The Complicated Feelings of Hometowns

I have a memory of visiting my sister when she attended Iowa State University, located in Ames. It was the summer of 1996, not exactly sure of when, but likely before my 9th birthday in August. My mother and I went, my dad opting to stay at home. Again, I’m not sure of why, if this was when he started his new job after a stretch of unemployment. Much of the details of my childhood are blurry but the unique and novel things remain in focus.

Ames is a quaint college town. The campus was sprawling and gorgeous but it was the day spent in town that’s stuck with me. The short brick buildings, boutique shops, and a one or two screen theater with a large marquee hanging out over the wider-than-I’ve-known sidewalk. After taking in a screening of the Citizen Kane of clone films, Multiplicity, we stopped at a Dairy Queen.

I’m not sure what happens when you cross the Mississippi River from Illinois to Iowa, but I wouldn’t have thought that there’s much difference when it comes to national chains, even at that young an age. What I recall was that I wanted to order a medium size Blizzard but then was corrected by my sister that a “medium isn’t a medium.” Turns out, our medium is their small and should I order an Iowa medium, I’d get the Illinois large. After a brief moment of confusion, I agreed to the concession of soft-serve semantics and took the Iowa medium. It was like that scene in Seinfeld when Elaine’s arguing about the available popcorn sizes. All of this is likely moot these days as you can now get popcorn by the vessel. I’m sure, too, that all Dairy Queens have uniform sizing, especially as we’ve changed up what constitutes small, medium, and large

This experience was as startling as it was exciting. Was I really getting more Blizzard for the dollar? I don’t know. I could do the math but I’m not getting paid to write these, and I only do math when I’m getting paid. It felt strange but since Iowa is still in the United States, I accepted this as just what was considered normal for these parts. If I were to walk to my local DQ (which was and still is a brisk 10 minute walk from my parents’ house) and get a medium Blizzard, would I feel like I’m being shorted? That I’m paying the same for less than what I could get in Iowa? No, probably not because I was a child and I had no real concept of commerce beyond what that money can be exchanged for goods and services.

This brings to mind an episode of King of the Hill; season 3’s “Hank’s Cowboy Movie.” It kicks off with Hank and Bobby attending the Dallas Cowboys’ training camp up in Wichita Falls, which is a real place and really was the home of the Cowboys’ training camp. It’s also home to the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame and is not far from Burkburnett, which is referenced in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. I just think that’s a neat little piece of trivia. Also, that’s just how my brain works in regards to making associations between works of fiction. After marveling at the Cowboys’ practice, they stop at a Dairy Queen, too, where Bobby is wowed by the server’s flip of his treat before handing it over. That razzmatazz delights Bobby and opens his eyes to the world beyond Arlen.

He comments on how small and plain Arlen feels in comparison to this “exciting” town. Hank’s concerns are compounded after a disastrous detour visit to an establishment that proclaims to be the official propane seller of the Dallas Cowboys (which, okay). It’s revealed that the proprietors don’t give a spit about the Cowboys and profess their love for the Oklahoma Sooners. This betrayal alarms Hank and he ushers himself and Bobby out all the while singing the Cowboys’ fight song at the top of his lungs to combat the rally cries of the Sooners’ fans.

The return to Arlen brings relief to Hank, but Bobby is still reveling in the charm of Wichita Falls. Hank worries that Bobby will come to despise Arlen, so he hatches a scheme to lure the Cowboys to Arlen for training camp. He of course gets everyone in his inner circle to pitch in for the film, but as expected, the whole plan goes sideways before imploding in a great ball of flaming hubris. In the end, the Cowboys politely decline Hank’s offer and Bobby assures his dad that he has no intentions of leaving Arlen now, nor would he ever feel differently than Hank about it. 

When I reflect on being that age, going on trips to other towns that appear to have a different way of life than your own, I get why Bobby feels the way he does. I never had much reverence for my hometown. It’s sandwiched between more well-known towns. When people would ask where I’m from and I’d give the name, they’d go “Where?” and I’d have to follow up with “Oh, it’s next to this town” and then they’d nod. “Oh yeah, I know that town.” It’s not like I’m out in the sticks. I’m about 40 miles west of Chicago, a part of the northwest suburbs. But there wasn’t (and still isn’t) a whole lot to my hometown.

You’re allowed to have a complicated relationship with where you’re from, even if it is probably a bit more exciting than others. Earlier this year, we hit the 20th anniversary of the release of Orange County, the film that featured Tom Hanks’ good son, Colin, and helped solidify Jack Black as a comedic force. The crux of the film is that Colin Hanks’ character feels restrained by the trappings of his life in The OC. He’s a Holden Caufield type but not a deluded asshole. He has aspirations of being the next great novelist of his generation, but he feels like he’s drifting by unsung. Everyone else around him is stunted in some form and he worries that his genius will simply be eroded by the waves of ennui and dysfunction that crash upon his shore.

