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Adventures in Istanbul: Day 5

My last full day in Istanbul it rained. Not gentle summer droplets that cover the grass in National Geographic dew, but an all out assault on the pavement, alley cats, and umbrellas. The kind I’d been warned about in the opening pages of The Bastard of Istanbul, the eBook I’d read one chapter of on the plane. The sort of rain Californians have been praying for. Sigh.

I watched the clouds dump from the dining room. As long as it was warm outside, I didn’t really mind. Besides, my schedule was light – Dolmabache Palace, a hamam, and dinner with Andrew. I could have added a dozen more activities to my plate, but I felt about the same as the weather: pretty shitty. Apparently 12 hour days on one’s feet are not a prescription for Hungarian flu.

The commute to Dolmabache proved trying. Not because it was difficult to navigate (eight stops on a single train), but because the rain forced half of the city onto the subway. Which caused it to smell. HORRIBLY. I know people complain about Frenchmen, but let me tell you, Turkish men really take the cake. And by cake I mean cowpie. This ride was rank. I tried burying my nose in my sweater, but all this provided was comic relief for the local girls next to me. I am nothing if not transparent.

However, the rain did afford one major tourist advantage – no ticket line at Dolmabache. I’d heard horror stories of waiting over an hour, but I breezed right in through the insanely ostentatious gates. And like some sort of royal miracle, the clouds broke as soon as I did. Happy Sunday!

I wandered around the grounds for a bit, snapping photos of the fountain and palace with mouth agape. Whenever I see exorbitant displays of wealth like this, I can’t help but wonder how many people died during its construction. Less than the Pyramids, more than Little Hagia Sofia, I surmised.

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Satisfied with my iPhone shots, I ascended the stairs for the tour.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” an adorable blond girl apologized for almost bumping into me.

“You’re totally fine,” I smiled, then took the opportunity to interrupt her conversation with her friend. “Where are you guys from?”

Presley, the blond, was from Canada, which explained her immense agreeability. Her friend Deema also hailed from Canada, but it was a bit more complicated.

“I’m from Syria originally, but I grew up in Saudi Arabia, then moved to Canada with my husband,” she explained.

“We can tell you that because you’re American, but it’s tricky here right now,” Presley said, giving me a knowing look. I felt instant sympathy for Deema. I wanted to ask her more questions about her feelings on the current situation, but I also didn’t want to be insensitive by prying.

“How long are you guys traveling?” I asked.

“Two weeks. We’re here with some of Nima’s family, then we head to Dubai. We’re staying with my friend’s family there,” Presley replied excitedly.

“Dubai?”

“I love Arab culture,” Presley said breezily, reading my mind. “I’m applying to jobs in Qatar.”

The tour started, but our conversation didn’t stop. I listened hungrily to Presley’s story, how she’d fallen in love with Arab culture after attending a school predominantly made up of Arabs and Somalians. I’d always been so appalled by the treatment of women in many Middle Eastern countries, particularly places like Pakistan and Iraq, that I couldn’t comprehend a Western woman being drawn to it. But I held an open-mind and passed no judgment. They were both bright, friendly, warm-hearted women.

I learned more about Presley’s conversion to Islam as we walked through room after room of decadence. Multi-ton chandeliers, sitting rooms larger than my childhood home, gold everything. The Sultan clearly had wanted to slap Versailles in the face. (And the Turkish economy – according to Wikipedia, the construction cost over a billion dollars in today’s currency, about a quarter of the country’s yearly tax revenue.)

Multi-ton chandelier

Multi-ton chandelier

When we got to the Ceremonial Hall, all I could do was laugh. It was, in a word, absurd. Presley tried to take photos secretly, but was quickly reprimanded and forced to delete them from her phone. I just stared in disgusted awe. It took one percent to a whole new level.

My secret photo was not seized...

My secret photo was not seized…

We toured the harem after, and while not as impressive as the Sultan’s residence, his women still lived lavishly if not oppressively. I tried to withhold my aversion, but I couldn’t help shuddering at the thought of being sequestered for a man. How fortunate to have been born a woman in the 80s in the United States…

Back at the entrance, I invited Presley and Deema to come out with Andrew and me later. Our random gathering had worked so well the previous night, I wanted to continue in the more the merrier tradition. Presley and I exchanged information, and we parted ways.

For a moment I considered walking the three miles back to my hotel now that the rain had stopped. But after about ten feet my body reminded me that it was sick, so I hopped back on the train, sleeve over nose. The longer I stood there, the more I wanted chicken soup, 7-Up and my mom.

I settled for mint tea and my hard hotel bed. I fell asleep almost immediately, and woke up nearly two hours later, giving me ten minutes to get ready for my hamam. Should I cancel it? I wondered. At 85 Euros, it was my biggest splurge on any activity of the trip, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to drop that cash if I couldn’t enjoy it… But how many opportunities would I have to visit a 500-year-old Turkish bath? And wasn’t hot water and steam exactly what I needed?

I got to the Ayasofia Hurrem Sultan Hamami right at 4. I’d chosen it after reading endless reviews comparing the types of hamams offered in the city: modern vs. traditional, functional vs. extravagant, budget vs. not-budget. Rather uncharacteristically, I’d opted for one of the most expensive bathhouses in the area, mostly because it was a sure bet. I usually go for the deal, but when cleanliness is a factor, I don’t want to cut corners.

And thank Allah I didn’t. The famous mosque’s hamam far exceeded my expectations. In fact, it was my favorite thing I did in Istanbul. Sensual, peaceful, restorative, it transported me to a whole different plane of being.

The experience began in the beautiful vaulted reception, where a large, maternal woman escorted me to a wooden changing room. She handed me a disposable thong, towel, lilac shower shoes, and a comb. I stripped down to nothing, slipped on the thong, and wrapped myself in the towel.

I waited on one of the cushioned benches in the reception, and a few minutes later a thin, young Turkish woman with a soft smile came and took my hand. She seemed to me a sort of angel, guiding me into a spiritual realm.

In the bath, afternoon sunlight flooded down from the top of the dome, bouncing off the white walls through the steam and infusing the space with an ethereal quality. It was surprisingly empty, with only a single girl, no more than eight years old, being rubbed down by an older woman.

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My attendant led me past them into the main room and up onto an elevated marble cubicle. She smiled sweetly as I wobbled on the wet stone, gripping my hand as if to say “don’t worry, I’ve got you.” Once situated, she disrobed me and sat me down next to a golden basin. She turned it on and began pouring hot water over me with a metal bowl. My body immediately surrendered to the heavenly liquid. Sometimes I forget the magic of water.

After a little while, she handed the bowl to me and indicated I should continue bathing myself. She left me to this, then returned a few minutes later, to take me to the next stage: the actual cleansing.

In my research, I’d read about people having their skin rubbed raw in hamams, new skin sloughing off alongside the dead. I experienced the exact opposite. My attendant firmly but carefully scrubbed at my limbs, under my arms, along my thigh.

