A Letter to Heaven on Behalf of Our BaBa

Dear Heaven:

I am writing this letter on behalf of my grandma, Betty Iatarola. She died on Thursday, May 18, 2023, at 11:38 a.m. MST. Thank you for unlocking your pearly gates and letting in the driver of the gray Mercedes Benz (1994 S320 I think). She looked most stylish in that car, especially when she gunned it like a racecar driver on Rancho Vistoso Boulevard and hit 100 mph before there were any speed limits or Oro Valley cops. Last I read, there are no speed limits that mark the roads to you, Heaven.

I would say Betty is on her way right now or has already arrived. However, per the wisdom of Rabbi M.M. Schneerson, who writes of “Heaven” in Bringing Heaven Down to Earth: Meditations on the Wisdom of the Rebbe:

“We don’t say a person ‘will be going to heaven.’ We say this person is ‘a child of the world to come.’ Heaven is not just somewhere you go. It is something you carry with you.”

In this world to come, Betty’s Mercedes had God’s radar detector to help protect her from speed traps. She also prayed every day and went to Mass mostly every Sunday and holidays. As a child of the world to come, she carries the heavenly love of so many people, including her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Within her circle of seven grandchildren — Gabes, Kayleigh, Sofia, Bella, Tori, and Kodi — I was the first to arrive, the first to call her “my Grammie.”

Grammie was 47 when I was born. We spent the first seven years of my childhood one-on-one. I loved the way she mashed my German egg into the bread and made my Cream of Wheat with a dash of sugar for breakfast. She taught me how to measure vanilla for chocolate chip cookie dough and crush the pecans for her famous Tassies. She bought me my first pair of Nike Airs in Tucson, and we finally found the hot pink puffy jacket at Bloomingdale’s before winter ended in Chicago. She made thin steak sandwiches for my school lunches and pulled my hair into tight ponytails so I could see during recess. She sewed holes and fixed my broken zippers. She did everything that amazing Grammies do out of love for each of her grandchildren, including me.

Around age 12, Grammie became my Gram. There is powerful simplicity in this name, a monosyllabic way it denies the reality of aging while upholding the power of matriarchy. “No one calls me grandma,” she warned all Iatarola grandchildren. “It makes me sound old.” No one believed her age anyway, and even several of my friends thought she was my mom. Gram was her own Golden Girl, the star in her own Iatarola Family show. The fan mail she received for birthdays and holidays kept the local post office in business. She hosted amazing dinner parties, subscribed to the print newspaper, and reminded everyone to hold hands and pray before we ate her gourmet meals, especially during the holidays. No doubt, Gram oversaw the kitchen and kept the army of Iatarolas nourished for life’s battles. She was part General, part Matriarch, embracing her roles while exercising matriarchal power in spaces outside of the home.

One space was the tennis court. The tennis court set her free. On the tennis court, she was nobody’s wife, mom, Gram, or dinner hostess. She was Betty, a medaling tennis treasure who made Iatarola sport history. In Arizona, for nearly 30 years, Gram dominated the tennis courts at Sun City Vistoso and the Westward Look. The sport kept her young at heart and physically fit until her twilight years, when Parkinson’s and dementia disabled her. Before the impacts of aging, Gram was so strong and athletic. She medaled in the Arizona Senior Olympics, signaling it was never too late to pick up a sport, excel at it, and destroy the competition, fellow senior citizens and family members included. Even in her mid-70s, she was swift to channel her inner Novak Djokovic on the courts, provided he was not playing live on TV.

In front of the TV, Gram and I sat on the couch and watched many prime-time shows together: Dynasty, Dallas, the Chicago Bulls, and Seinfeld. As we aged, our connection transformed. During my early 20s, this connection was as cosmically complex as an ocean with turbulent, unpredictable waves. I slammed words harshly into the shoreline of her heart; she slung insults that scratched like sand in my eyes. On the rare occasion, we wept together, our tears adding salt to our ocean of wounded love. Despite the wounds, she still always loved me, sending birthday cards every year with handwriting that looped the letters to my name in little waves of ink. I keep them in a shoebox for memory’s sake.

