Twain Shall Meet

On a slightly hazy fall day, when the autumnal colors were alive, we stopped in Elmira.  To understand the significance of this stop, I should explain that from the time my daughter could appreciate it (and probably even before) we used to make fall literary trips.  We would take a long weekend and drive to where a famous author had lived.  Laura Ingalls Wilder in Pepin, Wisconsin, or Mark Twain in Hannibal, Missouri.  When we moved east we visited Edna St Vincent Millay at Austerlitz, New York, and Washington Irving in Sleepy Hollow.  More recently, in the spring, we went to see Rod Serling in Interlaken, New York.  So it was that we stopped in Elmira, New York, where Mark Twain rests.  I had always assumed Samuel Clemens was buried in Missouri, but his most productive literary period was his time in upstate New York, and it is here he remains.

His tombstone was covered with pennies and a few higher denomination coins, a rock or two, and a guitar pick.  People want to show their respects to the writers who’ve meant something to them.  I find this a moving tribute.  I suspect it happens at the tombstones of many famous people, but in Highgate Cemetery in London we found Douglas Adam’s small plot filled with pens stuck in the ground as mementos.  I travel through the world lightly, seldom carrying anything extra with me.  Somehow I never stop to think to bring a memory to the cemetery.  Fortuitously I had found a penny on the ground the morning we left for Elmira and I placed it among the others on Twain’s marker.  

What would make the appropriate calling card to leave?  I often wonder that.  If I had such a token, I suspect I would feel the need to revisit the various cemeteries of years past to leave a sign of my respect.  There are lots of them.  Edgar Allan Poe in Baltimore.  George Orwell in Sutton Courtenay.  H. P. Lovecraft in Providence.  Is there anything that ties them all together?  Pens seem an obvious choice, but stones are far more traditional (especially in Jewish settings).  The tradition is traced back to building cairns in biblical times, and the idea survives in that stones are more permanent than flowers and are a sign of respect.  Writers often have more elaborate items left, but it’s clear that they are removed from time to time by the grounds keepers.  Before I visit my next literary grave, I’ll give some thoughts to symbols and tokens and the importance of celebrating writing.

Narrow Passage

While on a rare family visit (it’s scary to get out too much) we visited Watkins Glen State Park in upstate New York.  My mother’s family has roots in this area, and we’ve visited it several times in the past.  There are always people there, but in manageable numbers.  The website declared it was mandatory to wear a mask (“New York tough”!) and to keep social distancing.  It perhaps didn’t help that we went during a heat wave when a walk along a waterfall-laced path seemed like a refreshing idea.  I guess I had in my head the modest crowds we’d encountered in our many past visits.  We were, however, not the only tourists (although somewhat local) with that particular plan.  Not by any metric I can conceive.

If you’ve never been to Watkins Glen, the park has a Civilian Conservation Corp-built stairway and trail (approximately 600 stairs) through a glacial and water-cut gorge.  The sedimentary layers are fascinating for anyone with an interest in geology and for those who like to ponder the millions of years required for the laying down and lifting up of multiple bedding planes.  The gorge itself has a curvilinear appeal that is almost mystical.  Waterfalls produce negative ions which, everyone knows, tend to make people happy.  I was, however, more on the terrified side of the spectrum.  It became clear even before we reached the gorge that there were hundreds of people already in the park.  Most of them unmasked.  Large crowds gathered around the more picturesque waterfalls, blocking the narrow walkways.  Tourists have no idea what “six feet” might possibly mean.  Stair-climbing is an aerobic exercise, and wearing a mask in such circumstances is the only smart thing to do.

While on the considerably less crowded trails of the Pennsylvania outdoors venues we more commonly frequent, I’m nervous when someone walks even more than six feet away in the opposite direction.  This felt like a nightmare to me.  Too many people paying too little heed to the mandated caution.  I’ll be quarantining myself for two weeks for sure.  Maybe more.  I don’t get out much in any case, but even though we were obstructing our view through cloudy glasses and trying to get adequate oxygen through made-to-specification cloth masks, there’s only so much that prophylactics can do.  I jog at first light to avoid other health nuts on the local trails.  I go to stores only for necessities.  Being in a canyon with the careless invincibles inspired less than confidence in this petrified pilgrim.  Knowing human nature, it seems closing popular state parks until people get smart may be the best way out of a tight squeeze.