At first I kept my eyes closed, flashing back to childhood baths with my brother. When was the last time I’d been bathed by another person? Four years old? Five? I opened my eyes and looked at the girl rubbing my naked body. We hadn’t spoken a single word, and yet I felt a profound connection with her. The intimacy of this moment will never leave me.

Once my skin had been turned into butter, we made our way onto the central marble platform for the final part of my treatment: the bubble bath massage. I am not exaggerating when I say this was one of the most incredible sensations I’ve ever felt. The scent of jasmine, the gentle weight of the bubbles, the press of her hands, the hypnotic echo of the soft murmurs unable to escape the dome. I had jumped into another dimension, or perhaps back to my mother’s womb. Time, space – nothing seemed to exist in this embryonic state.

And then it was over. My attendant took me back into the reception, where tea and Turkish delights greeted me. Never had anything tasted so sweet. It was like an infant being given ice cream for the first time.

“Thank you for this gift,” I heard a woman close to me graciously tell her attendant. I smiled. What a gift indeed.

Rejuvenated, I floated back to my hotel and got ready for my dinner with Andrew. We met at the train stop near his place, and walked to a neighborhood restaurant he’d been wanting to try – Naïf. Presley messaged me she would join us for a drink later.

Once again, Andrew did not lead me astray. I let him do all of the ordering, then relished in the shared plates of octopus, homemade pasta, and zucchini fritters. Sauvignon Blanc flowed, and so did the conversation. I learned about his Turkish girlfriend who was currently living in Paris, his passion for food, and the time he slept in a car in a garage that did not belong to his friend in Australia.

“’What are you doing, mate?’” Andrew reenacted the neighbor’s surprise. “’What are you doing in my car?’”

The drunken escapade had a happy ending – the man gave him a ride to his friend’s place – but we both agreed we’d entered a new phase in our life, one that no longer contained space for such wild, (un)memorable nights. Oh, the virtues of growing up.

But that didn’t mean we couldn’t go enjoy a cocktail on a rooftop overlooking the city. Presley met us at the restaurant, and we made our way up winding streets to Balkon.

The bar was incredible. Sure, the drinks were awful (Presley’s dirty martini contained neither olives nor vodka and my sauv blanc tasted like it’d been fermented in my grandmother’s closet), but the view was spectacular.* The first twenty minutes, I hardly said a word – I just stared at the blood orange crescent moon hanging right over Suleymanye. How could this even exist? For the second time that day, I had entered another realm.

The arrival of Toby, Andrew’s journalist friend, brought me back to the rooftop (along with a resident stray cat – so cute!!). Toby had lived in Istanbul off and on for a decade, working for the UN, and was currently staying at Andrew’s for a month.

“And how do you guys know each other?” he asked, swigging from a pint.

“Well, I met Andrew last night at dinner through our mutual friend, and Presley this morning at Dolmabache Palace.”

Toby stared at us in disbelief, then started laughing. “That is…”

Random? Synchronistic? Awesome?

“What happens when you travel,” I smiled.

“Touche.”

Although guarded at first, by the end of the evening Toby was part of my traveling crew. We laughed, we cried, we braved the grungy after-hours streets together. As we walked Presley to her hotel off Taksim Square, he slung his arm around me like an older brother.

“You know, you’re alright, Amy. You’re really cool. I hope we can be friends,” he said, his accent thick with beer. “Can we be actual friends?”

“Of course,” I grinned. “I’ll add you on Facebook as soon as I get home.”

We dropped Presley off, and then walked the mile back to Andrew’s, where the boys knew of a reliable taxi service. (If that sentence concerns you, trust me, I was concerned too.) Toby spoke to a driver in Turkish, and arranged my safe return home. I hugged them both goodbye, and got into the cab.

As we sped through the empty streets, I thought about all of the wonderful, diverse people I’d met over the last eleven days in Budapest and Istanbul. Steve, Heather, Brandon, Leifennie, Ren, Toby… Could we be actual friends?

The reality was, I probably wouldn’t see most of them again. There was a chance our paths would cross, like the Ketchup customers I had lunch with in Paris, or the friend I hadn’t seen since middle school in Phnom Penh. But most likely, this would be the extent of our time shared together. And while this made me cry in the taxi that night, I knew that there was a certain beauty to it. Because the point was not whether we would see each other down the road, but that we had met on it at all. What a gift.

*I didn’t take a photo of it because my iPhone would never have done it justice. Sorry Apple, I still love you!

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Budapest, that Hidden Treasure Chest

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When a friend is working in a foreign country and invites you to stay at his or her place, the answer should always be yes. And not just because of the free lodging, although the savings incurred from this are indeed sizable and massively appreciated. No, the reason you should say “Absolutely, I’m booking my flight as we speak over FaceTime,”* is the opportunity to experience the exotic land as a local. Case in point, my trip to Budapest.

Until a few months ago, I knew very little about Hungary, except that it was somewhere in Europe (where precisely I couldn’t have told you – my geography aptitude is regrettably American.) If you had asked me where I wanted to travel this summer, Hungary wouldn’t have made the Top 10. Probably not even the Top 40. But thanks to one of my best friends Ally, it catapulted to number one like a catchy single by an obscure artist that becomes the summer’s anthem (yes, I’m clearly talking about George Ezra’s “Budapest”.)

For Ally, the move to Budapest happened quite suddenly. One March morning we were hiking in Griffith Park, discussing Tinder dates and script ideas, the next she was subletting her apartment, packing her bags, and informing said dates that things were over before they began. This is how it goes down in the entertainment industry, like Spinks against Tyson.

“You should come visit me while-”

“I’m there,” I finished her sentence. I’d been looking for an excuse to head to Europe, especially since I’d be just a hop and a skip away in New York, and so I began planning my getaway. When I found a flight for under a grand, I booked it before I could blink.**

After securing my ticket to Budapest, I did the next reasonable thing any world traveler does- I consulted Google. Where is this city? What are it’s top sites? What kind of foods do they eat? What language do they speak? (Answers: near Austria, lots of beautiful buildings, primarily goulash and meat, and Hungarian, a language so difficult for me to comprehend that I couldn’t even pronounce “thank you.”)

I invested in a few guidebooks (ebooks from the library) and devoted a couple of hours to Wikipedia, but in the end, all I really needed to get the most out of the city was curiosity, the word “yes,” and of course, Ally.

She picked me up from the airport at 9am, and we hugged deliriously. Neither of us had slept – she thanks to night shoots, me due to the sardine tin quarters of the previous 10 hours – so the first order of business was a nap. I passed out immediately, the last time I would fall asleep with such ease for the remainder of my trip. Damn jet lag.

That first night I was on my own. Ally had another night shoot, so I figured I would just stroll around a bit, grab dinner at the nearby Greek restaurant she recommended, and call it an early evening. What a quaint notion.

