Tag Archives: Binghamton

A Kind of Contact

I find myself in Ithaca, New York. Places have a resonance with people, and this is one of those places I feel like I belong. The feeling may not be mutual, but that makes it no less real. At least on my part. Dominated by the presence of Cornell University, this town of waterfalls and free spirits represents everything I value. Education, creativity, and an easy familiarity with nature all have a place here. And Carl Sagan. No doubt astrophysics is far more sexy than religious studies. I didn’t watch Cosmos when it aired, but I knew of Sagan as its driving force. Before being daunted by the math, I had considered astronomy as a career; Denied tenure at Harvard, Sagan came to be associated with Cornell, to Ithaca’s enduring benefit. His house above Ithaca Falls is still pointed out by the locals.

Star status for academics, so I’m informed, is a mixed blessing. Accusations of being a popularizer are flung somewhat liberally at those who know how to explain things to non-specialists. Part of the ivory tower mystique is to remain inaccessible and impenetrable. Teaching, at the same time, is expected to open lost worlds to the curious. Sagan, like Bill Nye—another Cornell star—wasn’t afraid to take his knowledge to the streets. And such receptive streets there are in Ithaca. It’s a place a child of the sixties can feel at home. Looking for fossils in the many gorges, I’m reminded that the old and new are not so different in a universe billions of years old.

The sense of place, while scientifically dubious, is nevertheless real. Part of my ancestral heritage lies in upstate New York. My grandfather, while not a college man, took a couple of courses at what was then Cornell College to launch his teaching career. Following in grand-dad’s footsteps, my own teaching career (which, however, never included Cornell) didn’t last long. Yet somehow we both ended up passing through Ithaca. People on the street. Waiting to be enlightened by stars that shine brighter than my own. Life is a series of places. All, it turns out, are temporary. Rod Serling once said, ”Everyone has to have a hometown, Binghamton’s mine.” He left the nearby town, but he has remained there ever since. Places are that way. I’m in Ithaca right now, but the stark reality of New Jersey awaits at the end of the day.

Alas, Binghamton

“Store Closing” the signs veritably shout. “Everything Must Go.” It’s something I hate to see in an economically depressed town. The tragedy is redoubled when it’s an independent bookstore. While undergoing the ritual of returning our daughter to college after the holiday break, we were driving through Binghamton, appropriately enough, at twilight. In that first, lonely freshman year we’d discovered River Read books in downtown. Like many indies, it was small. Intimate even. I never walked out, however, without some treasure that I wouldn’t have found in a larger store. River Read eventually became an irregular habit based on parents’ weekends and academic breaks, and I’ve come to depend on it after a long drive across three state lines. Once again, however, the lack of concern regarding reading takes another victim.

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In the ancient world there was a poetic genre scholars now call the lament for a fallen city. I’m that way about bookstores. Amazon has proven wonderfully capable of getting things to me quickly. Obscure tomes, sometimes. Since our nearest independent is a 25-minute drive, this is often a necessity—I can spare 25 minutes only on a weekend, and then, only select ones. Ironically, just on the way to Binghamton we stopped at the Bookworm in Bernardsville, New Jersey. We try to help them survive. My mind goes back to fond occasions outside the home and how often they involve bookstores. Finding a new one. Returning to one already well loved. Even, back in the day, Borders. In a pique of nostalgia I starting searching the web pages of past favorites. Books & Company in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. Farley’s in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Pages for All Ages in Savoy, Illinois. Ah, alas, the latter has also closed its doors forever. The store I’d visit after a long commute to Nashotah House and back, looking for something I really want to read.

The neon after dark is like an alien invader in my car. River Read is closing. The liquor stores and “gentlemen’s clubs” seem to be fine. The cars up here sure weave around on the road a lot after 9 p.m. on a Saturday. It’s not just here, I’m sure. I’m seldom out this late any more. Perhaps, even likely, this has been a long time coming. Civilization unable to support its foundation. Literacy, after all, spread the common ideals we used to share. Presidents united us and we were eager to read and every town wore its own bookstore like a badge of honor. I’ve seen the signs and I lament the fall of yet another fondly recalled city.

St. Ghost

HauntedSouthernTierSince they combine two of my soft spots—local history and ghost stories—books telling the tales of home-town specters are compelling in a homespun way. On a visit to Binghamton, New York, I picked up Haunted Southern Tier by Elizabeth Tucker at the local bookstore (I have a hard time passing up an independent bookstore anywhere). Those of us at least a little familiar with upstate New York know that the southern tier is not strictly defined, but it is a recognizable section of the Empire State that runs just north of the Keystone. I was drawn to the book by Elizabeth Tucker’s name; she is the author of Haunted Halls, a book I reviewed earlier on this blog, about college campus ghosts. These local travel guides tend to focus on the weird and whimsical, and aren’t meant to be taken too seriously. Nevertheless, the connection between ghosts and religion is tangible in just about any part of the world, no matter what one believes.

