May 26, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Litsa Dremousis's memoir Altitude Sickness is a bold, compelling and lyrical meditation on loss.
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
Last April, my now fiance' and I were looking at engagement rings at my favorite antique jewelry store. The next morning, I received an email from my now publisher, Future Tense Books, asking me if I'd like to commemorate their 20th anniversary by launching their first-ever ebook line.
That was a good 24 hours.
They asked if I had a long essay or memoir idea. I replied I did and laid out Altitude Sickness, replete with its title. Within half an hour, we had our book set. Now I just needed to write it.
I'd been taking notes on Altitude Sickness for two years, unsure of what I was going to do with it. In 2009, my best friend and partner died in a mountain climbing accident when loose rock gave way and he fell 1000 feet.
He was brilliant, kind, hilarious, great in bed, and wholly irrational when it came to climbing, his all-consuming passion. Climbing was the one part of his life where logic held no sway: he always convinced himself--and sometimes, me--that the risks were less than they appeared and that most other climbers died for reasons that wouldn't or didn't apply to him.
Two and a half years after his death, when I could finally breathe without feeling my lungs were taking in shards of glass, I began researching the similarities between climbers and addicts, unaware it's a burgeoning field of neuroscience.
Altitude Sickness became part memoir, part reportage, a wry and candid look at the inanity of high altitude climbing.
Here are the songs that fueled the book:
"Mockingbirds", Grant Lee Buffalo "Devastation/ My door was left open wide..." Oh, yes.
"After the Fire", Pete Townshend (live) "After the fire/ the fire still burns/ the soul grows older/ but never ever learns/ the memories smolder/ and the heart always yearns/ After the fire/ the fire still burns..." Townshend emits a howl at the song's start that cuts to the bone. To me, this is what grief sounds like.
"Always Look on the Bright Side of Life", Monty Python "Life's a piece of shit/ when you look at it/ Life's a laugh and death's a joke/ it's true/ You'll see it's all a show/ Keep ‘em laughin' as you go/ Just remember that the last laugh is on you..." Because you can't just cry when you're grieving. For me, at least, so much became so morbidly funny. I've treasured this song since high school, but it actually helped save me when the worst of the grief hit.
"Goodbye Little Dream, Goodbye", Susannah McCorkle's version of the Cole Porter classic, "For the stars have fled from the heavens/ the moon deserted the hill/ And the sultry breeze/ that sang in the trees/ is suddenly, strangely still." Exactly.
"Mexican Wine", Fountains of Wayne: Neal gave me FoW's Welcome Interstate Managers one year as part of my Christmas gift. We each loved this song and his favorite line was, "He was killed/ by a cellular phone explosion..." The kind of the thing that's notable because he's dead, but that I might not ever think about if he were alive.
"Good Morning, Heartache" Billie Holiday: Holiday's rendition yanks my soul through my skin. Such genius; such epic pain. When you're convinced hell is the start of yet another day.
"Nothing Compares 2 U" (live), Prince w/ Rosie Gaines: "Since you've been gone/ I can do whatever I want..." I didn't know until he died I'd miss even things about him that drove me nuts when he was alive. The world becomes unknowable when you'd drown a bag of kittens just to hear him explain one more time that "‘Fred Clause' "wasn't that bad of a film".
"Wendell Gee", R.E.M.: "There wasn't even time to say/ goodbye to Wendell Gee/ So whistle as the wind blows...and if the wind were colors/ and if the air could speak..." For 31 years, Michael Stipe has broken and mended my heart again and again. There wasn't time to say goodbye to Neal and I didn't know when we hung up on Saturday night he'd be dead by Tuesday morning. I remember our last conversation, and for a long time, I wished I had a recording. It's embossed in my cells, though. That works.
"No More Drama", Mary J. Blige: This shows how grief demolishes reality. In my all-encompassing post-death shock, thoughts and feelings and rationale became dislocated. As I dimly recall, I needed to believe I'd feel better eventually, that this horrific pain would eventually fade. As Mary sings, "I don't ever want to hurt again." Hey, past self: good luck.
"Fire and Rain", James Taylor: Pretty self-explanatory. If your best friend and partner dies and you don't play this song near all the goddamned time, you are a communist bad person and/or genocidal maniac.
Litsa Dremousis and Altitude Sickness links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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