Tag Archives: New York

An Odyssey

Once again in Ithaca, I find myself thinking of the classics. Although it’s difficult to believe these days, even rural Americans used to value a classic education. Take upstate New York. Not only is there an Ithaca, but also a Rome, Syracuse, and Homer, among other locations. This speaks of a time when the non-urbanites wanted to be considered sophisticated rather than gun-toting, bigoted rubes who actively hate higher education and all that it stands for. My maternal line of ancestors came from this region, and although they were simple farmers, they still named my grandfather Homer. And his sister was Helen. They knew the Bible, yes, but they may also have know the Iliad.

In a recent, flattering online game, Oxford Dictionaries offered a quiz to help you identify which classical hero you were. This is flattering because most of us aren’t heroes, but instead work-a-day types just trying to survive in a Republican world. I had to confess being pleased to find the result suggested I identified with Odysseus. Odysseus was king of Ithaca, you see, and considered one of the heroes more inclined to use his brain than his brawn (although he could use that too, if push came to shove). Perhaps it felt right to me since my own life feels like an odyssey. And my grandfather was Homer. I was first exposed to classical mythology in fifth grade, and I have loved it ever since. Besides, I’m more of an upstate mentality than a downtown one. The thing about an odyssey is that you’re not always in control of where you end up.

Sitting here in Ithaca I wonder how Americans came to despise the notion of classical education. The standard of living is higher in college towns like this. People treat each other well and there’s a strong sense of community spirit. On the way here yesterday we had to drive through rural New Jersey. We stopped in the decidedly non-classically named Buttzville for gas. The car in front of us had “Blue Lives Matter” and pro-Trump bumper stickers all over it. Yet the guy who limped out and made his way into the vehicle looked like he had probably benefitted from government largesse over the years. Proud of a president who brags about not reading. Who wants to bomb a country he can’t find on a map just because it’s different. I think to myself, I’m glad I’m on my odyssey to Ithaca.

Heresy Collection

Geology isn’t a great avocation for those of us with an unsettled existence. Having grown up with a fondness for fossils—maybe because they were so transgressive—my initial collection was tossed out because of a family move. Rocks are too heavy to take with you. I made the mistake of thinking, back in my Nashotah House days, that I was settled enough to let my rock-hounding sensibilities loose. Not that fossils were common, but Wisconsin has some great geological formations and I joined the Wisconsin Geological Society and even dragged my family along on some field trips. By the time Nashotah informed me my talents were no longer required, I’d amassed a few boxes that I was embarrassed to admit to the movers that, yes, contained rocks. New Jersey also has some great locations for rock-hounding, but my sense of being subjected to sudden, geologic career shifts has kept me from picking up nearly as many stones as I’d like to bring home.

The Museum of the Earth, here in Ithaca, is a dangerous place for someone like me to visit. I thought I had my fossil-collecting habit under control. The gorges in this region are famous for their fossils. Wandering through the museum, reflecting, as it does, the immense stretch of prehistoric time, it was obvious how arrogant humans are for assuming “control” of the planet. We’re so terribly late as to be classified as invaders on this planet. The world got by just fine billions of years without us. Perhaps that’s why I experienced transgressive fossils so captivating as a child. Ironically I found them in the creek bed right behind the Fundamentalist church we attended and where we were taught that evolution never occurred. I was fascinated by what I’d now call the juxtaposition of evidence and faith. We never questioned the reality of fossils. It was their interpretation that was the problem.

You can hold in your hand the most solid evidence that life evolved and call it heresy. Those delicate impressions of creatures dead for millions of years argue eloquently against Genesis and its mere 600 decades of world history. For me the fossils always won. On trips home from the seminary I would gather more fossils to add to the growing museum of time I’d been amassing in my basement. Then a Fundamentalist administration took the same approach as my exasperated mother trying to pack to move. Jettison the fossils. They’re heavy and they kind of make us uncomfortable anyway. Maybe the idea of too much time is something the biblically constrained simply can’t face. And when I see a fossil right there on the surface in one of Ithaca’s many gorges, perhaps I need to learn simply to let it lie.

Classical Education

Andrew Dickson White famously wanted Cornell University, unlike what would become known as the other Ivy League schools, to be non-sectarian. Most Ivy League universities were founded as seminaries or with the strong influence of churches. On farmland gifted by Ezra Cornell, in Ithaca, New York, the school became one of the first truly secular world-class universities. As I approached Ithaca over the weekend, my wife told me that the town had once been briefly known by the name of Sodom because the remote location’s reputed notoriety for sabbath breaking, horse racing, and profanity. It is now considered one of the most enlightened towns in the country. Famous for its waterfalls and gorges, one of the cascades is still rejects the biblical slur with the sobriquet “Lucifer Falls.”

Many place names—indeed, much of American culture in general—reflect(s) the Bible. Ours is a culture in denial of just how formative religion has been for who we are. Because of our willful blindness on this point we sometimes run the risk of being entrapped by our heritage. Despite how much we’ve educated ourselves we still see what we want to see. Our religious heritage is often considered an embarrassing family secret rather than the path by which we came to be a civil society. Religion is so frequently portrayed as an evil force that it’s easy to forget just how much we owe it for our evolution. Even education itself had a religious motivation since teaching students to read was often done with the intent that they should read the Bible.

