Beyond Sunshine and Nostalgia

This post was initially planned to be published last summer, after my first ASIMS, but with my second ASIMS rapidly approaching, I wanted to take a moment to finish writing it and put it up.

Late May last year (2016), I had the great fortune to be able to return to my alma mater for the Annenberg Summer Institute on Methods and Statistics (ASIMS). And boy, was it great to be back.

So many great reasons why it was great. The weather, the campus, the ocean, the wonderful City of Angels, etc. It was also awesome-hilarious how after a year of skepticism – pretty much all joking skepticism, but nonetheless – about my love for USC and Los Angeles, some of my cohortmates arrived for ASIMS and were like, “You got to go to school here?!”

Yes, yes I did. Mwahaha.

As soon as I landed at LAX, my best friend from undergrad picked me up at the airport. We went to hang out around his place in Long Beach, and when we decided to walk to the beach, another dear friend of mine, the man who gave me my first job, met us there. Mild-to-moderate inebriation may have been involved.

My friend was kind enough to then drive me up from Long Beach to USC and drop me off at the very dorm building I had lived in my sophomore year, Webb Tower, next to the very gym I went to for over four years. It was also some magical coincidence that Webb Tower was where I would be housed for the duration of ASIMS and, in my case, right across from my sophomore year suite at that.

As I wandered campus hitting up my old haunts over the following two weeks, I felt more in my element than I had all year. I could go anywhere I used to go and see a familiar face. The smell of the Coffee Bean at the School of Cinematic Arts giving an aromatic background to the movie posters, and the bustle of the Tutor Campus Center with the melodies of the outdoors piano overlaid; the grass of McCarthy Quad, the serene calm of the inverted fountain outside Norris Theatre; the modernity of Wallis Annenberg Hall and the timelessness of Doheny Library. The liberating freedom of never having to worry about the weather, of being able to enjoy yet another day of sun with little doubt, of just being able to hop on the train and go to the beach. It all felt so… natural.

But beyond the weather or the nostalgia, one reason stood above all in making it such a memorable experience to be back: the people. My friends. I use the term “friends” here to loosely refer to both my peers and my mentors; because after all is said and done and the dust is settled, what are your close mentors existentially besides friends of a specific sort?

As soon as my friend dropped me off at Webb, I rendezvoused with one of my Penn friends and met up with another one of my close friends from undergrad who still lived in the same apartment he had during our undergrad years. My Penn friend said that it was the most stereotypically Californian hangout she had ever witnessed, make of that what you will.

Once the week began, I found time to grab breakfast from the food truck where the owner still remembered me, and hang out with one of my friends from my old job, who was kind enough to buy me lunch and beer. After I left, I swung by the coffee shop where my friend, the manager, welcomed me, and I chatted with the staff who I still remembered and who still remembered me.

Another day, I headed over to the building where my staff job had been, traversing on foot the terrain on which I had once glided with my skateboard, the tiny bumps less noticeable on foot. I had an hour long conversation with the building manager then headed upstairs to my former office, where I was warmly greeted by my former supervisor and mentor and one of my friends who is her advisee. I had lunch with one of my closest mentors, spilling the successes and the miseries of the past year. Another one of my dear mentors took me to Lemonade, which had also coincidentally been the last place we had caught lunch before I left town. I got to have my morning class with one of my dear friends who I’d sadly only met months before I left USC but to whom I’d grown close over the past year commiserating about grad school, and I also got to hang out with an even newer friend who I’d met during my grad school visits. And, it’s a small thing but, one of my happiest moments was running into some of the guys who worked maintenance at Webb. I didn’t see them for a solid week and a half, and I’d begun to assume that I was there while they were on vacation or, worse, that they had been displaced due to administrative changes. But sure enough, I ran into them, and they still remembered me from my days causing havoc. Hugs were in order, and I wish I’d had a chance to hang out with them properly when they were off work.

All of this made me realize that it wasn’t necessarily just the nice weather and the wonderful city I’d missed so much for a year – it had been the people. Friends I knew would greet me with a smile, friends I could count on; friends who though we may walk our different paths in life, whose inherent goodness I believed in and, I like to think, who believed in my own. Friends to pick me up from the airport, friends to invite me to their place, friends who will get drunk with me. Friends who say I bring a smile to their day, friends who’ll thank me for listening. Friends who will give me wisdom, friends who will take me to lunch at our usual spot, friends who will bitch about life with me. Old friends to do what we always did and new friends to explore more of life with.

During my evening strolls around campus with a flask of Ketel One in hand, I couldn’t help but get spontaneously teary at times, thinking about what used to be. What could have been. About what was and about what wasn’t. All those days I can never take back, that I can never relive. If only I could turn back the clock and do it all over again, knowing what I know now and being better than I ever was.

But at the end of the day, I know that if things had gone differently, I might not have made all the awesome friends I did during my time at USC. I might never have met the people I love and might never have made those genuine, natural connections – the kind you can only make when you’re stumbling through life together.

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