Trailing Art

One of the many trails that wend their way through Ithaca is the Art Trail.  (The town finds waypoints on the wine and beer trails of the southern tier as well, but we were looking for visual art.)  In early October several artists open their studios—these are personal places—to the tourists passing through.  Those of us on the trail are seeking inspiration in human expression.  I’ve neglected my own art for many years.  While other guys my age are retiring and expressing their boredom, I struggle to find enough time to write, dreaming of the day when I can again take up my pencils and brushes.  Being in so many studios over the weekend jump-started something in me.  Humans are at their most god-like when they create.

Seeing artists in context is revealing.  They don’t worry too much about convention.  I found myself hanging toward the back of our little group.  There was so much of others’ souls on display here.  While some were young, a fair number were older than me.  Perhaps retired from a novocaine job that dulled many days until enough years had passed and the need to let the art out escaped.  If felt like visiting a small farm where the true independent, liberal spirit of this country once resided.  These were farmers with paint brushes rather than shotguns and Trump bumperstickers.  Free thinkers, not Fox thinkers.  Under a sky October blue after two days of rain and gray, this was a mosaic of autumn.  Art is a muse.  I think of my neglected brushes and dried out paints, tucked away in the attic.

Modern art sometimes feels like someone slapped a frame around something random, but in talking with the creator something different emerges.  Something that doesn’t feel like plastic.  Something that defies words.  Like poems sometimes break conventional lines, art refuses to be confined.  Some of these studios used to be living rooms.  Houses converted and dedicated to creativity.  Why is this so difficult to accomplish in my own life?  How has the time come to be consumed with work, even when the commute has been effaced?  I suppose I’ve been using words to express myself—this blog is certainly an example of that.  It is, however, a mere fraction of visual ideas awaiting release.  I don’t know if I could ever open my studio to strangers.  Art trails are labyrinths, and once you’ve entered that maze, it will take some time to reemerge.  And when I do I know I will have been transformed.

Upstate Reading

In terms of cash flow I don’t fall into the wealthy bracket.  My assets are largely in pre-printed paper form, and when I visit the local Little Free Library it’s generally to donate books rather than to take them.  Over Labor Day weekend I was in Ithaca.  One of the more famous features of the town is its weekend Farmers’ Market.  Indeed, the north-south corridor through town is a continuous traffic jam during Market hours.  Not only are there farm stands in the permanent open-sided structure, but there are a few craft booths and several places to buy al fresco fair from local restaurants.  In the summer parking can be hard to find, but the place has a carnival-like atmosphere nevertheless.  It also has a Little Free Library.  I’ve been to the Market many times but I’d never noticed it before.

Upstate New York is beautiful but it tends toward the conservative end of the political spectrum.  Ithaca is a pixel of blue in a screen of red, and that strangely showed in the Little Free Library.  Many of the books were either Bibles or popular kinds of devotional titles.  Given that Cornell isn’t known for its religion department (Ithaca College has a respectably sized philosophy and religion department, however) these books aren’t the kind you’d expect to find in an institution of higher education.  That’s why I was surprised to see a near mint copy of Bart Ehrman’s The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot on the shelves.  The Gospel of Judas hasn’t been big news for a few years now, but this was a book that suggests a different demographic than your average evangelical readership.

Like Ehrman, I once made a living as an adjunct at Rutgers University.  Indeed, it was this commonality that helped me to get to know him a bit.  He’s gone on to a kind of fame rare for biblical scholars.  Indeed, to have a sufficient number of copies of your book printed to end up in a Little Free Library—in other words, you have to have more cachet than your garden variety Ph.D.  In my local community LFL I like to leave books for others to take.  Just last week I stopped by and noticed that the summer had depleted the stock.  Ironically, I had noticed one of Neal Stephenson’s novels in the same circumstances as Ehrman’s.  I’m glad to see intelligent works on offer for the reading public.  And trading books with no money involved suggests to me that there’s a better form of economy than material greed.  All it takes is a Little Free Library and a little good will.