After ascending the citadel and taking in sweeping views of the city, I sat down at Taverna just as the pink sun began to set. So far so quaint. But that’s where my original plan ended. Because within 20 minutes of eating alone, soaking up the waves of the Danube, the steaming hot cheese of my mousakas, and the variety of accents of the English speakers next to me, I couldn’t help but intervene.

“Should we order another bottle of one wine?” The handsome Brit asked his mates. There was a pause.

“The answer is always yes,” I replied. They laughed, ordered another bottle of wine, and we proceeded to chat and drink.

And chat and drink, and chat and drink some more. They were ex-pats living in Amsterdam, and had all been to Budapest before. In fact, the female of the fearsome foursome hailed from the city – and so I got to experience the nightlife like, well, a local. From hanging out at the bustling park, to taking a quick tequila shot at Godzu Square, to a ruins pub and then a bar covered in hanging paper serving great buckets of shelled peanuts, I received a healthy welcome.

It didn’t stop there. While I didn’t see the ex-pats again, I was quickly ingratiated into another wonderful Budapest-savvy group: Ally’s work family. I met many of them over margaritas at Iguana, a favorite Mexican gathering spot, before getting really up close and personal at Sziget, a week-long summer music festival.

Grinning, sweating, fist-pumping, selfie-taking– there is nothing like the crowd at an EDM show to remind you that at the heart of it, we humans are all the same. I’d been to another festival, Mad Decent Block Party on Coney Island, the weekend before, and while the languages swirling around me may have been different, the insanely positive energy was not. Long live music, that universal connector.

Over the next few days, Ally took me around the city, showing me hip restaurants, peaceful parks, and her go-to spa ($20 for an hour-long massage!) I hung out with stunt guys, writers, producers, and effects people from Canada, Hungary, Australia, Serbia, and LA. Yes, I hit all of the major sightseeing areas- the National Gallery, the Opera house, Hero’s Square, St. Stephens Basilica, Fisherman’s Bastion – but mostly I just enjoyed being out and about with Ally and her friends. Through them, I got to experience Budapest in a way no tour guide ever could have shown me. And those ended up being the most memorable moments: running through the pouring rain from one social gathering to the next, belting “I Want It That Way” at an underground karaoke bar, laughing and crying over the atrocious service, nursing our festival hangovers at a big group brunch in a beautiful vaulted Jewish restaurant. I loved it all.

“So, you’re coming with us to Malaysia next, right?” One of the Australian stunt guys asked on my last night out in the city. The Southeast Asian country was the production’s final three month destination.

“Well, the answer to that is…” I laughed, trailing off. “Probably not.”

But only because I’d already said yes to another invitation- a wedding in Australia. See ya in December, mates!!

*One of the best features of iPhones- free iMessages and FaceTime calls over wifi, anywhere in the world. Don’t tell your grandparents, it’ll legitimately blow their minds.

**Not blinking is an important skill for nabbing the best airline fares. The number of times I’ve hesitated before clicking “buy tickets” only to be greeted with “no longer available” is staggering.

Crying It Out

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Last night as I was closing the curtains and turning out the light in my bedroom, I received a text from a girlfriend. “R U out of class yet?” I deliberated for a moment if I should respond, the heaviness of my limbs encouraging me to wait until morning, the middle school grammar begging me to flip the phone over. “Yup, crawling in bed.” My fingers hit the keys almost automatically, as if driven by some sort of external Mischievous Spirit of Texting. “: /” She responded. How could so much meaning be conveyed in two dots and a dash? I wondered as I obligatorily sent her that all-probing ubiquitous 21st century question: “What’s up?” I watched the three dots, my eyelids half mast. “Can I call u for like 2 mins while u lie in bed lol.” I groaned. Why did I have to even respond in the first place? Why can’t I ever just leave conversations dangling? “Nooo, lol, I am sooo tired, I’ll call you in am.”* I extended my arm to place the phone on the nightstand and then stopped, the : / staring me down. For some reason I couldn’t shake those beady eyes, that slanted mouth. “Unless it’s important. Obviously if you are upset over something I’m here.” The phone instantly rang.

*     *     *     *     *     *

I’m one of those people who has always relied on others when I’m feeling like shit. That’s not to say that every time I break into tears I reach for the nearest set of open arms (although it’d be awesome to see the reaction of say, the stranger sitting next to me in 12 Years a Slave when I draped my sobbing being in their lap), but I do enlist my closest friends or my mom when I’m having a dark day or night of the soul.** I’ll usually make it through about 5-10 minutes of soul-contorting pain before breaking down and reaching for the phone. After all, misery does love company.

In some ways, my tendency to immediately seek out the comfort of others makes me feel weak. Sure, it was fine to tearfully call up my friends in middle school when Charlie didn’t pass back the note in math class, but I’m 28 years old now, a grown woman. I shouldn’t need to consult my girlfriends every time things aren’t going perfectly with a new guy, or I’m feeling unsure about my career, or I’m upset over being stuck on a blog post. I mean, I’m mature enough to handle my own feelings, to learn from my mistakes, to reflect in the solitude of my own mind. Aren’t I?

Well, yes and no. There is a time and place for self-introspection, for journaling and working through one’s feelings alone, and then there is a time to lean on others. The challenge is being able to recognize which method of coping the situation calls for. Not hearing back for several hours from a text message you sent to a guy you like, no matter how anxiety-producing and nerve-grinding, does not warrant a conference call with your female support group. This is not only a waste of their time, but will leave you feeling utterly pathetic when he responds 20 minutes after said call apologizing for the delay in his response because he was having lunch with his dying grandmother. Trust me, it’s better to just distract yourself with any number of wonderful activities – knitting, learning French, skydiving, actually hanging out with your girlfriends and talking about politics or philosophy or the fashion comeback of the crop top – then to destroy yourself over some dangling text message conversation. (Now, if the next text he sends is “I want to break up with you,” then you can make the call.)

On the other hand, there are occasions when you should absolutely reach out and seek advice and comfort. Last year when I was dealing with an emotionally abusive relationship, I could not have made it through without the support of my loved ones. The night I finally broke free of that damaging situation I spent all day talking with my mom and two best friends, garnering the courage I needed. I’d been struggling for a couple of months to get out of it on my own, but it wasn’t until I really reached out that I was able to do so. Some things are just too large to be contained in a single vessel. Sometimes, you just really need that shoulder to cry on.

*     *     *     *     *     *

I answered the call immediately. She had been there for me over the last couple of weeks as I had been trying to make sense of a relationship, and I wanted to return the open arms and ears. Her voice was weak and watery, and any annoyance I had felt over the postponement of my bedtime quickly evaporated. For the next 45 minutes, she poured out her fears, her pain, her loneliness, her insecurities. I listened and responded as best I could, wanting to make sure she felt seen and heard but also trying to provide guidance. As we talked it out, I became more and more acutely aware of a certain symbiosis that was occurring. I recognized so much of myself in her, and through this process of sharing I could feel us both obtaining a clearer picture of ourselves. Just as a piece of art can deepen one’s understanding of the world, so too was this crying out of the soul helping both of us better grasp our own humanity.

