Los Angeles

And the Oscar Goes to…

<> on October 19, 2009 in Santa Clarita, California.

Like every girl who moves to Los Angeles to be an actress, I always had dreams of winning an Oscar. The glitz, the glamour, the perfectly manicured nails captured on the manicam – it was a fairy tale, and I longed to be the princess. I imagined the dress I would wear, the speech I would give, the boy on my arm (Josh Hartnett? Leonardo DiCaprio?) But unlike Anne Hathaway, my dream has yet to come true. And that’s just fine by me.

Over the years, my attitude and feelings towards the Academy Awards have continually evolved, as with so many things in my life. For instance, brussel sprouts. I once hated them, now I cook them four times a week (minimum). Or roller coasters- they used to be the best thing ever, now they make me feel like I’ve just downed a bottle of gin. And the Oscars? Well, it’s complicated.

As a child, the Oscars seemed like heaven. Literally, if you had asked 8 year old Amy what Heaven looked like, I would have told you a massive stage with large statues of gold men and emaciated actresses looking perfect in vintage Dior. (Okay, I probably wouldn’t have used the word emaciated or known what a vintage Dior was, but definitely “actresses in princess dresses.”) The crowning moment in my childhood Oscar memories was Gwyneth Paltrow accepting her statuette for Shakespeare in Love in that pretty pink Ralph Lauren number. Move over, Mary, there’s a new queen of the clouds.

From the couch of my parent’s living room in North Portland (and a hotel room one year in Thailand), the award show just never quite felt real. It was like it was taking place on another planet, Planet Hollywood, where celebrities resided with all of their designer clothes and trophies and drug problems. Perhaps that was why I viewed the Oscars as Heaven in my adolescence. Or maybe it was just because I was a kid.

Whatever the reason, by the time I moved to Los Angeles, the sacred sheen had worn off. That’s not to say that I didn’t still want to win an Oscar – I wanted to even more at 18, 19, 20 – but rather, they had become more tangible. Here I was, living in Los Angeles, less than a mile from the Kodak theater, with the choppers circling like vultures and the limos creating traffic jams for miles. For days, weeks, leading up to the big event, there were parties and chatter and excitement building. Suddenly it felt attainable – I was here! I had made it!! I had an agent and I waited on Al Pacino and I could do this!!!

Except I couldn’t. As the years wore on, it became more and more apparent to me that my dreams were hopeless. “If you haven’t made it by 21, you’ll never make it,” a manager told me, pointing out dozens of examples of famous starlets. I watched as the calendar pages flipped, the years rolled by. 21, 22, 23. I had small victories here and there – a co-star on Veronica Mars, a featured part in Walk Hard, several game show appearances – but nothing even remotely close to the roles I’d been admiring for so many years. The Erin Brakovichs and Edith Piafs. The Virginia Woolfs and Viola de Lesseps. I grew weary of auditioning for drunken sorority girls and one-line waitresses. With each failed commercial audition, my dream died a small death. And then one day, it no longer existed at all.

“The Oscars are lame, just a tired exercise in self-congratulation by a bunch of rich, entitled pricks,” I began telling myself, and whoever else I was doing background work with. “It’s all politics anyway, they hardly ever get it right. I mean, Gwyneth Paltrow winning for Shakespeare in Love? Ludicrous. Who’s next? Keanu Reeves for The Lake House Part 2?

The Academy Awards had gradually slid from Heaven into Hell, just like Satan himself. February would roll around, and I would find myself dreading Oscar weekend. On the outside I pretended I didn’t care (even though I’d seen every nominated film and read every Entertainment Weekly prediction and Carpetbagger article), but somewhere deep down inside I could feel a knife being wedged when Jennifer Lawrence stepped on stage for Winter’s Bone. It wasn’t that I didn’t love JLaw – I did and do, I thought she was fantastic in that film, and pretty much everything she’s done since. But I was consumed with jealousy. That was the career I had so desperately longed for as a girl back in Portland. That was a part I could have played, would have loved to have played, still wanted to play. The dream wasn’t actually dead, it was just buried under layers and layers of jaded exterior.

And that was how it remained until two and a half years ago when I started taking classes at The Imagined Life. I hadn’t quit acting (although I had taken a break to get my degree from UCLA in Art History), but I’d stopped really loving it and believing in myself. But Diana changed all that. She helped me see where I’d gone wrong – in making it about the product instead of the story. After all, for all of the hoopla around the nominees and the award circuit, at the end of the day what really matters are the films themselves. Which was why I’d been drawn to acting in the first place. Yes, I may have wanted the Oscar fairy tale at 8, but it was really the excitement of playing Betty in The Crucible or Juliet in Romeo & Juliet that made me want to be an actor. It was being moved to laughter and tears over and over again by Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet that made me want to be like them. Sure, the award shows were great fun and ridiculously glamorous, but that had nothing to do with why I actually chose this career. And somewhere along the line, while becoming an adult, I’d forgotten that. Down they forgot as up they grew.