Belonging

You never know where you might find yourself, but wherever it is it’ll cost you some money.  Well, at least in this instance it did.  Nashotah House sent me packing just as we were thinking about college for our daughter.  It took several years to find any kind of full-time position again, and when university time began I had had a full salaried job for a total of one year of the last seven.  Not ideal, of course.  I remember sitting (again) in the financial aid office, explaining the situation and, as it often goes in higher education, receiving no mercy.  As much as I remember the conversation, I don’t recall a photographer in the room.   There must’ve been, though, since I recently showed up on the Binghamton University website.

I had, of course, applied for a job or two there.  When out of state tuition is riding on such a deal, however, I doubt there’s any way to get considered.  I actually like Binghamton University quite a lot.  I appreciate the fact that it doesn’t pour its money into a football team and that it has the reputation of being a “Public Ivy” school.  I even like the campus removed from city bounds—just like Nashotah House.  I did end up paying them quite a bit of lucre through the years, even as my own alma maters were asking alms.  Higher education is a funny world.  Standing somewhere between a money-making venture and a site of education for its own sake.  Many professors don’t realize just how privileged they are to have jobs like that.

Upstate New York, although I’ve never lived there, is one of my ancestral homes.  My grandfather and his family had lived in the area at least as far back as the 1770s.  I tried to convey that sense of connection in my application, many years ago now.  Academia doesn’t put much stock in the idea of belonging, I guess.  It has become far too businesslike for that.  Binghamton was also the town in which Rod Serling, one of my childhood heroes, grew up.  There seemed to be so many reasons to be in that area.  Eventually I settled for life in my own native Pennsylvania.  People sense, although academics less than others apparently, that they belong in a place.  And if you can’t actually be there, you can still spend your money in any location.  I’ve now got a picture to prove it.

Digging Well

Having spent a good bit of the past week in waiting rooms in Ithaca, I fell to reading Tompkins Weekly, the free local community paper.  If you’ve spent any time on this blog you’re no doubt aware that I have an interest in the weird and unusual.  Although I got teased rather mercilessly for this as a kid, thanks to The X-Files such interest has become somewhat mainstream.  In any case, after fumbling with the crossword and finishing the sudoku, I read an article about dowsing.  Now Tompkins County is the home of both Cornell University and Ithaca College, so I was a little surprised in finding such a topic addressed at all.  What’s more, the usual ridicule expected with anything even approaching the paranormal was lacking.

Dowsing is the practice of finding water, or other underground resources, by using a crotched stick or dowsing rods.  A larger version of the quantum “spooky action at a distance,” dowsing is said to produce an effect on the twig or rods that will point to the hidden source.  Like ESP it is decried by mainstream science yet used by some governments when other methods fail.  As an example of “folk wisdom” dowsing occupies a similar, if less conventional, space to religion.  Scientism has taught us not to trust the invisible.  Scientists, however, are well aware that we can’t see everything.  We slide a finger around our collar, however, when something “unscientific” seems to work.  As the dowsers explain, however, there is a kind of science to what they do.  Problem is it doesn’t work for everyone.  Only some people can do it.

Now I’m not a credulous person.  I spent many years and even more dollars learning how to be a critical thinker.  Skepticism, however, leads me to ask how we know that dowsing can’t possibly work.  Have we discovered all there is to know in this infinite but expanding universe?  With finite minds it seems highly unlikely.  Duke and Princeton Universities once studied parapsychology in an academic setting, and the University of Virginia has left some related areas open to investigation.  The real problem is that we’ve been taught to laugh at anything we’re told to.  The US Navy, for instance, has recently revealed that it takes UFO reports seriously (unlike Project Bluebook).  We’ve been laughing so long it’s difficult to take even the military at face value.   Does dowsing work?  It’s difficult to say without all the facts.  Of course, I’ve been sitting in a waiting room, pondering what we don’t understand.

Bookish Dreams

Driving into upstate New York via interstate 81 you’ll find a remarkable rest stop.  To put this into context, I should say that my wife and I have driven from Maine to Washington (not on a single trip) and from Wisconsin to Louisiana and South Carolina.  We’ve laid down considerable mileage together, and never have we encountered such a nice rest stop.  Clean, modern, and featuring local goods for sale, it’s a loving homage to the southern tier, the New York outside the city.  One of the features of this unusual facility is a terrazzo floor fresco highlighting the various points of interest within a couple hours’ drive.  Mostly when we stop here we look toward Binghamton and Ithaca, the cities we most frequently visit.  We stop to use the restroom and then drive on.

