The story of Syracuse

One of the most e-mailed stories of the week at the NYT (wow, for a newspaper I often can’t stand, I’m always reading it) is called “This Is Your Life (and How You Tell It).

In analyzing the texts, the researchers found strong correlations between the content of people’s current lives and the stories they tell. Those with mood problems have many good memories, but these scenes are usually tainted by some dark detail. The pride of college graduation is spoiled when a friend makes a cutting remark. The wedding party was wonderful until the best man collapsed from drink. A note of disappointment seems to close each narrative phrase.

By contrast, so-called generative adults — those who score highly on tests measuring civic-mindedness, and who are likely to be energetic and involved — tend to see many of the events in their life in the reverse order, as linked by themes of redemption. They flunked sixth grade but met a wonderful counselor and made honor roll in seventh. They were laid low by divorce, only to meet a wonderful new partner. Often, too, they say they felt singled out from very early in life — protected, even as others nearby suffered.

Personally I don’t know where I fit in on that continuum (perhaps my faint recurring desire to shoot spitballs at the adults in the latter group speaks volumes), but I wanted to draw attention to this article because of the stuff in the news recently about The Brookings Institution’s assessment of Syracuse’s economic future, and really, the conversation that continues about what to do with dear old Syracuse. Does Syracuse have a story of its own, and what is it? Who gets to write it? More importantly, who is going to revise it?

I am in the middle of an on-again, off-again project to tell one locality’s story. I nominated myself to do this because nobody else has bothered to do it. It is just a first draft and is probably not going to go down as a biography for the ages anyhow. Once the draft has sat around for a few years someone may want to tackle a revision. That’s something the NYT article also mentions — the all-important story revision process. We are not writing one story in one draft; we are writing one story with a new draft that ends at sunset every day. You can tell yourself anything about yourself over the years, but the hard part isn’t what you do with the negative episodes of one’s personal story, what emphasis you give them and so on. The hard part is what you do with the parts you thought were good.

I don’t think there is a willingness to revise the Syracuse story. For one thing, the story usually begins, “Once upon a time there were salt springs, which were mined by enterprising men and then the Erie Canal came…” The facts of the story are never re-interpreted in the light of the passage of time. (i.e., “Once upon a time, a boom town sprang up overnight on the edge of a swamp where a city wouldn’t ordinarily be…”) Should we trust anyone running for office who can’t give a full account of the Syracuse story? How are you supposed to frame new courses of action otherwise? That would be a great question for a mayoral or county executive debate. Tell the story of Syracuse/Onondaga County in five minutes. Chapter and verse. Whoever has the freshest take is the one I’d trust to write the next chapter.