A week ago Sunday, my buddy Leo and I ran up the El Prieto trail and the Brown Mountain fire road. Though we’re usually part of a larger group, we were alone that day. Leo was recovering from a marathon, and I was feeling well-rested, so I was actually able to keep up with him for a change. (In his late 50s, Leo still regularly runs marathons just above the three hour mark and has finished his share of 50 and 100-mile races).
We talked about books, history, ideas. When I run with some friends, we talk about love and marriage and family; when I run with others, I argue politics or theology. A few friends, like Leo, are interested in all of these topics and more. In an early morning chill, we began by reflecting together on the burden of the past.
Leo was born just after the Second World War into a Polish refugee family. He was raised in West Germany. Much like my late father, a dozen years his senior, Leo has that sense that many war refugees have — a sense of never quite belonging, a sense that perhaps at any moment, he might have to pack his bags and leave again. My father, born in Vienna, raised in rural Berkshire, spent nearly fifty years of his life in California without ever truly feeling at home here. He didn’t feel fully at home in Austria or England either. Leo and my Dad knew each other, and were fond of each other. When I got married a year and a half ago, they spoke German together at our wedding.
But we didn’t just talk about my Dad or about Leo’s similar sense of not quite belonging. We talked about the San Gabriel Mountains we both love so much. As we neared the Brown Mountain summit, I said to Leo “Isn’t it interesting to think we are the only members of our family ever to be here? None of our ancestors ever stood where we are standing right now.”
“Yes”, Leo replied, “it’s liberating.”
And I’ve been thinking about that for nine days now. I’m a historian by trade, of course; I have devoted my scholarly and professional life to the study of the past. I’m a dual national, holding a UK passport, and am a regular visitor to the land that gave my father’s family shelter and the land my brother calls home. I love to visit what some folks call “old places”, filled with a rich sense of history. When I tramp through the hills of Devon, or run through the streets of Vienna, I feel as if I am surrounded by ghosts. Not evil spirits, mind — just an extraordinary cloud of witnesses of all who have lived and died in these places. And when I am in those places where my ancestors lived, I feel the weight of their fears and their hopes and their expectations all around me. It’s not always unpleasant, but it’s always there.
Even when I go home to Northern California, I feel surrounded by a sense of family history. On my mother’s side, my family came to the Bay Area for the Gold Rush more than a century and a half ago. We’ve had a country place in the hills northeast of San Jose since Rutherford Hayes was president; by the standards of this state, that’s some ancient history. My maternal great-grandfathers both went to Berkeley, and when I was a student at Cal nine decades later, I felt them all around me. Now, don’t get me wrong, sometimes it is a wonderful feeling to feel so connected to a place. But at other times, it is exhausting in ways I find difficult to describe.
What makes me a Los Angeleno in my mindset is my fascination with self-reinvention. I love that I am surrounded by hundreds of thousands, even millions of people, who call somewhere else their truest home — but have nonetheless come here, to this basin with its beaches and valleys and hills — in order to start something new. They’ve come here to escape the burdens and obligations of the past, the sort that linger in the old places even after the old people have gone. They’ve come here to escape the “things are the way they are” mindset. They’ve come here to replace the fatalism and superstition of the old places with a relentless optimism about their own potential and the possibility of global transformation. They’ve come here to get away from the ghosts of Holocausts and World Wars and rigid class distinctions. They’ve come here to run on mountain trails upon which their ancestors never set foot.
(I’m listening to the Eagles “The Last Resort” right now on Itunes. Appropriate.)
As I’ve said, I love to visit the old places. My doctorate is in medieval history, for heaven’s sake; I spent many happy hours doing research in the shadow of my favorite building in the western world, Durham Cathedral. But it’s not just the damp and gloom of old Europe that makes me glad I live in this sprawling, metastasizing megalopolis. It’s the sense that I always get in the old places that humans and animals are limited and constrained by the story of the past. (As the Eagles sing in the song to which I’m listening: “where the Old World shadows hang heavy in the air.”) Their sense of themselves is related not only to place, but to the past story of the place. And just below the surface, there often bubbles a raw xenophobic nationalism that I find fascinating but repugnant.