When we stopped over the holidays, however, we lingered a little bit.  There’s a display on Mark Twain—he lived in Elmira, New York for a time—and there’s an in-ground plaque outside to Rod Serling.  I spent some time looking over the points of interest in the floor map when my wife pointed out a site listed as Hobart Book Village of the Catskills.  I couldn’t believe that I’d been in this building dozens of times but had never bothered to look that far east.  Curious, I did a web search once we reached out destination.  There is, it turns out, a village in upstate known for its main street of book stores.  What perhaps impressed me even more was that it was considered significant enough to be given a kind of “Hollywood star” treatment in what is an often overlooked part of the state.

Now I can’t say what my impressions of Hobart are.  I’ve never been there, having just learned of it on a recent roadtrip.  What I can say is that my world suddenly began to feel just a bit more friendly knowing that such a place exists.  We live in a country that could indeed use a bit more positive influence.  Some of my happiest memories involve bookstores.  Back in my teaching days we made regular autumnal literary weekend trips, visiting sites haunted by writers.  Often we’d find an independent bookstore near such sacred places.  To many, I realize, this would smack of nonsense, but to those ensconced in literary dreams, it created pleasant memories.  You feel something in the air as you stand near the house or grave of an author.  Places are made sacred by what transpires within them.  The writing of books shapes the very space-time around them.  At least it does for those who even find inspiration in an interstate rest stop.

The Falls of Lucifer

The Devil is everywhere.  At least if we go by the many places named after the dark lord.  Over the weekend in Ithaca, we visited Lucifer Falls.  Like several of the cataracts in the area, this is an impressive waterfall that exposes the many layers of the gorge it has carved out over the eons.  Part of Robert H. Treman State Park, the falls were impressive after all the rain we’ve been having here in the east.  But why are they called “Lucifer Falls”?  The literature on the park begs ignorance as to the origins of the name, noting that it was likely taken from the original Iroquois name.  If that’s the case, it’s likely been distorted in transmission.  Many such satanic names are.

Apart from the fact that Native American names for geologic features weren’t based on the Christian trope of God v. Satan, early European settlers heard what they wanted to hear.  Devil’s Lake in Wisconsin, which we used to visit in my Nashotah House days, was more properly translated “Spirit Lake.”  Since the Christians who encountered the native name believed that indigenous religion was inspired by the evil one, they recast the spiritual lake into an infernal one, at least in name.  People will still vacation there, thank you very much, while retaining the baptismal moniker that an intolerant religion bestowed upon it.  There’s nothing evil about Lucifer Falls.  It is an astonishing testament to what nature can do when left alone.

Well, at least for a while.  Like its more famous cousin Niagara, Lucifer Falls, upriver, was harvested for its ability to turn a mill wheel.  The old mill still stands today in the park as a testament to how the river was exploited.  Mills aren’t naturally evil, of course.  They turn to produce the things people need—in this case flour.  They can also, however, be symbols of corporate greed.  Those who own them can exploit more than just the water, and mills became a name for many other places of industry that eventually stole the lives and livelihoods of those whose work in them was cheap.  William Blake’s “dark satanic mills” remains a memorable phrase testifying to what happens when the wealthy, when corporations—which are “persons” with no feelings—are allowed to make decisions.  Treman State Park’s old mill was the center of a community that apparently didn’t experience such exploitation.  It was just a mill.  It’s picturesque waterfall was just a waterfall.  The name, however, still speaks volumes.

Just Sagan

Perhaps the most famous resident of Ithaca, New York, during his career at Cornell was Carl Sagan.  The astrophysicist had had a noteworthy career, becoming a household name with his popularizing television programs and books.  When he died prematurely, there was a real sense of loss among many of us who appreciate those who dumb down science so the rest of us can understand.  Over the weekend in Ithaca, which still bears his physical legacy in a scale model of the solar system, we went to find his final resting place in Lakeview Cemetery.  There is something oddly peaceful about passing time among the dead.  It was late afternoon and we were the only ones in the graveyard.  We also had no idea where his plot might be, so we surveyed a good bit of the grounds, finding the Cornell family mausoleum along the way.