Heaven, you know the ocean’s waves are not always turbulent, and neither was my connection with Gram. We apologized and prayed for each other many times. For every storm, there was a sunny day with calm winds that carried her punctuated laughs across rooms, accentuated by the sweetness of motherhood. Becoming a mom in 2008 to my son Zane — her first great-grandson — helped me understand Gram’s deepest, most resilient, and devout dimension. Over time, the realities of parenting and aging helped repair the frays in our connection. Zane, Arya, and Phoebe — her beautiful great-grandchildren — also imparted Gram with the best of nicknames: BaBa.

One humid August day in the Honeybee kitchen, BaBa mixed apples with sugar and a dash of cinnamon and lemon with her hands. While showing me how to make apple squares, I turned to her and crassly asked:

“How the fuck did you do it?”
“Briana, your language,” she responded. “Do what now? Apple squares?”
“No, how did you raise eight kids? Bake for eight kids? Cook for eight kids, teach them to clean up their shit, and fucking take them all to school, especially if they hated going to school? I’m done. I can barely handle one. I want to sleep until Z turns 18.”

She laughed, cocked her head toward heaven, and used the back of her hand to wipe a small spot of flour from the side of her face. It had settled there after she made the dough for her apple squares. “Well, you know, Briana,” BaBa said, “I went to church and prayed to G*d. I still do. You should, too.”

During that summer trip, G*d appeared one monsoon-drenched night when the electricity went out. A microburst of frenetic rain, lightning, and thunder rattled the Honeybee house. Zane, BaBa, my mom, and I held hands and huddled near the pillar by the front door, praying together. In that moment, four generations of the Iatarola family also hugged each other. This physical sensation reminded us that heaven is a generational embrace of love from the family and friends we hold, carry, and walk with on Earth, no matter how scary the storm becomes.

BaBa: our storms always passed. You, Zane, my mom, and I spent your final years at peace with each other, respectful of time and grateful for the ways we spent it together. We already miss your heavenly hugs so much. The last one we shared was during Presidents’ Day Weekend in February 2023. I knew it would be our last hug on Earth. You did, too. I know you would probably prefer that I quote a passage from Saint Francis of Assisi to conclude my letter to Heaven, but you also know I never really made a good Catholic (except for that one time in Catechism class in Tucson when I drew a Christmas tree for you, and that other time when I stayed awake for you without complaining during midnight Mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Melrose Park). My Biblical apologies, but I return to Rabbi M.M. Schneerson’s wisdom in the poem, “The Journey Home,” in which he writes:

“Afterlife is a very rational, natural consequence of the order of things. After all, nothing is ever lost – even the body only transforms into earth. But nothing is lost. The person you are is also never lost. It only returns to its source.

If your soul became attached to the material world during its stay here, then it must painfully rip itself away to make the journey back. But if it was only a traveler, connected to its source all along, then its ride home is heavenly.”

BaBa’s final days on Earth were painful for her family and friends to witness. She knew how many people wanted to celebrate her 90th birthday with her here on Earth on July 28. But her savvy, traveling soul had a different itinerary and better destination – a celestial space free from prolonged physical suffering. I am certain the ride home was heavenly. I am also certain the tennis courts above are way better than Wimbledon’s. So, Heaven, now that you are reunited with BaBa’s soul, please make sure she has your best Wilson Hammer series and a few new cans of Prince balls. Her topspin is about to create a new galaxy.

