Recent Work By Litsa Dremousis

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So, you wrote about the dead guy again.

You mean my best friend who died five years ago in a mountain climbing accident nearly ten years to the day after he’d been mauled by a grizzly in Yellowstone Park? Yes, I did write about him again. The book is called Altitude Sickness.

 

Why?

Well, we were best friends for over two decades and, like I say in the book, we got together and broke up more times than the earth has rotated the sun, so I’d say his sudden death at the age of forty-two was fairly earth-shattering. We loved each other deeply and his death nearly destroyed me. And I’ve been a writer most of my professional life, so it’s kind of hard to bypass all this.

“Just get to it,” Nora Ephron might say.

Obituaries and year-end tributes will illuminate Ephron’s groundbreaking career as a writer and film director. They will toast her wit that shined and carved like a scalpel. The irreverent will quote her infamous line about her second husband Carl Bernstein:  “The man was capable of having sex with a Venetian blind.” Her peers and loved ones will share tales of her oft-noted generous spirit and culinary panache.

 

Unless you live in a sound-proof cave protected by fire ants, you know that ten days ago, right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh went on a tirade and deemed Georgetown University Law School’s Sandra Fluke “a slut” for testifying before Congress that her school’s health insurance should cover birth control. And, of course, national outrage ensued. Due to a lightning-fast, coordinated online effort targeting Limbaugh’s sponsors and urging them to drop him, dozens of Limbaugh’s sponsors bailed or suspended their sponsorship, and their numbers grow ever higher. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly quickly proclaimed his unequivocal support of Limbaugh’s position.

That’s where I stepped in.

Seattle, December 1984

I was a teenage art-geek. Frizzy-haired and studious, I hadn’t yet learned to work a prodigious vocabulary and ample rack to my advantage. But junior year at my strict Catholic high school, I finally had my first real boyfriend, Chris. Both of us loathed our surroundings and this intensified our bond. We discussed Dylan Thomas at lunch and at night, after we finished our reams of homework, he played King Crimson riffs for me over the phone on his second-hand Stratocaster. I was in love.

My Greek parents, like most progenitors of our nationality, were hardly laissez-faire when it came to their kids, particularly their young daughter’s newly acquired romantic interest. At that time, Dad was Supervisor of the Sentencing Unit for the Criminal Division and Mom was a Deputy Prosecutor assailing fraud cases. So when Mom and Dad insisted on meeting Chris, I balked, sensing they would terrify him and that this was their intent. I relented, however, when Dad threatened to run Chris’s license plates.

“This house is like living in a cop show!” I yelled, eliciting a bemused smirk from Dad and an eye-roll from Mom. I posed no more threat to them than a gnat to an elephant. Resistance was futile.

The next day after school, Chris loaded his books into my used Mustang, and we drove to my family’s large brick house, festooned with multicolor lights along its perimeter and holly and snowflake appliques in its dining room windows. It was two weeks before Christmas and I’d told Chris my folks wanted to include him in a traditional Greek holiday meal. Once inside, Chris and I sat on the living room couch by the Christmas tree. Mom and Dad wouldn’t be home for a few hours and I thought my brother, 18 months younger, was at soccer practice.

“You’re my other half,” Chris said and put his hand on my knee. As he leaned in to kiss me, a moaning sound wafted down the hall. Barely audible at first, it grew persistently louder. I realized it was my brother.

“It sounds like someone’s jacking off,” Chris said, alarmed.

At that moment, we heard the bathroom door fling open and my brother raced into the living room.

“Aaaahhhh!” he yelled and ran directly toward Chris. His hands were coated with a viscous white liquid and he waved them maniacally.

“Is he retarded?” Chris asked frantically, tripping over the hassock in an effort to get away.

“I want to give you my baby juice!” my brother continued, and chased Chris into the kitchen. I heard my mom’s planter knock into a wall.

By now, I knew what was going on. My brother, reflexively hilarious and the ultimate class clown, was hazing my new boyfriend. Said boyfriend, however, had no clue.

“Goddamnit, Greg! Leave Chris alone!”  I sprinted into the kitchen, grabbed Greg by his shirt and yanked. He stopped and burst out laughing.

“Oh, my god! You should have seen the look on your face!” he told Chris, who was visibly shaken. “Lighten up there, pal. It’s just Ivory Liquid. I would have had to crank it eight or nine times to get that much jizz.”  He said this as if it were clearly self-evident.

“What the hell’s wrong with you?” Chris wailed.