When my wife found his plot, with a simple tombstone laid into the ground, it was impossible not to notice the grave goods.  The leaving of mementos at the burial places of the famous is nothing new.  Douglas Adams’ grave in Highgate Cemetery in London had a profusion of pens pressed into the ground.  H. P. Lovecraft’s final resting place in Providence likewise had remembrances scattered about.  Among the items at Sagan’s grave were various bits of money, a teddy bear, and a somewhat lengthy letter written to the late scientist, expressing how much he had influenced the life of the writer.  After paying our respects, it struck me how even in a cemetery where death, the great leveler, has visited all, we still seek out the famous.

I couldn’t help pondering the implications of leaving behind something for the dead.  Money is of no use where goods and services can’t be traded.  Approaching the cemetery from the upper entrance, we first encountered a Jewish burial area where many of the tombs had rocks characteristically laid on top.  Sagan’s grave is on the border where stones on tombs begin to give way to crosses.  The custom of placing rocks on gravestones is ancient, but the reasons it’s done are disputed.  One of my favorite explanations is that flowers die but rocks do not.  There’s a simple elegance to it.  Many Christian graves appear neglected by comparison.  We don’t live in Ithaca, and it’s difficult to guess how often this somewhat hard-to-find cemetery is visited.  When it is, however, it is in the spirit of remembering a life that was ever focused outward, to an infinite yet expanding universe.

False Memory

One of the reasons our recent loss of books hit me so hard is that each volume contains memories.  Among the more disturbing developments of memory studies in recent years is the fact that what we remember has a tendency to be unreliable.  In other words, our narratives about ourselves contains a good deal of fiction that we remember as fact.  Even if we write down our impressions shortly after an event, such scribbles are just that—impressions.  Lee Irby explores this dynamic in his novel Unreliable.  Now, since the narrator may be the most unreliable I’ve ever read, I don’t want to give away too much.  Irby knows what it’s like to be a professor (something that some of us share with him) and he has a good sense of Edgar Allan Poe.  It’s one of those books that touched on a number of things in my own life.  I think.

First of all, this was an impulse buy at Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca, New York.  I soon discovered why they stocked it.  Edwin Stith, the narrator, teaches at a fictional college in Ithaca.  The story, however, is set in Richmond, Virginia, where Prof. Stith has gone for his mother’s second wedding.  With characters compellingly drawn, he meets his new step-family, runs into an old-girlfriend, and tries to both avoid and hook up with a student of his that he’s dating, more or less.  He claims from the start, however, that we shouldn’t believe him.  The largest part of the story takes place over one feverish day following a very late arrival in town, with plenty of Poe references sprinkled throughout the tale.

Apart from the Ithaca and former professor connections, the book also mentioned, rather spookily, meeting a girl from Slippery Rock University—a rather obscure school from my old neighborhood.  I had dated a Slippery Rock co-ed who’d proved about as unreliable as our narrator, so this single, brief reference managed to jump-start some of my own memories, reliable or not.  Our pasts, along with the books we read, make us who we are.  I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve thought of a scene I’d supposed I’d forgotten from a book I’ve read years ago.  Just the other day I recalled, completely out of of the blue, apropos of nothing, a scene from a Doc Savage novella I’d read as a tween.  Was it a reliable memory?  I have no way to judge, I guess.  And that’s the scary part, as I’m sure Poe would’ve agreed.

Rains and Bows

It’s raining and I’m here for an outdoor event. Here, in this case, is Ithaca, New York. The event is the parade that’s an integral part of the Ithaca Festival. As people have been laying out their chairs and blankets along the route since morning, it’s a fair guess that if we don’t stake out our few feet of available public space we’ll miss the parade. And yes, it will rain on my parade. The problem is waiting in the rain. With one hand holding an umbrella and water getting in anyway like a leaky roof, there’s only so much you can do. Reading a book—my default activity—is out of the question. I know very few people here and since I’m acting as a placeholder, there’s nobody to talk to. Tom Petty was right after all.