The conversation finally began to wind down close to 1 o’clock. “Thanks for talking me off the ledge there,” she said, her voice stronger, regaining vitality. “Of course, that’s what friends are for,” I replied, grateful for the trust she had put in me. “Okay, you sound tired, I’m letting you go to bed now. Sorry that was longer than two minutes.” We shared a laugh and hung up. I rolled over and squeezed the teddy bear I’d had since birth, saying a silent thank you to all of the people who’d helped me through my own dark nights.

 

*I’m perfectly capable of using shorthand and butchering the English language when others do it with me, but the day I substitute “u” for “you” is the day I stop calling myself a writer.

** The woman in front of me during a screening of this film handed me back tissues and asked if I was okay. I probably could have hugged her.

Portland: Now and Then and Later

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When I left Portland ten years, two months, and twenty four days ago, I could have cared less if I ever returned. I mean that rhetorically, because my parents still lived in the city of roses and I had just booked a film which I would be returning to shoot only a couple of weeks later, but regardless, I flew down the I5 like a bat out of grey-clouded hell. I was so ready for my new life as an actress and college student to begin in LA that I literally left the day after I graduated from Lincoln High School. I had had enough rain and green and clean air for one lifetime. Bring on the glittery smog and the land where stars are in the street instead of the sky!

It wasn’t so much that I wanted to escape my childhood – I had been very happy in my single digit and teen years – but rather that there was so much else I wanted to do. I had experienced the Great Outdoors, grown tired of seeing the same buildings while riding Trimet, gotten bored of doing the same bridge runs, drinking the same awesome coffee, smelling all those damn flowers and pine trees. There were 49 other states, 196 odd countries, 7 billion more people beyond the perimeter of my hometown. I had big dreams, Huge Dreams, and they did not include a minute longer in worn-out, thread-bare Portland. The city had reached its expiration date in The Book of Amy, and I was beyond thrilled to begin Chapter 2: Los Angeles.* No looking back, no strings attached.

You can imagine my surprise, then, when I started packing last Wednesday for Portland and felt genuine, schoolgirl-esque excitement. It had been five years since my parents had moved down to Rancho Mirage, California, and consequently five years since I had returned to Oregon. I had scarcely even thought about my hometown over the past decade, except when people asked me where I’d grown up (and of course when Portlandia debuted on IFC.) But over the last few months, Portland had been on my mind more and more, mostly as a result of all the reflecting I was doing while writing.

In following Rilke’s advice, I had been probing my childhood, “that jewel beyond all price,” while stuck in Writer’s Block Prison, and spent hours digging up memories from the past, flipping back the pages and mining the text of my life for further meaning. I had stumbled on people from high school, my childhood best friend, my grandfather, moments with my mom and dad, flashes of joy and pain and juvenile angst. I had unearthed an early sexual experience with repercussions I had previously left undefined, and struggled to see those long gone years through a more highly developed lens. The clincher was reading Niall Williams’ exquisite History of the Rain, a meandering novel narrated by the fictional Ruth Swain chronicling her family history in another water-logged part of the world: Ireland. I suddenly felt desperate to return to my rainy roots and see it the way Ruth saw her small town Faha, with humor and insight and poetry. I had to get back to Portland. I got online and booked a flight.

* * * * *

It’s a weird feeling, being a stranger in the city you grew up in. In some ways I was prepared for it – after all, I knew how much I’d changed. I’m a true California girl now, an honorary LA native having achieved my ten year (terrible pun). But what I wasn’t prepared for was how much Portland had changed. I shouldn’t have been surprised, having read and heard about the city’s thriving culture, yet I was. That first evening out on the East Side, driving alone on the way to meet my brother, I felt a rush of emotion: these were the same streets as my youth, but they felt so different. Burnside was peppered with new restaurants and bars, filled with throngs of 20 something hipsters enjoying craft brews and adventurous bites. I’d run up and down this street hundreds of time and never remembered it being this… cool. I felt a sudden fondness for my hometown, but also a disconnect. As I tasted IPAs at a local brewery less than a mile from the house I’d lived in during high school, I felt like a tourist. I was a tourist.

Over the next several days, I experienced a bizarre combination of nostalgia and novelty. From the runs I took to the places I ate to the people I saw, everything reflected this dichotomy of old and new. I’d never been in Gabriel Park before, and that first morning run the ground felt alive and the forest enchanted as I wound my way through literal backyard trails. A couple of days later I ventured down to the Waterfront to cover old cross country ground, and my mind flooded with memories with each pedestrian bridge lane, each piece of street art, OMSI. I made my way up to my high school, and the building – empty for summer – came alive with my old classmates. There was Lydia, running across the quad at the end of freshman year, Lauren and Stephanie with their Boyd’s coffee cups in the crosswalk, the quarterback I unfortunately had a thing for in his letterman jacket. It felt surreal, another lifetime ago, like I may have dreamt it. But no, there was the statue of Lincoln on the second floor, there were the dressing rooms where I transformed for my theatrical debut, there was Matt Groening’s sidewalk carving of Bart Simpson I hadn’t made up. It was real. It had happened.

Or maybe it hadn’t. Eating lunch over in NE Portland on Williams there was almost no trace of the past. Gentrification had rendered the once impoverished and dangerous neighborhood trendy and fashionable. The process was so complete that there was even a New Seasons welcoming baby-toting yuppies. Were it not for the 4 bus rambling along the street I may not have believed that this was the same highly suspect route I used to take home from school everyday. But it was, and if the meal we had at Tasty & Sons was any indication of the quality of the new no-longer-ghetto hood, I was 100% on board. Let bygones be bygones. (On the other hand, not a single thing has changed since 1969 at The Stockpot Broiler, my grandmother’s go-to restaurant, not even the clientele.)

Meetings with old friends and family dug up even more of the past, while also illuminating just how different our lives now were. Mikie and I reminisced about Monopoly and Now & Laters and camping at Bench Lake, while I oohed and awed over her two beautiful daughters. Sarah and Ashley and I gossiped about senior year boyfriends, while marveling at how much we had all been through, how little we knew of our current selves. Hanging out with my brother and his friends, I hardly recognized him, and yet I’d spent more of my life in his company than anyone else’s, save my parents.** Not even my grandmother, that stalwart of tradition, failed to surprise me, as we chatted with her 94 year old boyfriend. What a difference a decade makes! From the native to the tourist, the old paths to the new trails, the classic salmon to the Burmese Red Pork Stew, the infants to the nonagenarians- I relished in the blended realities of the past and present.

