aching and amusing. To avoid closed off streets, I biked 10 miles to my office at Warner Interactive. The guard wouldn't let me in. Even after scanning my work I.D., he said I might be there to loot.

So, I called my regular disaster volunteer organization. L.A. Works sent me to a retirement home to pick up fallen items for evacuating seniors. I spent hours packing hundreds of porn videos, pretending for a tenant's benefit that I didn't know what they were.

There were thanks. Gratitude. But no surprise.

What does surprise me now, 10-plus years later, is why so many people here and in other parts of the country seemed surprised that strangers would put their lives on hold to help. So maybe that is what we should be asking. Why is it that people devastated, left helpless by tornadoes, did not expect strangers to help? What is it about our psyche these days that we feel others won't respond in times of need and distress?


According to S.L.A. Marshall, a World War I Army historian, when troops could not see each other, they felt more alone. Forced out of one's home and unable to contact friends and family, perhaps the tornado-stricken felt so alone that their normal expectations were put on hold.

Taylor Clark, author of "Nerve: Poise Under Pressure," says that "under life-threatening stress, complex brain processing plummets and the neural mainstream often maxes out." I think he means that it's normal for our caveman instincts, "Lord of the Flies" expectations to take over.

"Surviving under fire is about formatting your brain to take the right action reflexively," explains Clark. Did those who helped without question have their minds formatted from a previous catastrophic situation? Of course, that's part of the theory behind the CERT (Community Emergency Response Training) I took two years ago. Train regularly and the doing is automatic, we were told.

That would explain the take-charge actions of many off-duty soldiers. What author Sally Le Boeuf calls "The Warrior's Edge." People from the military who, at one point or another, have lived at a level of performance at which physical skills are precisely executed with little effort. Snap, the cognitive process kicks in.

Even in guys who fought as far back as Vietnam, I've seen that reaction. It's one reason I gave a few of them my "dig here" packet of driving routes and copies of I.D. before long drives. If I didn't arrive, their warrior's edge would kick in and the hunt would be on before you could say "criminal minds."

Of course, we could blame news organizations for low expectations of charity. Newspapers and TV news get blamed for so much else. Think about it. The media highlight Good Samaritans as if they're endangered species. But that theory would assume that we readers and viewers are not media literate and cannot think for ourselves.

Still, even on an international level, we're reminded that our country doesn't do good deeds just for virtue's sake. How many times have we been told in the last two weeks that America gives aid to Pakistan in exchange for strategic interests?

Even on a new board that I'm a part of, some board members want to benefit financially from the organization's activities. We're talking about a nonprofit.


So is generosity a zero sum game? If you do something for me, do I incur a psychological debt that has to be made up? I took care of you when the tornado struck your house. Now you owe me. Better to be suspicious than to incur debt, goes the theory.

Perhaps the answer isn't so deep. What if, even though compassion has not totally been kicked to the curb, it's simply no longer a fundamental character trait that counts? Hmmm. Well then, how long before we reach the stage where compassion is seen as a negative?

To quote a popular country-western song, "there's your trouble."

Skye Dent is a member of the Observer's Community Advisory Board, which meets regularly with the editorial board to discuss local issues and contributes op-ed columns. She is a professor within the University of North Carolina system as well as a newspaper reporter and screenwriter.

Lessons In Soldiering On / Fayetteville Observer

The Fayetteville Observer
Community Advisory Board: Some lessons in how to soldier on
By Skye Dent

I was halfway through a rant on why I didn't look nearly old enough to be a hippie when my niece cut me short and said she was talking about attitude, not age. She accused me of being too spontaneous. Doing too much volunteer work. Uprooting myself every few years with nary a care for finance or romance. And what's with those paisley print scarfs, anyway?

She had a point.

Here I had just finished stuffing most needed belongings into my shrimpy Kia. Books. Copies of sold and mostly unsold scripts. A cooler of Trader Joe's and Whole Foods. More emergency supplies than seen in "The Road." And the Stratocaster I dreamed I'd one day have time for.

Speaking of dreams - I was on my way from California to Fayetteville to fulfill another one.

