Regarding Hometown Movie Theaters…

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 ┬áhave 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?

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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.

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In which we get lost in the woods…

Last week we visited our old stomping grounds in and around Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Rhinelander, WI. I’ve been spending time North of the 45th parallel for most of my life, walking amidst the tall trees and swimming in the crystalline lakes. I’ve hunted for orchids and mushrooms in the green days of summer. I’ve biked through landscapes of autumn colors that belong in a Van Gogh painting. I’ve climbed mountainous snow banks, and plunged into Lake Huron through a hole sawed in the ice. I’ve hooked walleye and bass as the trees begin to bud and birds return home in the late arriving springtime. 

This is a part of the world that I love and know well. The plants, animals, and weather are familiar. Coming back is satisfying and comforting, like pulling on that old hooded sweatshirt when the cool breezes blow off the lake for the first time as summer grows old.

K and I never expected to live here, and we didn’t expect to leave as quickly as we did when the Foreign Service came calling. But life takes us down unexpected paths. I thought about this last week as we walked one of our favorite hiking trails in Rhinelander. Hansen Lake trail is not an “official” trail, but rather an improvised network of footpaths that have been worn down over the years by hikers and mountain bikers enjoying the beauty of the small lake. There is no map, and the trail twists, turns, and forks in ways that are challenging to remember, especially when one hasn’t hiked it in almost three years.

I may have accidentally led K and J down a leg of the trail that lengthened our hike by a bit. This would have been fine were it not for the inopportune arrival of a summer downpour. We had the choice to turn back or press forward to finish the loop. We opted to press forward, only to discover that the main trail was flooded out and we had to follow a side trail that would take us back to the road which I could then follow to our car while K and J, both soaking wet, took shelter at a ranger station waiting for me to get them.

That last leg of the hike, alone, through mud, soaking wet, got me thinking about choices and paths. What if we had taken a different trail? What if we had turned back when the rain started? Would I be dry right now? What if we had never moved to Rhinelander? What if we had never left? What would our lives be like now? What adventures would we have had? What work could I have accomplished? What, of the amazing things we’ve seen since leaving, would we have missed?

Life is mysterious, and full of questions that are not completely answerable. I catch glimpses of what a life here would have looked like as I talk with old friends who remain. I get a taste for the good that is here, as well as the frustrations. The truth is that I don’t know if leaving was a completely good or bad thing. I think there was a bit of both. We love Foreign Service life, but there are things that we miss about being more stationary, like family, friends, routines. 

The one thing I do know with certainty is that it is good to come back to these Northwoods. There is some part of this place that is lodged in my soul, and that calls me back periodically, like the birds coming North after winter. Maybe someday, when we are old and gray, we will find a spot on the shore of one of these lakes to nest for a longer time, watching the sun set and listening to the loons singing their amazing song. Until then the journey will continue. There’s still a lot to see.