* * * * *

Driving down Sunset Blvd this morning past the 405 and UCLA, I thought about what I had learned. Had I had a Ruth Swainian, Rilke-like, earth-shattering realization about the meaning of my life after my five days in Portland? Probably not. But what I can say is I no longer feel the same sort of self-imposed distance from it that I did before. If I once needed to separate my identity from Portland to prove to myself that I was a Big City girl with Big Dreams and Big Ideas, I’ve grown out of it. I’m no more defined by Portland that it is defined by me. I’ve shed those old judgments and that adolescent perspective and can finally see the city for what it is: pretty frickin’ awesome. And weird. And green. And a formative part of me. And some place I’ll almost certainly never live again, but am sure to keep visiting (and seeing anew) again and again.***

* Or maybe it’s Chapter 3, since I was born in Everett. Or Chapter 4, because there were those couple years in Thailand. And then there was Seattle, so maybe Los Angeles is Chapter 5? But then again, it’s not like I changed that much there in the beginning, so– Ah, who knows, it could all change in the final edit.
** The good news is I like him a lot more now. The bad news is now I hardly ever see him.
*** I will live in Portland if Chris Pine wants me to. Or if I become a series regular on Grimm. Or if global warming reverses the 9 months of cloud coverage and 50 degree weather.

How to Get Mixy: Guidelines from the South of France

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What does it mean to be “mixy?” This is a question that I’ve been asked many times over the past several months- by friends, acquaintances, strangers, myself. When I decided to book the Mix of France this summer, a 5-night affair promising lots and lots of mixiness, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. A gathering of hand-crafted cocktail enthusiasts? An ethnically diverse blend of sunbathers? My go to response was “it’ll be Adult Spring Break.” The Cancun college tradition, only classier. Way classier. But this doesn’t even begin to encapsulate mixy. Because mixy is a state of being. It’s like the definition of cool, but cooler. It’s…mixy.

Hosting a 30th birthday party in Cannes with 77 friends, one hotel, and hundreds of bottles of rosé, Grey Goose and Moët et Chandon is mixy. This is how the incomparable Mike Basch chose to blow out his 20s, and it is only appropriate that he is the one who has spearheaded the Mixy Movement. According to him, “mix” is gathering together hip friends from different social circles around the world and allowing them to blend. The hotel serves as a sort of Petri dish where chemical reactions can occur, molecules combining and recombining, a science experiment in social anthropology. While this definition is not incorrect, it’s far too limiting, like defining love as people caring for one another. It needs further explanation. So what is mixy?

Mixy is pre-gaming for the Mix in another country. It’s dancing in Barcelona until 3am then hopping a flight the next morning with a raging hangover. It’s shooting a film in Paris, visiting friends in London, throwing an epic going away party with a hundred friends, staying out all night in New York, then jetsetting to Nice. It’s taking a helicopter into Cannes, sharing a luxury taxi with new friends, working through that hangover together. It’s also booking a last minute flight, deciding on Sunday that Friday you’ll be partying in the South of France. It’s doing whatever it takes to make sure you are part of the Mix.

Mixy is drinking a bottle of rosé at lunch the first day, and two bottles on the beach. It’s consuming more rosé in five days then most non-French will drink in their lives. It’s rosé at breakfast, it’s magnums of rosé at Nikki Beach, it’s rosé at dinner. It’s seeing the world through rosé colored glasses. You should try it sometime, it’s beautiful.

Mixy is partying for five days straight. And five nights. It’s dancing at baoli until 4am, then waking up to take a boat to St. Tropez. It’s 16 hours of dancing, from Nikki Beach to the tables of Brasserie des Arts to VIP. It’s boats of sushi, and more magnums of rosé, and perfectly cooked seabass and filet. It’s a woman in the bathroom line at dinner saying “I wish I were at your table, you guys look like you’re having the most amazing time.” And of course, we are. (Note: spraying 50 bottles of Piper into the air for two minutes might seem mixy, but it’s not. Wasted alcohol = not mixy.)

Mixy is representing countries from all over the world. It’s speaking several languages, and talking in sexy accents. It’s being British and saying whatever the hell you please, because god dammit if it doesn’t still sound charming. It’s being well-traveled and well-versed in other cultures. It’s cosmopolitan.

Mixy is working hard and playing hard. It’s booking a movie on vacation (not me, another wonderful actress), it’s managing a company from a beach chair, it’s waking up early for the market, then drinking rosé. It’s networking with other people in your industry, and those not in your industry. It’s learning about derivatives, then doing a Superman on a stop sign just before dawn (okay, no one learned about derivatives, but a few people work in them.) It’s spending the money you earned, because after all, we only live once. WOLO.

Mixy is running on the Croisette, jumping rope like a maniac, powering through an ab workout. Getting sick is not mixy, but it’s inevitable for all but the most seasoned alcoholics. It’s pushing your body to the limit, then going further in the name of Mix. Sleep when you die, be healthy when you’re home. Anyways, the wine has no sulfites (or maybe it does, but placebo effect), the food is fresh and preservative free, and the sun gives you Vitamin D: all very mixy.

Most importantly, mixy is getting to know some of the coolest people you’ve ever met. It’s guys and girls, singles and couples, old friends and new. It’s a summer fling you’ll think about for years (and pray to someday revisit), it’s the girl in London you’ll stay with next fall, it’s the couple in Germany who invites you to the “secret Oktoberfest” in April. It’s a party in room 352, or 260, or 431. Heck, it’s a party in every room of the Carlton, that’s how mixy the Mix is. And it continues in Istanbul, Tel Aviv, London, Paris, Vienna, New York, Los Angeles, all over the world. Because in the end, Mike is right: mixy is about the people. We brought the mix because we were the Mix.

The question now is: are you ready to get mixy??

Amy, Alicia, Barcelona

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“You know who your real friends are when you travel,” the pretty blonde Canadian said over her glass of champagne atop the W Hotel in Barcelona. She was recounting her experience in Greece a couple of weeks prior, when a friend of hers left her in a restaurant in a fairly seedy neighborhood, leaving her feeling hurt and vulnerable. Alicia and I looked at each other shocked. Even in the tensest of moments, inevitable while traveling, we could not imagine doing such a thing to each other. We had definitely hit some rough patches throughout our time spent abroad- my misaligned neck in Rome, her broken camera lens in Shanghai, Vegas mornings mirroring the one in The Hangover – but we always worked through it and our relationship only deepened from it.

Travel buddies trouble buddies – we’d coined the phrase a couple of years back while laughing with some friends over a particular wild experience in Paris. That trip to Europe had been our first together, and it cemented our friendship in that unique way traveling does. Something about the extreme highs and lows and constant pulsating energy forges a bond that can last a lifetime. Or break one that’s been years in the making. I knew why people had consistently told me I should travel with a boyfriend before marrying him. But until that happens, I’m blessed to have found my partner in overseas crime: the beautiful, adventurous, down-for-everything Alicia Anderson.