I’m happy to say that this year I will be watching the Oscars and loving it. I’ll feel nothing but proud for the winners as they take the stage, because they deserve it for telling the stories they’ve told. Whether it’s Michael Keaton or Eddie Redmayne, Julianne Moore or Julianne Moore, I will feel nothing but genuine love and support for them on their journeys. And after the last award is given, I’ll go back to focusing on my new dream: winning an Oscar for best screenplay.

Just kidding. My new dream is the same as my old: to tell stories. Good luck to all the nominees!!

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Home

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During the London Olympics of 2012, while other people were cheering on Michael Phelps and Gabby Douglas, my mother was busy discovering an American Idol winner – Phillip Phillips. His game changing song from that competition, “Home,” had been usurped by NBC as the official theme of the Games. The earthy tone of his voice, the heartfelt lyrics, my mom couldn’t help but be swept off her feet and over to her local library to borrow a copy of his CD. She uploaded the music onto her iPod, and began playing the summer anthem in a never-ending loop on her morning hike.

A year later, amidst the aftermath of a taxing break up, I received a phone call one day from my mom crying. I asked her what was wrong, and she said she’d been listening to “Home.” My initial instinct was to laugh – the thought of my 57 year old mother crying over an Idol was pretty priceless – but then she said she’d been envisioning me. She knew Aaron, my ex, hadn’t been the right guy for me, but she was desperately wanting me to find a loving, supportive partner. “I’ve been praying for your future husband,” she said, “for a man who will say those things to you.”

As sappy as this all might sound (especially to a non-believing feminist like myself), my mom’s words hit me hard. If I’m being completely honest, I had watched that season of American Idol with my ex and I had cried during Phillip’s win and preceding victory song. While the whole show is designed to bring the audience to tears (“My parents died and I became a prostitute to feed my 9 brothers and sisters”), it wasn’t the perfect camera angle on the singer’s tear-stricken face, nor the utter delight of his friends and family that had moved me on the couch that night. No, it was the song. The simple, haunting, beautiful “Home.”

When I think of the word home, the first image that pops in my mind is the house I grew up in. It was a beautiful two story craftsman overlooking the bluff in Portland, Oregon. My parents had bought it for dirt cheap (it was in a low-income neighborhood), and renovated it, restoring its 1930s charm. One of my earliest memories is of the day they got the keys to the house, and I ran up the stairs and into the master bedroom. The realtor had left a giant white teddy bear in it, and four year old me exclaimed loudly “My room!” And so it was.
We lived in that house on Willamette Blvd. until I turned 16. The housing market was booming, and my parents turned a large profit on the sale, buying another fixer in a much more desirable neighborhood. Two years later, they turned that home for a profit, and bought yet another, much larger fixer, and thus began their later in life careers as house flippers. They now live in Rancho Mirage in a chic single story mid-century with a sweeping view of the mountains. While they own several rental properties now in the desert, they intend on staying in this house for a long time. It’s become home.

When people ask me where I’m from, “where home is,” I find it difficult to answer. Even though my childhood house is the first thing I think of, Portland no longer feels quite like home. My parents have left, my brother’s in transition, my few high school friends I keep in contact with our dispersed across the globe. The only thing keeping me anchored in the Northwest are my grandmother and my memories. According to my cell phone, home is technically my parent’s place in Rancho Mirage. Every time they phone me from the landline there, it shows up on my caller ID as just that – “Home.” And in some ways, that’s correct. But, after living in my Los Angeles bungalow for over seven years now, my place in Hollywood certainly feels like home, too. Especially after a month or two of traveling abroad, which I’m prone to do annually, I usually can’t wait to get home to my charming one bedroom guest house. (Except for the summer I lived in Paris – for me, that city strangely feels like home as well).

The point is, while all of these ideas of home are tied to a place – the house in Portland, my parent’s place in Rancho Mirage, my Los Angeles abode – the actual concept of home is far more abstract. And that’s what Phillip Phillips song has captured so beautifully. The main verse, the one my mom wants a man to say to me, reads “Just know you’re not alone, I’m gonna make this place your home.” Although he uses the word place, it’s pretty clear that it doesn’t matter where in the world he and his love are, it will be home. As that old adage beaten to death by kitschy wall ornaments and Christmas tunes goes, home is where the heart is.

As I write this, I am still single, and have yet to find a man singing Phillip Phillips songs to me. But unlike my mom, I’m not really worried about it. While I look forward to meeting that special someone and creating my own family someday, I take comfort knowing I’ve always had a place to call home.