With love,

Foraging for Food and the Aesthetics of Wilderness: A Case Study of Chefs vs. Wild

Keywords: reality TV, wilderness, climate change, food justice, food sovereignty, audience studies, audience ethics

Chefs vs. Wild (2022) is a reality cooking series in which chefs are paired with a survivalist to forage to secure ingredients in the Canadian wilderness and then produce a five-star meal. Central to the creation of the fine-dining meal is a state-of-the-art outdoor kitchen erected in the remote, fly-in location. Throughout Season 1 (2022), indigeneity serves as a conduit for the representation of food and authenticity. The audience is educated in the narrative, collection, and presentation of the foraged foods by co-host Valerie Segrest, of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, a Native Nutrition Educator, and director of the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project. Season 1 also includes the stories of various First Nations survivalists and chef contestants, who compete alongside non-Indigenous contestants. The conceptualization and construction of wilderness, however, is one of a hostile landscape, in which chefs are constantly bombarded by the elements and under threat of ingesting poisonous foliage and fungi. Thus, the show presents itself as both a decolonization and colonization of wilderness. According to Tsing (2015), the forest has “agency.” It has a way of “doing” life, as do the non-humans within it. Non-humans have stories to tell. This paper takes the agency of the “wild” forest as a starting point. Through a case study approach, it interrogates the aesthetics of food justice and the construction of ‘wilderness’ within the context of streaming reality TV. What constitutes consumption in the fine-dining culture of reality TV, and how do fantasies of foraging in the wilderness become embedded in a competitive foodscape? This paper argues that within the landscape of reality TV, nature is seen as an uncontrollable force to contain through knowledge of sustainable cooking and culture. In doing so, aesthetics of wilderness also become a form of consumable entertainment rather than a challenge to unsustainable food practices.

A Gray ‘Whale of a Problem’: Re-Mediating Dead Wildlife at Trestles

Keywords: whales, landfills, necropolitics, anthropogenic climate change, Trestles

In January 2021, the World Cetacean Alliance named Dana Point in Orange County, California, the first Whale Heritage Site in the United States for meeting criteria that support cetaceans’ cultural, economic, educational, and ecological importance. Gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) as “sentinels of ecosystem change” are dialed into Orange County’s ecology and co-exist with humans. Sustainable wildlife viewing within the context of tourism means humans are encouraged to watch whales in their “natural” habitat and manage the ocean for future generations. A bleaker image shows unmanageable whale die-offs. During El Niño 2016, seven miles south of Dana Point, the carcass of a gray whale rolled ashore at Trestles, a popular surf spot in San Onofre State Beach. Two questions persist. Is a landfill an ecologically sustainable space to dump dead whales when they disrupt daily flows of beach tourism? And what role might indigenous ecological knowledge play in future dead wildlife re-mediation efforts in coastal communities that value whales economically and culturally? This paper argues that dumping a dead whale into a landfill happens because there are no transparent environmental policies in place that clearly communicate best practices for cities to reduce landfill-bound marine sentinel waste. Eco-ethnography as method is used to locate incoherent logics within sustainability discourse. The analysis reveals an anthropocentric erasure of marine sentinels’ existence and, in effect, indigenous connections to the Acjachemen. The case study underscores an unsettling vision of Trestles’ ecological future and ecosystem functionality, particularly given its proximity to the first U.S. Whale Heritage Site.

What Do You Mean by ‘Scalable’?

A reflexive analysis of teaching STEM students collective and inclusive solutions for climate change in a first-year writing program

Keywords: science communication, bending the curve, scalable solutions, climate change, climate solutions