On this European tour, I joined up with Alicia in Barcelona. London had been exceptional, but after a week of sightseeing alone, I was ready to have someone by my side, especially after the intense anxiety-producing flight to get there. My last morning in London had been lovely- a long run through Regent’s park, but it all went down hill after that. First the train I took out to the airport stalled on the tracks, and I instantly regretted that second cup of coffee, my hands shaking as I checked the time every few seconds. After 20 or so minutes of not moving, the conductor came over the airwaves to announce we were being held due to someone being struck on the tracks. I felt guilty for getting so worked up about a missed flight when a person may have just died, said a little prayer, and then continued to panic. So much for my happy place with waterfalls and organ music.

When we finally arrived at Gatwick, I sprinted to the bag drop, politely asked to cut in line, made it through, only to find my flight delayed 3 hours. The board informed me my flight info would be up at 3:05, so I got a beer, wrote, and chatted with a lovely Englishman. At 3:09 I went back to look at the board again, and it said my gate was closing at 3:11. I grabbed my bag and started sprinting down the halls, covering a solid half mile before finding the gate, sweat pouring, long queue not moving. After half an hour laughing with the couple in front of me in line who had also hauled major ass, we got on the plane, only to be held captive on the Tarmac for an hour and a half.

Needless to say, by the time I arrived in Barcelona, near dark, google maps not properly working, I wanted to cry. I got to the bar below the flat we were staying, got on their wifi, and found an email from Alicia – if I’m not on the patio I’m in the room with the pinwheel, just call up my name to the window. “Alicia!” I moaned tragically. “Amy Main!” The sound of her voice, the singsong way she always said my name- a rush of relief washed over me. She came down and we shared a long hug, then she grabbed my bag and we headed up to the apartment.

“Here’s a cold glass of water, we have red or white wine, and I’m making some tapas. I wasn’t sure if you’d feel up to going out, but I figured you’d be thirsty and hungry.” It was this kind of anticipation of needs that made her such an incredible friend and travel partner. “I am your mind,” I had once joked with her in Italy, after a particularly poignant moment of nonverbal communication. We’d been saying the phrase ever since. Right now she was mine.

After a little red wine and tapas, we ventured out into the streets. She pointed out some of the places she had been that day and the day before, and we found a little restaurant in an alley to have paella and sangria. Even though we only had three nights in Spain, we both agreed to call it an early one after dinner, since we planned on doing some heavy walking, Gaudi viewing,and drinking the next two days. This was one of my favorite things about traveling with Alicia. She shares my intense desire to experience as many cultural and debaucherous things as possible in a short period of time.

Which was exactly what we did. Wednesday we hit a trifecta of Gaudi monuments. First was Casa Batllo, the Barcelona architect’s nautically designed residential masterpiece. I tried to imagine actually living in the fluid, organic spaces, where no straight lines existed and everything seemed in motion. Next we walked to Sagrada Familia, begun over a century ago and not scheduled to be finished until 2040. It was single handedly the most unusual place of worship I’d ever stepped into (although the mosque in Cordoba, another Spanish must-see, is a close second.) The hanging Jesus resembling an anguished Dionysian circus performer, the soaring stained glass, the kaleidoscope ceiling – it was definitely worth the price of admission (note: the Spanish will charge for everything, churches and parks included.) We concluded our Gaudi day with Parc Guell, picking up a bottle of cava, ham, and cheese (our three Barcelona food groups- bloat, bloat, and more bloat, but so good.)

That night we ate a late dinner at a restaurant recommended by a friend, Boca Grande, and enjoyed some of the best ceviche we ever had. Upstairs at their chic bar, Boca Chica, we met some Spanish gentlemen who introduced us to Monkey 47, the preferred liquor of choice right now in Barca. After shutting the place down at the tender hour of 2am, we made our way to a near empty club. Now, this may sound horrible – a dance floor with no dancers?! – but for me, it was heaven. I’m not sure I’ve ever danced so freely, whirling around the floor, flipping around hand rails, diving swan like into the arms of a handsome Spaniard. “Your friend is crazy! We love her!” our new friends expressed to Alicia. It felt like a dream, the influences of the day coming together perfectly in this moment of unrestrained joy. I thought of the dancers in the Egyptian tomb paintings I’d seen in the British Museum a few days earlier. There’s a reason every culture through every age has expressed themselves in this way — dance.

The next day was Alicia’s birthday, and we spent it having drinks at various places along the beach. First came Arola at the Arts Hotel, under a huge Frank Gehry fish sculpture. It was literally the one thing she wanted for her birthday, and it did not disappoint. The 15 minute handcrafted cocktail, the exquisite tapas, the adorable assistant bartender from Portugal who was beyond excited to bring Alicia a free happy birthday drink – “I’ve never gotten to do this!” We had mutually made each other’s day. A stroll down the boardwalk treated us to many a gorgeous sun-tanned body, and we decided to stop for a beer to be able to fully enjoy the people watching. Beautiful beach, beautiful weather, beautiful company. Things could be worse.

Our final drinking destination for Alicia’s birthday and our Barcelona trip was the W hotel, one of the most incredible places to view the sunset. We left around 8, figuring that would give us plenty of time to catch the sun’s descent on the third longest day of the year. We opted for the bus to save a few euros and our feet, but after three stops, the bus came to a grinding halt. We had hit the most densely packed roundabout I’d ever seen, literally worse than the 405 on a Friday afternoon when Obama’s in town. If I had been alone, or with someone besides Alicia, this may have induced anger or tears. But considering what I’d learned in London, and the current company, we turned the traffic jam into a scene from a Chevy Chase movie. We laughed so hard I nearly did cry. It really is all a matter of perspective.

We had accepted our fate of spending the evening in a roundabout, but then something miraculous happened- the driver found the one open pocket and maneuvered towards it, Mario Andretti in ten tons of public transport metal. We cheered as he honked his way through, going up on a curb, dodging a century old lamp, our hopes revived. He finally cleared the circle and gunned it down the Ronda, delivering us to our destination. A quick cab ride and we were there, the sun hanging at 2 o’clock, stalling for our arrival. We made it to the 26th floor with plenty of time to watch the colors change, the city an aging actress, dazzling in each incarnation until eventually fading out of the light.

“Have a great rest of your trip!” The blonde smiled and waved goodbye. I looked at Alicia, Albariño in hand, hair gently cascading down her shoulder, perfect skin defying the passing of another year. I thought of the last two days, the whirlwind that was only the beginning, and felt so lucky to have found her, my traveling soul mate, the girl who would never leave me in a restaurant, who kept me from falling to pieces, who “was my mind,” my travel buddy trouble buddy. I raised my glass- “to us in Barcelona.” Maybe we hadn’t found Javier Bardem, but who really needed him as long as we had each other.

I have arrived…

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After an hour and fifteen minute delay on the Tarmac, trapped in a seat so small I couldn’t cross my legs, the plane finally took off. Apparently there had been some “mechanical issues,” which made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, but gratefully they had been resolved. I turned on the in flight entertainment, practically cheered when I saw “Lego Movie” among the options, and reached for my earbuds, an ordeal that reinforced the necessity of yoga in my life. I thought of my friend James, the world’s happiest Production Assistant / posture nazi, and how proud he would be of my straight-backed, neutral-leg position. Everything is awesome!! Sigh.