The Art of Living Alone

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Candlesticks. Photo by Amy Main, at her house, 2010

I’ve lived alone for nine years now. That’s nine years of leaving the door open when I go to the bathroom, of letting dishes accumulate in the sink until I can smell them, of doing lingerie pilates in my living room while watching Game of Thrones at unreasonable volumes. It’s almost a decade of coming home from nights out to nothing but my fridge and my computer, and crying or dancing or Reese’s Peanut Butter cup eating by my lonesome at 2 in the morning. It’s nine years of paying bills solo, of grocery shopping for one, of having no one to blame but myself for the dead grass and wilted plants in my yard. It’s a third of my life spent sleeping alone under a roof, of having quiet when I want it, of not having to answer to anyone. It’s nine years of learning to live with myself, and only myself.

In the beginning, living alone wasn’t so much of a choice as something I fell into. In fact, my time in LA actually started off with a flurry of roommates. First, there was the chronically high chick I shared a bunkbed with at a USC fraternity for a summer. This was just as awful as it sounds: three months of being accosted with inane questions like “Have you ever tried Flaming Hot Cheetos?” and being kept awake by bros cheering over beer pong victories at 4am.* This was followed by my freshman year roommate, a lovely laid back Hawaiian girl I occasionally hung out with and easily co-existed with in a spacious “dorm” room at the Radisson. After I dropped out of USC, I temporarily couch crashed with a fellow film student in West Hollywood (an experience I pray never to have to repeat, although she was wonderful), and subsequently found one of those ugly, white, wall-to-wall carpeted 2br/2ba apartments near the Rock ‘N Roll Ralph’s. This ended up being a boring, complicated disaster, but suffice it to say this living situation lasted less than two months and ended with me getting screwed out of a refrigerator and mattress. Finally, I ended up down at an incredible two story townhouse on the Promenade with balconies and a view of the ocean for a criminal $500 a month, only to have the girl who invited me into this heavenly situation move out a week later. Luckily for me, her parents decided to hold onto the place a year longer with me essentially playing house sitter, and thus after 15 months and 5 moves, I was introduced to the joy and simplicity of not having roommates. The rest is nine years of history.

* * * * * *

When people find out how long I’ve been living alone, I’m usually met with one of two responses: “Wow, that must be so wonderful” or “Ugh, that must be so lonely.” I tend to lean towards the first, obviously, or I wouldn’t have chosen bachelorettedom for so long, but there are pros and cons to this style of living. As with so many things in life, each positive can also be a negative, each weakness a strength. For instance, living alone has taught me to be fiercely independent and comfortable in my own skin, but it’s also made me uneasy navigating other people’s spaces. I often find myself unsure of the etiquette when staying at someone else’s place, or even hosting a guest at my bungalow. Growing up in a house with my parents and my brother and only one full bathroom I certainly knew how to share space, but it’s an art I seemed to have lost (and one I will need to relearn if I am to achieve a couple of key future goals).

For me, the biggest pro of solo living is the freedom to do whatever I want, whenever I want, without the distraction of another human being within my space. I find this especially important as a writer and artist, because my creativity necessitates solitude. Yes, I work in a collaborative medium (film/tv/commercials), but most of the hours I put into my craft are spent in the confines of my own mind. I write and work on stories almost exclusively at my house, and I find it exceedingly difficult to get anything done when other people are around. Other advantages include but are not limited to: being able to scrub the kitchen floor naked; not having to rely on another person to get a rent check in on time; being able to leave underwear everywhere; not having to remember what stuff in the fridge belongs to you; not having to listen to somebody else have sex.**

Judging from people’s responses, the biggest con of living alone would appear to be loneliness. While I occasionally feel lonely, it’s not because of a lack of a roommate, but rather a longing for intimacy, mostly in the form of a healthy romantic relationship. Conversely, I’m around people so much in my day to day activities as an Angeleno that I find the solitude essential, a respite from the constant social bombardment of 4 million counting. No, I would say the biggest downside is not having a larger space. Two or more people = more rent money = more square footage. I love my bungalow, but I wouldn’t mind being able to host a dinner party, or walking into a closet, or installing a pole in the living room. By the same token, it would be nice to have someone to split the bills with (I might actually consider getting cable) and to divide up the chores (maybe I would still have grass). And of course, there’s the socialization aspect I mentioned above: I feel woefully ill-prepared for any future co-habitating (apologies in advance, Mr. Right.)

* * * * * *

October 1st marks my 8 year anniversary in my Hollywood guest house, longer than most celebrity marriages (my landlady considers me a surrogate granddaughter). I think it’s pretty safe to say I’ll be reaching my 10 year anniversary of residing solo next year without much difficulty, and I feel like that milestone deserves some sort of award- perhaps a PhD in Bachelorettedom, or a radio dedication of “Independent Women.” At any rate, recognition or not, I’ve mastered the Art of Living Alone, and am proud to have achieved this in my 20s. But as I barrel headlong towards my 30s, I have to admit, it might be time for a change. For something just a little less solitary. For just a bit more companionship. Yes, folks, that’s right. It might finally be time for…

A cat.

* Thinking back on that experience now, it seems only natural that I’ve ended up where I have, like something Freud could have predicted in his sleep.
** I realize for some this last one may be a disadvantage, if you’re into that sort of thing. Again, two way streets.