That night at dinner, Chris endured my parents’ inquisition with aplomb. He answered questions about his college and career plans and made polite conversation with my brother as though nothing unusual had happened.

Then, two weeks later, he dumped me for a cheerleader. He said it was because she blew him. Yet I can’t help but think Chris preferred his Christmases white, and not Ivory.

 

Seattle, Summer 1997

Gregory placed his spindly hand on my nude thigh. Even in the hot tub’s balmy water, his touch felt clammy. Across from us, a couple who’d met hours earlier boffed with the force of a meteor shower. Until now, tonight’s cast party had consisted of soggy nachos, half-emptied kegs and stagehands languidly smoking weed in front of the TV. I’d been the high school art-geek a dozen years prior and feared this evening’s revelry, such as it was, smacked of a senior year movie fest. All we lacked was Pink Floyd’s The Wall on the VCR. So when a cast mate suggested nude hot tubbing out back, I acquiesced. I suppose I just could have gone home, but in my twenties, the simplest solution rarely struck me as the best one.

As I write this, the world has spent the past four days transfixed and deeply saddened by Japan’s 9.0 earthquake and its resulting tsunami and nuclear disasters. Within my extended family, for the second time this year, one member just almost killed another, not by assault, but through a split-second accident. (No, I’m not a member of the Flying Wallendas.)

This is where Mike Sacks comes in. I’ve interviewed Sacks before, in conjunction with 2010’s tome, Sex: Our Bodies, Our Junk by the Association for the Betterment of Sex and nowhere in my research did I uncover evidence the Vanity Fair editor and author of the new, hilarious essay collection, Your Wildest Dreams within Reason, oversees plate tectonics or prompts sundry family members to nearly give me a fucking heart attack.

“The human imagination is inexhaustible, and why should we expect the creative vision that invented astronaut ice cream and God to settle for standard penis/vagina fare? Once you have the basics down, you’ll find there’s a whole world of erotic variations for you to explore–all it takes is an open mind and a junior-high-school (or equivalent) education.

Take fetishes, for example–sexuality’s big tent. Show a man with a shoe fetish a woman in high heels, and he will drop to his knees to kiss the patent leather. Remove the shoe, and a foot fetishist will jump in to worship every little piggy on that most intoxicating of extremities. Remove the foot and an acrotomophile stands ready to play tribute to that heavenly absence, the amputation. In fact, there isn’t a body part, inanimate object, or idea that someone hasn’t found a way to eroticize–one person’s excuse to park in the handicapped spot is another person’s masturbatory temple.”–Sex: Our Bodies, Our Junk by the Association for the Betterment of Sex (Scott Jacobson, Todd Levin, Jason Roeder, Mike Sacks and Ted Travelstead), p.126

“As a growing number of discerning young Americans opt out of gambling on fads and fashion, the currency of ‘authenticity’–and the connotations of history and experience that word carries–rises in value. Companies like Red Wing and Pendleton Woolen Mills have survived two world wars and the Great Depression, which speaks volumes about the quality and reliability of their products. There’s also some magical thinking afoot here: we want to believe not only that Carhartt knows what it’s doing after 120 years of of manufacturing work clothes, but also that by wearing their product we connect with some of that accrued wisdom and experience.”–Kurt B. Reighley, United States of Americana: Backyard Chickens, Burlesque Beauties & Handmade Bitters; A Field Guide to the New American Roots Movement, p. 5

Thirteen years ago, Wajahat Malik and I were both cast in a Seattle production of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The show played for two and a half months to sold-out houses and peachy reviews and morale among cast and crew ran high. A number of us became close and cast parties frequently wrapped at 5:00 a.m. Malik (he went by his last name because Americans usually mangled his first) was a natural raconteur and delighted us with tales of growing up in Pakistan’s Mansehra Valley, where he and his friends sometimes listened to Bob Dylan and Supertramp in his Volkswagen bus, occasionally incurring his loving mom’s disapproval. One of his sisters was a physician, the other a banking executive and photos of his family’s home and the surrounding region were stunning.

Malik returned to Pakistan over a decade ago and has resided in Islamabad, the nation’s capital, for the past eleven years. He’s a documentary filmmaker and writer whose travels have taken him throughout Pakistan and large swaths of the globe. We’d fallen out of touch but had reconnected on Facebook in 2008.

When the horrific floods enveloped Pakistan at the end of July and beginning of August, I wrote Malik to see if he and his family were safe. He assured me they were, but said much of the country was ravaged to an almost unspeakable degree. Immediately, he had delved into the relief effort. Last week I interviewed him via email about the work so far, obstacles he and his compatriots face and why, despite everything, he remains hopeful.