As soon as dinner was served (a grueling decision between chicken or pasta, either of which I would inevitably feel I had made the wrong choice), I downed a little blue pill with a glass of Cabernet, my savior at 30,000 feet (see below: “Flying Lessons”). About 15 minutes later, right after Emmet and Wild Style had reached the Old West, I found myself feeling really warm and fuzzy. Pretty soon I was lassoing some horses of my own, only they were zebras with pink and blue stripes, and I wasn’t in the desert but rather on the planet Xanaxia, where everything is sparkly and beautiful and sleepy…

“Would you like some breakfast, miss?” I opened my eyes to find the flight attendant serving croissants and coffee. “Yes, please,” I smiled, thrilled by yet one more successful drug induced 8 hour plane sleep. I started back up where I had left off in “Lego Movie,” and finished it just as we began our descent. I could see England! Everything is awesome!! While I’d been to London as a baby with my parents and had enjoyed several layovers in Heathrow over the years, I’d never been to the city properly. I could feel the excitement simmering in my body (along with the coffee that was jolting me further and further from Xanaxia.)

Aside from the usual tedious customs line made better by free wifi (I loved England already!), navigating my way from the terminal to the Heathrow Connect was painless. The train took me right into the center, London Paddington, and when I exited I got that familiar yet foreign feeling I get every time I arrive in a new city. It’s a bit like waking up from a dream, or rather, waking up in a dream. Different air, different energy, different culture. But same language. That would make the next week decidedly easier to get around, in more ways than one (yes, that pun you are thinking is intentional.)

My first stop was my friend Mike’s work, the guy who I would be staying with the next week. On the way there, I practically cried as I passed centuries old buildings, regretting the fact that my entire adult life had been spent in Los Angeles. There were so many lives to lead, jobs to be had, ways to spend my 20s. I silently cursed my friend for having lived in both New York and London post LA, then rang up to his office. Any residual jealousy immediately disappeared upon seeing him, and I chose at that moment to be the person I wanted to be over the next few weeks: open, accessible, joyous.

We walked to his place, I dropped my bags, and within 40 minutes I was having a pint with one of my best friend’s sisters and her boyfriend. I live for moments like this. Practically strangers (we had met once before 4 years ago), and yet I felt so comfortable, so wonderfully at home with Izzy and James. They are the kind of couple that makes you want to be a better person. You can’t help but smile and laugh and be grateful in their presence, and I was all three. A few pints later, and I was ready to cancel my return flight to LA.

After leaving them (much to my chagrin) I met for dinner with Mike and his friend Ben. It was healthy, fairly inexpensive, and delicious – a rarity in London according to Mike. The company was excellent, and we continued the rapport at a hole in the wall. Literally. We knocked on a door, a server approved us through a sliding window, and we entered a speakeasy of sorts in the west end. My chocolate old fashioned did the trick, and pretty soon I was tearing up the dance floor to the Eagles. How funny to fly thousands of miles only to listen to a song about California. Small world indeed.

I got back to Mike’s flat at a reasonable hour, around 1am, and completed my usual evening routine. It’s amazing, I thought, I could be anywhere in the world, and I am still me. Same face wash, same toothbrush, same ritual. But a world away. A new perspective. That’s the beauty of travel. We recognize ourselves in another light, and we are transformed by it. I said a small blessing, prayed for sleep, and retired to the couch. What a trip this would be.

Summer Cleaning

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This week, not one but three of my friends cleaned out their closets. (Well, one was a storage unit, but same difference). It must have something to do with the changing of the seasons, the departure from May and the arrival of the summer months. It goes from warm to hot in Southern California, and suddenly everyone feels the need to strip down, declutter, show off their bikini bodies. For my three friends, getting rid of their stuff was a way of simplifying their lives, figuring out the essentials, clearing the physical and spiritual space for new possibilities. For me, it was Christmas in June. New bed, new couch, new clothes – woohoo! Never mind that every inch of my closet space is filled to the brim: bring on the stuff!!

I am, by nature, a hoarder. Old boyfriends’ t-shirts, decade old Easter cards from my Grandmother, Ikea dishes – as far as back as I can remember, I have had a difficult time parting with just about everything. Growing up, I maintained huge collections of myriad things – stuffed animals, Barbies, My Little Ponies, hair barrettes. It wasn’t because I was a collector, though, it was because I couldn’t bare to get rid of anything. And I do mean anything- I even saved used gum. I had a massive wad of it hidden away- dozens and dozens, maybe even hundreds of sticks worth, all chewed and stuck together- just in case. In case of what? Well, that’s a good question. A Wrigley factory explosion? A Guinness book of World Records attempt? A way to shut up my brother? Who knows.

My mom has postulated that my inability to throw stuff out stems from my early childhood years spent in Thailand. Living in a third world country, you learn not to waste. Everything has value, can be repurposed, may come in handy at a later date. People subsist on almost nothing, a dollar a day or even a week. When you can’t afford much, what you do have increases in value. If you own only one pair of shoes, or have just a little bit of rice for each meal, these become precious. Not that we were living quite under those circumstances, but as a missionary family we were surrounded by it. It’s an interesting theory.

Whatever the case, my struggle with hoarding has extended into adulthood. I can think of fifty things off the top of my head I could toss right now: a chipped red mug above my stove, a bag of clothes from high school at the top of my closet, candle jars burned a quarter inch to their life, perfume that probably smells like rubbing alcohol. Even as I type this I wonder why I haven’t thrown these things out. The answer: a potent combination of sentimentality and What if?

What if I get an audition for a cowgirl from the 1990s? Better hold onto that button up Abercrombie top and Gap jean jacket. What if I shoot another short film at a café? I’ll need as many mugs as I can get, chipped or not (and the red matches so well with my kitchen.) What if I’m out of disinfectant and need something to make my bathroom smell “fresh?” Better hold onto that Escada perfume from 2004! And you just never know when you’ll be hosting a séance – those candles have to stay.

This level of attachment isn’t healthy, I know. I hear Hannah talk about getting rid of her bright colored clothes because her wardrobe has matured into variations of “black and white,” and I think of how wonderful it would be to be able to open my drawers. Instead, I drive to her house and adopt all of the rejects – these shirts need homes, and I will make sure they find a little space in the back of my closet. Katelyn comes to town to clear out the storage unit she’s been holding onto for four years and I jump to it. Lamps, books, a TV, picture frames. I already own all of these things, but it didn’t stop me from taking them. This stuff is in great condition, and it was hers, and it has a history, and… and… what if?

