Anyone who has attended one of my talks or workshops has probably heard me rail against state history assignments. I have never understood why they exist in the curricula of all 50 states, at a moment where fresh minds could be ablaze with so many more rewarding subjects. But this summer my 8-year-old, who will be in fourth grade this fall, and I took a little tour: we went to baseball games in Washington, DC; Baltimore, MD; Pittsburgh, and then Allentown, PA, where we caught the IronPigs. That tour helped me to understand this country in a way I never had before.
I’ve lived all my life in New York City and I now live just outside it. I grew up playing pick-up ball in Central Park—no little league for me and my friends. We went to games and watched them on TV, but not one parent, relative, or family friend ever donned school colors and rooted for a high school or college team. For us, the tide of seasons was the flow of New York teams, and our eyes were always on championships–—they were what mattered. We were interested in success, not in the upward movement of local talent from high school, to college, to pro. Our eyes in sports, just as our eyes in politics, history, and culture, were looking to the world; which was, in a way, our localism. Paris mattered, Peoria didn’t.
In each stadium on this trip, I saw kids, couples, families, and grandparents decked out in team colors. I felt intense local pride in each stadium, the sense that the team was their team, a reflection of their hometown. Of course, this was most evident in the minor league park. For the first time I perceived what announcers talk about when they pan the audience at a college games and mention the “Cameron Crazies,” or some similar nickname. I saw how, for a whole slice of this country, sports is about the local—the neighborhood kid who does well in a school game and gets his or her picture in the paper, later plays in a high school tournament, and then is recruited for State U. The local still has a meaning and importance that it never had for me
And yet. As we walked into the IronPigs stadium (Coca-Cola Park, as it happens), the ticket taker pointed to the person who came in just ahead of us: a tall, thin, young man bedecked with film equipment. “He’s a scout from the Japanese league,” she explained. Indeed, one of the best players on the IronPigs, Josh Fields, had just been playing in Japan.
And there is another “and yet:” on our way from Pittsburgh to the Lehigh Valley we took a detour to visit Fallingwater, the breathtaking home built by Frank Lloyd Wright. In his way Wright was also intensely focused on the local—using stone quarried nearby, building into the cliff, and incorporating the waterfall into the house itself. Every aspect of the building emerges as a kind of plant from the soil on which it stands. And it is so purely abstract that on walking into it my then-cranky son exclaimed, “It is so modern.” And so it is—local as essence, essence as local: the meeting place of drilling down and wide-angle lens to vast, international horizons. Like Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Famila in Barcelona, Spain, it is architecture as epic, as symphonic, as profound and deep as dreams.
The local abides—that was the lesson to me from this road trip. But the international is there—woven into the fabric of even these most hometown of events. That is what we need to do to make state history matter. How it is, was, and always will be been linked to the history of the nation and the world. We need to probe for essences as Wright did—finding pure truths in local stone.
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