Like nearby Binghamton, Ithaca has a statue dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr. It bears a biblical quotation from Amos without embarrassment. Ithaca today is a livable, socially conscious community. Recycling is strongly encouraged while cars are not. Hardly a hotbed of immorality, it is one of the great examples of an American college town. Ideas are welcome here. Befitting its classical heritage of education, the city is named after the island ruled by Odysseus, according to Homer. Indeed, Ulysses lies just down the road. Homer (and yet another town in the area bears that name) presented Odysseus as among the smartest of the Greek kings. Like most classical Greeks, Odysseus was only too conscious of how the gods could interfere with one’s life. Instead of denying the obvious, however, religion was recognized as a necessary source of culture. Not that it always has to be taken too seriously. Maybe it shouldn’t be completely ignored either.

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.

A Glimpse at the Future

Last month one of the three remaining Shakers died. In this era of religion unawareness, not many Americans, I expect, could identify this dying religion. The Shakers aren’t the Quakers—we like to give religions we don’t understand pejorative monikers—they are a group that grew out of the Friends but that had important differences. Shakers believe, especially, in celibacy. It had to grow through conversion since Shakers could not reproduce biologically. At their height there were about 6000 of them—the number of Twitter followers of a fairly successful humanities professor, I suspect. They were hard-working and their brand of furniture endures beyond the life of the sect. The official count of Shakers worldwide now stands at two.

This little bit of news saddened me. Not that I’ve ever been tempted to join the Shakers—it would be a bit of a stretch for a family man—but I’ve always admired countercultural groups. Like many religious sects of the late eighteenth century, the Shakers were millenarians. That is, they believed in the imminent second coming of Christ. Given this belief, biological reproduction wasn’t really necessary. In fact, it was counter-productive. Like so many of the slumberers of the Great Awakening, the Shakers eventually settled in upstate New York. Since their lifestyle was different, they had to form their own communities. The last community is in Maine. When the last two Shakers go to their reward, barring a miracle, the denomination will be extinct.

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The Shakers were distinctive for yet another reason as well. They were open to, and often defined by, female leadership. This might be expected in a world where men have difficulty controlling themselves in mixed company. Catholic monasteries locked men in without women. To agree to live in a mixed gendered community but without mixed gendered relations took a dose of will power that borders on the saintly. The Shakers won’t be the only religion to have gone extinct, when that happens. Religions, like organisms, grow, thrive, and die. This little group had a disproportionate impact on society. Those who watched Michael Flatley throwing his body across the stage to the haunting joyfulness of the Shaker Hymn “Simple Gifts” likely had no idea that the world owed one of its most beautiful melodies to a group of people living celibate lives in the woods of Maine. The Shakers’ unique contributions to the weird and wonderful world of religion will be missed by at least one.

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.

Personal Heroes

I’m not inclined toward hero worship. Sometimes I think it must be a personality flaw on my part. The cult of celebrity is so pervasive that I feel desperately behind the times when I read what web-savvy authors write. Or maybe the truth is that my heroes live closer to home. Or lived. I grew up in a small town as the child of a working-class couple, both of whose sets of parents were not educated beyond high school. We were simple folk. We didn’t have much money and we didn’t have elaborate demands. My mother put up with an alcoholic and then absentee father, raising three children largely on her own for the better part of a decade. (She eventually remarried and the three became four, but I want to focus on the early part of the story today.) She had a rough life. Her hero, not surprising for an only girl with four brothers, was her father. Her admiration for him, whether genetic or via learning, passed on to me. I can’t claim to remember him since my grandfather died just before I turned two and just before he turned 75. As I grew up, however, he became my hero.

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Today would have been his birthday, and I’m thinking about Homer Sitterley, my hero. He grew up on a farm in upstate New York and tried to better his circumstances. He taught in a one-room schoolhouse, which you could do in those days without a college degree. He also met my grandmother in that schoolhouse, which you could also do in those days. He had to change careers and became a civil engineer—still with no degree. He started and supported a family of five and moved around the country trying to keep his spouse happy. Back in the 1920s and ‘30s they moved from Virginia to Montana and back to the east, eventually settling in New Jersey, where my mother was born. They finally moved to Pennsylvania where my three brothers and I were born. He died there in August of 1964.

Homer Sitterley may have never worn a cape like one of his silly grandsons did in college. He didn’t have any super powers beyond the strong will to survive in a hostile and thankless world. He never grew rich despite hard work and few outside his family knew his name. He is a hero nevertheless. His kids were upstanding people: religious, polite, and kind. Their children—my many cousins—are good people. In a world where superheroes are shown increasingly as flawed, the real heroes are simply human. And my personal hero, although he never knew he was—and is—was a man who cared for his family to the very end. He was only human. And all the more heroic for being so.