They say you can’t go home, and they might be right. We recently spent a few weeks in Madison, WI, which is the city where I spent the latter part of my childhood. It’s been my hometown for more than twenty years, but going back after a two year absence was a bit jarring. Streets and buildings had changed. The old pizza place by the mall isn’t a pizza place anymore. The music shop I would spend hours perusing the racks is an empty storefront. The video rental store where I worked after college has gone the way of the dodo (done in by Netflix), and the unique group of people who used to work there have scattered to the four winds. The corner bar where we used to gather after closing shop at midnight has been turned into a pancake restaurant.
The most jarring experience may have been going to the neighborhood movie theater. I have loved movies since I was a kid, and Point Cinema, with its stiff seats and sticky floors, was a temple for me. I was excited to come here with my wife for a date. But I felt lost as soon as we walked through the door. The box office wasn’t where it was supposed to be. The refreshment stand had moved and they had built a big fancy restaurant. We went into the theater itself, and the seats were all leather recliners. The floor wasn’t even sticky! What was wrong with this place? Who went and ruined it? Don’t they know how special this theater was? It was here that I went on my first parentless outings as a Middle-schooler to enjoy such 90’s gems like “Batman & Robin” and “Bean“. This is where I came to see “Saving Private Ryan” with my dad, and felt an encounter with American history that stays with me to this day. This was the frequent destination when I first learned how to drive, and where I would try to come when I knew friends were working the box office so that they could charge me cheaper admission. This is where I saw “Spiderman” the night it opened which was the weekend of Senior Prom. A friend took the movie so seriously that he wore his rented tux to the premier. It was here that I saw Maximus Decimus Meridius (commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor Marcus Aurelius, father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife, etc.) kill the usurper Commodus. It was here that I saw the penguins march, and Harry Potter take that first flight on his broomstick. Frodo carried the ring to Mordor, and the Fast and Furious sped through the streets of L.A. right here on these silver screens. So many movies, good and bad. So many moments with friends and family. I love this theater in a very special way. Why did they have to change it?
Coming “home” is a tricky business for those of us who move around a lot. Our hometowns tend to live inside our memories as an idealized version of themselves. In my mind Madison exists about the way it did in the summer of 2002, when I graduated high school and was still driving a ’91 Honda Accord way too fast, back seat full of friends, to Point Cinema on Friday nights. Afterwards we would go to Perkins which, being one of the only places on that side of town where minors could hang out after 10 PM, was guaranteed to be full of more friends. That Madison is deeply etched into my memory, probably prettier and more perfect than it ever was in reality. Now, when I go back, part of me expects to find that same place waiting for me. And I don’t find it. People grow up and move on. Old buildings come down, and new ones are put up. Movie theaters are modernized. The people who live here are able to adjust to these changes as they happen. But those of us who return after prolonged absence find ourselves shocked and disoriented. We feel a bit lost, unsure if we can still call this place home. We question whether our memories are grounded in reality or are just fictions we have spun out of a combination of homesickness and malaria drugs.
Thankfully there remain touchstones to remind me that it wasn’t all just a dream. Spending time at my parents’ house, with its family pictures, delicious food, my old toys (now enjoyed by JJ), not to mention my parents themselves, gives me as much assurance of the past as it does joy in the present. Taking a sip of Spotted Cow ale, that rare delicacy not available for purchase beyond state lines, opens up worlds of memory to me. The taste transports me to the Memorial Union Terrace where I spent at least a thousand happy evenings with friends, watching the sun go down over Lake Monona. It reminds me of weddings and graduation parties, where it was the first and only beer anyone would think of serving. Visiting with those friends, even though we are all older, and even though our cars all now feature baby car seats, and even though our get-togethers are early morning play dates instead of late night mischief sessions, is wonderful. We grew up together, and the connections remain strong despite time and distance. And we still enjoy a Spotted Cow from time to time.
The Madison of my childhood and adolescence is essentially gone from the world, so in one sense I can’t go home. The places remain, but the context in which it exists is different. Still the memories remain, bound to earth and my mind by familiar people and objects, and stories told over and over again. So in that sense I can take a trip home simply by watching an old movie, or taking a sip of beer, or making a phone call. And sometimes…when the weather is too hot, and the bureaucracy of the State Department is giving me migraines, and the Spanish language is making me dizzy…sometimes that short glimpse of home is just enough. Like the good witch said to Dorothy, home is something we always have the power to find, provided we keep our Ruby Slippers close by. Home is more than a place. It’s a state of mind that comes from memories and relationships, and as long as we keep those close, we can always go home.