Litsa Dremousis: Since the floods ravaged Pakistan, you’ve been on the ground helping with relief efforts. I can’t fathom what the experience has been like.

Wajahat Malik: This flood was the worst in Pakistan’s history and the devastation it caused was immense, beyond anyone’s belief. Literally, the whole of Pakistan drowned in the waters of the Lion River, also called the Indus. In the face of such calamity, the nation woke up and stood up to face the waters. People gradually came out of their slumber and then people from all over the country started rescue and relief efforts and helped the flood victims who had lost almost everything. There were too many hopeful acts of self-sacrifice and philanthropy to mention here. The horrific act that happened was when some ministers and local feudal lords in the Sind province used their clout and illegally broke the embankments to turn the flood waters toward the poor settlements in order to save their own lands and palatial farm houses.

LD: Some of the people you’re helping were incredibly poor before the floods. Do you think they have a chance at any sort of decent future? That is, with some kind of food and shelter and schools?

WM: Of course, it is always the poor and downtrodden who bear the brunt of such awesome calamities. Their lives have changed for the worse and the future looks quite bleak for them as the state of Pakistan cannot cope with the scale of the disaster economically. The flood victims have lost their houses, the crops and cattle stocks have been wiped out. Cultivable land has been either washed away or has silted up. Schools, bridges and roads have been inundated. The whole infrastructure has collapsed and it will take years and billions of dollars to rebuild what has been lost. Two million people have no shelter and are surviving on the hand-outs of the flood relief operations. They will have to be housed and rehabilitated. But the big question is, “How?”

LD: Has it been difficult to remain focused in the midst of so much death, loss and illness? How are you coping?

WM: Of course it is hard to carry on with your life when there is so much death and destruction around you. The images of the suffering millions in the flood waters haunt you all the time. When I sit down to eat at home, I feel guilty somehow and feel depressed.

LD: Have you seen anything you view as a miracle, not in the religious sense, but that it was inexplicably good in the middle of so much horror?

WM: No, I have not seen any miracles with my own eyes, neither have I seen footage of such a thing. But it is a miracle that Pakistan, despite the problems that it is plagued with, is still coping with a disaster of such a huge magnitude.

LD: On the flip side, what’s the cruelest act you’ve seen so far?

WM: Again, it would be those of certain corrupt and tainted politicians of the Sind province who, in order to save their land and palaces that they had acquired by sucking the blood of the masses, drowned the poor to save their riches. There is an enquiry commission that has been formed to investigate these criminal acts.

LD: What would you like those of us outside Pakistan to know about the floods? From what I’ve read, illness is spreading rapidly. Do you have loved ones who have become sick?

WM: The floods have obliterated the country’s infrastructure in terms of schools, hospitals, bridges and roads. Houses have been swept away, farm lands are destroyed and the farmers who were already living at subsistence level have nothing left. We are talking destruction worth billions of dollars. The poor who have lost everything and are sitting under the open skies and in the camps are drinking contaminated water and getting sick. In different areas, water-borne diseases have been reported to especially affect women and children, who are always the most vulnerable under these circumstances. No, my loved ones are fine and healthy, but the camps and shelters of the flood relief victims are rife with all kinds of diseases.

LD: From the outside, it seems much of Pakistan’s political unrest is the result of widespread poverty. Yet you seem to remain hopeful. How and why do you maintain hope?

WM: The Western media keeps harping on about poverty spawning the political unrest and turmoil in Pakistan. It is simply not true. It is the policies of America and its cronies that common people of Pakistan despise. And it is across the board. From the poor rickshaw driver to a person like me who has studied in America and has seen and read the world. We see eye to eye when it comes to the hyprocrisies of America and its allies. No amount of U.S. aid pumping billions to raise the standard of living of poor is going to help build the image of America in Pakistan. I remain hopeful because I know the people of Pakistan are not extremists or terrorists. On the contrary, we are one of the most hospitable people in the world. I am not being overly nationalistic–I’m saying it from my experience as a travel documentary filmmaker. I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and know its pulse quite well. We have been used as a buffer state to further the interests of the U.S. and its allies in this region of immense strategic value.

LD: Specifically, what have you been doing with the relief efforts? I know there’s so much to do–how do you prioritize what needs to be done first?

