Back in Town and Other Identity Crises

One of my favorite aspects of language is the difference between denotation and connotation.  Denotation is what a word means–the dictionary definition of a word.  Connotation is how a word feels–the emotion we as human beings have infused the word with, for whatever reason.  The most common example of this, the way your high school English teacher (ahem) may have put it goes as follows: “slim” and “scrawny” are synonyms and mean an absence of fat.  That’s the denotative definition.  No one can argue with that.  The connotation of those two words, though, therein lies the argument and therein is where things get complicated.  You call someone “slim” and you think athletic, slender, in-shape–Michael freaking Phelps.  You call someone “scrawny” you think bony, weak, Peter-Parker-pre-spider-bite.  “Slim” has the positive connotation, “scrawny” the negative.

With that in mind, definitely one of the most loaded phrases of adult life consists of three simple words: “Back in town.”  The denotation of “back in town” is quite simple: you have left, you have returned.  But the connotation of this phrase is very different.  To some (usually the person saying it) you’re saying that you’re coming back to a place where you’ve felt comfortable, you’ll be here for a short while, etc.  But to the person who lives said “town” the phrase’s connotation is one pure condescension.  

I’ve been at both ends of this spectrum.  Post-college, I came “back in town” and the phrase became moot because “back” quickly transmogrified into “staying.”  For three years of my prime post-college, pre-everyone-getting-married life, I lived in the suburbs of Los Angeles, with my parents, in a sort of malaise that was rivaled only by the protagonists of Judd Apatow movies (but even those guys had their own apartments).  Thankfully, this was when the economy decided to implode in an engulfing haze of crestfallen stockbrokers and shattered middle class dreams, so almost all of my high school graduating class were subjected to the same fate.  Back we went: to our childhood homes, childhood bedrooms, childhood friends.  No connotation needed: it just sort of sucked.

(Please note: so I don’t come across as a complete tool, I would like add that we were all incredibly grateful that we had loving and supportive parents who didn’t tell us to hit the bricks and other less-than-pleasant euphemisms for “grow up”.  We were allowed to weather the worst of the storm in veritable safe havens.  Love you, Mom and Dad, and thanks!  Check’s in the mail, I swear!)

Now that I have left town and can conceivably go back to it, the phrase “back in town” has entered my lexicon in a new way.  These past few months, I’ve been lucky enough to go back to town and stay for a while.  And despite the inherent condescension of the phrase, it was great to be back.  I get that a lot of people in their college years and 20s have disdain for “their town”.  After all, it was the backdrop of high school heartache, the place where you lost friends, got rejected, beat up, ignored, and all the usual events that fuel some healthy bouts of teenage angst.  It’s easy to look back and transpose all those emotions that you felt at that time onto a geographic location.  After all: by leaving town and all those people, you hope that you leave a little of yourself behind too and the magical new place you go to is a new opportunity.  You can completely reinvent yourself. 

Except for the fact that you don’t. Neil Gaiman put it best in his novel The Graveyard Book when he said: “Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.”

A very minor case in point: I stopped watching the TV show Buffy, The Vampire Slayer around season 5.  This was 2000-2001 so I was a high school freshman and despite the fact that I had been enthralled with seasons 1-4 of Buffy I saw the oncoming of the shoehorned-in-through-mystical-devices character Dawn (Buffy’s younger sister) as a jump-the-shark moment and bailed.  Cut to: first year of college.  I’m in San Francisco.  I have left “town” and now I’m in the proverbial big city.  But, following the premise laid out by Mr. Gaiman, wherever I went, I took myself with me.  So despite the fact that I was aware and planning for a Me 2.0 to emerge, I was never the “wild and crazy” kid in high school so I wasn’t going to be the “wild and crazy” kid in college.  Instead of the standard sex and drugs route, Me 2.0 decided he was going to fall into a different sort of trap: douchey pretensions.

I listened to Bright Eyes.  I read Spin Magazine.  I talked about buying a typewriter.  I watched “art house” David Lynch short films.  I was in college, dammit, and that meant something.

I honestly couldn’t say how long my douchey pretentiousness lasted and I could argue that it never really went away: I still love David Lynch and I listen to Bright Eyes.  Thankfully, I never bought a typewriter, because I’m not an idiot (attention, hipsters: marvel at my ability to use a backspace key!).  But, it wasn’t long until the high school freshman crept back up and suddenly I was buying on DVD and re-watching every single episode of Buffy and then Angel and then Firefly and then Dr. Horrible.

So, there came a point in college when I was back in town, with my older brother.  We did one of the few things you can do in my town which is go to the fairly impressive multiplex.  I have no idea what movie we were going to see, but I do remember that my brother and I were waiting for something and we stood off the side of what is essentially a large outdoor courtyard of sorts and we both looked around at all the young high schoolers that flocked around us.  We felt old, I think it’s fair to say.

As so often with people who feel old (but actually aren’t), the conversation turned to do-overs.  If you could go back and have a re-do of your high school years, would you?  To me, this is an incredibly and intensely fascinating question, mainly because of all the other questions it raises.

For example: if you go back, how much do you know?  Like, are you physically 16, but intellectually and psychologically the age you are right now?  Do hormones affect you like a 16-year-old experiencing them for the first time or are you as dulled to it as you are right now?  Are you able to tell people the future?  If you are, at that point, why wouldn’t you convince your parents to liquidate your everything they own and invest the cash in something that will pay dividends later?  Do you get to steal the ideas of all the music, movies, stories that you know are coming down the pipeline?  I mean, are you really going back just get a date with the head cheerleader?  That seems kind of stupid.

So, my answer to re-living a day is a resounding: “No thank you.”  Because first of all: just because you know the future, no one else does.  That seems really annoying.  Seriously, imagine knowing the ending to every movie for the next 5 years.  You would have no shared pop culture experiences.  You’d be that annoying guy who was into it before everyone else was and, hey, good for you, but nothing will ever surprise you.  And just because you know that the head cheerleader will end up pregnant by the time she’s 19, doesn’t mean she’ll change her actions because the weirdly world-weary 16-year-old warns her against the decisions she’s making.  That’s not how people work.

There’s a romanticism to going back or at least there’s a romantic aspect to thinking that you could change something about reliving one day.  I think there’s a futility to it all and there should be because you are who you are because of those choices.  Unless you’re dead or in prison, you’re choices were probably not that bad.  Sure, you may have wanted to date the head cheerleader, but then you would never know what it was like to pine from afar and you wouldn’t had the opportunity to meet anybody new and be surprised.

So that day that my brother and I stood in front of the multiplex and talked about do-overs, that’s all a part of it.  We were back in town and It was the ubiquitous presence of those mistakes or regrets that fueled us to leave town in the first place.  And it was our maturity and knocks we received elsewhere that allows to re-appreciate the town we came from.

It is denotation and connotation: what things actually mean and what things are perceived to mean.  The definition of a do-over is a chance to do things again and the general perception that you’d do things better and maybe you would, if you did things perfectly.  But chances are, you’d mess up about 13 other things, things you hadn’t thought of, and then you’d be right back where you started.  This might seem like a depressing thought, but it’s not because what I’m actually saying is: congratulations, you did things right the first time.

Now, stop worrying about it.

This essay was inspired by Prompt 343 from this book: Imagine that you could go back and live one day differently.  What day would you choose and what would you change?

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