This fun read brings a number of explicit religious points to the surface. One involves the strange phenomenon of haunted churches. Given that many varieties of Christianity offer Heaven as a reward immediately following death, having a ghost hanging around a church seems strangely disingenuous. Perhaps that’s why few churches admit to such things. Another interesting tie-in to religion comes in Tucker’s section on roadside ghosts. Stories of spectral hitchhikers are quite ancient, but I had never considered them biblical. Tucker mentions one such instance in the Book of Acts, and upon reflection I realized that she may be onto something. The account of Philip converting the Ethiopian eunuch is one of the odder tales of the early Christian movement. Philip explains Isaiah’s prophecies to the chariot-riding dignitary who gives him a lift, and baptizes the visiting Ethiopian before mysteriously disappearing. Could this be the prototype for the vanishing hitchhiker folklore theme?

Perhaps the most serious of the religious connections in the book, however, has to do with St. Bonaventure University. For those familiar with Thomas Merton’s life story, St. Bonaventure will not be unexpected. Merton taught at the school as he was struggling with his identity that led him to become one of the most renowned Trappist monks in the world—one who spoke approvingly of Buddhism, to boot. Merton is not said to haunt the university, but his presence there at one time has endowed this Catholic school with a sense of spiritual gravitas. The ghosts come from elsewhere.

Books on ghosts are a guilty pleasure with a serious undertone. End of life issues, once we move beyond the medical, are the unquestioned provenance of religion. Whether or not there are any ghosts out there, religion will claim the final word on afterlife. And only those who experience it will ever really know.

Twilight Zones

It was twilight last night when I drove into Binghamton. My thoughts naturally turned to The Twilight Zone since one of my childhood heroes, Rod Serling, had grown up here. Binghamton University was also the professional home of novelist John Gardner, of Grendel fame. Seeing the colorful leaves fading to the gray of a falling evening, I thought of how evocative a word “twilight” is. We are creatures with an in-born fear of the dark and twilight is our last hope of light before the night settles in. Maybe it was having just so recently read Grendel, but twilight and gods together brought “the twilight of the gods” to mind (it might have helped that a sudden thunderstorm broke out at the moment). When I first saw the word Götterdämmerung, in junior high school, I thought it must be a potent swear word, what with all those doubled letters and umlauts. My German teacher calmly explained that it was the fourth and final cycle of Richard Wagner’s opera, Der Ring des Nibelungen and it translated to Twilight of the Gods. It is itself a translation of the Norse word Ragnarök, with its single umlaut. Even though it wasn’t swearing, the concept sent a shiver through me anyhow.

I’ve never sat through a performance of The Ring, but I have heard the music with its famous Ride of the Valkyries. Based on Norse and Germanic mythologies, The Ring has deep roots in a pagan mythology where night plays a prominent role. Although J. R. R. Tolkien denied having been inspired by Wagner’s work (there was a certain political incorrectness to it, along about the early-to-mid-1940s), both four-part cycles draw on the Norse mythology that continues to fascinate us with movies like Thor and The Avengers. What impacted my young mind the most, however, was the very concept that the gods could be defeated. How was such a thing even possible? We were raised to believe good conquers evil. How can the gods—even pagan ones—lose? It was a world-distorting concept for someone yet to face high school.

Last night I was literally in the twilight zone. Having driven through the Endless Mountains region where autumn’s reds and yellows inspired me with just how colorful death can be (a European friend once confessed to me that driving along a wooded road in Pennsylvania his first autumn here he had to pull over and weep for the beauty), twilight was already on my mind. October fades into the twilight of the year. The mythologies of the northern races, the Norse and the Celts, seem almost obsessed with the ominous, growing darkness. There is a beauty to it, but also an abiding fear. Are the gods powerful enough? It was a question first raised when my eye fell on that striking word Götterdämmerung that somehow became a part of me.

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Just Binghamton

I seem to find myself in Binghamton again. The town, while clearly economically depressed, still retains a bit of its 19th-Century charm with some beautifully restored downtown buildings and a sense of history. While too many store-fronts are still vacant and too little money exists to improve the area sufficiently, I happened upon a warm and cheerful independent bookstore—River Read—and that always gives me hope in such circumstances. Bookstores such as this are like seeing the first crocuses after a long, harsh winter. There is some life in this seemingly dead planet yet. Outside the bookstore stands a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr., backed by a sluggish river and yet more vacant windows. I think of justice and all that it means.