American Girl

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The other day while I was stopped at a light in Beverly Hills, a strange thing happened. As I was staring mindlessly across the way at the American Girl store, Tom Petty’s second ever single dedicated to the lonesome chick “raised on promises” came on the radio. While not as tongue-dropping of a coincidence as say, questioning a random girl on a Paris metro at midnight only to find out you went to the same middle school and made out with her brother in eighth grade, the perfect alignment of sight and sound in this particular moment was enough to give me pause. I hummed along, swept away by bittersweet feelings of what it meant – what it means – to be an American Girl.

American Girl the company was born in 1986. I, also an American girl, was born in 1985. As products of the 80s, so close in age, the two of us naturally hit it off like Ghostbusters (nee 1984). I can’t remember now which I fell in love with first, the stories of the four Original Girls or the dolls themselves, but regardless, I was immediately hooked. My single digit self ate up the lives of Felicity, Kirsten, Samantha, and Molly like Frosted Flakes and Spaghetti O-s, and they easily became my four best time-traveling companions. They were as real to me as Mikie and Miranda and Amanda, my flesh and blood friends, and in some ways had even more to offer, introducing me to the joys of history, reading, and most importantly, imagination.

It’s incredible our capacity for make-believe as children. I remember moments with the girls as if they actually happened. My life on the plantation with Felicity, as Felicity – we were one and the same, she another version of me, centuries before. I didn’t need to understand mirror neurons to experience their transformative power, just jumping into the words of the books and daydreaming of the Old South produced the connection to the world. Kirsten’s pre-Civil War memories became mine, Sam’s Edwardian era New York my playground. I was a sponge dropped into an ocean, absorbing stories as effortlessly as language. It’s one of the things I regret most about growing up: in gaining a more solid sense of self and the material world, I’ve lost a good deal of the porousness of possibility. (Or, in other words, I have to work that much harder to learn French.)

While I loved all of the AGs and their spirited personalities, Molly McIntire was far and away my favorite. Maybe it was because she was the closest generationally to me, or possessed more of the characteristics I would use to describe myself (fanciful, dreamer, chatterbox, feisty), but she captured my heart. She was my first doll, and I cherished her the way only little girls can. Whereas I kept Kirsten- my second and only other doll- in immaculate condition, Molly sported the wears and tears of a child’s adoration. Her once glossy twin braids grew frizzy with continuously evolving hairstyles, and her skin acquired marks and scuffs, badges of Adventures in Playland. Every birthday and Christmas present I shared with her, asking my parents and grandparents only for new doll clothes and accessories. For a time, she was my everything.

Over the years, I spent less and less time with Molly and the girls, gradually shifting my attention to other interests- gymnastics, acting, boys. Like My Little Ponies and Cabbage Patch Kids that came before them, they ended up on shelves and in boxes, unused but not forgotten.* One Christmas season I even got asked to participate in an American Girl fashion show. I was Felicity, in beautiful blue flowing taffeta and red cape flowing, my childhood fantasies realized, if only in exquisite wardrobe. It was the first and last show of my runway career, but it was magical, and the perfect transition into the next incarnation of me, from child to teenager.

Just as I experienced changes in my life- some thrilling, some painful- so too did American Girl evolve. A fifth girl, the African American Addy, had joined the ranks of the AGs in 1993, during the peak of my interest in the dolls. As with the other four, I fell in love with her immediately. But over the next couple of years, as the company expanded into an empire, I gradually drifted away. More and more girls were added, and while positive in its diverse conception of what it means to be American, this somehow gave my adolescent self the feeling of over saturation and commercialism. The opening of stores with multiple levels and expensive tea times, the ability to design a doll in your own likeness- I rejected these changes, seeing them as a commodification of a brand, a cheapening of my five historical friends. In retrospect, this progression was only natural, and more reflective of my own expanding and contracting perceptions of the world than of the corruption of American Girl. Companies thrive on continuously turning out new products. In our fast-paced, technologically advanced culture, novelty sells. And anyway, who was I to judge as I fully embraced Abercrombie and MTV and Boy Bands. Things change. People change. American girls change. It’s not good or bad, it just is.

The light finally turned green and I continued on my way to my Soul Cycle class. I wondered where my dolls were now. I knew my mother had saved them, but I had no idea of their precise location. In my heart. I smiled at my sentimentality. In actuality, Molly and Kirsten were probably in my grandmother’s storage unit, waiting for their opportunity to befriend another American girl. My future American girl. The thought of one day sharing my childhood passion with a daughter of my own made my heart flutter and imagination take off. I knew I would never pass an American Girl store in the same way again.

 

*Perhaps this is one of the reasons I still cry like a baby watching Jessie’s song “When She Loved Me” in Toy Story 2. Or maybe it’s just because I’m super emotional. Probably the latter.

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.