The parade itself turned out to be a celebration of diversity. Ithaca is what America could be. The various liberal organizations, eager to educate, marched by to cheers and bonhomie. There’s nobody judging here. This became clear in a particularly striking juxtaposition (for which I have no photos, because it was raining) in the parade lineup. A group of Mad Max-themed metal rockers went by in a gnarly truck decorated with torches protruding from fake human skulls. Dressed in future period costumes from the movie diegesis, they produced the guttural, primal roar that is an accusation against current society. Then, like Mel Gibson shifting to The Passion of the Christ, the group immediately behind was a Bible Baptist Church. Add water and mix.

For this I’d sat in the rain for a couple of hours. Forced to relax, I watched the water on the fabric over my head as beads crawled together, joined one another, and scurried, animal-like, from the umbrella to the ground. The drops may look uniform from a distance, but they’re diverse. They come in different sizes, and perhaps because of the distorting character of the nylon, they took different shapes. Placed together in one location, it was natural, it seemed, for them to come together for a common goal, which was the ground. There was a parable playing out here right over my head. While it didn’t seem to be the case at the time, it clearly was a lesson to be shared. Had it been sunny, I would’ve been reading a book. Sometimes it takes sitting in the rain to learn something that should be obvious no matter what the weather.

Upstate Goddesses

Goddesses give you connections. Here in Ithaca, all kinds of specialty shops abound. University towns are like that. This one had lots of goddesses. Ever since writing my dissertation on Asherah I’ve been interested in female divinities. Part of the reason for this is that I fail to understand how many men don’t see the power of women in their lives and insist that men should rule. Goddesses remind us that women have as much to contribute as do men, and they should be honored and respected just the same. Deities, after all, are projections of humanity. In any case, I found myself in a shop with many goddesses. The proprietor noticed my interest and struck up a conversation. This was ironic because where I live no one asks about my academic background; I have to travel to find interested takers, I guess.

She told me of an upcoming conference that would like to hear my thoughts on the topic of Asherah. Since my book on the goddess has been plagued with high prices, it remains hidden down three or four pages on Amazon, while lower priced dissertations easily float above it. My conversation with this stranger brought out that I had planned to write on other goddesses. A friend had done his dissertation on Anat, so I began working on book on Shapshu, the Ugaritic goddess associated with the sun. Some cultures made the sun male, the people of Ugarit, however, knew the true nature of brightness. I was going to make an academic career of goddesses.

Every great once in a while an academic will ask me about Asherah. Chances are their book or article will fail to cite my work, but they do seem to know to make queries. In my hopes to get a job beyond Nashotah House I followed the advice of colleagues to write a biblical book before finishing another book on “pagan” deities. In the career vicissitudes that followed, goddesses had to fall by the wayside. Although there can be money in deities, as this shop in which I stood proved, they aren’t really a marketable commodity in the realm of making an academic living. Now that I’ve found my way back to writing books again, perhaps I’ll return to my goddesses. That brief encounter in an Ithaca store resurrected some of the fascination of learning about the inner lives of divine women. The need to remind the world, it appears, has only become greater since I first wrote about Asherah decades ago.

Ithaca Musings

Ithaca may be the ultimate hippie town. Open and accepting of diversity, it’s a place where anyone can speak out against what’s going on in the government and not worry about finding any objectors. Yesterday when I was in Buffalo Street Books, customers openly vented their frustrations with the way Washington’s handling things, and others joined in. There’s a sense of righteous anger here that hasn’t been fashionable since the days of the biblical prophets. You have heard it was said Watergate was a bad thing, but verily I say unto thee something much worse than Watergate is here. And although winter is still holding on in upstate New York, nobody doubts global warming is real.

From my first visit here, I knew that I wanted to live in Ithaca, but it is one of those places you can’t afford to live. Amazing how the liberal cities are the places people want to reside. Places where you can’t just turn off the realities of a diverse world just because some things make you uncomfortable. Places where if you notice that other people are different you are reminded that you, in their eyes, are the different one. There is no static, monochrome, cookie-cutter American. Why is this an idea so hard to sell? Capitalism leads to and fuels the desire to own. And owning leads to the desire to own more. I’ve often noticed this since being out of higher education—even within your own company others want what you have. The basic civility of the socialist is missing. That’s where the “me first” attitude leads.