WM: I have been focusing on some Alpine villages in the Upper Chitral region in the Hindukush Mountains that were wiped out by flash floods. Luckily, there was no loss of life, but the already poor people lost everything. I have been collecting funds and sending food supplies to these villages because they are so far away up in the mountains that they were out of the reach of media and hardly anyone knew of their existence. Well, right now, food, shelter and clean drinking water are on the number one priority list as we are still going through the relief phase. But once the relief phase is over, we will go into rehabilitation and that means a lot of hard work and money. These people will need a lot of money to rebuild their houses and the government will need a lot of money to rebuild the infrastructure.

LD: Are you working with a relief agency or have you and your colleagues started your own group?

WM: I am working with a few dedicated friends and we are collecting funds from all over and sending the money to a friend in Chitral Town who is taking care of all the buying and distribution in Chitral Valley. This friend happens to be the Prince of the ex-royal family of the Chitral region, so it is easy for him to identify the needs of local people and buy and distribute food items locally.

LD: What can those of us outside Pakistan do to help?

WM: You can help by identifying people and organizations who are truly making a difference in Pakistan in terms of providing relief to the flood victims. And then donate money and share ingenious ideas for relief and rehabilitation and keep the issue alive in the minds of your compatriots and media, so that these people can be taken care of. And not forgotten because of donor fatigue.

LD: What keeps you going?

WM: The goodness of humanity and the everyday will to breathe keep me going. We don’t want to perish in the flood waters of despondency and grief. We, as a nation, are still alive and kicking. We proved that in the aftermath of the earthquake of 2005 and we will prove it again. Here is a poem I wrote recently on a positive note:

Pakistan,

your hair is dripping with the stinking flood waters

your eyes are red with the extremist’s rage

your nose is dripping with the snot of bigotry

and your teeth are yellow with the stains of corruption.

Pakistan,

please wash your face

brush your teeth,

wipe your nose

and straighten your beautiful hair

The sun is shining outside

It’s a new day



 

Over the past few years, I’d read great and magical things about The Nervous Breakdown Literary Experience in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and sundry other burgs. I scrolled through photos and comments generated by each reading and thought, Holy hell, that looks tastier than pizza. Each city fielded a deeply talented roster and the sense of excitement and cohesion was palpable. I looked forward to Seattle’s shot.

 

“Time must have become a very odd kind of mirror-maze for her now; and mazes can change at any instant from being funny to being frightening.”–Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man

“Pope Benjamin just announced ordaining women is like pedophilia. So that means he’s okay with it?” I consider then reject this as a possible ice-breaker at my Catholic high school’s 25-year reunion tonight. The event was announced months prior and I’ve received several Facebook reminders, but I only confirmed three days ago, after nudging from my mom and aunt, who pointed out I’ll enjoy seeing those I loved and in some cases still do, that my career is going well and that I’m frequently mistaken for being younger than I am. (It’s ridiculous to glorify youth but I’m not above being flattered when associated with it.) A kind pal, Marley, volunteered to drive and says we’ll bail after an hour if it’s lame. With good humor, I agreed to go. I’m touched they care whether I attend but mostly that they don’t see me as I’ve seen myself the past nine plus months: shrouded in grief, a facsimile of who I was before TJ undertook what would be his final climb the first week of October.

Sherrill Britton, an associate vice president at Loyola Marymount University, laughs only once during our 45 minute phone conversation. “Adam used to wear a black ski cap and I hated it and made him wear a baseball cap when he left the house,” she says, referring to her 35 year-old son’s sartorial choices with loving disapproval. Her brief chuckle sounds fraught with exhaustion, though, as if even mirth requires effort now. It is late afternoon on a recent Monday and I assume she is in her office, but I don’t ask because for the past two and a half years she has had to reveal so much so often, I want to accord her whatever scrap of privacy is possible. Also, as Britton would be the first to agree, where she might be located is beside the point. 

Britton last saw her youngest son, Adam Kellner, early November 2007 in the comfortable Stevenson Ranch, California house they shared with Britton’s second husband, Leonard, who died last year. The loss of one’s partner is, of course, searing, but Britton lives with a still deeper pain: Adam occupies the netherworld of the missing. Britton was away on an overnight business trip the evening of Wednesday the 7th when Adam offered his ailing stepfather assistance climbing the stairs before bed. Despite the schizophrenia with which Adam had lived since young adulthood, when it became clear his newly askew behavior was more than collegiate posturing, he remained warm toward his mother and stepfather, if remote from nearly everyone else. Which augments the mystery of what occurred next.

