Wednesday, March 17, 2010

*Please, Don't Jump: Suicide and Sophomore Slump in Ithaca

A bridge over one of Ithaca's many gorges.

Cornell University's Mc Graw Tower with Lake Cayuga in the background.

Ithaca College's Dillingham Center with Lake Cayuga in the background. (Ever-present drear over Cayuga,
above ; glorious, occasional, sunshine, below)

Three Suicides at Cornell : Drear Above Cayuga's Waters

Ithaca, New York is one of the most gorgeous places on earth (pun intended; hyperbole not) . And one of the SADest.

I recall a faculty couple on a sabbatical world tour who returned from Europe specifically to spend the summer in Ithaca, and then resume their trip around the world after the autumn gold."There is no more beautiful place to be in the world in the summertime than Ithaca," the husband said to me.

Ithaca's natural beauty, shimmering Lake Cayuga, and jewelled autumns are almost incomparable for their grandeur and tranquility.

Paradoxically, Ithaca also has one of the lowest number of days of sunshine in the U.S., rivalling Seattle, and as such is a target for Seasonal Affect Disorder (SAD) a form of depression exacerbated by lack of sunlight.

I spent five years of my life in Ithaca as a student and a junior faculty member, and twenty summers as a visitor and guest of friends in Cayuga Heights.

Ithaca is a great place to be rich or to be a starving student; it is an awful place to be an ordinary person trying to eke out a living.

There are approximately 40,000 students in a town of 55,000 residents. There is no industry: Ithaca Gun and Ithaca Clock companies are long defunct. National Cash Register was once there but makes little economic impact.

The major industry is "college" and the major product of that industry is "student".

The result: The town is a playground.

It is utterly artificial and separated from the realities of working folk. Most workers are glorified student servers (from pizza parlors to dry cleaners to auto mechanics) who have to put up with all kinds of "student crap" to make their livelihood.

Today's New York Times featured a sad, disturbing article about three recent student suicides at Cornell , two within one day of each other last week: all three deaths by jumping off bridges over the same dramatic Ithaca gorge. One student's body has yet to be recovered.

My heart goes out to their families.

When I was there, the Roumanian dancer, Iris Barbura, jumped off the Triphammer Bridge to her death. Her pianist in Europe had been Sergiu Celibidachi who, since Barbura's emigration across the Iron curtain to the U.S., had become a world famous conductor.

Mlle. Barbura could not adjust to her obscurity in America. And, tellingly, she chose to live in a basement apartment at Buffalo Street and College Avenue in Cornell's College Town with two tiny ceiling height windows barely bigger than Kleenex boxes, hardly a cheery, sunshiney refuge in a climate prone to Season Affect Disorder, known as 'the blues ' back then.

I can attest personally to the power of depression in Ithaca. In my day (1964-68) at Ithaca College we were warned about sophomore slump. (Does anyone ever mention this to students any more or is it too old-fashioned an idea in our dollar-store world of therapeutic jargon?)

It hit me right on schedule in my second year at Ithaca . Suddenly I had HCD (Holden Caulfield Dis-ease) : my courses seemed phoney; my frienships seemed phoney; my own conversation seemed phoney; my life seemed phoney. I was a Werther on Ithaca's South Hill, with a whalloping case of weltschmerz (world sickness).

I remember calling my parents from the Ithaca College pub where I was a bouncer and telling them I wanted to drop out of school. Uncharacteristically they kept me on the phone (a pay phone) for over an hour, talking me down (or up) from my negative perch.

I stayed. I studied. I conquered.

But I had sophomore slump at each of the other three schools I graduated from over the next 30 years too: Kent State; Yale and Middlebury (even though sophomore was not a term applied to year two in any of my graduate schools).

It must have had something to do with the artificiality of Academia itself, I now believe, not simply Season Affect Disorder or the seond-year jitters.

It took me five decades, and the ups and downs of weltchmerz, AKA Holden Caulfield Dis-ease, to learn one of the great lessons of life, revealed in Macbeth:

"Come what, come may,
Time and the hour
runs through
the roughest day."

(I,iii, 147)

Give Time time: Things will change.


Constantine P. Cavafy

When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the angry Poseidon -- do not fear them:
You will never find such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not set them up before you.

Pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many, when,
with such pleasure, with such joy
you will enter ports seen for the first time;
stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensual perfumes of all kinds,
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
visit many Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from scholars.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
and to anchor at the island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.
She has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must already have understood what Ithacas mean.

Constantine P. Cavafy

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