Leo and I talked a lot about nationalism and place and history. We both love soccer, and we both are World Cup fans who go pretty nuts every four years. But especially after this last World Cup, I’ve begun to have some misgivings about “country” based sporting events. In professional football of the world kind, one great conflict that always comes up is the “club” versus “country” debate. When English players are playing for Premiership teams and training for a major international event, it’s hardly feasible for them to be 100% present for both sets of obligations. (Think of how angry folks in Newcastle are over the injury that an overworked and exhausted Michael Owen sustained last summer while playing for England in Germany.) The traditional wisdom is that athletes should put country over club, national pride over transitory professional obligations. I disagree completely.
I watched the England-Portugal World Cup quarterfinal match last summer in a state of grief and rage. My father, whose family had been rescued from Hitler by English generosity, had died days earlier. And England played a piss-poor match that they deserved to lose. But I, a dual national in SoCal, found myself working myself up into a nationalistic frenzy while watching the game. Under my breath, I said several embarrassing things about the entire Portuguese nation; my rage at a certain Cristian Ronaldo turned quickly into a temporary fury at all things Lusitanian. I calmed down within minutes, but from reading the BBC’s message boards after the game, I know that others were not so restrained. The racist bile that flowed last summer was appalling.
I’ve decided I prefer “club” soccer now. Though I am no fan of Manchester United, I love that Wayne Rooney and his nemesis, Ronaldo, play together. I love seeing a Premiership side take the pitch with eleven players with nearly as many passports. In the mercenary act of playing for pay rather than for national pride, these men do more to advance the cause of peace and understanding than they do when they wear their country’s jerseys on a global stage. Even when nation-based matches are played with mutual respect between the players, the fans themselves are often whipped into emotional frenzies in which ancient bigotries suddenly and shockingly reemerge.
I have my allegiances in sports. I “hate” the Dallas Cowboys. I “hate” Arsenal (of the London clubs, I support Spurs). But those aren’t ethnic hatreds. To put it bluntly, there’s a world of difference between cursing “those f-ing Gunners” after another loss in the North London derby, and cursing “those f-ing wogs” after England loses to a nation whose players (for the most part) have much darker skin than those who wear three Lions on their chests. Club rivalries have notoriously led to violence, but not to wars. In a club rivalry, you shout insults at another fan because of what he wears; in national rivalries, you shout insults because of who he is. There’s no question that the latter is more dangerous. (Now, OKOP don’t shout insults. Our disappointment is subdued, masked, drowned behind thin smiles and private tears. NOKOP rage is public, ours is sublimated.)
(Parenthetical aside: One of the things I love about Los Angeles: we don’t have an NFL team. Here’s an American football fan hoping we never get one! How delicious to live in a city where everyone’s allegiances are elsewhere! I get a smug satisfaction from living in a place that doesn’t need a team to call its own, but can rely on quirky whims to select which club to root for. My youth group kids are holding a Super Bowl party; some will root for the Colts and others for the Bears, but their allegiances are based on uniform colors or affection for a particular player rather than a loyalty to place. I like that.)
But even as I write this this morning, I know better than to claim that I live beyond history. My fascination with “personal growth” and transformation, my longing for new beginnings, my personal narrative of starting over — this is part of my own family’s legacy. What prosperity and success we have had comes from good luck (we got here first and stole more), but also from something that may be coded into our DNA: a longing to go further and further west. Pioneers and survivors are in my blood; I am descended from those who were willing to leave rather than stay. (This brings to mind a snippet from a Caedmon’s Call song: “I come from a long line of leavers.”) I am descended from those whose fascination with the new trumped their loyalty to the old. It would be hubris to suggest that I am the first in a long line to want to start over somewhere new, to liberate myself from old rules and old obligations and old animosities.
Leo and I had a good run that Sunday. And yes, we talked about all of this and more.