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My own hometown (not Binghamton) is virtually a ghost town. It is a feeling difficult to describe, visiting a place that served as your first secure setting in the world only to find it crumbling under an economy with so much wealth with so little reach. Where is the justice in that? Binghamton, near the founding location of IBM, ironically began suffering at the decline of the Cold War. Manufacturing has gone for pastures of a different kind of green, leaving a sometimes sad and forlorn city in its wake. Binghamton sheltered a young Rod Serling, a man who would give the world the Twilight Zone and its endless spinoffs. It is home to a first-rate university. And a wonderful bookstore.

While in River Read we heard some locals talking, in almost Springsteenian fashion, of local civic traditions that had disappeared. Times have changed. Cities like Binghamton don’t draw in the curious or those with liberal purse-strings. Endicott Johnson, the shoe manufacturer, developed a strong sense of welfare capitalism in the city last century—capitalism with a heart seems to have gone extinct these days. The idea that those with the means to create jobs and livelihoods should care for their employees would seem to be a matter of common sense. Instead, common cents have come to rule. Binghamton University is investing in the town, and a sense of cautious optimism dares to suggest itself. Justice is a matter of distribution rather than entitlement. And that’s why I’m standing out here under gray September skies, staring at the statue of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Bing Spring

Binghamton University is, like most institutions of higher education, home to many rituals. Back around a century ago, anthropologists were convinced that religions began as a set of inchoate rituals that coalesced into primitive belief systems. Although most anthropologists today see this as an overly simplistic analysis, I found a recent story on Binghamton’s website an example of a nascent religion. It has to do with placating, or perhaps defying, the weather gods.

Like most good rituals, Stepping on the Coat has a practical pedigree. According to Bing’s own archives, the ritual began the year that I was born. An undergrad that year, overwhelmed by an April snowstorm, removed his coat and stomped on it. The snow stopped. As befits a scientifically inclined institution, this was initially chalked up as coincidence, but the same result occurred again the next year. Stepping on the Coat seemed to be a cure for late season snowstorms. In this year of lazy, lingering winter, many people—some of them not even students—must be seeking a cure for unseasonable weather. Perhaps Binghamton University students a half-century ago stumbled (stamped?) upon the solution. In the whimsical tributes given on the BU magazine webpage, the sacred and the profane are never very far apart.

Binghamton in spring

Binghamton in spring

I have done considerable research on the weather and its sacral implications. Most of my research has never been published, but the overarching idea, I believe, is sound. Our human perceptions of the divine are focused on the sky. Nietzsche declared that God is dead, but that death only really occurred when we penetrated our atmosphere and landed on the moon. Even then, looking up, we saw only blackness beyond. Infinity hangs, like Damocles’ sword, above our heads. We may pollute our skies, we may shut them out with artificial walls and ceilings. We may even punch through them with rockets. But our gods are up there, somewhere. And they are the ones who dictate our weather. The human response is up to us. Do we sit inside and complain, or do we stomp the coat in defiance of an uncaring deity? Binghamton is a green university, so that even amid the burgeoning religion of coat-stepping, there is a real awareness that when the weather goes awry in this industrial era, we know where the blame truly lies. As humans, however, our religious inclinations will insist that we continue to step upon the coat and claim the whole earth as our prize.

Sterling Serling

“There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.” The words are those of Rod Serling, native of Syracuse and Binghamton, and creator of The Twilight Zone. When I travel to a new place, I like to honor the writers and creators of the region. Yes, there always have been many creators. By my age, Rod Serling was dead, but he had, before that time, created a cultural phenomenon that would stay with the world forever after. It would be difficult to quantify the effect The Twilight Zone had upon me as a child. That opening took ahold of my young mind and convinced me that there was more to life than what appeared on the surface. It is the power of creation.

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Serling was a fighter. “The angry young man of Hollywood” who used his fiction to protest war and racism, Serling took on many issues in The Twilight Zone that would have been censored had they been presented as fact. Fiction is the vehicle in which truth rides. The bizarre world Serling envisioned captured the imagination to such a point that if I write, “do-do-DO-do, do-do-DO-do” many of you will be able to conjure the theme of The Twilight Zone in your heads. We all know that this is a sign that something strange is about to happen.

There is something about place. I’ve written about sacred geography before, and it is one of the more fascinating aspects of human subconscious life. Something about Syracuse-Binghamton still says “Rod Serling.” Maybe it’s in the low, glowering clouds or the ancient Native American names and traditions that can still be found in this region. Although I’ve never lived in New York, my ancestors did, in the region just east of here. A lifelong wanderer, I sometimes wonder what it is to belong to a place. I have often felt the persistent call of upstate New York, the salmon wisdom whispering me home, perhaps. I’ve never lived here, but maybe I belong here. New York is now proud to claim Rod Serling, and I drive from Syracuse to Binghamton delving deeply into the sacred geography of the region and ponder how such a mind came to be. Even creators, it turns out, have to be created.