It’s a fun film that examines in a simple way that there’s a universality to feeling like you can’t grow if you never leave your hometown. My favorite podcast, Thirty Twenty Ten covered this film on its anniversary and stated plainly Hanks’ plight: that he is looking for a “geographical solution to a psychological problem.” 

That’s really it, isn’t it? The grass is always greener on the other side, but also being where the grass is greener will magically fix all of our problems? Feeling lost and confused is just a consequence of location, nothing else. That’s Hanks’ stance. His divorced parents brought him up in a world of affluence, where he could have been granted everything he ever wanted, but despite that, he feels disconnected from everything. He doesn’t belong here because he sees these concessions of wealth as distractions or obstacles. Everyone else is vapid and can’t see the forest for the trees, nor the forest fire because they’re too busy breaking out into spontaneous choreographed dance sequences. Truly, a situation everyone has run into from time to time.

The reality is that when you have experienced all that there is to offer where you live, the allure of “not here” is pretty powerful. Yet, it won’t fix a damn thing because guess what, problems aren’t exactly tethered in place. The journey that Hanks takes shows him that while he’s willing to risk safety and security to escape, the scenery is no different than back home. After encountering similar groups of people that are no deeper (to him) than a puddle, he becomes disillusioned and questions his efforts to flee.

I had a similar experience in my early twenties. I was going through an incredibly trying time, psychologically, and I was struggling with those emotions. As a means of escape, I moved out of my parents’ house and lived on my own for a year while working a job that began to take its toll on the last of my humanity. I still struggled because even though I put physical distance between myself and my problems, they followed me anyway. Houses aren’t haunted; people are. I made an association with a place as the root of my troubles but I neglected to address the fact that they were rooted in me. I fell into a dark place and even though I eventually got myself out, in some ways it was a rock-bottom moment that I still regret ever allowing to happen. I’ve forgiven myself 10 years later, but I think about how foolishly and impulsively I acted at the time.

A chance meeting with his author idol (a brilliant cameo appearance by Kevin Kline) helps him sort out his thoughts and what it is he’s really after as not just a novelist, but as a human. Hanks reaches the conclusion that he can still achieve greatness while rooted in Orange County and that he’ll still have time to take that journey away.

If I had given myself the time to reflect deeply on my problems and look inward as to what was causing me pain, I would have realized then that moving was not the solution. The ol’ “If you could talk to your past self” thing reveals more about the growth you’ve made then the problems you wish you never faced. Hindsight is 20/20 and nothing is clear until after you’ve wiped away the grime. Where I live isn’t a statement of who I am. Sure, I’ve never really left the comfort of the Chicagoland area, and remain the only one of my siblings, but it’s mostly because I like where I’m at. My friends are here, I’ve managed to establish myself independent of my location, there’s always something to do (when there isn’t a pandemic going on). I couldn’t think of where else I’d want to be and it’s not simply because anywhere else is better than here and will fix all my problems. It’s because I’ve learned to be content with myself and knowing that wherever I may go, it’s because that’s where the next chapter in my life’s history will begin.

Misplaced Thoughts

Growing up in the shadow of Chicago, it was never lost on me how special a place it was, especially in pop culture. I took pride in shows like Roseanne and Married…With Children showcasing life in this part of the country, even if it wasn’t exactly where I lived or was filmed in the area.

The lives of the Bundys were too absurd at times to be totally relatable, but that of the Conners hit home. They lived in the fictional town of Lanford, which was meant to be somewhere between Aurora and Elgin, two towns not all that far from where I grew up. When they’d name drop other Illinois cities I recognized like Rockford, my eyes lit up. “Wow… Rockford! I know that one!” What also struck a chord with me was how their struggles as a lower-middle class family reflected those of mine. My dad was unemployed for a stretch when I was a kid and my ma was the primary source of income. While we got by, I can look back on my childhood and realize just how slim the margin was between getting by and falling under.

So, while I could think that my own town was nothing special, it was still cool to watch a show that name-dropped other towns I knew.

One thing that brought things into focus for me was when a friend of mine came to visit for my 25th birthday. He’s from the east coast but we had first met in college. This was his first time back in the area since 2007 and he kept commenting on how cool my neighborhood looked. I was a little surprised because to me, this wasn’t any different than most neighborhoods in the area. Though, to him, it was beautiful. He was impressed by the number of trees that lined the lawns. I guess that where he lives, this isn’t the norm. For me, this was the flipside of the experiences I’ve had when visiting other places. I was now the local staring blankly at the out-of-towner who was somehow enthralled with the ordinary. It didn’t really change anything in me then, but that moment has stuck with me and I like to think that it did influence my later moving decisions to stick around this area.