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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Ammi Midstokke: Friendship and the meaning of life

By Ammi Midstokke The Spokesman-Review

When I met Alex at work nearly a quarter century ago, we were at different stages in our lives. He was getting ready to be a parent and I still thought smoking was hip.

We spent our evenings after work going to tapas bars, splitting a bottle of wine, and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. He introduced me to Kazantzakis and I sent him my fledgling prose. He sent me the vocabulary column from the International Herald Tribune and I played the Gypsy Kings for him.

The memories were formative for me, partly because he could describe everything from olives to jamón in poetic detail and I had been raised on tuna and tater tots, but also because we were both at unknown cusps in our lives and formed a friendship through those transitions.

Eventually Alex returned to Greece to raise a family and I started my own in Germany. Over the years, should a new word inspire me, I would send him a letter. He would tell me about books he’s read. I quit smoking and he took up snowboarding. We took up biking and swapped mountain bike stories. Our kids started walking, then went to school, then they grew up.

At some point after the mayhem of child-rearing, one has a tiny crevice in their life and the possibility to choose what to fill it with. So we rendezvoused in Rome and hopscotched our way through coffee shops and gelato places, reminiscing but also making new memories and commiserating about teenagers. Because I’m impulsive and a good/bad influence, I invited myself to visit his family in Greece. Then I suggested we climb Mount Olympus.

While the passage of time is evident on our faces and bodies, there are ways in which we are unchanged. His dark hair is peppered with silver. There are lines around my eyes. I do not drink wine with reckless abandon. Gravity has tugged with its relentless force on our skin and pummeled our joints. The good things time works into a human are there as well.

Somehow, we both found mountains and movement as a constant thread in our individuated lives, and this – along with olives and squid and mutual admiration – offered another tether of friendship. We have learned to deeply appreciate the subtleties of humanity – history, poetry, architecture, family, stories – almost as much as its flavors and debauchery.

A year after we schemed with grappa in Rome, we drove his clanky Subaru up the winding slopes of Olympus, while he sang along with a traditional Greek song on the radio. Now our phones chirped at different times, not to remind us of meetings we were late for, but of medications we needed to take. We marveled at mangled trees and precious microscopic flowers.

At the mountain refuge, we shared a small pitcher of white wine, thinned with sparkling water, and asked if we were happy with the way our lives had turned out. At an altitude of 6,700 feet, staring down the canyon and the ridged gate to the expanse of the Aegean Sea, with the craggy summit of Olympus towering over us, it is hard to complain. We both still have bodies will to take us to such places.

The wind was blowing through the pines in warm gusts, making an alpine symphony. The occasional cuckoo’s voice carried up the canyon. Sometimes we just sat and listened to that. When you get older, you recognize that space doesn’t always need to be filled.

At bed time, we debated what sleep necessities we’d need for comfort: eye covers, ear plugs, and the various other accessories of the aged, arthritic, and insomniac. In the morning, we set out to make new memories together, clambering out of the trees, beyond the alpine fields of blooming flowers. We slogged toward the gods while the wind furiously warned us against it.

When we assessed the risk of the final ascent, we disagreed on just how dangerous it was, which is the only time the decade between us really showed. Our ideas of “conservative climbing” and the difference between a Grade 3 scramble and a Grade 4 scramble were lost in translation or disparate levels of faith. Still, we made it to the summit and he managed to contain his cantankerousness for long enough to enjoy the view.

It was magnificent and almost as rewarding as the camaraderie.

I know it is not always easy to make room in our lives, to see what is important to nurture and what is essential to let go of. But I can say that as we age, there is nothing more precious than our time with each other and the memories that remain when that time has passed. Someday, our stories of one another will be no different than the ancient myths of the gods and all we’ll have is our imagination of friendships and friends long laid to rest.

After all these years, I’m grateful we have made space between the busy obligations of living, that we fill those tiny cracks with laughter. I don’t know what the meaning of life is, but I’m certain its echo can be heard there.

Ammi Midstokke can be contacted at