The Hopeful Romantic

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It’s official. I am a hopeless romantic. Or rather, hopeful romantic, because instead of leading me down a path of despair, my tendency to fall quickly madly deeply generally leaves me buoyant, afloat atop a sea of all things wonderful. I meet a guy, sparks fly, and pretty soon I’m rocketing out of Earth’s orbit into Feelings Land, a place where sleepless nights, chocolate fountains, and cloying voices abound. Suddenly, I am in tune with the individual spirits couched in every blade of grass, I can tell the sky is azure and not Brandeis blue, I can detect the faint smell of bougainvillea over the California exhaust. I’ve become Walt Whitman, and I have transcended into a Song of Myself Made Clearer by Him (not the Capital H Him of various world religions, but the regular – and very special – him capitalized for the sake of a borrowed title.) When you pair he with me, you get heme, which are components of hemoglobin, which as you’ll recall are part of blood, which has so much significant symbolism I needn’t go any further. You get the point. He + me = Bright New World.

Okay, dear reader, I think you know where I’m going with this: I’ve met a new him. And you’re not going to believe this, but somehow, this him is making the world even brighter than all the other hims before him. It’s like Chris Evans has delivered a payload to the sun and it’s exploding all this crazy light and energy into the solar system and everything is magnificently illuminated. The details have become so remarkably clear that I think I’ve stepped into a Wes Anderson film, but I know I haven’t because there’s no Tilda and no Jason and no Bill Murray. Yet. (Dreams come true, kids, ask the folks over at Make a Wish Foundation).

I open a book, read one paragraph – nay! three glorious lines – and I immediately want to text him with the insight his existence has somehow just gifted me with. Dots are being connected before my very eyes like some sort of spooky Einsteinian particles — of course I see the influences of Aristotle! How could anyone miss those allusions to Dante! Obviously Rilke was influenced by El Greco! It’s exciting and overwhelming and maddening but his intense intelligence has lit a fuse which I hope extends for light years because I don’t want it to ever explode unless that explosion is some sort of aha! genius moment in which I discover the secret of the universe. Then it would be okay.

And he is not just healing my injured intellectual self rendered crippled by too many glasses of Sauvignon Blanc and conversations about skinny people. No no, dear reader, he is also releasing the valves of my heart so that so much emotion is pumping through my veins that the mere sight of a puppy or mention of some forgotten war in Cajamarca brings me to my knees. I’ve jumped from Wes Anderson to Chen Kaige, where now every frame doesn’t just have meaning but Meaning, as in you-will-cry-at-the-sight-of-this-moon-landscape-so-help-me-Buddha (even though China is not religious, at least not in any Western sense). It’s almost too painful to breathe, because even the air is thick with feeling- sticky, sweet, consuming feeling. I mean, it gives us life!! (Don’t even get me started on water.)

And then, of course, he excites me. Like the French kind of excitement. Like the “I can’t write this because my mom reads my blog” kind of excitement. But, suffice it to say, it’s exciting. I’ve dreamt about him every night this week. Suffice it to say.

All of which basically means one thing: I am, of course, absolutely and utterly terrified. Here I go again, climbing higher and higher up a ladder surrounded by a thousand sharp spears and Inferno-like flames, bolstered by the exquisite notion that maybe, just possibly, by some incredible chance, I may have found the right person to share things with. It seems so simple, a rule from kindergarten, and yet, how profound. Sharing. It’s deep on so many levels, like a T.S. Eliot poem, but not pretentious. I know it shouldn’t take another person to bring out so many colors in a sunset and flavors in a curry and hidden notes in Mahler’s Symphony #2, but dammit, for some reason it just does. So screw it, I’ll keep climbing and the spears will get sharper and the flames hotter, but that’ll just be the price I pay for the magnification of the world through him. And who knows? Maybe this time the ladder won’t come crashing down or I won’t slip or a huge storm won’t tear me from it. I’m hopeful.

The Impact of Trains, and other Memories

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My grandfather loved trains. He loved trains, the Oregon State Beavers, Sierra Club, and keeping journals. He wore grandfather clothes, smelled like grandfather, and talked with a grandfather accent – slow, methodical, wise, gentle. He was good at games, had an infectious laugh, and always sat at the head of the table. If he ever got mad, or raised his voice, or had something bad to say about someone else, I never saw it or heard it. He was a pillar of morality, a good Christian, the man who always led grace and always gave thanks at family gatherings. These are the things I remember about my grandfather from my childhood, before I grew up, before he got sick, before our memories betrayed ourselves.

I wish I could say I think about him more often, Ivan Minderhout, the man who is one half of my father, one quarter of me. He is the reason for all of this, or at least, an essential part of it, for me, for my experience of the world. I may go months without consciously thinking about him, and yet he is with me daily, in my upbringing, in my heritage, in my genetic code. When I think of how much each of my parents has influenced me, and then how much each of their parents must have shaped them, my grandfather is much more critical to the making of “me” then I have given him credit for. Sure, it’s easy to recognize his partial responsibility for my blue eyes, or the fact that I don’t smoke (my dad gave me the same $2000 deal my grandpa gave him not to touch cigarettes until he was 21, and it worked!). But even as I write this right now, I am realizing that perhaps my desire to record my reflections in writing might be inherited from his enviable journaling skills- he wrote daily for decades.