Recently, I'd realized that two of the people I respected most were both writers and military: journalist Richard Brooks and TV drama showrunner Coleman Luck. I didn't always like what Brooks or Luck said. But, they were straight up, disciplined men with an enviable dark brand of humor, sarcasm and blunt honesty.

Fortunately, Fayetteville not only had such military and military-related students in abundance, but Fayetteville State University's new communication department needed a journalism professor with film and TV experience.

Lukewarm welcome

My car coughed its way into Fayetteville on Aug. 6. Day 1 was not so welcoming. The motel manager said he gave away my room. Yes, I was on time. Yes, I had paid a deposit. Yes, I had a receipt in hand. The explanation? The military had suddenly come into town. The motel manager had decided that a bird in the hand was worth more than one on the road. Besides, the military paid a higher nightly rate.

But born and bred Bostonian babes don't back down. We're scrappy, willing to throw down, at least with words. Twenty minutes of verbal fisticuffs later, the manager gave in and gave me a room.

After a month, I found an apartment. The complex's credit company said I passed all the checks. Good credit rating. Two-year contract at FSU. But, the complex manager said no. She claimed the credit report said I owed $48 on a 2004 AAA card. When I pointed out that AAA was a membership organization and that one could not owe on it, the manager agreed with me, but still said no.

The reality, I was told by colleagues, was that many landlords preferred military tenants because rent was paid directly out of allotments. Besides, when a pipe burst or some other fixture went bad, young recruits didn't make waves. And indeed, I started stirring the seas. I tracked down and called the corporate owners in Seattle. They checked my records, said there had to be some mistake, and within two days the apartment was mine.

Still, I had come to teach and live in peace. Now, I was worried about me. What was life in Fayetteville going to be like, being a second-class citizen behind all things military?

Taking advantage

Soon, I came to realize that new military residents had their own problem. I went to buy a bed at a place on Skibo. The price seemed outrageous. "Blame the military," said the young salesman. He explained that rather than reap benefits by being military, servicemen, especially younger ones, were often ripped off. Prices were jacked up for them.

The rationale: A lot of new servicemen were unaccustomed to regular paychecks. It's often easy to part them from their money, especially when budgeting or even writing a check may be a foreign concept.

A military couple staying at the original motel confirmed it. They and their two young kids were staying in a room the same size as mine and had tried to buy a car. When they complained that the huge deposit required was too much, the dealer said "we're not used to dealing with people like you."

And this couple was from Carmel, Calif. Could living in Fayetteville be more expensive than the place where Clint Eastwood lives and makes his day, just down the road from Oprah?

So, I started to do what journalists are trained to do best. Listen objectively. And take notes.

Other folks in the military said many businesses profited madly by taking advantage of the military. It was so bad, they said, that Fort Bragg handed out a blacklist of establishments to avoid. But when you're a young recruit (or even a returning serviceman) whose life may end in Iraq or Afghanistan, worrying about a fair price may not be priority No. 1, blacklist notwithstanding.

OK, I'm still confused. The assistant manager who runs the chain gas station where I get gas and coffee every morning says she's getting paid $10 an hour, after working there almost two decades. Most workers I meet in service positions seem to be making less. Where's the money going?


The military students in my classes did live up to the models displayed by my West Coast veteran friends. They arrived at class on time, handed in quality work, completed reading on time and even lobbied for extra credit despite having top-of-the-class grades.

The military wives followed suit. Diligent, determined. One improved her writing skills so dramatically in one semester that when she and her husband were transferred to Colorado, a U of C professor assured me he would be happy to ease her transition so she wouldn't lose a semester while getting settled.

Another military wife who was pregnant the entire semester completed all her assignments prior to Thanksgiving because the baby was scheduled to arrive late in November. A few days after the baby was born early, she took a weekly quiz in the hospital rather than risk lowering her GPA.

In fact, most of my students (military or not) lived up to my demands and expectations. Even those who did not always apply themselves were smart, funny, witty and warmhearted.

I hope they know I'm here for them, here to make a difference. After all, military or civilian, it's the students at FSU who make my day.

Skye Dent is a professor within the University of North Carolina system, a journalist and screenwriter, and a member of the Fayetteville Observer Community Advisory Board.