In upstate New York, as in many parts of the nation, the very names remind us that others “owned” the land before Europeans arrived. Native American concepts of ownership were so different from the capitalist ones that forcefully landed on these shores that those views were forced, under firearms and steel, to assimilate to the foreigners’ ways. Capitalism takes no prisoners. Turnabout, they used to say, is fair play. We no longer feel that way as a nation. The interlopers have taken over. We’ve made the country in our own image. And it certainly isn’t any more noble for it. Being in a place like Ithaca always makes my spirits ebullient. The very concept of ownership is an odd one, I realize. Mere mortals can never really own anything. We can pretend to, or perhaps we can take a more enlightened view. We are all borrowing things here. And I would love to borrow a piece of real estate here in Ithaca.

Holiday Season

It was just after dark and the red and blue lights were shredding the night in Wallkill, New York. We’d driven past this mall just over an hour ago to take our daughter home after a too brief Thanksgiving break. Now there were police cars lined up along the length of the Orange Country Galleria Mall, and my wife said, “I hope it’s not a shooting.” Life in America’s that way. About two hours later we were home and yes, it had been a shooting incident. For reasons nobody knows, a man discharged a handgun into the floor at the crowded shopping center, injuring two. Police had not located the shooter, and no motive was known. The mall was evacuated and holiday shoppers feared for their lives.

Just a few months ago I was in Penn Station, New York when a similar panic ensued. Rail police had used a taser gun on a passenger who’d gotten out of hand. As we were entering the station to catch our train, scores of people were running out in a panic. It had sounded like a gunshot. Clothes and personal effects littered the floor of the station once we got inside. This is the world in which we live. A world enamored of weapons. A world where we hate and distrust the stranger. A world where our government receives support from gun lobbies and refuses to put controls on the sale and ownership of firearms. A world where a peaceful Sunday night on the busiest shopping weekend of the year ends in panic and tears.

Wallkill, New York, is not exactly a metropolitan area. Upstate, as we’ve been learning for the last several years, is pretty big. Small population centers dot an impressive landscape of Catskills, Finger Lakes, and beautifully wooded hills. The people are generally friendly, less brusk than they tend to be in New York City. It seems that where two or three are gathered together there’s a handgun in their midst, however. Trusting ourselves to be good people, we want to arm ourselves to shoot the “bad guy.” Meanwhile Congress still tries to pass legislation to reduce health care since, I guess, too many people are getting shot. It can be a real drain on the economy if the wealthy have to chip in. It’s upstate New York. We have about two hours to go before we can rest at home. Galleria Mall is in lockdown. The rest of the nation is too.

Amityville

Surely one of the most controversial haunting stories of my own lifetime was that which came to be known as The Amityville Horror. After the tragic deaths of the DeFeo family in 1974, the next occupants of the fatal house, the Lutz family, claimed to have experienced 28 days of terror before moving out in the middle of winter and taking no belongings with them. Their story, written by Jay Anson, became a sensational bestseller. Published just four years after the unexpected cinematic success of The Exorcist, a movie was quickly signed and it was all the talk of my high school before I was quite at the stage of watching real horror films. By the time I got around to seeing the DVD, the tropes were so well known that it wasn’t really that scary. I realized that I had never read the book.

Whether you find Anson’s account scary or not probably depends on your level of belief in demons. Although he concludes his book with the suggestion that a combination of ghosts and a demon plagued the Lutzes and their priest, the focus of the narrative is clearly on the demonic. Fr. Mancuso suffers because the demon wants to keep him out of the house. The multiplication of flies, the constant waking up just after 3:00 a.m., and the smell of excrement all point to demonic activity. The book does have its share of historical inaccuracies and embellishments. It has been declared a complete hoax by some while others claim that at least some of what was described in the book happened to the blended family that called it home for less than a month. If you don’t accept demons, there’s little here to frighten you beyond a couple of benign ghosts.

As with any story claiming supernatural activity, we’ll never really know what happened. The Amityville Horror is often classified as a novel now. Our minds are conditioned to reject anything so terribly out of the ordinary that it is difficult to accept what you’re reading. The DeFeo family was undoubtedly murdered in the house by one of their own. The Lutz family did buy and then abandon the house in fairly short order for such an expensive purchase. There was a priest involved. The question marks hover about the supernatural elements, as they generally do. These are the ghosts and demons of the rational world which we inhabit. We safely confine them to fiction. Then we sleep at night with the lights left on.