“It’s been a long, frustrating ride,” Britton says plaintively. “But we keep hope alive.” As a result of Adam’s illness and medications, he frequently slept past noon, so his stepfather had no reason to worry when he didn’t see him at breakfast Thursday morning, particularly as Adam hadn’t left the house for months. The call Britton received hours later remains indelibly etched: her husband couldn’t find Adam. For years, Britton had laid out Adam’s meds in a day-of-the-week dispenser. Thursday’s pills were gone and, unlikely as it seemed, so was her son.

“I still feel like I’m going to see him on the corner of our block,” Britton continues bewilderedly, as if the facts she’s relaying can’t be real, despite imbuing each facet of her life. “You think you’re going to find him. At first you think it will last a day, maybe two or three. You can’t believe it will go on this long.”

It was reasonable to conclude Adam would appear soon: an avid smoker who was self-conscious about his bald spot, his cigarettes and hats remained, as his did his keys and wallet. He was out of shape, receiving no exercise except climbing the home’s stairs, so it was hard to fathom he could get far. And, crucially, he was stable under the circumstances.

“At some point, you settle for stable,” Britton says. “He had a job years ago, but the stress of losing it caused a psychotic break. But he had been stable for quite some time. If you live with someone with schizophrenia for fifteen years, you can tell if he is having a psychotic episode. Adam wasn’t psychotic.”

Nor was he paranoid or violent. When he heard voices, Adam believed they were his girlfriends and, poignantly, found them comforting. “There’s so much misunderstanding about schizophrenia, but Adam is a sweet young man. He would take out the trash when my husband was ill. He always brought me a Mothers Day gift.”

Britton and her eldest son, Douglas, think the common fallacy that all schizophrenics are dangerous or out of control hindered the search for Adam from the start. Britton filed a missing person’s report with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and for awhile, police conscientiously searched. Unable to find evidence of a crime or foul play, however, they concluded Adam had run away or wandered off, though they discovered no proof of this, either. 

Which begat an obstacle-strewn maze for Britton and her family. A local television station ran a segment on Adam’s disappearance and the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Daily News each ran short pieces, all of which led to scattered and nebulous reports that he had been spotted roughly 30 miles south on Los Angeles’ Skid Row.

“I’m sure it was a ‘slow news day’ and that’s how we got coverage, but I was so grateful, so appreciative someone cared,” Britton says.  “Douglas and I went to the L.A. missions and handed out fliers with Adam’s photo and information. A security guard said he’d seen him. A homeless couple who essentially adopted us called to say Adam had been picked up by cops. Someone else said he was spotted getting on a bus and asking directions to Santa Clarita, the valley in which our home in Stevenson Ranch is located. But Santa Clarita is a bedroom community. A new face might stand out on Skid Row, but Adam would have been disheveled by then and definitely would have stood out in Santa Clarita.” Each report turned out to be false and Britton doesn’t believe Adam was ever sighted.

“People wanted to help us and felt for us and I think that colored their perceptions. We had people tell us they wished their families would look for them. One woman, who was probably a prostitute was quite kind and said she knew everyone’s faces but she hadn’t seen him. There’s a humanity on Skid Row,” she says and pauses. “It’s scary when you’re driving through but it’s different when you’re walking around.”

Since those early weeks, Britton has hired a private investigator, faxed fliers to hospitals and morgues within a 90 mile radius, given Adam’s dental records and DNA samples to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office, and filed reports with the National Center for Missing Adults and the California Department of Justice Missing and Unidentified Missing Person’s Unit. Her home’s proximity to I-5 spurred her to place an ad in a trucker magazine and to contact the 18 Wheel Project, a coalition of truckers who help search for missing individuals. “I’m a very private person, or I was before this. I had to allow people in and I’ve been grateful for their help,” she says.

But Britton’s anguish is palpable, particularly as she describes begging the Sheriff’s Office to search the dense wilderness near her house and trying to procure a helicopter company to do the same, each to no avail.

She recently donated her deceased husband’s clothes to one of the L.A. shelters that helped in her family’s search, explaining, “When you’re doing nothing, you’re giving up. And we don’t give up. But Adam’s clothes and shoes remain in his closet. I haven’t even been able to move his half-pack of cigarettes and lighter from his spot in the garage.”

Then her voice cracks. “When I was at Loyola’s baccalaureate mass recently, the priest asked everyone to reach out to put their hand on a family member. Some people had seven hands on them. I started crying because I had no one.”

The accompanying video contains the television report and additional information regarding Adam Kellner. Please join Sherrill Britton and Douglas Kellner’s Facebook group, Help Us Find Adam Kellner.