According to my father (Yes, we’re back to him again.), though he never put it in so many words, there were three touchstones of greatness to which he and I could lay immediate claim. Those touchstones were, in no particular order, being of irish descent, being Roman Catholic and being from Carmel, California.
Through various associations, these things brought us into symbolic, if not actual, contact with Bing Crosby, John Wayne, John Steinbeck, Clint Eastwood, Knute Rockne and on and on, a long list at the top of which was writ large the name of John F. Kennedy, martyr and saint, paragon of animals, in apprehension how like a god.
Over time, I’ve let go of these identifiers, the last to leave being Carmel. I hung onto it for as long as I did probably because I do feel changed for having lived there.
But it was just a place, circa 1973, no more identifiably a part of me today than what I had last week for dinner.
I’ve heard it said that in some cultures, it’s considered rude to ask a person where he’s from or what he does for a living. It’s assumed that what’s important about that person will make itself known in due course. It might be a profession or it might be a favorite author. It could be anything.
If you’d asked my father to define himself in one short sentence, I have no doubt that he’d have said, “I’m an Irish Catholic from Carmel, California.” He might or might not have gone on to say that he’d fallen in love with a woman who played the piano or that he liked to make lamps out of wagon wheel hubs. He might or might not have mentioned that he was an avid golfer or that he had a younger brother or a half-sister or a son. But he would have shown you his ethnic, religious and geographic credentials. As if those things really defined him. Or refined him. As if they really mattered.
I’m not taking issue with what’s conversationally expedient. I don’t expect people to tell their best secrets at the drop of a hat, or even to have figured out what those secrets are.
I do believe, however, that if we choose to define ourselves through our associations, we almost always sell ourselves short.