For the University of California, 2015 marked a pivotal year for science communication as a public good for incoming undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors. The systemwide release of Ramanathan et al.’s Bending the Curve (2015; 2019) called on UC campuses to use university facilities and intellectual capital to tackle climate change. The report asserts that these “living laboratories of sustainability” (2019, p. vi) should develop sustainable technologies and share best practices to immediately reduce carbon dioxide emissions globally. STEM students, therefore, must know how to write about the climate science for various stakeholders. The report also argues it is the “responsibility” of “scientists, leaders, and citizens of the planet” to enact change “on a large scale” (Ibid). As such, Bending the Curve is geared toward a generalist audience, including first-year undergraduate students, who need guidance with the science. In 2017, the Warren College Writing Program (WCWP) at UC San Diego responded to Ramanathan et al.’s call to boost science communication literacy by introducing “Climate Change Ethics.” From 2017 until 2020, the course explored a spectrum of differences in beliefs, drawing from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication’s “Six Americas” research and Connie Roser-Renouf et al.’s 2015 study “Engaging Global Warming’s Six Americas.” Students also analyzed the role of (un)ethical science communication in media conflicts regarding climate change “doubt” in the United States (Oreskes and Conway, 2012). Between 2018 and 2020, nearly 2,000 first-year undergraduates enrolled in the course, which culminated with an explanatory writing project that asked students to determine which strategies worked best and were most ethical for communicating climate science to their intended audience. This paper highlights WCWP data collected between fall 2018 and winter 2019 from pre- and post-course surveys. The period paralleled California’s wildfire seasons, influencing project designs around concerns that students associated with climate change. Data provides insight about types of writing that STEM students consider “meaningful” and processes that constitute the production of meaningful and ethical projects. Data from 2019 shows a decrease in students’ desire to write about topics that are relevant only to their lives. The shift is coupled with an increase in students’ interest to write if other people can view their work. This paper unpacks challenges that writing instructors in higher education face when teaching undergraduates about “scalable” climate solutions. One challenge considers a neoliberal ethic, which centers environmental responsibility on individual behavior rather than climate policy or corporate accountability. Instructors’ reflexive feedback also underscores difficulties in institutionalizing inclusive solutions, which do not always fit within the framework of mainstream environmentalism.

Eco-Ethnography and Citizen Science: Lessons From Within

Key words: Coastal management, citizen science, eco-ethnography, increasing diversity in science, public engagement

Citizen science is the participation of non-scientists in the collection of scientific data and other aspects of the scientific process. In this manuscript, we explore what it means to participate in citizen science from two perspectives—that of a researcher designing and facilitating a citizen science project, and that of a citizen scientist volunteering the time and energy required for participation. We examine the methods and goals of the projects, describing the challenges faced by researchers and science volunteers alike as they participate in research processes aimed to increase community involvement in science and, by extension, environmental management issues. We describe how the constraints of citizen science models and methods underscore the importance of incorporating alternative anthropological and ethnographic approaches in coastal research, and offer eco-ethnography as a way for scientists to extend their citizen science projects to better reflect the needs and concerns of local communities impacted by climate change and sea-level rise.
Please contact the author for a full copy of the article.

Urban Tides Gives Rise to Community Resilience

LA JOLLA — At its peak, the king tide swallowed the entire beach, pushed past a low seawall, spilled across the bike path, and flooded the parking lot. Just past sunrise, heavy mist still lingers in the air as a group of volunteers walk along this stretch of beach in San Diego, CA. About 20 people – mostly coastal residents along with a handful of scientists and graduate students – have gathered to photograph evidence of flooding and erosion due to the extreme high tide.
See U.S. Southern California Sea Grant’s 2016 report “Urban Tides Gives Rise to Community Resilience” for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Citizen Scientists Learn to Document El Niño’s Impacts

SAN DIEGO — On a morning this week at La Jolla Shores, the tide was high and so was the enthusiasm of 20 citizen scientists who were training to help document the impact of El Niño along the coast. The group of volunteers was learning to capture images of beach erosion and coastal flooding in a way that would be useful to researchers. It’s part of what the real scientists are calling the Urban Tides Community Science Initiative.
“If we actually get folks taking pictures from the same locations, pointed in the same direction, repeatedly — so say, every day or every week — that’s actually the most valuable data for us,” said Sarah Giddings, a researcher and professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
See Susan Murphy’s Citizen Scientists Learn to Document El Niño