I’m thinking about him right now because I am on a train from Oceanside to Los Angeles. Without fail, trains always trigger memories of my grandfather in me. Every horn, every box car, every lonely railroad track conjures up some essence of his being. It’s the one thing he has truly laid stake on in my memory, more than Beavers football, more than Thanksgiving speeches, more than Parkinson’s. Trains belong to him, they are and always will be his. Just like dried pressed flowers will always belong to my grandmother, or fish tanks to my brother, or Scattegories to my cousin. I know these things no more define these people than gymnastics or Yahtzee or kittens might define me, but I like that they own these things for me, that these things create an emotional response connected to them. Even if it’s small, it’s something, and it’s important, especially when all the memories begin to fade.

I wonder if other people think about memory as much as I do. The more I write, the more I think about the past, the more often I’m disappointed in it – my memory. Perhaps, more accurately, it’s what I’ve chosen to remember that I’m disappointed in. I can’t really fault the mechanisms in my brain, which are still functioning quite highly. Nor is it really fair to fault my 5 year old self, or my ten year old self, or even my 15 year old self, for not paying closer attention to the things I consider important now. How could I have known as a 12 year old that someday I would want to understand my grandfather as an adult might? To get to know Ivan the way I’ve gotten to know my Grandfather Jerry better in the past few years? Futile questions until time travel is invented. So instead, I’m left with trains, beavers, and illness.

Before he got sick, before I was born, my grandfather was the manager of Lloyd Center, the largest shopping mall at the time in Portland, Oregon. This was a very important position, and from what I’ve been told, he handled it with aplomb. I imagine my grandfather, suit and tie, hair slicked back in Mad Men fashion, heading up that glorious American institution: the shopping mall. I picture him being the first in the offices every morning, working hard at his desk and out in the field, treating the store owners and his employees sternly but fairly. I never saw my grandfather work, but there are somethings you just know, and I know he was a great businessman, a respected boss, a well-liked colleague.

By the time I had technically entered “womanhood”, the disease had already begun to slowly take him over. I sat patiently with the other grandchildren at holidays as he struggled to comment on the latest current affairs, his hand shaking as he reached for his fork. By the end of high school, when I was at the peak of my vanity and he fighting desperately a losing war with his whole body, I could hardly bare to be around him. It was too painful, and I couldn’t stand to face anything as ugly as mortality. I would hug him and nod and turn away, scared to catch him drooling or unable to find a word. It wasn’t how I wanted to remember him. I wanted the trains, and the Sierra Club calendars with majestic lakes and stoic mountains, and the Beaver blanket in his study.

The last time I actually saw him was the winter before he died. He had been in a home for awhile, and no longer had any physical or mental control. His legs were as thin as chicken bones, and his skin the color of cream of mushroom soup. He was being kept alive by machines and doctors and medicine, and while his heart somehow continued to beat, mine broke. I knew it was the last time I would ever see him in the flesh, but that the last time I had actually seen him had been years back. It’s a strange feeling, seeing this body of someone you once knew as your grandfather, reduced to a small, motionless form. If ever there was an argument for the soul, the separation of mind and body, this was it.

I try not to remember my grandfather in those late stages, when he’d fully succumbed to Parkinson’s, but rather as the man who raised my father, who managed Lloyd Center, who loved my grandmother until the very end. I’ll never have the opportunity to get to know him as the woman I am today, but he still remains alive in my memory, he is still available in my imagination. And of course, he’s always with me on the train.

On the Sunset Strip

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A funny thing happened to me last night, something I never would have predicted: I missed working at a restaurant. I was walking back to my car, slightly intoxicated from my charming date and a couple of glasses of Pinot Noir, when an intense wave of nostalgia washed over me. In fact, the feeling was so strong, I actually had to take a moment and sit down part way up Sunset Plaza Drive. I planted myself on a ledge, overlooking the Strip, and allowed the warm July air to whisk me back.

I started working on the Sunset Strip 10 years ago. I was 18 years old, fresh off the I5 from Portland, Oregon, and eager to experience the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles. I had no restaurant experience to speak of, but when it came to being a hostess, that mattered much less than my youthful enthusiasm and barely-legal attractiveness. When I applied at Cravings, the owner didn’t even glance at my resume, asked zero questions, and I started the next day. I was beyond excited – I had a job! A real fill-out-a-W2 clock-in-clock-out job! And on the famed Sunset Blvd! My adult life had officially begun.

The experiences I had that first year working at Cravings were like none before or after. Not that it was some sort of pinnacle – my life has improved dramatically since then in pretty much every area – but there was a novelty in the way I was seeing the world and a spontaneity in my behavior that I doubt I’ll ever fully recapture. It’s like those first sexual discoveries in adolescence: learning the shape of someone else’s tongue, feeling your chest tighten and your breath get short, the almost painful buildup to the first time you were ever touched. Now, I understand my sexuality in a far more complex and meaningful way, but nothing can ever replace that initial exploration into the unknown.

