Monthly Archives: November 2007

Notes from a bathroom

Last month, I noticed that the bathroom in my office building was getting a little messy, and I thought it would be a mildly instructive exercise to routinely pick up the trash from the floor instead of waiting for someone else to do it. I’m happy to report that the custodial staffing changes have stabilized and the bathroom is now less noticeably sloppy. So the mini experiment may be winding down, but here are a few follow-up observations, for what they’re worth:

Many people see themselves as separate from their environment. If you pick up the trash, you are not only interacting with your environment, but you are allowing the environment to make a claim on you — you are becoming part of it even as you rearrange it.

People don’t like that. They don’t like to be tied down to the earth or to a bathroom. They reserve the right — especially here in America — to go wherever they please, whenever they please. Maybe the mental process that results in a wad of trash landing on the floor in full sight, and then making the split second decision not to go retrieve it, has something to do with this. (“Must I do this? Always?”)

There’s also the matter of being seen doing it. Do it long enough, and in plain sight, and people will start to see you as a fixture, just like the trash basket or the sink. You will (somehow) become less human to them because you are not detached from the environment. Your feelings will count less. Maybe on some level we know this, and it makes us reluctant to act.

The Wreck of the Eliot Spitzgerald

(Sorry… sometimes you just can’t get an image out of your head, and “Spitztanic” and “Spitzitania” didn’t quite work for me…)

Well, it’s nice to know that now that he’s gotten wrapped up in an ethics controversy, now that his public approval numbers have sunk to new lows, and now that the Democratic presidential front-runner from his own state wants to have nothing to do with him… that Gov. Spitzer would like to take this moment to sue the pants off the federal government over NYRI.

“Gov. Spitzer has never been shy about going to court,” said spokesman Paul Larrabee. “Gov. Spitzer is willing to pursue legal options if he believes the state’s interests and rights are not being heard.”

Whew! Good to know he’s been saving all that remaining political capital for a rainy day.

Brueggemann and the Beanstalk

At momentous times of unveiling, it’s not a bad idea to see what theologian Walter Brueggemann has to say. He wrote a useful book called The Prophetic Imagination, which I return to now and again for an alternative perspective on what’s in the news. Much of the book deals with the birth and development of alternative communities. Not merely “restoration,” or “progress” or even “transformation,” but nothing less than the bringing down of an old world and the establishment of a completely new community.

The proposed Phase II of the DestiNY USA complex deserves a look in this light. Its backers obviously mean it to be a greatly meaningful building. Bob Congel and other prominent figures in Syracuse believe they have prophetic work to do, and for now, perhaps we should take them seriously. Brueggemann has much to say about how vital the communication of meaning is for such work.

When the hotel drawings were revealed last week, people immediately tried to parse what the building “really meant.” A hotel — but what else is it? Green blades of grass, some sort of other plant, new economic vitality rising from industrial decay? Or a giant beanstalk grown from magic beans, the Emerald City of Oz… an embodiment of escapist fantasy (and maybe some humbug), where our ultimate solution is not to be found?

Clearly the architect intended the design to be received as a proclamation of commitment to green building practices, but perhaps as much more. Writing in The Prophetic Imagination, Brueggemann comments, “The task of prophetic imagination and ministry… is to cut through the despair and to penetrate the dissatisfied coping that seems to have no end or solution.” He goes on to suggest that the first order of business for this ministry is

the offering of symbols that are adequate to contradict a situation of hopelessness in which newness is unthinkable. The prophet has only the means of word, spoken word and acted word, to contradict the presumed reality of his or her community.

What does Brueggemann mean by “acted word”? Surely the creation of monumental buildings is a way to bring a prophetic word into acted-out, actual physical being. And this is perhaps why these days Syracuse is besotted with visions of exciting new architectural projects, and with talk about them. Buildings are the largest physical creations that can be imagined by a single prophet at a drafting table, and in a place like Syracuse there is now much empty space for dreams.

The new hotel is undeniably a striking and deeply evocative word of a building, if the sketches are accurate and possible. Congel’s symbol makers understand the real problem here very well. The design is not just about bragging to the world about adherence to the ideals of eco-friendly development practices. It also speaks directly and forcefully to Syracusans’ barely-expressed fears — of the loss of potency, loss of children, of an economic and spiritual autumn-falling-into-winter that never hits bottom; to a fear of death that no one elsewhere in the nation notices or cares about. Green itself is a symbol of survival, fecundity and renewal — and who could possibly be against that?