Like I said, I’ve known I’ve had a problem for a long time, but I don’t think I really realized how bad it was until I started unpacking the espresso machine. My friend and I had given Katelyn the Delonghi as a birthday present 6 years ago, in an effort to save her money on her three latte a day Starbucks habit. It hadn’t worked, and the machine was practically brand new. My identical machine, however, had been run to the ground, so I was replacing it with hers. As I took my worn out Delonghi off the shelf and put it in a box in my mud room, my eyes landed on yet one more espresso machine – a Villa Spidem. I’d inherited this one from a friend a couple years back, had loved it, but it had since stopped working. I had kept telling myself I would have it repaired, but it had been lying dormant for over a year. I knew what I had to do.

Katelyn was removing a tool kit from my trunk when I stepped outside, Spidem in hand. “I keep saying I’m going to fix this, it’s an expensive machine, but I haven’t. It’ll probably cost a couple hundred dollars.” She shrugged. “Toss it.” She said it so effortlessly, like it was spoiled milk or rotting meat (two things I do not hold onto). “Yeah, you’re right.” I opened up the lid to the garbage can, and stared into the dark abyss. Goodbye, espresso machine, see you on the flip side. I held it over the mouth of the can one moment longer, and let go.

And a remarkable thing happened. The second I closed the lid, I felt lighter, somehow lifted. Now that it was gone, all the energy I’d been expending holding onto it and thinking about it was freed up. I had done it! I’d actually gotten rid of something! What a relief! I felt proud of myself, like I’d taken a step closer to Englightenment. I understand you, Buddha! I get it now! I practically patted myself on the back. And then a feeling of dread swept over me. Now that I knew what I knew- I mean, really knew it- it was time for me to do my own summer cleaning.

I hope the Goodwill’s ready.

Alexis White

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“The song is ended, but the melody lingers on…” Irving Berlin

There was a girl in my high school named Alexis White. She had mousy brown hair, pudgy cheeks, and wore clothes of our grandmother’s era. She smiled a lot, and hung out with the theater kids. If it hadn’t been for the play I was in senior year, I might not even remember her at all- she was shy and quiet, I was self absorbed. But now I think about her often. She died two summers ago.

 

High school was a tumultuous time in my life. I vacillated wildly between being a straight A honors student and a Hollywood club rat in training. I loved mirrors, but hated my body. I read Tolstoy and Eliot with rapt fascination, then sang Britney Spears songs while pounding cheap beer on the weekends. I fancied myself to be a young Angelina Jolie, destined for super stardom, but found myself in sobbing hysterics on my closet floor, overcome by the unbearable lightness of simply being. I was, in short, manic depressive.

I try not to regret the things I’ve done in my life (who has room for such feelings – deal and move on), but I wish I could have done those first three years of high school differently. Instead of being so enamored with beauty and popularity and boys, I wish I had fallen in love with my classes, my teachers, art and history and literature. I did, finally, wake up my senior year, but before that I spent my time in high school in a haze of ego and insecurity.

When speaking about it now (and in my USC application essay), I attribute my “awakening” to my junior year English teacher, Mark Halpern, and his teaching of Leo Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych.” I still consider that novella one of the most profound I have ever read (the phrase “most ordinary, most conformed, and therefore most terrible” keeps me up some nights), but giving all of the credit to those two men is not entirely fair. After all, the drama kids share a part of that responsibility.

 

I’d been an actress for years, but I’d also been a competent athlete, and at Lincoln High School the latter certainly carried more weight. Thus, it took three years for me to finally audition for the fall play, and I landed the lead role of a Russian spy in Idiot’s Delight. It’s a bit scary for me to think about it now, because I honestly remember so little about the whole experience. Sure, I’ll never forget my terrible fake Russian accent (intentionally so), or the fabulous ritzy 40s costumes I donned. But entire passages of dialogue once boldly delivered night after night have completely disappeared, lost in the ether of my mind. So much for memorization.

What I can say about the experience, with utter confidence, was how taken aback I was by the people I worked with. These kids were genuine, not afraid of themselves, their sexuality, their eccentricities. You don’t like my blue hair? So what, I do. My homosexuality makes you uncomfortable? Then look away while I kiss my boyfriend. These teenagers had nothing to hide. They knew who they were, they accepted who you were, and that was that. I barely knew how to react to such openness and empathy. I was so used to trying to impress people (ie football players) with my looks, my clothes, my flirtiness, that I turned inward before I could turn outward.

I spent most of the duration of the play observing my fellow thespians, not allowing myself to get too close. I longed to be a part of them (and who among them would say I wasn’t?) but I could never fully shake the feeling that I was a fraud. They were too real for me at 17 years old. I had spent too long in the conformed world of our school’s “royalty” to feel like I truly deserved their friendship. But they offered it anyway. Eben, Dashiell, Milo, Ella, Rebecca, Colin, Martha, Alexis.

 

Two summers ago, I went through one of the most trying periods of my life. In the course of one weekend, my grandmother passed away, my aunt committed suicide, and a friend of mine was raped in my then boyfriend’s driveway. While all of these things impacted me deeply, I was acutely aware of the fact that they were happening to others. Although I shared in the pain, it was not mine. I could think of nothing else for weeks – the suffering of my aunt, the horror experienced by my friend – but I also kept hearing this small voice reassuring myself “but it wasn’t you.”

About a month after this infamous weekend, I received a Facebook message from a drama kid, Alyssa Essman. “Hey Amy, do you remember Alexis White?” My heart immediately sunk. I felt the same terrible feeling wash over me the same night my mom asked “if I was in an okay place.” “Yes,” I responded, hoping my intuition was wrong. I watched the screen nervously. Alyssa is typing “She passed away yesterday.”

I started sobbing. I hadn’t thought about her since high school, but the news hit me like a semi. It had been some sort of freak accident, Alyssa informed me. Why her? Why Alexis? My mind raced. Though I couldn’t remember much about her, I knew she had been a kind-hearted person, the kind of girl that would never say a mean thing about anyone. I started googling her, looking at her Myspace page (she’d never joined Facebook). She had gotten a Master’s in Literature, taught special ed, and was an aspiring poet. There was a picture of her with her dog. I searched in vain for some of her poetry, hoping for one last communion with this girl I’d known only briefly so many years ago. But my search turned up nothing.

 

Everyone dies eventually. It’s one of the few truths we all must live with. But it’s so easy to take it for granted when we are young. In high school, we think we are invincible. We look at our peers and assume this’ll go on for a long time. Decades. But sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it stops at 50, like for my aunt. Or 26, like Alexis. I hate that it took her death for me to finally take so much notice of her. I regret not remembering the conversations we had, or keeping in touch with her after we graduated. But then I think of all the people that have come in and out of my life through the years. People I laughed with, cried with, connected with, loved.

It’s hard for me to express it in a way that doesn’t sound selfish, but Alexis’ death really helped me to see people again. In the same way the drama kids helped change my perspective on community and friendship my senior year, her passing served as a wake up call. Do not take any day for granted. Do not take any person for granted. Do not take your life for granted. It’s too precious to let it slip by.