During that year, I met more people, took more risks, and went on crazier dates because of Cravings than at any other point in my life. There was the F1 racer and the night at House of Blues, when I ended up back at his 37 year old friend’s dingy apartment and he cried to me until 3 in the morning about the mistakes he’d made in his life. There was the Turkish popstar, and the crazy Mafia guy, and the Russian med student who turned out to be engaged. There was the guy who owned a luxury car dealership and let me take a Diablo from Cravings out to Geoffrey’s for a piece of chocolate cake. There was the recent college grad who picked me up from work on Halloween, took me to Aahs for a costume, then flew me to Vegas to party all night at the Palms. I met my best guy friend in the world through Cravings, and one of my best girl friends. Even the first guy I loved in LA was a result of that restaurant – he saw me as he walked past with a group of friends to Il Sole, and came back after dinner to get my number.

I eventually outgrew Cravings, graduating to the position of a waitress at Pace on Laurel Canyon, but my time on the Strip wasn’t over. Two years later, I was back on Sunset working at Ketchup, a trendy LA hot spot that enjoyed a damn good run. For all the complaining I did while I worked there (and it was a lot), Ketchup was about the best restaurant job a struggling actor could ask for. Management was young, fun, super relaxed, down to get drunk towards the end of shifts. The clientele was hip and excited to be there, with deep, loose pockets. The staff was beautiful, smart, on the cusp of starting great careers. The overall energy buzzed and crackled; even the red lighting reflected this- the restaurant was ablaze. Like Cravings, I walked away from Ketchup with a mountain of stories and friendships and connections. We created a family there, and not just the staff, but also with our regulars. I still hang out with people I served- I even had lunch with two of my customers, a mother and daughter, in Paris!

I know it sounds like I’m glorifying waiting tables in my trip down memory lane, and I don’t want to discount all of the tougher aspects of the job: the slow periods when money stops flowing, the terrible customers who make you feel two inches tall, the feeling that you’re made for so much more and your creativity is being sucked right into the kitchen fan. But what I realized last night, and what I’m trying to communicate, is that it’s all part of this wonderful journey. And when you’re stuck in a restaurant job, literally waiting until your actual career begins, it can sometimes feel like just a means to an end. At least, it did for me a good deal of the time when I was in it. But it’s not. Those experiences have meaning in themselves, value beyond a paycheck.

Four years ago when I dropped my last check I never would have dreamed that I would miss being a waitress, but as it turns out, I do. As I sat looking out at Cravings last night, I missed the sense of freedom, of possibility, of all the mystery LA held in those days. I longed to be 18 again, or 23, walking up that very hill to my car, untying my apron, laughing with another server about a messed up order or a number given out. If only I’d had the appreciation for it then that I have now! How great it would be to spend one more night working at Cravings or Ketchup! I thought. And then it hit me like twenty tables all being sat at once. This is my life, right now. This is it! The freedom, the mystery, the possibility, they’re all still there. My life is no more mapped out now then it was back then. Heck, if I wanted to wait tables one more time, nothing was stopping me! I smiled, then shuddered at the thought of actually getting another restaurant job. The nostalgia had passed. I grabbed my purse and walked the rest of the way up to my car, profoundly grateful for each step, each moment, each memory. Past, present, future.

Home Sweet Los Angeles

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I sink into an inevitable depression every time I return from traveling. It’s one of the ramifications of being abroad – in getting to experience the world in a larger sense, my own small life back home takes on a glow of insignificance. It’s like being shown a buffet of all the best offerings of cuisines from Thailand to Turkey to Timbuktu, and then being told I will only be served chicken and steamed vegetables for the rest of my life (or until I can afford that next plane ticket). Not that I don’t like chicken and steamed vegetables. In fact, after three weeks of subsisting almost entirely on carbs, meat, beer, and wine, chicken and steamed vegetables sound like downright heaven. But as the bloat subsides, so does their appeal, and pretty soon I’m left hungering for one more slice of jamón ibérico, one more pain du chocolat, one little stein of Austrian brew…

Knowing this about myself, I made a concerted effort this time around to change my mentality. Even before I left Europe, I devoted a small chunk of time on a Seine river bike ride planning my return strategy. I would take my newly acquired rosé-colored glasses and use them to see afresh the city where I had spent my entire adulthood. I would write a blog about Los Angeles illuminating all of the things I had missed before in my day-to-day complacency – architectural details on downtown buildings, neighborhood coffee shops with handcrafted soy candles, funky galleries featuring hip young artists. There were angels somewhere out there in LaLaLand, and I was going to locate them. For too many years I had been decompressing from travel the wrong way – lamenting the end of my exotic experience instead of embracing the beginning of a new perspective. Well, not this time! I told myself, pedaling fiercely along the cobblestones of Île de la Cité. This time I’m coming home happy! And you wanna know something? I did. I came home happy.