A good symbol, then, a good word. Have the naysayers become, as Brueggemann writes of our society’s presiding “kings,” “illiterate in the language of hope”?

Maybe we should allow for that (sad) possibility. But in his discussion of symbolism, Brueggemann goes on to warn about the use of prophetic words in a way which speaks to reservations about Congel’s planned project. These reservations perhaps run deeper than concerns that a town like Syracuse can’t support a 1,300-room hotel, or that the building clashes with the current skyline:

Hope requires a very careful symbolization. It must not be expressed too fully in the present tense, because hope one can touch and handle is not likely to retain its promissory call to a new future. Hope expressed only in the present tense will no doubt be co-opted by the managers of this age.

Brueggemann does not use the word “idol” here, but this is what he is talking about. Earlier in The Prophetic Imagination, he begins with the story of the Exodus as the genesis of an alternative community that develops out of a soul-crushing, stage-managed world of exploitation (slavery in Egypt). In the story of Exodus, there comes a moment when the newly freed people backslide into idolatry. No doubt the golden calf represents real, vital, physical hope for the truly desperate wandering in a wilderness… but perhaps too much “hope expressed only in the present tense.”

Is the new DestiNY hotel just a plan for a great green idol to be raised by a fearful, suffering and superstitious people (“the power of Green-ness will save us”)? That’s only one way of looking at it. The line between spiritual construction work and idolatry may be blurry, and I’m not certain which side this city is poised to step into. If this building is meant to be a prophetic word, however, it has to not be an empty word. Or, for that matter, an empty hotel.

A day of peace and friendship

Today is Armistice Day, also known as Veterans’ Day. It’s also Canandaigua Treaty Day, which will be celebrated in Canandaigua with a parade and ceremony of thanksgiving. I don’t know if America will ever fully make the leap from having a day set aside to remember the sacrifices of people fighting in wars, to having that day be a nationally recognized day of commitment to peace as well. I believe that the two commitments are not mutually exclusive.

Brothers, we hope you will make your minds easy. We who are now here are but children; the ancients being deceased. We know that your fathers and ours transacted business together, and that you look up to the Great Spirit for his direction and assistance and take no part in war. We expect you were all born on this island, and consider you as brethren. Your ancestors came over the great water, and ours were born here; this ought to be no impediment to our considering each other as brethren. –Red Jacket, speaking to Quaker treaty observers, Canandaigua, 1794

Other people’s blogs

The computer tampering/cheating scandal at Fayetteville-Manlius may be big news around here, but in Rochester there’s already a “Cyber Safety and Ethics Initiative” aimed at K-12 students. This covers things like cyberpredation against kids, illegal downloading by kids, and cheating by kids. Pretty broad territory. Nicole Black, the lawyer behind Sui Generis New York Law Blog, takes a harder look at this initiative and its connections to the Department of H@%^$land Security, and doesn’t feel comfortable with what she sees. I wonder if this group will try to branch out into the Syracuse area now?

Election fallout: CNY Political Insider looks at Utica elections and sees only one relevant player: Michael Arcuri. More election fallout: Simon of Living in Dryden marks an anniversary and decides to keep blogging.

I’ve never set out to compete with the Journal or the Cortland Standard or even the Dryden Courier. This work is about changing things at the margins, helping people who are slightly interested become more interested, and helping people who are interested enough to find local news too weak find more information.

MetaEzra Cornell Blog posts on a favorite subject already much discussed, the Upstate/Downstate divide and its economic implications. Should Cornell address it? (Should other Upstate colleges and universities address it?)

New York City Students’ Blog. A great idea, if done right. (Does Syracuse have a student union?)

WSYR-TV now has a whole stable full of news staff blogs; a few of them are opinionated and some of the comment areas are quite lively. Matt Mulcahy of WSTM has had one for a while.

This “Skeptic’s Take on Academic Blogs” from Inside Higher Education is worth a read if you have a few minutes, as it looks at the mechanics of commenting and community. You can skip over the details of academic infighting in the second half of the article — the author’s initial observations about online conversation are more interesting. (For the record, I never find long comments to be an “imposition.”)