For about 36 hours.

I touched down on the evening of July 11th, a huge smile across my face. Mostly I was relieved to survive yet one more harrowing excursion in a big chunk of metal hurtling through thin air 30,000 feet above the ground. But I also found myself in awe over the golden light basking the urban sprawl. I’d forgotten just how expansive Los Angeles was, how many places I had yet to explore, people to meet, restaurants and shops and museums to patronize. The mountains beckoned me to come hike them, the ocean to run along its sandy beaches. There were so many wonderful things to do in my hometown, and with the new enthusiasm Europe had gifted me with, I would do them all!

But not that first night. That first night I would just drive home with my friend, try and form coherent sentences about my trip, pick up a few groceries, then collapse on my bed. My bed. Of all the things I’d left behind over the past month, my bed was probably the thing I had missed most. Aside from the Carlton, most of the beds I had been sleeping on hardly deserved their title. They had been more like… cots. I snuggled up with my teddy bear, turned off the light, and passed the eff out.

I was so excited to begin rediscovering Los Angeles that I woke up that first morning at 4:30. (Alright, fine, I had jet lag, but I was trying to reframe things.) I made a damn good gingerbread cappuccino, watched the sunrise, spent a couple of hours on one of my stories for my acting class, worked out while watching the pilot of The Leftovers. It felt good to be back, and it was nice having the time to myself, knowing everyone was still asleep and I didn’t have to reach out quite yet. I was enjoying the quiet.

Around 10am, I decided it was finally reasonable to start texting people. The malaise had begun to creep in after only 5 hours, and I knew I needed to act fast. Luckily, my friend Jairo quickly picked up the ball I was dropping, and invited me down to his place in Culver City to go for a bike ride along the beach. He showed me his regular route, a wonderful pedestrian path stretching essentially from his backyard all the way down to Redondo Beach, and we conquered a solid 25 miles, broken up by margarita pit stops. We got back to his place around 6, took a little nap, then headed out to Malibu for an outdoor screening of Back to the Future for a friend’s birthday. It was exactly the kind of LA outing I had had in mind only a few days before in Paris. Ahhh, Paris…

The next day was a little harder. The World Cup and my friend Hannah helped alleviate things a bit, but I could feel the quicksand of depression beneath my feet. By 6pm, I grew so tired of flailing around in it that I gave up. I left the lovely people at the porch party I was at and returned home, exhausted, sad, defeated. Why was I already crossing over into the dark side? How was it possible that I was already becoming jaded?

Over the next 48 hours, I tumbled head first into the black hole I’d been so afraid of. There were flashes of glorious light – throwing a spinning descending angel on the pole at S Factor, tap backs with the beautiful Jenny C. at SoulCycle, the insightful lecture from my profound mentor Diana Castle at The Imagined Life – but it couldn’t seem to stop the plummet. What was I doing in Los Angeles? What was I doing with my life? Who am I, what am I, why am I? I skipped from news article to news article, website to website, put 20 books on hold at the library. I read 15 pages of Romeo & Juliet, then 10 of the Silicon Valley pilot, then 5 from a Richard Linklater script. There was so much to do and see and read and watch and people and places and restaurants and plays and artworks and and and – – –What was I going to write?!

I felt crushed by the weight of my own desire for experience, immobilized by the sheer vastness of the world and the shortness of life. My body ached, my mind ached, my heart ached. I was mad at myself for not being stronger, for succumbing to my old tendencies, my old insecurities. Why hadn’t I been able to bring Europe home with me? Where was that joie de vivre? I laid my head down and cried…

I woke up several hours later to the sound of my phone vibrating. It was a text from a friend, asking about dinner that night. I rubbed my eyes and took a few deep breaths, still groggy. I listened to the whir of the washing machines coming from next door, the soft Spanish murmurs of two neighbors on the other side of the fence. Laughter erupted between them, a joke I would never understand. I smiled, thinking of the various languages I had just been immersed in the last few weeks, the places I had been. Six different cities in 24 days. No wonder I’m exhausted, I thought, reliving the culturally-packed days and fun-filled sleepless nights. No wonder it’s hard to readjust. I forgave myself for the nap, the tears, the tumbling existential thoughts, and picked up the phone.

Sure, what time? I texted back, and watched the three little dots on the screen. 7, any preferences on place? I thought about it for a moment, then responded. No, not really. The dots reappeared, then- great, let’s do Sugarfish. I grinned, immediately excited by the prospect of one of my favorite sushi restaurants. That sounds amazing, I replied. See you at 7.

I reached across my bed, grabbed my computer, and opened it up, finally ready to get to work. Maybe Los Angeles doesn’t have centuries old boulevards, beautiful parks brimming with roses, and awesome public transportation, but at least it has more than chicken and steamed vegetables.